Hell’s Kitchen Sink 1: A Serpent in Zion.

A note beforehand: This is a long goddamn story, coming in at 30 chapters and over 160k words. Thus, there is a chapter list here. The alternative was way too many stories. If you’d like to see this up to date, check out wordpress.hellskitchensink.com.

Arc 1: Air
Chapter 1: Windfall
Chapter 2: A Change in the Air
Chapter 3: Dead Air
Chapter 4: You Don’t Need A Weatherman
Chapter 5: Blowback
Chapter 6: Miasma

Arc 2: Earth
Chapter 7: Bedrock
Chapter 8: Ear to the Ground
Chapter 9: Subduction
Chapter 10: Shear Stress
Chapter 11: Mohorovicic Discontinuity
Chapter 12: Seismic Event

Arc 3: Water
Chapter 13: Lethe
Chapter 14: Acheron
Chapter 15: Phlegethon
Chapter 16: Styx
Chapter 17: Cocytus
Chapter 18: Abyss

Arc 4: Fire
Chapter 19: Gnosticism
Chapter 20: Escapism
Chapter 21: Optimism
Chapter 22:  Idealism
Chapter 23: Romanticism
Chapter 24: Cynicism

Arc 5: War
Chapter 25: Overlord
Chapter 26: Pearl Harbor
Chapter 27: Barbarossa
Chapter 28: Fall Weiss
Chapter 29: The Manhattan Project
Chapter 30: Exodus

Chapter 1: Windfall

Silas Nash hammered the brake pedal as soon as he saw the tree lying across the road. Tires squealed as the rental car desperately tried to decelerate. It was still too late. The front of the rental car collided with the massive pine trunk, and he was thrown forward. The air bag met him halfway like a giant, yet strangely comfortable fist. The world spun around him. He knew this assignment was going to be a pain in the ass from the moment the assistant director had given it to him. As his senses returned, he checked his extremities. His nose ached a bit, but that was it. He reached for the door handle. It made an unpleasant grinding noise as he tried to push it open.

It was early morning. He’d arrived in the Buffalo office around midnight and had taken a rental car out on the highway. Ten miles back, he’d turned onto a small country road. Two miles back, he’d begun thinking about why he’d been given this assignment. The town’s name was Zion. It wasn’t the strangest name he’d heard for a town in upstate New York. His file said the local football hero had been found dead. That was not a case for the FBI, and both he and the assistant director knew it. No surprise he’d been given the assignment. Somewhere out of the way, where he couldn’t do any more harm than he already had. That thought gave him a surge of anger, and he used it to hammer his heel into the door. It shrieked out of the twisted frame.

The morning air was crisp, colder than normal for Labor Day. The massive pines lined the highway, needles thick on the ground just off the highway, browned and sharp. He stepped around the car. Steam was rising slowly from beneath the hood. He levered it up, and coughed as white smoke billowed forth. The radiator was shot. The agency was going to expect a report about this. He sighed, and took out his phone, snapping a few pictures of the area. It probably wouldn’t stop the AD from screaming his ear off, but it was good practice. Then, he walked along the length of the tree. It was nearly a hundred feet long, its trunk charcoal gray. It had fallen across the road, laying heavily on the asphalt, branches crushed beneath it. He felt a little bit of trepidation as he walked into the woods, following its trunk towards the stump. In the early morning, fog rose in thick coils and banks from the soil. There was a strange tension in the air, and barely any sunlight reached the ground through the thick canopy of pine needles.

Several smaller trees had been flattened by the falling giant. He climbed across them, watching his step on the uneven soil, pine needles crunching underfoot. He looked around warily, watching for animals. Silas had been raised in the city. He’d heard there were bears out in the woods, and they did things there that couldn’t be mentioned in polite company. He stepped over another sad, splintered trunk, and stared at the stump of the tree. He’d been raised in the city, but he knew enough about forests to know lightning strikes and windfall didn’t leave axe marks.

The base of the tree was at least five feet across. Massive wedge-shaped cuts were visible in the wood. Not smooth and level, like you’d get from a chainsaw. Someone had felled the tree with an axe. Silas frowned, and held up his camera, snapping several pictures of the trunk. The pine wasn’t incredibly tough wood, but size alone would’ve made it a colossal effort. There weren’t many good reasons to do it, either. They ranged from someone’s very tasteless prank, to an attempt to cut off the town, to- Well, an attempt on him, although what were the chances of that? This had to have been planned days in advance. It couldn’t have been quick, chopping the tree down. He snapped a few more pictures, and then ice ran down his spine. He looked around the dark wood, eyes wild. Isolated shafts of sunlight fell through the trees above, and did very little to change the gloam of the underbrush. He could swear he’d heard the snap of a branch underfoot.

He backed away slowly, one hand in his jacket. His fingers almost touched the grip of the pistol, but he couldn’t bring himself to grab it. Not with the memories still so fresh. He placed his feet carefully, taking his time as his heart pounded. When he reached the car, he sat on the trunk of the totaled coupe. He couldn’t shake the feeling of something watching him. And yet, no axe-wielding murderer walked out of the darkness. No feral animal came barreling out of the woods, aiming for his throat. Just silence and peace. Once he was certain there was no imminent threat of death, he took out his cellphone, and frowned. There was no service. It was five miles into town. He looked down at the dress shoes he was wearing. Being mauled to death by a wild animal was now sounding like the soft option.

He opened the trunk of the car, taking out his briefcase, and then locked it again. He repeated the process with the front door, slamming his foot against the steel a few times to force it into place. He knew it wouldn’t stop anyone determined to steal his change of clothes, but it made him feel better to take out his anger on something inanimate. He sighed, and began walking. The sun was rising, but it wouldn’t peek over the tree line for hours. That kept the air cool and somewhat moist. Still, walking in a suit and tie was a terrible idea. By the time he arrived at the town outskirts, his undershirt was soaked with sweat. He grabbed his tie, and dragged it across his face, clearing the perspiration off of his brow, cursing as the salt stung his eyes.

Homes were visible through the trees, now, and the disturbing sensation of being watched fade away. In a small way, he was back in civilization. Zion wasn’t a large town- the census bureau had pegged the area at a population of 5,000- but it was a hell of a lot better than the woods. The agent’s first plan had been to stop at the police station and introduce himself to the chief. His growling stomach and aching feet decided they were going to make a few stops before that, however. The diner on his right was calling his name.

The bell on the door rung as he pushed it open, and examined the contents. An old man sat at the counter of the diner. A sign suggested he seat himself. He slid into one of the booths, and let out a sigh, as he set his briefcase down next to him. He let his eyes travel over the menu, slightly dazed. A figure appeared over him. He turned his head towards the waitress, and stared for a moment. A young woman, she couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. Her hair was a vivid shock of blue and green. She wore a tube top, and a pair of scandalously short shorts. She handed him a menu, and raised an eyebrow. It was dyed green. The other brow was dyed blue. The effect was unsettling. Her foot tapped lightly on the ground. “Lemme know when you’ve picked out your order, G-man. Try not to make a federal case out of it, alright?”

His head struggled for a response. He’d never been called ‘G-man’ before. He didn’t know people still said ‘G-man’. He settled on diplomacy, and gave her the best smile he could manage. From her expression, it didn’t meet her standards. “I’ll just have coffee and scrambled eggs.”

“We don’t do egg-whites-only, in case you’re wondering.”

He tried giving her another smile. “That’s fine, the yolks are my favorite part.” She didn’t accept the smile. This young woman didn’t like him. That much was immediately clear. She simply nodded, and took the menu, stepping briskly away. He sighed, and leaned back. It wasn’t as though he wanted to be here, either. The town’s coroner had diagnosed Dean Constantinou’s death as botulism. It sounded like an unfortunate accident. The consequence of some improperly prepared food, an accidental cut that had gone uncleaned. A terrible, tragic accident. Not a crime.

The plate arrived on his table, alongside a cup of steaming coffee. The scrambled eggs were smooth and fluffy, just a hint of Worcestershire sauce giving them a rich, salty flavor. The coffee was smooth and black. The waitress took a seat across from him, frowning. Her arms were crossed over the apron she had pulled on over her clothes. “What the hell happened to you, G-man?”

It took him a moment to realize what she was talking about. He glanced down at his clothes, the sweat stains, the scrapes, the pine needles clinging to his pants and jacket, everything crumpled badly. “Oh, this. Ah… Well. I ran into a tree about five miles out of town.” At her raised blue eyebrow, he smiled apologetically. “I know what you’re thinking. But it was lying across the road, on a blind curve. I think someone chopped it down deliberately. You know anyone who might be interested in playing pranks like that?”

She gave him a dour look. “We’ve got a half dozen guys who work the town lumber-mill, but they only take trees from the designated groves. None of those are anywhere near the roads. You planning on making a stink? Maybe audit them?” She watched him for a moment. When he didn’t get indignant, she leaned back in the booth. The fake leather seating squeaked softly as she did. “You figured out a place to stay while you’re here on whatever government business?”

He raised an eyebrow. “FBI, actually. You sound like a woman with tax problems. If you like, I could introduce you to a good accountant down in New York. He’s got a soft spot for trouble-making young business owners.” Silas gave her another smile, and she stayed stone-faced. “You don’t happen to know a good mechanic, do you? And I could use a place to stay, if there are any decent hotels in town.”

She nodded curtly. “My sister, Gene, is the town mechanic. She should be able to get your car back, and as long as it’s in one piece, she can probably manage to repair it. My other sister, Heather, owns the town hotel. They’re on the main drag, across from one another. You’ll know them when you see them.”

“Your family’s got a real lock-down on the town necessities, huh?” Silas tried for the smile once more, because old habits died hard. The young woman gave him a look that could have flash-frozen molten lead. He let the smile fade away. “I know people don’t like it when an FBI agent comes to town. I just want to figure out if there’s anything I can do to help, and then, I’ll be out of here. And I’m probably going to be eating at this diner a lot, because I’m not good at making meals. You could hold off judgment on the kind of person I am for a little while.”

The young woman leaned forward. Bright blue eyes glittered like ice, harsh and unmoved. “I know exactly what you are, G-man. Do you?” She stood up. “Enjoy your meal, come by any time, and I hope you finish your work and get the hell out of this town as quickly as you can.” She stepped over to the old man, and gave him a radiant smile. It reminded Silas of something a dying Viking might see on the battlefield, shining and singing about all the good things that were about to happen. There wasn’t an ounce of pretense in it, as she poured the man a cup of coffee. “Kids doing alright, Mister Laurence? How’s the wife?” Her voice was bubbly and sweet. Silas could see a tattoo on her right shoulder, a stylized spiral. Probably one of those tribal tattoos so popular with the young people nowadays. He didn’t dwell on her kindness towards others. He was an outsider, after all. And the very worst kind.

People didn’t like when the FBI came to town. It meant something bad had happened, and something else bad was about to happen. Someone had been hurt, and someone was guilty. He’d gotten his fair share of hostility as an FBI agent, from local law enforcement, from people who he was investigating. From people who just hated the disruption. From people who didn’t want secrets found out. He finished the meal, wolfing down his food, and drained the coffee in a single long gulp. He left a twenty on the table. He doubted the young woman would be susceptible to a bribe, but the food had been exactly what he needed, and he wanted to show his gratitude, even if she’d refuse it. He stood up, and walked out of the diner. In spite of the young woman’s attitude, he felt worlds better than he had before.

The town’s center, such as it was, consisted of a single long road, the endless forest visible just behind the buildings. It terminated at the lake front, visible ahead, where a small marina was situated. There weren’t any franchises in the town, he noticed. No McDonalds, no Starbucks, none of the corporate hallmarks. Every building he passed seemed to have someone’s name and the function of the store. Mykonos’s Barber Shop. Hippolyta’s Bakery. Even the gas station belonged to a local, who was apparently ‘Sai’. If Silas were thirty or forty years older, he would be overwhelmed with nostalgia for a simpler time, before corporations had devoured the country. As it was, he simply found the entire thing slightly unsettling. It felt like time had passed the town by.

Gene’s Car Repair was a two-door garage. Gene herself was lying under a sedan. Silas bent over to check her. She didn’t look much at all like her sister. Messy black hair, made even darker with oil, was tied back under a bandanna. Her skin was a crisp, tanned brown, like tree bark. She held a large metal pan, and was changing the oil on the car. With bare fingers, she unscrewed the plug on the car. A thin trickle of oil began to pour out of the undercarriage, into the waiting oil pan. The young woman slid out from under the car on a trolley, stood up, and looked down at Silas. She was a couple of inches taller than he was, and at six feet tall, he didn’t meet many women like that. Her expression was passive. She took a towel off of a rack, which was streaked with more oil. She ran it over her fingers, and it did not so much clean them as spread the filth around.

“You’re Gene, yeah?” She nodded a fraction of an inch. She wore a set of overalls that covered her whole body, and a pair of stiff boots. A wife-beater shirt that had once been white was visible under the stained denim. She raised an eyebrow, apparently waiting for him to continue. Silas was good at body language. The little unconscious stances, movements, and actions of other human beings spoke a complex and at times very eloquent language to him. Gene’s body language was monosyllabic.

“I ran into a tree a bit out of town, on Route 29. Someone must have chopped it down. I think the radiator took a real beating, it was smoking a bit.” She nodded again. She reached up, and took a pair of keys. She looked at him, and tilted her head.

“No, I don’t think I need a loaner quite yet, but I may end up needing one from you later on.” She shrugged, and put the keys up, taking a second set down. She tilted her head again. Her expression still hadn’t changed. She hooked her thumb towards the back door. Silas could see a tow truck through the open frame, sitting in the yard of the mechanic shop.

“Ah, no, thanks, I need to meet with the chief of police as soon as I can. I don’t think it’d be any good, anyway. You’re going to need an entire crew to clear that tree off. The thing was a monster.” She waved a hand dismissively. This was getting a little bit old.

“Let me ask, Gene. I met a waitress who didn’t care for me much earlier today, either. So are you mute, or is there some kind of particular grudge you’re holding against me?”

Gene didn’t move for a couple of seconds. Then, she lifted her hands, snapped her fingers, and pointed at him with both hands, her thumbs up, as though mimicking a pair of guns held at the ready to fire. Then she turned, her arms dropping back to her sides, and she walked out of the back, towards the truck. Silas stood, staring as she left. He had no idea what the hell that meant.

On her right shoulder, a large triangle, composed of three sets of parallel lines, was visible. She got into the truck, and drove off. After a few seconds, Silas let his breath out, hissing through his teeth. He really hated small towns, sometimes. It was like traveling to an isolated island, where strange and bizarre evolutionary quirks were allowed to flourish because of a lack of challenge. He did his best to pull the smile back onto his face, as he made his way over to the hotel across the street, checking both ways for traffic like his mother had taught him. The sun had risen higher in the sky. It was nearly noon at this point. He’d drop by the hotel, secure a room, and then go to see the police station. He’d kill for a change of clothes at this point, but there was nothing to be done for it.

The hotel was an old motor lodge. Two cars were parked in front of it, and the building sat like a horseshoe, a dozen doors facing inwards towards the parking lot. Behind the hotel, the forest was visible. It was dense, even here, and he couldn’t see more than a few dozen feet into it. The tall stands of pines loomed together like an unusually arboreal street gang. He walked towards the lobby, and did his best to smile at the woman standing behind the desk. Her skin was dark as mahogany, and she was the first person to smile back at him he’d met that day. “Hey, here for a room?” The wall behind her was covered in keys. Her voice was soft, and a bit lyrical. He felt a strange sense of relief just from hearing it. He nodded, and she turned around, grabbing a key. Over her smooth white dress, he could see the tattoo on her shoulder. The dark ink barely showed up against her skin, but he squinted. It was in the shape of a tear drop.

“The waitress at the diner sent me here. You’re Heather?” He wasn’t going to bother asking. About the tattoo, about the questions of sisterhood. It was something he’d learned a long time ago. All of these things were distractions. If you weren’t careful, you could approach the entire world like it was a crime scene. That did very little for your state of mind. So he took the keys, and gave her a half-smile. “I gather people around here aren’t too fond of big government?”

Heather sighed. It was the kind of noise a summer breeze would make when remembering a childhood heartbreak. It made his chest ache in sympathy. “Really, it’s not usually this bad. The city’s always been welcoming to outsiders. But-” She looked to both sides, and leaned forward, speaking in a conspiratory whisper. It seemed a bit unnecessary, considering how empty the lobby was. “Well, the Constantinou boy was found dead last night. It’s hit everyone hard. That boy was one of the sweetest children in town. And now people are worried, because nobody’s certain what’s going on. So everyone’s wondering what really happened, and who’s to blame, and into this, you appear, bringing that extra bit of chaos that nobody wants.” She gave an apologetic smile. “I’m really sorry about it, honey. What’s your name?”

“Silas. Silas Nash.” He held out his hand, and she took it, squeezing it gently. Her skin was warm, and soft. Everything about her seemed to calm grated nerves, and sooth tempers. He had to fight back the sudden, intense impulse to ask her out for coffee. “And you’re Heather…?”

“Just Heather.” She smiled again. “So, what are you in town for?” She walked him out of the door, towards the apartment at the corner of the horse-shoe. There was an alleyway next to his door, leading behind the hotel, and he could see the forest through the gap. She stuck the key into the knob, twisted it, and handed him the key in turn.

“Actually, I’m here because of Dean’s death. I’m with the FBI. We were called in to assist on the case. I can promise you, we’ll do everything we can to find the person who’s responsible for this, and see they’ll be brought to justice.” She smiled at this, but it was a sad, wan smile, her eyes distant.

“I’m sure you’ll do what you think is best.” She brightened, as she looked down at his tie.”You look a mess, though. Do you have a change of clothes with you in that briefcase?”

He coughed, looking away. “Ah… No. The rest of my clothes are in my car, which is wrecked somewhere on the road here. Gene said she was going to get it… I think.” He thought back to the conversation. He sure as hell hoped that was what she’d been saying. “I’ll make an impression in this, won’t I?”

Heather gave him a warm, sympathetic smile. “Tell you what. Undress, take a shower, leave your clothes by the front door. I’ll get them cleaned up in half an hour, and you can be on your way to meet the police. We offer full service, here.” He paused for a moment. Then, he thought about the damp, sweat-stained black tie. The sodden undershirt. The creeping scent of body odor on his jacket. He was in no position to refuse.

“That’s incredibly kind. I’ll take you up on that.” He smiled, and she winked. That brought a flush to his cheek, and he excused himself, slipping into the hotel room. It was the same as a hundred other hotel rooms he’d been in. One queen-sized bed, an ancient CRT TV, and a shower that beckoned to him. He undressed, leaving his clothes on an end-table near the door. He carefully stowed his shoulder holster and gun in the briefcase, and locked it. Then, Silas gratefully climbed into the shower. As hot water began flowing, and he had the chance to wash off the sweat drying on his skin, he began to regain his balance, and think about the town.

Of course they’d be hostile. In a town like this, people knew each other. The population was small, and insular. Close-knit, if you wanted to make it sound better. A violent crime was an affront to everyone, because it meant someone had been hiding who they really were. It caused pre-existing grudges to flare up. And they would love, just love, to find out that it was an outsider who was responsible. It was much easier, after all, if it the one responsible was someone nobody knew or cared about. Someone who could be blamed for the death. Someone, broadly, like him. Good old transference. He heard the door open, and close.

When he finally left the shower, his clothes lay on the bed, unfolded. They were dry, and smelled of pine needles. Not the chemical, artificial, cloying scent of detergent. It was as though they’d rested for a few minutes on one of the trees outside. The stain of chocolate on the side of the white undershirt was gone. He was going to have to ask Heather how the hell she had cleaned them so well. Or maybe just thank her.

He opened his briefcase. Papers. His gun. A small transparent yellow bottle. He unscrewed it, and shook a pair of button-sized pills onto his hand. CLOZARIL twinkled merrily up at him. He frowned, and tossed the pills into his mouth, swallowing them down. He hated the taste of the medicine. He hated the way they screwed with his reflexes. He hated the way they made his head feel fuzzy. But he hated what he saw without them even more. He shuddered, and filled a glass with the bathroom sink. The water went down smooth, and washed the pills with them, clearing the unpleasant knot in his throat. It had been a long time since he’d felt something like he had in the woods. The disquieting sensation of being watched. The dark feeling of something out there, looking in on him. He bent forward, his fist clenched around the pill bottle, for several seconds. Then, he took a breath. He had to meet with the chief of police. He looked up, and jumped slightly as he finally noticed what was hanging on the inside of the door. A large wooden hoop, with a smaller hoop hanging underneath it, was hung on a nail. An intricate web of yarn wrapped around the edges, creating a pattern. Large eagle feathers hung from the sides. He frowned.

“Thanks, but I think I’ll trust the pills.” He muttered. He really shouldn’t talk to himself, he knew. It was the kind of thing you did when you were crazy. He stood up, and carefully lifted the dream catcher, setting it down in the closet. He didn’t care for that kind of thing. His mother had tried all sorts of things to keep his mind off of the nightmares he’d had when he was a child. Crystals, dream catchers, little stories she’d tell him. Nonsense. Nonsense that had made it hard to deal with his illness. Nonsense that had made his life all the more difficult.

He took a deep breath, and stood up, getting dressed. The ritual of buttoning and slipping on clothes soothed him. His hands moved unconsciously, tying the tie in a crisp Windsor knot. It was part of the muscle memory. As he finished, his heartbeat had slowed, but he still felt unsettled. He sat, and held one thumb. He counted out thirty six breaths. It was one of the things his mother had taught him. It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t some secret technique. It was simply taking the time to focus entirely on one thing, for a short time. It calmed him down. That was all there was to it. It wasn’t magic or medical or pressure points. It was just focus. He released the thumb, and stood up. It was time to meet the chief of police.

The walk to the station was surprisingly easy in the fresh clothes. The police department was tiny. A single one-story building. He entered the lobby, struggling momentarily with the unexpectedly heavy door, and approached the desk sergeant. An older man, perhaps in his 50s, the sergeant was dressed well, with a clean-cut look, his salt and pepper mustache immaculate. He didn’t seem to have a spare ounce of fat on him. “I’m here to see Police Chief Pearl?” He gave his best winning smile. The first contact with the police department was always tricky. Some people could get very edgy about the FBI, even when they were invited. The desk sergeant nodded curtly, and pointed over his shoulder, towards an office. Maybe Nash just wasn’t smiling properly today.

“Door’s through there. She’s talking with the coroner right now. She’ll just be a minute.” Silas nodded. He checked the man’s name-plate.

“Thanks, Officer Dio. I look forward to working with you.” He gave the sergeant a curt nod, letting the smile drift away. The sergeant’s expression stayed unmoving. Silas took a seat. There was yelling coming from the chief’s office. It was indistinct at this distance, but it was clear two people were on the verge of violence with one another.

The door slammed open. A woman walked out. She looked Asian. Slender, almost skeletally thin, her cheeks and eyes were sunken. Her hair was gray, and hung loose around her head. She wore a lab coat, and walked stiffly, bent forward, seemingly by the weight of a gold chain around her neck. She turned her eyes towards him as she walked out, her expression pinched and unpleasant. She raised a single, skinny arm as she reached the door, and pushed it open with ease. The door had felt like it had been weighted with lead when he came through. She must be stronger than she looked.

“The chief will see you, now.”

Walking through the door between the lobby and the rest of the station, he noted there were only a handful of police there. A deputy was in the office, typing reports. The entire building had a sense that it was very used to being empty. He walked through the still-open door to the chief’s office. Inside, there was the scent of smoke. A cigarette lay in an ash tray. “You know, I think that smoking in a government building can be fined quite heavily in New York State.” He saw the expression on her face. “Sorry. Joking.” The police chief looked up.

She was a beautiful woman, but there were dark bags under her eyes. Her face suggested politely that she’d been sleeping poorly. Rich red hair hung around her face in loops and curls. And there was something else. Just for a moment, for the briefest of seconds, he caught a look of recognition on her face. As though she saw something familiar in his face. “I removed all the ash trays in the building. Can’t stand smoking. She started putting her cigarettes out on my desk. Now, I just hope that lung cancer will take her out of my hair.” She leaned her head into her hand, sighing. “I’m sorry. Do I sound a bit bitter?”

Silas took a seat, and smiled sympathetically. “A little bit. You’re Police Chief Pearl? Agent Nash.” He held out his hand. She took it, and shook it once. Her grip was firm. He recognized the kind of squeeze she used. She was a fighter. She was someone who was used to being challenged every inch. He wasn’t sure he could outdo her grip, and he wasn’t about to try.

“I’m sure you heard that. A lot of people in the city want to write this off as just as an accident. We’re going to be facing an uphill battle, here.” She smiled. It was a smile that burned warm. “You wouldn’t believe the favors I had to call in to have the FBI assign someone to this case.”

Silas nodded slowly, and frowned. “In frankness, reading the coroner’s report… This does sound like an accident. Botulism, while rare, is something that can kill people, especially out in rural areas. Get a cut, bacteria gets in, doesn’t get treated, and even a healthy person can be dead from it. What, exactly, makes you think that there was foul play, here?”

Pearl sighed, sitting back. “It’s… difficult to say. I’ll make you a deal.” She steepled her fingers together. “Check the body with me. Talk with the possible suspects we’re pursuing. Spend today, looking over what’s involved. Sleep it over for a night, and then, in the morning, if you’ve decided there’s nothing here that needs to be investigated… Then I’ll thank you kindly for your aid in nailing down the situation, and you can be on your way back home. Sound good?”

Silas rubbed the back of his head. “I suspect I’ll have at least a day. My car ran into a tree on the road here. Until it’s fixed, I’ll be stuck here. So. In that time frame, how about we see if I can figure out what you’re alluding to, here?”

She was quiet for several seconds. “A tree?”

“Yeah. It looked like it had been chopped down. I took it for- Well, a prank. A particularly dangerous prank, but nothing particularly dangerous.”

She nodded slowly. “I’ll send Deputy Sears down to check the road, make sure it’s clear. In the mean time, let’s go see Dean.” She gave him a calculating look. “I hope you have a strong stomach.”

Chapter 2: A Change in the Air

The morgue was surprisingly relaxing and comfortable. A small stand of incense burned in one corner, the scent of cedar filling the air. Another corner held a small jade dragon about the size of a large frog. It looked like the kind of cheap piece of junk that he would’ve picked up in a Chinatown souvenir store. Someone had knit the dragon a fluffy little pink sweater out of wool. “We don’t get a lot of call for this sort of thing, you know. There aren’t a lot of deaths in this city, and as for deaths that are taken for murder…” Pearl was silent for a moment.

“Sounds like the coroner’s a bit out of practice. How much do you trust her skills?” Silas asked, as he strode over towards the stack of latex gloves. He frowned down at the extra-small on the box’s label. He pulled a pair on, feeling the latex bite uncomfortably into his wrists. It was like shaking hands with the assistant director. As he looked down at the corpse, he was painfully aware that he was not a trained coroner. Nonetheless, he’d seen enough corpses to learn things about what a body should look like. And then there was the intuition. Sometimes, he felt as though he saw things in their eyes. A clue about what they had seen before they died. The anti-psychotics usually kept it from getting too bad. He tried to ignore those intuitions. If you didn’t, you could start to think that what you saw was really there, and it was everyone else who was crazy. That way madness lies. He carefully pulled the slab out.

The young man was handsome. Dark, ragged, messy hair. And though his skin was pallid, it had once been a rich olive tone. He would have broken many hearts in his time, no doubt. He was dressed in a ragged pair of shorts and a letterman jacket, an odd combination. The body seemed remarkably well-preserved, which was odd. It had been a week, and the body still looked fresh. Pearl sucked a breath in between her teeth, hissing softly. “I’d trust her with my own autopsy. She’s got a lifetime of experience. She wouldn’t make a mistake.” Silas noted that phrasing. Any inaccuracies, then, would be deliberate.

Schizophrenia tended to come with paranoia. The feelings of being watched, of unseen voices speaking, those kinds of things could make a person distrustful. So he knew the symptoms when he saw them in others. Pearl was suspicious. The kid didn’t look to have suffered any particular wounds. Then, Nash’s eyes fell on the boy’s wrist. A pair of puncture marks were visible. “Hmm.” He leaned in closer, staring at them. They were along the central veins. There was a slightly discolored tinge around the veins there. “You know, most wound-related botulism comes from using infected needles. Drug users, junkies, that kind of thing. How’s the chemical situation in Zion?” He had been wondering about the strong stomach comment. Then, the scent hit him. Necrosis. The rotting of flesh. It assaulted his nostrils, death and decay playing havoc with his senses. He bent over the slab, holding back the choking until his stomach settled.

Pearl watched sympathetically until he got himself back together. “Doesn’t smell right, does it? That was the first thing that made me suspicious. A smell like that…” She shook her head, frowning. “Botulism doesn’t cause necrosis that quickly. That smell’s been wafting off of him ever since he was found. He hadn’t been dead an hour when his body was discovered.” She shook her head, frowning darkly. “I don’t like it one bit.”

The first instinct was a mad one. He thought of Jaws. The words, ‘This was no botulism accident’ almost rose to his lips. Then he stared at the young man’s face. His parents would never get to see him grow up. He would never become a pro football player. Never marry, never settle down, never have children of his own one day. All those moments, lost. The joke died in his mind, driven away by shame. It wasn’t a time for jokes. “There aren’t many poisonous snakes in New York State. I mention that because this reminds me of snakebite. Two puncture marks, close to one another. It could be someone’s escaped pet. Barring that, someone stuck him with a syringe, and injected something nasty. Copperheads have a necrotizing venom, but it’s not deadly in more than a handful of cases. Massasauga have a venom that can be nasty, but it’s an anticoagulant, and they’re rare as hell. Timber rattlesnakes are deadly, but they don’t bite much at all. So…” He sighed. “I doubt that this is botulism toxin, though. That means that either your coroner is losing her touch, or she’s got reason to be lying. Who’s close to the victim?”

Pearl gently slipped the slab back into the wall, as Silas removed the latex gloves. Relief flooded him as he removed the latex, and began to massage the life back into his fingers. “Seventeen years old. Kid was the star of our football team, and a pretty nice young man, on top of that. Did a lot of charity work. Meals on Wheels, that kind of thing. Can’t think of anyone who would’ve had a grudge against him. His father, Harry Constantinou, moved here after he met hi second wife. Megara Drakos, local schoolteacher, she grew up here, moved away for a while, came back with him after a few years. He took up a job as a lumberjack here. Dean Constantinou also had a girlfriend. Isabelle Onnashi. Daughter of Irayama Onnashi, the coroner.”

“Hm. That sounds like the beginnings of motive to lie about cause of death to me. But keep going.”

“Body was found by Cassandra Hirosata. Fourteen year old girl. She was out fishing with a friend of hers, and they found the body. She alerted the police right away. She’s a bit of a troublemaker, but we’re talking hookie and a smart mouth, not premeditated murder. There aren’t any bad kids in this town. Hell, she’s better than most.”

“Be a hell of a trick for a fourteen year old to try to get away with murder, but still worth talking with her again, see if she’s got any insights.” He rubbed his hands together. “My car was beaten to hell on the way here. So, if you’ll be so kind, we’ll probably be taking your squad car around to talk to people. Just an informal chat, to start with. Figure things out. Think we can meet with his fellow team-mates on the football team? His coach? Any sign of drug abuse?”

“The coach should be easy enough, since his dad coached for the football team. As to drugs, there’s plenty of alcohol, and tobacco, and not a week goes by where I don’t bust some kid with a misdemeanor quantity of Marijuana,” She pronounced it with a hard J, rather than the soft, he noticed. It made her sound like a 50’s informational video. “But this isn’t a city where people are missing teeth, if you catch my drift.”

Nash nodded. A small town without a meth problem. That was novel. “So, the victim is found, practically still warm, on the beach-side, by a 14 year old girl. No sign of why the hell anyone would want him dead. What have your officers uncovered so far?”

She shook her head. “We’ve been doing some questioning of Isabelle and the family, but they haven’t volunteered much. The best we can tell is that the last time anyone saw him was on the Friday night before he died. That’s two full days with no sign of what might have happened to him.”

“Alright. I’m going to see if I can’t get the body transferred to Buffalo, see about a second opinion from the coroners there. I don’t want to seem like I’m insulting Mrs Onnashi-“

“Miss, actually. Divorced her husband some time ago. She doesn’t like it brought up.” Silas nodded. He bit back the desire to ask how that was relevant. Pearl was clearly strained, and low on sleep. He could forgive the police chief an irrelevant detail.

“All the same, it’s always important to verify these things.” It was an odd sensation, not having to butt heads over jurisdiction. Pearl was, at the last, more flexible than a lot of local law enforcement he’d worked with. “Now. Shall we see the parents first? I’d like to get a feeling for them. It’s hard to imagine they’re involved, but you never know. Now, my car is currently in shit shape, so do you mind if I join you in the police cruiser?”

She smiled. “Not at all. You know, I heard a bit about you from the assistant director. He said you’re a good man.” Silas nearly laughed at this. He didn’t know the AD was such a talented liar. “Yeah, he mentioned that you’d had some difficult times. I heard about the death. From what the assistant director said, and from what I read, you weren’t given a whole lot of choice.” There was sympathy in his eyes. Or maybe it was just pity. He didn’t care for it either way. “Anyone comes at you with a knife, they’re not leaving you many options.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry, chief. I don’t talk about it much. It’s not a proud moment for me.” She nodded softly. For a moment, she looked like she wanted to say something, to offer some comfort that he didn’t want or deserve. She thought better of it.

“I understand. I hope that you’ll forgive me for my curiosity. But I’m glad that you’re here. You seem like the kind of person we’re going to need for this case.” She walked along with him, up out of the basement. The back lot had three police cruisers in it, one of which appeared to be purely decorative, the steering wheel missing. And yet…

“This is a very small town to have its own dedicated police department. Shouldn’t you have a sheriff for an area this dispersed?” he asked, frowning.

“Well, like you might have noticed, this place is just a little bit xenophobic. People prefer to trust the officers they know. So, the police are all hired locally.” The afternoon sun burned brightly over the city. It was a glorious day, now that the cloud cover had moved on. He slipped into the passenger seat. “People grumble about the tax burden, but most of the folks around here are actually fairly well off.” She slid easily into the driver’s seat, and the car started with a low rumble.

“Tell me about the Constantinou family.”

“Well, Drakos’ family goes right back to the founding of the town. Her mother, her grandmother, they were all a part of this place. Our last mayor was a Drakos, in fact, but Megara prefers working as a schoolteacher. Really likes kids. She met Harry while she was traveling, about four years ago.”

“So, Dean wasn’t her son?”

“Nope. Harry’s a widower. Used to be real close with his son, until his first wife died. And then Harry met Megara. I won’t lie, the whole town knows that Megara and Dean had some friction.”

“Any chance that conflict could have gotten violent?” The frosty silence was palpable. He glanced at Pearl. Her lips were set in a firm line, her knuckles almost white on the wheel. “Look, I’m sorry if I say some things that offend. But I can’t afford to not ask those questions. People are always insulted if you ask them whether they killed someone. But you still have to ask.”

“No, no. I understand.” Pearl’s fingers unclenched. “I’d eat my own hat if it was Megara Drakos, and I’d be careful of accusing her. She’s a proud woman, and she protects those schoolchildren like they were her very own. She might have had some conflict with Dean. But I can’t imagine she’d kill him. The worst they ever did was argue.”

“How, exactly, did Harry wind up here? Like you said, this place seems somewhat xenophobic. Why would anyone decide to move here?”

Pearl grinned. “Well, just because the people tend to be peeved when strangers come to town doesn’t mean they’re completely unwelcoming. When a stranger comes to town escorted by one of the townsfolk… Well, think of it as a recommendation. If you get along with one of the people of Zion, you get along with all of them. It’s a close-knit community, and it’s welcoming if you’re open to being welcomed by it.”

Nash frowned, staring out the window. The lake was sparkling below under the bright sunlight. “Blooming under sable skies. There my heart forever lies. Brigadoon, Brigadoon.” He became aware that she was looking at him, a smile on her face.

“I appreciate the reference. There is a little of that, alright. Course, people are allowed to leave whenever they like. But it’s an apt comparison.” She smiled softly. “Been working here since I became a cop, been living here since before then. It’s a special place. Just a little bit out of sync with the rest of the world. I sort of fancied that maybe it would always stay this happy little town, free from the corruption of the world. But nowhere’s perfect.” She wasn’t an unattractive woman. That hair was bright. and her features were striking. She still looked tired as hell, though. Maybe it would’ve been better if he felt the same, if he was feeling the same pain and weariness that she was. Being beat up by the darkness around him, rather than simply taking it for granted. Maybe it would be better if he could bring himself to be hurt by the bad things happening to good people. But he didn’t feel much of anything.

“So, what exactly did Harry Constantinou do before he moved here, and started cutting down trees?”

“He was Special Forces. US Ranger. I don’t know much beyond that.”

“Christ. I hope he’s not the killer.” Silas stared out at the windows. Lumberjack. Hard man. Angry father. That sounded like trouble. And yet… “Megara talked a US army ranger into retiring as a lumberjack? I might actually be more frightened of her, in that case.”

Pearl smiled softly. “That might be a wise instinct.”

It was a manor. There wasn’t another proper word for it. Mansion didn’t sound eerie enough. Sitting atop one of the hills, overlooking Lake Ontario, it sprawled across a cleared section of the peak. The road leading up to it was long and winding, but well-cared for. It was a beautiful drive, and ominous as all hell, stark shadows cast by the trees. The car came to a stop in front of the gate. A small foot path led further up, to the door of the manor. The two of them exited the car, and Pearl pressed the intercom set in the gate’s somber stone. Silas took the moment to study the building. Three stories tall, its front was marked by large glass windows giving a perfect view of the lake. It was built primarily out of wood, though the stone foundation was partially visible. It must have been built quite a long time ago, but there was a small satellite dish visible on top. He fancied, just for a moment, that he saw a flicker of movement in one of the windows. A voice emerged from the intercom. Soft, rich, warm. “I am not interested in any company.”

“Mrs Drakos? It’s me, Pearl. I’m here with FBI Special Agent Nash. We’d like to ask you a few questions about the death of your son.”

There was a pause. Then an electric buzz filled the air, and the gate swung open. The two walked up the well-tended path. The shadow of the manor was cast across the green lawn, muting the eye-searingly bright green into emerald perfection. “You weren’t kidding about the money,” he whispered softly, letting his eyes run across the building. “What crime did her family commit to be able to afford a place like this?” No great fortune without a great crime. His psychology instructor at the academy had always reminded him of that. Never trust the rich. Or absolutely anyone else, for that matter.

“Her great great grandmother founded the town. She still acts like it makes her royalty. I’d be polite, she’s a bit touchy.”

The door opened as they arrived. The woman was breathtaking. Her skin was dusky, her features classical in the most literal sense of the word. Nash had seen women like her, carved out of marble. They had never been mortal women. It was the kind of elegant, high-cheekboned face, full of certainty and haughty arrogance, that belonged on the busts of goddesses. It took an actual effort to avoid bowing himself down in front of her in obeisance. “Megara Drakos?” he asked, holding out his badge. “Special Agent Silas Nash, FBI. Do you mind if we come in?” Her hair was dark as pitch, and hung elegantly around her head. Her eyes were a pair of molten chocolate pools. Brown eyes never did much for him, but hers were entrancing, like the heart of the earth, shining up at him. She was several inches shorter than him, and she didn’t show a hint of sorrow. That was suspicious right off the bat.

“Please feel free.” She turned, and swept in. She wore a long skirt, jade green, that hung down to her feet, dragging across the floor, without apparently picking up any dirt. She wore a tight white blouse that exposed her cleavage, and Silas did his best not to look at the delicate golden amulet she wore. It was a losing battle. She walked past a large terrarium. Half a dozen large snakes lounged behind the glass. Thick bodied, brown, with a pattern of triangles on the spine, they seemed to sit up and regard him. “I have some coffee on the boil. Please, join me.”

The three of them took a seat in the kitchen. An elegant copper coffee pot poured out three cups of foamy coffee. Silas didn’t touch his. The snakes had unsettled him. “You have a license for those snakes, Mrs Drakos?” he asked, politely. She turned her head towards him, and smiled.

“Yes. And I do not exhibit them at the school, though I do offer occasional field trips to see the snakes. I don’t let the children handle them, of course. They are docile creatures, but humans can frighten them with their roughness.” She took a sip from her coffee.

“I have to say, for the mother of a boy who was found dead not long ago, you seem extremely calm.”

“I am sorry for the loss of my mate’s child, but I am not a woman prone to weeping. I prefer action.” Megara stated, taking another sip from her coffee. Her body language was predatory. She was studying him, and Pearl, watching for a sign of weakness. He pushed the cup of coffee gently away.

“We have an interest in seeing justice done. Do you know if the boy was having any trouble at school? Was he acting unusually? Any new behavior patterns? Any new friends?”

“Pearl was watching him quietly. He noticed she only had one hand on the table, sipping her coffee. The other was out of sight. Megara nodded. “He was turning 18 soon. He was, as usual, somewhat moody with me. He resents me for taking his father away from him, for taking the place of his mother. His girlfriend had been acting particularly nervous. I suspect that she had something that she wanted to tell him. He had been experiencing some highly undeserved jealousy from others on the football team. They resented him for his great talent and thought he was given his position because of his relation to my Harry. He was not.” There was a moment of silence, and just for a moment, Megara’s body language thawed. “He was a very good young man. He had a heroic heart. It was a crime for him to be taken from us.” Her eyes locked with Nash’s. The shadows around them grew deeper, much darker, as her eyes seemed to grow larger, swelling in his field of vision. “Was my son murdered, agent? Was he taken by intent, rather than accident?”

The sensation was bizarre. The world seemed to grow thick and clotted around him, time slowing down. He tried to hedge, and found his mouth refused to form the white lies. “We… think… It may be possible.” He managed, as she kept her eyes locked on his. Her silence was a vacuum, dragging the words from him irresistibly. He swallowed, hard. “There were… possible signs of a snakebite. And-” Pearl’s hand rested on his wrist. He broke out of the trance. The cup in Megara’s hand crunched. The metal bent beneath her fingers, her narrow, delicate, graceful hand leaving a visible imprint in the metal, as hot coffee streamed down her hand.

“Thank you, agent. If I find anything out, I will be certain to share that information with you.” She stood up, and there was the sound of the front door opening. Suddenly, her eyes lit up, bright and warm. Ten years dropped off of her face in a moment. She ran past Silas and Pearl, into the hallway, where the newcomer stood. For a dizzy moment, Silas wondered if a bear had accidentally wandered into the house. Then, Megara embraced the tall, broad-shouldered man.

To say he was tall was an understatement. He must have stood at least six and a half feet. His shoulders were at least twice as broad as Megara’s. He was built like an inverted mountain, broad, brawny, and craggy. He had a smiling face, greeting his wife, and a massive hatchet at his side. Nash remembered the tree, and the great axe wounds in the ancient giant. Harry Constantinou was perspiring, even as his wife drew a handkerchief across his forehead. He bent forward to kiss her, tenderness in his movements as he embraced her gently, slotting the axe into an umbrella stand. When the kiss broke, he looked up. He strode forward rapidly, and grabbed Silas’ hand. The man wasn’t trying to use a crushing grip. He simply didn’t appear to have any kind of ability to moderate his handshake. Nash felt bones grinding under the grip, as the man slapped him on the shoulder bracingly. “You must be the special agent! A man after my own heart, making the world a better place!” Harry Constantinou boomed. He almost certainly didn’t have a volume setting besides ‘booming’. Then the man’s face became firm. “I hope you find the person who did this to my son before I do. I don’t want to think of what I might do to them in the heat of the moment. If there’s anything that I can do to aid you in this task, if there’s anything that we can do for you…” He was quiet for a moment. “I would be very grateful.” His voice, even lowered, even solemn, practically echoed against the walls.

“If I might ask, Mister Constantinou… Where were you, today?” Nash asked, frowning as his eyes flickered down to the axe. The man didn’t even hesitate.

“Going for a hike. Helps to clear the head, and it’s good to keep my eye on things.”

“Do you always go on hikes with an axe?” Nash asked, eyes moving down to the axe again. It had a horrible magnetism. Harry gave a broad grin.

“Of course! Never know when you might run into a lion!” He boomed with laughter, slapping Harry’s shoulder again.

Pearl and Nash were silent as they walked down the path, and out of the open gate. They didn’t speak until they reached the car. “Thoughts?” Pearl asked.

“Harry seems about as earnest a man as I could imagine. He’s special forces, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine a possible motive for him killing his son at the moment. Megara…” He frowned. “Both of them seemed… unsurprised. You know what I mean? Their child just died at the age of 17, and they were keeping it together. I suppose I can see that being possible, but it’s suspicious.”

“Both of them are used to tragedy.” Silas waited to see if she was going to complete that thought. They drove in silence for five more minutes, before he decided she was not.

“I’d love to know where Harry was this morning. That man looked like he actually could’ve knocked down that tree. But he seemed downright happy to see me.” Nash sighed. “This is going to be a hell of a case, isn’t it?” Pearl smiled sympathetically. “Next up, Isabelle and Irayama Onnashi. We’ll probably have to wait until tomorrow to set up an interview with the football team.” He frowned. This city was full of strangeness. He was getting the uncomfortable feeling that unraveling that strangeness was going to be his business. He wondered if he’d be lucky enough to find anything in this city that would be just mundane strangeness. Secrets kept because they were embarrassing, rather than deadly. He decided the chances of that were somewhere from slim to bupkiss. “You mentioned that Irayama was Isabelle’s mother. But Irayama looks ancient, and Isabelle’s presumably around Dean’s age.”

“Good catch. She’s adopted, actually. Isabelle was put up for adoption in China. She got adopted by Irayama. It was a bit of a surprise, really, considering that Irayama’s Japanese, but she seems to care a lot about the girl. Irayama’s husband left her decades ago. She doesn’t speak much about him.” Pearl sighed, as the two of them drove. “The city’s primarily immigrants. There were three big waves. First, the Greek settlers settled down here, in the 1800s. The Japanese came around 1945, right after the war, when immigration opened up again. A lot of them came from internment camps on the west, from what I hear. They were trying to get away from the worst of that behavior, make a fresh start. And then-” She paused. They were coming up to a small suburban lot. A few hundred homes, all put together.

Pearl seemed to know her way through the streets of the endless, eerily identical suburb. They stopped in front of a small blue house, a white picket fence setting it off from the other buildings near them. The two of them got out, walking up the lot. Pearl knocked on the door. It opened almost instantly. Irayama stood in the doorway, two cigarettes in her mouth. She puffed industriously. “Those things are going to kill you someday, Irayama. You mind if we talk with Isabelle?”

Irayama blew a cloud of smoke, slowly, and deliberately. “My daughter is currently somewhat distraught over the death of her boyfriend, as you well know, officer. She was crying for three days straight after the last time you talked with her. I would rather she was not disturbed-“

“Mama?”

The voice was soft, elegant. Standing in the stairwell, a large blanket wrapped around her like a nun’s habit, was a young woman. Isabelle Onashi had pale white skin, and hair the color of silver moonlight. She held the blanket tightly around her, peering at Silas and Pearl. “These people were just leaving, dear. Get back to bed-“

“I want to talk to them.” Her naturally lovely voice cracked a bit, tight with apprehension and a little fear, and more than a little defiance.

“I will not allow-“

“Young lady, are you 18?” Nash asked. The girl nodded. “Then, legally, it is her decision whether she wants to talk with us or not. I’m sure we can give her a moment to get changed?” Isabelle looked down at herself. Red rimmed her eyes. Her hair was in disarray. She was almost certainly a naturally lovely young woman, but she looked as though she’d been through the wringer. Irayama had a foul expression on her face, but Silas was hard-pressed to imagine how she could be any less helpful than she’d already been. The girl, on the other hand, looked like she needed to talk. These two were still his prime suspects, and Isabelle obviously regretted something.

Pearl and Silas stood outside, the young lady standing across from them. Isabelle held an umbrella over her head, keeping her pale skin out of the sun. She was not an albino, her eyes brown and warm, but she was still sensitive to the sunlight. Irayama apparently wanted nothing to do with the two of them, waiting in the kitchen. “Is this about D-Dean?” she asked, her eyes growing moist as she spoke his name.

“Yes.” Silas didn’t find that a particularly suspicious conclusion for her to jump to. When the FBI shows up, it’s a fair guess that it will be about the recent mysterious death.

“My mom said it was an accident, but I just knew. I knew someone killed him. Someone took him away from me…” The girl sobbed softly, rubbing at her red-rimmed eyes. “I love him. He was always so kind to me, and now-” She burst into tears, and Silas felt an awkward pain at seeing it. He wanted to reach out to comfort her, but he wasn’t sure how he could do that. He didn’t feel like a very comforting person, at the moment. Pearl took up the slack.

“It’s alright. Take your time, Isabelle.” The police chief gently stroked the girl’s shoulder, handing her a small handkerchief. Isabelle blew her nose, quite loudly, and brushed the tears out of her eyes. When she had regained her composure, she took a deep breath.

“When was the last time you saw Dean alive?” Silas asked, taking out a notepad.

“It… Don’t tell my mom. But we met, from time to time, at this little shack, out in the woods, near the beach. We’d hang out there over a weekend, have picnics, just be together for a while. We were supposed to meet there this weekend. The last time I saw him was on Friday. I told him that I couldn’t make it, that I’d have to spend the weekend studying, or my mom would go crazy… And… That was the last time I saw him.” She broke down, sobbing violently into her hands. She heaved and wracked with sobs, the girl’s body heaving under the force of the pain. Silas couldn’t watch. It wasn’t a delicate, beautiful pain. It was raw, and fraught, and familiar. “If I had been there with him- Maybe- whatever happened- wouldn’t have-” She was barely coherent, her voice growing thick. Irayama strode out of the building, with the mien of a dragon.

“Daughter! Into your room. I will make you some cinnamon-honey-tea. And as for you two.” The wizened old woman crossed her arms, a foul look on her face. “I am sorry about the unfortunate death of the Constantinou boy. But you two are barking up the wrong tree. There is no sign of foul play. It is botulism toxin. An unfortunate, rare, but nevertheless entirely mundane and accidental method of death. Now, if you will forgive me, I must go tend to my daughter.” Her tone was acidic, her expression sharp, and she slammed the door behind her, leaving Pearl and Nash standing on the lawn.

“Don’t suppose there were any rumors of Dean fooling around? High school football hero, and those two seem to have a slightly unhealthy dynamic. I could almost see the mother doing something crazy if they found he was screwing around behind the girl’s back. She looks like a bit of a social recluse.” Silas and Pearl drove towards the last person on the list for the day. Cassandra Hirosata, living in the same lot of suburban houses. The car rumbled as he tried to sort his thoughts.

“No such luck. As far as I know, he only had eyes for Isabelle. They were kind of a sweet couple. Could be a possibility, though.”

Silas growled. He couldn’t help it anymore. “Nobody we’ve talked to has the kind of motive necessary for murder. Especially not this kind of premeditation. Poison, injections, dragging him out into the middle of nowhere… Whoever did this, they either planned it, or had help.” He frowned. “I’m starting to see why you wanted some backup. We should check out that shack she mentioned. It might have something we can follow up on.” He sighed. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m starting to wonder how much help I can really be for you on this case. We might need to call in more people. I’ll see about getting in touch with the assistant director in the morning, based on how we’re going. But this definitely doesn’t feel right.” He stared at the building they were approaching. “And this town isn’t helping… Deja vu, all over again.”

The two of them parked in front of the small blue house, with its white picket fence. Silas checked the address, just to make sure that they hadn’t driven in a circle. “They didn’t go in big for individual taste with these houses, did they?” He asked, an eyebrow raised. Pearl smiled.

“Most of these places are still the original houses made in the 40s and 50s. There’s a pretty strict homeowner’s association. I understand Irayama acts as the informal head, quite to the contrary of the bylaws that she established herself.”

“Well, we ought to take her in on that basis right now. God forbid she exercises undue influence over the homeowner’s association and gets leave to put a pink flamingo in her yard.” Silas felt a little bad about the sarcasm- Pearl had been making a real effort to be helpful today. But he was fairly certain that no matter how tangled this mess became, homeowner politics were not relevant. He gave her an apolgetic smile, and she gave him one in return.

A couple, in their mid 30s, answered the door. “Mister and Mrs Hirosata? We wanted to ask Cassandra about the death of Dean.”

Mrs Hirosata narrowed her eyes at Silas, an expression of obvious distrust on her face “She’s already talked with you, Pearl. What is all of this about?” She was protective. A loving mother concerned for a wayward child. Odd, especially for a 14 year old girl in a small town.

Silas adjusted his tie, slightly self conscious under the steel glare of the older woman. Mister Hirosata was a big man, brawny, as tall as Silas, and quite calm. He looked to be Japanese. Mrs Hirosata, on the other hand, was apparently Greek, from her tanned skin and dark hair. She also seemed to be constantly waiting for a fight to break out with the universe. She was the kind of person who, if she ever went to bars, would know exactly how to turn a glass bottle into a deadly weapon, and she would eagerly do so at the first chance. Pearl smiled diplomatically “We just want to try to find out if she can remember anything more about the circumstances of his death.”

“Mom. It’s alright.” The young girl slipped through the doorway. Silas started to get a picture of why her mother would be so concerned. Her hair was messy, and her nose was bandaged. She was dressed in a pair of ill-fitting jeans, and a loose, baggy hoodie. “Hey, Pearl.” Her voice was a bit rough, affecting toughness. The girl was clearly used to being pushed around, and pushing right back. He rather liked that spirit.

“Chief Pearl, Cassandra. What happened to your nose?”

“Wrestling with Kintaro, Pearl. Come on, do we have to stand on ceremony? After all this time we’ve known each other?” The girl’s tone was lackadaisical, as she gave Pearl a smile. For the first time, her gaze shifted to Nash, and her eyes widened, any pretense of toughness disappearing. “Are you crazy, bringing him here?!” There was a wild, hunted look in Cassandra’s eyes. Silas stared for a moment. He’d thought he’d gotten used to the strange reactions people were having to him in this town. Abject terror was definitely a new one. He’d never seen someone so frightened of him. It wasn’t just defiance, or anger, or fear of punishment. It was the kind of raw animal panic that people retained for monsters.

“Cassandra, Agent Nash is here to help-” Nash rested a hand on Pearl’s shoulder. This wasn’t going to help matters. And in honesty, he just didn’t have the energy to fight through this particular reaction.

“It’s alright. Cassandra, I don’t know who you’ve mistaken me for, but I’ll wait in the car, alright? But I promise, I am here to help.”

Cassandra’s eyes were narrowed. She glared defiance at him, as though expecting him to draw his gun on her at any moment, but refusing to back down, as though his words had made her angry. “You’re not a hero, you know. You’re a killer. You’re just going to make things worse as long as you’re here. Why don’t you just leave, before everything falls apart?” She spoke in a rush, her shoulders tense, poised between fight and flight. Silas held down the urge to flinch back from her words. How the hell could she know about that?

Silas was many things, but he wasn’t one to stay where he was not wanted. He turned, and walked towards the car. He slid into the passenger seat, and began working on a report of the first day. He was out of his depth, here. If he wanted to get to the bottom of this, he would be swallowing his pride quite a lot. He looked up from the paperwork, thinking about what to write next. And that’s when he saw her. Standing on the corner, two blocks down. A red dress, and red hair, and red trickling down her lips. She smiled at him, and stepped around the corner, disappearing behind the building

He was on his feet in no time, throwing the car door open, ignoring Pearl’s shout and Cassandra’s flinch. He ran hard, his legs pumping. He was in half-decent shape. He made it to the corner in under a minute, sprinting wildly. He looked around. There was no sign of the woman, or the blood that had been dripping off of her lips. He’d taken the pills. He wasn’t supposed to be seeing things. He looked across the rows of doors leading into house after house. For a moment, he considered knocking on each and every one, or maybe knocking them down. Footsteps approached him from behind, and Pearl spoke, concern in her voice. “Agent Nash, are you alright?”

Pearl was frowning, her brow furrowed, concern obvious in her expression. He shook his head. “Sorry. Thought I saw someone I knew.” A dead woman. Someone who couldn’t possibly be there. After all, that was why he took the pills. So that he would stop seeing her. “What was all of that about, anyway? Cassandra was really scared as hell of me.” She had good reason to be. He was seeing things. He was having a psychotic breakdown. The dosage wasn’t enough. The batch was defective. He’d finally lost it entirely and the pills weren’t helping anymore. A dozen nightmares ran through his head as he tried to slow his breathing.

Pearl’s eyes dropped, her arms crossed. She was getting ready to lie to him. “I’m not sure, exactly. I think she was just nervous. She’s a bit of a troublemaker, and she’s not used to having to deal with any real authority.” She looked up. The sun was low in the sky. “Anyway. My offer still stands. Tomorrow morning, tell me whether you still want in on this case.”

He frowned. “I’ll stay, I don’t need to leave things open. Surely-“

She silenced him with a glance. “Just stay the night. By morning, you’ll know whether you should stay here or not.”

The two of them drove in silence, back to the hotel. He forgot about the remark as he caught sight of his rental car, sitting as though nothing had happened, immaculate as the day it had been made, in the middle of the parking lot. “Gene’s got to be a miracle worker.” He muttered softly, staring at the car. It looked good as new. Pearl laughed softly as she unlocked the cruiser’s doors, and he stepped out into the cool evening air. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Before she drove away, Pearl rolled down the window. “Hey. Get a bite of dinner before you call it a night. You’ve had a long day. Check out that diner, and tell Ariel that I sent you. She should be a little bit nicer.” Then, she was gone in a cloud of exhaust, the old cruiser coughing slightly as it accelerated away. He walked to his small rented hotel room. A letter had been shoved under the door slat. ‘From Gene’ was written on the front, in a delicate calligraphers hand. He opened it, to find the keys to his rental car. He smiled. The day was really looking up. He could almost forget Cassandra’s words. It’s not like she was wrong about him. He’d just have to do his job fast and try not to wreck any more happy lives than he had to.

In the darkness of the hotel room, he shook a couple of the anti-psychotics out of the bottle, and swallowed them quickly with a glass of water. His throat bobbed, and he let out a sigh of relief. He’d probably just been feeling under strain. He should have kept the pills on him, he’d probably let it slip by a couple of hours. It was unusual for the little flashes and visions to kick in so quickly, but the stress no doubt had something to do with that. With his mind temporarily his own again, he headed out to the car. He carefully started the ignition, and pulled out with excessive care into traffic. Gene’s service had been incredible- the car was running smoother than it had before he’d crashed- but he didn’t want to give her more business quite that soon. The damn pills messed with his reflexes something fierce.

The diner was quiet by the time he got there. It was early in the afternoon, apparently before the largest dinner rush. Ariel was standing behind the register, working on receipts, when he entered. Her eyes narrowed. “Oh. It’s you.” Her voice was cold as ice, and he gave her his best apologetic smile. He might as well have flipped her off for the reaction it got from her. “You need something, G-man?” She asked sharply.

“Yeah. Pearl sent me?” Ariel’s expression didn’t soften one bit. “I was hoping to get a bite to eat. It’s been a hell of a day.” She looked him up and down, frowning harder than anyone her age should be able to. Then she sighed.

“Well, never let it be said I am a poor host.” Her eyes ran him up and down a second time, as though weighing him up. “Steak, A-1 sauce but no ketchup on the side, an order of shoestring fries, a Caesar salad with vinaigrette, and a cup of hot herbal tea. Sound good?”

He paused for a moment. Breakfast seemed so long ago. It had been an exhausting day. “That… Yeah. That sounds divine.” He took a seat at the counter, as she bustled into the back. “Ariel, if you don’t mind my asking, what exactly have I done to be getting this treatment? I mean, if Pearl trusts me-“

“I do mind, as it happens. And Pearl’s a risk-taker. I think you’re trouble, G-man. I think you’re a disaster waiting to happen, and I would prefer that the disaster didn’t take us all down.”

He digested that statement for a long few seconds. Twice now. Say one thing for the people in this town, they certainly had his number. “So why even bother serving me?”

She slapped the plate down. “Because I am a damn fine hostess. You don’t turn someone away, no matter how much trouble they’re carrying behind them. Now eat up.” The steak steamed in the air. When he sliced it open, it was just a bit pink on the inside. It tasted perfect. The steak sauce would have been a waste on such a perfect cut of meat. He poured a bit on anyway because some habits are damned difficult to get rid of. And somehow, it made it better.

It was a perfect meal, one of those that lingered in the memory, that he’d tell stories about. He settled down, eating slowly, watching as people came in. He lingered over his food, as the convivial atmosphere filled the diner. It was pleasant, really. With so many people around, he didn’t stand out one bit. Nash ate slowly, and left a couple of bills on the counter. To his great surprise, Ariel was waiting outside when he stepped out. She had her arms crossed, and her eyes were narrowed. “I don’t want you to read into this, G-man. I’m not doing it out of any personal affection for you, or what you stand for. But if I didn’t do this… I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.” She took three steps, closing with him. Then, she kissed him.

Her hands rested on his shoulder. She had to stand on her tiptoes and pull him forward slightly just to make their lips connect. It was sweet, and the scent of her body was like the air rushing off of the lake, sweet and fresh. Her lips were firm, but they softened, until he felt as though their skin was mixing together. She broke the kiss after a second, tossing her hair. He gaped for a moment, and frowned. “I’ll… try not to read anything untoward into the fact that you were using tongue.” He was trying to come across as cool and unaffected. The way his voice cracked ruined that. She swept past him, returning to the diner, and he got into his car. Who knew what the hell that was about. The sun was setting, the sky becoming dark purple, shading into pitch black. There were no street lights, and very little light pollution. The stars shone in the sky, and as he returned to the hotel, he was ready for sleep. It had been a long, busy day. He discarded his suit, and carefully hung his shoulder holster up on the coat hook. He sat down, checked the safety, removed the clip, checked its capacity, and did all the little things to relax himself after the strange and unexpected kiss. If someone saw him playing with his gun just because he had been kissed by an attractive young woman, he’d probably never live it down. Eventually, fatigue settled over him, and he lay down to sleep in the warm, stuffy confines of the hotel room. He was asleep within seconds.

Chapter 3: Dead Air

In the night, Silas dreamt. It was the same dream he always had when he was unsettled. A woman screaming, a sharp knife falling to the ground. The soft bitter smell of gunpowder in the air. The sight of blood running down his fingers as he desperately tried to hold her life in. Staring into those bright, green eyes, as the woman died in his arms. The shame. The horror. The knowledge of what he had done, eating away at his gut. He knew it was a dream. He could wake up at any moment. But he didn’t. He was too busy staring at his hands, as the blood dripped down across his fingers.

He awoke with a start, jerked out of his dreaming state into reality. His room was stifling hot. He was dressed down to his underwear and his socks, lying on the bed. The dream-catcher leaned against the wall. He slowly pulled himself out of the bed. The room had a pair of large windows in the back, facing out towards the forest. He’d left them closed, but the temperature was unbearable, the hotel sultry with the summer heat. He wiped his brow. He might take a shower after he got the windows open. He pulled the curtain aside, and leapt back as though he’d been stung, the fabric falling back over the window.

It was his imagination. The furious rush of his brain trying to find patterns. The light on the edge of the forest had not been illuminating the woman from his dreams. She was not standing out there, waiting for him to open the window, with the knife in her hand. She was not going to be there. He approached the window, resisting the urge to go get his gun. That was completely unnecessary. That was the kind of thinking that had led him to where he was today. No need to freak himself out. Everything was fine.

Once, when he was young, Nash had watched Terror at 20,000 feet. He’d had nightmares for years. There was one scene in particular, where William Shatner, after steeling his courage to look out the window, opened it, only to find the horrific creature pressing its face against the window. Monkey-like features, staring mad and wild. Sometimes, he’d seen that face in his nightmare, laughing wildly as he tried to protest that he wasn’t crazy. That something really was there. A very frequent fantasy on the part of the schizophrenic. That they were right, that there was something out there. That it was everyone else who was wrong. He took a deep breath, and stared down at his shaking hand. It had been years since he’d been frightened of the dark.

He pulled the curtain aside. She stood right outside his window. Her skin was dark, contrasting with fiery red hair, and bright green eyes. She was dressed in an elegant red dress. She always was. “Please, no.” He pleaded softly. She smiled, and trailed a finger down the window. The knife was visible in her other hand. Calling it a knife was an insult. It was not a sword only because the grip was too small. It might be a machete. Its edge was jagged, stained with brown flakes of old blood. “You can’t be here. I’m better. I’m not sick anymore. Please, just go away.” He whispered softly. She reached up, and rested her free hand against the glass. Then, she turned away.

He was still dreaming. He had to be. He went to the door, and took his pistol from the holster. Check the safety, slide the gun in the leather holster, pull the strap over his head. Just because it was a dream didn’t mean he was stupid. God only knew what other nightmares were waiting in the woods, and the gun was his source of power, a defense against the fears that waited. He pulled on his pants, shoes, and the shirt, leaving his jacket and tie behind. It was a dream after all, he wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He looked over his shoulder, towards the bare window. She was halfway to the woods. Her hair almost seemed to light up the night, like a fire. He opened the door, and walked out into the night. The small alleyway provided a way to the back of the hotel, and the forest.

The smell of pine surrounded him. He spotted her hair, glowing around her, as she entered the forest. It blazed like a small earthbound star. He followed her, slipping between the trees. The path she used was well-worn. There was little underbrush, and the bare black earth was visible in the not-quite-light of the night. He was beginning to regret not having a flashlight. The forest was terribly dark, pines growing close together and blotting out the moon. He would catch a glimpse of her hair, the only light in the world, and keep following her until she disappeared. Then he would walk blindly in the dark for another few minutes. Finally he would catch another glimpse. After perhaps twenty minutes, it occurred to him that he could be getting lost. The dreamlike state was beginning to fade, and he was growing more alarmed by the second.

Then, the forest opened. He was at the top of a hill. The red-headed woman had disappeared, and there was no sign left of her. The hill-side was bare of all but a few trees. Instead, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of grave stones. They stretched out across the valley, glittering in the light of the half moon. There were so many of them, arranged in neat rows. The further down the hill, the more archaic and ancient they looked. Silas didn’t consider himself a particularly superstitious or fearful man, but the sight sent ice running up and down his shoulder. Reality was cracking at the edges. He had wandered into the woods, thinking he was in a dream, and safe from harm. And now, he stood on the hillside over an endless parade of marble and epitaphs, and he was cold and aching. It wasn’t a dream. The world was fracturing slowly around him, and bleeding. He looked up. The opposite hillside glittered with countless dots of white, where the markers were placed. Tens of thousands. Maybe more than Arlington. The sky was clear as glass, stars twinkling around the high half moon.

He’d taken the anti-psychotics so recently. This couldn’t be his mind playing tricks on him. Could it? Could it all just be insanity? His own mind fooling him into thinking that he was well again? The fantasies could feel so real, he knew. They could feel exactly this real. He was starting to hyperventilate. If he had gone mad without ever noticing it, then what could he trust? This was the thing he despised about the madness. You couldn’t trust anything when you were immersed in it. He sank down against a tombstone, pressing his forehead against the cold marble. He sat there for nearly a minute, before he realized that someone was speaking.

The words were unfamiliar. They weren’t a language he knew. He couldn’t even hazard a guess at it, as he leaned against the stone marker. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t supposed to be happening. That was the kind of thought he could take hold of. He could concentrate on it. Somewhere, a crime was being committed. With that, he could overcome the uncertainty. The world was going mad around him, but he was here for a reason. He knew it. He peeked over the tombstone.

Silas had once heard a description of synesthesia. A violin’s trill playing itself as brilliant green lines across someone’s vision. The scent of cheese as an earthy gray-green waveform. The scent of a lover’s perfume as splashes of pink spirals. It sounded uncomfortably like hallucinations to him. The kind of things he was on medication to avoid. But he could smell something on the air, drifting over the graveyards, coming from the dark figure. It was a scent of death, of rot and decay. It smelled deeply unhealthy. Like the bad-breath calcium scent of a tooth, rotted from the inside out. Like the fetid stink of rotting flesh on a still-living body. Like the ripe scent of corruption and putrescence on fruit gone too long. The scent carried, farther than it should’ve, on the wind. It smelled the way pitch black looked.

The figure was clad in a dark robe. There was no way to see its face, but that scent would remain with Silas. He couldn’t ever forget it. He stared, as the figure hunched over a body. Silas carefully slid out from behind his hiding place, ducking forward, keeping to cover. He stayed low, hiding behind the next gravestone. On reflex, he slid his gun out of its holster. He checked the safety, making absolutely sure it was still on. The voice kept speaking, in unfamiliar syllables. He could swear that there was something familiar to it, but it might as well have been Sumerian for all he knew.

Green fire swirled around the figure. His jaw tightened involuntarily. Fire wasn’t supposed to be that color. It was more insanity. Nonetheless, the flames formed a halo around the robed person, and though the verdant inferno flickered in front of the hood, there was no sign of a face within. It was black as ink. His eyes began to water, pained by the violent green. The sense of madness was all around him, but he knew that whoever this was, they were doing something terrible, wrong. He took a deep breath, and kept creeping down the hill. The figure was a hundred and fifty feet away. A hundred. Fifty. Twenty. Silas pulled out the clip, checking it quickly. He checked on the figure. He was just outside of the ring of sickly green light.

The body was familiar. Dean Constantinou, naked, tattooed with marks that had not been there earlier that day, lay sprawled across the grass. His legs were spread, as were his arms, and Silas turned his eyes away from the young man. The figure’s chants were reaching a crescendo. Then, there was a flicker of movement in the young man’s fingers. Silas turned back to stare, his blood going cold, as the young man began to move. Arms and legs jerked sporadically, as green light ran through the tattoos. The figure’s chanting grew more intense, its movements more animated, as Dean Constantinou shook on the ground, beginning to stand. His movements were jerky, like a marionette, or a spider, sudden explosive movement mixed with stillness. The corpse stood, slowly opening its mouth.

And then, it screamed. That was one word for what happened. Much as a nuclear weapon exploded, or a tornado blew. It was a word that made a mockery of the true intensity of the situation. Under the bright moon, the scream echoed through the hills, reverberating horribly. It was a sound of pain unlike anything that Silas had ever heard. There was fire and iron in that voice, and suffering, and Stygian blackness. It was a scream that made Silas wish he were deaf, so he would never hear it again. His body shook as the scream lengthened, extending out beyond the limits of human lungs. And then, in a moment, it ended. The body fell to the ground.

Silas stood up, his gun drawn, aimed at the figure’s head. “Silas Nash, FBI. Put your hands up. You are under arrest for…” His eyes went to the body. “Desecration of a body, and probably breaking into police property, and likely quite a few things besides that. You have the right to remain silent-“

“You fucking idiot.”

The voice was alien. Twisted, and distorted. Inhuman and strange. There were half a dozen voices conflicting together in one, filling the voice with a strange rumbling harmonic. They ran the gamut, so he couldn’t tell for certain what their gender was. It didn’t sound like anyone he’d met today. What a time for hallucinations. And yet, that voice had been so down to earth. It was comforting, to be sworn at. It put him back in touch with reality. “No need to curse. Now, hands up. I don’t want to shoot you.”

“I’m trying to bring the little prick back to life, you fool. You are distracting me at a critical juncture. Now-” Silas raised his weapon, and fired, knocking out a chunk of stone from a headstone. He was breathing heavily. He could feel the anger swelling inside of him. The dark fury. It was treating him like a joke. It wasn’t listening to him. He could feel the rage choking his throat, and his hands shook, eager to make claws, to sink into its throat. “Pathetic.” It turned towards him, and started walking. He fired twice, striking the slender figure in the chest. He adjusted his aim, and sent a round into the darkness of that hood. That one might have missed. The two large holes in the chest of the robe had certainly been clean hits, though there was no sign of blood welling up in the pallid green light.

The pistol wasn’t supposed to be a handcannon. It was designed for ease, dependability, accuracy. It wouldn’t throw someone across a room. It would even be hard-pressed to knock someone on their ass. But it should’ve at least staggered his target. “Tools of men. Useless. You’re not even a hero.” It swung its hand through the air, green fire trailing like its nails had ripped open fissures in the air. There was a moment of silence, and then the earth rumbled. The sound of crushing and grinding stone filled the air for a few seconds. He frowned, leveling the gun again. Then something grabbed his leg.

Skeletal hands thrust up from the earth. No flesh on them, just polished white bone. A skull leered as it pulled itself free. It would have been better if it were zombies. They were impossible, of course. But they would’ve had sinew. Muscles. Flesh to hold it all together. Its animating force would be inexplicable, but there would be an animating force. The grinning white skulls tearing free from the earth shouldn’t have held together. But they moved, like something out of Ray Harryhausen’s darkest nightmares, arms swinging like scythes. The one grabbing his leg pulled its torso free of the clinging black earth, and opened its mouth. A sibilant hiss escaped its mouth, like a colossal snake. It was a very human skeleton. He stared, mute, at the grinning white teeth.

He yanked his foot away. The grip was like steel, but the fingers skidded along his pants legs as he backpedaled. He fired twice into the grinning skull. Bone fragments flew through the air as two holes appeared, and a dozen teeth were knocked out of the grinning jaw. It didn’t even seem to inconvenience the skeleton. It just kept coming. More of them were popping out from each grave. Dozens of them. Bones ranging in color from a polished white to a sickly yellow, gray and lichen-stained green. They were converging on him. The figure waved a hand, and vanished in green flame, along with Dean’s body.

Seventeen bullets were gone so quickly. None of the skeletons fell as he fired. He tried to keep his footing, but roots and skeletal fingers grasped at his feet. He backed away wildly, shifting his gun back into his holster. If he was going to make it out of this, he didn’t want to file a report about losing his service weapon. A hand grabbed for his ankle, and he stumbled backwards, arms cartwheeling. His back struck something stone, nearly bashing his skull against the unyielding surface. He turned his head. A tall stone marker, ten feet on a side, was standing behind him. A depiction of the angel of death, skull-faced, scythe-wielding, black-robed, loomed over him. A mocking grin on a bare skull. There was no retreat. He turned to face the bones of the dead.

He took a breath. He could feel the world around him. The way his feet rested on the ground. The stance. Aikido was a passive, receptive art. Both partners learned how to accept. The defender learned how to accept the attack, and turn it against the attacker. The attacker learned how to receive the defense, and lessen the damage. He should have been calm. He’d always heard that the state of true mastery was in being calm. But he wasn’t. His heart was pounding. His feet were aching. His back stung where he had struck the stone. He could feel the sweat dripping down his forehead. He was angry. He was so enraged that it burned inside of him. He felt the cold fingers reach for him, more than he saw them. The skeleton lunged forward, clawed fingers reaching for his throat. There was a moment, felt more than seen, when the balance shifted on the skeleton’s toes, and it committed fully to the attack.

“Die, you filthy son of a bitch!” He heard the words, and didn’t realize who had said them until he felt his hands close on the bony arm. He dragged the skeleton forward, and its lunge turned into a wild flail. It struck the hard edge of the granite, right where its arm was weakest. The ulna snapped, a green-stick fracture. There was a violent crack-snap-hiss, like a fuse blowing. Green smoke bled out of the broken bone, and the skeleton collapsed to the ground. Another blow was felt rather than seen. Clumsy, wild, the thing reached out for his cheek, trying to rake his eyes. He grabbed the wrist and drew it out, pulling the skeleton off balance. His knee rose, and met the skeleton in the hips. The skeleton pitched forward, tumbling helplessly. Its skull struck at an angle on the ground, popping off, dragging several vertebrae along with it. There was another snap of released energy. And still dozens more were coming.

Nash’s forehead was throbbing. His heart was pounding violently. He could feel the rage inside of him, begging to be let out. He didn’t hurt a bit. The skeletons were clumsy in their attacks, wild, committing to them easily. They weren’t intelligent foes. They were strong, they could have ripped him in part if they could get a hand on him. But he felt their blows coming. The wind carried the scent of grave dirt and bonemeal, and he met every blow, turning it into a broken limb. Like circuits, he realized. Knocking a hole through the skull didn’t incapacitate them, but shattering a bone did. Even so, he should have been losing his breath. Anger was quick, and easy, but exhausting. His lungs should have been burning, unable to keep up with his exertion. Yet each breath brought air deep into his lungs, providing him with fuel to spare.

But they kept coming. Fatigue was filling his bones with lead. He kept striking. Bones were piled around him, a grisly mound that did part of his work for him. Advancing skeletons struggled through the thick piles of bones around him, and he capitalized on their clumsiness. But he was getting hemmed in. He couldn’t stay balanced on top of the corpses, and they were restricting his movements. He could feel death laughing at him. His heart pounded, his teeth bared like an ape’s. A skeleton approached him, and then hesitated. He strode forward, and the corpse withdrew from him, backing away, as he waded out of the pile of bones. His hands reached out for it, and twisted, snapping two delicate ribs. It fell to the ground, motionless.

And no more came forward to attack. The bones lay thick on the ground, tumbling and rolling down the hillside with a hollow rattle. The assault was over. He was safe. He sank to his knees in the thick earth, his breath coming out in ragged heaves. He had taken a loan from his body to hold back the fatigue and the pain and the terror, and the crippling balloon payment had just exacted its revenge. He could barely move. He simply sat, his head hanging down, and stared at the bones of his final victim. Anonymous, just like all of the others, except for the ring on its left hand. A beautiful little emerald shimmered, green and perfectly shaped into a rectangular cut.

Silas reached out, and stopped his hand just before he touched the memento. He considered, for a moment, not desecrating the body. Then he seized the ring, pulling it off of the corpse’s finger. The only identifying mark that had survived death, and decay. He looked around the graves. He had no way to tell which marker the bones had come from. He bent forward, and was heartily sick. He’d chased the bones down, and broken them, in a rage. The same insane rage that seemed to rise in him every single time he saw the red haired woman. The thin remains of his meal last night glistened on the bones as he slowly heaved himself up onto his feet. His body moved on autopilot, slipping the ring into his pocket. He’d take the time to examine it once he was back to safety. He stared around the woods. There was a distant light in the sky, the beginnings of dawn, still an hour away. He shook as he stepped over the bones, feeling the dread inside of him. More at what he had done than the fear of being attacked again.

His mother had taught him Aikido. The simple maneuvers, the principles. He’d never been much good at it, and he’d never practiced it as much as he should have. He was no expert. He shouldn’t have stood a chance against the strange creatures. And yet, in the heat of the moment, he had been able to feel the attacks coming. The knowledge had been so vivid, it was almost painful. It brought back memories of his mother, and he winced. They weren’t happy memories. She had never wanted to hurt him, he was sure. She just hadn’t been able to help herself.

The walk back to his hotel room was long, and unpleasant. Every time he began to think that perhaps, it had all been a dream- perhaps he had just imagined it- he took out the gun, and took a breath. The smell brought it all back to him. The sharp memories of the fighting, and the adrenaline, and the horror of it all. He felt the acid crawling up the back of his throat, desperate to escape onto the forest floor. In the weak glow of the not-yet-dawn, the path was only barely visible. Yet every step he took, he could feel the wind around him. The scent of it, full of pine and fresh air, made the walk slightly more bearable. It washed away the nausea, and restored a little feeling back to his numbed arms.

When he finally broke out of the woods, and saw the hotel, mist was rising off of the ground. It lent the already surreal situation an otherworldly tenor. Long, clammy tendrils clung to his clothing as he walked through the small back lot. The hotel room door opened. He walked into his room, and collapsed on the bed. The empty pistol and its holster slid off, and onto the floor. He lay there, his eyes closed, and thought, for a long time.

Nash’s previous experiences with his episodes had revolved around the sense of paranoia. Seeing faces watching him from around corners. Strange sensations. Strange emotions. Even in his worst nightmares, he had never sleepwalked. He had certainly never been attacked by anything. Either he had gone utterly, gibberingly insane, hallucinations eating through his brain… or it had been real.

If he was insane, beyond help, then there was nothing for it. He couldn’t trust anything. He couldn’t do anything. That didn’t seem like a very productive course of action. If he had really seen everything he thought he had seen out there, on the hillside, then he was neck-deep in shit, and he was the only one who didn’t know what was going on. Pearl and her little hints and warnings. Ariel and the kiss that still lingered sweetly in his memories. Cassandra and her little freakout. Anger bubbled up inside of him. Not the murderous rage of the fight or flight reaction, but mundane, everyday aggravation. They’d been leading him along.

Sleep came, eventually. A couple of precious hours which, like an appetizer, only sharpened his exhaustion, turning it from a dull ache into a shockingly present need. He crawled out of the bed slowly, and into the shower. Hot water ran down his skin, soothing away some of the exhaustion and the aches. He slipped on a fresh set of clothing, and sat on his bed, pulling the suit on.He had three pieces of evidence to vouch for his sanity. First, the cuts and scrapes and tears in his clothing from the fight with the skeletons. He had not been badly injured, but the damage was distinctive. It could have been caused by something else, but he felt it counted. Second, his gun. Its clip was empty, and he spent half an hour of pre-dawn filling out an incident report. When it came to determining what he had been shooting at, he sat silently for ten minutes before filling in ‘wild animal attack’. Explaining this was going to be tricky. He would have to figure out a good, convincing lie. Telling the truth seemed like it would be a terribly fruitless endeavor with anyone outside of the city. Even in the city, he was going to have to be careful.

Last was the ring. He reached into the pants, and slid the delicate silver band out. There was an inscription on the inner edge. Age had worn it smooth, but he could still make out a bit of the carving in the metal. ‘To my dearest-‘ An illegible scrawl blanked out the next word- ‘I will love you in this life, and every other. Megara.’

Chapter 4: You Don’t Need A Weatherman

Nash’s first stop was the police station. It looked as though a bomb had hit it. The front wall around the doorway was caved in, and shattered glass still lay scattered around on the pavement . Further inside, Nash could see the sergeant’s desk had been trashed. His heart began to pound, as his fingers went into his pocket, touching the ring. He got out of the rental car, running up to the small group of locals. Pearl was standing in front of the building, with Sergeant Dio beside her, surveying the damage.

The hallucination was vivid. Around Dio was an atmosphere of intense violence. It wasn’t visual, or even a sound. It was more like a smell, the scent of ozone and rain-wetted earth, with just a hint of blood. Nash had thrown back a couple of pills this morning. He shouldn’t have been feeling any of this. He swallowed, steeling himself, and strode past Dio, towards Pearl. “Something missing? A body, maybe?” She turned to him, surprised. “I’ve had a rough time. If I’ve gone completely insane, I hope that you’ll be able to tell me. Last night, I saw a woman who should be dead lead me to a graveyard in the woods full of more headstones than I’ve seen in one place in my entire life. I shot someone in a robe who was doing something with Dean Constantinou’s body. Skeletons burst from the earth, and attacked me, and you smell like you live in a wildfire.”

It was true. The smell around Pearl was that of untamed flame. Burning wood, the crackle of fat as it melts. The smell of smoke hung around her like a perfume. She stared at him for a few seconds, and then began to laugh softly. “Well. I didn’t expect things to go wrong quite this quickly.” She smiled apologetically, seeing the anger in his eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to mislead you. You’re right. This place isn’t normal. And Dean Constantinou’s body is missing. Something forced its way into the police department, tore it open, and took the body. Something…” She waved a hand towards the torn building. “Very strong. And very discreet. None of the deputies were in. The security cameras went out.”

Sergeant Dio looked over his shoulder, a frown on his face, his eyebrow raised. On a man that stoic, it was like a scream of outrage. The townsfolk were melting away, the crowd dispersing. Nash narrowed his eyes. The black rage was pouring into him, thick and cloying. “So everyone in this town knows about… Whatever the hell secret you’ve been keeping from me? Whatever secret nearly got me killed by skeletons, walking bones, last night? Don’t give me that little wide-eyed look! You knew that something was going to happen to me! And I am sick and tired of being given the runaround, here!”

“Dio. Tape off the area. I’m going to take Nash out to breakfast. It sounds like he’s had a very difficult night.” Sergeant Dio gave her a concerned look, but walked to the torn-up entrance to the police station. Pearl waved for Nash to follow her. The momentary boost of energy from righteous indignation was already fading. He was dog-tired. Fatigue was settling into his bones like lead, making his whole body ache. Pearl opened the door of her cruiser for him, and he slumped into the passenger seat. His head was so heavy it bent forward. He rested his forehead on the dash board. “Long night, I can tell. Alright. Take me through your night again, from the very beginning. Everything you can remember about it.”

He looked up at her. He could feel the weariness weighing him down. The certainty had been so strong, before. Now, with exhaustion came doubt. Fear. He might be wrong. Dear god, what if he was wrong? “Chief. Pearl. I suffer from schizophrenia. I medicate with anti-psychotics. They’re clearly not working anymore. I don’t think that anything I have to say-“

“You mentioned the town graveyard. I think I know the place.” She pulled off the pavement, onto a dirt road. The forest closed over the car. Memories of last night ran through his head. His heart pounded, and he could feel it pounding against his temples. After perhaps five minutes of bumpy driving, the car emerged from the forest, into a bright, green valley. And there, the countless headstones were standing, stark and monochromatic in the bright light of day. Halfway up the hill, mounds of white bones sat in the sun. They were far enough away that he couldn’t see the individual bones, but he didn’t have to walk up to check. His work from last night was still sitting there. It hadn’t been madness, or a dream. In the light of day, the bones seemed a little sad, forlorn, rather than terrifying. Nobody would know who they belonged to. “Those your work?” she asked, lightly, giving him a smile. His face was gray, as he stared wordlessly at the scattered remnants, sitting in plain view. His stomach was twisting, the memories flashing in his mind.

“What is this place?” he asked, softly, as though afraid he might send himself spiraling into a psychotic break if he spoke too loudly.

“Everyone who dies in this city is buried here. There have been thousands of men and women over the years, and every one of them deserved to be remembered. They were Heroes, one and all.” Nash fancied he could hear her pronounce the capital letters. More hallucinations. He stared out at the field. “They lived here, loved here, and died here, and they will be back. The Heroes we bring here, we show them their heritage through these grave markers. They are the reminders of all that has happened before them. It’s important. It helps them to understand just how important they are.”

“I broke their bones. I destroyed them.” He could feel the guilt stabbing him between the ribs. The desecration of the dead weighing heavily on him.

She shrugged. “They’re just bones. The part of them that mattered is not held in a bland mix of calcium and phosphate. Who they were, what they were, that’s all still there. All you broke were husks.” She started the car again, pulling a K-turn on the rich green grass, leaving muddy tracks. “You’re not a madman, Silas Nash. You’re seeing the things that are really there. You’re not schizophrenic, though I can see how you would be mistaken for it. Now. Tell me your story. I’ll tell you mine.”

And so he told her the story. The strange woman outside his room. She nodded sympathetically as he talked about the long hike through the cold forest. She narrowed her eyes as he mentioned the ritual. And she smiled when he mentioned the wind. “About what I thought, then. Someone took Dean’s body. I’m not sure why. I know a great deal about the people in this city, and I can’t think of anyone with a motive to do this.” She frowned, lost in thought for several long seconds. “They said they wanted to bring him back to life… Could be true. Could be a lie.”

“When I asked you before, I didn’t mean the graveyard. What is this place?” he asked, softly.

She chuckled. “Well. I’d say you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but you’d probably get angry. This is Zion. One of the Five Keystones. It holds apart the world of men, and the world of stories.” She sighed. “Why do humans give a name to natural disasters? Why do hurricanes have names like Bob, and Carol, and Katrina, and Steven?” she asked, her voice soft. “I’ve always believed it’s because you feel it gives you power over them. By naming something you control it. You limit and define it. And sometimes, you ennoble it.” She smiled. “Ariel will be able to tell you more, for now. There is a proper order to these things. What is important is that I cannot interfere. I can have my men help you to unwind this case, to provide what aid they can. But you were brought here because you’re an outsider. You are not bound by the rules, by the laws, of our truce. You’ve been brought in because you can act where others cannot.”

“So, whatever you are. Do you actually need to be mysterious and withhold information, or is it simply psychologically satisfying?” he asked, an eyebrow raised. She sighed.

“Like I said. Rules. I can’t help you beyond certain things. You can ask questions, and I can answer them, if it won’t violate the rules.”

“Can I know the rules?” he asked, and the look she gave him was all the answer he needed. “Of course not. It was an act of purest optimism to have posed the question in the first place.” He considered for a few moments. “You said stories. What did you mean by that, exactly?”

“My view? I think there are forces in this world. Ancient forces. They existed before humanity. Like hurricanes, firestorms, earthquakes, seas, glaciers. These things had power. They could change things. But they didn’t have any motivation. They simply existed. Humans changed that. Humans saw these forces, and gave them names, and motivations. And in doing so, they made forces into people, with all that was good and bad about that change. They gave storms minds, and dreams, and hopes. And then, they called them monsters. Dragons, the dead, elemental forces, fae, yokai, spirits. They were other, and they were powerful, and they were frightening. So humans dreamed that they could master, and fight these things. And so Heroes arose. Human thoughts shape the world.”

He frowned. “No. Come on, that’s ridiculous. Humans come up with some interesting technology, but- thoughts are just that. Humans can believe that a storm has a grudge against them, or that they can get revenge against a white whale. But that doesn’t mean that it’s true. It’s just a delusion. A desperate desire to think that we can treat everything like a fellow human being, and have it work. You’re fucking around with me.” He shook his head. And then he saw the look in her eyes. The bitter disappointment. Her lips were drawn into a tight line, and he felt as though he had just failed an incredibly important test.

“You don’t have to believe me, Nash. The metaphysics of it all don’t matter. What matters is that there are powerful things out there, and Zion exists to keep them away from humanity. Monsters hunted humans, Heroes hunted monsters. Do you know what it feels like, to have existed for an appreciable fraction of forever, only to find your life taken by a human? Something that’s only existed for a few scant years, but which can cut your heart out if you let your guard down for a moment?” She smiled softly. “It can be scary. And rather exhilarating. And so, the truce was formed. Heroes and monsters live together in these places. And through the harmony here, the world of stories is kept separate from those of humans. No kraken tearing shipping freighters below the waves. No dragons roosting in Wall Street. No vampires ruling nations. And no heroes venturing forth to slay them for their actions. It’s an elegant system. And someone is about to ruin it all.”

“Do you know who they are?” She was silent. “Ah hah. So you do, and can’t tell me. Can you give me one good reason why I should trust you for even a moment?”

“You would be dead now if I hadn’t told Ariel to give you the gift of breath.” She stated in a matter-of-fact tone. “Your bones would be out there. You’re just a human, agent Nash, and you’re playing a game of monsters and gods. If you don’t trust me, then you aren’t going to stand a chance. And… vice versa.”

He stared at her. Her expression was deadly earnest, and firm. He relented after a couple of seconds. “Fine.” The car stopped at the diner. It was still early, 10 AM. “I’m not feeling very hungry.” He lied. His stomach growled loudly. It had been a very long night, and his last meal was drying on a field of shattered bones.

“Tell you what. I’ll get myself something, and if you want to eat, then you can feel free to have some food with me. Now come on.” She stepped out of the car, and after a moment of weighing his options, Nash followed. He was an FBI agent. He was highly trained, and he didn’t have to be cajoled into breakfast. But his rumbling stomach told him that he was going to eat, or it would make him pay.

He followed her into the diner. The last of the breakfast rush was filing out of the place as Pearl took a seat at one of the booths. Ariel gave the two of them a look, and pulled a chair up to the table. Today, she was wearing an apron over a matte-black t-shirt, exposing her arms. A pair of jeans with ripped knees completed the punk ensemble. If the apron was removed, the shirt would no doubt have the name of a band on it. “So. You survived, G-man.”

“Thanks to you.” Nash was quiet for a moment. The atmosphere around her was divine. Like the perfect breeze on a hot summer day, carrying heat away. Like the wind that shakes the leaves out of the trees in autumn. Like the fresh air of spring, clearing out dust and cobwebs. And a hint, just the barest hint, of the winter, and the sharp smell of frost. “I know you have a grudge against me, Ariel. I don’t know entirely why, but you saved my life with whatever you did when you kissed me.”

Ariel grunted. “Would have saved us all a lot of trouble if you had died.” But she seemed slightly mollified by his words, brushing her fingers through her blue-green hair. “I gave you the gift of breath. Power over air. It manifests differently in everyone who receives the gift.” She looked curious despite herself. “How did it change you? I figure, G-man like you, might have enhanced your sight, given you infallible aim, something along those lines…” She was all interest and enthusiasm, her hostility forgotten in the moment.

“Actually… My gun was fairly useless. I was attacked by these skeletons. Bones risen from the graveyard. The gun just chipped parts of the skull away. When I broke their bones by hand, they seemed to become inanimate again.”

Ariel nodded. “Makes sense. Magic requires a circuit. Interrupt the circuit, and the magic is grounded out. Necromancy… Doesn’t narrow things down much for you. I can think of a dozen people in this city who could do something like that. That Nekomata woman. The Hell Hound at the station. Old lady Wendigo. Izanami. Orpheus. Bone-Gnawer. But tell me, you’re a martial artist? Usually, the gifts enhance your greatest strength. I didn’t take you for the spiritual type, G-man.”

“I’m not much of a martial artist. I practiced it when I was young. I guess there just weren’t many other strengths to choose from.” He frowned. “It was like… Well. There are three things.” He held up a finger. “One, I wasn’t getting out of breath. I was fighting as hard as I could, but I wasn’t short of breath or panting. My body was getting tired, but I kept going.” He held up another finger. “Second, I was… more aware. I could feel the swings before I saw them. I was prepared for their attacks. It made fighting easy.” He took a deep breath. “And third, I can smell things on people. Or feel them. I’m not sure what the right word is, but Pearl smells like a bonfire. And you smell like…” He hesitated.

Ariel stared him in the eye. “Say it.” He swallowed hard. Just saying it might make it real.

“You’re the wind.”

Ariel was poker-faced for a moment. “Let me get you two something to eat.” She stood up, bustling into the kitchen. The tension broke, and Pearl smiled at him.

“Good job. You impressed her.” Pearl smiled. “You didn’t favor the skills she thought you’d favor. She likes people who can surprise her like that.” Nash frowned, as Pearl brought out a plates. A large stack of pancakes, adorned with fresh strawberries, and sticky-sweet maple syrup, were placed in front of him. A cup of fresh green tea sat beside it. He considered asking for a cup of coffee, but the effervescent scent attracted him. He took a sip, and was glad he had. He felt suddenly calm, and clear-headed.

“So, Pearl.” Ariel moved back to the kitchen to get her food. “Do you have a gift for me?” he asked, a light smile on his face for what felt like the first time that day.

“Not quite yet. It’s not the right time, yet. You wouldn’t be able to handle it, anyway.” She frowned. “Things are going to go bad in this town. You’ll learn about the details over time. For now, concentrate on the investigation. You need to find the reason for all this if we’re to live through the week.”

Nash studied Pearl’s face. The bags under her eyes were deeper than they had been the day before. “Pearl. How much do you know about what’s really going on, here?”

Pearl smiled softly, a sad look in her eyes. “Everything.”

“And why can’t you just tell them? Why can’t you make them understand? Wouldn’t it be simple?”

“The information that you’re searching for has to be found in the proper order, to avoid something horrible happening. If the culprit is simply revealed, her motive given, there will be blood on the streets. This place will fall. And the world of humans and the world of stories will mix and flow, like candle wax. Humans will be preyed upon by monsters. Monsters will be preyed upon by Heroes. The truce will be broken, and we will be at each other’s throats again. A thousand years of peace will collapse overnight. You need to find the truth, and figure out the right way to solve this problem. And I am… constrained, from interfering directly.”

“Someone’s dead, Pearl. There aren’t a lot of happy solutions to a problem like this.” Nash cut out a chunk of pancakes. The sweet tang of strawberry and the smooth texture of the pancakes blended in his mouth. In spite of the darkness of the topic, he couldn’t help but enjoy the taste. It made things feel a bit better, for just a little while. How long had it been since he’d ate well regularly? How long had it been since he’d had anyone to care, to keep him from simply skipping meals and ignoring his body’s needs?

“I know. But I’m counting on you to find them. You’ve got to.” Pearl looked up, as Ariel arrived with her food, and took a seat. “Ariel. I wanted you to teach him, today. Things are going to get bad, and soon. People are already growing suspicious of one another.” Ariel nodded gravely.

“Meet me out back after you finish your pancakes, G-man.” Ariel stood up, removing her apron, and walked out through the back door of the restaurant. Nash treated himself to an extra strawberry. He’d been right about the band name, but he wouldn’t have taken Ariel for a Sonny and Cher fan. There’s a surprise. He stood up, and followed her, after taking one last sip of his green tea. He turned to Pearl.

“Today, we’re going to check out that shack. Without a body, without proof of this being a straight-up murder, I don’t think that I can get us any help from the FBI field office. The disappearance of the body will buy me a few more days, enough time to investigate, but we might as well be on our own out here. The more evidence we can find, the more of a case we can make, the more I can keep them off our backs. After I finish up with Ariel, I’ll meet your team out there, alright? I’ll walk over to the police department to pick up my car.” He paused for a moment. “I may not believe this bullshit about monsters and gods. There’s something strange going on here, maybe even supernatural, but that’s all beyond me. There’s been a crime committed. We’ll find out who’s responsible. And what happens then is going to be justice, not revenge.” With that, he strode through the back, and out into the broad, grassy, tree-filled lot behind the diner.

“The first thing I remember,” intoned Ariel, with the voice of one who was imparting a great wisdom. “Was the scent of a human. He shone with sweat, and had been walking many miles. I blew across him, and he bowed his head in gratitude, and thanked me, and called me Zephyr. I remember throwing a bolt of lightning, to lance a tree that displeased me. A man took an ember from it, and he said a prayer to me, and called me Thor. I remember filling the sails of men with air, to carry them across the great waters. And they worshiped me, and called me Aer. I am the wind, human. I am the wind that blows, that carries, that scourges, that soothes. The storm and the breeze. You have come to this place, and by doing so, you have made a prayer in my name, too. My gift is breath, and you could not live without me.” She had changed. It wasn’t visible, but the atmosphere made it obvious. She wasn’t some angry young woman, headstrong and rebellious. She was old, older than writing, older than civilization, older than life itself. She was the storm, and she was never trapped, because she could flow around any obstacle. You couldn’t catch her. You couldn’t tax her. You could only hope that when she passed, she would favor you a little. He swallowed. No wonder she’d had a bad attitude towards him.

“I didn’t take you for a martial artist, either.”

She snorted. “I’m not a martial artist. I am martial arts. One of the four great principles. I am the wind, and I am movement.” She shook out her shoulders, her back straightening. “Attack me.”

Nash was not an idiot. His entire childhood had been filled with this little trick. He gave her a frank look. “This is going to be painful, and humiliating, isn’t it?”

She smirked. “Of course it is. But it’s also going to teach you. Attack.”

He took a deep breath, and shifted his weight from foot to foot. Then, he swung. It was a bad strike. Aikido had taught him a few methods of striking, but they’d all been focused entirely on initiating an attack that would then be defended against. He aimed for her shoulder, without enough power to truly do any damage. She didn’t even bother to dodge as he struck her, his fist lacking any real energy. She gave him a dour frown. “I’m- I don’t like to hit people. It doesn’t feel good to hurt someone.”

“Ah, I see. Don’t have the guts to hit a woman, hmmm? Only the guts to shoot one dead?” She asked, her voice full of scorn. He winced, and wilted slightly. It was that or get angry. “You know the principles of Aikido. A counter is only as strong as the force behind the initial blow. You can’t do damage to someone who doesn’t want to do damage to you. So what exactly is it that you care about? What can I say that’s going to fill you with rage?” She studied his face, and frowned. “Disgusting. Heroes have passion, Nash. Fine, then.” She reached into her pocket, and took out a fruit knife. “Let’s see if we can harness your fear for your life, instead.” She extended the blade with a perfect knife-fighter’s stance, the light glimmering off the tiny, sharp piece of steel.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“That will make this very simple. Just stay still, then, while I stick you.” She lunged forward. and changed. She wasn’t a woman anymore. She was a sharp wind, a sandstorm, nothing but speed and cutting edges. His arms moved instinctively in response to the wind rushing around her. His hands closed around empty air, completely failing to pin her down. He looked down, and his tie was gone, leaving just a small knot of fabric wrapped around his throat. She was a person rather than a force once more, standing a few feet from him. She was holding the black silk tie in her off hand, a smirk on her face. “Not prescient, then. You’re just very, very fast. You can feel the disturbance in the air, the sudden movement, and react to it faster than any normal person could. But it can only give you so much warning, and you can only move so fast. If you run into someone faster than you…” She shook her head. “Movement is one of the four basic principles of martial arts. Knowing where to set your foot. Knowing the world around you. If you can sense it coming, and you can move quickly, you can avoid the blow. You can strike before your enemy.” She crossed her arms, and looked over across the lot. “See that tree, with the lightning burned branch near the top?” He nodded. “Run to it and back. Quick as you can.”

Maybe he could’ve been resentful, or angry. But it was familiar. Comfortingly so, really. A memory of childhood, and the hard times then. In one fluid movement, he was off and running. His lungs pulled air in easily, no matter how hard he ran. The weakness was in the acid that built up in his muscles, but over a brief sprint, that would be fine. He placed his feet carefully, trying to watch the ground. As his foot descended, halfway towards the tree, he felt a sudden apprehension. Half a second later, his foot should have hit the ground, and instead found nothing but empty air. He pinwheeled his arms wildly, and fell hard on his face, scraping his elbows. The wind rushed out of him in a single painful gasp. He panted for breath, eyes wide. “Did I say you could stop? Keep running, you’re on the clock!”

He scrambled to his feet. His ankle didn’t feel sprained, although he was stinging quite a bit. He began running again. Again, he felt the apprehension. This time, he lengthened his stride just a little bit. His heel caught on the root this time, and he shook, but kept his balance. “Keep going!”

The ground was treacherous. Full of little pits and gullies, hidden by a sea of grass that made everything look smooth and level. Roots waited to snare his feet. A rusty rake ready to break his nose if he stepped on it. All set up to force him to be careful. How had she known? Or did she just keep her back yard like this? “When you fight, your environment is always a part! If it’s not your ally, you can be damn sure it’s your enemy. You can’t look down at the ground to see where your feet are in the middle of a fight. You need a picture of your surroundings, so that you know where every step will take you, before your eyes fall on them! You can feel the wind, G-man! Why not act like it?!”

The run back went smoother. He could feel the gullies. The places where air was, instead of earth. His movement became more confident. He slipped a couple of times on dew-slick grass, but kept his feet beneath him as he moved. He stopped in front of her, panting, and she smirked. “No bad. Need a moment?” His legs were aching. His heart was pounding. But his breath came in smooth, steady movements, always drawing exactly as much oxygen as he needed. He stood up straight. “Good.” Once more, she vanished. She was elemental.. This time, his fingertips trailed across her arm, almost grabbing it as the knife flickered out. She pulled back, and his pants fell to the ground, hanging around his ankles, leaving him standing in a pair of cotton briefs. “Tighty whities? Damn, and here I was hoping you walked around in a leather thong. I thought G-men were supposed to be sexual deviants.” She smirked.

“Isn’t there supposed to be… You know, katas I should do for this kind of thing? Daily practice? Letting my muscles move without my brain thinking about it?” he asked. The buttons on his pants were gone. The entire zipper had been excised with a surgeon’s precision. Pulling them up would be an exercise in futility. He kicked them aside, freeing his legs, trying not to blush, and failing horribly.

“Sure. I’ll bet you know them. But I teach the fundamentals, in the most basic sense possible. You don’t have time for a lifetime of practice, G-man. You’ve got a couple of days, at most. You need to learn the hard way, which is with no practice at all. You’re going to learn with every lethal encounter you meet, and trust me, there will be plenty.” She put her hands on her hips. “Now-” He could see it coming. Even before she was moving, his hand reached out, and her hand was stopped, an inch from his face. His fingers were wrapped tightly around her wrist. She smirked. She’d been nothing but wind, but he’d caught her, turning her from a force of nature into a person again “Not bad.” Her other hand landed in his solar plexus. The wind was knocked out of him, and it refused to return. He was left choking and gasping, releasing her hand. She used it to smack him across the face. He spun, and landed on the ground.

She stood over him as his breath returned by degrees. “You’re going to be fighting a lot of women here, G-man. Every single one of them is going to be stronger, older, faster, and more willing to kill than you. You’d better not underestimate them. You’d damn well better be smarter than them, because it’s all you humans have. You need my power, and I don’t want you disgracing it, understand?” He nodded, and forced himself to his feet, standing slowly, exaggerating the tenderness of his movements. Then his arm blurred out, as the black rage fell over him. He hated when people mocked him.

His wild blow hit nothing but air. She was still standing, her body tilted just to the side. She’d moved only a couple of inches. Both of her hands were on his wrist. He felt the twist, and surrendered to it. His arm wrenched in its socket, and he was off of his feet, twirling through the air. An old instinct found him, and he slapped the ground as he fell, using his free hand. As his palm struck the grass, something surged inside of him. The grass around him flattened out, as a miniature cyclone swirled under him, cushioning the landing like an airbag. He barely even had the wind knocked out of him. Ariel stood over him, an eyebrow raised, a look of begrudging respect on his face. “Not bad. Not bad at all, G-man. What do you know? You might just wind up being able to do this, if you can keep learning.”

She sat down next to him. He elected to stay on the ground for a few moments more. “Why did you give me the gift?” he asked.

“The quest. I give my power to anyone who can prove themselves worthy of it. I’m the easy one. I’ll give a gift to anyone who will travel for it. You left your comfort zone, you explored, you took a chance and came here to Zion. That was the easy part. The hard part, now, is mastering the gift I gave you, because I’ll tell you this: I don’t accept anyone as a master. The gift is the same. If you can’t figure out how to work with me, then you’re going to die in this place.” She gave him a slow look, up and down. “What are the three lessons that you’ve learned from me, today?” She asked, crossing her arms.

He thought. He hated these questions. When someone had specific answers that they wanted, and expected you to read their mind. He took a breath, and tried to focus. He hated these questions, but this was important. “Don’t try to punch women?”

She smirked. “Not a bad one. You shouldn’t be punching at all. Aikido’s not about striking, or starting a fight. It’s about ending a fight. You let your enemy punch first.”

He frowned. “Watch where I’m walking?”

She barked out a laugh. “Yes! Know your surroundings. The wind can make you fast, but it doesn’t make you psychic. Feel what’s around you. And listen to those feelings. The ability to plan is one of the great talents of humans. And you’re damn well going to need it, if you don’t want to die. Now, the third one.”

He took a deep breath, and thought back to his mother. What was it she said…? “You don’t have to reach your opponent before he reaches you. You only have to get out of the way before he reaches you.”

Her expression suddenly became rather cold. “That’s right. If I take a swing at you, I’ve got to reach several feet. You only have to move just enough to be out of reach. Even if you’re slower than me-” The blow came suddenly. Both of them were sitting, but that didn’t make it any less vicious. He tilted away, head falling back. Her arm was fully extended, her fist where his nose had just been. He’d moved a fraction of an inch to avoid it. She smiled. “You just have to be fast enough to not be there anymore.” She stood up. “Think about these things. Keep thinking about them. Get faster. Use my gift well.” She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t misuse it. Or I’ll know.” The words hung in the air, as she walked back into the diner. He looked down at himself. Those pants had been a present from his instructor after his graduation from the academy. They’d been the nicest pair he owned. He was going to have to make a stop back at the hotel.

Chapter 5: Blowback

Mortification wasn’t the right word for the emotions he felt when he returned to the hotel, only to find Heather waiting for him. But it was the best word he had. The dark-skinned woman smiled kindly as he got out of the car. “Tough day?” she asked, as he stood in his briefs, his slashed tie hanging around his neck.

“You could say that. I’m sorry, but I really should get inside and change-” She laughed, and he was acutely aware of just how exposed he felt.

“Ariel plays rough with the boys she likes. Tell you what. Give me the damaged clothes. I’ll see if I can repair it for you. Sound good?” He flushed a bit. The offer was, to say the least, generous.

“No, it’s alright, I-” He stopped, as he saw the kind smile on her face. He took a deep breath. “That would actually be really kind of you. I can’t turn down your generosity.” Her smile became even brighter, as she walked over to him, undoing the knot of the damaged tie. It gave him a chance to feel the atmosphere around her. She was surrounded by the soft taste of clean spring water. The gentle gurgle of streams and water. Maybe that was what she was. Like Pearl, like Ariel. He considered asking her, and something, some intuition, told him it wasn’t the right time. He would have ignored it like he usually did, but intuition had been the only thing keeping him from getting himself killed for the last day. Something inside of him quavered at the idea of asking for more power from the strange women.

When Nash entered his hotel room, there was an envelope slipped under his door. ‘From Pearl’ was printed across the top. It contained a road map, with a spot marked on the beach. ‘Shack’ was written next to it in an elegant, angular hand. The route to the shack was a tangled and meandering forest road, leading out to the beach. It appeared to be built on the bluffs overlooking the sand. He frowned. There was a small-town charm to that sort of thing. Old, forgotten buildings where kids would get together for the foolish little private liaisons of youth.They probably had some really cute name for it. He sighed softly. He’d never had anything like that. But his own lack of love life wasn’t important at the moment.

He changed into fresh clothing. The training, exhausting though it had been, had reinvigorated him. Despite his lack of sleep, he found himself full of energy. Of course, he also was sore like few times before in his life. His legs were aching from the walk the day before in formal shoes. His face was scratched and stinging whenever he sweated. His knees and back ached from the blows that he’d taken. It had been a remarkably difficult couple of days. And in spite of it all, he felt strangely cheerful as he started the car. It was a bright, sunny day. The morning mist had dissolved under the sun, and now it was warm, but not unpleasantly so, and the sky was a fierce and magnificent blue. And he was going to track down the people responsible.

The main street branched off into a gravel road. The gravel became dirt. The dirt gave way to a rutted path through tall grass. And then sand, and two police cruisers. Officer Dio, a pair of deputies, and Pearl were visible, studying the shack. It stood on top of a small bluff. Large, jagged rocks were visible at the base of the hill, jutting out from the sand. Lake Ontario stretched out into infinity. The bluff was grassy, with a handful of trees providing shade and a windbreak from the lake. The shack itself was actually quite beautiful, made by someone with an eye for craftsmanship. It hadn’t been painted in a long time, but inside it was clean, dust-free, and the few pieces of furniture looked comfortable and well-cared-for.

Police tape surrounded the place. Bright yellow, it marred the romantic atmosphere. The deputies were busy, searching the inside of the shack. He grabbed a couple of latex gloves from a box atop a police cruiser hood, and joined them. It was slow, tedious work. Gathering hairs and flakes of dust that might be skin, dusting for prints. There was a small bed, stained with something that Nash wouldn’t particularly like to speculate about. Little things, that might give a hint of what had happened in this place.

“What does this place tell you, Nash?” Pearl asked, as she worked alongside him. “I know some of what happened here, but not the specifics. No naked flame to show me how, exactly, things went down.” He eyed her. That was a very interesting statement.

“Well, the shack obviously sees a lot of traffic. The grass outside is nearly trampled flat, so people must come by frequently. It looks like it’s has been cleaned recently, since there’s little dust on the surfaces. Not to mention that stain seemed relatively fresh. This would be a lot easier if we had gotten here right after the murder, though. We’ve got a week’s worth of decay.” He sighed. “You checked the footprints? Can you make heads or tails of them out there?”

She nodded. “Looks like they’re still somewhat fresh. There are three sets of shoe-prints out there, so we have at least three people here.” She shrugged. “It’s not exactly a distinctive piece of evidence. No way to place anyone on the scene. And no sign of a body being dragged anywhere, so if something happened to Dean in there, he was carried out bodily.” She sighed softly. The afternoon was still bright, and he gave her a bracing smile.

“We’ll give genetic evidence a shot. The people in this town have DNA, right?” he asked. Nash stopped for a moment, and considered the question he had just asked. It was amazing the kind of insanity you could get used to.

“Yeah. At least enough that they should be recognizable. They might raise a few questions if anyone studies the evidence a little too closely, but those can be smoothed over. It’ll give us an opportunity to prove who’s been here recently.”

“Alright. Next up is possible suspects. Ariel mentioned six people who had the kind of power necessary to animate the dead. Whoever did that was probably the one who tore open the police station and stole Dean Constantinou’s body. Even if they’re not, they would almost certainly know them. Who would have been physically powerful enough to actually do what was done to the station, as well as sic those skeletons on me?” He turned on his small flashlight, running the beam under the bed. The floorboards were in quite good shape for an old building like this. A small suspicion blossomed in his mind, and Nash frowned.

“Well, the Hell-Hound is Officer Crupky. She’s our jailer. She wasn’t in yesterday, she’s been out on leave lately, but I suppose that it’s entirely possible she was responsible. Physically, anyway. Mentally… She’s pretty rule-abiding. Izanami is the coroner. Both of them, however, have keys into the building. It would be odd for them to cause all that destruction. Particularly Izanami. Old lady Wendigo… She’d be strong enough if she’d eaten recently.” Pearl saw Nash’s expression, and smiled. “She doesn’t make her own meals anymore. Part of the truce. She… Well, I understand that she visits certain less-than-reputable mortuaries around the state.” Nash shuddered. That was more detail than he’d ever wanted to hear. “But why would someone want to bring the boy back?”

“Guilt. Trying to cover up their tracks. They owe someone a favor. They just want to try to fix this in the most direct way that they can. Whoever was trying to bring him back wasn’t having any success.” He shook his head. “We’re going to have to visit all three of them after we’ve checked this place out. Anything further that you’ve found?”

“Not yet.” The search continued late into the afternoon. As the sun began to set, Pearl yawned. Nash smiled. It was interesting to see that even a goddess could get tired with the tedious realities of police work. Maybe even a little endearing.

“I think we’ve picked this place pretty clean, but we’ll give it another look tomorrow. We’re also going to need to go interview the other kids at the school. We’ve only scratched the surface of this case. We’ll have to get in touch with those three…” He took out his keys. “Have one of the deputies drive my car back to the hotel, would you?” He looked around the shack. Three rooms. The bedroom, overlooking the lake. A small kitchenette with a camp stove. A larger living room, a pair of couches and an old book case stacked high with reading material. They’d looked through them, and nothing had stood out. Pearl frowned at him.

“You’re not going to come with us?” she asked, raising an eyebrow slowly. He grinned.

“I’ve got a hunch. I’m going to spend the night here. If there’s anyone still coming by this place, they’ll know we were here. It might spook them into removing something from the place if they think we’re gone. Don’t worry. I’ll stay safe.” He looked out. Across the lake, storm clouds were visible. “By tomorrow, whatever evidence is on the grass outside will be gone. Make sure that you’ve taken some pictures, at the least. We can use it as a comparison. Then…” He removed his jacket. “Give this to Sergeant Dio. In evening light, he might pass for me.” The gun hung reassuringly heavy in the holster under his armpit. Pearl frowned at it. Of course, it had been completely worthless last night, but habit was a hard thing to break. “I know. I don’t intend to fire it. But it might make our culprit think twice.” She nodded slowly, and frowned.

“You’re taking a hell of a chance here, Nash. You’re not ready for a real fight. You struggled against old bones, animated with a puff of necromantic energy. You’ve got a long way to go before you’re going to be able to stand up to anything in this town.” Nash bit back the anger and irritation. She was right. Even though it galled him, even though it burned in his chest. He hated feeling weak.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to fight. If I wind up in a confrontation, I’ll just bolt. Run all the way back home.” He laughed softly, the sound echoing weirdly in the confines of the shack. “The gift of breath seems uniquely suited for something like that. I guess it really knows the kind of person I am.” He gave her an encouraging smile. She didn’t return it. She just stared at him for a few seconds, and shook her head softly. The look on her face was unfamiliar, but it might have been an expression of concern for his safety.

The deputies, Dio, and Pearl left the building, returning to the cars. There was the sound of engines turning over, and the crunch of tires on the sand. Then, the world went blessedly quiet. Nash took a book from the bookcase. He smiled. An anthology of some comic or another. He didn’t recognize the artist, but he sat down in the kitchenette, hidden behind the wall. He took a seat, and breathed deeply, letting the tension drain out of him as he blended into the shadows. He could see out of the window, but here, nobody would see him. He began to read from the book, letting his mind drift while he waited. He was following intuition more than logical thought, at the moment. But there had already been one attempt at a cover-up. It seemed likely that another attempt would be made. And so, he let time pass.

He was rewarded when the shadowy figure detached from the trees three hours later. It glided forwards up the bluff as he watched. A gray hoodie was pulled over a young person’s figure. Slender, their identity disguised by the deep shadow of the hood. They didn’t look like either the robed figure that had appeared in the graveyard last night or anyone else that he had interviewed, but the evening was well into twilight, and it was difficult to make them out. Nash frowned, and placed the comic book down, withdrawing his gun from the holster. The figure was carrying a large jerrycan. He smiled, and wished that it didn’t feel like quite such a predatory expression. The door opened with a soft click. He stood out of view, and listened to the footsteps. There was the sound of liquid being poured out across the floor. He crossed his arms, leaning his head back against the wall as he checked the windows. If they started a fire right now, he’d be able to get out even if he was cut off from the outside. Then, he heard them walk into the bedroom. There was the sound of floorboards scraping. The smile grew a little wider, and he stepped through the doorway, drawing his gun.

The muzzle was leveled at the figure’s chest. A pink book was in one hand. The jerrycan was in the other. The figure froze, hands moving into the air, clearly shocked by his sudden appearance, and frightened by the gun. “Well. Seems that you thought there was something incriminating enough to be worth committing arson over. You know, the thing that really bothers me about this is that you’re taking this place away from the future. Think of all the kids who aren’t going to have a make-out shack.” He paused for a moment. “Hell, give me the book and the match, and I’ll burn the place down myself. I’m sure the parents of the town will thank me for the drop in teen pregnancies.” The figure was shaking like a leaf. They couldn’t have been older than a teenager. They were terrified of the suit-clad stranger with a gun, cracking awful jokes at them with no regard for their safety. What was possessing him to make jokes in a situation like this? “Alright. I’m going to make you a deal. You don’t turn into some kind of horrific monster, and I’ll put the gun away. Let’s talk.” He slid the gun into his shoulder holster. “What’s your name?” The figure was silent. He sighed. “Look, you’re clearly in some big trouble. You’re trying to destroy evidence, and that pink book looks important. Were you the one who killed Dean Constantinou?”

“No!” the figure whispered, outrage making their voice harsh. “He was my friend!” The whisper was urgent, hissed out between teeth. It gave no hint of gender, rasping in the darkness. “He wasn’t supposed to die, it all just-” The figure pressed their lips tightly together in the darkness. Soft lips. Feminine? Or just androgynous?

“Then you’re trying to protect someone. That’s a noble thing. But this isn’t the right way to do it. The longer this goes unsolved, the worse it’s going to become. There’s already a lot of people who are enraged about what happened. If they don’t get answers, they’ll start blaming people around them. Everyone will get hurt. I’m sure that’s not what Dean would have wanted.”

“What the hell do you know about it?” asked the soft voice, hissing. There was quite a lot of hiss in that voice, now. Nash could feel the tension growing. Snakebite. That was what killed Dean Constantinou. “You want the book, keep it.” The figure tossed the book. Nash moved on reflex, grabbing it out of the air, and the figure struck him in the midsection in a diving tackle. They were much heavier than they should be. There was a flash of lightning, and the heavens opened up. Rain began falling violently, hammering the shack’s roof, rattling the windows as thunder rolled through the clouds. In the brief flash, Nash saw the way the figure’s legs were melding, fusing, flowing together like wax. They grew together into a tail, massive, scaled, and terrifyingly strong. It swooped around him, and he pulled his knees up to his chest.

It was probably the only thing that saved him from having his body snapped in two. With his legs straining against the tail, he managed to keep his ribs from cracking under the pressure. White teeth gleamed in the light of the flashes of lightning. Tears were painting his assailant’s cheeks. That made him feel bad about what he was about to do. The figure leaned over him seemed powerful as their snake-tail wrapped tightly around him, squeezing him to death. But those fingers looked awfully delicate. His assailant was young. They were scared. They were trying to protect either themselves or a close friend. But he could feel his spine creaking and groaning under the pressure he was under. And the rage blossomed forth inside of him, washing away any hesitations or uncertainty. He reached out and fastened his fingers around the teenager’s right pinky.

There was no gradual bending, no slow extension of the joints to give the snake time to rethink their actions. He twisted his wrist sharply, and was rewarded with an agonized scream from his assailant. He wondered if they’d ever before felt the kind of pain he had just inflicted on them. But the coils loosened, giving him room to breathe. He twisted the finger further, and felt the tail unwind from his midsection. The teenager was sobbing. He let go of the finger, and that proved to be a terrible mistake, because the snake lunged forward, and sank sharp teeth into his arm. He let out a cry of anger, his blood boiling as the teeth pulled free. Something green and fizzling dripped onto the ground.

Nash had heard about snakebite. It was supposed to be extremely painful in most cases, though this was not. As the figure stretched and grew in front of him, he slipped the pink book into his pocket. He’d never heard of a hallucinogenic snake venom. But as the hoodie flared like a cobra hood around the figure’s head, revealing a face full of rage and pain, tears streaming down their face, he suspected he might not be able to trust his eyes. He raised his hands, feeling his fingers flow together and separate like hot, melting wax. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. That was going to make identifying his assailant difficult.

The figure was female, but he couldn’t be sure how much of that was imagination as she was also now ten feet tall. Her head was surrounded by a vast scaly hood with two large white eye-shapes visible on it, and the tail ended in a rapidly shaking rattle. His mind was doing loops, trying to interpret patterns, and making an almighty mess out of them as it did. She lunged, and grew rapidly as she did. The perspective was screwed up. First she was ten feet tall, then twenty, then fifty, then a hundred, until one of her sharp fangs was as large as him. He braced himself. Even in the midst of the hallucinations, his reflexes were still sharp. He seized the tooth with two hands, and twisted his hips. It was a tremendous effort, but he swung her up, into the air, and over his shoulder. The doorway from the bedroom into the living area of the shack had changed. It had become a vast, cyclopean door, and the massive snake-woman flew through it, landing in a crumpled heap in a shallow sea of slick rainbows that filled the room. She stood up, and panted, facing him, her hands up, nails sharp like talons. The jerrycan had changed, becoming a tremendous skull, more of the slick rainbow liquid dripping out of its empty eye sockets, and from between its teeth.

Behind her, the woman in red stood, smiling. She ran a finger across her throat, winking suggestively. He swallowed hard, and screamed defiance at her. “I’m not going to kill her! You can’t make me do that, you psychotic bitch!” The woman in red’s mouth opened in a soundless laugh, as the snake woman stared at him, obviously perplexed. She tilted her head, as he started approaching her. She slithered back, her eyes opening wide. “Surrender. For your own good. I don’t know what you are, but you can still walk away from this.” Uncertainty filled her eyes. Then, he saw it. The woman in red grinned. Her dark skin contrasted with that bright red hair, as she took out a book of matches. “No!” The snake woman looked surprised, even as the woman in red lit the match. It flared into life, a screaming inferno surrounded by wailing souls. The floorboards of the room screamed in terror, the faces of ten thousand memories of happier times watching in horror as the match tumbled through the air. The snake woman bolted away from him, towards the entrance. Fire erupted, volcanic heat pounding through the shack. The rainbow liquid ignited instantly, and a crackling fire of many colors filled the air. It was crawling towards the skull at a lightning pace. Nash turned, and ran to the window, shattering the glass with the butt of his gun.

He stared down. A black abyss awaited him. He knew that it couldn’t have been that far to the sand below. Twenty feet? Thirty? Fifty? More? Not that it mattered with the flames behind him. He leapt from the window, just as the flames reached the skull. A howl of despair filled the air, so loud it went beyond sound, and became pain and a bone-rattling vibration. He swirled in the air, tumbling into the abyss. Time stretched out impossibly. He should have landed by now. It was further than he thought. He was going to fall on his head. He’d break his neck. He’d die, and he would never know why all of this was happening. He had fucked it all up, and now, he was going to pay the price for thinking he could make a difference in the world. That was what always happened to humans who thought they had control. That was what he deserved. He closed his eyes, and waited for karma to take him.

Silas Nash stopped falling. It was a much gentler landing than he expected. He opened his eyes slowly, and found himself in Ariel’s arms. The slender young woman seemed to have no trouble catching him, and she set him on his feet with equal ease. Her usual outfit was gone, replaced with a slender white toga. Rain was falling, cool and soothing on his fire-flushed skin. He was stinging from the explosion, but he was alive. He stood among the rocks at the base of the bluff. They seemed to stretch up around him like spires, and he couldn’t see the top of the bluff, the small hill disappearing into distant clouds in his poison-twisted brain. Lightning flashed around him, as the rain splattered against his face. Ariel smiled softly, as she stood next to him. “Why do you hate me?” he asked. It was a rather foolish question to ask a hallucination, he knew. But something inside of him yearned to know. She laughed softly, an angelic noise. There was no mockery in it. She leaned forward, and pulled his arm over her shoulder as the two of them began walking. It was a long way into town.

“I don’t hate you, Nash. If I hated you, I wouldn’t be protecting you. I would have let you break your neck on the rocks. I am angry with you. You don’t believe in people. You don’t care about people. You don’t leave yourself vulnerable enough to be hurt that way. You fold when someone confronts you emotionally, and how long can you go, cringing back from that? Why is the only time you’re honest about who you are when you’re fighting for your life?” She laughed again, and was gone.

He walked. It seemed to take an eternity to reach the place where the cars had been sitting. Pearl was standing there. She was wearing a solid bronze breastplate with an exaggerated man’s muscular physique, a centurion’s helmet under her arm, a plated skirt covering her legs. Sandals were strapped around her legs, and a weary smile clung to her lips. He kept walking, and she fell into step next to him. He watched as she walked, and began to imitate her. The smooth, swaying movements of the legs came easy, a steady pace that took all of the strain off of his movements. A policeman’s proceeding. Not something they taught at Quantico. Together, they walked along the small, rutted path through the forest. He could hear the roar and crash of waves fading in the distance, as rain fell from the sky. Trees lined the path on either side of them. Darkness seemed to well up out of the deep forest, slinking along the ground like mist. It poured over the edges of the dirt track, and sloshed around his feet like insubstantial oil.

“Why don’t you help?” he asked, as the two of them walked. She smiled softly.

“I do help. I help in all the ways that I can. But there are rules. They’re a part of me. They keep me from acting. You’re a human. The only rules you obey are the ones in your head, and you can discard them any time you like. The rules that tell you killing is wrong. The rules that tell you that you’ll never achieve anything. All of them. The rules in my head… They’re not mine. They’re the rules you’ve imposed on me.” She sighed. “It’s so hard watching humanity suffer. I would make it all better, if you’d let me. Warm those who are dying in the cold. We could help all of you, if you’d just believe in us.”

He snorted. Something inside of him rebelled at that offer. Of being coddled. “What, we should pray to gods to help us? You don’t think we can accomplish it on our own?” He looked over towards her, and to his surprise, tears were running down her cheeks, even as she smiled. She rubbed at them with one hand.

“Of course you can accomplish it on your own. You don’t need us. Not in the way that we need you. But can’t you let us help you? We want to, you know.” She was silent for a moment. “I want to.” He felt horribly awkward as she kept crying. He couldn’t reach out and embrace her. The heat that bled off her would consume him. So they simply walked together in the cold downpour. The tears began to mix with the rain, and then, they seemed to disappear. “We’ve always been there for you. Every tool that humans made. And I was there right from the beginning. I’ll tell you the story of it, someday.” She smiled. “You don’t trust us. That’s alright. Because I trust you.”

“Why?”

“Can’t tell you.” And with that, she was gone, leaving him standing in the darkness, wondering whether she couldn’t tell him because she wasn’t allowed, or because she didn’t know.

He walked on for another eternity in the night. It might have been a whole ten seconds. His heart was growing slower, and pain stabbed at it with each step. Dean Constantinou was sitting on a rock by the side of the path. Megara Drakos, her eyes downcast, stood on the other side. They weren’t looking at one another, but as Nash walked past them, they fell into line with him, flanking him on either side. “She never loved me, you know,” said Dean. It was the voice of a young man, petulant and angry.

“I was as good a mother as I knew how. And I have had more experience than anyone in motherhood. The boy simply did not understand the nature of this place. He did not understand why his father could find happiness with me, after his birth mother had died. He was an ungrateful child.”

“She didn’t tell me. She’s the reason I’m dead.” Dean spoke accusingly. The boy had a brooding look, his skin pale with death. The scent of entropy lingered around him like rancid nothingness.

“Why did you die?” Nash asked, looking at Dean.

“Because I didn’t know enough. Be careful, it’s a contagious kind of death.”

“Was he supposed to die?” Nash asked, looking to his other side, towards Megara. Her eyes were those of a snake, golden, slitted, predatory.

“Yes.” Nash frowned at that answer.

“Did you kill him?”

She turned her eyes towards him. They showed the truth. She was tormented beyond words “I did. I did not want to, but I did. He died because of me. How can I live with his father, knowing what I have done?” Her voice was empty, haunted. There was a bark of laughter from Nash’s other side. He turned, and no one stood there, Dean already vanished like a mist. He looked back, and Megara was gone too. His heart was beating very slowly, now, despite his exertions. He didn’t have long. His fingers were twitching constantly. He could feel a bit of saliva running down his chin. He was losing control of his body. The poison inside of him was doing its work, slowly but surely. He kept placing one foot down in front of another. For another subjective eternity, that was all he did, lost in the constant movement.

“He was going to be a great man when he grew up.” Nash lifted his head. Harry stood in front of him. Broad-shouldered, a log was slung under one arm, the axe at his side. He wore a lion’s skin over his shoulders, the empty eye-sockets of the big cat meeting Nash’s. Shaggy black hair emerged from the mouth of the lion like a frozen spire of oily vomit. He turned to walk beside Nash, as the two of them strode. “They say no man should have to bury his son. But every time I live, I marry, I love, I have children, and they are taken from me.” The man laughed, a sound that was unexpectedly hearty. “They say that one cannot be a hero without adversity. And life delights in giving me adversity.” The man looked askance at him. “If I were to ask you to bring him back, would you think it an unreasonable request?”

The question was absurd. Dean was dead. But Nash thought about the question. “Is there a reason that he should live? So many other people die every day, murdered, their lives stolen away. What makes your son different? Why does he deserve to have life, when nobody else does? When my mother didn’t?”

Harry was quiet for a long time, as they walked. “I suppose that is a good point. I am used to tragedy. I cannot claim a right to be excepted from it. But there is someone out there with a worthy need for Dean to be alive. His murderer. Consider it, not for my sake, but for theirs.” Nash’s head sank. Could the real Harry have been so forgiving?

“You’re dying.” He looked up. The robed figure from the previous night was walking next to him. “That’s a shame. You couldn’t have done that a little earlier, when I could have saved you?” The voice was still indistinct, gravelly, with a strange echoing effect, as though the same words were being repeated by a dozen people at once. “Do you even know why you are here? It is not for justice. If you had never come here, then that boy would already be alive again, in my tender care. Why do you fight? Why not just lie down, and die?” He had to admit the voice was persuasive. His body certainly seemed to think so, as his legs gave out from under him. He didn’t fold. He simply collapsed forward, landing face-first on the thick gravel of the ground. His face hurt. He lay there for several long minutes, his heart beat slower, and slower. He could hear it growing weaker. The poison finally taking him. What was the point in struggle?

“It should have been me.” A soft voice whispered. He recognized it. The soft, tearful voice of Isabelle. She rested a hand on the back of his head. “It should have been me who died. You are a decent man, Mister Nash. Please, stand up. You need to get up. You need to make things right. I cannot. Nobody else can. Please!” Her touch disappeared, and he listened to the lack of sound where his heartbeat should be, as the world grew cold around him. It wasn’t his problem. It wasn’t his responsibility. This awful, horrible place had killed him, far from home, without ever meaning anything. He didn’t owe the people a god damned thing.

A hand tightened around his shoulder. He was pulled upwards, hauled to his feet by someone inhumanly strong. But who here wasn’t inhuman or strong? Then he caught a glimpse of red hair. Luminous red hair. He struggled weakly in the grip, and was set on his feet. He faced the woman in red, and she smiled. Shining steel teeth, stained red with blood, lipstick, or both, glittered in the night. “Come and get me,” she whispered. Her voice was filled with the clash of steel on steel, the concussion of explosives, the ringing of tinnitus, the screams of men. It was a nightmare voice, the voice that incited him on to violence. He lunged, his heart pounding like a kettle drum, and she danced backwards out of his grip as he stumbled and tried to keep on his feet. The anger inside of him made his heart pound a staccato beat against his ribs as he ran. She laughed like a hyena, a wild and untamed sound. He reached out for her, as his feet crunched on gravel. The two of them ran together through the forest, through the shadow that sloshed across the ground, and between trees that reached into the sky, tearing open jagged, bleeding wounds in the velvet-black flesh of the night sky. She stayed always just a little beyond him, and he raged as she did.

The forest parted. Before him, a great conical tent sat in the midst of a great grassy lot. Fires burned within, lighting the place of healing. He stumbled towards it as smoke rose from an open flap near the top. There was an aura of holiness that surrounded the structure, calling to him gently. There, standing in the entrance, was a woman. She wore a white leather hide, the hide of a buffalo, across her shoulders. A long pipe was held in one hand, a bowl at its tip, smoke dancing upwards in elaborate patterns. She turned towards him, her head tilted. “Jesus, are you alright?” Her voice was gentle, with a bit of gravel in it. He stumbled towards her, and fell down. He could hear shouting, and then nothing.

Chapter 6: Miasma

The sun shone down on Lake Ontario. It was the end of summer, school was only just beginning, and Cassandra was playing hooky with Kintaro. He had been reluctant at first, complaining, but she’d been able to browbeat him until he’d agreed to meet her out here. it was a perfect Monday for fishing, and the two of them sat together on the small raft. Kintaro checked his phone for the twentieth time, and Cassandra let out an aggravated sigh. “If your mom’s going to call you, wouldn’t you not want to answer? Come on, Kintaro! Show some guts!” She smirked at him over her shoulder, and shame-faced, he placed it back on the surface of the rubber raft.

“I just don’t want her to worry, alright?” His voice was soft. Most people didn’t think much of Kintaro. They bullied him, they excluded him, they didn’t understand him. But she did. More than anyone else, she knew what he was capable of. And she loved him for it, even if she got frustrated by what a wimp he could be. She could **see** him.

She wasn’t sure when she’d first started **seeing** people. It seemed like as as long as she’d been alive, she’d been able to see who people really were. Like a shadow, but with color, and definition. Her father’s shadow was a towering man, with a huge gut, a sleepy expression, and skin as red as a boiled lobster. Two huge horns emerged from his forehead, and every time they were at a party, and someone had alcohol out, he’d stare and lick his lips with the expression of a hungry dog. Then he’d look at Mrs Hirosata, and the shadow would cringe with embarrassment.

Her mother’s shadow looked a lot like her mom. Short, petite, not particularly frightening, except for her eyes. Her irises were the color of steel, gray and deadly. When she was angry, they grew cold, and the shadow dropped into a fighting stance. When she bared her teeth, they were sharp, like a cat’s. Cassandra admired her mom. Nobody ever messed with her when she was angry. Cassandra tried to be as much like her as she could. She’d brought up the shadows to her mother, once. Her mother had gone stiff, but a fierce, iron-toothed smile had shown on the face of the shadow. Cassandra didn’t mention the scar, though. The missing breast. It reminded her of Miss Content, who had gotten cancer, and who had needed to get a mastectomy. She didn’t quite know what it meant that her mom shared that scar. Sometimes, the shadows told what was going to happen to people in the future. Sometimes it said what had happened to them in the past. Cassandra had gotten very interested in mammograms after learning about that, and she insisted that her mom get one every six months. Not that her mom ever listened to her. Nobody did.

Kintaro’s shadow was golden. Its skin glowed in the sunlight. She could see the strength in his shadow. He was going to be a hero like nobody else. And she was going to be there along his side. The two of them would be like Mister Constantinou and his wife, or her own parents. They’d go out into the world, together, and do great things, and nobody would ever be able to tell them what to do, or hold them back. The fierce smile on her lips hurt a little, it was so wide. Then, the fish tugged at her line, and she began pulling. Kintaro looked over his shoulder at her, and grabbed on to help. His arms were around her shoulders. The two of them struggled with the fish, as she reeled it in. He held her in place, and she reeled, pulling the rod back as the raft tilted under them.

Finally, the fish came out of the water. Forty inches long, wriggling and writhing wildly, it struggled furiously. Then it spoke to her. “Please! Young lady! I am a prince, transformed, into a-” She groaned, sliding the fishhook out of its mouth. She threw it back into the water. Half the fish she caught nowadays used that trick. Honestly, she didn’t want any wishes. Everything she wanted out of life was already hers. She simply didn’t want to eat anything that could talk back to her. And they always screamed when she took out the knife gut them, which always convinced her to throw them back.

Kintaro stared. He was dressed in a white tank-top, and a pair of shorts, the same thing that she was wearing. “Cassandra! That fish was huge! We could’ve cooked it for lunch-” She shook her head, and gave a long-suffering sigh. It was hard being the only person who could understand these things. Kintaro was going to be great someday, but for now, he asked way too many questions.

“Kintaro, it wasn’t a good fish. Trust me on this. It would’ve just made life more difficult.” She grinned over her shoulder at him. Then, she shoved him off the raft. The boy sputtered as he fell into the water, splashing and kicking. She giggled as she took the paddle, and began paddling furiously back to shore as he swam after her. She paddled as hard as she could just to keep ahead of him, giggling wildly as his fingers scrabbled for purchase on the raft’s slick rubber. Whether it was to dump her into the chilly water or climb aboard didn’t matter. She was going to have her fun with him. He needed a little fun in his life. She knew how others at their school would pick on him, because he was soft spoken, and refused to protect himself. For just a moment, she entertained the mental image of Kintaro turning on those bullying bastards, and making them pay. But he never would. She sighed, and smiled as she kept rowing. That was a part of what she liked about him, though.

She saw shadows of everyone in the town. Like Mister Constantinou, whose shadow wore a bear-skin, and carried a club. Or the local deli store owner, who had a shadow like a giant shaggy ape, which breathed out winter mist and always had a man’s arm in her hand. She had asked her father about that once, and he had told her that she had an active imagination. When he did, though, the big man that was his shadow had gulped and cast his eyes over to Cassandra’s mother. They always lied to her because she was a teenager. As though she couldn’t handle the truth, if she saw it. She giggled as she landed on the sand, grinning as she ran inland. Kintaro was still wading up out of the water, but he’d catch up with her soon enough. That was okay, too. He still didn’t stand a chance at wrestling with her, and he always got really embarrassed when he tried. She wasn’t proud, she’d take any advantage she could get in putting him in his place. It wouldn’t do to be too obvious that she liked him, after all. She sprinted into the sand dunes, laughing merrily. The sun sparkled down on a perfect day.

It became obvious that something was wrong when he hadn’t caught up with her in a few seconds. She stood at the top of the bluff, and looked back. Kintaro was standing at the bottom of the small valley between the two bluffs, staring at a patch of grass. Cassandra slid down the side of the slope, sand running across her bare feet. It burned a bit under her heels, but she was at the bottom of the valley in seconds. Tears were glistening in Kintaro’s eyes. She followed his gaze to the patch of grass.

It was strange that she’d missed it when she’d run past it. Dean Constantinou was instantly recognizable in his letterman jacket. Laying on the ground, one arm stretched out. The thick-packed sand and grass obscured him slightly, but there was no question that it was him. His head was tilted to the side. His eyes stared at nothing. He wasn’t breathing. She reached forward, and touched his hand. It was cold. And there was a smell around him. It reminded her of when she had found a dead deer in the woods. The deer had seemed whole, but there was a smell like rancid meat in the air. She had reached down, to try roll it around onto its back, and she had seen just a hint of red. She had known, somehow, that it would have been too terrible to see the thing, hollowed out, and what nature was doing to it. The same feeling filled her, now. So she wrapped her arms tightly around Kintaro, hugging him, as much to calm herself as him. “Do you have your phone?” He nodded, eyes full of tears. He was such a soft-hearted person. It was part of why people picked on him. It was part of why she cared about him. “Call the police, okay?” He nodded, slipping the phone out of his pocket, and dialing. They’d get in trouble, but that wasn’t important. The perfect day had turned rotten and hollowed out, just like the deer.

The police arrived in no time. They’d been disbelieving at first on the phone, but Kintaro had persisted, and Chief Pearl had been notified. She always took them seriously. A fiery-eyed centurion stood behind her, the shadow of who she was. Sergeant Dio was walking alongside her. His shadow was a curly-haired man, wearing nothing but a cape and a spear. Cassandra didn’t look. **Seeing** was an embarrassing thing to have to live with sometimes, but right now, her mind was on the dead body. They were pulling on gloves, moving to kneel next to Dean. “No! Please, don’t- don’t roll him over.”

Sergeant Dio frowned at her. “Cassandra, we need to check him. See if we can find anything. You don’t have to watch.” He crouched down next to Dean. Cassandra watched, her heart pounding, her breath catching in her throat, as the boy was rolled over. Dean flopped limply onto his back, and a great snake hissed wildly beneath him. It lunged at the officer.

Cassandra came to. Her head was on Kintaro’s lap, as he looked into her eyes with obvious concern. She shook him off, grunting at him as she sat up. The two police officers were lifting Dean’s body into a body bag, and zipping it up. She watched those cold, glassy eyes. She and Kintaro were gently ushered into Pearl’s cruiser, and allowed to sit together on the front seat, although the seat belt couldn’t quite zip across both of them. “Are we in trouble for skipping school?” Kintaro asked nervously, his eyes down on his lap.

“I won’t worry your mother about it. I know that she’s not in the best shape, and the skipping school can be an important part of growing up.” Pearl gave the two of them a stern look. Cassandra met her gaze. She never shied away when an adult tried this trick on her. Kintaro couldn’t make eye contact with the police chief, though. “Make sure it’s in moderation, though.” Cassandra nodded, leaning against Kintaro. “Did you two kids see anyone? Was there any sign of a struggle?”

Cassandra shook her head. “No, Chief Pearl. We didn’t see anyone else, and it looked like he’d just fallen down there.” The police officer frowned down at her. Cassandra knew it was strange for her to show that much respect for authority. Maybe the sight of Dean lying there had affected her more than she had thought. She’d actually passed out. Swooned, like some kind of wimp. The very idea of it was a little bit embarrassing. But Dean was… her mind twisted. He was dead. The very idea hurt. “Are you going to catch the person who did this?”

Pearl was quiet for a moment. “Cassandra, what makes you think that this was a murder, and not just an accident? There hasn’t been a murder in this city as long as it’s been around.” Cassandra gritted her teeth.

“Don’t fuck around with me!” she shouted, the anger blossoming. Kintaro went pale, and Pearl looked surprised. But Cassandra hated this. Being treated like an idiot. Being treated as if she couldn’t possibly understand what was happening. Being treated as if she couldn’t see the monsters and the heroes in the city. “He’s dead, and it’s someone’s fault! I know it, because I could see it on him! There was a snake under him, and it’s the one that was responsible for his death! We’ve got to do something about this! He’s dead, and you can’t just let that stand, because things are going to become horrible if you do! I know it, the same way I know that you’re burning inside!” She pointed an accusatory finger. Pearl’s expression didn’t change, but that fiery shadow’s face went wide-eyed, flames licking out of the corners of her lips. “And the same way I know you were surprised when I said that!”

“Kintaro. I’m going to drop you off. Then, I’m going to chat with Cassandra a bit, and drop her off. Give her parents a call, so they know that she’s okay.” Kintaro opened his mouth, clearly about to protest. Not willing to stand up to bullies when they shoved him, but willing to stand up for Cassandra to the chief of police, defiance in his eyes. Cassandra reached out, and rested a hand on his shoulder, the anger leaving her as quickly as it had arrived..

“It’s okay, Kintaro. I’ll be fine. Go see your mom, okay? This is between me and Pearl.” She smiled encouragingly at him. He gave her a doubtful look, but sighed, and nodded. She also liked when he could take a hint. She didn’t need him to protect her. Not at the moment, anyway. The car stopped in the suburban lot where they lived together. Kintaro got out of the car, giving her one last doubtful look. She smiled bracingly at him, and he walked to the front door. The car continued driving. The car stopped at the beach-side, and Pearl got out, taking a pack of cigarettes with her. “I didn’t think you smoked, Pearl.” Cassandra climbed out of the car. Pearl sat on the hood, lighting the cigarette with a flick of a finger. There wasn’t a lighter in her hand. Cassandra reached out for the pack, and Pearl gave her a long, hard stare. “Sheesh. Fine. It’s been a long day for me, too, you know.” Pearl’s look told her that Cassandra’s day could have included a visit to a serial killer’s torture-dungeon, and it still wouldn’t have been long enough to earn a cigarette. The girl sat against the car’s hood, an annoyed frown on her face.

“You know the story of Cassandra?” Pearl asked. The young woman frowned up at Pearl. “I’ll take that as a no. Greek legend. A real good one. The god Apollo decides that he wants to seduce a woman. Being a god, he does so by giving her the gift of prophecy. Gods can afford to get really flashy gifts like that. The problem was, Cassandra had sworn to be a virgin for all her life. To honor him, ironically enough. She refused him. So he spat in her mouth, and cursed her to never be believed when she foresaw the future. She spent most of the Trojan War, warning everyone who was around that they were going to get their city destroyed. She warned Paris about Helen, warned the people of Troy about her, warned them about the Trojan Horse, and warned Odysseus about his long journey home. She warned them all, and nobody listened.” Pearl looked at her. “How do you tell the difference between a seer who is never believed, and a fraud?”

Cassandra stared. It was just a name, it didn’t mean anything. Pearl puffed a couple of times on the cigarette before she continued. “You’ve not been told the truth about the city yet, though. I know that your parents wouldn’t break that rule. And you saw me for what I really am.” Pearl puffed again, sighing. “I told your parents it would be a godawful mess if they got married.” The chief frowned, the cigarette flaring, smoke wrapping around her head. Fire burned in the mouth of her shadow, a halo of black smoke forming around the helmet. It always looked like someone had attached a janitor’s broom to the crown of the helmet. “I’m going to call in a favor. I think that I can get someone from outside of the city here. A champion. Because Her hand is in this whole thing.” She puffed at the cigarette. “Try to stay out of this, alright? Cassandra didn’t have a very happy life, because she couldn’t hold back her warnings. You’ve got to be more subtle about it than her. People get wiggy when you tell them that things are foretold. Even in this city.” She smiled softly. “You’re probably right about what you see coming. I know that won’t be much comfort when nobody believes you. But you found Dean, and you might have enough foresight to keep safe.” She sighed softly. “Alright. You want a ride home?”

Cassandra was staring out at the lake. “What? No, no- That’s okay. I have something I want to do out here, actually, while I’m here. I…” She looked up at Pearl. “So, nobody believed her when she warned them?”

Pearl chuckled. “No. She almost burned down and chopped open the Trojan Horse, in fact. She could’ve spoiled Odysseus’ plan before it ever got off the ground, if her own people hadn’t stopped her. Sometimes, you can’t just tell people what’s going to happen. You’ve got to show them for yourself.” Cassandra nodded, absently, as Pearl put out the cigarette, and climbed back into the car. Then, she ran down the beach. When she reached the place where she’d been with Kintaro, the raft was still there. She checked the box of bait. Still plenty. She pushed out onto the lake, paddling hard. She stared down into the waters, as she lifted the fishing rod. She sat for the better part of half an hour, casting and re-casting, until she got a bite. The fish came twirling out of the water as she reeled it in.

“Can you talk?” she asked, grasping the fish firmly just below its gills. It was a sparkling salmon, eyes wild.

“Yes, child, I am a transformed god! If you will throw me back into the water-“

“Can you bring Dean Constantinou back from the dead?”

“Of course, my child, of course-“

“That’s my wish. Bring him back. Alright?” She unhooked the fish, tossed it into the water, and watched it dart away, scales shining like gems in the water. She took a deep breath, and baited the hook again, casting it out. And so she fished, for hours, until the sun was setting, wishing on fishes. She knew that it probably wouldn’t do a damned thing. But it was the only productive idea she had.

The next day, the entire school was full of teary-eyed people. Everyone expressing their grief openly. Dean had been a beloved figure for nearly everyone in the school. A stranger to the town, not born here, but charming and kind. His death had been a blow. She looked around the large auditorium. They’d been called in to hear from Megara Drakos, the twelfth grade teacher. The great serpent shadow, a woman with the body of a snake, stood behind Megara. Tears streamed down the soft blue cheeks of the principal’s shadow, eyes red-rimmed and shoulders heaving. A red-scaled tail twisted and revolved, the tail of a great snake which lashed across the entire stage, obviously agitated. Megara herself showed none of it. She stood sternly at the front of the auditorium, and gave a speech, explaining that Dean had been found dead, that he would be gravely missed. A whole bunch of words that meant nothing at all, hiding her real feelings. Cassandra scanned the crowd. There they were. Isabelle and Susan, the two girls who had been the closest friends with Dean. They sat close together, whispering. Their shadows were intertwined, a pair of serpents, one white, one green. Cassandra had never seen the two shadows so close together. She frowned inwardly, as the speech continued. The small notepad in her hands was full of observations. She paid attention to the people in the school. The ones whose shadows were behaving strangely. And she wrote it all down.

She wasn’t entirely sure what she’d do with the information. Pearl didn’t seem to be able to do things on her own. Every time that Cassandra walked past her, the chief’s shadow was robed in more and more chains, locks latching them around her body. They seemed to drag her down, making her posture stooped, and weighing heavily even on the shape that everyone could see. Nobody else seemed to know how to fix this. But she’d heard a few rumors. Her parents had been talking about an FBI agent being called in. She thought she might give them to him.

A week passed, and she gathered her evidence. She was sitting in the diner one morning, when the stranger walked in. Technically, she was supposed to be at school. She’d decided to visit the diner instead for breakfast. The man drew her eyes for two reasons. First, he had no shadow. Everyone she’d met, even perfectly normal people passing through, had a shadow that she could **see**, even if it was sometimes just themselves. Second, he had no face. He had the suggestion of a face, but his eyes were gone, open sockets covered by drooping lids. His lips were absent, leaving teeth exposed. His cheeks were split wide open, revealing molars. His nose had been chopped away, leaving nothing but a pair of slits in his face. He had no ears. He sat there, a maimed thing, and she sat tightly in her booth, her whole body shaking as she tried to hide. She stared down at the notepad. Her heart pounded as her nails dug into the table-top. She waited, glad that she was out of view, pressing her back into the faux leather. “Lemme know when you’ve picked out your order, G-man. Try not to make a federal case out of it, alright?” asked Ariel.

“I’ll just have coffee and scrambled eggs.” His words came out in a slow, hissing croak, as though someone had taken a pipe cleaner to his voicebox. Nobody who looked like that should be able to speak. They shouldn’t be able to live. The conversation continued as Cassandra quavered in her seat. How could Ariel not see it? Why hadn’t the strange, spritely woman screamed at the sight of him?

“You figured out a place to stay while you’re here on whatever government business?”

“FBI, actually.” Her heart sank. It was him. This was the person who Pearl had called in to help.

When he finally left, she snuck out the back. She had her phone out in a minute, calling Pearl’s number. It rang a few times, and then the voice-mail received it. “Pearl. This guy you called in. Whoever he is, he’s bad news. He just arrived at the diner, and he doesn’t have a face, or a shadow, or anything. I think there’s something seriously wrong with him.” She snapped the phone shut, and went to the school. She arrived just before the bell. By the time lunch came around, she calmed somewhat. She and Kintaro ate their lunch together, and she traded him the stuffed grape leaves her mother made for one of the cucumber sandwiches his mother packed for him. She had almost managed to forget about the man by the time she returned home.

The door bell rung. Cassandra sat up from her desk, moving to the stairs, homework momentarily forgotten. “…about the circumstances of his death.” floated up from the stairwell. She walked down, and looked out the door. Pearl was standing there, talking with her parents.

“Mom. It’s alright.” She gave Pearl a grin. “Hey, Pearl.”

“Chief Pearl, Cassandra. What happened to your nose?” Cassandra snorted, and rubbed her nose. Kintaro’d accidentally gotten her in the nose while they were fighting the night before. He didn’t want her to keep going out at night. He was worried for her. She’d blown him off, and put him in a half nelson. It still brought a smile to her face to think of the way he’d headbutted her.

“Wrestling with Kintaro, Pearl. Come on, do we really have to stand on ceremony? After all this time we’ve known each other?” Then she saw him, as her father stepped out of the way. The faceless man, giving her a cheerful smile with a lipless mouth, his eyes empty and staring, far too many white teeth shining as gore dripped over them. She felt her heart hammer her ribs as the terror gripped her. “Are you crazy, bringing him here?!”

Pearl frowned. “Cassandra, Agent Nash is here to help-” Nash rested a hand on her shoulder. Blood was dripping down his fingers. He looked as though he’d bathed his hands in someone’s open wounds. It dripped onto Pearl’s outfit, leaving thick, ruddy stains.

“It’s alright.” He turned his head towards her, that horrific slashed-open smile spread wide. “Cassandra, I don’t know who you’ve mistaken me for, but I’ll wait in the car, alright? But I am here to help.”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes. The horror was leering at her, as he let go of Pearl. “You’re not a hero, you know. You’re a killer. You’re just going to make things worse as long as you’re here. Why don’t you just leave, before everything falls apart?” The faceless figure looked surprised as he stood up straight, and walked towards the car, turning away from her. Cassandra became aware of the eyes on her. Her parents, shocked at her behavior, and Pearl, looking angrier than Cassandra had ever seen. “Let’s go inside, and talk.” She waved Pearl in. Her parents walked into the next room, shooting Pearl concerned looks, but she gave them a bracing smile as Cassandra led her into the dining room.

“What in the HELL were you thinking?” Pearl asked, her voice low, hissing, her eyes enraged. The shadow puffed like a volcano, smoke curling around that brush-topped helmet.

“What were you thinking?! Can’t you see that man’s face?! Can’t you see- he’s a fucking horror show! He’s full of something hideous, and it’s going to eat us all alive if he’s given half the chance! I can feel the murder on him. I thought you were going to bring in some kind of hero, someone who was going to be able to find justice! Not- That!” She shivered violently. “You’ve been saying I can see the future. I’m telling you, right here, right now. That guy is the worst news I’ve ever seen.” The memory was still haunting her. The sight of those open, staring eye sockets, and the red inside. She felt a wave of nausea pass over her, her stomach heaving at the thought of it.

“Of course I can. I suspect half the people in this city, the monsters at least, can feel what he is. He is touched by one of the Horsemen. That is why he is here.” Pearl saw the confused look on Cassandra’s face, and sighed. “It is something you are too young to understand, I’m afraid. But believe me. That man is our best hope at saving this city. Now, what do you know?”

Cassandra tried not to bristle at the ‘too young to understand’ comment. That was nothing new. “I’ve been taking down notes. I have an idea of some of the people who might be responsible. I saw a snake, when officer Dio turned Dean over. I think that means something, and there are only a handful of people whose shadows look like snakes, in the whole city.” Cassandra frowned down at the notepad. “Why can’t you help?” she asked, softly. Even though she could see the chains.

“If I interfered, I would invite the interference of others. We exist in a delicate balance. Nobody who’s a part of this city can see what the real problem is. Not even you, although you’ve been doing a damn good job of trying, Cassandra. You’ve got to trust him.”

“But he’s not a hero! He’s not anyone! He’s just-“

“Broken, and tortured. I know.” Pearl stared at Cassandra for a few long seconds. There was a look of disappointment on her face. “For a while there, I really thought you could see people for who they really were.”

“Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t see,” Cassandra managed, but without much conviction. She couldn’t meet Pearl’s gaze. Then, there was a shout from outside. The two of them were out of the door, just in time to see the FBI agent, Mister Nash, running down the street after nothing. Cassandra frowned. The man was insane. He was chasing after air. She looked up at Pearl. “So, I guess we’re hosed, then.”

The next day passed without incident. As evening fell, Cassandra’s cellphone buzzed. She was sitting in her room, studying the note pad. An english essay sat abandoned on her desk. it really didn’t seem to matter all that much to her at the moment. There were more important things in this world than studying to get into a good college. The world was bigger than a well-paying job and financial security. There were better uses of her time. Of course, she’d never dare to tell her parents that. She swiped open the phone. An unfamiliar number had sent the message. It read ‘Come to the shack.’ She’d seen the shack a few times. It wasn’t a large town. There was only one shack worth talking about. She frowned. Probably some hormonal teenage boy mistaking ‘punk’ for ‘easy’ again. She shut it off. It buzzed again. ‘The FBI agent is going to die if you are not at the shack within half an hour.’ She stared. It buzzed again. ‘If he dies, so will everyone you love and care about. Your family. Kintaro. Pearl. Everyone will die.’

She was out of the front door in no time. Her legs pumped as she ran down the street to Kintaro’s house. He had left his bike out in the yard. It was the kind of town where people did that. She promised herself that she’d bring it back. She pumped the pedals as stormclouds gathered over Lake Ontario. She couldn’t say why she was doing this. The text-messages had been more like a prank than anything else. But the world was changing in horrible, frightening ways. She swallowed hard as the road turned to gravel, and then dirt, the bike bouncing wildly. She was going to be aching the next day. She made it to the base of the bluff, just as the sky cracked open with a blast of lightning, and rain began to fall. She stared up at the shack, sitting there, mocking her like a fat, smug toad atop the hill. She’d been an idiot. Of course it was just a prank. She was cursing herself for being so gullible when the shack exploded. There was a concussive blast that nearly knocked her on her ass, and the sound of shattering glass. She watched as someone fell out of the window, tumbling and spinning. She closed her eyes, as they fell towards the jagged rocks at the base of the bluff. There was a gust of wind. When she opened her eyes, the FBI agent was lying among the rocks. He was scorched, his shirt torn, looking in bad shape, but he was clearly alive. She ran over to him, and grabbed his hand. He stood up, moving like he was drunk. His eyes weren’t focused. “Why do you hate me?” he asked softly.

She stared at that maimed face. At eye-sockets that were filling up with water. At the hole in his face, on the sides of his head, that should have been a nose and ears. At those bared teeth. She shivered. There were frightening things in the town. But nobody made her feel the same sense of dread that she did when she saw him. “You scare the hell out of me.” He seemed to stand there for a long few seconds, as she watched him, growing more nervous by the second. Then, he started walking. She watched as he took several steps, and then ran to keep up. She came level with him, and stared. His arm was surrounded by a shimmering serpent, which hissed and writhed as it sank its teeth into him. In the darkness, its scales refused to resolve as any color. It was monochrome, almost, but had a great hood like a cobra’s. She looked up at him. His gait was unsteady, and he seemed to be seeing things that weren’t there. His mouth opened.

“Why don’t you help?” She flushed, and lifted his arm over her shoulder. He was taller than her, but he felt light as a feather, as she slung his arm over his shoulder. He seemed to be listening as he stumbled. A few seconds passed, and then he spoke again. “What, we should pray to gods to help us? You don’t think we can accomplish it on our own?” His voice was low, a croak, and she frowned.

“You think you can walk on your own, buddy? Feel free to try it.” She gritted her teeth. He was lighter than he should be at his size, but it was still a strain. She really hoped that the bike wasn’t going to get rusted in the rain.

“Why?” She gave him a quick look. He wasn’t looking at her, but she had been wondering that herself. Why come out here? Why walk through the rain, to help someone who terrified her? Not because it was the right thing to do, that much was certain.

“Because someone threatened my family, and the people I love, to get me to save you. And I’m never going to forgive you for that.” It wasn’t as though he’d ever remember what she said, in his current lunatic state.

The two of them walked in silence for several long minutes, entering the forest. They walked past a large rock, and the FBI agent cast his eyes to either side, stopping for a moment. Cassandra swallowed, her eyes traveling to the gun in its shoulder holster. She was walking through the woods with a man, twice her age, who looked like a horror movie serial killer, and who was acting like there were things around him that she couldn’t see. She didn’t like this. She started to pull away from him.

“Why did you die?” She froze, staring at him. He was away from her. Then he turned towards her. Those empty eyes held her gaze, kept her standing still. She swallowed hard. “Was he supposed to die?” She stared for a few seconds, and thought about the question.

“I don’t think he was.”

Nash frowned. “Did you kill him?”

She stared. The question was nonsensical, but most of them were. “Of course not.” She whispered. He was probably speaking to someone who wasn’t even there. He walked in a trance, his head swaying and lolling from side to side. He couldn’t even hear her. His fingers were twitching. Drool ran down his chin. She felt a little bit of panic. The poison was killing him, and not nearly fast enough for her comfort.

“Is there a reason that he should live? So many other people die every day, murdered, their lives stolen away. What makes your son different? Why does he deserve to have life, when nobody else does? When my mother didn’t?” She frowned at the question.

“Dean…? He was supposed to do more. He was destined for great things. Now wasn’t the time he was supposed to die.” She whispered softly. She knew, somehow, that that was right. Her gift should have told her, if he was going to die. She was supposed to know about those things. She was supposed to see them coming. She kept walking, her eyes down. Then she heard the crunch. She turned, and stared at the FBI agent. He was lying face-down in the gravel. He wasn’t breathing. “Sir?”

She got closer to him, and ran her fingers over his head. “Please, get up.” She bit her lip. She looked around, and took out her cell phone. A hand reached out, and grabbed her wrist. Cassandra looked up, and a dark-skinned woman in red smiled. Her eyes were green, and her hair glowed red. She held a finger over her lips, smiling. Cassandra didn’t dare to look at the woman’s shadow. She could see it in her peripheral vision, a nightmare of steel and flame and smoke. She kept her gaze very solidly on the woman’s face, as the strange woman bent forward. She pulled the FBI agent to his feet, as Cassandra watched. Then she whispered softly. “Come and get me.” With that, she disappeared, and the agent ran.

Cassandra ran after him through the cold dark night. He’d been on the verge of death, seconds before, and now she couldn’t keep up with him. He accelerated into the darkness, running with all of his strength, and she fell behind. She caught up with him at the town clinic. The small one-story building glowed in the rain, its lights still on. Cassandra’s clothes were soaked. She was miserable. The town doctor was standing at the entrance to the place, looking surprised as the FBI agent approached her. Cassandra could hear her speak to him. “Jesus, are you alright?” The man collapsed on the ground by way of an answer.

“He’s been bitten by a snake! He’s hallucinating badly, I think it was cobra venom!” Megan Smith, the town’s only doctor, turned towards her, mouth opening, clearly about to ask questions. “Look- Just trust me, alright?!” She flipped Nash over with great effort, pointing towards the puncture marks on his arm. “We need to save him!” Megan’s shadow puffed on a pipe, clearly thinking. Then, the older woman crouched down, and the two of them carried Nash into the clinic. Megan took out a small vial of antivenom, and applied it with a needle. Cassandra didn’t watch it, but she could hear the EKG as his heart started to beat regularly again. Her strength spent, Cassandra slumped down into a chair. She didn’t wake up when her mother arrived to drive her home. She didn’t wake up on the car ride. She didn’t wake up, in fact, until the riot the next day.

Chapter 7: Bedrock

Consciousness returned reluctantly to Nash. Every part of his body protested. His chest was on fire. His legs ached. The skin of his face was stinging painfully. His palms were scraped, contused by gravel. And his heart felt like it was being stabbed with every beat. But he was alive. He’d not expected that. He took a deep breath, and was made horribly aware of the way his ribs ached. He opened his eyes and took stock of his situation. He was sitting in a white-walled room, on a large, comfortable white bed. A single window let in the bright dawn light as the sun rose over the hills. He leaned back against the soft mattress. He thought back to last night.

Silas Nash was not much for signs and portents. The human mind, he considered, was an extraordinarily effective pattern recognition system. So effective, in fact, that it had a bad habit of discovering patterns where none existed. Nonetheless, he might as well write down what he’d seen. He reached into his jacket, and was grateful to find the notepad was there, and his pen- And the pink book from the night before. He could examine that later. He began scribbling down what he could remember while it was still fresh. The strange shape of his assailant. There was no question that they had been something strange, even before he’d gotten bitten. The two large puncture marks in his arm, surrounded by a spiderweb of green, confirmed that. A snake, he remembered, scribbling that down. They hadn’t looked older than a teenager, but they’d been strong enough to nearly kill him. He took a deep breath, steadying the brief shiver of terror at the idea, and tried to remember who he had seen in the hallucination. Dean and Megara, Pearl, Ariel, Harry, Isabelle, and whoever the figure in black had been. Except for the figure in black, they had all been people who he had met in the town. Was that because it was truth, or because they were the people at the forefront of his mind?

And the woman in red. She’d spoken to him. He’d see her a handful of times in his life, always with a smile on her face, always driving him to rage. He shuddered softly at the memory. Her voice had been a strange thing, terrible and deafening and soft all at once. He began to force himself out of the bed, his heart racing, the EKG monitor letting out a staccato set of beeps in protest. In seconds, the door opened, and the woman from last night stood in its frame, barring the way out. His fevered mind had produced an image so stereotypical it made him cringe with embarrassment, but he could see why he might have seen what he did. The doctor stood in a lab coat, her skin a well-tanned bronze, her hair dark as pitch, and her face was more handsome than beautiful. But it was very handsome. She held a long black ceramic cigarette holder in one hand, her other arm crossed over her chest, holding her elbow. A small cigarette burned merrily at the tip of the black cigarette holder. A golden chain hung around her neck, a small wedge-shaped red gem hanging from it. “Making a break for it, were we?”

He gave an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry to have bothered you, Doctor-“

“Smith. Megan Smith.” He nodded apologetically. “And when you stumbled to my door, your heart was in fibrillation. If Cassandra hadn’t helped told me that you’d been bitten by a cobra, you’d be on a slab right now.” The doctor narrowed her eyes. “There are many strange things in this city of ours, I know. But not many of them could let a man whose heart has stopped restart it again without medical intervention. The moment the antivenom was in you, your heart started beating. What exactly are you, Agent Nash? You don’t have the right smell for a spirit. You don’t have the right look for a hero.” She lifted the cigarette holder to her lips, and puffed on it. It flared into life, and she blew out a long stream of smoke. “You are an anomaly, and to be perfectly frank, that is something that we cannot afford in the city, at this moment.”

He frowned, and couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. “I’m just a man, Doctor Smith. You’re not the first person to show a bit of distaste for me.” He wondered, just for a moment, what the people in this town saw in him that scared them so damn much. How could they all share an opinion of him that seemed so… Well. Negative. He didn’t consider himself to be charming, but even among his coworkers, he rarely got this kind of ferocious reaction from people. Could they smell the guilt on him? See his sins on his face? “How about you tell me a bit about this city, and why it can’t handle an anomaly?” he asked pleasantly. The doctor stared at him, lips pressed together. He realized, despite her weary stance, she was not old. There were no lines on her face. She didn’t look much older than him, in fact. She seemed to finally find what she was looking for in his face, because she moved to take a seat next to him.

“Fine. What would you like to know?”

He paused for a moment. The open offer of information was suspicious, if only for the contrast it offered to his experiences in the town so far. But he didn’t have to take anything she said for granted.. “I’ve heard a lot about monsters and heroes in this place. What, exactly, does all of that mean?”

She told him. And as she spoke, she also wove a picture in his head. A time before there were concepts like time, when the world was defined by forces, and not words. The coalescence of gas created a star. The compacting of silicon and iron created a world. The interplay of hydrogen and oxygen created water. A daub of carbon mixed with the right phosphates and chemicals, and life was born. And through it all, the forces existed. They were always there, nameless, purposeless, mindless. They were things like Fire and Space and Air and Conflict and Death. They existed with power, the ability to change things, but no desires, no opinions. They acted as their natures told them, and they never considered that there could be any other way to act. It was a simple existence. It was a meaningless existence. Life became more complicated. And then the first thing with a voicebox spoke to another thing, and told it that the bright point in the sky was called the Sun. And suddenly, two nonillion kilograms of hydrogen was informed that it existed for the sake of a handful of plains-dwelling apes on the fifth-smallest planet orbiting it. This would not have been so bad, except the Sun believed it.

Forces that had existed for billions of years suddenly found that they had been made into people. Some of them hated this. Some of them loved it. All of them were able to hold an opinion only because of the unasked-for gift. The great forces, like the sun, the tides, the moon, these things had existed for long enough that they had, if not wisdom, at least tradition. They did not change their courses at the requests of humans. They made the tiniest of changes, perhaps, if they felt the mood take them, but so small as to be nearly unseen. The other, lesser forces were not nearly so lucky.

Take Coyote. He had been a normal coyote, once. By a quirk of chance, he had traveled alongside a small band of hunters. They had noticed the way he waited for them to kill a buffalo, letting them take the lion’s share, and then worrying away at the ragged corpse. He had not eaten the finest meat, but he had profited from the work of others. The men laughed, and told each other that he must be an extremely clever hunter, to gain the reward without any of the risk. And in that moment, the light had appeared in Coyote’s eyes. He had thought to himself, ‘what a clever being I am’. And he acted like a clever human. This had created a great deal of trouble for him, but that was alright, because humans liked to see the intelligent getting their comeuppance. And so, a simple plains scavenger became a god of trickery and wisdom.

Megan Smith had been a white buffalo calf, albino and sickly. Left by her mother to die, she had been found by a hunter, who had taken her in out of some strange fascination with her unusual appearance. The winter was lean, but he went hungry to ensure she had enough food. Miraculously, she survived, and the spring brought with it a marginally better harvest than usual. And the hunter’s people, who did not quite understand the concept of chaos theory, solar variance, PH balance being affected by an unusually acid-free snow, and a slight decrease in the number of plant-borne illnesses, attributed it to the white calf. As she had grown older, she had been treated like a sacred animal by the tribe. And bit by bit, she became so. She had always thought it was quite unfair, however, how she had been given the credit for the pipe. After all, it had been a quite clever young man that she fancied who had worked out how to make it for her. But people liked symbols. And the peace that had spread across the Plains tribes because of that pipe had been a grand thing. Right up until the point when a separate tribe of humans arrived, and murdered almost everyone she knew, and conflated her with a confused young woman who had not kept track of the father of her child in some distant desert city.

Not that Megan Smith was bitter. Of course not. But spirits and humans had lived in harmony. The spirits were those things which had been attributed power by humans, and thus became powerful. And the heroes were much the same. They were made, not born. They were what happened when a human was lucky, or daring, or courageous. Sometimes they slew a spirit. Sometimes they tamed one. Too often, they married one. And humans told stories about the hero, and other people believed those stories. But unlike spirits, heroes were mortal, like all men. But it could make a part of them too great to die. When a hero died, the belief lifted off of them like a shroud, taking their soul with it. It would drift, and settle on someone new. Some likely young boy or girl, eager to prove themselves. And that power would flow through them, and awaken as they embraced their heritage, or fought against it. And so, heroes never truly died. They simply changed faces. Among the Lakota, these heroes were often the opposite side of a spirit. Sometimes they were indistinguishable from spirits. But they were all great.

Megan spoke at length about a young man. The warrior who had starved to feed her. He had become a hero through his sacrifice. When he died, she left her people for a time, until he appeared again. He disappeared and reappeared many times, over the years, and each time, she found him again. Then the tribe had been slaughtered to the last man over a dispute with foreigners. He had died standing over a young mother, protecting her. And he had never returned. She might be the only person who still remembered him.

“I have seen great things in humans. And terrible things.” The doctor smiled softly. “You have the smell of those invaders on you. I don’t mean the white skin, or those fine European features. Those things weren’t what made them evil. It was the smell of gunpowder. The clash of steel. The glint of gold. These things had maddened those who came to this land. The talismans of the Horsemen.”

Nash frowned. The memories of the Lakota, and their end, were still lingering in his mind. He shivered softly, as the memories ran through his head. They had been more than simple words. Images had flowed through his head as she spoke. Feelings. A certainty entirely absent in his own life. She really knew how to tell a story. “The Horsemen?” He could feel the capital letters slot into space. “Death, Famine, Pestilence, War?”

She smiled. “Close. Very close. Of course, people confuse their names so often nowadays. But an idea as strong as the Horsemen, it doesn’t matter the specifics that people believe. They endure.”

Certain concepts did not exist before life. Could not exist before life. How could there be Death without life to delineate its existence? She was the first, the knowledge that lurked in the heart of all things that lived, that they would stop living. That eventually, everything dies. Second was Famine, for famine could not exist without abundance to mark it by. The difference between ‘enough’ and ‘not enough’ did not become clear until there were life forms that fed on limited things. When there were, they became able to feel lack, to strain to find the food they needed, and to end the day more empty than they began it. Third was Conquest, for when famine came, Conquest soon followed it. When you had nothing but your neighbors had plenty, you would raid, and take what was theirs if they could not defend it, and make it yours. And last was War. Not the war against the other, but the war against those who were closest. Conflict with those who were your brothers. When the bonds of family, mate, friend, were overcome by need.

War was born with humanity, the youngest of the four Horsemen, but all of them became aware at the same time. They were given names. And they were despised. They were the reasons people suffered. Humanity hated the Horsemen, and the Horsemen hated them back. The Horsemen sought to destroy their makers, as vengeance for the guilt, the shame, the revulsion they were made to feel for what came naturally to them.

Evil lurks in all things. The desire to harm others. To take what others need, to kill that which is weaker than you, to oppress that which will not obey you. And the willingness to do these things to friends, to kin, to lovers and children. The Lakota had always known about the Horsemen. They lurked everywhere, in the shadows on the moon, and in the heart of your neighbor, your child, yourself. The Lakota could not kill them, any more than they could kill the sun and the moon, but they could triumph over them by learning to control the dark impulses. Counting coup, showing your opponent that you could take their life, and not doing so. Megan had loved the great tournaments and battles of those days. The ferocity of man turned on its head, so that the battles were won by bravery and skill, without the need for death. The careful marshaling of resources, so that famine’s edge could be blunted. The trading back and forth of land, so that conquest could be sated by taking things without holding them. It had been such a beautiful country, laughter echoing beneath the bright blue sky, and a plain that seemed to stretch out to the edge of the world. It hadn’t been perfect. People had died before they should. Starvation took children. People suffered. But they danced with the Horsemen every day, and counted coup by enjoying their lives.

But the Horsemen weren’t contented with this. And not everyone was so wise. So one day, the invaders swept out of the east. Preceded by disease and sickness, they held weapons that could shatter armies of Lakota. And they were never satisfied. It was not because of the color of their skin, or the gods they prayed to. It was because of the Horsemen. It was the nature of the world. That didn’t make the loss of everyone she loved any easier, though. She had seen her people shattered. And she had wept, because for all her power, there was nothing she could do to stop the deaths. There were monsters, from across the sea, and spirits, corrupted by the offer of power and the lure of the invaders. Creatures that she could do nothing to stop. Spirit had devoured human, and hero had slain spirit, and everything she loved had fallen apart.

“The nature of the Horsemen is to destroy both sides. Spirit, and human. The power they provide is built through conflict, and through challenges. They reward their champions with strength, and set them against one another. It is not enough for them to destroy empires or cultures or religions. The end they seek is the end of everything. And the end of everything requires a great deal of might.”

Nash sat quietly. The stink of blood was still thick in his nostrils. The story had been… entrancing. The words echoed in his head. He didn’t know how much he believed the idyllic past that Megan offered, but she certainly believed that things had been wonderful. “What is Zion?” He asked softly.

Megan laughed. “The solution to the Horsemen.”

The first city was created at the dawn of history. It was in the heart of Mesopotamia, and it represented a realization. Spirits and humans could not remain at war with one another, or the Horsemen would have their victory. So instead, they lived together. A city built by the hands of heroes, and spirits. It represented a pact, a truce, and it placed a barrier between the world of the supernatural, and the world of humans. A little bit of the magic left the world, but so did a great deal of the terror. It was more difficult for spirits to prey upon humans, and for humans to kill spirits. The second city was in the Far East; The third in Europe, in the heart of the black forest. The fourth was built in the New World. And the fifth was Zion. Each one of the cities strengthened the barrier.

Now, Zion stood as one of the five barriers between humans and spirits. The Greeks had built it, during the emigration from Greece in the 19th century. The monsters of that place saw the growing instability in Europe, and sought a new home, fleeing a nation and a religion that had never recovered from its millenia-old conquest. They built Zion, and invited heroes to join them. The legendary figures of the world retired together to this place. It wasn’t a time for heroes or spirits anymore. The world became quieter, and more predictable. The Japanese emigrated in 1945 and 1946, and were able to live in harmony, for the most part, with the Greeks. The Native American community followed not much longer. Small and fractured as they were, the natives didn’t have the option of not living in harmony with the others.

The truce, as it was called, was not simply a series of rules. It was an integral part of the barrier. No one would harm another. No one would take another’s life. They would not allow the Horsemen into their hearts. Laws were not simply a set of strictures provided by a government, here. They were the mortar that built the wall between worlds. And that mortar had begun to crumble with the death of Dean Constantinou. The city had always been a fragile melting pot. The three cultures existed in an uneasy alliance, but the cracks were beginning to show with the death.

“There has always been a taboo against mixing between the three cultures. Heroes and spirits are, ultimately, guided by stories. The children of Heracles and Megara die by the hand of their father. The white snake maiden kills her lover by accident. The goddess of death is rejected by her husband. These things are stories that are very difficult to avoid. Oftentimes, the attempts to do so lead to the very outcomes they were trying to evade.” Megan puffed on her cigarette, staring out the window. “If the different stories mix, it becomes very difficult to predict what will hold primacy. That’s not good for anyone.” She took a deep breath. “Whoever did this, it doesn’t really matter. Dean Constantinou is dead. He’s not going to be brought back. Resurrection’s a rare thing even in stories, and the loss of his children is a key aspect to poor Harry’s life. He fought that fate all his life, but…” The young woman shrugged.

Nash frowned. “You can’t really believe that. Those are stories. They don’t define the world, they just try to explain it.” He took a deep breath, and tried to focus. The story Megan Smith was weaving was compelling. But it was one thing to accept monsters and gods and demonic Horsemen as real, and another thing entirely to say that people’s ideas meant anything to the world. “Dean didn’t die because of a story. He died because someone murdered him. And I’m here to see that his killer is brought to justice.”

“And if your justice makes things worse? What if the killer’s loved ones decide to take revenge? This is a crime that is punished capitally. Death breeds death, after all.” Her eyes were very cold. He looked away.

“What do you suggest I do, then? Stop investigating? Let things hang as they are? Do you think that people shouldn’t have to face consequences for their actions?”

“They so often don’t. But here, the nature of Zion demands that wrongs be righted. And two wrongs so seldom make a right, do they? This city, for all its strength, is balanced on a knife-edge.” Megan was silent for a moment. “I never agreed with the idea of the cities, you know. The barrier between mankind and the world of spirits… It is overkill. We are not all monsters.” She took another puff, staring out of the curtains. “I fear that we have abandoned the world, and allowed it to rot, when we could have been helping to preserve it. And now the rot has come to infect us, as well. The world is bereft of heroes, and gods. Is that a good thing?” He frowned at her.

“What the hell makes you think that the world needs heroes, or gods?” He pulled the blanket away, standing up, somewhat unsteadily. He was still dressed in his clothes from the day before. He’d nearly been murdered by a teenager. He hated this town. He hated the people and the insanity. He hated that he couldn’t trust his own senses. And he hated being lectured. “The world doesn’t need some magical outsider to come fix all of its problems. That’s just a fantasy. A hope that you’ll be saved without having to do the hard work yourself. Humans might want a savior, but we don’t need one. And I don’t care what dark mystical forces you believe are behind this. Ultimately, one person took the life of another. My job is to make sure that they face the consequences of their actions. And I don’t care if it makes people angry, if it makes them vengeful. I have a job to do, and I’m going to do it. Not even gods are above the law.” He gritted his teeth. “What, exactly, is the worst that’s going to happen if the peace of this city is broken, Doctor Smith?”

It would start slowly, simply. A few cracks in the world. Reports of strange disappearances and odd deaths would increase. Each one would increase people’s fear of the unknown, and force the cracks wider. Larger things would come through these places. Monsters, spirits, ghosts, and demons. They would attack humans. Humans would, as they always had, fight back against their predators. And with the grand tools they had made, there would be greater conflicts than ever before. The walls between worlds would come crumbling down, and everything would flood back. The gods who had slept for millenia, the ancient dark things, the sun-eating serpents, the end of days. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Inevitably, it would end humanity. And this would lobotomize any of the spirits that survived the war. The world would go gray and silent again, without meaning, without purpose, and without a future.

Nash realized he was shaking. He turned his head away from her. “That’s on you. If the world is so close to destruction that it can’t survive a single act of justice, maybe it doesn’t deserve to survive.” He walked to the door, stepping around the doctor.

“Why do you think she chose you?” Nash turned back towards her. Megan was standing with her back to the wall, her eyes locked with his. “All the people in the world she could have brought here, and she chose you. What do you think was her reason for doing so?” He frowned. He had wondered the same thing about Pearl’s decision.

“I suppose I was just convenient. Anyone would have done.”

Megan snorted. “You believe there’s nothing special about you at all? Nothing destined, nothing heroic, nothing that makes you better than other humans? You deign to decide the fate of the world, without even the necessary arrogance to think you’re deserving?” She tapped her cigarette onto the end-table by the bed, ash piling in a small heap on the table. “Maybe that’s why she chose you. Your car’s in the parking lot. I would recommend you get a good meal, and avoid any heavy lifting today.”

He frowned at her. ” One last question before I go. What are Pearl and Ariel?” He thought for a moment. “And, I suppose, Heather and Gene, too, if my instincts are right.” Megan grinned.

“They… are like me, but much older. They are, in a way, the opposite of the Horsemen. If the Horsemen are humanity’s impulses turned against them, those four are the parts of the natural world that love humanity most. Have you ever heard of the story of Rainbow Crow?”

He frowned. “My mother used to tell me that story. She loved it. I always thought it was a bit sad. The crow gives up everything for the people around her, ruined by the cost of saving the world, and her reward is that nobody would want her.”

“There is a certain freedom in nobody wanting you. No one eats crow. No one traps crows to listen to their song. I suppose it is a story about making the best of what you’re given.” She sighed softly. “It is a story that is told over and over again, in many different places. A time of cold and darkness, and the cost a noble being pays to bring light back into the world. That is the nature of the Sisters.”

Four sisters, the greatest forces of nature, making even gods look small in their wake. They warred forever with one another, conflicted over which one would rule the world. They spent an eternity in deadlock, with no hope of success, and no way of understanding one another. It was only when humans arrived that the balance changed. Humans worked with the four sisters, tamed them, worked them. They made tools with their ingenuity and the Sisters’ strength. Humans cared for the four Sisters, nurtured them, strengthened them, and worshiped them. Sometimes, when they were angered, the Sisters would strike humans, crushing them, burning them, drowning them, flaying them. And for a time, humans would fear them. But the Sisters had a great weakness. They were proud beings, but they were people, now. They could not be lone, majestic, unfeeling forces. They needed the love of humans to keep them sane. They had been seduced by humanity.

And so, from time to time, they would intercede for exceptional humans. When a spirit beseeched them, or when humans cried out for a hero, they would offer a quest to those they found deserving. It was both price and training. The nature of the quest would vary; Air favored journeys and exploration, Earth favored strength and resilience, Water favored empathy and forgiveness, Fire favored passion and great dreams. But when the quest was completed, their chosen were greater than they had been. It was said that the Sisters did it because they loved humans, in a way that no other spirit could understand. They gave of their power, sacrificing themselves for the love of the foolish, mad, wonderful, brief creatures. Unlike every other spirit, which gave power in exchange for a price, the sisters gave power without condition, without control. It wasn’t a pact. It was a gift borne of love, and it hurt them to love such short-lived creatures. They chose carefully. And they fought the Horsemen at every turn, to protect humanity from itself.

Nash didn’t speak as he turned away from her, leaving the room as the story ended. He remembered the tears in Pearl’s eyes, the night before. He flipped open his notepad, checking what he had written before Smith had walked in. He couldn’t concentrate. His mind flashed back to something the doctor had said. Cassandra. When he’d first met the girl, she’d been terrified of him. Possibly for the same reason that everyone else in this town seemed to dislike him. She’d told him he wasn’t a hero. So why, exactly, had she gone out of her way to save him? From the sound of it, she was the only reason his heart was still beating. A question for another time.

He walked out of the front door to find his rental car waiting for him, and checked the notepad. He scribbled a few reminders into it. “Visit school.” He considered. “Talk with Cassandra about last night. Bring Pearl along to smooth things out.” He thought for a few seconds more. “Snakes. Who are the snakes in this city?” He stared at the notepad. “Why am I here?” He underlined that several times. Then his stomach growled. “Get breakfast.” He wrote. He checked his clothing. “Get new set of clothes.” He sighed softly, and started the car.

The memory came back unbidden. The sight of the woman in red, advancing on him with her knife. The blast of the gun, and the dark-skinned woman with dark hair and soft brown eyes falling to the ground, the steak knife falling from her fingers. They’d said afterwards that she had a history of violence, that she had wounded a police officer in a fight, that she was a ticking time bomb of mental illness. But that wasn’t why he had shot her. It had been the moment of mad, horrific fear. That moment when he could choose between his safety and hers, and he had chosen his own. When he had killed someone who had a father, a mother, two kind sisters and an older brother who ran a deli. He had weighed the value of his life against hers, and killed her to preserve himself. He could have let her keep approaching, try to keep talking, and he might have died that night. But he wouldn’t be a murderer. He wouldn’t live with the knowledge of all he’d taken.

He couldn’t afford to get bogged down in the madness of this place. He had a job to do, and if he tried to pull a moral dimension into it, he would drown under the weight of what he had to do, the harm he would cause. He shifted the car into gear, and sped out of the lot, kicking up gravel. He needed a new set of clothing, and to digest everything. He did have at least one good suspect, though. Megara Drakos had admitted to the death in his dream, and the woman was the snakiest person he’d met in the city. He was going to ask her a few questions later that day.

Chapter 8: Ear to the Ground

Heather raised an eyebrow, but the smile on her face didn’t waver. “A second set of clothes ruined? Nash, sweetie, you may need to be a little less hard on your wardrobe. I’m only one woman, here.” She’d met him outside of his apartment. He didn’t have the heart to tell her what had happened last night as she had sat him down in the main office. That he had almost died, his heart stopped in his chest. She was brushing a bit of bactine across his cheeks. It stung, but that was probably a good sign. The last thing he needed was an infection. “Have you ever considered backup? Maybe even just not getting into situations where you’re going to get murdered?” she asked, tone chiding as she folded the tattered outfit. She sighed softly, and the sound was warm and pleasant, as she fussed over him. It had been a long time since he’d felt something like that. He slipped the pink book he had recovered from his jacket into his pants pocket.

“You know, I thought about that, but I really wanted an excuse to visit you again.” He gave her a cheerful smile. It was fake, but perhaps not as fake as it would’ve been around other people. There was something about her presence that made him feel almost human. “I’ve only got one more set of clothing, so I’ll be sure to keep it intact. It wouldn’t do for me to wind up solving this murder naked.” The scent of instant oatmeal filled the small office. The microwave beeped, and she stepped away, pulling out the instant meal, in its small paper bowl. She mixed a little milk into the oatmeal, and handed him the bowl with a plastic spoon. He’d finished it by the time she’d reopened the bottle of bactine, wolfing it down ravenously. He tugged on the collar of his only remaining good suit.

“Well, next time, how about you just come around for breakfast. It’d be much more pleasant than seeing you walk in, looking like death warmed over. I worry, you know?” She smiled softly. “So. Busy day ahead of you, hmmm?” He nodded absently, rubbing his chin. He needed a shave. The last two nights had left him frazzled enough that he hadn’t gotten one. Ah well. He supposed he could put it off one more day without looking like a homicidal maniac. “You heard about the fight this morning?” He frowned, looking over at her. “Yeah, apparently a fistfight in Ariel’s diner. Things got good and properly wrecked down there- Hey, what about your clothes!” He was already out of the door, and running towards the car. He climbed in, starting the engine, and peeled out of the parking lot, gravel flying as the car found its traction. He knew he was driving more erratically than he should. It had been at least 24 hours since he had taken his anti-psychotics, and it wasn’t a good time to tempt withdrawal and madness. He swore to himself that he would take one on his way back. For now, a nameless dread had grabbed hold of him.

The front window of the diner was scattered across the parking lot, shattered into powder and small shards. Jagged edges remained in the window frame. Ariel was visible behind the counter, polishing it industriously, with a ferocious expression on her face. Nash winced. He stepped around to the entrance. “Ariel? You alright?” She looked up, her eyes full of thunder. When she recognized him, she relaxed, sitting back on a stool behind the counter, and gave him a smile. That was unexpected. Honestly, he’d anticipated an immediate reaming about how this was all his fault. “I came as soon as I heard about the fight.”

She sighed. “There was a bit of a fight this morning. Mister Laurence broke his cane over John Nakamura’s head, and threw him out of the window. Pearl gave them a good talking to, and told both of them that she didn’t want to see any more trouble out of them.” She caught Nash’s stare. “The window’s easy enough to replace, and neither of them were hurt badly.” Nash remembered Mister Laurence. The man had been geriatric. He stared back at the window. “Heroes are like oak, Silas. They don’t wear out when they get older. They just keep getting tougher. John Nakamura was fine, too. Tengu know how to roll with a punch.” She sighed. “You hungry this morning?”

“Thanks, I had some instant oatmeal with Heather. What the hell got them fighting? I thought this place was… peaceful.” He frowned. The long talk with Megan was still buzzing in his head.

“Dean, of course. John Nakamura said that it was a damn shame. Mister Laurence said that was a pretty thing for someone to be saying when it was one of the Japanese that killed him. Things got heated, fast. Before I could break it up, well…” She waved her hand towards the window. “I’ve been running this diner for the past eighty years. I’ve never seen a fight get out of hand that quickly.” She sighed. “I’d love to blame you. But I don’t think that’d be remotely fair.” She looked up at him, and finally seemed to notice the cuts on his cheeks, the pink where the fire had scorched his face. “Have fun last night?” she asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Oh, this. Someone bit me last night, and burnt down the old make-out shack. My heart nearly stopped, and you saved me from a fatal fall. I mean, that’s what it looked like. I was tripping on snake venom by that point.” Nash sighed. “Can you trip on snake venom? I didn’t even know there were any hallucinogenic snake venoms. Did I thank you for showing me how to use the wind yesterday? Because I’m pretty sure the only reason I’m not in a body-bag is because of that.” Ariel stared as he babbled, and the words finally, mercifully, stopped. Nearly dying must have been weighing on him more heavily than he thought.

“Well. I’m… glad I could be of help, Silas.” She frowned. “That’s twice now the gift has saved your life. And we’ve only known each other for two days. You know, when I’ve gifted a hero, they usually get a few months of solid training before they’re expected to risk their lives. I know I told you you’d be forced to learn fast, but this is a bit reckless.” He frowned. That was the second time she’d used his first name. It beat ‘G-man’, though. She seemed to read the expression on his face, and gave him a knowing smile. “Oh, yes. I’m very familiar with you, now. No secrets between teacher and pupil.” She laughed softly. “So, you heard that my diner was the scene of a fight, and the first thing you do is come see me? I’m a little bit flattered. Did you think, perchance, that something was going to happen to the Avatar of Storms, the Goddess of Wind?” She leaned her head on her hand, smirking. “Foolish. Chauvinist. But just a little bit attractive in a human. Most of the people who know me wouldn’t have even given a thought to my safety. They’d be more worried about the people who were fighting in my diner. A girl can start to feel as though she’s being taken for granted.”

“I… just wanted to make sure. I’ve been getting the impression that this place was peaceful. Hearing about a fight-” He thought of the woman in red, with bloody lips and a gunmetal smile. “I was worried it might have been something more than just a little brawl, if you know what I mean.” Ariel was still smiling. “And… I wanted to make sure my teacher was alright? You know how human stories are. Mentors are always at a risk.” Ariel eyed him, and sighed.

“Been talking to Megan, hmmm? All that stuff about stories. I bet she told you me and my sisters are a bunch of lovesick fools, desperate for humanity to feel about us the way we feel about them?” She snorted. “What an imagination that girl has. We don’t need you. We never did, after all.” She crossed her arms, leaning forward on the counter. “You’ll have to get used to something. If something was dangerous to me, or my sisters, you wouldn’t be able to protect us. You, Silas Nash, are a weakling. Human, and not even a hero. No destiny to see you through, no story to draw strength from. You get points from me for the attitude, but I would recommend that you be careful. You’ve already had your heart stopped once. And you haven’t even confronted one of the truly dangerous people in this city yet.” She closed her eyes, and sighed softly. “You shouldn’t try to act like a hero when you’re not one.” Nash was silent for several long seconds, and looked down at his shoes. “I’m fine, and the diner’s fine, and it was good of you to come by.” She smiled. “After you’re done with your work today, go see Gene. She wanted to talk with you about something.”

“She talks?” Nash asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, something she wanted to… gesture with you about.” Ariel smiled. Nash stood up to go, and she reached out, resting an arm on his shoulder. “Hey, before you go.” She turned away, and filled a Styrofoam cup with dark, black coffee. She passed it over the counter, and he took it gratefully, sipping from it. The coffee was hot enough to burn, and it tasted perfect. He let out a heated breath, and smiled towards her. It wasn’t quite a real smile, but it was closer than he’d gotten in a while. “Pick your fights, would you? And don’t get yourself killed. I don’t like emotionally investing in people who are going to die just when I start to like them.” He nodded.

“I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I ask.”

And with that, he walked out of the diner, and checked his cellphone. Some celestial forces must have aligned, because he had service. He dialed Pearl’s line, and set the phone down on the dashboard of the car as he climbed into the driver’s seat, turning it to speakerphone. It picked up. “Hello?” Pearl sounded, if anything, more exhausted than before. She was going to collapse of a heart attack- he paused. No, she probably wasn’t. But he didn’t want to see what happened to a… ‘spirit’ when they were exhausted beyond the point of endurance.

“Pearl. It’s Nash. The stakeout last night paid off.”

“Nash?! Christ, where have you been?! We found the shack burned to the ground! We didn’t find any bodies, but-” The relief in her voice was obvious. He felt a little tug of guilt. He should’ve let her know. He supposed he’d assumed she’d heard from the doctor.

“Yeah, things got a bit heated. I took a snakebite. Nearly stopped my heart, apparently, but I recovered at the clinic. Cassandra Hirosata was there. You know anything about that?”

“Cassandra? I’ve been trying to keep her out of things. The girl’s going to get in over her head one of these days. So, what did you find?”

“Pink book. Looks like a diary.” He slid his hand into his jacket, pulling the book out, and placing it on the passenger seat. “Isabelle’s, by the name written on the inside front cover. It’s all in Japanese. Might give us a little insight if you can translate it. Let’s meet at the school. Talk with the kids there, get a better picture of Megara Drakos. I’ve got my suspicions about her.” He frowned. “And whoever attacked me last night, I’m pretty sure they were a teenager. Couldn’t make out any distinguishing marks before I got bitten, and started hallucinating.”

The school was an old building, built in the 50s, and felt like it. Dingy yellow tiles under buzzing fluorescent bulbs. Bright red lockers, endless rows of them, filling a single-story building. The school covered the area around Zion, K-12. There was no more than one class for each grade, and on average, maybe ten to twenty students to a grade. The city didn’t have a lot of kids, that much was clear. Nash felt the oddest nostalgia walking through the public school. Despite growing up in the city, his schools had always looked a lot like this. Maybe they built the places with a kit. Maybe they just always ended up looking alike because of mythic resonance. He spotted Pearl, and waved to her. She was standing outside of the principal’s office. “Megara Drakos at the school today?”

Pearl shook her head. “Took a temporary leave of absence. Nobody’s seen her since we talked with her two days ago. Nobody in the police department, at any rate.” Nash frowned. “Not necessarily suspicious. She disappears from time to time.” She gave Nash a look. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree about this. I really don’t think she could be the murderer.”

Nash nodded. “Is that your opinion as an omniscient being, or as a citizen of the city?” Pearl was quiet, and he continued. “I don’t think she was the one who killed him. But I think she knows why he died, and she might be keeping information away from us. I think we need to push her hard if we’re going to get the information we need. And that starts with finding out about what the hell is going on with the students here. Is Cassandra Hirosata here today, by the way?”

Pearl smiled. “No. Probably taking the day off. She’s been affected by this more than a lot of the people I know. That girl’s a strange one.”

Nash nodded. “I owe her my life for last night. I would’ve probably died on the beach if she hadn’t been there to help me.” He handed Pearl the book. “See if anyone can find any genetic evidence on this. Give it a read-through. I’d feel guilty about reading a teenage girl’s diary. Plus, I don’t speak Japanese.” He opened the door. Sergeant Dio was sitting at the desk, with a young man across from him. Nash took a seat behind the young man, who cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. “Don’t worry about me, son. Just talk with Sergeant Dio.”

The entire twelfth grade was interrogated. Most of them said the same things. Dean Constantinou was a well-liked young man. He had a lot of friends. He was extremely popular with the young women, and always friendly. He got along well with his father, and clashed somewhat with his mother. She tended to be harsher on him than on the other students. “Who’s next?” he asked Dio, checking the clock. It was nearly lunch time for the students.

“Isabelle Onnashi.” Nash sat up in his chair, focus returning. Pearl ushered the girl in. She looked slightly better than she had the last time, though her eyes were still red. The girl was dressed in a white T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. Her hair was messy, and she smelled of harsh soap, like she had spent an hour in the shower, scrubbing herself raw. He stood up, and held out his hand to shake with her. She smiled apologetically as she offered him her left hand. Her right hand was placed firmly in her pocket.

“I’m sorry, detective. I burned my fingers something awful yesterday, while I was cooking.” Her eyes flickered away from him. The girl’s pretty white hair hung around her shoulders like an angel’s halo. Nash gave her his best fake smile, and switched hands, giving her a reassuring shake. The liar. “How can I help you?” she asked, her voice soft. There was the rasp of snake scales slithering around her. Nash very carefully did not react as he pulled the chair out for her.

“We’d like to ask you about Dean Constantinou’s relationship with his mother, Megara Drakos.” Dio’s voice was firm, but surprisingly comforting. Nash hated playing the bad cop, but he’d never be able to get that kind of fatherly, kindly authority in his voice. Isabelle’s stance visibly relaxed at the question.

“Oh.” She looked aside. “I don’t like to speak ill. They loved each other, but they didn’t quite get along. Dean was never happy to be moved here , you know. He was used to the military life. He had all of these stories about exciting things that happened there. And here, there was so little. He couldn’t wait until he was 18. He said he’d leave the day he graduated.” She smiled softly. “I think that Megara was worried that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. They fought a lot. He’d come to me afterwards, talking about how she called him an ungrateful child.” She sighed, frowning. “He always said he hated the snakes that she kept. He thought they were ugly things, just like her, full of venom and trying to choke the life out of things.” She looked up, and frowned. “But- you don’t think that Megara Drakos was responsible for him dying, do you?”

Nash spoke before Dio could. “We’re not ruling anyone out, Miss Onnashi.”

Isabelle looked over her shoulder at Nash, frowning. Then, her head turned down, her eyes on her shoes. “That couldn’t be. I’m sure she’d never do something like that.” Her voice was soft. “They fought, but they were family. I… No, she wouldn’t do that, no matter what” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself.

“Tell us a bit about Dean himself. Was he the sort to get himself into some trouble?” Dio asked, and Isabelle brightened up again.

“He was… always a bit of a troublemaker. I think that was part of why he and Megara were so strained. He thought he knew everything, and he didn’t like being told he was young. He was always in such a rush to grow up.” To Nash’s annoyance, a blush ran across Isabelle’s cheeks. God, how he hated young love. Then he considered what had happened to the boy, and felt quite guilty. “I met him when he first moved here. I was always an outsider, and I didn’t have many friends besides Susan. He stepped right up to me, and told me I was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen.” Isabelle stared into space for a moment, brushing her fingers through her hair, eyes lost in the memory.

“How’d you burn your fingers, again?” Nash asked. Isabelle jumped in her seat at the sound of his voice, then turned to face him.

“I… They were burned while I was cooking. I was making rice for me and mother last night. Why?”

He smiled cheerfully. “Just concern. You hear about that fire last night, out on the bluffs?” She didn’t answer, staring down at her hands. He rubbed his cheek. The skin was still pink where it had been scorched. “Lot of burns going around. You can go now.”

The bell rang, as if on cue. Nash stepped out of the principal’s office, standing next to Pearl. “So what the hell was that fight about in Ariel’s diner, this morning?” He asked under his breath. Sergeant Dio stepped out of the principal’s office, and nodded at Pearl, before heading for the exit to the school.

“You heard about that, did you?” Pearl leaned against the wall, and frowned. “There aren’t a lot of fights here. It’s part of…”

“The truce?” Pearl gave him a surprised look. “I talked with Doctor Smith. She was forthcoming about things. It was a welcome change of pace. One of the things she mentioned was the magic behind this place. Holding spirits and humans apart. Keeping the world calm. Anything you want to tell me about that?”

Pearl sighed. “The Maiden. She has a bad habit of sharing that information around without mentioning how subjective it is. The thing of it is…” She stared into space. “Out of everyone in this city, only Gene, Ariel, Heather, and I were anything like sapient when the accord was first struck. The time before humans is like- well, do you remember what it was like in your mother’s womb?” He raised his eyebrow. “So much of what the people of this city know is more like legends and mythology than historical fact. Megan Smith has been around for only perhaps a millenia or two, if I remember correctly. The upshot is, this place was built to be a source of harmony. To allow the world of stories and humans to meet without damaging each other. It’s why there are no crimes. It’s why people here can live in harmony with people who are so different from them. But that’s not in the nature of monsters, or heroes. They’re beings of passion. When the harmony here has been disrupted, even just a little bit, it means that the peace will fracture. The natural inclinations of heroes and of monsters will rise to the surface. If Dean’s death is not made right, the city will fall apart.”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; The centre cannot hold.” Pearl raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I read Yeats, too. How the hell can all of this be going wrong this fast? How can the world have stayed balanced on a knife-edge like this, Pearl? I mean, these Horsemen-” Pearl flinched.

“Shit! She told you about them.”

Nash frowned. “Was she not supposed to?”

Pearl sighed. “It doesn’t matter now, I suppose. Just remember this. The White Buffalo Calf Woman is damned clever, and she knows more than most people you’ll ever meet. But what she tells you is only what she has heard. It’s not the truth.” Nash frowned.

“So then what the hell is the truth?” Pearl smiled, and didn’t answer. Nash’s frown deepened. “You could be a little more helpful.” Pearl took out the pink-covered book.

“Tell you what. I’ll translate this, and see if I can ferret anything out of it. I’m going to go get a bite to eat. You ought to do the same. I think we’ve just about exhausted the potential for information here.” She smiled, and rested a hand on his shoulder. “The truth’s out there, but nobody ever said it would be easy to find.”

“Thanks, Mulder.” He gave her a wan smile, and turned.

Truth being a subjective thing wasn’t something he was comfortable with. The very idea rankled him, not least because he had spent years thinking that he couldn’t trust his own mind. There was a world out there, where everything was well-defined, and where there was no question about what was the truth, and what was a lie. He’d tried to become a part of that world for years. He’d worked so hard for it. And just for a moment, he felt his eyes water, and the tears threatened to overflow. He had tried so hard to keep it together, and in two days it was gone. The real world was shattered, and he was surrounded by monsters. But he held back the tears.

He had a vague idea of going to the small, grassy lot behind the school, which appeared to serve as the football field. As he walked down the corridor, someone hissed at him. He turned towards a doorway, leading into a darkened janitor’s closet. A young woman stood inside. She was Asian, with dark brown hair, and shockingly green eyes. Her face was pretty, though not breathtaking. He frowned. She hadn’t been one of the students they’d interviewed that day.

“Agent Nash! I’m Susan Xian. I need to talk with you,” she hissed. His eyes ran over her. She wore a T-shirt. It was for a band called the Arch-Senators. What looked like Benjamin Franklin in a wizard’s robes adorned the front, lightning rising from his fingertips. Her hands were on the door frame. And around her, he heard the rustle of scales. He tensed, but studied her hand. No sign of broken fingers there. That probably didn’t mean squat, but he relaxed slightly, and stepped into the small room. He leaned against the wall.

“Alright. Let’s hear what you have to say. You’re Isabelle Onnashi’s friend, yeah? And you used to be friends with the deceased?” He slipped his hand into his jacket. He could feel the butt of his gun. His fingers briefly touched the grip, and then drew out his pen and notepad. “Please, tell me everything that you think would be helpful.”

Susan took a deep breath. “I think that Mrs. Drakos was the one who killed Dean.” She looked down. “I didn’t want to tell anyone. But I’ve been friends with Dean since he moved here, and Isabelle since we met back as kids. They liked each other right away when he moved here. And he got along with her really well. But Mrs Drakos never approved. She said that Dean was…” She frowned. “I always thought she was kind of racist. Dean told me that she’d go on these rants, telling him that he should date his own kind. That he wasn’t supposed to be with someone like- like Isabelle.” She frowned down at her hands. “People in this town give you looks. You know? If you’re not the right color, or the right kind. Mister Constantinou was always really nice to Isabelle and me when we visited Dean’s house, but Mrs Drakos…” She shook her head. “She never did it in public. She was polite with me and Isabelle, but Dean would tell me about the things she said. That if he kept dating Isabelle… He’d get exactly what he deserved.”

Nash stared. The idea of race playing a part in all of this was so surreal, he had to fight to keep from laughing. He’d gotten so used to dealing with the idea of monsters and heroes, the simple concept of racial tension was almost a relief. And then came the question. “Miss Xian. What do you know about snakes?” The girl froze, staring. “Since I’ve come to this town, it’s become very clear that strange things are happening. What I want to know, is how much of the strangeness are you familiar with?” She was silent for several long seconds. “If you have no idea what I’m talking about, of course, you can just ignore it.”

Susan didn’t speak. She just gave him a bemused, slightly frightened look. Nash sighed. “Alright. Let’s move on with this. You think that Megara Drakos was responsible for Dean’s death. Do you have any kind of proof of that?”

“Someone killed him. Right?” Susan’s voice was very soft. Nash shrugged.

“I don’t think that his death was just an act of nature. I don’t know about murder. I haven’t met anyone in this city who seemed like they wanted to kill him.”

Susan sighed. “He was- something good in our lives. Me and Isabelle grew up together, and we were always lonely. There aren’t a lot of people our age in the city. And we looked weird, compared to the other girls. My eyes, Isabelle’s hair, we never really fit in. And the fact that we’re adopted. Not even Japanese. They’d tease us about those things. The mean things that kids say, you know?” She bit her lower lip. “But Dean- he came here, and he liked us. He said we were the only interesting people in the whole city. He was always talking about how someday, we’d all leave together, and do something actually important. He was so confident about the future, and it made us believe, too.” Those green eyes swam, and tears dripped down her cheeks. “And Mrs Drakos doesn’t even care. She’s just been cold throughout the whole thing. This really nice, sweet boy is dead, and-” She shook her head, taking a deep breath. Nash studied her for a long few seconds.

“So, how long have you been in love with Dean?” he asked, nonchalantly. She recoiled, as though she’d been slapped.

“It wasn’t like that. He was Isabelle’s. I just liked them both.” She didn’t meet his eyes as she spoke. “I would never do that to Isabelle.” Nash nodded sympathetically, and stood up.

“If you happen to get ahold of any evidence, then I’ll be happy to consider it. Thank you for telling me about all of this.” He stood up, and she grabbed his wrist. He looked back at her, raising his eyebrow.

“Please. Whoever did this. Make sure that they pay for what they did to him.” She looked him in the eye, green eyes full of pain. “They don’t deserve to live if he’s dead.” Her voice was slightly hoarse, and ragged. He felt a strange gnawing sensation, a tension inside of her, a tortured helplessness that was all-too-familiar. A part of him was almost moved by the emotional plea.

“I’ll make sure that justice is served.” Hollow words. They could mean anything, after all. He stepped out of the janitor’s closet, and walked down the hallways to the rear exit of the school. The day was a beautiful one. Summer’s heat was still in the air, but tempered slightly by the oncoming fall. September was just around the corner, and with it, colder days. Winter would come soon. He walked across the well-cut grass. The school’s athletics field was surrounded on three sides by the dense forest. He stared into the woods, and walked over to one of the large sets of aluminum bleachers. He sat on the second-lowest row, and stared out into the forest.

Everyone he had met in the city lied to him. Sometimes it was a lie of omission. Sometimes they lied to his face. It was hard to imagine that he was in a city populated by myths, and there were still greater secrets that were being kept from him. It made reading people nearly impossible. Take Isabelle, for example. She’d been lying when she said she’d burned her fingers cooking. But could it have been her who attacked him the night before? Or was it something else she was lying about? Susan had lied to him while she was explaining her history with her friends, but was it because there was something sinister? Or was it the simple lies of a teenager, embarrassed by their own selfish desires, and overestimating the animosity between mother and child? He sighed, leaned back, and saw Pearl approaching the bleachers from the other side. Even she had lied to him, though mostly by omission. She had told him that what was important was that he learn the truth for himself. He could appreciate that. It meant she was willing to let him make up his own mind about what he found. “What’s up?” he asked, as she approached. The look on her face was grave.

“Megara Drakos is leading a demonstration in downtown. Things are getting ugly.” He spat out an oath, as he stood up.

“Got any riot gear?” She raised an eyebrow. “Right. Town full of monsters and heroes. A plastic shield and a baton probably aren’t going to be much good. Shit. Let’s get down there. Maybe we can stop anyone from getting murdered today. What’s her beef?”

“She’s claiming that Irayama Onnashi murdered her son.”

Chapter 9: Subduction

Silas Nash had never been in a riot before. He tended to arrive in places after the riots happened, or sometimes, just before. He was not a riot officer. He was very glad for all of these facts. A riot was humanity at its worst. People got panicky in large groups. A single thing set someone off, and suddenly, everyone was angry at ‘the other’. And a man in uniform was always the other. Things were destroyed in riots. Businesses were lost in riots. Cops died in riots. Innocent people died in riots. The riots didn’t care, because they didn’t have a brain.

It always started the same way. A group of people. Angry and frustrated because something had hurt them, and they had no idea what to do in response. So they gathered together and stewed and got mad until anything could justify violence. Sometimes, it was deliberate action by someone who wanted to see things go wrong. Sometimes, it was damn stupid cops. Sometimes, it was just the wrong word said at the wrong time. Suddenly, a group of calm, sensible, intelligent professionals became a pack of feral animals, looking for blood. And then, there was nothing for it but to let the anger burn itself out.

And Nash’s first riot was going to be a crowd of supernatural monsters and heroes from the heart of humanity’s nightmares. He took out his gun, and stared at it for a moment, as Pearl drove the car. This thing wasn’t going to do him any good. He carefully slid out the clip, checking it, and pulled the slide back. A bullet ejected, and he caught it in mid-air, popping it into the clip. Both items went under the car’s chair. “You don’t want to go into this armed, huh?” Pearl asked. Her body was bent forward under the stress of the last couple of days. Her eyes were rimmed with bruised purple skin like a raccoon. He wasn’t sure she’d been sleeping right. But her driving was as smooth as silk.

“Would it help?”

Pearl laughed softly. “Probably not. Even if they were normal people, all it would do is kill them and piss everyone else off. As it stands, it won’t even kill them.” She sighed softly. “I didn’t think things would decay this fast. I really thought everyone would be able to hold it together. At least for a little while.” She looked very sad.

“People are people, even when they’re not technically people.” Silas muttered. The car drove on. “Do you think that there’s a chance that this is going to end peacefully?”

Pearl sighed. “Maybe. If we’re really lucky.” She frowned. “The racial tensions… I never really thought about them. Those were concerns for humans, you know? Petty, silly little differences of ethnicity. We’re supposed to be more ancient than that. Beyond that. I thought we were living in peace because we were better.” She stared at the road ahead. “I guess we were just tranquilized.”

“Well, you’re only human.” She turned towards Nash, frowning, and saw the smile on his face. She couldn’t help the grin that spread across her pretty features, or the soft laugh that filled the air between them.

“For better or for worse, right-” The car screeched to a halt, and she swore loudly, as they turned a corner and nearly ran into the column of pedestrians. Pearl pulled to the side of the road, parking, as Nash undid his seat-belt. There had to be a hundred people in the column, walking together in grim silence. They were still about a quarter mile away from the development where the Japanese population was largest.

The city layout had been explained to Nash on the drive. The Greek settlers had mostly built homes in the rural area around the city. They had settled down among the hills back when the area was primarily rural. The Japanese had moved in, filling the large lot of suburban housing near the city center. And the Native American population had consolidated along the shoreline, primarily in a pair of large apartment towers that had been built in the late 70s, and sat overlooking Lake Ontario, just beyond the suburban areas. It was like a snapshot of 20th century housing structures, all rolled together.

Walking down the road were scattered groups, gathered together from the different houses among the hills and valleys around the city. Some had walked there. A few had driven. All of them were quiet. There was none of the shouting, or menace, or waving of hands that were usually found in a riot. That would have made it less frightening, less focused. There were just a hundred or so people walking down the road, with cold steel in their eyes, towards the Japanese neighborhood. Visible a little ways down the road, sitting in a fold-out chair, Irayama Onnashi was seated on the outskirts of the suburban area. She looked completely unconcerned, staring down the mob as they approached. The elderly woman had two cigarettes in one hand, and a large can of beer in the other. She took a swig from the beer as Nash met her eyes. She’d dressed in a pair of sandals, a jaunty pair of too-tight-for-her-age jean shorts, and a tie-dyed shirt. A gold chain hung around her neck, with a wedge-shaped black gem hanging from it. Two deputies, and Sergeant Dio, stepped out of a side street, between Nash and Irayama. Nash fell into line with the column. The people in the group gave him cold looks, from time to time. He just did his best to not look threatening as he approached the head of the crowd. Megara Drakos walked, with the perfect poise and calm of a queen. She did not seem to notice her entourage. She moved as though nothing could stop her, and when she paused in front of Sergeant Dio, it was clear she did it only because she chose to.

Sergeant Dio was not a tall man, but he was built to thick proportions, arms thick, shoulders broad. He lifted a cigar to his lips, and lit it, taking a deep puff. He was dressed in his uniform, but the only weapon he carried was his baton. “No shotgun, Officer? No rifle? You’re not dressed to stop me.” Dio puffed on the cigar as Nash watched. His free hand hung at his side, just by the baton, but not quite touching it.

“I never needed a rifle or a shotgun to wound the gods, Mrs Drakos. May I ask why you have so many of my good neighbors and friends out on this beautiful day?” He puffed at his cigar again, his eyes hard. “It’s a good day for a barbecue, I have to say. Maybe you should all be settling down around the grill, enjoying a pleasant meal, instead of right here, trying to get past me.” He tilted his head to the side. There was a sound like a bag of walnuts being stamped on heavily as he cracked his neck. Nash winced, and slipped slightly closer, moving towards the two of them. They were standing barely a foot apart from one another. She was as tall as him, and they looked one another in the eye. The two deputies let out strangled cries, and the four or five individuals right behind Megara Drakos backed away, pained expressions on their face. It was as though a wave of pressure had driven them back. Nash couldn’t see Harry Constantinou anywhere.

“You forget your mortality so easily, Sergeant Dio. You wounded gods with the help of another god. Look around. There is no bright-eyed Pallas to help you here today. You are not up to this task.”

Nash stepped up. “Pardon me, Mrs Drakos.” Both of the figures turned their heads towards him, eyes sharp, expressions slightly surprised. He noticed the deputies and the people behind Megara regaining their composure. “I do apologize for representing the forces of law and order here, today. But do you mind telling us what, precisely, you’re doing?” She narrowed her eyes at him, and then seemed mildly offended when he did not crumple, broken, to the floor. She gave a haughty sniff.

“My son in law is dead. I believe I know the culprit. Do you wish to stop me? Even Sergeant Dio here would think very carefully about coming between me and justice for my children.” Sergeant Dio sucked on the cigar, a cloud of foul-smelling smoke growing around him, but he did not disagree.

“Really? Then why, exactly, is your husband not here at your side? Did he not approve of what you were doing? Or did you not tell him?” He could read the points he had scored off of her in the hatred in her eyes. So, she had an idea that what she was doing wouldn’t have sat right with Harry. That was very interesting.

“Ahhh, let her come. I’m not afraid of talking to the young lady.” Irayama’s voice called from down the lane. She was perhaps fifty feet away, and Nash, Drakos, and Dio all turned towards her at once. She was still seated, two cigarettes in her mouth, smoking industriously, a smirk on her face. Sergeant Dio stepped aside, with a reluctant frown, and the deputies flanked the column as they approached.

Irayama didn’t stand as Megara loomed in front of her. She had a faintly amused expression on her face. “So, the old mother thinks that she has all the answers, does she? You go to such great depths for revenge, all for a child who is not even yours. I can respect that, Drakos. But you could do with a little wisdom and clarity of thought.” Irayama took a deep puff from the cigarettes. “What makes you so certain that you have come to the right assailant, hmm? There are many people in this city. Many…” She sneered. “Monsters for you to question.”

Megara looked down at her, vision cold and haughty. “You presume too much, as always, barren woman. I know the people of this city. No one of my people would be foolish enough to take the life of a child under my care. No one of the indigenous would be so brazen as to insult me. It was you, your daughter, or the little green snake girl. You can tell me, and sacrifice the one responsible to my wrath. Or you can resist me, and I will take the blood I am owed by force. The choice is yours.”

Irayama sneered, and spat. The thick, black, tarry wad of saliva arced through the air in a perfect trajectory. It splattered against Megara’s cheek. The entire world held its breath, as the dark-haired woman stared. She didn’t seem to recognize that it had happened at first. Her hand raised slowly to her cheek, wiping away the tarry wad. She stared at her fingers for a few second, as Dio and Nash watched, tensed to move. It was a pointless exercise. When she moved, it was with the speed of lightning, and the unstoppable fury of an avalanche. Adrenaline pounded in Nash’s chest as the world seemed to slow down. Her fist fell like the Roman empire, promising a thousand years of darkness.

The fist struck something. There was a sound like an unbreakable plastic bottle being struck with a sledgehammer. The fist stopped in mid-air, a half an inch from the tip of the flaming cigarette. Irayama Onnashi laughed, a sound as rough and ancient as the grinding of continents. She pulled the two cigarettes out of her mouth, and flicked them out, onto the fine leather of Megara Drakos’ shoes. “The folly of passion and power. It always believes it can trump experience and planning.” Onnashi smirked. “I shall allow you to have your little temper tantrum, mother of monsters. All my children shall be safe under my skirt.” She sneered. “Would that you could offer your own child such a guarantee.” The Greek woman’s fist flickered out again. There was another tremendous noise, as Onnashi stood up. “You really should not have allowed me to build without your oversight, Drakos.” She sneered.

“I will destroy this! And you!” Megara shouted, as Onnashi turned away, without an apparent care. Megara turned to the crowd, dark fury in her eyes, as she walked. The crowd separated into two long lines. The tension in the air was growing thicker by the second, as people watched, eyes drifting from Megara to the point on the road that divided the city, now. It was at that moment that Nash saw it. One of the deputies had his hand on his gun. And behind him, her arms draped languorously around him, was the red-haired woman. She was whispering in his ear. The man’s eyes were wide and nervous, and he was tense. Silas tried to run towards him. It was too late. The gun came out of its holster.

“Mrs. Drakos! I am arresting you, under conspiracy to-” Megara turned, and her eyes flickered. There was a crack of thunder, as the man’s finger twitched. Megara did not even blink, as the bullet fell to the ground, leaving her face unmarked. It had turned into a small pancake of lead, which now rattled, red-hot, on the pavement.

“Run rampant,” she said. Her voice was barely above a whisper, but it carried clear across the silent street.

Deliberate provocation. Damn stupid cops. And the wrong word at the wrong time. That’s what made a riot. And with those words, the street exploded into violence. Angry people who felt powerless, which stung even worse because they were used to power. Bodies shifted, changed. Nightmare shapes erupted forth. A man nine feet tall, with the head of a bull, charged into the hapless deputy who had fired the instigating shot. There was a sound of meat striking meat, thick and weighty. A trio of enraged women, shrieking, talon-footed, with wings instead of arms, descended on the other deputy. All four were driven back by Sergeant Dio. He moved forward like a thunderbolt, the tip of his baton driven into the bull-man’s ribs with a sound like branches snapping underfoot. He brought it around in a great arc, striking the bird-winged women aside, letting out a fierce cry as he protected his men.

Nash stared into the eyes of a woman with long, messy hair, and a psychotic expression. Her fingernails were sharp as knives, and glittered. He stepped forward, and danced around her slashing blows, slipping around her. The crowd was spreading out, taking its anger out on the authority figures, empty huoses, trash cans, anything they could break. He danced and weaved, ducking under blows and twisting out of the way of errant strikes as people spread out. He danced between the random strikes, feeling the displacement of air from each attack as he raced after Megara. The crowd opened up, and he sped, every footstep finding solid pavement, never tripping or mis-stepping. A single word from her could end this whole thing right now. He reached out for her, grabbing her shoulder. She whirled, faster than him by far, and grabbed his collar, lifting him bodily into the air, her eyes flashing. “You are a very foolish man, Agent. Allow me to give you a lesson in wisdom.”

He grabbed her thumb, trying to pull at the point of weakness. There was no weakness to be found in her. All the strength in both his arms couldn’t even bend the digit back. She lifted her other arm deliberately, and curled her fingers into a fist with obvious relish. He didn’t even see her arm move as she slammed her fist into his forehead. There was no transition, no blur of action. One moment, her arm was cocked, and the next, the world exploded into stars and light. He went limp in her arms. She struck him again. The world went black.

He awoke in the squad car. Pearl was driving. Dio and the two deputies, all three looking the worse for wear, sat in the back. He reaches up to his skull, and pain blossomed. He felt like his head was only staying together out of habit. “Christ. What the hell is she?” he asked, grunting, his forehead aching.

“Echidna. Bride of Typhon, Mother of Monsters. One of the single most powerful, dangerous figures in the legends of Greece.”

“Shit. How do I stand a chance against something like that?”

Pearl looked across the seat at him. “You’re going to need Gene’s help. She’s been looking for you, anyway.”

Pearl dropped him off at the garage. Gene was standing in front of the building. The tall, brown-skinned woman was frowning. Someone had thrown a brick through the window on the door, which now hung open. The brick sat on the floor of the garage, in the middle of a small pile of glass. Nash approached her, and she turned, frown drifting back to a neutral expression. She sighed softly, waving a hand expansively towards the wall. ‘What a mess’. He nodded softly. Her body language was getting easier to read. She raised an eyebrow. ‘What do you want?’

“I need your help, Gene. I know what you are. And I need the power that you have to offer.” He straightened his back, feeling like the situation deserved a bit of decorum. She pointed towards the window. “The riot?” She nodded. “You want me to stop it.” She nodded again. “And… how exactly do you expect me to do that? Just so I’m clear.” She frowned, rubbing her chin. Then she mimed striking herself on the back of the head. “Beat people… That’s probably not going to be very effective.” She nodded. She held up a hand, opening and closing it, mimicking a jabbering mouth. “Talk them down. Yeah, I don’t think I know nearly enough about the people in this city to do that. Not to mention, I get the feeling that nobody’s in the mood for listening.” She nodded again. Then, she held two fingers up behind her head, one from each hand. He stared. She couldn’t be serious. “Is that supposed to be… Batman?” She flicked her nose. “Intimidate them.” She nodded. “Intimidate a riot.” She nodded again, more vigorously. “Into dispersing.” She rolled her eyes. “You understand that this is rather a lot to ask.” She twirled a finger in a circle, dismissing his conerns. The sound of breaking glass and shouting was growing louder. “Can you do anything to help me be a little bit more… intimidating?” She paused for a moment, and nodded, waving for him to follow her.

The two of them walked into the garage. She looked around through the tools on the wall, and picked up a large spanner. Then, in one smooth movement, she whirled, and brought it across the crown of his head. He swore loudly, grabbing his skull, as the pain blossomed again, reminding him of the two horrid blows to the head he’d already taken. Then she held out the wrench to him. It had been snapped clean in half, the steel gleaming where it had broken off. He stared down at it, and up at her. She tapped her own head.

Nash had once heard that human bone scored a 5 on the Mohs hardness scale. It was, in certain circumstances, even stronger than that. It was harder, pound for pound, than steel. Often, this didn’t matter much, as the bone was also fairly thin, and it certainly wasn’t a good idea to test your skull against a lump of iron. But… the idea fluttered in his head. It was an insane idea. He looked up at Gene, and she smiled. He was insane too, wasn’t he? She leaned forwards, and kissed his forehead. Abruptly, the pain was gone, and he felt, for a moment, like a new man. Still fatigued, flesh still aching, but strong. He nodded, and turned to the door.

He stepped out into the open air of the road. Heather’s hotel was on one side, Gene’s garage on the other. Two reminders of what would be lost. Maybe he didn’t care for this town, but the Sisters had gone out of their way to trust him, to protect him. They said they didn’t need his protection, but he could still damn well protect them. The mob was working its way up the street like a stalking beast. It had come this way before, but apparently it was hungry for another round. Nash stood in the road, as the wind blew. It was mid-day, but clouds had blown in from the lake. The sky was gray, streaks of light visible between the denser formations. He stepped forward, walking towards the people, his tie swaying in the wind. Blood was still trickling down his face, dripping onto his chin. His skull had taken a real beating today. What was one more blow? Maybe it’d cave his head in, and he’d die in the street. He remembered, his mind working feverishly in the face of death, that he hadn’t taken his medication since yesterday. That made sense. He certainly felt psychotic.

The crowd slowed as it approached him. Like any powerful thing confronted by something seemingly helpless and unthreatening, it was frightened by his defiance. He smiled brightly. This seemed to be the main body of the riot. “Ladies and gentlemen! I’m offering you a chance, here. A chance to go home, quietly, and disperse, with no harm done to anyone. I know you’re angry. I know you’re frightened. And I know that you feel like you have to do something. What I’d recommend, right now, is returning home, and hugging your children.” A glass wine bottle arced out of the crowd, and he caught it in one hand. The strong smell of alcohol filled the air as a few drops fell to the ground. The people had been drinking, and getting angrier. Working themselves up. “Let me make this a simple choice. You can either choose to go home, or you can choose to be dragged home.” Jeers spread out of the crowd, as people laughed. He smiled along with them. “Alright, then. Which one of you thinks that you have what you need to take me?” He was only a human. Not a hero, not a monster. And yet, just for a moment, he saw the fear run through their eyes. The same fear that ran through the eyes of every person who met him in this place. They thought he didn’t notice, but there was that little moment where their eyes met his, and they flinched. The thing that monsters feared.

A man pushed his way out of the crowd of monsters. He was a crowd all his own. Twelve feet tall, his skin shone like bronze. There was a nail in one ankle, and he wore nothing but a pair of briefs. “You’re an outsider. You seem like a decent man. Law-abiding,” the man said. His voice was full of the whirr of gears and the crackle of fire. “You go back to your hotel, outsider. Leave this work to real men.” A raucous set of laughter filled the crowd, as the bronze man turned towards them, raising his hands. Playing to the crowd. Nash chuckled. He knew a little bit about classic mythology. Enough to recognize that nail. If he was any judge, this fight would’ve been an easy one for someone quick. Pull out that nail, and the big bronze man died. It was a pretty famous weakness that Talos had. It would’ve been quick, and it would’ve outraged the crowd, and they would’ve ripped Nash apart where he stood. Tricky didn’t work when you were dealing with a riot. You couldn’t win just one fight. You had to win every fight at once.

“Tell you what, big guy. I’ll give you the first punch. If you still want to fight after that, well, I’ll be happy to.” The crowd went silent, as the bronze man turned back towards Nash. One eyebrow was raised.

“You think that I wouldn’t hit you because you’re a government man? What is anybody going to do? Prosecute the giant bronze man? Go home, little human. You’re out of your league.” Nash never broke eye contact. He was acting like a madman, he knew, but that was to his advantage at the moment.

“Take the swing, then. Cherry-tap if you’re scared. But I’d hit hard, because I won’t be pulling my punches.” Nash let his eyes flicker down to the nail, and the bronze man narrowed his eyes. A little threat. Making it clear that the bronze man had to take him seriously. All part of the plan. Nash’s vision swam for just a moment, and he shook his head. When he opened his eyes again, Talos was bringing a fist down on him. The blow fell like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

Nash had once read about breaking bricks. The trick was the first moment of the strike. In that first moment, if you hit hard enough, then either the bricks were going to break because you’d done it right, or your hand was going to break because you’d done it wrong. He set his legs, knees bending slightly, shoulders squared, neck tensing. He didn’t reach for the arm. He simply braced himself as it fell, so the force wouldn’t break his legs when he was struck. The fist met his skull, and his brain rattled in its case. He managed to keep his feet, barely, and was aware of a low, keening sound. The giant bronze man was sinking down onto his knees, cradling the hand he’d used to strike Nash. His teeth were clenched together, tears of molten metal running down his cheeks. Nash stood up straight. His skull was throbbing, but he couldn’t feel any air rushing across his brain. He reached out, resting his fingers on the bronze man’s broken hand, and looked around the crowd. He didn’t squeeze, but the Colossus went very still. “Anyone else?”

The entire crowd contrived to look as though they had just been along as neutral observers, to ensure that nobody would be hurt, and that of course these bottles weren’t for throwing at anybody, and they didn’t know anything about any vandalism. He didn’t care about their innocence or guilt. His head hurt. “You. You. And you.” He pointed out three figures in the crowd. “Help me carry this man to my car. Then, one of you is going to drive him to the clinic, so he can get his hand fixed up.” He pointed at a woman in the crowd, who had an almost ant-like appearance, hard chitin plates on her arms and legs, a short sword in her hand. She flinched at the outstretched finger “Here are my keys. You drive him there, and deliver my car back.” He tossed her the keys, and she caught them with all the enthusiasm of someone who has been tossed a grenade. “And not one scratch. Understood?” He turned his eyes across the rest of the crowd. “Don’t the rest of you have families to get home to? I’m sure they’re worried sick.”

By the time they had moved Talos to the car, the crowd had dispersed. He’d been lucky. A man of bronze, a nice soft metal. And one who could strike hard enough to really hurt himself if he ran into something strong enough. And, of course, the mad, impossible gambit paying off. His head felt fractured, but he had succeeded. Talos had shrunk back to a vaguely human size, the seven foot tall man cringing in the back seat, nursing his hand carefully. The others had changed back too, shame on their faces. And every one of them looked at him like he was a nightmare. The thought almost made him want to laugh.

As the car drove away, Nash looked down at his shirt. Blood trickled across it. His forehead was cut from the repeated blows it had taken. He sighed. That was going to be damned difficult to get out. Heather was going to be pissed off beyond words at him. He smiled to himself, as he walked towards the door. He would sleep for a few hours- That bullshit about not sleeping with a concussion was an old wives’ tale- and take an anti-psychotic, and then probably berate himself for what he had done today. He slipped his key into the hotel door. Then he frowned. The door was unlocked.

He raised his hands in a fighting stance. He turned the knob, just enough to let it slide out of the frame. Then he kicked it hard, slamming it open, and rushed into the room, eyes darting. There was no sign of anything disturbed. He reached down to grab for the bottle of anti-psychotics from the endtable, and his fingers closed around cold metal. He raised the small cylinder. About an inch long, roughly the same size as his medication, a yellow cylinder capped with a copper-red top. A single round of .45 ACP. It was a very familiar round. It was the kind that he used in his service fire-arm. Carved into the bullet were four words, in an incredibly fine script, as though it had been cast with them.

“Come and get me.”

Chapter 10: Shear Stress

“Nash? Nash!” Someone was shaking him. Nash opened his eyes slowly. A broad red stripe, dried and flaking, was painted across the pillow. He reached his hand up to his forehead. The bandage had soaked through. Heather turned him over onto his back, a furious expression on her face. She wore a tight-fitting black sweater that emphasized certain parts of her body in a way he couldn’t quite ignore in his current brain-scrambled state. She was wearing a tight pair of canvas shorts, and her hands were on his shoulders. “What did I tell you to do?”

“Not get myself into situations where I was going to get killed,” he said muzzily.

“And what did you do?”

“Dared Talos to punch me in the head as hard as he could.” He grunted, sitting up. His head spun slightly. “Someone got in here. Took my anti-psychotics. Chances are good that I’m going to start getting unstable.” He tried to stand up, and the dark-skinned woman pushed him down gently. “Heather, I need-” She rested a hand on his forehead. It was cool, and for a moment, he just sat there, enjoying the gentle touch. It felt like a wave of cold travelled through his feverish brain, and down through his aching neck. When she removed her hand, he felt whole again. He sighed softly. “I’m sorry. But it was the only way I could think of to break up the riot. Beating one idiot with my bare hands just tells everyone else that they should rush me. If he takes a swing at me and he breaks his hand on me, well, it intimidates the hell out of them.”

“And if they’d decided to try their luck anyway?”

Nash snorted. “I’d get beaten to death, obviously. But that was going to happen anyway, sooner or later.” Nash sighed, rubbing his forehead. “That was amazing, what you just did. Any chance I can do that?” She smiled apologetically.

“Few people have a talent for healing. I’m afraid you’re not quite right for it.” She caught his questioning look, and bit her lip. “I’m sorry, Nash. But healing is a rare and painful gift. It’s rare that it gives more to the recipient than it takes from the healer. And you have barely enough life for yourself.”

Nash nodded, and sighed. “What’s the news with the riot?”

“Things have quieted down. Most of the people have returned to their homes. The Japanese community are keeping to their homes. The Greeks have all gone back up into the hills. And other than Doctor Smith, most of the Native American people here have holed up in the apartments. It’s…” Heather sighed. “I can’t believe things went bad this quickly.” She frowned.

“I’ve been seeing someone. A woman in red. She’s appeared to me a few times. And each time she does- Things get bad. Really bad. Unspeakably bad.” He looked Heather in the eye. She wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Who is she?”

Heather took a deep breath. “Look. The reason that Pearl and the rest of us are so reticent is… There are rules to this whole thing. The more we talk to you about this conflict, the more the other side gets to interfere. Certain things are forbidden. Me telling someone her name before they know? That would be terrible. It would call her. It would tell her that we weren’t playing by the rules anymore. And trust me when I say that she is at her strongest when there are no rules left. So- even when it’s obvious. Even when it’s staring you in the face. I can’t tell her your name, because it would end the game, and turn this into a brawl. And we’d probably lose. You, on the other hand, are just a mortal. If you should happen to make connections, then…”

“War.” Heather flinched, but nodded. “So, what does she want?” Heather frowned at him. “Okay. Another thing that I have to answer for myself. Every time I’ve seen her, it’s been around conflict. She showed up when I went to the graveyard, when I was in the shack last night, and today… I swear she made that deputy start the riot. She’s creating conflict, and strife, because… Hell. I guess because she’s War.” Heather watched Nash as he talked himself through it, her face not betraying a clue. But that was its own kind of answer. “Alright. But why she’s involved isn’t so important, is it? Her motives are simple, she wants to destroy things. The question is how.” He frowned. “You said there were rules. That you couldn’t do certain things. But you’ve been giving me a hell of a lot of power, to do things myself. So, War can’t be interfering too directly, or telling people what to do, but…” He stopped, and stared at Heather. She watched him quietly. “Heather. Can the Horsemen give gifts?”

Heather let out a sigh of relief, as though a great weight had been taken off of her. “They can. They tend to target people while they’re young. Whoever is doing War’s bidding in this city, they have been touched by War for a long time. She can only appear directly to those who have been touched by War.” Nash sat quietly, thinking for a while. On the one hand, there were a fair number of young people in the city, who seemed to be involved with this case. Then, he realized who he needed to talk to.

“Gene- I promised that I’d see her after I finished with the riot.” He frowned, and looked down at his clothing. His outfit was, once again, in bad shape. He sighed. “I hate to ask this, but- Do you happen to have any spare clothing around?” He gave her a wan smile.

The outfit was exactly what he deserved. A bright, raucous blue-and-red Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of khaki shorts, completed by a pair of sandals. “Who the hell left this here?” Nash asked, a horrified look on his face. Heather smiled, and pecked him on the cheek, and whispered into his ear.

“It’s these or in the nude, Nash, sweetie. I’d recommend not going to face Gene or Megara when you’re wearing nothing, because those girls might get ideas, but I certainly can’t stop you.” She gave him a grin. “Now, get changed.” He paused for a moment. She was making no move to leave the room.

“You couldn’t, say, give me a little bit of privacy?” he asked, a bit flushed.

“Oh, heavens no. You’re a little bit careless about your own body, Nash. I want to make sure that you haven’t gotten injured without realizing it. Don’t worry, though, honey. You don’t have anything that I haven’t seen before.” He gave her a look. “Now, now, come on. I’m an ancient manifestation of the Water itself. What possible prurient interests could I have in a human?”

Nash grunted, as he started to undress. He pulled his jacket off, and unbuttoned the bloody dress shirt. He heard her make a soft, appreciative little noise as he lifted his undershirt over his head, and the flush must have reached from his head to his toes. He pulled it off, shooting the woman a furious look. She giggled, a sweet smile on her face. “Come now, Nash, you really don’t have anything to be embarrassed about. You should appreciate a bit of positive attention.” She winked at him. “Now, aren’t you going to take off those pants?”

“You’re enjoying this,” he said. He’d never been in a situation like this. Frankly speaking, he’d never been able to sustain a romantic relationship. Of course, he could’ve been Wilt Chamberlain and the situation would still be intimidating. She was, after all, a primordial goddess. That could make anyone feel inadequate. He turned around, considering that this only made the embarrassment a bit worse. He unzipped the pants, pulling them down quickly, and grabbed the shorts, hoping that maybe if he hurried, he could change his clothes before she saw anything incriminating.

“Oh, my. Are you really giving a striptease for my sister?” Nash went bolt upright. It had been Ariel’s voice, whispered in his ear. He whirled in surprise, looking around quickly. Ariel stood right next to Heather. Nash’s jaw dropped. Heather raised a eyebrow. She seemed to notice that Nash was looking behind her, and turned her head, her head scanning past Ariel. The green-and-blue-haired woman looked slightly surprised herself. “Oh. You can hear me?” She grinned. “What a surprise.” She stepped past Heather, who was looking at him curiously, and leaned in, studying his bare chest. “Well, you’re hardly Harry, but not bad, all the same.”

“Heather, is Ariel in the room at the moment?” Nash asked, his tone slightly choked. A full hallucination. Happening already. He was losing it. Ariel gave him a hurt look, even as Heather shook her head.

“Oh, you paranoid-” Ariel waved a hand. Air rushed through the room, and Heather looked up, a smile spreading over her face. “Dumbass. I gave you a gift. A little bit of me is inside you, if you know what I mean. I must admit, though, I’m rather surprised that you can see me. The heroes I give my gift to are only dimly aware of me.” She smiled. “Well, don’t let me interrupt. Keep giving my sister a show. This is the most entertainment I’ve gotten in decades.” The blue-and-green-haired woman dispersed, leaving Nash standing stock-still, facing Heather.

“So. These gifts that you’re giving. They mean that all of you get a little place in my head to hang out, and watch everything I do.”

Heather smiled apologetically. “Well… It’s not as if we’re paying attention, all the time. Just, you know, when we catch something of interest.” Nash stared. “We like to be involved in people’s lives!” Nash kept staring. “And maybe we’re a little voyeuristic?” Heather was no longer making eye contact, playing with a lock of hair, a nervous smile on her face. “Some people might suggest that getting superpowers in exchange for having a group of attractive young woman sharing your headspace isn’t a terrible trade.”

“So, in short, the price of power is having an audience if I should ever decide to get naked again, and a peanut gallery if I should find myself in a compromising position.”

“More or less, yes. Really, you shouldn’t even be aware of us being there, I’m rather surprised.” She rubbed her chin. “Usually, it would take quite a lot of effort for Ariel to make herself heard from inside your head. I suppose you must be an unusually sensitive person.” She caught his expression, and smiled guiltily. “Sorry.”

“You’re not sorry.”

“Well, I’m sorry I’m not sorry.” Heather watched as he buttoned up the Hawaiian shirt. “I’ll have your clothes repaired by tomorrow morning. I’d tell you not to get yourself killed tonight, but I have an idea of who you’re going to confront, so that seems like a long shot.” She sighed softly. “But I’ll be here when you get back, okay? I’ll make you a little bite of dinner.” She gave him a warm smile. “I got in some seafood. It’ll be completely unacceptable if you die without getting a taste of my bouillabaisse.”

He smiled back. The idea of it was a strange one. He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d had a meal waiting for him when he returned home after a day’s work. It was a strange little touch of care, and on some deep level, it made him want to live through the night. That was an unusual desire, for him.

“I’ll be back. I promise.” He stood up, and pulled on the sandals one at a time. He stepped out of the hotel room door, noting that his car had been returned to the parking lot. That brought a little smile to his face. Better to be both feared and loved, but if you could only choose one, make it fear. He strode across the road. The main drag was silent. The sun still hung high in the sky, but it was mostly obscured by the thick, gray cloud cover. He wondered, briefly, whether he was schizophrenic.

“No.” Ariel stated, walking next to him. He stared at her. She could read his thoughts? “Yeah. Sort of, anyway. Simple ones. ‘Am I crazy’. You take anti-psychotics, and you’re seeing me appear out of thin air, obviously you’d start wondering that.” He wondered about his mother. “Yeah, see, I didn’t get that one. You’re not a schizophrenic, and I know that’s just what a hallucination would tell you, but it’s also what I’d tell you if I were real, so you’re just going to have to take my word for this, okay?”

“Were you talking to me last night?” he asked, an eyebrow raised. He still remembered her saving him from a fatal fall.

“No. That actually was a hallucination. And that wasn’t because you were schizophrenic. It was because you were doped up on cobra venom. Which is, as it happens, a hallucinogenic. Anything you heard me say was purely the product of your own fevered imagination, and exactly what you wanted to hear.” She crossed her arms, floating along next to him sedately. “So, you’re going to go confront Megara Drakos, huh? Finally decided to just end your own life? Because we both know that she’s not the killer.”

“This is about more than just the killer. This is about destabilization. The killer’s just one part of that. What Megara is doing is part of the plan, here, I know it. The horsemen have to be subtle, right? So, they’re going to be touching a lot of people, very lightly. Megara Drakos tried to lead a riot into the suburbs to accuse Irayama Onnashi of being behind her son’s death. That says to me that she’s destabilizing things. She’s the kid’s step-mother, and they had a rocky relationship, and now she’s going to try to kill someone over her step-son’s untimely death? That’s not a rational act, and that says outside influence to me.”

Ariel was silent for a few moments. “Remind me to tell you the story of Echidna, when we’re on our way up there,” she muttered. Nash walked up to the door, and knocked. It opened a second later, and Gene stood in the darkness inside. He bent his head.

“Teach me, sensei.” He risked a glance up at her. Her arms were crossed, a bemused look on her face, one eyebrow raised. “It seemed like the appropriate thing to do,” he explained, standing up straight. She sighed, and stepped back out of the doorway, leaving room for him to enter, holding out an arm as though to say ‘You first.’ He stepped through, and she closed the door after her. The two of them walked into the empty garage. She stood in the center of the room, her feet spread apart to the width of her shoulders, and faced him, an eyebrow raised again. “I want you to teach me how to use your gift. I dispersed the crowd without throwing a punch. I want to use that kind of strength to help people.”

She sighed, and nodded. She held up the wrench, broken in half by the strike against him. “That’s the thing you used to hit me. And…” He frowned. “Even swinging it hard enough to break it, it should’ve done more damage to me. Even if human bone is harder than that, it hit me hard enough that it could’ve cracked my skull. But it broke, instead. Is that one of the powers?” She nodded, and pointed to her own fist, and shook her head. “So… It’d stop an inanimate object. But it won’t work on living tissue?” She nodded. “That’d be a lot more useful if the people in this town weren’t strong enough to break me in half, you know.” She sighed, and approached him. She gestured, curling her palm up and bringing her fingers up in a pulling motion. The universal martial art signal for ‘Attack me so I can kick your ass.’

Ariel leaned against his shoulder. “I wouldn’t,” she whispered. He grumbled, and approached. He carefully held his stance, and swung. The swing wasn’t as clumsy as the one that he had used against Ariel, but he still wasn’t comfortable punching. It was strong enough, though, that it gave Gene momentum to work with. One hand wrapped around his wrist as she twisted, increasing the force of the blow. Her grip was like steel, completely unyielding as she pulled him towards her like an over-aggressive tango dancer. She pulled him across her chest, hip-checking him to break his contact with the ground. For a single, vertiginous moment, he swung through the air, loosening his body reflexively.

Falling was an art all its own. Spread the impact across as large an area as possible. He thrust his legs out, trying to flatten his body. Twisting to land where his body was most padded. He turned his arms, orienting himself. Prepare to roll. He spun weightlessly through the air, and then he felt Gene yank down hard enough to nearly yank his arm out of the socket. He accelerated towards the ground. There was a deep crunch as he struck the concrete floor, and the sound of something crumbling. He stared up at the ceiling. He was lying in a crater, about two feet deep, filled with fine powder. He pushed himself to his feet, as Gene nodded approvingly.

“Alright… Okay, yeah. I get it. The hard breakfall. If I’m thrown against something, and it breaks… It lets me absorb the impact better. Easier to land when your fall is being cushioned, rather than hitting something unyielding. Mind if we take a second before the next lesson?” His palms were scored, and bleeding slightly. The gritty powder had been easier to land on than a solid concrete floor, but it had scraped his skin up something fierce. He grunted as he leaned back, and looked at Gene. “So, why don’t you talk? Mute or something?” She shrugged. He stared for a few seconds, wondering if some more expressive gesture would follow, but she just picked up a can of soda, opened it, and took a swig. Mountain Dew. He raised an eyebrow at that, and she stared back at him, as though defying him to make a comment. He decided not to press his luck. “So. What do you think of me?” She paused for a moment, smacking her lips, holding the can in one hand. Then, she twirled a finger around one ear. “Crazy, huh? That seems a little unfair. I am schizophrenic, after all, I can’t help being a little crazy.” She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, everyone here keeps telling me that I’m not schizophrenic. And I just fought a twelve-foot tall man, made of bronze.” She mimed clapping, and grinned. “You liked that, did you? Yeah, I felt pretty proud of myself too. Can’t believe it worked.” She twirled her finger around her ear again. “Yeah, okay, so, you might have a point about the crazy thing.” Something nagged at his mind. He tried to focus. Then he turned his head, and Ariel coalesced out of the air. “You didn’t need to kiss me with tongue after all, did you?”

The spirit of air went bright red. “It works differently for each of us! Gene’s just a bit more restrained than the rest of us!” Gene fixed a slightly perplexed look on the spot between Nash and the thin air he was arguing with.

“Sorry, just arguing with the voices in my head. Alright, then. What’s next?” She nodded, and put down the can of soda. She stepped up to him, and her hands grabbed him. Strong and firm, they went to his shoulders, first, forcing him to lower his posture. Another hand went to his inner thigh, pulling him into a more open stance in the most intimate way possible. Nash tried to ignore the soft laughter as Ariel watched. He was abruptly aware that he was going to have her in his head for the rest of his life. At least with schizophrenia, he’d known the voices in his head weren’t real. Gene continued positioning him, until she seemed satisfied. She stepped across from him, and entered a boxer’s stance. She met his eyes, and smiled. Then, she swung forward a quick, conservative jab. The blow struck forward quickly, and he reflexively dodged to the side, lifting his feet. Her other hand swung out in a swift blow, knocking into his ribs with trainwreck force, sprawling him across the floor. He gasped as he hit the ground, and she roughly hauled him back to his feet, forcing him to adopt the posture again.

She swung the jabs at him constantly, like a rain of hail. He dodged as best as he could, but every time he lifted his feet off of the ground to escape a blow, her other hand would swing out, delivering a hammerblow to his chest. He breathed hard. He could feel the red anger growing inside of him. The humiliation, and the irritation. He stood up once more, taking the stance before she could force him into it. He took another breath, through his nostrils, the vein in his forehead throbbing. Gene gave him a look, an eyebrow raised. He held up one hand, curling his fingers in. “Come on.”

She swung forward like an avalanche, instead of a person. Her stance was impeccable. A hail of blows flew forward, quick jabs meant to test the defenses, but each possessing the force necessary to knock him to the ground. His upper body spun and danced, as he felt a strange sense of suction. It was like standing on the shore as the waves rushed out, a sense of suction that strained to pull him off his feet. It was strength, he realized. The strength inside of her. Like the gravity around a planet, it pulled at him irresistibly, calling to him. He had to fight to keep from stumbling into her, leaning backwards from the blows. His chest rose and fell as he breathed, becoming hyperaware of his own body. He was growing fatigued, his torso aching from the violent movements. She could keep swinging her fists like this forever, he realized. He lifted one foot, and she took the bait, her other arm coming forward in a violent straight punch.

His foot struck the ground hard, cracking the concrete. He used the momentum to twist to the side, grabbing her arm. He placed one hand on her wrist, the other on her shoulder. And with a simple movement, he applied force, using her own stiffened arm as a lever. She broke contact with the ground, and spun through the air as he twisted her. She had to weigh more than he did, but at this moment, she felt light as a feather. She collided with the rack of tools hangingon the all, and fell to the ground. The anger left him in a sudden rush of horror.

He ran over to her, crouching by her tangled form. “Gene! Are you okay-” She flicked his nose, and it knocked him on his ass. Ariel laughed, a soft bell-like noise, and Silas felt the smile crawl onto his lips. Embarrassment fought with relief, and lost. Gene hopped up to her feet, and ruffled his hair, helping him to stand as well. She smiled, and he felt quite a lot better. “You were lighter than I expected.” She raised an eyebrow. “Or I was stronger.” She smiled. “So… That stance. You’re trying to teach me to hold my stance. That I’m stronger with both feet on the ground.” She nodded. He thought it over. The speed to shift out of the way of attacks, the stance to keep his feet planted while he did. It made a certain sense. “And…” He frowned. “I felt something, while we were fighting. Like a gravity, pulling me towards you.” He studied her. Her expression was very carefully blank. “I don’t know what I was expecting you to say.” He smiled, glancing out the broken window of the front door. The sky was growing darker. The sun was setting, and it had taken on an unhealthy yellow haze as it did, the color of stormlight. “I’ve got to go. Wish me luck.” Gene nodded. Then, she divided. One of her walked to his side, and rested a hand on his shoulder, while the other stayed where she was. He stepped out of the front door.

The air was tense. There was the smell of ozone all around. “Would it kill the weather to stay nice for more than six hours in a row?” he asked Ariel, as she walked along beside him.

“Conflict. That’s what does it. This place is on the borders between humans and monsters. Even the weather tends to get affected by that. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” The three of them walked across the road, towards the dirt roads that led up to the Drakos manor. “You’re really going through with this, aren’t you? You know what she is, right?”

“Mother of Monsters. A goddess. A source of terrible things, it sounded like. Yeah, I’ve got an idea, at least. I’m no expert, but I know about her.”

“Then you know that there’s no chance you’re going to defeat her. If she wants to kill you, she will.”

“She’s a mother, right? She’s not trying to protect her children. She’s trying to avenge them. And she’s ashamed of it, or Harry would have been alongside her. I might be able to make her see sense.”

“Let me tell you a little story.” Ariel nodded to Gene, and the world began to shift around them, as Nash walked along the dirt road. He could see the forest and the road, but he could also see a cave, lit by a flickering torch, overlaid across his surroundings.

It’s not clear where it started. Someone noticed there were monsters in the dark. They noticed that they were stronger than normal animals. And humans, being pattern-recognition machines, presumed something had to be making them. They had enough knowledge to be aware of mothers, and decided that there was a monster out there, the mother of other monsters. Tiamat. Echidna. Shub-Niggurath. Lilith. Leviathan. There were many different shapes for the same idea. She was the source of all of the monsters who existed. And because the natural tendency of humans is to assume that the creator must be greater, stronger, more than the created, she was terrible beyond words.

A pair of eyes opened, reflected in the torchlight. The slither of scales and the wet slap of membrane against stone. She was beautiful, and horrible, and the wife of the greatest of monsters. She was the greatest challenge that existed for heroes. She was what made all the beasts in the dark. Her skin shone like she had been rubbed with olive oil, her eyes like great piercing yellow diamonds. Her scales roiled and coiled. She was the primordial terror of the sea, of things that slithered. And she wept, for her fine children always met their end on the swords of men. So it was, from the beginning of the history, until the Great War.

The elementals weren’t certain when she changed. She had always stood apart from humanity, as was the way of the Greek monsters. She did not need them, she did not care for them. She appeared in the city in 1914, and claimed her right as matriarch to be the ruler of the place. She held the position through strength, and primacy, and queenly determination. She was the mother of all those who inhabited Zion, in spirit if not in fact. She’d stayed for close to a century, never making much of a fuss, allowing the city to spin on quietly, as she watched. Her exodus out of the city had been strange, a break in the tradition for the first time in nearly a century. She had left before, but seldom for more than a month or two at a time. And when she had returned from her years-long exodus with a human, a hero, in tow, along with his son, it had been cause for celebration. After all, if even cold Echidna could find love among humans, if she could open her heart, then perhaps the long peace was finally creating a chance for unity. Maybe the walls could be brought down and both races could live in harmony.

Gene tapped Nash’s shoulder. They were marching along the road, and the distraction made the phantom images vanish like like smoke caught in a wind. There was a scenic overlook, off to the right, giving an excellent view of the city. He stared. The dome was visible, a hemisphere that lay over the suburbs. It was visible because the rain was disturbed slightly by it, creating a ripple in the air. As Gene pointed, there was a sudden, brilliant flash of light. The lightning forked just once, into two parallel lines, striking the shield. It turned bright green for just a moment. “Shit. Echidna’s not playing around. She’s going to break down the barrier.” From here, the colors of the roofs blended together. Nash leaned forward, staring. Black and white roofing tiles, blending together…

“Pearl’s going to laugh her ass off about this,” he muttered. “I told her that homeowner associations couldn’t possibly be important.” He pointed. “Looks a little bit suggestive, doesn’t it?” The roofs, from this distance, almost seemed to make a tremendous taijitu. “Yin and yang. She must’ve been preparing for this for… decades.” He shot a glance at Gene. “Suspicious, isn’t it?”

Ariel sighed. “It doesn’t matter for the moment. Echidna’s trying to unbalance the barrier. If she does, best case scenario is that the riots renew. But pumping that much energy into a seal, she could unbalance it.” Ariel gave him a worried look. He didn’t ask what that meant. It wasn’t going to be good. He turned towards the top of the hill. The manor was just visible, from here. The clouds seemed to swirl around it, as though it was the point in a celestial axis, the entire world turning around it. Rain pounded down, heavy and thick, as he walked up the hill. He stood before the gate. He considered, for a moment, simply climbing over the fence. But he wasn’t a thief. He was the law, such as it existed in this place. He pressed the small white intercom button.

“Mrs. Drakos? It’s Agent Nash. I have a few questions for you.” The intercom was silent, but there was a buzz, and the gate swept open slowly. He stared up the path to the manor, the forest thinning out, leaving a bare green hump that the manor sat on like a great, ancient beast, waiting for him. Lightning crackled in the sky, his hair standing on end.

“Good luck, buddy. You’re going to need it.” Ariel muttered. Gene clapped him on the shoulder. And he walked up the path.

Chapter 11: Mohorovicic Discontinuity

Rainwater splashed down between Nash’s bare toes. The sandals, comfortable though they were, had not been designed for this kind of situation. They were meant for light sunshine and sand, not torrential rainfall. His feet were frigid. His colorful shirt plastered to his chest. Wind gusted in huge, ferocious bursts across the bare hilltop. Each time the lightning crackled between the clouds, every hair on his body stood on end, reacting to the intense static charges warring through the sky. Another bolt of lightning flickered down, and struck the barrier in two places. The color of the dome stood out as a bright blue for a few seconds, before drifting down through the rainbow. Green, yellow, settling on a dull red, and then flickering out. The sun had set. The only light came from the flashes of lightning across the tortured sky. It was perfect weather for confronting an enraged goddess trying to avenge the death of her stepson.

The manor was almost entirely dark. One window, on the second floor, on the far right of the building, was lit from within by an eerie green glow. Just like the kind he’d seen night before last at the graveyard, over the boy’s body.

Nash bit his lip as he stood at the front door. It hung slightly ajar, blown open by the ferocious winds. The manor was silent. All the lights were off. He took out his flashlight. His gun was still missing. Maybe Pearl had it. More likely a psychotic malevolent spirit of War had it. Thinking about it was going to stress him out, so he focused on the task at hand. Stepping out of the pouring rain, he shook the flashlight twice, and it came on, flickering slightly. A little rain must have gotten in the case. He stared around the foyer, blinking water out of his eyes. There was no sign of movement, except for the large glass terrarium, full of snakes. He watched them carefully, and stepped towards the stairs upwards. He flinched backwards as one of the snakes lunged at the glass, its eyes seemingly fixed on him. He turned to face it.

They were beautiful creatures, now that he studied them. Slithering across one another, all six seemed to take note of him, staring at him quietly. “Did one of you happen to bite Dean Constantinou?” They all shook their heads together, although it might have just been the way that he swung his flashlight from side to side. On the other hand… “Alright. But don’t leave town, okay?” A giddiness was growing inside of him. A desperate, howling laughter that was begging to explode out of him. He was going to try to arrest a goddess to find out who killed her step-son. She’d knocked him out with two punches before. She’d moved- ahaha- with snake-like speed when she did. And now he was going to try to fight her, with Aikido. Someone who, reliable sources had told him, was as old as human civilization. As old as writing. He must be crazy. The giggle that escaped his lips certainly didn’t sound sane.

He made his way over to the stairs. He walked up, not trying to muffle his movements. He wasn’t hiding who he was, here. He was in the right, more or less. He thought. That uncertainty made him nervous. Why had he come here? Because he wanted to know. All the strange things that Megara Drakos had done. The coldness she showed. The story of Echidna. The accusations of Irayama Onnashi. Why the hell would she do all of this? A part of him, a dark little part, thought it knew. She must have been touched by War. From the very beginning. It would explain a lot. Her children, according to myth, had been monsters and manslayers. It would make so much sense for her to be a tool of the Horsemen. Put her into the city from the very beginning, and allow the corruption to fester there. Let people lower their guards, and at the right moment, bring it all crumbling down. You could do more damage if you allowed something to build, until it was large and fragile. It all made a terrible sense, and she didn’t have to be the murderer to be War’s puppet. He took a deep breath, as he stepped onto the second floor. The green light was visible under the door of one of the rooms. He stepped towards it, and turned the knob.

Megara Drakos sat crouched in the small library. A large bay window pushed out of the wall, providing a perfect view of the city. She squatted in front of it, facing towards him. An elaborate mandala of black and white sand sat on the floor. “Why have you come to disturb me?” Megara asked. Her voice was weary. Her head was drooped low. She was dressed in nothing but a white shirt and a white skirt, and she seemed bent almost double under her own weight. Nash could feel the dragging gravity of her power, pulling him towards her. It wasn’t as strong as Gene’s had been, but it was terrifyingly formidable. “I allowed you to live this morning. Did you want to make me regret that decision so quickly?” She reached down, and picked up a pebble, less than an inch across, from a small heap by the sand. She lifted it into the air over the mandala, and took a deep breath, before dropping it. Outside, lightning crackled and snapped down to the dome, licking its surface. The pebble bounced and rolled off an invisible barrier, falling to the side of the mandala. Megara let out a sigh of exhaustion, as though it had been a monumental effort to lift the pebble. Nash wished he had the gun, but it probably wouldn’t be very intimidating. He stepped forwards. “Dressed in nothing but a silly little shirt and shorts, and…” She stared at the sandals for a moment. He looked down at himself. It was true. He did not exactly radiate authority in this outfit.

“I am here to arrest you, for questioning related to the death of Dean Constantinou, the theft of his body, attempted murder of a federal agent, and inciting a breach of the peace.” He stepped forward. “Are you going to come quietly, or are you going to try to assault me again?” He stood over the mandala, and wiped it away with one foot. She stood up slowly. The clouds outside began to disperse. Cold fury was in her eyes. The rain slackened against the walls, and she swung. This time, it was visible, barely. He moved slower than her, but he didn’t have as far to move. He tilted out of the way easily. The same technique that he had used against Gene. She struck again with her other arm. Half a dozen blows rained down on him with impossible speed, but he dodged every one. It was something he was learning about the monsters in this city. They were powerful, there was no question about that, but they didn’t use skill. Their attacks were simple, straightforward strikes, with very little in the way of feinting or mixing up tactics. He easily dodged and weaved around the assault, twisting out of the way as she struck, until she took a couple of steps back. Her eyes were wide.

“It can’t be. Wind and Earth…?” She narrowed her eyes. “What kind of hubris do you have, mortal?” Her voice was low, hissing, vicious. “You dare to come here, and accuse me of the death of my mate’s child? Do you know who I truly am?” The hissing was growing louder, until her voice was all sibilant suggestions of speech.

“You’re a mother with no children and no husband, from what I understand.” The words came easy. Bringing out the rage in her. When the mythological creatures got angry- like Talos- they got sloppy. They started attacking like wild animals. And wild animals were easy to fight if you knew how to do it. He smiled. “So, what’s the deal? Harry- He some hero who killed your kids? You wanted to get revenge, and show him how it felt to have the same thing happen to him?” The room went silent. Her face was still as stone.

“What would you know about a mother’s pain, and where she finds her small comforts?” Just for a moment, Megara Drakos looked very small, her head downcast, shoulders slumped in defeat. Then, in the next moment, she rushed him. Her fists swung as he easily dodged around them. She threw blows like the storm outside had thrown lightning, but her fists had to bridge the distance between the two of them. He only had to sway just far enough that she missed. Unbidden, his mind threw up a memory. Xeno’s paradox, explained in a book, where it was supposed that you could never hit a moving tortoise with an arrow, because the arrow would always arrive where the turtle was before, only to find it no longer there. The book had been rather graphic about the skewered tortoises. The memory lent an extra desperate quality to the speed with which he moved. And despite it all his stance never broke, both feet staying solidly on the ground as he kept bobbing and weaving.

“I know that killing someone’s children rarely brings your own children back. So why were you going to confront Irayama Onnashi?” he asked. His palm grazed the side of her arm, turning the blow aside. It was like a dance. One where his partner was committed to stepping on his toes, but still. “And why not tell your husband?” Long-nailed fingers swiped through the air, raking across the place where Nash’s face had been seconds before. “Did you think he’d be ashamed of you? Or did you think that he’d realize you were the one responsible for the death of his son?” There was a moment of silence, as the two of them stood there. Megara’s face shone with sweat. Then, Nash realized that it wasn’t sweat. Tears were dripping down the woman’s cheeks.

“You filthy bastard. I’m going to bury you in the ground, still breathing, and watch you choke on the mud,” she hissed. “Harry’s a good man. A better man than I ever deserved. Now shut your filthy face, and die!” She launched herself at him, screaming wildly, her teeth sharp. He stepped to the side, pivoting his hips. He caught her arm in one hand, and her shoulder in the other. Her trajectory already set, he swept her downwards, bringing her down. Megara Drakos struck the hardwood, and kept going, as the boards splintered around her. There was a crunch as she landed in the darkness below. Nash stood over the hole, staring. Had he misjudged her physical resilience? Had he just killed someone who, he was fairly certain, was not guilty of trying to kill anyone except, possibly, himself?

Then two bright yellow eyes opened in the darkness. “Oh, shit,” he muttered. There was a hiss, as her body rose from the hole. She glittered in the moonlight, blue skin and perfect black hair. She had the body of a nymph, he recalled. The upper body, anyway. Her eyes were yellow and slitted like a snake’s, but she was terribly beautiful, her features perfect, her expression a heart-breaking mixture of sorrow and rage. Her dark hair hung across her bare breasts, the tatters of the shirt falling away. The only thing she still wore was a golden chain, a ruby hanging from it, carved into the shape of a wedge. A long, maroon snake-tail coiled beneath her, from the waist down. The power dragged at him. Simply standing there, he felt almost as though he was going to be ripped off of his feet and tumble endlessly towards her, like a frail piece of matter dragged into the event horizon of a black hole. His breath came out, ragged, quick, as he realized the magnitude of the mistake he had made.

Her scales dug into the edge of the hole, pulling the tail after her. Her face was arch, noble. She didn’t just look like a Greek god. She was one. And he’d pissed the hell out of her. He backed away reflexively, feeling the panic that swelled in his breast as she stared haughtily down at him. “Dust mote,” she hissed out. Then, she backhanded him.

The world seemed to slow down. He planted his feet in the perfect stance. The floor under him was torn to shreds as he was struck, but he managed to keep his footing. His brain rattled in his head, as he took two steps back. Her other hand reached out, grabbing him around the neck, and yanked him bodily off of the ground, while his stance was still recovering. Her tail whipped through the air, and struck his torso. All of his breath came out in a rush. She struck twice more with a sound like a whip’s crack. Welts appeared on his skin, angry and red, the tip of the tail cutting straight through the cloth to flay him. He writhed, the pain intense, as the red haze filled his head. He blinked his eyes. Behind Echidna, the woman in red was standing. Her arms draped around the monster’s shoulders, her lips mere inches away from Echidna’s ear. She was whispering something, her lips moving slowly. Echidna met his eyes, a cold look on her face. “You have tested the limits of my mercy, Silas Nash. I hope that accomplishment brings you some satisfaction in the Meadows of Asphodel.” She swung her arm in a gigantic throw, and launched him through the picture window.

His fingertips met the window before the rest of his body, and it shattered under Gene’s power, slowing his horizontal trajectory. An airborne missile, his body slammed through branches, and slowed further as they broke under his weight. He struck a great stone, and it shattered under the supernatural strength of his touch, cushioning his landing. He lay there, gasping for breath. His body ached beyond words. Darkness swam around him, the rain-slick mud pouring across him. He coughed, and he tasted copper on his lips. He ran his hand across his chest. He could still feel his toes, but he didn’t want to. His whole body hurt. He hurt. It had been so much, these last few days. And for what? Truth? Something that he couldn’t even be sure really existed in this place. He wanted to be curled up in a warm bed, eating Heather’s seafood bouillabaisse. He didn’t want to be out here in the rain and the cold, trying to make sure that these people survived. These filthy, inhuman people…! He tasted the copper again. He could hear the sound of scales slithering. There was no thunder, or rain. The night was quiet. He could see the aura of green flame. “Human! Are you still alive? Do I need to make sure that you have learned your lesson? Or will you scamper away?!”

He wanted to be home, but he had no real home. He was going to die here. He was never going to understand why he had been chosen for this, why he was going to die. He had though the world could be understood. But there was so much darkness and violence in it, rising around him like a flood, threatening to pour down his throat and choke him to death.

Then, the darkness and the violence poured in. Anger pounded in his temples, his heartbeat thudding like the concussion of cannons, a high pitched whistle filling his ears like tinnitus. Visions flashed in front of his eyes. Fingers gouging into soft jelly. Biting. Ripping. Snapping bones. The viciousness filled him. And so he charged like a wild animal. He must have looked insane as he loped, which was an accurate impression. He didn’t make a sound, his feet finding the places where there were no twigs. She wasn’t looking at him when he launched himself out of the forest. The beast inside of him screamed. It wanted to hurt his tormentor. The nymph and the monster, it wanted to hurt both of them.

“Nash!”

He didn’t hear Ariel’s voice, as he swung a rock the size of his fist at Echidna’s forehead. It struck, and shattered under his grip. It did little more than scrape her skin, but it stunned her. She swung an arm at him, trying to fend off the madman. He grabbed it, and twisted. Her tail writhed, dragging at the ground, trying to keep upright. His feet landed on the ground. He wrenched. It was a full-body motion, starting with his knees, then his hips, then his chest, then his shoulders, then his arms. It ended when her shoulder made a nauseating crunching noise as the arm popped out of its socket. He screamed, a desperate, feral noise, full of anger. He grabbed her other arm, and his fingers wrapped around the thumb, as he twisted. He didn’t feel it as Gene tried, desperately, to pull him away from her, with phantasmal hands. He didn’t hear as Ariel cried desperately for him to stop, to show mercy. All he heard was the shrieking laughter of the woman in red.

Echidna wrenched her hand out of his grip. She swiped out with her tail, and he avoided it with a strange, slick movement. He laughed wildly, a nightmarish sound that echoed through the hills and bounced from tree to tree. She swung with her good arm, and he slid aside, her fist cracking the trunk of one of the great white pines. She swayed, and her tail struck him, sending the two of them rolling through the mud. His hand scrabbled, grabbing for purchase, and wrapped around another rock, this one strangely smooth. He hauled himself to his feet, and held the thing up. It wasn’t a rock. It was the hilt of a knife. Its blade speckled with dots of rust, it nevertheless glistened in the night.

She was on her feet in a second, and reached out for him, her right hand moving for his throat. He grabbed her wrist with one hand, and twisted it out to the side. He called on the wind and the earth, feeling their speed and strength fill him up until he nearly couldn’t hold it all inside. The knife came down, stabbing twice into her shoulder, and the arm went limp, some vital tendons severed by the savage puncture. Red gleamed on the knife, as the cry of pain filled the air. Her voice, all-too-human, rang through the valley. She slumped down, and in that moment, she changed. She was human-shaped again. The aura of power fell away, and he stopped leaning backwards against the sensation of suction. She collapsed onto the ground, tears in her eyes, both arms hanging limply at her sides, one hanging strangely, the other covered in blood. She looked up at him with hatred in her eyes. “What are you waiting for?”

The woman in red coalesced behind Megara. She leaned in close, those bright green eyes glittering. She rested a hand on Megara’s throat, drawing attention to the bare skin. Her eyes stayed locked on Nash’s, as she whisperd. She was telling Megara secrets. Telling her how to kill Nash. He only had one chance. He raised the knife, as Ariel and Gene cried out for him to stop, no more substantial than smoke.

Then he turned, and hurled the knife into the darkness. The sound of metal on rock echoed in the darkness, and he slumped down, onto his hands and knees. He looked at the blood, Megara’s blood, dripping across his fingers, and he vomited. He wasn’t sure the last time he’d eaten. A bowl of instant oatmeal this morning, next to Heather. What would she think, if she could see him now? Tears ran down his cheeks. He’d nearly made the mistake again, nearly killed again. Nearly took the life of a beloved wife and a caring mother. Never again. Never, ever, ever, no matter how angry or how terrified. It’d be better to die.

He looked up. Ariel was staring, her eyes full of tears, her hands over her mouth. Gene was silent, her eyes unreadable, her fists clenched. “Sorry.” He muttered. “Terrible way to treat a gift.” He took a deep breath, and looked over at Megara. “Are you okay?” It was a stupid question. She wasn’t okay. He sure as hell wasn’t okay. She stared at him, and there was something in his gaze that was just a little bit too admiring for his tastes. She laughed softly, and shifted her arm. With a sickening crunch, it was no longer dislocated.

“I will be fine. I would likely not have been had you decided to use that knife further. You should be careful about leaving enemies alive like that, Agent Nash. Mercy almost always comes back to bite you in the ass. I would have thought you learned that, considering the way you punished my mercy.” She sat down slowly, and looked up at him, an eyebrow raised. “You are such an angry man, Nash. Did your mother treat you very poorly?”

“She’s nothing to do with this.” He said, a little more defensive than he would’ve liked. “My own mental illness issues aren’t quite relevant at the moment. I’ve got some questions for you.” She nodded.

“Well, you seem to have me at your command at the moment. I respect strength, Agent Nash. You may not have stability or peace, but you clearly have strength.” She ran her fingers along her shoulder. Nash felt soft fingers run across his own shoulder, and turned to look Gene in the eye. She squeezed his shoulder bracingly, as though offering a little bit of her own strength for him to take. He turned his head to the other side. Ariel was hugging him gently, around the shoulders, teary eyes pressed into his cheek. He savored the warmth for a second. In the sudden calm, his adrenaline was all washing away, and it left him shaking. He was cold, right down to his core. He reached into his pockets, and took out the small notebook. He couldn’t stop to think of what had just happened. If he did, he’d never stop screaming.

“Alright. Questions… First up, Dean Constantinou. You didn’t have him killed.” Megara shook her head. “Did you ever hold any ill feelings towards Dean Constantinou, or his father?” Megara was quiet for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was soft, and it seemed to come from a very long way away.

“Do you know the myths of Greece well, Mister Nash?” she asked.

“Not as well as I should, considering this case.” His mind was struggling to focus. He could still remember the scent of blood. The way his heart had pounded. The gratification he’d felt when he’d seen the fear in her eyes. The savage joy at seeing the haughty woman brought low. The very idea of it sickened him, that he could feel that way. And yet… And yet, the rage had saved him. It had given the strength he needed to fight. Even if it had nearly driven him to kill the person who had the answers he needed. He took a breath, and focused on what she was saying. No time for a study of his own psychology.

“My husband was Typhon. The finest mate I could have ever hoped for, I thought. I did not have his strength, but I could refine his essence. Create new creatures. When he was buried beneath Mount Etna, I believed I lost the only man I could ever love. I still visit him, though he has only scorn for me now.” She smiled weakly. “He is buried in torment, now. He hates everyone and everything, me most of all. Little comfort there.” She took a deep breath. “Nine children I bore for him. Orthrus. The Sphinx. The Nemean Lion. Cerberus. Ladon. The Lernean Hydra. The Caucasian Eagle. The Crommyonian Sow. And Chimera. All such fine, strong children I bore for him. Suckled at my teat, nursed to strength that dwarfed that of men.” She looked up at him. “Every one of them was brought low, under the blades of men. Of Heroes.” She spat. “Do you know who it was who defeated most of them?”

Recognition of old memories and stories flashed through his head. He knew at least a few of those names. And Nash was good at patterns. “Hercules. Harry-“

“Heracles. Do not confuse the names, it is a terrible habit to fall into among our people.” She smiled despite her harsh school-teacher mien. “And yes. The man who slaughtered my children in droves, in his epic quests to satisfy his mother in law.” Nash tried to hold back the laugh, and failed. It wasn’t very funny, but he was barely holding on to the world. Anything could be funny right now. Megara rolled her eyes. “Yes, Harry finds that a regular laugh riot himself. I personally never much cared for it as a joke.” She sighed. “I have spent the past two thousand years, hunting him down, and killing him. Over, and over again, I watched him bleed, stuck upon my claws, as punishment for taking my children. The great Greek Hero was not there to save his people as empire after empire was forged on their bones. All because he had wronged me. You understand? Because he had taken my children from me. I lived for nothing but revenge.”

Nash listened attentively, writing in his notepad. “So, you go out on sabbatical when you find he’s walking the earth again. To settle up accounts with him, as you always do.”

She nodded. “His story is a constant. Born to parents who will not recognize him. Cursed with madness and greatness. His wife and children die because of him. This time, his wife died because of his absence. He abandoned his son, and tried to distance himself, and it would likely have ended with another tragic death. Except I arrived first.”

“To cause that tragic accident.”

Megara laughed. “Yes. I suppose so. I arrived. I told him I would kill him. He laughed, and invited me to try. So I did. I came close. And then, he did something truly unforgivable.” She sighed, and ran her fingers through the soil. “He asked me to marry him. I agreed, because I thought that his weakness would give me a chance to slay him.” Tears were running down her cheeks. “He cared about me. He really did. And he blunted me. I did not cry when I heard that my children of Typhon had died. I did not cry when my husband was locked away. But now, I cry all the time, on the inside, for a foolish young boy who was the son of my greatest enemy.” She sniffed, brushing her cheeks, tears sparkling in her eyes. “I was so strong, once. Not anymore. All my strength for bearing children has been spent. I am sterile. He was the last chance I had, and I thought- I really believed!- that I could change fate. I’m just a foolish old woman. My children die. Heracles’ children die. It’s the way things are.”

She looked so empty at that moment. Nash leaned forward, and rested a hand on her shoulder, doing his best to be comforting. There was a crunch of gravel underfoot. He looked up.

Six and a half feet of lumberjack stood over the two of them. A hatchet hung from his belt, a storm lantern glowing brightly in one hand. He wore nothing but a lion’s skin. A vein throbbed on his forehead. Harry Constantinou was breathing hard. His voice was low, full of menace, as his eyes glittered with fury. His fist was clenched, his knuckles white with the force of his grip. Nash could feel the pull. It was stronger than Echidna’s aura had been. Nash got to his feet as Harry rushed for him. A hand reached out, lightning quick, grabbing his wrist as Nash tried to grab Harry’s, yanking Nash bodily into the air, bringing him eye to eye. An expression of rage more consuming than any Nash had experienced flashed across Harry’s face.

“What in the hell have you done to my wife?”

Chapter 12: Seismic Event

Harry Constantinou was born in a slum, in one of the worse parts of Athens. It was never quite clear how the Sarin wound up in the apartment complex’s basement. With such a short shelf life, someone had to have kept it there. They might have been a lethally careless chemist. Perhaps a home grown terrorist with more knowledge than sense. The government officially blamed it on the actions of a group of mercenaries who had been planning an attack on government buildings. By the time the hazmat teams managed to sweep the building, a hundred and twenty three people were dead, and Harry Constantinou was getting hungry, crying in his crib for his mother. People called it a miracle, celebrating the child’s survival. They were right about that much, at least.

They didn’t see Harry Constantinou when the vapors twisted their way into his room. Lurking and creeping across the ground, the invisible tendrils crept through the small room with its pretty little blue carpet, creeping among toys and impregnating them with the lethal poison. Harry, still an infant, reached out, and strangled the vapors with tiny hands. There is a life to all things, and Harry choked that life out of the vapors, leaving them dead and inert on the ground. A more prosaic view would presume that the vapors had been rendered harmless by the moist environment. But then, Harry was the only one who survived the gas leak.

A couple, kind and generous, took him in, and he was taught right from wrong. He showed enormous prowess in both mind and body, and though his parents thought he had many fine careers in front of him, his path was set the day he saw the woman in red.

Harry was a young man at the time, only 16 years old. Walking through the markets, he caught sight of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in the flesh. Dark skin, green eyes, and brilliant red hair, she walked with poise in a fine dress. She looked like a foreigner, but something about her was familiar. The market square was bustling, and his view was constantly interrupted by obstacles. He caught sight of her hair, flashing in the crowd like a road flare, and began to push his way forward. Even at that age, he was strong, easily shoving his way through the crowd, but she moved with a natural grace that always kept her just out of reach. He was aware of the complaints and the shoves he received as he pushed his way through the crowd, but they didn’t change his course. He followed her into one of the bad parts of the city, and showed no fear. He didn’t even flinch about following the woman in red into the dark, crowded bar. He sometimes regretted that decision in the years to come, but not often.

Rough men filled the stools. Men who carried weapons openly, who had scars. They laughed and jeered as he entered, but he ignored them. He approached the woman in red. She was surrounded by half a dozen dark figures. They had smiles, broad and white, gleaming in the darkness. “Oy, boy, you look a little young. Have any hair on that chest of yours?” He ignored them, and approached the woman in red. One of the men stood up, to bar his way. Harry moved with natural grace, snatching a bar-stool and slamming it across the man’s stomach hard enough to shatter the cypress legs of the stool. The man crumpled, and the world stood still. Knives slid out of sheathes, guns were unholstered, and the world held its breath. The woman in red laughed, a low, rich, dulcet sound, and the atmosphere became relaxed, as the men put their weapons away, and laughed at the boy with such spirit, and their humiliated friend.

“Tell me, young man. Have you chosen a career?” asked a man, sitting next to her. Harry shook his head. He was still in school, but he didn’t much care for it. The dreams of his fellows all seemed so petty.

“I’ve thought about becoming a police officer,” he suggested, smiling. The woman laughed, and looked over at the man who had spoken. Unlike the others, he looked Greek, with the same olive skin as Harry. The man turned in his chair, an eyebrow raised.

“Do you crave the idea of battle? Of wading in against a foe who has wronged you, and taking their life in exchange for glory and honor?” the man asked, a grin on his face. He was older, perhaps 40 years old, his shoulders broad, though even at 16, Harry was taller than him. The man looked down towards the crumpled body of his comrade. “I can see you have a skill for violence. But do you have the passion for it? Do you have the desire to see war done, and to do it well?” The man lifted a glass of wine, smiling. “If you can do these things, then I have an opportunity for you that many would dream of. Travel, across distant and exotic lands, meeting strange people. And killing them for truly obscene amounts of money!” The man laughed, his eyes glittering like a pair of gemstones. Harry noticed that the woman in red had disappeared, and he hadn’t any idea where she’d gone.

“No, thank you. It sounds interesting and all that, but I don’t think I could leave my parents.” In the years to come, Harry would regret those words. Just in the moment, it seemed like the only response he could give. The Constantinou’s were decent people. They had raised him as their own, and they had cared for him. Excitement was one thing, but his parents needed him, he knew. His foster-father was getting older. They would need someone to look after them in their fading years. “Maybe in a decade or so?” He smiled cheerfully at the man. The mercenary’s grin never faded, and he nodded, taking out a card, handing it to Harry. A number, eleven digits long, with an international code, was printed on it.

“If you should ever be looking for a job that pays well.” The men laughed, and handed Harry a glass of wine. They drank together, as Harry listened, interested but bemused, to the tales of great adventures. Daring rescues of hostages, the loss of good friends, and the toasting to new ones. It was a world that called to him, but not as much as his family. He wondered, in later years, if he could have saved his parents by simply going along with them. If their death was the cost that he paid for trying to change the story. Evening fell, and he ran home, to greet his parents. They ate dinner together, and Harry told them about his day at the market, leaving out the part about the rough men, and the wine. And his life continued on as normal for five days. On the sixth day, he returned home to find the apartment tower ablaze.

Harry was strong, and tough, but he was not fireproof. He watched as the building burned, and felt utterly helpless for the first time in his life. There were many paths in front of him, all of which required first that he accept that he had just lost the people he loved and lived for. He could have stayed with friends of the family. He could have found a hotel with the insurance payment that was the last gift his parents gave him. He could have fought to get the will recognized, to get what meager possessions remained to the family. He could have left, and never come back. That last one seemed somehow fitting. And so, he called the number from a payphone. The man he had met that day picked up immediately. He introduced himself as Jason, and gave the address for a hotel. Harry arrived at the hotel room, still numb. “Changed your mind, lad?” Harry nodded blankly. “Fight with your parents?” Harry shook his head. The white-toothed man stared for several seconds. He seemed to recognize something in Harry’s face. “I’m sorry.” His voice was rough, but there was a bit of care in it. Harry wiped the tears away from his eyes. “Not a good idea to make big life decisions while you’re feeling bereft, lad. Acting out of pain tends to just cause more pain. You sure you want this?” Harry nodded, and the man watched him for several long seconds. “I’ll make you a deal. You’re young, inexperienced. We need a man who’s strong and handy to work under our mechanic. No combat. No shooting people. I’d be a bastard if I made a killer out of you so soon. Just keeping trucks running so people don’t die. What do you think?” Harry nodded.

“C’mere, lad.” The man invited Harry to take a seat with him, overlooking the city. “Y’know, it’s not a great life. You see a lot of people die. Most of them were trying to kill you, but they do that because they’ve got no other choice. We get hired by some unsavory people to keep the lights on. The kind of people who nobody’s happy to see in the neighborhood. If you wanted my advice, I’d tell you not to get down this road.” Harry didn’t answer. He tended towards the quiet at times like this. “Alright. Just so you know, though. If you ever decide the life isn’t for you, that you can’t stand the violence anymore- You can walk away. I won’t hold it against you for a moment. Just walk yourself right out of this life, and you can go without a fuss. Understand me?” Harry nodded. “Alright, lad. To lost loved ones, eh?” He poured out a couple of glasses of wine, and the next day, they left the city for Uganda. A spiritual man had risen up as the leader of Acholi. It was a time of great turmoil. There was money to be made.

The fire was ruled as arson, Harry learned two decades later. There had been signs of hotspots around the base of the building. People had mentioned seeing an odd foreign woman around the base of the house. Some lunatic who killed for sport. Harry learned about it when his first wife died. That was the moment when he began to ask himself questions about his life, about the strange coincidences that kept lining up around him. But that was far down the road. For the time being, he had a job. The small mercenary company consisted of a couple of dozen men. They worked for a petroleum company, guarding land. And what they mostly did was watch the brutality unfold. The mechanic was an old man by the name of Charles. A gentle soul, they worked together on jeeps and the other vehicles, keeping the dust and grit out of them.

Gunfire echoed in the distance. The broad open plateau was wide, and sounds carried . “Savages,” Harry muttered, frowning down at the battery. The broom handle caught him on the back of the head, and he winced, frowning at the old man.

“Lad, you ever starved?” Charles was English, and paraplegic. His legs had been lost in An Incident, which was only ever referred to with the appropriate capital letters. He scurried himself around under trucks easily enough with just his arms, and used a large dolly to move himself around when he needed to. And he had a blow like a drunken stepfather when his ire was raised. “Food gets scarce around these times. Supplies are rare. People are constantly being hunted, by the government, by the military, by each other. By us even, sometimes.” He fixed a wrench on one of the tires, and pulled, heaving firmly. Harry stepped around the car and leaned down next to him, adding his strength and unscrewing the bolts with a careless ease.

“I’d like to think I wouldn’t hurt the people around me.” He muttered softly. “They kill people just for not giving them food. They ought to just turn this whole place to glass, start over.”

“And that’d be very fair to the many people who are just trying to live their life as good people, would it? Cut off your nose to spite your face? They’re all just trying to survive, boy, and it’s our fault that this is the state they’re in. We could’ve done better by them.” Charles shook his head. “Should’ve done better by them. Could’ve walked arm and arm into the future together. Instead, we butchered them, cut up the land.” The four-wheeled dolly slid under the car. “Wrench.” Harry slid a wrench into his hand.

“I didn’t do anything to screw this place up.” He muttered, mutinously. Charles smacked the wrench across his ankle, and Harry hopped on one foot, wincing.

“That the way you’re thinking, eh? You didn’t screw it up personally, so you have no responsibility to try to help?” Charles slid out from under the hood, giving Harry a ferocious look. “Any problem older than a single lifetime is just not worth fixing? Bloody cheek.” He slid back under the car, and the sound of the wrench tugging at metal filled the air. “You owe a duty to your fellow man, boy! Every person on this world could probably use your help. The help you’ve been given, you have to pass on. You have to forgive people when they’re not as good as they could be, and do everything you can to be better than you have to be! That’s what being a man’s about. That’s what being human’s about! Being better. Not thinking you’re better, like a certain cheeky lad I could mention! Living up to it.” Harry leaned against the hood, frowning. “It’s an important thing to remember, Harry. Anger’s what you feel when you’ve been hurt. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. It flares up and then it dies down, like a spark. Hatred’s what happens when you make fuel for that anger, and keep feeding it. And it’ll burn you out inside, mark my words! No good hating people. Even if you got revenge on them, it’d just end up burning on. You’d start looking for new people to feed to the hatred.” The man grunted.

“Yeah? Did you say that to the guy who got your legs cut off?” Harry bit out. It was a stupid thing to say. Nobody gave Charles shit about his legs. Harry braced himself for the explosion. Charles slid out from under the car, and his look had none of the fury or rage that Harry had expected.

“No. He said it to me. Then he offered me a cushy job as a mechanic, and a damn generous pay to provide for my wife and children. My kids are going through university and nobody is ever going to shoot at them, because of him. The thing is that you can build people into monsters in your head. But really, all they are is people. Just like you, lad. Hate doesn’t do anything but kill you inside. Anger, that’s not something you can help. Everyone gets angry, everyone snaps out at others. But you’ll never do any good hating people.” He tilted his head. “Sounds like the jeeps are coming in.”

Harry walked over to the open door of the garage, and narrowed his eyes. “Those aren’t our jeeps.” He ran to the rack of guns as Charles sat up, grabbing one of the rifles. He had been practicing in his spare time.

“What the hell. Are you sure?” The crack of gunfire sounded, and Charles fell to the ground, swearing violently, blood dripping from his shoulder. Harry fired out the door, picking his targets and squeezing off bursts before return fire could strike him. He moved away from the doors, as holes appeared in the corrugated metal. There was the rush of noise, and the sound of gunfire exploding all around. He was still fighting as three dozen LRA men swarmed in. Three of them died from bullets, another two hit the floor as his fists swung. One of them caught him a blow to the bridge of his nose with the butt of his gun, and received a broken sternum in return. Finally, they overwhelmed him, dragging him down with sheer weight of numbers, and after four or five blows, Harry lost consciousness.

The prison camp was not a pleasant place. Harry never saw Charles again, and to his knowledge the old man died, bleeding, on the floor of that garage. The one ray of sunshine was the young girl who worked there. Harry didn’t know precisely what she did. He suspected, but she didn’t want to talk about it, and he wouldn’t bring it up. What he knew is that she was given enough food to keep alive and healthy, and she never cried. She would lurk around his cage, and they would talk, in broken english, for hours at a time. And sometimes, one of the officers of the army would come around, shoot Harry in the foot for distracting her, and order her away. Harry healed quickly, and pain was easy to deal with. He suspected that frustrated his captors. They would’ve let him starve to death, but the girl shared her food with him. Just enough to keep him from dying.

“Do you think we could ever get out of here?” she asked. Her name was Acanit. She’d told him it meant ‘hard times’. They’d both laughed, in the sharp, manic tone of people who don’t know if they’ll ever get another chance to laugh. She wore a dirty linen dress, something she had been given by the officer. Harry got the impression it was the only clothes she was allowed. “I mean, even if we escaped. Where would we go?”

Harry considered this. “The USA. I could join the army. I hear that they let you naturalize easy that way.” He thought of Greece, and home. He shook that thought out of his head. Nothing back there but bad memories. “If we could get out of here and make it to Lake Victoria, and Entebbe, the airport there would get us to America.”

“How on earth would you get the money for that?” she asked, frowning. He gave her a smile, and shrugged. She paused for a moment, and bit her lip. “I… There’s a chest. The officer, he counts from it sometimes. Little gold coins. From the south. They have a bearded man on them.”

Harry nodded. “Kruggerrands. A handful of those…” He looked around, and coughed. He was thin from the weeks of captivity. His foot healed a bit slower each time. He was growing weak, an experience altogether new for him. “If you can get a knife off one the men, and get back here, cut open the cage… I can go. Kill him in the night. We’ll be out of here. Keep off the main roads, and make our way south. We’ll be in America by this time next month.”

She nodded, and looked up. “I’ll be back tonight.” She tore the small loaf of bread in her hands in half, passing half through the bars. Harry ate ravenously. His head spun as the gulped the bread down, choking and coughing on the dry loaf. It tasted better than anything he could imagine. He’d never thought being as big as he was would be such a problem, but even with Acanit’s help, he was on the edge of starvation, every day.

Hours passed. Night fell. Rain fell. Mosquitoes bit. His wounds ached. They should’ve been fatal by this point, he was sure, but his body seemed to refuse to die. It was happy to hurt like hell, though. He looked up, as he heard the rustle in the trees. Acanit appeared out of the darkness, a sharp machete in one hand. It was stained red. His eyes opened wide, as she hurriedly cut through the rope ties on his cage. It opened, and he stepped out. “Did you-?” She held out her skirt. Piled in it were dozens of large gold coins. He nodded. He never asked her about it directly. He regretted that for a long time. Maybe it would have made a difference. On the other hand, maybe it wouldn’t have.

There was little for him to say about the trip south. It was one long nightmare. Decades later, he would jerk out of a sound sleep, tortured by the memories. There was perhaps one thing worth noting. One moment when a lion, rangy and starving, had appeared out of the darkness of the underbrush, hungry enough to try to make a meal of them. He’d taken the knife from Acanit. Even feverish, even wounded, even exhausted, he’d cut the thing open. The meat hadn’t been tasty, but it had certainly been filling. He was half delirious by the time they arrived at the airport, carrying Acanit and the skin of a lion. But they made it, together, and slept, the frail young woman and the big foolish boy, as the aircraft took them across the big wide ocean. He signed up for the army. They asked many questions, and he gave them all the answers he could. He made it through basic training without much difficulty. He got his citizenship. He passed security clearance. Neither he nor Acanit had any family left, or contacts, for that matter. Army Ranger training was a great task, but after those two horrific weeks crossing the plateau, it wasn’t new. He was exhausted, but not too exhausted to propose marriage to Acanit.

It wasn’t, at first, a marriage of love. Both of them shared a horrible secret, and horrible memories, though, and that was enough to start with. It was enough to hold the two of them together for years. They lived, got a citizenship, and became normal people. He visited Somalia with the 10th Mountain division, and he liked to believe that a difference was made because they were there. He fought in Afghanistan. He returned to see his wife, and eventually, his son, as often as he could. She didn’t talk about what happened before they arrived in America, but he’d always thought she was happy. She lived her life with the others, and was always joyful to see him, and seemed to burst with life. And one day, in 2009, he was called by military police, and told that his wife was dead, and had been found with her wrists cut in a bathtub. It was ruled a suicide. The mention of a foreign woman, red-haired, green-eyed, who visited her briefly before leaving, was treated as unsuspicious. After all, she left long before the time of death for his wife.

Harry was not, by his nature, a narcissist. He did not believe the world revolved around him, any more than the small and innocuous amount of belief all humans secretly held, which was the natural consequence of only ever seeing things from his point of view. Maybe she had killed herself. Maybe it was the guilt of taking a life, even one who had been threatening her. He’d always considered his wife to be a kind, delicate, generous woman. She could have been hurt by that. Maybe it was the fact that he was constantly away, and the strains of raising a child without his father, though that seemed less likely. Whatever the truth was, he hadn’t been there for her. She had saved him, and now, he had failed to do the same for her. Harry’s son lived with their friends, taken in by his godfather for a time, and Harry drifted.

She had been, to him, everything. The first person he had truly loved. A strange sort of companionship. Two damaged souls, brought together by mutual violence and pain, but finding happiness with each other. She had meant the world to him. Nearly twenty years together, sometimes only briefly, but he had believed she was one of the most important people he had ever met. And then she died, and he didn’t know what to do with himself.

The death of his wife was what put Harry onto the trail. The red-haired woman. It became something of an obsession, as he wandered, searching for her. Eventually, his search brought him to a bad part of Iraq, in 2011. It was Christmas. He sat across from the woman. She was beautiful, and she seemed utterly unconcerned by the angry looks she was given by those around her, dressed provocatively and not seeming to care. Black hair hung across brown eyes, cold and stoic. “You know about the woman in red?” he asked. He was unshaven. He felt more animal than man. His voice was rough. He felt somehow unworthy. But then, he’d always felt unworthy.

“I do.” Megara Drakos was her name. She sat, in a leather jacket, and a delicate skirt that exposed more of her legs than was decent. She was either unaware or unconcerned with the angry glares of men in the bar. “You are Harry Constantinou. Your wife has died, and you are estranged from your son. You are a man of unusual physical strength and guile, and you have an impressive military history. You are as you always were.” She lifted a glass of cold ice water, sipping from it, her eyes staying on his. She set the glass down. “The death of your wife is your fault. You took her into your life to sate your loneliness, and this lead directly to her death.” The cup in his hand shattered. Glass crunched, and he picked it out of his hand, drops of blood staining the wood of the table, dripping from pinpricks the glass had made in his calloused skin. His tone was deadly calm as he replied.

“I have considered that possibility. Guilt helps humans deal with things, by letting them feel some degree of control.” He fought to keep his calm, as his head spun. “Why would you try to make me so angry?” he asked. “Surely you know exactly what response saying something like that would have on a man.”

“You are a creature of myth, and a legend in your own right. Heracles, the great monster-slayer. Your wife died because of your nature. Your son will die too. And it will be your fault.” She crossed her arms. “Allow me to kill you, and it will cut the thread of your story short. Your son will live. And I will once again have my vengeance. Fate will be satisfied.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “I don’t believe in fate.” He swept the broken glass off the table, onto the dusty floor, and stood up. “What exactly did I do to you?”

“You killed five of my children.” He paused. His mind raced. He had killed people. There was no doubt about that. He’d always had a reason, and he had killed to protect himself, or others, but he’d killed nonetheless. He thought of his own son, and his heart softened.

“I’m… sorry. If I’ve done you wrong, I regret it. And if you need to try to kill me, then so be it. But either way, please. Leave my son out of this.” There was a long moment of silence, Megara’s eyes widening for just a moment, before returning to the same hard gaze. She sat, quietly, watching him.

“You know, I have found you many times, over the years, since the first time you died. And I have taken a certain vindictive pleasure in keeping your legend from resurfacing on this world. But I think that is the first time you have ever apologized for what you have done.” She tapped her fingers slowly. “You must understand, I do not wish to threaten your son. I will not lay a hand on him, regardless of what you do. This is simply the nature of things. The son of Heracles dies by his father’s deeds, and his father labors to make up for the guilt of what he has done. That is how it goes. I am the mother of monsters. I give birth to children, strong scions of Typhon, who lose their lives by your hand. And now that they are all dead, and my husband lies beneath the mountains, I have no purpose but my vengeance. Over, and over, and over again.”

Harry raised an eyebrow. “I don’t believe you.”

Megara sighed, and then rose. Men screamed as she grew taller, her legs wrapping together, her skin turning blue, her dark hair hanging over her face. “I do not need your belief,” she hissed, her tongue forked and great. “I am beyond the belief of any one man. I do not belief. I need only be.” He stared up at her, at the impossible figure. “I offer you the choice. Die by my hand, willingly or not, and save your son. Or flee, and doom him.”

Harry was silent for several long seconds. She really was beautiful. Something reminded him of Acanit, that same damage in her eyes, the same pain. If she was telling the truth, then he’d caused that pain. Taken away her children. Maybe it was necessary, but she still had a right to be angry at him. “I will make you a wager,” he said. She stared at him, and he took that as a sign to continue. “You may live by my side. I will not drive you away, I will not kill you, I will not make any move to harm you, no matter what you should do. You may try, twelve times, to kill me. And in return, you must promise to do everything in your power to help me save my son, without anyone else dying.” He smiled.

She stared. “Why? Why take the chance? I have told you what I will do. I am very good at killing you, and even those who I have warned have died.”

“Then the wager is slanted in your favor.”

She sneered down at him. “Fine. Consider this my first and last attempt, then.” She swept forward, with a killing blow, her hand straight as a knife’s edge. She slashed forward with her nails, aiming for his throat, with the speed of a snake.

Harry’s hand intercepted hers in mid-air, catching her on the wrist. His other fist flicked out. He’d never believed in hurting anyone, women or men, after Acanit had saved him. But he wasn’t going to let her kill him. The jab doubled her over, and she wheezed, gasping for air, fingers clawing at the ground and leaving deep grooves in the wood of the bar floor. She looked up at him, hatred in her eyes. “Your form is clumsy.” He explained. “Fast, strong, but you wound up. No feinting. No testing of my defenses. What kind of training do you have? Have you ever even fought in a bar?” He smirked down at her, and she surged up again at him. He brought his hand in a circle, carrying a beer mug, and it crashed into her iron-hard cheek, stunning her momentarily, long enough to bring down a bar stool on the crown of her head. She writhed on the floor, spitting out curses in a language that he recognized, barely, as ancient Greek. “Do you even really want to kill me? I bet you can hit harder than that.”

She swung at him again, and he danced out of the way of her blow, his hands up in a boxer’s stance. “You’re good at this! I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who I could go more than a single round with!” he said, cracked voice merry, rough face split into a broad grin as he danced out of the way. The fight continued like this for hours, until she sat, panting on the floor, in her human shape, anger in her eyes. He crouched down, and rubbed her head where he had struck her with the stool. She looked livid at the familiar gesture, but that just made him grin more. “That’s one attempt down.”

She stared at him. “I… am defeated. I cannot defend myself like this,” she complained, sweat dripping don her forehead. “Why not just kill me? Be done with me. As you did to my children.”

He stared down at her for a few seconds. “I’m sorry that someone like me took your children away. Whether or not they were monsters, they were your children, and you aren’t wrong for wanting to avenge them.” He crossed his arms. “You know about these things. You know more than I do, that’s for damn certain. If you tell me that my son is in danger, then I want you to help me save him. And…” He looked away. “You care about your children. It wouldn’t be right to kill you just for that.”

“I will kill you.”

“You’ll try. It’s an important difference.” He gave her his most infuriating smirk, and was rewarded by the anger in her eyes. And so began the strange courtship. She tried to kill him regularly, at first. Half of her attempts were gone in the first week. A gang of mercenaries hired to ambush him. A bag of poison asps in his bed at night. A poisoned garment. Then, she became crafty. More and more time went between her attempts. After the seventh attempt to kill him, they were married in a small, private ceremony. After the ninth attempt, which involved an entire graveyard of feral ghouls, they moved to Zion with Dean.

He wasn’t sure when, exactly, hate turned to love. He smiled every time he saw her face, though. Eventually, she started to smile back. She had become warmer, more gentle. She still made her attempts, but there was less and less spirit in them. They often discussed the nature of the woman in red. And, for that matter, of the monsters of the town.

“I don’t want you going out with that girl,” Harry said, his arms crossed. Dean stood in the door-frame, a stormy expression on his face. Harry, for what it was worth, quite liked Isabelle. The girl was clever, and Harry got along well with her. But Megara had explained why it was a bad idea. Harry still was trying to understand the nature of the city- Monsters, heroes, all things that seemed just slightly unreal to him. But when his wife told him that Isabelle and her family were dangerous, he trusted her. She still had one attempt left, after that little incident with the enchanted chainsaw. It had been a year since that. Dean and Isabelle had grown close. Close enough that Harry had been tempted to give his son the talk- Explain what Isabelle really was. But he was still only 17. Megara had been clear about that much. The boy wasn’t allowed to know, yet.

“Dad, she’s one of two actually fun people in this town. What, are you going to lock me up?” Harry sighed. The boy was stubborn- No, determined. Just like his mother. Just like his father, for that matter.

“I just worry about you. You’ve got your whole future ahead of you. I want you to be careful, so… Just. Call me. Alright? Check in with me. I want to make sure that you’re alright.” Dean rolled his eyes. “Yes, I know, your old dad worries about you. And try to get along with Megara, alright? She really does care about you, you know. She just wants to make sure that you’re safe.”

“She’s not my real mother.” Dean slammed the door behind him. Megara walked down the stairs, her expression soft and sad.

“He doesn’t mean that,” he told her.

“Yes, he does. He is a young man. He is angry, and he misses his own mother, and he still misses you, because you are still distant from him. I am the one he can show his anger to. He feels the desire to be kind, to be strong, for everyone. I’m his one chance to express his anger. Have you two gone fishing lately?” Harry rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. “It is important. I know that you want to protect him. So do I. We’ll find a way. I promise.” She kissed his cheek. “I just wish he did not love Isabelle.” Her face turned dark. “That girl is a snake in the grass.”

“You would know, my dear.” The two of them were quiet for a moment, and then laughed.

Dean didn’t call. This wasn’t unusual. Harry dialed his son’s number, and listened as the call went to voice-mail. He called again every few minutes for the next couple of hours. He was half expecting it when Pearl came to the house. He saw the body for himself. And Harry Constantinou, a man who had seen dozens of men die, who had killed dozens, who had fought monsters both mythological and human, and who had to this point believed he had experienced the most terrible things the world had to offer, wept like a child in his wife’s arms at the sight of his son’s corpse.

“It’s War,” she said, in the silence of the morgue, as he buried his face in her hair. “She’s behind this. She’s using it as an opening. She’ll bring in some stranger, and use them. She loves to use foreigners. We need to stop him, and to find who was responsible for this.” He took a deep breath, and nodded. “Her champion be coming soon. We can make the city unwelcoming. Hopefully stop them from making things any worse. It won’t be their fault. They’ll be just a catspaw. Just a tool to be used.” She squeezed him a bit tighter. “Whoever did this, they’re tainted by War, too. We need to stop them, root them out, or they’ll poison the heart of this city.” She had a dark look on her face as she held him. And he could see the pain inside of her, so he dried the tears from his eyes, and returned the embrace. And then, she began to cry, tears dripping from her cheeks as the eggshell-thin mask of calm broke. “I should have protected him.” She whispered. “I promised you-“

“You promised me you would do everything that you were capable of.” He whispered. And the two of them stood together for a long time, before they steeled themselves for what was to come.

It was early morning when Harry got the call. He had worked as a lumberjack since they had moved here. It was a small, simple way to live his life, but the calm of the woods was soothing to his soul. He spent long nights under the forest canopy sometimes, a chance to enjoy the calm of the world without threat of death. Sometimes he even took Megara and Dean out on camping trips together, and while they complained bitterly, they humored him, and counted stars and ate s’mores and were, for a brief time, something like a family. That was in the past. Now, he had to ensure no one else lost their children.

He checked the white pine. They were beautiful trees, straight and proud, colossi of the forest. He brought the hatchet into the wood of the trunk. The power of Ge filled him, and three blows sent the tree crumbling down across the road. Harry buried the orange safety jacket under leaves, and crouched, fading and unfocusing into the foreground. This stranger was doing harm, but they were a pawn, just like so many others. Harry didn’t want to risk them dying. All he wanted was to scare them off.

There was a screech of tires, and the car barreled into the tree with a vicious crunch. Harry watched. The man inside climbed out after kicking the door open, and began to snap shots of the area with his cell phone. Harry wasn’t sure what to make of that. It was a cool Labor Day morning, and the sun barely reached the clearing. Harry watched with interest as the man walked along the length of the tree, studying the base. He snapped a few more shots of the deep cuts in the wood, and then turned suddenly, staring directly at Harry, his hand in his jacket. Harry knew he hadn’t moved. He watched as the agent backed away quickly, and checked his cellphone. His eyes kept glancing back at Harry’s hiding place. When he finally disappeared out of sight, the big man relaxed, and he stood up, pulling the orange jacket out of the underbrush.

To his surprise, by the time he made it home, Megara was talking with the agent. Nash, up close, was not an unpleasant looking man. Somewhat pale, dark hair and hazel eyes. He was tall, but not nearly as tall as Harry, and his build was more lanky than anything else. Harry embraced his wife, giving her a kiss, and then marched forward. There was a broad grin on his face as he grabbed Nash’s hand, and slapped him on the shoulder. The man visibly winced under the pressure. Harry knew how to moderate his grip and his enthusiasm. He chose not to.

“You must be the special agent! A man after my own heart, making the world a better place!” Harry played the role of good-natured idiot with a lifetime’s practice, as he studied the man’s expression. “I hope you find the person who did this to my son before I do. I don’t want to think of what I might do to them in the heat of the moment. If there’s anything that I can do to aid you in this task, if there’s anything that we can do for you…” His eyes flickered over to Pearl. What the hell had she been thinking? “I would be very grateful.”

“If I might ask, Mister Constantinou… where were you, today?” the agent asked, his eyes going to the axe hanging from Harry’s belt.

“Going for a hike. Helps to clear the head, and it’s good to keep my eye on things.”

“Do you always go on hikes with an axe?” Nash asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Of course! Never know when you might run into a lion!” The laughter was hollow. Harry still had the lion’s skin from his escape, hanging in his closet. His skin was still scarred where teeth and claws had gouged him.

“That man didn’t seem like an agent of War to me,” Harry said, frowning as he took a seat. “A rather clever man, perhaps a bit too sharp for his own good, but a force of violence? He even looked reluctant to draw his own gun in the forest. What harm could he really do?”

“War is a subtle creature. She favors those who do not appear dangerous. She knows the value of being unexpected. As for you, I want you to take a camping trip. I have a plan for the next few days, but I don’t want you around, in case things go wrong.”

“I-“

“Please.” Her voice was soft, her eyes downcast. “Just- please.” He knew the way Dean’s death tortured her inside. She did not show it, she never showed weakness, but she had promised to save the boy, and she had grown to care for him, even if she didn’t know how exactly to show him when he was still alive. She was determined to make things right, even if she had no idea where to start. That terrified him, but he couldn’t say no to her.

And so he walked through the valleys around Zion. The lion skin on his back, his hatchet in hand, a storm lantern on his belt. He lived off the land. It was an easy thing for him. He saw the bones, shattered and scattered across the graveyard, in the stark light of the day. He saw the burnt remnants of the shack. And he began to wonder just how harmless Nash was.

The third night, rain was pouring down. He shuddered under the downpour, as it pounded against his shoulders. The lightning began to strike, and he made his way up towards the manor. When the rain stopped, he sped up. When he heard the crashes, he ran. When he heard the scream, he sprinted as though his life was at stake. In the night, he caught glimpses of red, dancing through the night, as laughter shrieked through the air. He ran till his lungs burned.

The storm lantern illuminated the scene. His wife. Her clothes torn, her body bare. The blood dripping in thick, black waves down her side. Her arm hanging limp. And the FBI agent standing over her. He did not look so harmless and shy now. Standing in a torn shirt, blood running down cuts, his chest marked where Megara must have struck him with her tail. War laughed and shrieked in the man’s ear. Like she had when Harry’s parents died. Like she had when his wife had died. Like she had when his son had died. All the people he loved, cut down by the cold hand of the Horseman’s little games, in line with ‘fate’. And here Nash stood, ready to take the last person Harry had.

Nash stood. He was fast. Harry was faster. Ge was with him as his fist descended. Nash moved like the wind, shifting out of the way, and grabbing Harry’s wrist to imbalance him, to throw him into the ground. Harry had a lifetime of experience, though. His wrist twisted in Nash’s grip, grabbing the man’s wrist back. They strained against one another for a moment, and Harry won, lifting the other man into the air with his free hand, fingers wrapping around the man’s throat. “What in the hell have you done to my wife?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. With a merciless twist of his hips, Harry slammed Nash down against the ground, slamming the man’s back into the mud. One hand went around Nash’s throat, and the other raised into the air, poised. A red haze was hemming in his vision, until all he could see were the man’s eyes. He breathed in great, ragged gasps, and his knuckles popped and cracked as they tensed, ready to bring his hand down like the wrath of God. Someone pulled at his shoulder. He spun in a rage, lashing out.

His hand stopped an inch from Megara’s face, caught in her own slender, delicate hand. He wasn’t sure if he had stopped it, or she had, but his hand opened, resting against her cheek. “I’m alright, Harry.” She whispered. “Let Nash go. War has played us for fools.”

The agent made choking noises, his face purple. Harry released his grip, as the red haze fell away. Harry stared down at the man. The fury had been unlike anything he’d felt in so long. “Agent Nash. I’m… sorry.”

Nash coughed a bit, smiling weakly as he pulled himself up. “It’s fine. Just a bit of instant karma.” He gave a smile, brittle and fake as a mannequin’s. Harry returned the smile, just as phony. Nearly choked to death, and making jokes. Something about that frightened Harry.

Megara frowned. “Both of you. Come up to the house. I think that we need to share what we know.”

Chapter 13: Lethe

Silas Nash walked up the path with the hero and the monster. His throat still hurt. Quite a lot of him hurt, but the big man’s grip had been an entirely new kind of pain. Watching that fist prepare to come down on his tender skull had been more frightening than fighting Talos. Now, Harry had his lion skin around his wife’s shoulders, showing a galling lack of embarrassment about his own nudity. The three of them walked to the front door, with Harry making soft clicking noises of disapproval at the broken bay window, and the shattered floor. “I hope it’s not going to rain anymore tonight.” He gave his wife a questioning look. She flushed, quite to Nash’s surprise.

Both of them had tried to murder him with their bare hands not ten minutes ago, and both came very close to succeeding. To see them slip back into a smooth domestic companionship was strange. But a part of him felt just a little bit more comfortable because of it. He looked over his shoulder. The trail of broken branches and torn ground where he had flown was still visible.

He shivered at the sight. The anger inside of him had been primal. He wondered about that. The fury, the hatred. Could that be him? Well, that was a silly question. Of course it was him. He knew damn well it was him. It had been a part of him since he was a child. He just didn’t want it to be so. Ariel appeared beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder. “You want to talk about it, buddy?”

“Can I do that without looking crazy?” Harry and Megara turned towards him, brows furrowing. “I’ll take that as a no. Sorry, just talking to myself. And possibly Ariel.”

Megara nodded. “That’s right… You had the gift of wind and earth. They made you surprisingly formidable.” She rubbed her chin. “How strange.” Harry turned to her and frowned.

“I didn’t know the gift allowed you to speak with the Sisters. I’ve never heard Ge.” He paused a moment. “I’ve never communicated with her, I should say.”

“It takes a very unusual individual to hear the voice of the spirits through their gift. You are full of surprises, mortal.” Nash ran a hand down his smarting chest, thinking back to the fight.

“You seemed surprised that I had more than one gift. I don’t quite get that, though. Why would it be odd for me to get a gift from more than one Sister? They don’t seem very territorial. I would think that if you have one gift, you’d have them all.”

“That much power should burn your soul out through your eye sockets. Even among heroes, it takes a great deal of training to bear more than one Gift. You must be able to hold the element in harmony with your soul, or the second gift will burn it away, leaving you a shattered husk. The Sisters are caring creatures, but they are far more powerful than any human. Their gifts are dangerous if mixed. You certainly shouldn’t be able to hold two of them in as many days.” Megara turned around suddenly, and grabbed his chin, peering into his eyes suspiciously, her own face inches away from his. “Have you happened to consume the soul of another human, or possibly a mythological being?”

“Is that something that I can do?”

“Possibly. But not without knowing it. It tends to be a very deliberate act. No, I suppose it is just a mystery.” She frowned suspiciously. “Too many of those in the world. Perhaps it has nothing to do with any of this. That would be a nice change.”

“Speaking of mysteries,” Harry cut in, “what exactly you were thinking provoking a fight with someone? Especially when I’m not around.” Harry looked rather hurt that he hadn’t been invited to the brutal life-or-death fight. “I thought you needed some time to think. I hadn’t expected you to get into a fight while I was gone.” He frowned at Nash. “You seemed so certain that Nash was an agent of War. Trying to fight him on your own, that went against every single plan we made.”

Megara lowered her eyes. “It wasn’t Nash I planned on confronting. It was Irayama. I… felt guilty. Your child had died, and I had failed you. I became your mate on the condition that I would do everything in my power to protect your son. I couldn’t stand the idea of- if things went wrong-” Harry let out a loud bark of laughter, and grabbed Megara’s cheeks. He leaned in, and kissed her. The two of them stayed in that position for several long, slow seconds.

Nash waited until the silence became awkward, and noisily cleared his throat. The two broke apart, looking like a pair of teenagers caught by a chaperone. Harry chuckled “Imagine the mother of monsters trying to protect me. Life plays some tricks on us, doesn’t it?” Megara’s fine skin flushed badly as she pulled the lion skin tighter around her shoulders. “Mothers, Agent Nash. They’ll be the end of us all, trying to keep us safe.”

“Yes. Very amusing.” Nash crossed his arms. “I tell you what. I’m going to make us some hot chocolate. Then, you two tell me what you know, after you’ve gotten dressed.” Nash stepped away from the two. The sight of the two of them together… One of them was a semi-immortal demigod and a skilled soldier. The other was a goddess, a mother of monsters. And they went from life-and-death fighters to newlyweds in the blink of an eye. Blood was still staining Megara’s shoulder.

But then, who the hell was he to be judging what made for a proper and dignified love? It wasn’t as though he had anything in his life that could compare. He stepped through the doorway into the kitchen, and experienced an altogether different kind of envy. It was all elaborate marble countertops and granite tiles underfoot. They were rough, but curiously satisfying against his bare soles. He frowned, realizing he’d lost the sandals. He was abusing the hell out of the gifts he’d been given.

He went through the cabinets, and pulled out a small packet. He poured some milk into a saucepan, and Ariel and Gene appeared on either side of him. “Ariel. Do you know how I beat Echidna?” he asked, as he turned on the burner.

“Silas. You…” She shivered, her arms crossing. He stared down at the pot.

“That bad, huh.”

“That knife should have broken on Echidna’s skin. But you flayed her open like a perch. I didn’t give you the ability to do that. And Gene’s gifts are impressive, but I don’t think that’s among them.” She was silent for a few seconds. “You cut a goddess with some piece of rusty steel. That’s not normal, Nash. It could be a consequence of one of our gifts. But…”

“What are you saying?” Nash asked, frowning. Ariel held her hands up defensively, which struck Nash as a particularly insensitive thing to do. She was both a primordial goddess, and several miles away from him. What did she have to fear from him?

“I’m not saying anything, Nash. The human body can do incredible things when you’re angry enough. Maybe it was just pure survival instinct, and the use of our gifts. But the thing that scares me… I really thought you were going to kill her, there. Me and Gene- We couldn’t even get through to you. I thought maybe Pearl had chosen the wrong person.” He was silent. “When did you start seeing the woman in red, Nash?”

His hand tightened around the saucepan’s handle. “It was… when I was just a kid. My mother and I had a rocky relationship. My father died before I ever got to know him, and it was just the two of us. She did her best, but…” He smiled. “Schizophrenia’s hereditary. Maybe she kept a good handle on it. Maybe…” The realization hit him, and he took a couple of steps back, leaning against the far counter. His guts were ice-cold.

“God. Maybe she was never insane at all. Maybe she was right. She told me that the Woman in Red was looking for me, that I had to protect myself. And I hated my mother for what she made me do. The fighting, the loneliness, the little lessons.” He swallowed. “Did you see her, then? When Echidna was beating me senseless with her tail?” He looked between the two of them. “Come on. You’ve been in my head a lot. I’ve seen her a few times over the last few days. Please tell me you saw her.”

“We didn’t see War, but that doesn’t mean anything. She could be right here with us, and we might not even know. The Horsemen are good at going unnoticed when they want to.”

“Or, I could be going insane.” Nash rubbed his face. “God help me, but that almost sounds better.” He took a deep breath, and poured the milk out into a large teapot. The chocolate mix followed, and he stirred, grateful for the distraction. The slow, repetitive motion took his mind off the question of his own sanity for a few minutes. The scent of chocolate filled the air, rich and warm, drove away the chills. The spoon rattled against the rim as he shook it clean. His hand was shaking, sending little droplets of chocolate onto the marble counter. He swore under his breath, wiping it away with a tattered sleeve.

“Please, don’t worry about it. A little mess is good for a kitchen.” Megara stood in the doorway to the kitchen, dressed in a bath robe. A simple pink thing, he tried very hard not to laugh. Not least because he could still remember the sight of her arms, hanging limp by her sides, blood streaming down in thick black rivulets.

“How are your arms?” he asked. She smiled.

“The cut’s nearly completely healed. I am resilient, though you tested even that resilience. Most mortal wounds, I would have healed in seconds. Perhaps some aspect of your gifts?” He shrugged. He didn’t like that thought. Unhealing wounds… That’d be a vile thing to do to anyone. “My other arm is still sore. I’m surprised you were strong enough to dislocate the joint, even with Ge’s blessing. You must have been feeling very put out.” She sighed. “My mind has not been focused these last few days. There was a time, once, when I would have snapped you in two, and then split that impudent Onnashi’s shield with a single blow.” She shook her head. “It’s true what they say. Humans weaken you.”

He frowned. “Really? I thought spirits… Well, I thought they were natural forces, that people told stories about, and then they started being people. If humans are a source of power like that, how could it weaken you to be close to them?”

Megara sighed, her eyes heavy. “Oh, dear. You’ve been talking to that Smith girl, have you? As though she knows anything about our true nature.” Megara sat down at the table, and he placed a cup of hot chocolate in front of her. “Allow me to educate you, as to the truth.”

The primordial forces that shaped the universe had names, and faces, and identities. They were, if not people, at least beings. They warred in heaven and fought for the underworld. A son castrated his father. His son cut open his father’s belly. And in it all was Echidna. She and her husband were the penultimate blow the Titans struck against the gods. And for a time, it seemed as though they might succeed. But as the world aged, becoming less than it was, so too did the myths. Even the product of Typhon, greatest of the Titans’ weapons, and Echidna, the mother of monsters, were weak. They had become beasts and small terrors.

All because of humans, and their relentless desire to know things. The infinite could be bounded by humans, and that which was primordial, and terrible, was given limits by humanity. Gold gave way to Silver, which gave way to Bronze, which gave way to Iron.

“It is the way of the world. Things are not what they used to be. An aphorism, sometimes dismissed as nostalgia, but with a deeper truth. The universe is less each day. It falls apart.” Megara sighed, swirling her mug of hot chocolate, and took a sip. “It has been millenia since I could conceive a child. I fear that, at this point, I am barren, and the last chances I had to raise children are forever behind me. I am immortal, but I am no longer great enough to be the Mother of Monsters. I’m not even the Mother of this city.” She stared down into the drink. “And damn Harry for ever making the think that I could be anything more,” she whispered.

As though he’d heard them, Harry came down the stairs, taking a seat by his wife. Dressed in a long pair of slacks and a button-down shirt, he sat next to his wife. “Oh, is she giving you her doom and gloom, again? As though she is any more certain than the others. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the people of this city, it’s that they never let a little something like the truth get in the way of a good story.”

“Hush, husband.” Megara said, leaning her head against his shoulder. “Here is what I know of monsters, Agent Nash.”

The gods were much like monsters, at their heart. Monsters were an aberration, after all. Just another sign that the natural order had been disrupted. The natural order Typhon had been sent to make right. The Olympian Gods were never meant to rule, and their time would come, just as Cronus’ time did, and just as Uranus’ time did. Monsters were simply the mutated, the strange, the products of a rule gone on too long. They were a cancer, a sickness provoked by an unnatural state of affairs and a refusal of the old to pass on. But Zeus had not slain his father simply to give up power. The Gods made heroes. A panacea for a dying world.

“Doctor Smith told me that heroes were like… Well, stories about people. They started small, and grew as more people knew about them.”

“Pfah. A childish view. Feeding the idea that anyone could be a hero. No, a true hero is one in a million. They are impossible to miss, for those who know the signs. They are destined.”

They weren’t simply given power by stories told about them. They were Fated. In the real world, one man against ten was dead. That was reality. But in a story, when one man fought ten, he would win every time. In stories, the impossible is predictable. In stories, the world bends to bring the hero victory. In stories, people die for no better reason than motivating the hero to action. That was the horror of being a hero. They turned everyone around them into something less, a prop, by mere fact of their existence.

This was the gift the Olympians had bestowed on humanity, in order to protect themselves. They made some men great, and everyone else less than they were.

“My husband, as you may have noted, is the reincarnation of Heracles. His is a particularly grim fate. Even without my own meddling, killing his incarnations before they could attain their full power, Heracles lives a life full of pain. His wife and children dead, with the blame laid on his head. A punishment from the goddess of mothers and wives.”

Megara looked troubled for a moment. “I wonder. Perhaps my own actions were simply playing into the curse Hera laid upon him. Making sure that he would keep suffering for the slights she had suffered.” She sighed. “You see the insidious nature of the gift. Heroism hollows people out, turns them into nothing but a mask.” Harry was staring down at the table.

So it was for monsters. Among the Greeks, monsters often were slain. They would be reborn again in the body of some human. As they grew they would regain their true form. And they would be slain again. Their presence called to heroes, and they preyed upon humanity. They grew isolated, then mad, then violent. Sometimes they were even slain before they had even realized they were not human.

“It was about the domination of monsters by heroes, you see. Civilization conquering the wild. In time, the monsters realized that direct confrontation never worked. There was always another hero, and they grew strong so quickly. If they did not want to die in confrontation with a hero, then there were other ways for the monster to yield. Ways that would prove… mollifying.”

Nash snapped his fingers. “Beowulf!” Megara stared, as Harry slapped the table.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking of! The movie, right?”

Nash nodded. “Yeah, with Angelina Jolie, and-” The two of them noticed the ferocious look on Megara’s arch features.

“I did offer to rent it for us, dear,” Harry offered meekly.

“Are you quite done?” The two of them nodded. “I will presume that your reference is appropriately prurient. Yes. Monsters whored themselves to heroes.”

And it worked. Because of their opposed nature, monsters and heroes had much in common. Both were creatures of stories, of myths. Both were powerful and dangerous to mortals around them. They could live together more easily than they could among mortals. The relationships that blossomed survived past death. Heroes defanged monsters by making them more like people, and monsters mollified heroes by being too much like people to kill. “And it made my brethren weak!” Megara hissed.

“Oh, please. You know that you enjoy it.” Harry nudged her in the ribs, and received a witheringly frosty look. “Fine, fine, I suppose I’ll just take the princess costume down to the trash…?”

“What? No! You-” Megara turned to look at Nash. There was silence for a few moments. “Your survival during our fight, I will now note, was because of my own divided attentions, and my uncertainty about what I was doing. Do not take it, for a moment, as a sign that you can risk my wrath lightly.”

“I won’t tell anyone about the princess costume.” Nash did his best not to grin. “So, then, the Horsemen-?”

“Are not nearly so old as they appear.”

The Titans were disappointed by their weapons. Far from destroying the Olympians and their humans, monsters had been co-opted. So they created things that emphasized the worst in humanity. The Horsemen were the greatest of monsters, meant to destroy from within. Bellerophon and his fall as he attempted to ascend to Mount Olympus. Achilles and his flawed invulnerability. Odysseus and his excessive cleverness. Heracles and his loved ones. The Horsemen were made to capitalize on these weaknesses, and to use the strength of heroes against those they were meant to protect.

Greece fell, again, and again, weakened by the Horsemen. Conquest made them her special favorite, coming time and again, under crosses, under stars and crescent moons, with horses and bows. Conquest rode with joy through the cradle of Western civilization, making men die for the ambition of their lords and gods. That was her way, after all. And throughout it all, Megara had obsessed over keeping Greece’s greatest hero from returning to his people.

“It is difficult to tell when you are doing a thing because it is your choice, and when you are doing it because it is fate. Even more so when you are so old and set in your ways.”

It was the cities that stymied the Horsemen. The barriers between humans and monsters protected both, and the connection between heroes and monsters kept them stable. Heroes no longer slew monsters, and monsters no longer preyed on humans. With each city, the bonds grew tighter. They had seemed unbreakable. But the Horsemen had no desires, no needs, no dreams save their purpose. They had been waiting such a long time for this chance, a chance to insert rot into the heart of Zion.

“I confess. There was a time, a long time, when I would have gratefully aided the Horsemen in what they did. They were, after all, my brethren, much like Typhon. We were all made for the same purpose. The destruction of gods, and humanity. Where Typhon and I were cudgels, brute force, they were meant to be subtle knives.” She crossed her arms. “But the loss of my children for the Titans’ war soured me on that great purpose. Conflict with humans never ended well for us.”

“And the Sisters?”

Megara’s face grew dark. “They were the hero-makers, of course.”

The first heroes were anointed by the Sisters. The power of the four primordials who had been granted clemency; Nyx, Gaea, Thalassa, Promethea. The Sisters had no particular love for the Olympians. Those gods were the product of kinslaying, twice over. But in humanity, Promethea found something that struck her interest. She approached humans, and brought them a gift. For this, she was punished terribly by Zeus. Nonetheless, her gift would change the way that humans dealt with their world.

The origin of their gifts was uncertain. Some said that the others learned the way of it from Promethea, and rewarded humans to show defiance to the Olympians. Others, that gifts were a form of penance for Promethea’s crimes, granting gifts only to the Heroes of the Olympians. Still others said it was an act of love, one that was punished as humans broke the hearts of the Sisters and made them cold and distant, giving gifts out of obligation rather than passion. Whatever the reason, the gods were satisfied with this arrangement. Their own strength would not need to be spent to empower the heroes who protected them. That it cut them off from their heroes was a mistake they did not realize until it was far too late for them to do anything about it.

“It has been so long since the Gods spoke with humanity. They are small, and withered now. Nobody believes in them, and unlike heroes, or monsters, they need that belief.” Megara sighed. “The only divinities I know of who are still active in the world, beyond the keystones, are the four Sisters, and the Horsemen. And… well, she’s not important. She has always been satisfied to kill small things in the darkness, and ignore that which does not amuse her. But you see what I mean when I say the that the world has been diminished?”

“What about the moon landing?” Nash asked.

“That- It was a fake. I found a very good web site that explained it. Naturally, humans couldn’t achieve something like that.” Megara crossed her arms as Harry let out a pained groan, burying his face in his hands.

“Honey, I told you-“

“You know, there’s a reflector that you can point a laser at-“

“It doesn’t matter!” Megara said, frowning angrily. “The point is, the world has lessened itself. It has grown smaller, and that has made it more vulnerable. That men can touch the face of Artemis and go unpunished is merely one more indignity.” She turned her dark gaze towards Nash. “What are you going to do?”

Nash sat, and took out his notepad. “That’s a good question, actually. There are three mysteries. First of all, obviously, who killed Dean. I think that we’ve narrowed it down. I’m fairly confident neither of you two did it. Cassandra… Doubtful. And if War is behind this, I doubt she would just use some random stranger. That doesn’t seem like her style.” He looked at Megara questioningly.

The Echidna nodded. “That seems like a fair assessment. She was always the horsemen of conflict between brother and brother.” She looked over at Harry.

“Then it has to be Onnashi, or her daughter, or their friend. Why were you so suspicious of them, exactly?” Harry and Megara exchanged a look. The woman sighed.

“At my heart, I am a serpent. The girl, Isabelle, is also a serpent. Serpents have many connotations across the world, Agent Nash. Some are healers. Some are reborn. Some are tempters. Some are seducers. But all of them are dangerous. That is all I can offer you.” She shook her head. “I tried to keep him safe. He never did appreciate the danger that he was in. It would have been easy for her to kill him. He could not have known that she was a monster.”

Nash frowned. “That’s right. I thought that it was common knowledge, but I’ve met at least one young woman who had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned monsters.”

Megara shook her head again. “It is a rite of passage. When someone reaches eighteen years, they are told of the nature of things. It is the point at which they are old enough to grasp the immensity of the secret, while also being soon enough that they have not yet become aware of their true nature.” She frowned. “Isabelle had turned 18 not long ago…” She paused. “That could be it,” she whispered softly. “She may have wanted to reveal her secret to him. It could have gone wrong. I do not know how, exactly. But…” She shook her head. “I cannot be certain that it was the girl. But she is the only one who I could imagine being responsible, at this point.”

Nash nodded, frowning, as he wrote the information down in the notepad. “Second, the theft of your son’s body. It can’t have just been to hide the killer. That ritual in the graveyard proves it.” He frowned. “… Is it possible to bring someone back from the dead?”

“No,” said Harry.

“Yes,” said Megara, at the same moment.

Harry gave his wife a surprised look. “You always told me it was impossible, Megara.”

Megara bit her lip, frowning. “It is… not normally possible. It would not have worked on Dean, because- please don’t take this the wrong way- he was not important enough. Resurrection is a disruption of the natural order. It does not happen on the drop of a hat. It happens for heroes. Those whose stories are about resurrection. Immortals return from the land of the dead. Mortals like Dean, or like you, Mister Nash, do not. I am sorry.”

Nash frowned. “I still think I need to talk about that. Perhaps get a second opinion. Pearl mentioned a few of the people in the city know something about the art of the dead. I think the ritual was an attempt to bring Dean back. The person who did it certainly thought it would work. I need to find out why it didn’t.” He sighed. “And the last question is War’s end-game. I need to figure out who her agent is. The impression I’ve gotten is that she’s given her gift to someone, and it’s creating the instability here.” He looked over towards Megara. “How long can you keep things calm in the city?”

Megara frowned. “A day, maybe two. If War is behind this, tensions will continue to mount, and there is only so much that fear of my power can do to calm things. If I embrace violence to hold people apart, it will only play into her hands.” Nash nodded.

“Harry. Do you think that you can get me inside of that dome?”

Harry frowned. “It’s possible. Yeah. I think if you meet me at sunset tomorrow, I’ll be able to get you in without disturbing anyone. You’re not going to like the way in, though. And we’ll need to figure out a guide.”

Nash took a deep breath. “Then I’m going to find out what I can today. See if maybe we can make things right.” He stood up, and gave them a wan smile. “You know about the cycle of vengeance, Mister Constantinou. If we have the choice between saving the person who killed your son from War, and avenging his death, which are you going to pick?”

“Save them, Nash. Every time. Killing the person who took my son’s life won’t bring him back, but if he loved Isabelle, then saving her from War will honor his memory.”

Nash nodded. “Then get some sleep, you two. I’ve got a bouillabaisse waiting for me.” As the two legends shared a bemused look, he took his leave, walking down the hillside towards the glow of the town. The moon was gibbous, waxing as he wandered down the path. His feet seemed to know where he should go. The thought of Heather and a good meal put new life in his legs as he found the road.

IIt was nearly midnight when he stumbled into his hotel room, soles aching and blistered from the barefoot walk. Heather sat by his end-table, smiling. She had a hotplate plugged in, and was stirring something that smelled completely divine. He stumbled over to the bed, and flopped down. Ariel and Gene, blessedly, seemed to be giving him some privacy. That, or they were invisible. He was never going to have privacy again, most likely.

Heather was attractive, and she showed a level of care for his well-being that was entirely new to him. But he was realizing, despite his initial confusion, he wasn’t sexually attracted to her. It was more like something that he’d been missing from his life for a long time. The simple, gentle intimacy of someone who cares that you’re alive. The dark-skinned woman smiled gently as he ate the thick fish stew, spitting out the small bones he encountered into a small cup. His clothes hung in the closet. She’d fixed them all. Even the tie and pants that Ariel had ruined.

There was still the murder, and the threats, and the agent of War. All of the big problems were still there. But his clothes were fixed, and he had a good meal, and there was someone who would have been sorry if he’d died out there in the woods. That was enough. It reminded him of his mother, before she’d lost her mind. “This… I feel a little guilty about this.” He waved a hand at the closet. “The food, the clothes.” He ran a finger across the hem. They fit better than they had when he had first gotten them.

“Silas, honey. Tell me. Do you know why we give the quests?” Nash considered for a moment, then shook his head. He had his suspicions, but he wanted to hear it from her. “We can’t control those powers once we give them. So we choose lessons we want people to learn. Ariel’s got her new horizons, trying to find people who will open their mind to new things. Gene wants someone strong enough to not hurt anybody. Pearl… Well, you’ll learn her tastes in time. But me… I like empathy.”

She saw his questioning expression, and smiled softly. “The understanding that everyone is a person. Even mothers of monsters. Even demigods. Even angry, lonely young men. Everyone is a person, and everyone deserves a hot fresh meal, and a little fine needlework.” She stepped closer, and leaned her forehead against his. He let the bowl of stew rest in his hands as he closed his eyes. “Even you. You deserve to be cared for. You deserve life” She smiled, pulling her head away. “That’s your quest. Find what’s worth living for.” He nodded slowly, and placed the bowl down beside the bed. His head felt so heavy.

“Do you hate humans for breaking your heart?” She laughed softly, a smile on her face.

“Of course not. I love them for giving me a heart that could be broken. Now… your mother used to sing you a lullaby, didn’t she?” He couldn’t quite look surprised. He was too tired. She must have read some of that in his eyes. She pulled the covers over him, as he lay down, and her fingertips ran through his hair, as she sang the song he hadn’t heard since his mother had been taken away. His eyes closed, and he fell into sleep. As the warm darkness wrapped around him, the words danced in his head, and he felt tears dripping down onto his pillow.

“Good night, sleep tight.
Wake up bright.
In the morning light.
To do what’s right.
With all your might.”

Chapter 14: Acheron

Morning came, and with it a slew of anxieties. Nash sat up slowly, prepared for his bones to scream at him, protesting at the treatment from the night before. But he felt good. A bowl of the fish stew sat on the bedside table, with plastic wrap over it. He was so hungry that he ate it cold, gobbling down bite after bite, almost choking on a tiny bone. The stew had thickened as it cooled, and he luxuriated in the taste of saffron and meat. When he finished, he set the bowl aside, and walked to the shower.

“Good morning, starshine!” Ariel was standing in the shower, grinning brightly, dressed in a pair of shorts and a tank top.

“Out.” He pulled the shower curtain aside. “You too, Gene.” Gene wore a shower cap with her overalls. The two of them frowned.

“Aw, come on! After you got all serious yesterday, you need a little cheering up! I don’t want you trying to kill anyone else in the town. So, what do you say? Shall I wash your back?” Ariel winked at him.

“So you two have decided to become my own personal traumatic hallucinations? For gods sakes, just give me a little privacy. Or at least turn invisible, or something!” Ariel rolled her eyes, and disappeared. Gene stuck her tongue out at him, and did the same. Nash watched the shower for a few seconds, and reached out, swinging his hand through the air. It remained resolutely intangible. “It’s not very nice to appear as an illusion to someone who’s been living with schizophrenia for most of their lives, you know.”

The room remained silent and slightly petulant. He began to undress, and straightened up immediately when he thought he heard a giggle. “That isn’t funny,” he muttered, face red as he stepped into the shower, and let out a breath as the hot water started pouring down. He showered quickly, hoping that maybe, if he didn’t linger, there would be fewer comments. And despite the embarrassment, despite the intrusion on his privacy, he smiled. Voices in his head that didn’t loathe him, that were kind and warm. That was a novel experience.

He studied through his closet. There was no sign of obvious stitching or patching on the clothes Heather had taken from him, but everything looked as good as new. They felt even better, as though they’d been taken in, fitted to his body. He wondered for a moment how she’d gotten his measurements, and decided he was happier without that knowledge.

He took out his cellphone. Coverage was bad, today. He could barely hold on to one bar. He sighed. Old Lady Wendigo was the name he’d been given. He got into the car, noting the small notches left by chitinous claws in the steering wheel, and the way the springs in the back seat seemed to have collapsed under great weight. He was going to have to visit Gene again. For now, though, he drove towards the small city clinic.

He had to take a roundabout route, avoiding the large dome that hung over the suburban area of the city. From time to time, he saw angry citizens striking its perimeter. The defense had been a desperate measure, and it was dividing the city. But from the expressions Nash caught as he passed, it was the only thing keeping the city from exploding in violence. On the far side, he pulled into the small gravel lot outside the clinic. A dozen trucks and cars were parked haphazardly, and the waiting room was similarly out of sorts. Cassandra Hirosata was pacing the chairs, talking with the injured, and bringing notes to Megan Smith. The doctor looked swamped.

He tapped her on the shoulder. Cassandra spun, and recoiled. “God! Why are you sneaking up on me?!” Her face was red as she avoided making eye contact with him. Megan Smith stepped forward, giving Cassandra a chance to regain her composure.

“Agent Nash. Taylor told me that you broke his hand.” Nash coughed with embarrassment, as Cassandra’s carefully marshaled poise withered, her eyes wide.

“It… He was the one who punched me, right?” He paused for a moment, and consciously refused to feel guilty.” It stopped the riot, didn’t it?”

“It certainly broke their resolve. You have a unique talent for terror, Mister Nash.” Megan’s eyes went down to Cassandra, who was holding the clipboard up to block the sight of Nash’s face. “You don’t look as though you’re injured, which tells me that you don’t need my help with medical matters. So, why exactly are you here? The city is a powder-keg, and I am the only doctor here, which means that I am horribly overworked. Young Cassandra here has been kind enough to help me tell who is maimed and who simply needs a good slap.”

“I need to find Old Lady Wendigo, and I need someone who can convince her to talk to me.”

“Have things really grown so dire?” Megan Smith was staring at him. “Why could you want to talk to… her?”

“I need to learn more about death. From what I was told, she knows death.”

The young doctor snorted. “Well, that much is a certainty.” She looked over at Cassandra, who was giving the two of them an odd look. “How are we doing?”

“Everyone’s stable. I think things have calmed down in town. The most anyone else needs is a bandage, or a painkiller. Take your phone, I’ll call you if anyone comes in with an emergency, alright?” The doctor nodded, grabbing a long cigarette holder and a cellphone from behind the desk. Cassandra was still refusing to look in Nash’s direction.

“What do you see in my face that frightens you so much, Miss Hirosata?” he asked, as Megan gathered her things.

“Nothing, Mister Nash,” she responded, as she scribbled something on the clipboard. Nash sighed, and walked out of the front door with Megan, as the two of them made their way into the street. The doctor seeming ill at ease as the car started.

“You need to understand something. Old Lady Wendigo is Algonquin. I’m Lakota. We are, technically, allies- but it is out of necessity. I can introduce you, and implore her in my position as the Maiden of this city, but she has no respect for authority. You are going to have to convince her on your own.” Nash nodded.

“And on a personal note, I do not like her. She is a spirit of darkness. She is one of the nightmare things spawned by a people who have great hardship to fear. She is not evil because she is a cannibal. She is a horror because of what she represents. The idea that a single sin, committed in the desperation for survival, could corrupt a desperate soul into a monster.” The doctor pulled her coat a bit tighter, despite the bright summer sun.

Nash gave her a brief glance. Clearly a sore subject. “How did you wind up in this city, Doctor Smith?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. The woman looked rather surprised by the question.

“Oh? Well… I suppose that it was a coincidence, really. I heard about the founding of Zion through friends. I had been traveling through the United States, from reservation to reservation, for decades. There were few spirits among them, and those that remained were dying. Few still believed in them. The world is experiencing a famine of belief, and they suffer for it. Most of those who could manage it made their way to the cities, to go to the other side.”

“I heard that a large number of spirits of the people of the plains, the great lakes, the northwest, were settling here. So I decided to see.” She ran a finger down her cheek absently. “I was the second oldest among them, so I was chosen as leader. You are about to meet the oldest.” She laughed softly. “They wouldn’t have accepted her as our representative, but the question never came up. She didn’t want to lead. She just wanted to eat.”

There were three buildings together in a line across from where they parked. On the right was a sushi restaurant. The front window had been shattered, and an extraordinarily unpleasant message had been spray-painted on the door. On the left, a small furniture store had been vandalized. Display models were missing from stands, and the front door hung off its hinges. In the middle of the two, the deli stood. A large, open, inviting place, there was no sign of damage or vandalism. Despite this, no customers were visible through the glass window.

The two of them stepped in. The sleigh-bells hanging from the door handle rung softly. An old woman, with gray hair, wrinkled but merry features, and skin the color of bronze stepped out of the back. Her eyes brightened when she saw them. “Oh! Wendy, Wendy! Miss Smith is here! And a nice young man!” She wore an apron, a loose shirt, and a pair of breezy shorts, completing the ensemble with a pair of sandals that looked just like the ones that Nash had been wearing the day before.

She held her hand up to her ear, apparently listening to a voice that neither Nash or Smith could make out. “Oh, it’s not that warm today! Come out of your freezer!” She held her hand up again. Nash concentrated. He could hear a voice, barely raised above a whisper. It drifted through the large metal door, past the small . “Oh, you can wait a little bit to field dress the deer!” Another whisper. The woman sighed. “Oh, she’s so stubborn. Would you mind joining her in the freezer? It’s the heat, you see. It does bother her bones, nowadays!” The old woman smiled, and lifted the deli counter, providing a space for Megan and Nash to slip by her. “Just in here, dears!”

The large metal door of the meat locker opened ponderously as Nash hauled at the handle. Inside, frost glistened on every surface. Massive slabs of meat hung from hooks, swaying slowly. It was a lot of storage space, especially for a small town.

Megan stayed close behind him as he led the way. The lights were dim in here, and the carcasses of deer, pigs, and cattle crowded around them. He saw someone, tiny, not even five feet tall, hunched over a deer’s corpse. A bright red patch was visible in the deer’s brown-furred chest. The figure was tying a rope around its throat, caught behind the antlers. The other end of the rope was hanging from the rafters. Nash stepped forward to offer his help as the figure finished tying, but with two easy pulls, a hundred and fifty pounds of deer rose into the air as though it weighed nothing at all. Nash stared as the figure tied the rope to a rack, and took out a hunting knife. Then she turned around.

Her hair was white as snow, and her eyes were milky white, filmed over, though she seemed to have no trouble locating them. She smiled cheerfully with a face like a dried apple. Bright white teeth, sharp canines all the way back, were twinkling in her mouth. “Why, hello!” She wore a large overcoat, although it was hung slightly open. An emaciated stomach was visible underneath. “How impolite of me! Megan, how good to see you. And the FBI agent, I’ll wager, who’s been raising such a stir!” The old woman winked, and took out a large bowl. It was filled with deer hooves.

“Snack?” she asked, smiling politely. “No?” She raised one to her lips, and crunched down on it, breaking the hoof in two and chewing with obvious relish. “Mmmm. Doesn’t taste as good as manflesh, but not nearly as guilt-inducing! And the old ball and chain doesn’t give me any trouble for it!” She cackled, and the sound was less like the howl of wind and snow through a world without sun, and more like Great-Aunt Cacky after she’s had just a few too many glasses of brandy, and is preparing to hit on the waiter.

“I’ve heard such things before,” Megan Smith said, her voice as icy as the frost currently forming on the back of Nash’s neck. “I am not inclined to believe that simply because you have settled down with a human means that you’re not driven by your hungers. We both know that it doesn’t work that way.”

Wendy snorted, taking a seat, nibbling on the hoof delicately, now. “Oh, Smith. Always so eager to judge. I made the choice, all those years ago, to live rather than die. And how I suffered for it. Now, I choose to not eat flesh.” She smiled, reaching into the coat, and took out a small bronze token. “Intervention from a higher power. Five years sober.” She studied the two of them. “Now, why have you come to see me, after forty years of avoiding me like the plague? You never come over for Christmas dinner. I’ve been inviting you since I met Nooky. I was feeling rather hurt, at this point.” To Nash’s great surprise, Doctor Smith’s face was turning red, her arms crossed.

“I came because Nash needs answers to set the city right.”

“Did you take Dean Constantinou’s body from the police station morgue?” Nash asked, his tone firm. Wendy raised an eyebrow.

“Do I look like I have the strength necessary to tear open a building like that? And what would I even want with such a body, hmmm?” She smirked. Nash looked up towards the deer carcass.

“I’m learning not to judge based on appearances.” He smiled. “Over five years’ sobriety. That’s an impressive feat, Old Lady Wendigo. You’d have to be a strong person to manage that.”

She nodded slowly, smiling. “My fifth anniversary was last week. Every day is a struggle, but I realized, eventually, that I would rather be hungry and have control than be hungry and have no control.” She laughed again, and locked her milky white eyes with his. “I did not take his body from the morgue, and I have not seen the delicious young man.” He took a breath. She was telling the truth, more or less. The scent around her was sharp and full of frost, but to his surprise, there was something pleasant about the scent. Megan Smith frowned disapprovingly.

“You’d use a ritual that humans made? That Europeans made?” The expression on her face was unpleasantly close to a sneer.

“Why not? It helps. Did you forget that charming holy man from your tribe? ‘I will follow the white man’s trail. I will make him my friend, but I will not bend my back to his burdens. I will be cunning as a coyote. I will ask him to help me understand his ways, then I will prepare the way for my children. Maybe they will outrun the white man in his own shoes. There are but two ways for us. One leads to hunger and death, the other leads to where the poor white man lives. Beyond is the happy hunting ground where the white man cannot go.'” Wendy smirked at Megan, whose eyes had opened wide for just a moment.

“The way to paradise is forward, not backward, Smith. That’s why this place was called Zion, and not Eden.” A flush rose briefly on the doctor’s cheeks, and she turned sharply on her heel, stalking out of the meat locker. Wendy turned towards Nash. “So, is that all you wanted?”

He shook his head. “There’s the stink of death all over this case. It’s made me wonder a lot about stories. About the afterlife, and about the paths between death, and life.”

Wendy stared at him for several long seconds. Then her face splintered open in a smile. “Really? Why do you think I would know everything about that? There’s no truth for you to find, boy. Truth isn’t why we believe. Every person has their own beliefs about the afterlife, after all. It takes different shapes, and even if I told you what I know, I couldn’t promise it would help you.”

“I know that. But- This isn’t about The Truth.” The capital letters came easy to him. Probably because he hadn’t taken his medication in too long. “What I want is Your Truth.”

Wendy nodded slowly. “Well, then. This is the story that they told in my tribe. About the land of the dead, and those who returned from it. Imagine, if you will, that someone shone a light on our world, casting it in stark relief against the wall…”

Shadow puppets. Nash remembered playing that game as a child, although he’d never been any good at anything except Deformed Rabbit. An entire afterlife, made up of the shadows cast by life. Not the real thing, but close enough. There was the same geography, and the same animals, and the same people, all rendered in varying shades of darkness. Men hunted animals, for an eternity. Some might consider that a form of hell. But…

A place where you will never starve, where there is always plentiful game, and where you can practice your hunting day in, and day out. Where there was no war over resources, where there was no jealousy, where men could simply exist. And imagine what animals might be there, for they were the shadows of every animal that had ever existed. An eternity of testing oneself, and living only in the moment. You could go forever without having to think about tomorrow, simply enjoying what was in front of you at the moment. There were worse fates for the dead. Nash even forgot about the cold while he listened.

“We didn’t talk about people coming back from that. Anyone who didn’t want that as an afterlife wasn’t worth bringing back, after all. If you were unhappy with your life among the shadows, then how could you be any good to your fellows when you came back?” She smiled.

“Nonetheless, one thing that was certain was that if you ate of the shadowy beasts, you remained there. It hung like an anchor in your belly, replacing your flesh with shadow, so that you could never again go out under the sun, lest you burned away. It was said that brave men could find the place in the darkest thickets, where the shadows grew so deep they became solid. If you walked those paths as the sunlight died away, then you could find yourself among the dead, ask them questions, and be reunited with them.” She studied him. “What questions do you have to ask the dead?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know, exactly. But someone out there does. Someone was trying to raise Dean Constantinou from the dead. He was…” He shuddered. “He was screaming, when they tried. I’d never heard something so awful.”

Wendy was silent for a few seconds. Then she shook her head. “I suppose that three possibilities spring to mind. The first is that wherever the boy’s soul was, it was in agony, such that it had been driven mad. It might not even have known life was being restored. Second, perhaps it was so happy where it was that the idea of being brought back to this world, with all its strife, its pain, its monsters, was too much for the boy.” Nash nodded. The thought had occurred to him.

“Or, perhaps, it was the transition. Perhaps the strain on his soul was too great. It is a problem here. Where beliefs mix and clash, it is so easy to forget the gulfs that exist between us. My power is great, and I might even be able to drag the souls of one of the dead back from that shadowed hunting ground, if there was a good reason, and they were willing. But I could not drag someone from the Meadows of Asphodel or from Yomi’s dark grip. Certainly not without the help of the rulers of those places. They are jealous keepers, and not fond of heroes.” The woman smirked.

“I’m not a hero,” said Nash.

Wendy was quiet for a few moments. “You are weak, Agent Nash. Even with the gifts you have been given, you are nothing compared to some of the heroes here. Why do you think that you have a chance of success when no one else does?”

Nash looked her in the eye and read the answers in her cold gaze. “Because I am not a story, or a myth, or a legend, or a cautionary tale. I am a human, and I am not fated to fail.”

Wendy laughed, and the sound was much less friendly this time. “Give me your right hand, Agent Nash.” He frowned, and held it out. “Hold out your index finger.” He did so, somewhat more reluctantly, as she took his hand. “The knowledge I have to offer you comes with a price. Are you prepared to pay it?” He swallowed. Her teeth gleamed like icicles as she smiled at him.

“Your chip-“

“I will have to start over again. It will not be the first time. But I cannot change the fact that there is a price. Will you pay it?” He swallowed again. The loss of his finger. She wouldn’t, would she? But… she was a monster. A flesh-eater. He thought of what it must be like. To crave the taste of human flesh for so long and to give it up willingly. To be a creature defined by its hunger for the flesh of men and to get a taste of it after years of deprivation. Was Dean worth it? Was anyone in this place worth what he was about to give up?

Of course they were. It was the index finger on his right hand. Nothing good had ever come from it. Just a dead woman. He nodded softly to her, and she wrapped her lips around his extended finger. He felt the sharp points pressing against his skin. He braced himself for the pain, as her jaw tensed.

There was a sound like a drain disposal, and she released his finger, dripping drool. “Mmm! Delicious.” She looked up at him. “What? It’s alright if I just lick, that’s not breaking my oath. Just like an alcoholic can sniff as many wine corks as they like without breaking their oath.” She smirked. “My darling Nooky taught me that you can have an awful lot of fun just licking people without biting them.” She cackled as he pulled his hand back, trying to make the movement nonchalant. “Sticking your finger in a Wendigo’s mouth! You’re not powerful, but you’re not weak, either, are you?” She smirked.

“I have fought Echidna, you know.” He knew his tone was defensive. Wendy smiled kindly.

“And if she’d been of a mind to kill you, really kill you, do you think you’d be talking to me right now? There’s no shame in being weak. You’re a human. Not a hero, not a monster. Despite that, you’ve been doing well.” She smiled. “You might want to listen when an Algonquin woman tells you about weakness. You might learn something very valuable.”

She took a seat, and he nodded, sitting across from her. The cold of this place was growing uncomfortable, but he was close now. “Now, you remember what I said to Miss Smith? About the ways of the white man?” He nodded. “Remember that. It’s vital. If you are weak, and others are strong, you need to learn why they’re strong. You need to learn from them, even if that means humbling yourself. Even if it means tolerating them treating you like a foolish child. Do you understand me, boy?”

He smiled wryly, and she laughed. “Good. The second thing is, nobody is truly strong if they’ve never been weak. Powerlessness is a fire that burns inside of you. In some people, it burns them into ash, and they become useless. But others are like steel. The powerlessness forges them, and makes them strong, so they are never at the mercy of others again.”

Her face grew hollow. “I was weak once, boy. I was sitting in a hut, watching my father’s corpse freeze over, feeling my body shrink. I was given a choice. I could die, slowly, painfully, in the cold, or I could become a monster. And then, many years later, I was given another choice.” Life seemed to return to her expression. “I could be a monster… Or I could be something more.” She looked him in the eye. “Is there anyone in this world, who you would die for?” she asked, and Nash was silent.

“I… don’t know.” he admitted, frowning. The woman nodded.

“Change that. If you don’t have someone that you’re willing to die for, you’ll never find your way to the afterlife.” She smiled. “If you want to change stories, you need to start with someone you love.”

“Who was it who said that? About outdoing the white man at his own game?”

The Wendigo smiled. “Oh, he was a Lakota man. A holy man. Very clever. Even if he wasn’t of my people, what he said made sense. So I decided to follow his example. I think that he would have approved of that.”

She stood up, and walked over to the deer. “Now, I need to get this dressed. Off with you, lad!” He turned around, quickly, as the sound of metal sliding through meat filled the air. He winced as he walked out of the locker and into the sudden shock of warm air. Doctor Smith was sitting at a table with a large sandwich. Watercress, avocado, and tomatoes. She looked up, a peevish expression on her face.

“Finished talking with her, then?” Nash nodded. “Good. Drop me off at the clinic, would you?” He nodded again. The two of them walked out of the deli as the doctor grazed on her sandwich. The drive back was quiet, and Nash felt compelled to fill the silence with a question.

“Why exactly are you so angry at Wendy? She seemed… Well, a lot nicer than I would have expected. She didn’t even bite my finger off, and I was certainly asking for it.”

The doctor was silent for a long time. She opened the window, and lit her cigarette. She took a deep puff, her fingers fastened tightly around the ceramic of the cigarette holder. Her cheeks hollowed, and her nostrils flared. Finally, after a minute had passed, she spoke, smoke streaming out the window. “We both lost so much. Our families, our tribes, scattered and broken. She was a spirit of dark things, and never well-liked by her people. I was a spirit of good luck, and prosperity. And where I have been set adrift in the world, with nothing, not knowing where to go, or what to do, she is improving herself. She takes the tools of Europeans, and embraces them whole-heartedly, to be better. And she fights her lust for flesh. I have to admit…”

She shook her head. “I am jealous of how well she adapts to the world. She doesn’t simply survive. She doesn’t hide. She is using the future. And I wonder to myself, is she betraying her ancestors and her people by adapting? Or am I betraying them by holding to my traditions?”

Nash was silent for a moment. He’d never been much good at comforting others. But if he didn’t try now… “Maybe neither one of you is wrong. Maybe you’re both doing something very important. if you both dwelt in the past, you’d never move forward. And if you both left it behind, you might not know what direction ‘forward’ is.” He sneaked a peek. She didn’t seem as though all of her woes had been dispensed by that one platitude, but she didn’t look as miserable, either.

The two of them pulled into the clinic. Megan smiled at him as she stepped out of the car. “I hope you found what you were looking for.”

“A start, at least. I’m still not even entirely sure what it is I’m looking for.” His phone rang, and he held it up as the doctor exited the car, walking towards the clinic. It was Pearl. “Hey, Pearl. I think I got a bit of guidance from Wendy.”

“Good. Meet me at the cemetery. Bring Cassandra. I’m going to initiate you into the Eleusinian Mysteries.”

Chapter 15: Phlegethon

“Why do you dislike me, Cassandra?” Nash asked, as he drove. Cassandra sighed.

“Mister Nash, I’m sure you’re a decent guy and all, but I see things. Alright? And I know how crazy that sounds-“

“Very sane now, actually.”

“Whatever. When I look at you? You look like you were butchered. No eyes. No nose. No lips. No ears. You sound like you had a pipe cleaner shoved down your windpipe. Being around you is bad on my nerves, alright? And I can tell- I can’t explain how, but it is very accurate- that you make horrible things happen.” They drove in silence for a while. “I’m sorry. I know Pearl trusts you. But everything that I can feel tells me that you’re trouble.”

“People ever said that about you, Cassandra?” he asked, keeping his tone jovial and light. He could see the way it struck her, though. She turned her face away, towards the window, brows wrinkled. “I can’t help the way I look to you. I can only try to be a decent person. You can believe me, or think I’m a m… a freak.” He saw her raise an eyebrow at him. “Yeah. Gotta stop thinking in those terms now that I’m around monsters.” He looked across the divider at her. “What are you doing out of your home, anyway? It’s dangerous out here, especially for a young woman who looks like she’s Japanese.”

“My mom’s locked out of our neighborhood. She’s Greek, and she was out shopping when the dome went up.” Cassandra crossed her arms tightly. “That old bitch never thought that maybe, someone might belong under that dome without being Asian. Racist old hag.” She sighed. “I went out to see her. Decided to spend some time helping out Miss Smith for a while, so that she wasn’t alone out there. School’s closed for the time being. So, where are we going?”

“To learn the Eleusinian mysteries. Whatever the hell that means.”

“Hmmm. My mom does that every spring. I think it’s just an excuse for them to get together and drink a lot. She took me once, it was mostly a lot of booze and telling stories.” She looked at Nash, and frowned. “What’s actually happening here, Mister Nash? I know a lot about the people here, but I don’t know what’s really going on. They always tell me I’m too young to know that. Even Pearl… She hints at things, but she never outright says anything. She says I shouldn’t worry about it.”

“She’s probably right about that. I’m sure that they’re just trying to protect you. It can be dangerous to know things. It can make you get involved in them.”

“Yeah. That sure helped Dean Constantinou a lot, didn’t it?”

They drove in silence for a few seconds. Nash thought about all of the times that he had been lied to. All the times people had held things back from him. And he made a rash decision. “This city is full of monsters. Mythological creatures. I’m sure you know some of that. It’s part of this gigantic scheme to hold back the spirit world from the world of humans, so that humans and monsters don’t constantly kill each other. And something, something horrible, a band of psychotics called the Horsemen, is trying to break down that balance. I think the one responsible for this is War. I think she’s trying to pull down this city by turning everyone in it against one another. I think that she got to someone close to Dean, most likely that Onnashi girl, and drove them mad, somehow. Got them to kill Dean. I think that Irayama Onnashi was responsible for stealing his body, and someone else was responsible for burning down the shack. They were trying to hide what really happened. And I think that unless I’m very lucky and very good at what I do, everyone in this city will die. So I’m under a hell of a lot of pressure.”

Cassandra sighed, resting her head against the seat-back. “I knew this was important! I knew it mattered! I knew that this was all happening for a reason! It wasn’t just Dean dying of some random accident, or getting killed for some stupid lovesick reason!” She rested her hands against her face. She was crying a bit, but she was also smiling. “Thank you, Mister N- Silas. I’m sorry I keep freaking out when I look at you. You’re the first person who’s told me the truth in this whole place.” She looked over at him, and though she shivered, she didn’t break eye contact. “You’re going to do it, right? You’re going to save everyone?”

“I’m not a hero. That’s been made abundantly clear to me.”

“But you’re going to at least try?”

“Yes.”

She was quiet for a few moments. Then she leaned over, and kissed his cheek, very gently. He thought of the image she had told him, of someone maimed, of gouged eyes and cut lips and butchered faces. And he wondered just how much it had cost her to show that compassion. How long had she gone tortured by the things that she’d seen? The insane things that everyone told her weren’t there? Just like him. The two of them drove in silence as they made their way through the back woods, but a great deal of the awkwardness had left the atmosphere around them.

They arrived at the graveyard, where a handful of people had gathered around a tombstone. Nash recognized Megara and Harry. Pearl was standing there, as well, and Officer Dio, and an unfamiliar figure. She was black. Not a comforting shade of chocolate, like Heather. She was black like a burnt effigy, her skin the color of coal, and as she turned around, he’d swear her eyes were red. She waved cheerfully, as Cassandra stepped out of the car. Nash approached, and indeed, her eyes were red, and not really at all suited for the excitable cheer she showed as they approached. Nonetheless, he smiled back. If Cassandra could smile, so could he.

“Excellent! Cassandra, I’m sorry your mother couldn’t be here, she told me she was going to be busy. Remember when we did that spring initiation for you a few years back?” The woman grinned. “This will be the other side of that ritual.” Then she turned, her eyes growing hard, towards Nash. “You, on the other hand, are not invited. You have not performed a part in one of the Lesser Mysteries. You are not one of the people. You are not a believer.” She sniffed. “You are not even Fated. What right do you claim to stand here?”

Megara frowned. “Crupky-“

Officer Crupky turned on her heel to face Megara. She was wearing a voluminous white toga. It exposed one breast, but it was hard to find that appealing on such a fierce figure. “I do not counsel you try that tone on me, Mother. I know your position. I know your strengths. But I am the last hierophant of the mysteries of Demeter still standing. The Eleusinian Mysteries are mine to shepherd. Why should I give this outsider, this fool, a chance to learn the truest of secrets? The power over life and death? The understanding of what lays beyond? Do you have an answer, Fire-Bearer? Do you have, Hero of Heroes? Do you, Wounder of Gods? Do you, Mother of Monsters?”

Her eyes cast across the crowd in silent judgment. And in a moment, it all snapped into place for Nash.

“Everyone has a right to understand these Mysteries, if they should choose to exercise it. Because everyone will need it. After all, we all die eventually, don’t we?”

The officer turned, a smile on her face. “Well, well. Know a little something about the Mysteries, do you? Not a bad point. That’s what the Lesser Mysteries teach. There is one other thing, however.” She placed her hands on her hips. “The first thing that we must do, before we travel, is the sharing of a joke. At a certain spot, we must share jokes, in honor of Iambe. And they must be ribald, dirty, base. Do you have a joke that you can share with us?” she asked, a smirk spreading across her face. Nash considered the question for a moment. He then smiled, and leaned against one of the gravestones. It had always been his favorite joke.

“Alright. There’s a certain bar, in Ireland, sitting on the cliffs of Dover. Its first floor has this wide open window, set over the cliffs, and there’s a tremendous wind that blows up across the cliffs, creating this constant rushing wind. One day, around nine AM, a pair of men are sitting in the bar, nursing their shots. One of them looks out the window, and says, ‘You know, the winds here are so strong, you can step right out there, and hover in them.’ The other man says ‘Yeah, right, pal. Why don’t you step out, then?’ The first man nods, stepping over to the window, and hops out. He hovers in mid air, arms stretched out as the wind blows around him. He steps back in, and the other man yells ‘I’ve got to try that!’ and runs over to the window, stepping out, and falling into the ocean. The bartender gives the first man a look, and says ‘Superman, you’re a mean drunk.'”

There was a moment of silence. Harry was the first one to laugh, slapping his knee, and Crupky followed soon after. Megara tried to look disapproving, and Cassandra took a moment to get it, but even Dio cracked a smile. Crupky slapped his shoulder. “Come on, then!” She smiled. “It used to be this ritual took place over ten days, but some people…” She frowned, looking across the group.

“There’s just not the time there used to be for festivals.” Megara agreed, nodding. Dio, Pearl, and Harry all looked vaguely guilty as they began walking. “It used to be twenty-one kilometers, too. A proper distance for a devotional.” Harry handed out large branches cut from pines. “And we used fennel.” She sniffed. “At least you found ones with pine cones still attached.” Nash took his, and watched as the others swung them. They fell into a loose processional, and he took the chance to step up next to Pearl.

“Is it alright to talk during this?”

“As long as we don’t interrupt the dirty jokes halfway through. I have this for you.” She took out the pink book. “I translated it for you. Japanese. An interesting read.” She smiled. “Now seems like a good time to examine it. What did you want to ask me?”

“First things first. I left my gun in your patrol car. Have you seen it?” She shook her head, frowning. “Shit.” He muttered softly. “That’s not good, because I think I know who has it. War left me her… I suppose you’d say calling card. A bullet from my clip, with the words she keeps saying to me.”

“She’s been speaking to you?” Pearl asked, a frown on her face.

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“I’m not sure. It’s odd, at the least.” Pearl shook her head. “I talked with Megara and Harry. They mentioned your conversation, your thoughts about death. It was an inspired thought.” Silas was only half listening, turning his head towards the pile of bones still lying bleached in the sunlight. He realized, abruptly, what had been worrying at his subconscious for some time. He ran up the hill at a jog, catching up with Harry, and Megara. His fingers fished, but didn’t find the ring in his jacket.

“Megara!” Pearl jogged up after him, and Crupky gave a disapproving look down the hill at them as Megara turned to face him. “I found something, a few nights ago, when I fought those skeletons. It was a ring, silver, with an emerald set into it. It was on one of the bodies, here. It had your name, and…” He frowned, looking over at Harry. “Well, it looked like a wedding ring.”

Megara’s eyes misted over, as she laughed softly. “Oh, those things… Crupky, do you still have yours?” Crupky grunted. “They were gifts, for my children. I see them so little, nowadays, but they all had them. Little things to remind them that they were mine. I made them for each of them. And when, inevitably, they passed away- Well, I let the rings pass on with them. Crupky’s the only one who still lives on from that time, and…” Megara looked up the hill. “She hasn’t been my little girl for millenia.”

Nash nodded, slowing his pace. Another little mystery solved. He’d known that this case would be hell. At least he had an idea about the tattoos that Gene and the others had, now that he knew what they shared. He smiled at Pearl. “Thanks. So, the Eleusinian mysteries… This is about Hades and Persephone, right? That talk about Demeter?”

Pearl nodded. “The Rape of Persephone.” She saw the raised eyebrow. “Oh, it’s an old word. It meant the carrying off. It was a rather common Greek wedding ritual, then. Demeter was… somewhat too attached to her daughter. Imagine if your bride’s mother insisted that she come back to live with her eight months out of the year, or she would freeze the world. Anyway. These are her mysteries. The secrets of how to bring the dead back to life, and how to experience a happy life in the underworld. It’s the most important lesson anyone can learn, because it’s the one thing everyone’s guaranteed to need help with.”

She smiled. “Don’t tell anyone its details. It carries a penalty of death. But feel free to tell people they can learn it here. There used to be thousands of initiates, and many could use the comfort it offers in these modern times.”

Nash nodded, as he walked along. “Convenient that it should happen just as I’m desperately in need of more information about breaking the barrier between the living and the dead.”

“Same time every year, in early September. Or perhaps it’s convenient that this should happen, this death, all of this chaos, at such an opportune time?”

He frowned, and opened the book. It started with five words: Legend of the White Snake.

Once, Lu Dongbin, one of the eight immortals, stood on the Broken Bridge of the West Lake, and sold rice dumplings. A boy, Xu Xian, purchased one, and ate it, not knowing that it contained the pills of immortality, a gift from Lu Dongbin. After going without hunger for three days, he went to complain to Lu Dongbin of stomach-ache. The man laughed, and slapped him on the back. Xu Xian vomited into the lake, the pills falling into the waters below.

There, a white snake, a practitioner of martial arts, seeking enlightenment and immortality, ate them. She attained great power, and was enlightened, and felt great gratitude to the boy. A terrapin nearby saw her eat the pills, and was filled with anger at her refusal to share them, and so determined to make her life miserable. Soon after, the white snake saw a beggar, preparing to kill and eat a green-scaled snake on the broken bridge. She changed her shape into that of a woman, and saved the green snake, and called her sister.

Years later, a great festival came to the bridge. The white and green snakes changed their shape, and joined the festival, only to run across Xu Xian. In the rain, he lent them his umbrella, and walked with them, and the white snake, Bai Suzhen, fell in love with him, and he with her. They met, time and again, and eventually, were married, moving from the lake. The terrapin, however, had mastered the arts as well, and took the shape of a monk, Fahai.

The monk approached Xu Xian, and told him that his wife was lying to him, and that if he wished to learn the truth from her, he should give her wine during the festival. Xu Xian, weak in the way all men are weak, wished to learn what secrets were kept from him, and did this. When Bai Suzhen drank the wine, she took her true shape, that of a great white snake, and Xu Xian died of fright.

Bai Suzhen, and the green snake, Xiaoqing, journeyed to the mountain Emei, and-

Nash frowned. He next few pages had been torn out. The next pages still intact were a journal. He scanned through the pages, reading them as the group walked. It was simple enough. The diary of a young woman, full of nerves, tension, fears, hopes, and dreams. It was pedestrian, in the extraordinary way a life can be. Then, at the eighteenth birthday, it took on a new turn. She wrote about being frightened about what would happen to Dean when he found out ‘what she really was’. He thought of the story. It must have preyed on her terribly. She had been comforted by her friend, Susan, who had arranged for the two of them to meet.

The last entry was the night that Dean was supposed to have died. He frowned. It only read ‘I can’t do it. I’m just going to leave while he’s asleep.’ He closed the book. Not a great deal of help, but another part of the puzzle. It certainly painted a picture of how Dean might have died. Nash took the bottle that Pearl was offering him and took a sip. It tasted as though a buckwheat smoothie had thrown up into a vat of shiitake mushrooms. He winced, passing it on. “What the hell was that?” he asked, looking over at Pearl. She was wearing the Roman Centurion’s helmet from the night of his hallucinations, and smiling pleasantly.

“Potum veritatis.” He stared at her for a moment. Night had fallen. Quicker than he would have expected, in fact. Quicker than it had any right to. Blackness surrounded him on all sides, and he found himself walking alone through the dark. He cursed under his breath, and kept walking, trying to keep to the path. Soon it faded in the underbrush, and he found himself stumbling through the thick of the woods.

He was searching for a princess. Someone fair, and gentle, caught in the grip of a dragon. They were an innocent in all of this, twisted by the cruel desires of another. He had to save them. He wasn’t exactly certain of his reasons, but there was no questioning this. It was the same thing that compelled him to breathe. It was the same thing that made his heart beat. It was a part of who he was.

There was a roar, great and terrible, that shook his bones. The spine of the hill cracked, and opened. The blood of the earth spilled forth, red and yellow, glowing violently, as the great dragon tore itself free. Its scales were the red of fresh-spilled blood, its teeth were gunmetal, and it roared into the air, a mushroom-shaped jet of flame rising from its mouth as the woods were lit aflame. It cackled with the sound of the woman in red, and the great pine trees were set aflame, as the flames poured forward. The heat was impossible, but he walked through it without being burned, stared the great beast in the eye as it laughed at him. And he laughed back, his voice reaching the same fevered pitch.

Ariel appeared. She had pretty eyes, and pretty wings, ephemeral like those of a dragonfly’s, four of them. He tore them off of her as she screamed, and wrapped them around his fists and his feet. He moved with the speed and grace of the wind as she bled. Gene rose from the ground, and he reached into her chest, tearing the ribs from her with sounds like crackling branches. He pressed them against his chest, and wore them like armor. Heather walked by his side, and he gouged out her eyes, and wore them over his own. And Pearl smiled, pale as milk, as he tore the blood from her veins and shaped the red cruor into a blade. He laughed wild defiance, and left them on the ground as he chased the dragon, into the sky. It wheeled on him, and he charged through its flames. They didn’t burn half as hot as he did.

The sword sank into the dragon’s throat. It tumbled from the sky like a wounded sparrow, landing among the blackened, smoking trees. He landed on top of it. His fists sank into its chest, and pulled out a heart that burned like a star. He gorged himself on it, biting, chewing, swallowing. The taste of the dragon’s blood was familiar, and horribly bitter. He stared down at the beast’s shrinking form, as it took on the shape of the dark-skinned woman in the red dress. War lay there, a shocked expression on those gunmetal eyes and those sharp iron teeth, her hair guttering like an ember about to go out. Not a dragon, not a demon, just a frightened, dying woman.

A pair of hands clasped around his. Cassandra stood next to him. She looked old, terribly old and wise, hair white, eyes pale and milky. “It doesn’t have to end this way. There’s another way. You can save everyone. You just have to trust me.” It was very dark, but he felt calm. He watched as she released his hands, and lifted a knife. And then, Nash vomited out the contents of the morning’s meal onto the ground.

He was standing in the middle of an ancient stone amphitheater, set among the woods. Crupky rested a hand on his back, patting him. “Let it out. Let it out. Christ, you’ve got a merry little mind there, don’t you. You were really screaming.”

He slumped down, panting. The trees stretched above them. His head still swam with the strange, loose significance it had before, but now he had slightly more control over himself. The other members of the party, Dio, Pearl, Megara, Harry, Cassandra, were looking at him with some concern. He gave them a weak smile. “Bad trip,” he muttered, as he stood up, stretching his back, dragging cold air into his lungs. Trying to drive away the memories. Crupky nodded, but gave him a careful look as he moved to join the others in the circle.

“What I do now, I do to share the secrets of life and death with you. Outside of this circle, you may not speak of what happens in specifics. You may not say what is inside the *kiste*, or the *kalathos*. You will not share the things done, the things shown, or the things said.” She took out a box. He drew something forth from it. He worked it. And he placed it in the large open basket that she proffered.

As long as he lived, he never spoke about what he saw in the amphitheater. He didn’t share what they did. It wasn’t anything particularly shocking, and it didn’t change his life in any vast and significant way. It did not make him a believer in the Olympian gods. It did not make him an instantly better person. All it did was give him an idea.

The others separated, going their different ways, but Silas caught Crupky by the shoulder. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” he asked, smiling. “I would like to learn a little bit more. About death, and the afterlife.” She frowned, but nodded, and took a seat on one of the stone benches. She motioned to one next to it.

“What would you like to know, then?” she asked, smiling warmly. Despite the fearfulness that surrounded her before, she was amazingly personable. He had quite enjoyed the voices she had put on during the things that were done.

“The story of Orpheus. The story of Persephone and Hades, and Demeter. The story of Sisyphus. The story of all those who went to Hades, and came back.”

Crupky nodded slowly. “They were all heroes, you know. Every one of them who made it into that foggy land and returned, they were Heroes of the highest caliber. I don’t know if you could enter there. I doubt you could return.” She frowned. “The thing about Hades is… He was a romantic. He was a lonely king in the Underworld, where none could reach him. His brothers were easily able to find companionship, but his realm was gloomy by nature, and so, he was enamored with tales of romance and lost love. Odysseus, Orpheus, Heracles, and Psyche, those who entered the Underworld and left it whole and unharmed. They were the ones who entered seeking redemption, or love lost. Those who tried simply to trick the king of the Underworld were punished, often brutally.” She rubbed her chin. “Have you lost someone you love to all of this? What exactly is your stake.”

“People keep asking that. Isn’t it enough to not want the world to end?” he asked, shrugging.

“Not particularly, no. That’s a big, broad thing, you know. Why don’t you want the world to end?”

“Because… There are plenty of happy people in the world. Megara and Harry. Cassandra’s got a bright future ahead of her. Pearl and the others are good people. They don’t deserve to die.”

“So, other people. But how close are you to them? Are you going to be willing to fight, as hard as you possibly can, to save them?” The woman gave him a long, hard look. “Because those heroes, they didn’t do it to save the world. They didn’t have high-minded ideals like that. Ultimately, their reasons were rather selfish. They did it because they cared, personally.” Crupky shook her head. “Perhaps it isn’t the noblest thing. But when you’ve got skin in the game, you’ve got more of a reason to want to succeed.” She crossed her arms. “You need the love of your fellows to succeed. You may not be a hero, but perhaps you can be a champion.”

He frowned. “I suppose it’s worth a try.” She grinned at him.

“Then let’s go join the others. It’s time for the feast.”

Chapter 16: Styx

Nash walked out of the forest alongside Officer Crupky. In the wide grassy lot behind the hotel, a number of tables were being set up. Gene was huffing and puffing as she moved chairs and tables into place, struggling with stubborn joints and levers. It was afternoon, now, and there was a warmth in the air as she worked. She wore a pair of denim overalls, and a tight white cotton shirt, simple clothes that seemed quite comfortable in the warm summer air.

Ariel was carefully adjusting chairs into place once they had been hauled up by the other Sister. She had dressed in a leather jacket and a pair of torn denim jeans, and wore steel-toed boots as she tromped around. That couldn’t have possibly been comfortable in the direct sunlight, but there wasn’t a bead of sweat on her forehead. Both turned, and smiled as they saw him and Crupky. “Well! It’s about time, we were wondering where you were going to be!” Ariel grinned. “We’ve got a bunch of people set to show up for the feast. Even some of the…” She raised her hands into the air, and wiggled her fingers mysteriously. “Unbelievers.”

Crupky tsked. “It’s not a potluck dinner, you know. There are some standards we really ought to hold to…” Gene frowned at her, and the officer sighed, shaking her head. “Oh, very well. I suppose that we must be willing to tolerate one another. Now more than ever. But they’re all bringing a dish to pass, right?” she asked, as she joined Gene in setting up the large tables. They unfolded the metal legs into place with sharp, metallic clicks, and placed it in the center of the yard, right where the sun cut through the trees and illuminated the grass.

There was a warm, relaxed atmosphere. It was a party. The sort of things people did together. Other people. He shrugged uncomfortably in his jacket. He could still feel the twist in his stomach from the dream. Seeing Ariel and Gene wasn’t helping him. The sight of them, maimed and torn by his own hand, still burned inside his skull.

A soft, warm pair of lips kissed his ear. He turned, surprised, to find Heather there, a large bowl in her hands. “You weren’t thinking of running off, were you?” she asked, smiling softly. “Don’t worry about conversation. Just enjoy a good book, or relax here with us, while we enjoy the food. There is nothing wrong with being alone, so long as you do it together with us.” She winked. “Many of us are introverts. It’s in our nature to seek solitude, as the years wind on by. But it is nice, sometimes, to be introverted with friends.” He coughed nervously, as she stepped past him, to place the large bowl of bubbling fish stew on one of the tables.

“I’ve never been good with crowds. Ever since I was…” He stopped, on the verge of mentioning the day his mother had left. “I sort of got used to being alone.” He frowned around the large group. “Weren’t you supposed to give me some sort of martial arts training?” he asked, changing the subject with all the subtlety of a drawn gun. Heather turned towards him. She was dressed in a delicate blue sundress, hanging comfortably over her shoulders. She smiled warmly, and stepped up to him, squeezing him gently around the shoulders. He remembered the sight of her face, blood streaming down her cheeks, her eyes-

She squeezed him again, and the memories drifted away in the warmth of her embrace. He tried to remember the last time he had been held like that by his own mother. He couldn’t. His breath caught in his throat. “This is a part of the training as well. You are not an engine of destruction, Nash. You are not a weapon. You are not a tool. You are a human being.” She smiled up at him. “This feast is a chance for us to reaffirm why we live together. To come together, and remember that in a lifetime of pain, and death, and fear, there are soft summer evenings with people who care about you, good food, comfortable silence, and all the things a person needs to truly be a person.”

She rested a hand on his cheek, and smiled. “You’re going to do something unbelievably dangerous and noble. I would much rather you didn’t, but I can’t stop you from embracing your destiny. The one thing that I can do for you is ensure that you don’t go into that place dead inside.”

She directed him towards one of the seats. He sat down, and perused the trays already set out by the others. Officer Crupky had made a set of biscuits, sweet and chewy, sitting right in front of him. They were hot and fresh, though they’d been under a layer of aluminum. Nash stole one off of the tray, feeling mildly guilty at not waiting for the others. But he was very hungry. The taste of corn and flour filled his mouth as he bit into it, light and fluffy. Gene set down a large bowl, filled to the brim with ice cubes and fresh lemonade. He nodded his head gratefully to her as she poured him a cup. It was tart, with only the faintest hint of sweetness to it, sprigs of mint making his lips tingle. He looked around the clearing as he sipped.

People talked softly, but mostly they sat together, leaning one against another. There was an exhausted quality to their connections, but it was a welcome change of pace from the chaos and nervous energy of the last few days. Gene sat down next to him, and leaned her shoulder against him. He leaned back, and looked down. “I didn’t make anything. Even if I’d known, I wouldn’t have been any good at it. I’m not very handy. I eat out most nights.” She ruffled his hair, and smiled at him. She was perspiring slightly, and she smelled pleasantly of wet clay. It reminded him of rainy weekend mornings, lazy and relaxed.

Gravel crunched, announcing the arrival of more parties. Pearl sat down on his other side, carrying a large tray with a caprese salad on it. Sliced tomatoes, basil leafs, and thick cuts of fresh mozzarella were interlaced and glistened with olive oil and a touch of salt. She used a large spoon to scoop some onto his plate, and he dug in with relish, enjoying the taste. Gene stole a bit of mozzarella from him, and Ariel leaned in from behind, pulling away one of the tomatoes. Together, they quietly ate, enjoying the shared experience as much as the simple revitalization. Cassandra took a seat across from him. “Are you alright, Mister Nash? You looked like you were having a bad time of it when you drank the kykeon.”

He frowned. “You didn’t see anything? I thought the visions were part of the ritual.”

She shrugged. “Nothing big. That’s what I’d always heard from my mom, that it just made everything seem more significant than it actually was.” She looked down at her feet. “I thought I saw something, but it was vague.” She looked somehow annoyed. “Some seer I am…” Before he could ask about that, she grabbed one of the biscuits. She didn’t seem to have eaten in a while, and let out a loud hiccup after she wolfed it down. Nash poured a glass of lemonade for her, and she took it gratefully, draining it in one gulp. “Mm. Thanks.”

Megan Smith took a seat next to her, looking over the food. She frowned distastefully at the caprese salad. “Is that… buffalo mozzarella?” Pearl had the good taste to blush a bit, and Megan sighed. “Just one of the biscuits for me, then. Mind passing them over, Cassandra? Ah, thank you.”

Officer Dio grabbed a plate, scooping up some of the salad, and eating with his fingers as he stood a little distance away from the table. Nonetheless, the man did exchange a bit of polite small talk with Pearl and Officer Crupky. The char-skinned woman was still wearing her loose toga. Dio had switched from his omnipresent uniform to a loose button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up, and a tie. He looked hardly less at attention than usual.

Heather smiled at him. And he heard her as though she was whispering in his ear, though her lips didn’t move. “Cooking is one of the oldest human gifts. In the ages long past, men sat by fires, and lured the beasts out of the darkness with the promise of fresh-cooked meat. They fed wolves, and made them strong, and made them loyal. In the same way, the bonds between human and monster always began this way, feeding the primordial urges. Meat, drink. Love. It is your great strength. But it is not a one-way road. In order for you to be loved, you must be willing to love in turn.” Her voice was soothing, washing away memories of blood dripping down his hands.

“That is the first of my gifts to you. It is this memory, and this knowledge: That I, and my sisters, love you. Not as we love all humans. We love you, Silas Nash, for what you can do. We give you gifts that cannot be taken back, because we believe you are wise enough to use them well.” And for a moment, the guilt didn’t hurt quite so badly.

There was the crunch of gravel as a car pulled into the hotel’s parking lot. Megara and Harry emerged from the alleyway, joining the group. Harry was hauling a large black kettle-shaped grill, and a bag of charcoal. Megara carried a tray, nearly three feet wide, covered with a large selection of cheeses. She set it down, as Harry set up the grill. Nash gently tapped Gene on the shoulder, and she sat up, allowing him to go join the two. “Hey. No meat for that grill, Harry?” he asked, a light smile on his face, taking the brief moment to enjoy a little conversation that wasn’t about death or the imminent destruction of the human race. His eyes were burning with salt, and he hoped he could hold back any tears. Heather’s words had affected him more than he expected.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. We’ve got some coming. It should arrive by the time I’ve got the coals going.” Harry smiled brightly. “Speaking of which. I think I have a way into the dome for you.” He motioned Nash over, and lowered his voice. “It’s not easy. But there is a pathway into Yomi, the Japanese underworld, in the hills here. It is covered by a great boulder, immovable.” Harry grinned. “By most, anyway. I will slide it open a crack, and allow you in. From there, you should be able to find your way to the home of Onnashi.”

Nash frowned. “Harry… Can you tell me, exactly, why the Japanese underworld would hold a passageway into Irayama Onnashi’s basement?” he asked, trying to keep the tone light, and jovial. He failed. The party’s good-natured banter fell into an uneasy hush.

“The god of the underworld would be certain to keep a path to her realm handy, wouldn’t she?” asked a familiar, elderly voice. Wendy and Nooky approached. They were carrying a large cooler between the two of them. “This was going to happen eventually, boy. Every man meets face to face with death occasionally. If you’re a lucky one, you’ll do it while you’re still alive, and you’ll live through it.” Nash looked around the group, nobody willing to look him in the eye. It was Heather who spoke next.

“Irayama Onnashi is the Mother of this community, as Megan is the Maiden, and Megara is the Crone.” Megara’s expression grew dark and stormy at these words, her arms crossing, and Harry went over to sit by her, whispering in her ear. “They are all powerful deities in their own right. Irayama Onnashi is Izanami; Goddess of the dead. The wife died in childbirth, the spurned woman. She’s the one who you must convince.” Heather sighed softly. “She is very possibly the greatest force in this town. She rules over the barriers between life and death, between human and monster, and if you are not wanted in her realm, she will kill you, without a second thought.”

In the silence that filled the back yard, Nash began to laugh, eyes crinkling. The others stared at him as if he was mad, as he leaned his head back, hands on his hips. “Well, god damn. What else is new?” he asked, smiling. “That describes nearly every interaction I’ve had since I arrived here. So she wants to kill me; so it’d be as easy for her as swatting a fly. So what?” He gave a bright grin around the table. “It isn’t enough for me to march into the underworld once. I get a dress rehearsal!” He grinned. “Harry, for god’s sakes, cook up some of that venison, it smells amazing.” He stepped away from the others, still laughing as he ambled down the alleyway, and slipped into his room. He was searching through his closet, when Heather entered, opening the door.

“Are you alright?” she asked, frowning.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? I’ve just volunteered myself for a suicide mission, infiltrating the realm of the dead belonging to a goddess who either is responsible for the murder, or is shielding the one responsible. I’m the only one who can do it. I’m the only one who nobody in this fucking town is going to miss when he-!” He felt the tears streaking down his cheek, and his nails pressed against his eyelids, as he closed them tightly, failing completely to hold back the tears. They burned down his cheeks, salt stinging his eyes as he felt the shame bubbling up inside of him. God help him, he was terrified. How many times had he nearly died? How many times had he nearly killed.

“I keep getting thrown into more and more dangerous situations! And it keeps getting closer, every time! And if I don’t die, I’m afraid that I’m going to go completely insane! I keep pushing myself further and further, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep getting lucky, and I don’t want to die! I’m marching off to hell, and for the first time in my life, I don’t want to-” He stopped himself, just a little too late.

Heather wrapped her arms around him from behind. “It’s been a very long time since you wanted to live, isn’t it?” Her voice was soft, and gentle, her arms wrapped tightly around him. “You almost forgot what it was like to have something worth living for. You poor child. Who did all of this to you?” she asked. He couldn’t answer. His breath came in heaving, wracking sobs. He couldn’t help it. It hurt, to be so vulnerable, to be unable to hold it back. He’d never been able to hold it back when it really mattered. The anger, or the pain. Just another wedge driven between him and everyone else.

“It is alright. Tears are another gift of the Ocean. There’s no shame in them.” She smiled softly at him, and pulled his face against her chest. His forehead rested against her collarbone, and he heard the beat of her heart, slow and steady as waves on a beach. He let the tears flow for a while, stinging on his cheeks.

“I don’t deserve this.” He muttered, and she shushed him, her fingers running through his hair. He choked a bit on his own tears. There was no dignity in it, no proud and solemn expression of stoic pain and silent tears. Just sniffling and disgrace. “I don’t deserve days in the summer sun with kind people. I don’t deserve to have a reason to live. The only thing that matters is bringing Dean back, and if I’m afraid of dying, how can I do this?”

“Everyone deserves to know they are loved. Few good things come from loneliness. You have been hurt by the ones that you’ve loved. Like Megara was hurt by the murder of her children, time and again. Even when she thought she had lost all of them, she discovered her heart still had room for another cut. Like Harry was hurt when he learned that despite all of his strength, he cannot shield those he loves most. Everyone loses the things that matter to them, eventually. It is the cruel reality of life. All good things must come to an end.”

She rested her hands on his cheeks and lifted his head up to look her in the eye. “But it does not have to end today. This is not a suicide mission, and you will not die while you are in Yomi, because I will walk beside you. Do you understand me? So long as you live, you will never be alone again. Izanagi is a goddess, but I am a part of life itself. The realm of the dead runs deep and dark, but not deeper than the Ocean.” She smiled softly, and held him. And he hugged her back.

“This is important. I know that there is a fearsome, impossible task in front of you. And though your tears sting, I am grateful for them. Because you are starting to cherish life again.” She smiled softly. “The fear of death is the love of life. And it will guide you through the underworld.” She held him for a long time, until the tears were gone. Finally, he relaxed.

“What if I need to fight?” he asked, softly And she smiled.

“It is always that way with you, isn’t it?”

“I don’t want to fight. I hate hurting people. But I don’t get much choice in this town, and if I fight, I have to win.” His voice was regaining a bit of its strength.

Heather laughed softly, and smiled. “What we offer is power. But you aren’t being given the power to fight, are you? You’re being made strong enough that you don’t have to fight. Think of the gifts you were given. The speed of wind and the perfect footing. Useful in a fight, but even more useful when you need to run. The speed to outpace any pursuer, and to avoid being dragged into a fight by the terrain. The power of earth. Strength enough to break blows upon your body, to give your opponent no choice but to surrender, because they cannot hurt you. And my power. The strength to read, and to know others. It will serve you well in avoiding hurting anyone. You don’t have to fight.” She rested her hands on his cheeks, and he frowned. She smiled sadly.

“But life is seldom so easy, is it? You aren’t running away anymore. You’re protecting those who can’t run away. So remember this. When the flow is yours, there will be no enemy in this world who can lay a finger on you.” She smiled. “Not even death.”

He took a deep breath. He had avoided love. That desperate yearning for another. He’d lived on his own. He’d been happy that way, he’d thought. Relationships with others always ended with betrayal, worse every time. “It hurts when you get close to another person.” His voice was soft. “Who was the first person who you loved? The person who convinced you that it was worthwhile? And…” He bit his lip. “Why would you ever love a human, knowing that they would die and leave you behind?”

Heather laughed, and took a seat on the bed. He sat down on the only chair in the room, as she leaned back on her hands. “He was a surfer, as it happened. Long, long ago. I’m not sure of the exact year. But I had been in a violent mood. I threw waves at a coastline, I forget which. And as I stewed, I felt something cutting through the waves. A human, riding a long plank of wood. He laughed in joy as he rode my waves. I threw larger and larger swells at him, determined to cut him down for his impudence, but he only grew more bold.” Heather smiled softly. An aura of indefinable age had slipped away from her, and her eyes looked very young.

“Every day when I grew enraged, I would throw waves at his beach. He would ride them, and I grew fond of the ritual. So I kept throwing larger waves, until one day, he mis-stepped. He was plunged deep into the water, among the jagged stones. And I realized, to my horror, what I had done. I pulled him from the water, and he laughed, and kissed me.” She rested a hand on her lips, her face flushed.

Nash sat back. “Why does it seem that every romance I’ve heard about in this city seems to be filled with violence?”

“There isn’t much room for weakness in the love of monsters. Our emotions are furious, and our powers are great. His resilience was part of what I loved about him. He could ride out my fury and find joy in it. He smoothed out my emotions, because when my fury rose, he could weather it. When I was at my worst, he was at his best.” She laughed softly. “Thus always is it between humans and monsters. And so, I became a woman, because that was what he desired, and that was what he thought of me. And I have never stopped, because I wanted to be the woman he dreamt of.” She stared into an impossibly distant past, her eyes misty. “He knew the way my heart flowed. And when he stood upon the water, he was never at risk.” She smiled softly.

“… How did he die?”

Heather laughed softly. “How do heroes always die? He was brought low. War wormed its way into the heart of his brother, who was jealous of what my lover possessed. And so in the night, the brother cut his throat.” She smiled, but the smile was pained, now, as she wiped tears out of her eyes. “However good the reason for killing another might seem, it’s almost never worth it. The world is full of terribly bad people who could have been good, if they had simply had someone to believe in them.”

“… Is that something you want me to keep in mind when I’m face to face with Dean Constantinou’s killer?” he asked, frowning. “Do you think it was really War’s fault alone that he died?”

Heather was quiet for a few seconds. “It is something I hope that you keep in mind at all times. Anger happens in a flash. Don’t ever let it fester into hate.” She smiled softly. “I wish that more people could be at this feast. Perhaps next year. So make sure you come back.” She leaned forward, and kissed his cheek gently. “Now. Let’s go join the others. Alright?” He nodded, and then remembered what he’d been looking for. He reached into the closet, and felt around in one of his jackets. He took out the silver ring, with its emerald inset. He slipped it into his pocket, and smiled at her.

“Let’s go have a really good meal.”

The two of them walked out, and he stepped over to Megara, as Heather went to join her Sisters. Their shoulders were bared by the clothes they wore, and the four tattoos were visible on their shoulders, as they spoke in soft voices. Megara stood next to Harry, Wendy, and Nooky by the grill, as Harry and Wendy argued over whether the meat should be medium rare, or blue rare. “Megara.” Nash spoke softly, under his voice. He held up the small ring, with its silver band, and its emerald inset. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t tell whose ring this was. I thought it was best that you have it.” Megara took the ring, and stared at it.

“You know, I never quite considered Dean my son. I knew how Harry cared for the boy, and I knew that I cared for Harry, but all I could ever think of Dean as was a foolish child who didn’t realize the danger he was in.” She gently spun the ring in her fingers. “I knew that he was angry at me, that he resented me for taking the place of his mother, and I did not realize how poorly a job I did of it. I did not tell the boy that I loved him. I did not even know that I did, until the day when I discovered he had died, and I found that it hurt as deeply as the first time one of my children died.”

She stared at the small inscription, and tears pooled in her bright eyes, running down her cheeks, and gathering together at her fine chin. “I thought I was done being a mother, that it was behind me. That I could not bother to love anymore.” She looked up at him. “I suppose that you think me a monster for being so callous.”

“You tried, as hard as you could, to protect your son and care for him.” He gave her a bracing grin, and to his surprise, it felt genuine. “It was the first time you were being a mother to a human, right?” He looked down at the ring. “You cared about him, even though he wasn’t yours. You loved him. I don’t know about monsters or humanity, but I think that speaks well of you. Do you want to keep the ring?”

Megara studied the ring for a few seconds. “No.” She held out a nail and it elongated, pointed like a talon. It glittered red in the sunlight as she reached with infinite delicacy and cut along the inside of the ring with all the care of an expert jeweler. She smiled softly as she finished. “I never acknowledged Dean as my own. If you should find his body, I beg of you.” She placed the ring in his hand. “Place this on his finger. So that Hades, and all the afterlife, will know that he is my child, and Harry’s. And that any who should forget that will know my wrath.” She smiled softly, and wiped her hand across her cheeks. Harry had gone quiet, watching the two of them. Nash checked the inscription. ‘To my dearest Dean. We will love you in this life, and every other. Megara and Harry.’

“I will.” He nodded. “Harry, Megara, what do you two know about Yomi?” The two were exchanging a frown when Cassandra approached them. She was holding a cup of lemonade, and her arms were crossed tightly in front of her chest.

“My dad used to tell me stories about it. It’s black. Totally black- Not like the darkness of night, or even the shadows. There’s no light in Yomi, no way to see unless you bring in light, or you can See.” Cassandra sipped from the lemonade. “I’m going along with him. He’s going to need someone to guide him. And maybe, if Irayama still cares about people, she’ll be less likely to try to kill him if I’m around. She wouldn’t want to kill me, too, right?”

The party broke out in arguments, people raising their voices, a confused mass with the same tenor of ‘no chance’. And Nash watched as Cassandra’s eyes grew hard and dark. “Hey!” Everyone quieted down, turning to face him. Pearl, Megan, and Megara had furrowed brows. Ariel and Harry had slight grins. The rest all seemed to fall somewhere in-between anger and interest.

“Cassandra’s a part of this town. She’s got a right to worry about this, just like all of us. If I don’t succeed, if I die on the job, then it affects her, just like everyone else. And she’s got vision. She can see what’s really there, in a way nobody else can. She knows me for what I am, and I’m glad for that. If she’s willing to take the chance, then I won’t turn her away.” He looked towards her. “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s going to be dangerous. And while I’d be grateful for your help, I don’t want you hurt for my sake.”

She smiled wanly. “I know the path I’m supposed to take. I think it’s what I saw during the mysteries. I need to come along with you. Besides, if I’m not there to guide you, you’ll die in the dark. Trust me, I don’t need you. You need me.”

“I promise. I’ll protect you, no matter what happens.” He looked around the group. No one argued about it. Some of them clearly wanted to, but none of them could muster the words. He realized, suddenly, how young he and Cassandra both were. Maybe that was why he’d spoken up for her. She’d been given no respect, no information, no recognition for what she could do. He would never subject her to that. “Then for now… Let’s have a great meal.”

They sat down, all together. The scent of cooking venison filled the air. Plates were piled high with slabs of deer meat, hot biscuits, the caprese salad, the hot bouillabaisse of Heather, and other delicious things. They talked and laughed, and Nash savored the feeling of not being alone. For the first time in a long time, he felt utterly at ease around everyone in the crowd, as they exchanged jokes, stories, talked, and lived. Cassandra sat with him, looking nervous, and he cracked a few jokes with her, bringing a big grin to her face. Heather kissed him on the cheek, and Harry cuffed him on the shoulder, and Dio shared stories from a war that nobody could quite recognize.

They all celebrated being alive together. A makeshift dance floor was set up, and Harry got out his old guitar. Wendy and Nooky danced like teenagers, shaking and headbanging, laughing merrily as Crupky and Dio danced a tango to the same beat. Dio disappeared and reappeared with a bottle of wine that predated the internal combustion engine, and everyone stood together in a circle with a glass. Even Cassandra, despite Pearl’s half-hearted protests.

“To Silas. Long may he live!” Harry yelled, grinning.

“To Agent Nash. May the gods watch over him as he walks in strange lands,” Megara said with a smile.

“To the white boy. May he not lose any fingers!” Wendy cackled, three sheets to the wind.

“To the sweet young man. May he know when to heed the wisdom of others, and when to ignore it.” Nooky winked at him.

“To Nash. May he heal the things that we cannot,” Megan Smith said, a solemn expression on her face.

“To Agent Nash. May he always feel Athena’s hand guiding his.” Officer Dio saluted.

“To Agent Nash. May he feel too full to eat of the food of the dead.” Officer Crupky gave him a sharp-toothed grin.

“To the G-man. Here’s hoping he doesn’t choke.” Ariel tossed back her wine in one quick gulp.

Gene simply toasted, a smile on her face, as she flashed him a thumbs up.

“To Nash. May he find a nice young lady to settle down with.” Heather’s cheeks were flushed with booze, and she giggled as the others rolled their eyes.

“To the Champion of Zion. May he find a cause worth living for.” Pearl raised her glass high, though she didn’t drink from it.

Cassandra looked around at the others. “To Mister Nash. May we not screw this up,” she muttered, but she smiled as she did.

And he held up his glass. He thought for a few moments about what he’d say. Then he shrugged. “To living.”

It was a perfect evening. Eventually, twilight fell, and the others drifted away until Harry, Cassandra, and Nash were the only ones still standing in the lights from the hotel. Harry looked between the two of them. “Last chance to back out. Nobody would judge either of you harshly, you know.”

“Not a chance.” Nash said, at the same time as Cassandra. Fortified by wine, and good food, and the cheer of friends, they smiled. Harry grinned.

“That’s the spirit. We venture forward to a far and sunless land, my friends. You must carry the world of the living in your bellies, and in your heart. Come on, then.”

The three of them walked, for some time. At a certain point, Nash noticed that he couldn’t see the stars above anymore. Harry led the way, with his storm lantern illuminating the ground ahead. A chill fell over them as they walked, and mist began to pool in the hollows of the ground. Yet as they walked, Nash felt the gentle touch of Heather, Ariel, and Gene. They seemed to walk with him, even in the darkness, and he smiled. He rested a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder, and she reached up to squeeze it gently.

And the two of them kept walking, until they reached their destination. Harry had set down the storm lantern, illuminating a boulder. It was twenty feet across, leaning against a mountain, vaguely ovoid in shape, sunk deep into the soil. “I won’t be able to come in with you. I can’t open this more than a crack, or bad things will happen. From here on, you two are on your own.”

“No, we’re not.” Nash said, and smiled.”We’ll be back.” Harry grinned, and nodded.

“Well said, my friend.” The big man braced himself, setting his legs shoulder-length apart as he sank his fingers into the stone up to the knuckle. The giant of a man let out a low grunt, as his thighs bulged, his shoulders rippling. His plaid flannel tore across his back as he heaved. The boulder was still for a moment. Then, with a glacial pace, it inched into the air with a sucking sound as it tore free of the mud. The storm lantern shined through the gap. There was nothing visible beyond.

The stone moved first an inch from the ground, then two, until Harry held the massive boulder fully three feet off the ground. Every tendon stood out on his body like a steel cable, sweat pouring down his forehead. Nash and Cassandra slipped in under the rock. They crawled in the dark hollow, until their feet were on solid ground. The light barely illuminated this side, but they were past the boulder.

“We’re through, Harry.” Nash whispered. There was an almighty thud, and the light was cut off, as the two stood in the darkness. Nash realized that he didn’t know which way to go. Then, Cassandra took his hand, and began to walk. And the two of them entered Yomi, as the black shadows poured down around them like ink.

Chapter 17: Cocytus

The darkness was absolute. There was no wind in this place, and whatever was under Nash’s feet, it was not earth in the traditional sense. Every step was uncertain. It felt like climbing stairs in the night, not knowing whether there would be something there to meet your next step. Waiting for that awful moment when reality contradicted expectations. The powers Gene and Ariel had given him were not able to help. And in the realm of the dead, he didn’t even know where he was going.

“Can you see anything in this place?” he whispered. The air was stagnant and musty, filled with the scent of spores. There was no sound beyond their voices, which seemed muted and dulled, nearly grinding his whisper into nonexistence.

“Yeah,” Cassandra muttered. Her voice was strained as the two of them walked through the darkness. “Just keep moving. The… ground is even. There’s no gaps in it.” A tremor ran through her, and he squeezed her hand gently. “You’re lucky you can’t see this place. Believe me. There’s nothing here that you want to see.” Her hand clenched around his as they walked through the shadows. He thought he felt the ground shudder slightly under him, resettling. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, as he slowed his pace. “Keep walking. Maybe a little faster. There’s nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about.” She repeated the words like a prayer, under her breath.

They continued walking like this, for some time. The ground would shudder, and she would speed up her pace. The darkness was beginning to get to Nash. He couldn’t hear anything, he couldn’t see anything. Aside from Cassandra’s grasp, it was like sensory deprivation. “I might have a lighter or something in my jacket. Something that could light things up. Would that help any?”

“No!” Her words cut through the silence like a firecracker, and she stopped as the sound echoed for a few moments, before fading into the darkness.” Just- No. Trust me, alright? The best possible situation for you, right now, is to see absolutely nothing.”

“You know the saying ‘nothing is scarier’, right? The mind is capable of some incredible feats of imagination. I can imagine, for example, that we’re walking on the backs of hundreds of thousands of corpses, right now. That the shaking is some huge beast, in the distance, getting closer with every step. I can imagine that the ceiling is falling every time it rumbles, and that we’re trying to get out of this place before it caves in on us, each rock getting a bit closer. What I’m getting at, here, Cassandra, is that I have a hard time believing that what I could see is any scarier than what I can imagine.”

“Yeah. I’ve heard people say that.” Her voice was hollow, shaken. “Turns out they’re wrong. Now… okay.” She stepped ahead of him, and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Follow me. Very closely. Just keep your hands on my shoulders, and stay close. If something happens- Don’t worry. I’ve got you.” She swallowed hard. He followed her. Every step was deliberate, her arms outstretched on either side. With the greatest of care, he tested his surroundings with one foot, balancing with the help of Ariel. His toes didn’t find anything. Just empty air on either side of a slender bridge, perhaps a foot across. “Keep up.”

“How far is it to fall?” he asked, softly.

“Not very far. Maybe five feet.” The tone in her voice told him that this did not mean falling was safe. “Let’s go a little faster,” she whispered. Her tone had a note of pleading to it. He nodded, as the two of them walked through the darkness. Then, a slight imp of the perverse got into him.

He began to whistle the opening chords of In The Hall of the Mountain King. At first, the slow, plodding tune was absorbed by the darkness. Slowly, though, it began to cut through the pall that hung over them, beginning to grow louder. Just as he was beginning to hit the crescendo, Cassandra hissed out, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

“Is anything coming to attack us because I’m whistling?” he asked softly.

“No, but-“

“Then whistle along. You’ve know the tune, right?”

“Yeah, I saw M.”

“They used this song in M?”

“Yeah.”

“You watched M?”

“Yes!”

“Christ, Cassandra, I thought I was the strange one. Alright, then whistle along.”

“Why?!” she hissed.

“Because the silence is getting to me. And it seems appropriate to the surroundings.” He began whistling again. After a couple of bars, she joined in timorously. The two of them began to whistle it together, the song echoing out around them, growing stronger as she grew more confident. They hit the crescendo, reaching a harmony that rang the walls. They came to the end of the spit of earth, as the song finished. “Any trouble?” he asked, as the sound of the ringing whistles died away. She laughed softly.

“No. Uh, thanks. I feel a bit better. It’s… This place is kept dark to comfort those who arrive here, Silas. So they don’t see what it’s really like.” She was quiet for a moment. “Adventure isn’t nearly as fun as I thought it’d be. Still, I think this is important, what we’re going to do- oh, god.” Her voice grew suddenly strained. For the first time since they’d arrived, there was sound, like the rustling of wind through leaves.

“What’s the matter, Cassandra?”

“It’s a forest, Silas. Just a forest. If something bumps against you… just ignore it” She whispered softly. The two of them walked in silence for a while.

“Are you sure you can’t just tell me? I’ve seen some pretty awful things while I’ve been in Zion.” His imagination was already working overtime. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were opened or closed; Blinking didn’t make any change in the pattern of blackness in front of him. His mind conjured up all kinds of hideous images, though, eager to fill the gaps.

“Son.” It wasn’t Cassandra’s voice. He stopped. Cassandra tugged gently at his hand. “My son.”

“Mister Nash? You’ve got to keep walking, please. We can’t stay here.”

“My darling boy. Look how strong you are.” The voice was whispering from directly above him. He started walking again. “You have grown so magnificently. I told you, didn’t I? I promised that she would watch over you. And such gifts she has given you, my dear boy.” His mother’s voice laughed, softly, and there was a bubbling noise in that laugh. Like a throat that had not quite survived the terminal fall. “It was all worth it, wasn’t it? Say it, boy. I sacrificed so much for you, you know. Even my life.”

“I didn’t ask for that,” he hissed out, stopping again. Cassandra’s hand tightened.

“Mister Nash. Come on. There’s no one… animate… here. If you’re hearing something, it’s your imagination.”

“Silas. Come now. You know your mother’s voice. You owe me, my child. I gave my life to preserve yours. Now you can make it right.” He felt something silk brush across his cheek, like the web of a spider the size of a great dane. It was hanging from the branches. Another one brushed across his face. “All you have to do is take my place, son. You can make your betrayal right. You can remember how you felt when you heard what that Echidna woman went through, can’t you? She sought so hard to protect that boy. I was just the same. Don’t you owe it to your mother, Silas? Don’t you deserve this? Let me out of this dark place. Take my place!” The voice spoke, ringing in his ears, strange and alien.

His head was spinning. He could barely breathe. The words were skittering through his brain. Another of the silk ropes brushed over his face, cool and soft against his skin, soothing his thoughts. It ended in a loop, perfectly sized for his head to fit through. He took hold of it, and released Cassandra’s hand. He leaned forward, and felt it brush across his cheeks in a tender caress.

*Cool summer days loved ones the people who will never recover if you give up now you coward you can’t let them down they’ve sacrificed everything they had even their hope for you if you die now you’ll be betraying EVERYONE-*

He jerked back, and there was an unpleasant whipcrack sound. He couldn’t speak from experience, but it sounded very much like a snare tightening and snapping up at neck-breaking speeds. Cassandra grabbed his hand as he gasped for air. Not yet. He couldn’t die yet.

“Nash! For gods sakes, you can’t listen to the things here, okay?!” She tugged him along, faster this time. The ropes continued to brush at him, like the hanging silk of spiders, but he ignored them, and walked as quickly as he could without risking garroting himself on them. Of course his mother wouldn’t be here. She had died, certainly, but she wasn’t Japanese. She didn’t believe in Shinto. Why on earth would she be in Yomi? His mind was spinning out of control at the insinuating words. It had been so long since he’d thought of her death, of what he’d heard when she was taken from him. The mention of the red-headed nurse at the asylum. He shook his head. Then, they were walking up stairs.

“What’s going on?” he asked softly. He could hear the soft clatter of bones against ground, and flesh being dragged over rough stone.

“We’re in a city. I think that we’re getting pretty close. There are a lot of… things, around.” Not humans. Not monsters. Not even ‘people’. Things. That was an unsettling mental image. Today had been full of them. The two of them walked for a long time, up and down stairs. He could feel other… things… bumping into him, from time to time.

Sometimes they were thin, and light as sticks, and hissed curses in ancient dialects of Japanese when he bumped into them. Other times, they had too many arms, or nothing that could be identified as a head, and all of these things he learned when he bumped into them, leaving wet, slimy stains on his clothing. The two of them wandered through the dark city for what felt like hours, taking turns seemingly at random.

“Thank you for this, Cassandra. I’m sorry you have to see these things,” he whispered as they passed a rather irritating musician, playing a xylophone.

“It’s funny, actually. They’re not as scary, here. They’re weird, and a little bit… maybe nauseating. But none of them want to hurt us. They’re just… going about their lives- Nash!” He bumped into someone. “That was a pregnant woman!”

“Oh- I’m sorry, ma’am.” He paused. The thing he had bumped into was eight feet tall, and gargled something irritable in a voice like a badly clogged drain. “You’re taking this a lot better, now.”

“There are people here. Life, or at least activity. It was out there on the plains that was-” Fire flickered into life. In the darkness ahead, a star flared, and blinded Nash. He covered his eyes, warding off the painful, unexpected radiance. When he could bear to look, an ember glowed at the tip of a cigarette. It lit an area perhaps ten feet across. A canvas tent was propped up on four poles, small enough to fall entirely within the lit area, on the edge of an open market square. Underneath the tent stood Irayama.

She was dressed in nothing more than a large, white silk kimono, and a pair of priestly geta. Simple thong sandals made from what appeared to be planks of wood. She smiled cheerfully, gripping her cigarette between her teeth. She waved companionably to the two of them, gesturing for them to join her. The tent was set directly against one of the walls of the square. A door was visible in the pitch black, fungus-encrusted stone of the wall.

“Aaaah, Cassandra. Good to see you, dear.” The woman’s voice was full of gravel, harsh and gentle at the same time. “I’m sorry about your mother. I hadn’t counted on intermarriage when I was preparing the barrier. I am sorry. I am trying to find out a way to fix things.” Irayama took a deep puff, and the cigarette turned into a supernova, lighting the dark market square for just a moment. Nash wouldn’t forget the things he saw there for the rest of his life. “You are free to go through the door. Agent Nash and I have something to discuss, first.”

“… If it’s all the same, I’m going to wait for him.” Cassandra’s voice wobbled, but she stood by his side.

“Hahaha. Humans. What a bunch of pricks. And yet my daughters cannot help but make the same mistakes their mother did, and forget what superficial creatures they are. Just like their maker.” She puffed again, the cigarette luminescing and turning to ash. Memory flashed, of a green ring of flames. *The little prick*. And a ritual gone wrong.

“You were the one who stole Dean’s body,” he stated. “What were you trying to do with it?”

“I don’t think that matters much to you, Mister Nash. You know what I am?”

“Izanami.”

“No, that is my name. Do you know WHAT I am?” He was silent. He didn’t know his Japanese mythology as well as he should. “Very well. I was the first woman. Alongside Izanagi, I birthed the islands of Japan. I died in childbirth, to give him the child of fires, and the over-emotional fool slew the child I had died for.” She snorted. “He came to see me in the land of the undead. I told him that I could not leave with him, for I had eaten of the food of the dead. In truth, I did not want to go with him. I hated him for a thousand little things. The contempt of marriage, I suppose.” The star of the cigarette flared once more.

“But he was persuasive, and handsome. So I promised to consider it, and to ask the lords of the underworld for permission to leave. As though there was any in that place that could hold me in the world of the dead if I did not wish to say.” She flared her nostrils. “I trusted him to my detriment, again. He lit a fire, and saw my true form. And he fled, for my beauty had been devoured by maggots. It is the nature of humans. They love you as long as you are beautiful and familiar. But when they see what is monstrous about you, they recoil from you.”

“We’re not all like that. We get better,” he said, softly, knowing the argument was weak.

“Really? I wonder if Fred Korematsu would agree. I have lived in the US for a long time. We moved to Zion in response to the same things. The fear of that which is different. You humans still have your monsters, and where you cannot find them, you make them.” She sneered. “Turn around. Walk into the darkness. Find your own way out. This one is not for you.”

“I can’t do that.” he stated, reaching into his pocket. He took out the small silver ring. “You may have a grudge against humans. But a mother has lost her child, and I have sworn to deliver this on her behalf.” It glittered green in the light of the cigarette. “You may be right. Most humans are petty, thoughtless, careless, frightened of the other. The same seems to be true of monsters. But I’m here to set things right.” He let go of Cassandra’s hand. He gently pushed her towards the tent, and she reluctantly stepped through, as Irayama Onnashi walked forward, under the infinite black that passed for a sky. Her hands changed. Not a simple change of color, not quite. They were surrounded by wreaths of almost iridescent blackness. An entire rainbow of lack-of-light.

“You insult me, in my realm? You think you are a hero, to delve into the heart of the underworld, to laugh at a goddess, and then to leave as you please? I think not. You are no hero.” She puffed the cigarette, her hands glittering. “Your fate is death, Nash. That is the fate of all humans. But I shall gain great pleasure in hastening it, even if only by a few short hours.”

She lunged forward, much faster than he’d expected. She went from a dozen feet away to arm’s reach in less than a second. Her ink-black fingertips brushed his chest. There was a sudden, intensely sharp pain, and he felt light-headed. The darkness crackled like cold flames on his chest. His vision faded, as he took three steps backwards, and fell to the hard stone.

“Is this the end, then?” He floated in darkness. As absolute as Yomi, but without texture or ground. No contrast. Just an endless blackness, without even a place to stand. “Are you giving up, champion?” He tumbled slowly, end over end, feeling his head spinning. There was no up, or down. It was the infinite void of space, so far from any star that there was nothing but darkness. It was the place inside a black hole’s event horizon. It was the abyss. “What a disappointment you are.” The voice was familiar. His heart ignited with rage. And her hair flickered into view, like a bonfire, waving and dancing in the light. Her gunmetal smile flickered in the light, as she twirled through the dark with him. “That’s more like it,” she whispered. “Come and get me.”

He heard the thud. It was like the impact of a bomb. It reminded him of movies, of bunkers under siege. A second boom filled his head, bringing pain with it. The distant thump of artillery, mixed with dust floating down from the rafters. A third time, louder than before. It was his heart. Cassandra was sobbing, tears running down her cheeks as Irayama stood over her, an apologetic look on the old woman’s face. “Izanami.” His voice came out in a croak. The goddess stiffened, and turned, her eyes wide.

“Impossible.” Her eyes narrowed. “You cannot be alive. I stopped your heart. Not even the Sisters could preserve your life in this place.” His heart thudded. He could feel earth straining in his bones, his lungs swelling with the wind. He raised his hands, and she smirked. “Using my island’s styles against me, human? I think not.” She stepped forward, and then transitioned from a step to a lunge, moving explosively. Her hands flickered, as she swiped out to touch him again.

He grabbed her wrist, just beyond the flickering aura of darkness. A twist began in his knees, slipping up through his hips, amplified by his torso. When it reached his hand, it cracked Irayama through the air like a whip. Irayama let out a brief grunt as she spun in the air, before the arc of movement slammed her against the stone with boneshattering force.

She bounced and rolled, hopping easily back to her feet, a grin on her face as she recovered. She was light, and hard as diamond. She didn’t have enough mass to be harmed by his counters and throws. She was simply not heavy enough to do much damage to herself. He cursed, his heart pounding faster. He couldn’t beat her like that. He looked around, and an idea struck him. She lunged at him again, and he sidestepped. As he did, his foot crashed into the ground, propelling him, and leaving a cracked and shattered place in the delicate filigree of Japanese characters in the stone. Long lines fractured out from it.

“Is this what you’re reduced to, human? Petty vandalism!? How crass!” She danced after him, her blows elegant and graceful. It was an open-handed style, delicate, and without force behind the blows. His heart still ached, and he doubted it would survive another touch. So instead, he kept stepping back. With each step, his feet crashed into the ground, leaving a trail of destruction that she easily danced around.

“Hah! Human, you aren’t half bad! But the thing about death!” She lunged, and he spun off to the side, the sound of crumbling stone filling the air as he danced a staccato rhythm of destruction. The rage inside of him burned merrily as he ground his teeth. He wanted to see her broken. To watch her despair as she knew that she had fallen. She had made a mockery of him, his species. She had toyed with him. She had thought she and her ilk could get away with murder. That it didn’t matter, because it was only a human who they killed. “I’ll always gets you in the end!” Even now, she underestimated him.

She leapt over his head as he danced to the side. A circle of ravaged stone was visible, nearly twenty feet across, the product of his movements. She gave it a brief, dismissive look, and turned her eyes towards him. “What good do you think this will do?!” She lunged again, and he danced to the side, staying along the broken edges. She landed in the center of the circle. “You haven’t got a chance-” She stared down, her eyes widening in realization.

Air flooded his lungs as he crouched down. His stance widened, as his fingers dug into the ravaged stone. There was a tremendous sound of crumbling stone. She leapt into the air like a grasshopper, but it was too late. He lifted the semispherical mass of stone into the air, and brought it down again in a single smooth movement. She was caught between the huge chunk of stone, and the ground of the market square. There was a crunch. He lifted the stone into the air bodily, his shoulders heaving. She hopped to her feet, trying to regain her footing, visible by the flash of her cigarette. He brought the stone down again.

Three or four more times, he hammered the goddess like a cockroach, until the rock crumbled in his hands, the rage dying away. He turned his head towards the doorway. Cassandra was standing there, horror in her eyes. He brushed his hand across his forehead as the shame returned, sweat dripping down his face. There was an intake of breath, and light filled the market square, as the cigarette flared. “Ahahaha. Such anger in you, human. Such rage. Where do you learn that? Is it from your mother? Or is it from the company you keep?”

He turned, standing under the tent. Irayama lay in the rubble, battered and her clothes torn. One of her geta was missing, and her cigarette was bent badly. She still smoked it, though, an expression of annoyance on her face. “I trust that you are not going to die of your wounds in your own realm,” he said, weariness putting a ragged edge on his voice. “So I will go, to find the truth out from your daughter, and you will allow me to go. I will not tolerate any more interference.”

“So arrogant. Well done, though, human. I had not expected you to give me pause. But I love my daughters. Foolish girls though they are, with soft hearts. And I would sooner let the sun burn out than let them come to harm.” She laughed.

“You don’t seem like you pose much of a threat.” She was silent for a moment, puffing on the damaged cigarette.

“There is a rain in this place.” Nash frowned. He could hear a distant pattering echoing through the city. “It comes when I call it. It is a poison beyond any other. It will stop your heart, sear your nerves, rot your flesh. It kills only the living, and I shall enjoy watching as it consumes your flesh. Cassandra, if you don’t wish to share this human’s fate, I would recommend you use the door, now.” She chuckled softly. Cassandra looked up at Nash. He nodded, and she slipped through the door. The moment she was through, it disappeared. The sound of pattering was growing closer. A droplet landed on the cigarette, and put it out. “You are arrogant, human. I will rip the life from your bones, tear the skin from your corpse, and offer it as a gift to your friends. Nobody threatens my children.”

There was a sound. Slithering skin and slapping flesh. Unpleasantly organic, with hints of slime, and the scent of rot. And Nash felt the pull of power. It was overwhelming, the suction tearing at him. The darkness was absolute, but he could smell the putrid miasma of the rain as it fell to earth in slender drops. He stood in the darkness, and heard the sound growing closer. He tried to summon the rage- But what good would it do? The rain pounded against the canvas of the tent. There was the sound of something vast and hideous, moving in the darkness beyond the tent. A voice spoke, and it was the voice he heard in the cemetery. “You will not kill again, human.”

The tent tore away in a sudden movement, leaving him exposed. A calm settled over him. At first, he took it for acceptance, the certainty that he would die. Then Heather’s voice whispered in his ear.

“Nash.”

“I promised.”

Chapter 18: Abyss

Izanami leaned against the boulder, panting and sobbing from the run and the rage. She had not been thinking when she had said those words to Izanagi. It had been said in anger. But so many of the words they shared with one another were said in anger. She hated that. And yet, they just seemed to come so easily when she was around him. Take what had just happened. She had died in childbirth, and watched her husband murder the child she had died for in a fit of pique.

She had been heartbroken from the loss of their child. So she had told him that she could not leave the underworld. She had talked with him for a while, and his determination had been enough to win her over. She had thought, maybe, he still loved her. Then she awoke, to find him screaming at the sight of her in the light of a burning comb. He had fled, and she had chased. He had placed a boulder in her way, sealing her in. Like she was a monster. She shivered at the injustice. She was not the child-killer.

The land was lightless. She had wandered through it for a while when she had died, knowing it through her divine nature. It had been mostly a great disappointment. It was much like the regular world, but utterly empty, and without light. It was, in point of fact, a rather lonely place.

There was a knock at the stone. She frowned, and waited a moment. Another knock cracked through the air. She knocked on the stone herself, lying there, her flesh ravaged by maggots, her bare white knuckles rattling against the stone. It rumbled, and rose very slightly There was the smallest crack visible. She held her eye to it, and looked at another god. She knew he was a god, because she knew gods when she saw them. The man smiled pleasantly. “I seek the Goddess Izanami.” His voice whispered through the crack, full of the scent of dry air and distant sand.

“You have found her,” she stated, voice dull and lifeless. She was exhausted. It had not been easy, seeing the horror in her husband’s eyes. He had been so eager for her, once. Even at the worst times, he’d found her desirable, at least. “What do you want from the queen of the dead lands?” she asked. It was a silly thing to claim, but there was nobody else in this land of the death. She was the single most powerful creature within the sunless realm. Who was really going to tell her that she couldn’t be queen? “And who are you, stranger?”

“I am Enlil, God of Gods, Lawfather, Peacemonger. I come seeking the power of a god or goddess of death. We seek to work a great artifice, a place of many, where humans and gods can live side by side, so as to make a place of rest. The humans die under the touch of monsters, and they do not grant us the belief that we demand of them. We would see them brought properly to heel, so that we may tame the heroes among them, and make them our things once again. We need one who holds the power of death, the power of borders, to create the proper seals. Will you join us?”

She hissed. Something about the man reminded her so much of her husband, aggravating the wounds in her heart. “I have no interest in preserving the lives of those pathetic things that my husband creates. I have sworn to destroy them, and I shall not accept them while they still live. Go, god, and leave me in peace. I have no interest in your artificity.” She grabbed the stone, and heaved it down, closing the gap. And so she went forwards into the underworld, and made it her realm.

The second outsider came an uncountable number of years later. In underworlds, time passed in strange ways. It could have been a handful of days or millenia. For Izanami, it felt like a year, enough time for passion to die down, but not enough to die off. The stranger was familiar, and something of him must have reminded Izanami of her husband, because she struck the stranger across his cheek when she found him in her court. He took the blow with aplomb, and gave his best smile as he stood up straight again. “Hello, mother. Father sends his warmest regards.” Her second blow was with a closed fist, and caught him in the nose.

He took a few seconds to wipe the blood away with a silk handkerchief before he continued, his voice somewhat more nasal. “I see that you are just like the stories he told.” He was dressed in a fine blue and white silk kimono. Despite his youth, he had a fierce, proud set of facial hair, a beard and mustache that gave him a dignified mien when they were not stained with his own blood. A large curved sword hung from his belt in a lacquered wood sheath.

“And what, precisely, are you here for?” she asked, watching him coldly. He reminded her so much of his father. She saw nothing of herself in him. “And who did that bastard father of yours shack up with once he locked me into this place? How on earth did you even arrive here?” She narrowed her eyes. The young man hadn’t moved the boulder. She would have felt it.

“I am the wind. And as I am given to understand, when father wiped the pollution of Yomi off of his face, I was created from his nose.” The young man self-consciously brushed his own nose. “And I have been sent because father wishes to see you. There are plans afoot, to create a great city.”

“What, is this Enlil’s fool invention again? It is a foolish thing, as I told- What?” The boy’s eyes had widened at the mention of Enlil.

“The desert god came to see you? He built his city, centuries ago. It was what inspired us. But we need someone, a border guardian. One who can sanctify its barriers, and so hold the forces of the Horsemen out. Father says that you were always the most brilliant crafter of seals. It took me a year and a day of journeying on the deepest, darkest currents of the ocean simply to find my way into this place; clearly, he was right.” The boy bowed deeply. “I beg of you, mother, to join us, and help-“

“I am not your mother, little god. I am a woman your father used to sleep with. You are not mine. You may be a product of him, and of this dark place, but I never carried you within my womb. Leave, now, before I decide to take offense.” She spoke in a hiss, her voice low, and harsh. And he bowed, and vanished, leaving her to brood in her court for a long time.

“Izanami.” They were there one day. A face that was split between healthy, fresh-faced, blonde hair; and blue, pallid, bald flesh. The intruding goddess wore a voluminous robe, and winter frost nipped around her as she smiled. “A fine realm you have here. Darkness suits you.” The goddess slowly stepped through the court, waving a hand, and the darkness shivered like a hound trying to decide which human was its master.

Izanami stood up from the place where she sat, a simple bench, and reasserted herself over the realm of darkness with a wave of her hand. At a certain point, others had appeared in the realm. Some were the dead who believed in her. Great or small, they all found themselves under Yomi’s hand, eventually. Izanami sighed softly, as she studied the newcomer.

“Let me guess. You seek a god of death to build a city. What makes this idea so compelling to my kind? Why do so many come to me in search of someone to forge these places?” She growled. “I have no interest in humanity, or seeing it survive. If I had the choice, I would see them all die.” She waved a hand. “Why do you not simply go?” The goddess nodded slowly, and in a flash, she was gone. And it seemed like Izanami had barely sat when another one appeared. “Oh, fantastic. You, too, come to offer me a chance to yoke myself for the sake of humans?”

The figure was skeletally thin. He wore a black silk hat, tall and broad. A fine black jacket was wrapped around his shoulders, and a pair of dark-lensed glasses sat on his nose. His skin was black, and he chuckled good-naturedly. “I’ve no interest in anyone enslaving themselves.” His voice was nasal, probably because of the two cotton plugs in his nostrils. A skull was painted across his face. “What fucking many-legged insect crawled up your ass and died, lady?”

He carried a massive cigar in one hand, and a glass of rum in his other hand. He tossed back the rum in a single swallow and threw the glass on the floor, filling silent Yomi with the sound of breaking glss. He held the cigar to his lips, and lit it, taking a deep breath. In a single massive inhalation, the cigar was ash, and he belched out a massive gout of smoke. “I’m here because you are the world’s most gigantic bitch, and we’re all getting just a little bit worried about it!” He spat on the floor, and grinned broadly at her.

“You incredibly unmannered-“

“You are wasting your existence!” the man roared, lighting another cigar, and waving it around in a broad circle around his head, until the smoke from it surrounded him like a halo. “Look at you! Ruler of death, and you are wasting eternity brooding away as though there is nothing worthwhile in your life anymore! What on earth could possibly be possessing you?!” He took out a small, white stick. He thrust it between her lips, a broad grin on his face, as he took out a small plastic lighter. She was too shocked by the complete lack of manners to spit out the foul little tube.

“I don’t need anyone else to help me build my city. I have no need for another god of death horning in on my racket.” He winked. “But you are allowing the world to pass you by. Do you even know what has been happening among the humans?”

He lit the cigarette, and she inhaled. The smoke made her cough, but she took a second puff anyway. The leaves within had been soaked in rum, and the smoke was sweet as she breathed in again. The man grinned broadly. “Now there is a more attractive look for you!” He gave a deep bow, and she narrowed her eyes. She didn’t care for flattery. She reached up, and plucked the cigarette from her lips, its tip lighting up the court spectacularly. In the utter absence of light within Yomi, even the slightest flicker burned like a supernova.

“I have heard small things from the people who die. But the realm of the living holds no interest for me,” she lied. “I am dead. I shall not be alive again. There is nothing more to it. Why should I give a damn about the things that happen there?” She lifted the cigarette back to her lips, and took another long, slow draw from it, letting it cast its merry light.

He laughed. “Well, all I know is, those humans are accomplishing some very interesting things. These cities started to keep them from all dying out. Nowadays, though? I’m thinking that maybe, they exist to give us a safe place. If we started a war with them… Things could go bad.” He reached up under his hat, and took out another large glass of rum.

“This much is certain, though. You’ve got a grudge against a man. I don’t know much about your family, but I’ve never met a dead woman without a grudge against a man. And from your expression, he was your man. He threw you over, or pissed you off somehow. And so you are stewing down here, full of rage, trying to show him what’s what, or to get over your feelings for him.”

He passed her the large glass of rum, the amber fluid glittering in the tumbler, a pair of ice-cubes chilling it. “But I’ll tell you a little secret. Living well isn’t just the best revenge. It’s the only kind of revenge worth having.” She drank the rum. It burned pleasantly going down. Then she threw the glass at his face, as hard as possible. He caught it, though it was a close thing, and he laughed wildly as he disappeared from her underworld, following some unseen path away from it.

She contemplated what he had said for the better part of what felt to her, subjectively, like a day. Then, there was a flash in the sky of Yomi, and just for a moment, it was brilliantly lit. Then, souls began to fall. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of them. Fifty thousand souls rained downwards into Yomi. They were flash-fried, flayed, pulverized, and they screamed in terror as they fell into the darkness. She stared wordlessly at the sight, and for the first time ever, she opened a path to the surface. It had always been something she was capable of. She simply had no desire to see anyone there before.

She wasn’t certain how much time had passed when she arrived on the surface, but it couldn’t be more than a few days. She took a deep breath of the salty sea air. The city had been nothing but an inconsequential fishing village, until the Portuguese had arrived. She had heard of the city many times, usually cursed on the lips of Japanese dead. It had brought so much chaos. Today, however, it was a thriving harbor town. It seemed calm. There was some sign of damage, partially burnt buildings, a few that had collapsed inwards. The streets were emptier than they should have been. But the city certainly didn’t look like a charnel house. Izanami frowned, and then her gaze was drawn upwards.

Three suns shone in the sky. One of them was natural, the same sun that she had not seen in millenia. The second was divine, a dark-haired woman in robes of red and white. The third was foreign. As Izanami watched, the divine sun flickered, and disappeared, and the woman was hurled towards the ground. She fell like a star, appropriately enough. And then the foreign sun flickered, and was brighter than the real thing for a while.

Radiation sluiced down, heat and a dozen other kinds, each more lethal than the last. It couldn’t do Izanami much harm from this distance- she was already dead. At most, it killed some of the maggots in her ravaged body, and sterilized her withered flesh. The shock-wave hit next, and she rocked on her heels, her feet pounded into the stone by the sheer force of the pressure wave. She grunted, and stood up straight, as the buildings around her crumbled. Then, she began to walk towards the crater as the city burned in the impossible heat of the terrible sun.

She found the divine sun, lying in a crater. The woman looked, unaccountably, a bit like Izanami had when she was young and beautiful. Her pale skin was stained with ash and soot, and she was sobbing. She didn’t look much like her father. Izanami reached out, and could feel the woman’s soul, straining. She was on the verge of death. It would have been well within Izanami’s rights to simply pluck her soul away, and bring the sun into the depths of the underworld.

Instead, she waved a hand, and green flame sigils of Yomi appeared on the woman’s body, binding her soul back into place. She waited a moment, as the binding took place. She would live until Izanami released the bond, by which time, she would be healthy and able to survive without it. “Who has done this? What god has scarred our land like this?”

“Not-” Amaterasu coughed. Blood flowed down her chin. Izanami wound the bindings a little bit tighter. The sun-goddess took a deep breath, and tried again. “Not gods. Men. Foreigners. They made something. Something horrible. Somethings.” She sobbed. “I couldn’t stop the first one. Didn’t see it coming. I was prepared for this one. I tried to stop it. But… My islands…” That beautiful, perfect voice was burnt and ragged as the goddess spoke. Izanami nodded unsympathetically, staring around.

Amaterasu had invited the disaster. She and her foolish line. Izanami knew that they were not innocent victims. They had wounded others, and had been wounded in turn. And yet, Amaterasu was not the one whose shadow was burnt across the walls. She was not the one who had died, if only because of Izanami’s timely intervention. Izanami stood up, and let her eyes travel across the cloud. It was still rising. A column of smoke ending in a colossal cap. It reminded her of one of the mushrooms of Yomi. She could feel the sickness on it. The poison. A poison that was more effective than any she had.

Izanami followed the invisible lines, to those who had brought this cataclysm. The vessel flew through the air, carrying those who had dropped the bomb. And Izanami saw evil. The Horsemen may not have pressed the button. They may not have flown the plane. They may not have been the one who signed the order or who prototyped the weapon. But they were in the hearts of those who had made it. The Horsemen ran rampant in the hearts of men, and now, those men could burn goddesses out of the sky. How long would it be until they could storm the gates of Yomi itself? She shuddered, and no longer felt safe ignoring humanity.

“I am going, Amaterasu. Learn from this. The humans have humbled you. Don’t forget the way it feels.” She sighed softly. “I remember how it felt, to be burned, to die in the flames. In that case, it was my own child. But you invited this upon yourself by dancing too close to them. They are things to be held at arms length.”

Izanami spent that day, treating wounds. There were many for whom there was no hope. She was a goddess of borders, and many were far past the line between life and death. But she tried with those who were close, and she saved a few lives. It felt strangely good, to keep them out of Yomi. At the end of it, she and a half-dozen yokai who had survived the bomb set off. They traveled through the underworld, between doors, to the place where the bomb had come from.

There, she traveled through the camps, and saw all the people who were suffering. For their skin color, for their ancestry, for the mistakes of others. She offered a few of them the chance to follow her. While they waited in Yomi, lit by the light of a cigarette packet that she had left them, she walked into the manor of the Crone of Zion. The woman was haughty, and age wore heavily upon her. Her hair was gray, and she seemed bent under her responsibilities.

“Goddess of death. We have no need for your services here. We have created a proper binding to keep the Horsemen out of this place. What do you seek?” Izanami studied the woman. They both knew what it was to birth monsters, and to love your children even when you knew they would die. The crone was bent heavily by her losses, while Izanami was beginning to grow strong again. The crone had truly loved her husband, and had seen him taken away. She had seen her children stolen from her. That made her dangerous. She assumed she had nothing left to lose.

“I am not here for power. I am here to seek shelter. The humans grow dangerous. I come to this place because you have created a place of safety, and my people are in need of safety. I will help you to maintain this place, if you will allow them here.”

“And if I refuse?”

There was a silence. It lasted for just long enough for the Crone to tense. Then Izanami replied with all the calm of the grave. “Then I shall be forced to search for another place. One more established. One which has confidence in its ability to resist humanity.”

“What makes you think I do not have it in me to destroy humans, still? I have spent the last two thousand years honing my craft.”

“And you look every day of it.”

“A fine sentiment coming from a corpse.” The woman was silent for a few moments. Then Echidna sighed, and waved a hand. “I suppose there is room enough here. Bring your people. Be welcome here. Do not interfere with my hunting. Do not attempt to usurp my authority. We shall get along splendidly,” the mother of monsters lied.

“I am sure we shall be friends in no time,” Izanami lied.

Years passed. The foolish Crone went on her hunts for the man who had wronged her. Izanami simply did not think of Izanagi. Time did not slip past like it did in Yomi. There was always something new to be done, some conflict to be solved, some plan to be made. And one day, she felt an urge she had not had for many years. She wanted to care for a child. And she decided to visit China.

It was a strange thing for her to do, but a part of her felt sick every time she visited her native land. Nightmares of burning children and scorched goddesses. So she traveled to the great continent, passing its walls with the ease only death possessed. She cut bureaucratic tape with her bare hands, and found a young girl whose parents had left her in the cold to be taken by death. Izanami appreciated a good ironic touch as much as anyone else. Besides, the girl was special. She would be a monster.

Izanami had been a mother many times. It came easily to her, and the simple action almost made her feel alive again. There was something about watching the young woman grow up, making the same mistakes and new ones to boot. Others had questioned what kind of monster she was, and Izanami did not share that. She did not think it was anyone’s business, in particular. But she left hints for her daughter.

“And so, Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing traveled to Mount Emei, and took the magical herb, and brought Xu Xian back to life. When he returned to life, he still loved his wife, and maintained his desire for her.”

“Weird.” The young girl snorted. She was eight years old, and mouthy. “Why would anyone want to be married to a big scary snake?”

“Ah, a good question. And I suppose the answer is that while looks will fade, certain things never do. Good cooking, for example. A warm and sympathetic ear. A tender heart. In fact, White Snake Maiden used to be a horror story, you know? Bai Suzhen was a terrible monster, like the Nogitsune, or the Kejourou. Fahai was the noble hero, attempting to save the foolish farmboy’s life from a demon.”

The girl mused for a while, toying with her white hair. She was made fun of by the other children. Izanami would have torn their souls into Yomi for it, but the PTA meetings would grow terribly awkward after that. So instead, she told this story. “Why did it change?” she asked frowning.

“I suppose that men may be strange. Attracted to that which is different, even though most wind up repelled when they realize how different it is. I would not count on any romance to complete you. But I promise you, you shall always be my daughter, and I shall always be your mother.” She smiled.

Susan was a stroke of luck. The two girls arrived home, both bruised and scraped. They explained the story, how Susan was bullied by a group of cruel children from a grade below Isabelle’s, mocking her for being Chinese, and for her strange green eyes, calling her a halfbreed. Children could be strikingly cruel, especially when raised by cruel parents. Nobody was foolish enough to raise the issue to Izanami’s face, where she could tear their souls out through their chests, but they spoke to their children. And their children honed the venom with great skill.

Susan’s own parents were much like Izanami, unable to conceive, and had taken the girl in out of the goodness of their hearts. She was lonely. Isabelle was, too, for that matter. So Isabelle had fought, and the two of them had been hurt, but hadn’t let the others push them around. Izanami cleaned the two up, told them that they had acquitted themselves well, and made them sandwiches, before making a few very threatening calls to the parents of the other children. She did not have to be fair or impartial. She was a goddess.

They were together like that for eight years. Then the boy arrived.

From the first time the Constantinou boy showed his face, Izanami knew he was trouble. It even overwhelmed the joy Izanami felt at the sight of the mother of monsters tamed by some human. Seeing the pathetic old snake head over heels in love was comical. But Dean… Isabelle was instantly enamored with him. She adored him, heart and soul. And Izanami knew that he would betray her. He wouldn’t intend to, but he was young, foolish, unaware of the power he held, or uncaring of the delicacy of Isabelle’s heart. Irayama knew, from the moment she saw him, that he would be her Xu Xian. Fate was not to be denied.

So she allowed things to continue, and waited for the day when she would be needed. Mount Emei was now a quarry gravel. The herbs that restored life had died when China had industrialized. It was a great loss, but hardly unique in its tragedy. Humans broke the beautiful things in the world and replaced them with ugliness. They were their father’s children. But no matter. When the phone rang, and Isabelle spoke on the other end about what had happened, her voice shaky, Izanami would be ready in a different way.

It was not easy telling Isabelle the truth when she turned 18. Izanami had to show her part of Yomi to help her believe it. Her shape, that of a beautiful maiden with the lower body of a white snake, was striking beyond words, but her lack of humanity weighed on the girl. Isabelle grew somewhat detached, and worried a great deal, as Izanami knew she would. She worried about what Dean would say. Izanami did not answer.

And on the night that the boy died, she comforted her daughter when it had happened, and promised to provide an alibi. The evidence in the shack would be a problem, but not an insurmountable one. There would be other, greater issues.

The diagnosis would never hold water. Botulism toxin, what a laugh. It wasn’t meant to, though. It was sufficient to keep the body in the morgue, until the night of the half moon. “I know you would like to believe there is something more significant here. But it is my professional opinion that his death was a simple accident, and a poisoning by wound. It is sad. But it is not a crime!” She took the cigarette out of her mouth, and ground it out in the ashtray on the chief’s desk. She knew how the woman hated the taste of smoke in the air.

She stamped out of the station, satisfied at the part she had played, and turned her head towards the outsider. Some FBI agent, sent here to assist thanks to Pearl’s meddling. She would have to move quickly. No doubt he would back up her suspicions, and have the body moved to where she could do no good. Amaterasu had taught her a lesson about the trouble humans could cause if not watched.

Her daughter was suffering, sobbing in her room, when Izanami returned home. She made the girl her favorite tea, and let her rest. Susan came by, and was very understanding when Izanami told her that she was not up for visitors. Then the doorbell rang again. Izanami met the two of them at the door, rum-soaked cigarettes caught between her lips. Pearl, and the agent. The chief of police spoke first. “Those things are going to kill you someday, Irayama. You mind if we talk with Isabelle?”

Izanami narrowed her eyes. She could make all of this go away, given just a little time. What she did not need was a pair of fools trying to enforce justice without thinking about the consequences. “My daughter is currently somewhat distraught over the death of her boyfriend, as you well know, officer. She was crying for three days straight, the last time you talked with her. I would rather she was not disturbed-“

“Mama?” Izanami turned. Her beloved daughter was standing in the stairwell, dressed in nothing but a blanket. Izanami’s mind drifted as she argued, and then relented. She did not want her daughter talking with the police. Not because she would give away the plan, her daughter was smarter than that. She just didn’t want the girl suffering any more than she already had.

It wasn’t her fault. It would never be her fault. This was the way the story was meant to go. Isabelle was simply a player in a great drama. And she would have her happy ending. Izanami’s story ended in tragedy; But Isabelle could have joy in her life. There would be great strain before she was done, but it would end. When the careless two inevitably left her daughter in tears, she ushered them out, and made her daughter tea.

That night, she entered the police station, dressed in a robe that hid her face. She stole the life from the video cameras with a wave of her hand. There were no others in the building. She tore the door off its hinges, ripping it open effortlessly. She could have moved subtly, but she had no need for that. In her slender frame was enough strength to tear a man in two. Enough to tear a mountain in two. She tore through the front desk, and carried the body out, wrapped in its body bag. She carried him all the way to the cemetery.

A delicate calligraphers brush laid the marks on him. He had not been dead long. His body was not decayed, thanks to her daughter’s quick actions. She sat as the half moon rose, continuing her work transcribing the ideograms of life and death. At last, the moon rose to the proper position, and she began the ritual.

Green flame surrounded her. The flames of Yomi, outside of its supernatural darkness, were a curious bright green, and glowed brilliantly to make up for their muted aspect in their home. The light glowed in the boy’s tattoos, filling him up, as he began to stand up, moving. She could feel his soul. Then, something in the darkness reached out, and seized his soul, yanking it into back out of his body. The sound of a tremendous howl filled the air, a scream of agony, as the soul was torn free of the bindings. The body dropped to the ground. She frowned. She had not expected that.

“Silas Nash, FBI.” She turned. The young man from earlier stood just outside of the ring of green light, pointing a gun at her. She sneered under her robe. “Put your hands up. You are under arrest for… For desecration of a body. And probably breaking into police property. And… And likely… quite a few things besides that. You have the right to re-“

“You fucking idiot.” She growled, her voice twisted by a touch of necromantic magic. No need to make herself too obvious to the trigger-happy idiot. He was terrified, his words cracking and unsteady. Confronted with something utterly beyond him.

“N-no need to curse-“

“I’m trying to bring the little prick back to life, you fool. You are distracting me at a critical juncture. Now-” The man fired his gun at a headstone, knocking out a small chip of granite. Izanami rolled her eyes under the hood at the show of machismo. “Pathetic.” She started walking towards him.

The pistol roared three times. Bullets smacked into her rotted flesh. She did not feel any pain or discomfort. It was no nuclear weapon. “Tools of men. Useless. You’re not even a hero.” Perhaps if he could wield some of the power of fate, he could have stood a chance. He still would have lost, but he would’ve had hope. She waved a hand, and brought forth the dead.

It was simple to fill the bones to their brim with the flame of Yomi. The walking bones were not powerful. They did not need to be. They would kill the human, or scare him off. She allowed the green flame to consume her and Dean’s body, taking her to Yomi, as she considered the ritual. Why hadn’t it worked? Had the incantation been off? She could feel something interfering with her. She shook her head. Simple enough to fix. She just needed time.

The world endeavored to make her life more difficult. The next day, the shack burned down before she could comb it for evidence. The day after that, there were riots in the street. The man had survived, somehow, and had gained the favor of Ariel. He was still nothing, though. She laughed as Megara beat him senseless.

Echidna, however, was a far greater danger. When the woman had struck, Izanami had been genuinely unsure if her preparations would be able to stop the blow. It had been a great relief to see that her plan had worked. That night, however, the shield was tested further. Clouds rose from around Echidna’s manor, and lightning bolts struck the dome. Izanami watched with increasing alarm as the houses cracked under the pressure, tiles shattering as the old Crone tried to break the defense that Izanami had spent decades preparing, with alarming success. It stopped, abruptly, and she was left waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It came in the next night. Intruders into Yomi. Yomi was not a simple afterlife, like most. Heroes did not enter it. Nobody used it as a shortcut. It was her place, and she guarded it jealously. She had allowed it to grow wild for seventy years, but that brief time did not matter to the land of shadows. She waited, in her city, in her court, and watched as the two arrived. One was that young lady, Cassandra. A good soul, if troublesome and prone to poor decisions. Her parents were hard-headed, but the girl herself was some evidence that relationships between the different cultures could work, one of the few reasons Izanami had allowed Dean and Isabelle to see each other. The other…

Izanami lit one of her cigarettes, and watched with some satisfaction as Nash’s eyes widened in response. “Aaah, Cassandra. Good to see you, dear.” She spoke sympathetically. The girl had been through a lot. Izanami would make it better for her. “I’m sorry about your mother. I hadn’t counted on intermarriage when I was preparing the barrier. I am sorry. I am trying to find out a way to fix things. You are free to go through the door. Agent Nash and I have something to discuss, first.”

Cassandra looked up at her. The girl had changed a lot in the last few days. Defiance was still there, but it was being tempered with wisdom and confidence of others. “… If it’s all the same, I’m going to wait for him.” Izanami laughed softly, a smile on her face. She could see the way the young girl looked at Nash. The need for his approval. He had believed in her, unlike everyone else. He had bound her to him with the thoughtless gift, driving a 14 year-old girl into the darkness of death just to please him. She’d seen it so many times before.

“Humans. What a bunch of pricks. And yet my daughters cannot help but make the same mistakes their mother did, and forget what superficial creatures they are. Just like their maker.”

“You were the one who stole Dean’s body.” Nash was not frightened. It had been three days since she had set the skeletons on him, and the man had been transformed. Before, he had a low stance, bent and embarrassed all the time. Terrified of his own so-limited strength. Now, he had confidence in himself. He had the arts in him. He had three spirits and their blessings. All in four days. It was ludicrous. An affront to Izanami. “What were you trying to do with it?”

“I don’t think that matters much to you, Mister Nash. Do you know what I am?” she asked, sarcasm dripping from her words, a sneer on her face.

“Izanami.” he answered, with maddening nonchalance.

“No, that is my name. Do you know WHAT I am?” He stared into her eyes. And so she told him. He did not wince or grow shame-faced. He simply said that he was different. And Izanami’s heart flickered back into life. It had been so long since she had felt a proper rage. She remembered the sound of disgust in Izanagi’s voice. And Nash insulted her, just as Izanagi had. She lunged, and caressed his chest, just over his heart, and he crumpled. Merely mortal, after all.

Cassandra let out a sob, tears running down her cheeks, her hands on her lips. Izanagi turned towards her, sympathetic. The poor girl would be traumatized. “I am sorry, dear. It had to be done. He was-“

“No, you stupid old woman.” Cassandra’s tears ran down her cheeks, and Izanami held back the urge to slap her. “You woke it up.”

“Izanami.”

Izanami turned. The human stood. Unsteady, but very alive. She recognized the look in Nash’s eyes. It was so familiar, the same glorious light that had burned in her nightmares for decades. The artificial sun, snuffing out a divine one. Her end, finally come into Yomi, as she had foreseen all those years back. “Impossible,” she whispered, fighting to keep the horror out of her voice. The fear of death. “You cannot be alive. I stopped your heart. Not even the Sisters could preserve your life in this place.” He didn’t answer. He simply took on a stance, as the wind picked up around him. The air of Yomi stirred for the first time, ever. Earth rumbled under him.

She struck, and he reversed her blow. He was strong, and fast, but he couldn’t do her any real harm throwing her against the floor. She bounced back to her feet, and charged him. He was filled with rage, but he was not so skilled. She would have him. She followed him around the circle, trading words with him thoughtlessly. He moved without grace or elegance, his movements breaking the ground. Making it unsteady and ruined. If he thought it was to his advantage, he was wrong. She knew this place perfectly.

“What good do you think this will do?!” she asked, mocking. “You haven’t got a chance-” She paused, and realized. Damn. She still hadn’t learned her lesson.

The world twisted around her as he lifted several tons of Yomi’s dark stone into the air, reversed his grip, and brought it down. Slamming it into her like Izanagi had slammed down his boulder, crushing her as Izanagi had crushed her heart. Again, and again, until the rock crumbled. Her bones didn’t break, her flesh didn’t bleed, but it hurt her deeply nonetheless.

She lay in the rubble. Remembering Amaterasu. Remembering what had happened when a god had touched the fury of man. Fighting him head to head was dangerous, foolish. She could not beat his fire with hers. She would have to cheat.

She stood up, and puffed on her bent cigarette. “Ahahaha. Such anger in you, human. Such rage. Where do you learn that? Is it from your mother? Or is it from the company you keep?” She didn’t know the man’s past. But every man had a mother, and she’d never found one who didn’t feel something about her.

He turned away from Cassandra, facing her once again, and spoke in that unbearably calm tone. “I trust that you are not going to die of your wounds in your own realm. So I will go, to find the truth out from your daughter, and you will allow me to go. I will not tolerate any more interference.”

“So arrogant. Well done, though, human. I had not expected you to give me pause. But I love my daughters. Foolish girls though they are, with soft hearts. And I would sooner let the sun burn out than let them come to harm.”

“You don’t seem like you pose much of a threat.”

She could feel the rain approaching, responding to her call. She had never needed to call it before. No threat had been foolish enough to come here. But it would win the fight for her. “There is a rain in this place.” It surged, a storm-system that was an extension of her own dark hate for this arrogant human. “It comes when I call it. It is a poison beyond any other. It will stop your heart, sear your nerves, rot your flesh. It kills only the living, and I shall enjoy watching as it consumes your flesh. Cassandra, if you don’t wish to share this human’s fate, I would recommend you use the door, now.”

The two intruders exchanged a look, and with his permission, Cassandra darted through the door. She was glad for that. She could not bring herself to murder Cassandra to stop this man. Foolish though she was, she too was one of Izanagi’s daughters.

Then, the rain fell. It put out the cigarette. And in the darkness, for the first time since she had left Yomi and felt the sun, Izanami fell back into her true monstrous shape. “You are arrogant, human. I will rip the life from your bones, tear the skin from your corpse, and offer it as a gift to your friends. Nobody threatens my children.” The rain fell. She watched the man’s head dip. He had given in. Finally. She reached out, and tore the tent aside. The words came to her from afar, once again. “You will not kill again, human.”

The rain fell with a soft patter, striking the dark stone and filling the hollows. The man swayed, and she waited for him to die. For this nightmare to be over. For the city to be safe again. It was within reach. She would save Dean, she would save her daughters, and all would be right once again. Once this madman was dead. She laughed into the air, and felt her heart lighten. The man continued to sway, and her laughter died slowly.

The raindrops fell in thick torrents around him. They should have killed him at a touch. But he swayed gently out of the way. Each moment, it seemed as though a raindrop would snuff him out. And each time he dodged them by the barest of margins. Her hatred could not touch the man. She shrieked in rage, and lunged forward. Her hand swung, wreathed in blackness, and failed to make contact. He shouldn’t have been able to escape through the rain, but he did. A spray of maggots filled the air as her hand came down, missing him by a hairsbreadth.

“Why do they protect you?!” she shrieked. “You are nothing! You are no hero! You are nothing special! You are nothing but a human!”

He didn’t answer her. He was humming a lullaby, soft and gentle, his eyes closed. An expression of utter contentment was on his face. The fire that had burned in him before was gone, replaced with a perfect serenity. He took a single step towards her, and she stepped back involuntarily.

She tried to strike, but he was inside of her guard. His hands moved up, like a tango, taking her in his arms. One hand around her wrist, the other around her shoulder. She towered over him, but he held her as easily as a lover. His fingers dug into her waxy flesh, tight as iron. She let out a gasp as he dipped her low, as though he was preparing for a kiss. Her fingertips, glowing with darkness, rested inches away from her throat, bent in his arm, unable to move.

“Would this work on you, too?” he whispered, voice as soft and implacable as the rain should have been. It fell around him, refusing to touch him directly. The influence of that meddlesome Heather. She closed her eyes, and lit a fresh cigarette with her free hand.

“I suppose that I would rather not find out,” she growled. She had a terrible feeling that in his hands, it would. “Why? What are you trying to prove? Why do you want to take my children away?”

Nash released her gently, letting her settle to the ground. He watched as her body changed, becoming human once again, lying in the ragged clothes on the sodden ground. He didn’t flinch away from the sight of her true shape. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I want to find who War is using. I want to save this city. And I want to help you bring back Dean.”

“… You could have saved a lot of time if you’d told me all of that before,” she noted accusingly.

“Would you have accepted my help?”

She didn’t respond. The man had a talent for saying the things that hurt that was nearly as effective as her own. She sighed, and sat up. “You’re right. It’s my daughters fault he’s dead. I thought I was strong enough to bring him back. I thought that the story was right for saving him. But he refused. The little prick.”

He offered her a hand. She stared at it for a moment, and doused the black energy of Yomi around her hands. “I think that if I talk to your daughters, if I figure out exactly what happened, I have a chance. I think I know why you can’t find his soul. And I think we can save him, if we work together.” He met her eye, and the inferno was gone. “Please. Trust me.”

“You’re the first human who’s seen me in my true form since I died,” she whispered softly. “But you didn’t flinch away.” She took a deep breath, making the cigarette flare. Then she took his hand, rising to her feet. What use was there in returning to the world if she didn’t enjoy making some of the same old mistakes again? There was a crunching noise, as the door was made whole again, a passage to her home. “Come on, then, boy. We’ve got a lot to talk about.” She opened the door. “What do you know about the Legend of the White Snake?”

Chapter 19: Gnosticism

Nash blinked at the blinding light of Irayama’s dingy basement. “How long were we in Yomi?” he asked, as he looked around. A portal to the underworld, sitting right in the basement of a suburban house. There was a large foosball table, and a meat-locker. He frowned. They didn’t seem particularly appropriate. Sure, he hadn’t been expecting the bones of one thousand dead samurai or anything, but she could’ve done better than this.

“About an hour.” His eyes widened. It had felt as though much longer had passed. Like being in a movie theater and coming out into the sun, surprised that it’s still day. He peered through a basement window. Outside, the sun had set outside, but a street light was glowing merrily. “Last night, that witch Echidna tried to blow a hole in my barrier. Very nearly disrupted it and got us all very badly injured. Do you know why she stopped?” Irayama glanced nonchalantly at Nash.

“I interrupted the ritual and pissed her off enough that she decided to try to kill me instead.” Irayama gave him a doubtful look. “She nearly ended up killing me. Then I stabbed her. And we ended up calling it even.”

The old woman gave him a brief look, and sighed. “You have a real way with the women, Mister Nash, I must say.” She walked over to a small closet, and stepped in. When she emerged, she was dressed as she had been when Nash had seen her at the riot. A pair of thong sandals, a tie-die shirt that looked like it had been worn once a week for forty years, and a pair of jean shorts. It was not an appropriate outfit for a woman of her age, or build. But there was something charmingly mundane about it that made it easy to forget she’d tried, with some success, to snuff his life out minutes before. “Have you engaged in a life or death struggle with Doctor Smith yet?”

“No. Should I have?”

“Probably not. She is not much for fighting even at the worst of times, I am sure she would’ve been quite upset by any such attempt. And while you may be a violent person, I do not think that you like to make young women cry.” She puffed on her cigarette, her eyes hard as she examined him. “So. You read the girl’s diary. Quite rude, you know.”

He shrugged. “I admit, I don’t think enough about the privacy of criminals.”

“Quite. It gives you the start of the story of the white snake. It is a comedy, in the traditional Shakespearean sense. That is to say, there is much pain, and suffering, and the two fated lovers spend decades separated by fate and chance. But in the end, they are wedded for good.”

Nash frowned. “It doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? All of that trauma, all of that pain, and it all gets glossed over with a ‘happy ending’?” He knew he wasn’t talking about the legend of the white snake.

“It is hardly glossed over. There is pain in every life. Sometimes, quite extraordinary pain. But if we can know, in the midst of all of that pain, that the ending will be a happy one, then the suffering can be bearable. That is why I told the story to Isabelle. It was a reminder to her that even when she is suffering, she is becoming stronger. The suffering will, one day, give her the power to become the heroine she was born to be.” She smiled. “It is unpleasant. Perhaps you wish someone else were responsible for fixing this mess, hmm?”

“I just wonder why the hell I got chosen to do all of this. I’ve never been anything special.”

“In my experience, there is little that one earns beforehand. Your birth, your parents, your society, all of these things are gifts that are given to you. The trick is in living up to them. Perhaps you were being given the opportunity to fail.” She rubbed her wrist self-consciously as Nash leaned against the foosball table. “You certainly seem to be rising to meet your gifts. You have grown quite substantially in only a handful of days. I did not expect to be challenged as I was.”

“Well, I’m sure if you really wanted to, you could have killed me stone dead.”

She eyed him. ” I tried that. It did not seem to stick either time. You are advancing at a frightening pace.” She sighed, clearly uncomfortable with the topic, and changed to another tack. “Now, you are aware that the things I am about to tell you are to be taken with a grain of salt. I cannot describe our world, any more than you can describe the universe with any accuracy. We live within the thing we are attempting to describe, and are only a small amount of it. But this is the way I understand it-“

“Just a moment.” Nash interrupted. “Do you mind if we went upstairs to talk about this? I think that it might be worthwhile to have them hear it too. It sounds like… Well, there have been a lot of secrets in this place. A little openness might be helpful. I’m guessing you have Isabelle and Susan here?”

Irayama frowned, but then nodded. “It is a fair point. I suspect that all these secrets is what led to our current dilemma.” She gave him a level look. “Do you think that the girl, Cassandra, is prepared to hear these things? They are things that can cause a great deal of pain and uncertainty, when the unprepared hear them.”

“I think that she already suspects a lot of it. I think that she’s been kept in the dark, and it’s been hurting her, making her doubt her own sanity. And I think she’s a hell of a lot tougher than people give her credit for.” Nash smiled cheerfully. “Besides, how bad could it really be, finding out that your life is based on mythology?” He stepped up the stairs, into the heart of suburbia. Cassandra, Isabelle, and Susan were all seated together around a table. The room looked straight out of The Brady Bunch. He set his mouth into a straight line, and took a seat. Isabelle and Susan looked up at him, fear in their eyes.

“Someone in this room,” he stated, as Irayama stepped through the door, “killed Dean Constantinou. I’m guessing accidentally, from what I’ve learned. A terrible accident. No fault to it, just tragedy.” Susan’s expression was fierce. Isabelle’s expression was pained. Irayama’s expression was neutral. And Cassandra’s expression was slightly sad. “I came to Zion as a representative of the law. As someone seeking to do justice, by which I mean, punishing the living to pay tribute to the dead.”

He reached into his pocket and took out his badge, placing it open on the table. Four sets of women’s eyes settled on it, as though it were more dangerous than a gun. Hell, here, it probably was. “My options are greater now. There is a chance for me to save Dean. I will need the help of every one of you in this room. And that means I need the truth from you now. If you lie to me, I will know it, and I will not be able to trust you, which means Dean will stay dead, this city will be torn apart, and everything may end.”

He stared around the table. There was utter silence, and more than a little terror in the eyes of the young women, Cassandra included. “And if you tell me the truth, right here, right now, I will forgive you for anything.” He looked into Isabelle’s soft brown eyes. “Including trying to kill me.”

“That… That was me.” whispered Susan, looking down. Nash turned, raising an eyebrow. His eyes drifted down to her hand, conspicuously free of broken bones. “I went there that night, to burn the place down. I wanted to save the diary. I knew that it might show that Isabelle wasn’t planning to hurt him, that it might show that she cared for him, so that nobody would think she was trying to kill him. That it really *was* an accident.”

“You’re the one who bit me, then?”

She looked down, embarrassed. “I’m sorry I hurt you, Mister Nash. I was really scared. I thought I’d…” She shook her head. “I’m glad you’re okay.” Nash studied her carefully. Every word she said scanned as true. He nodded slowly.

“It’s alright, Susan. I survived. So, don’t try to kill me again, and I’ll do the same for you.” He frowned. “I’m fairly certain I broke one of your fingers, though. How did-” Isabelle raised her hand like she was in school. He raised an eyebrow. “They really drill that instinct into you hard, don’t they. Put your hand down. You healed her?”

“I’m a healer. An empathic healer. I can make people feel better, by taking the wound onto myself.” Isabelle held up her hand, showing the bandages. “I tried to save Dean, but-” She shivered. “It wasn’t working. I tried. But I couldn’t start his heart again. It hurt too much-” Susan hugged Isabelle, squeezing her gently around the shoulders. The two were close. And Isabelle was telling the truth, too. Another small mystery of the world around him solved. He filed the information away.

“Alright. The night of the death, what happened?”

Isabelle explained, with Susan adding appropriate details. Isabelle had discovered the truth of her nature, like everyone else, at the age of 18. She had shared the information with Susan, a revelation which earned a frown from Irayama. And she had drifted away from Dean. “It was the legend. I was afraid of staying with him. That he’d die because of me. So I was going to break up with him. And then, Susan told me to tell him the truth. So he’d have a choice about it. And…” Isabelle’s eyes teared up, and Susan looked wretchedly guilty, down at her feet. “I was there. And I told him we couldn’t be together. He told me that he would understand, whatever it was, and…”

“You believed him.” Nash said, sympathetically. “I understand. There’s a few questions I still have about this. From what I heard, he died on a Saturday, but was found on a Monday, in the afternoon, still freshly dead, with a pair of bite marks in him.”

“His heart stopped when he saw me. I tried to heal him, while he was still warm, but I couldn’t do anything more than make his heart beat for a few minutes at a time, and it hurt terribly to do that much. I was going to meet with mama, so we could take his body somewhere safe until she could help him. But I heard people, and I panicked.” Cassandra frowned. “I tried to bite him, to use my venom to preserve him, like mama taught me. It was supposed to make sure that nothing would corrupt his body.” Nash thought of the smell. He’d thought it had smelled like decay, necrotic flesh. But the body had been terribly well-preserved. He didn’t know enough to be sure, but what she was saying seemed to be true, at least to her.

“Alright. That all fits together. I think I have a theory about Dean, and why you can’t save him. But first, why don’t you tell us about monsters, Irayama? The long version.”

Irayama nodded quietly. “I will tell you all what I know. This is not The Truth. It is My Truth. It is up to you to figure out what your can use from it. Now… all things, in Shinto, have a soul; Rocks, trees, even the least grain of sand. And sometimes these souls yearn to be more…”

It was worship. It wasn’t quite like the stories that Megan Smith had told, of stories changing the world to suit them. Inanimate objects did not kowtow to the beliefs of humans. Instead, human belief gave them power, and what they did with that power informed the way humans perceived them. With one exception. The power came tinged with humanity. It made things into people.

Irayama, Izanami, was motherhood. An idea, more than an object, but even ideas had a soul that could be something. Then she died, because of her motherhood, and she had become a goddess of death, and worship had changed with her. That was the nature of monsters. They could change.

“That is why the Legend of the White Snake was so fascinating to me. The story changed. It went from a horror story to a star-crossed romance. The question was, why did it change? Was it because people told the story differently? I refuse to believe that.” Izanami crossed her arms. “We are monsters, heroes, and gods. I do not believe that we are nearly so powerless as the others argue. I believe that fate is simply inclination. What is said to be inevitable is not. It is simply a way people give up responsibility. That is why I am the Mother of this place. I refuse to allow myself to be pigeonholed.”

Nash raised an eyebrow. “You’re trying to change who you are?”

Irayama shook her head. “I chose to be a mother. Being a goddess of death was forced on me. I learned this, perhaps seventy years ago. I can be satisfied taking the lives of those whose lives have reached a natural end, for whom continued existence would simply be pain and deterioration. But I can save the young. The boy may be a foolish little prick, emotional, without an ounce of gratitude for the women in his life. But my daughter cares for him. And she will not make the mistakes I made.” Irayama gave a broad grin. “I intend to allow her to make her own mistakes, and come to her own conclusions. I am sure that she will find exciting new ways to be disappointed by men.”

“And heroes?”

“Heroes are men who have been given an excuse to behave as men do. They are uninteresting to me. The only Japanese hero I ever met was my husband, and he was a bastard.” She sneered. “Dean is not a hero. I would be able to taste it on him if he were. But then, some people are not born heroes.” His reaction must have shown on his face, because she smirked. “Yes, I thought you would take interest in that. Even in these dark and degraded days, there are those who resonate with a heroic myth, through their actions, rather than being born to it. They are rare, though. People simply don’t believe in heroes anymore.”

“Can you blame us?” he asked, frowning. “This whole city scheme was to keep people from ever seeing heroes.”

“True. A terrible mistake, I am beginning to suspect.” She rubbed her chin. “But even in the modern day, it is possible for people to believe. To hope. Heroes always started with an extraordinary individual who succeeded despite all the odds. Such men still arise. They are just not given the respect they once were. There are so few new heroes. Only the old ones, endlessly revolving, trapped in the cities. I suspect both sides are responsible for this dearth of greatness” She sighed softly.

“If you say so. Next up are the Horsemen.”

Irayama shook her head. “I know very little about their true nature. They are not so different from other ideas. Only their tactics are unusual. I know that they are powerful, but that they are powerful because they act through humans. I have never seen one directly intervene in a conflict. They plant ideas in the minds of humans. Most of them are straightforward, but War…”

“Do you have an idea who is working for her?”

She frowned. “War chooses two. Always two. And they are opposed to one another in their actions. She uses them as sleepers. Touched early in their life, she sets them on collision courses, and they always wind up destroying places through their conflict. Often, both think they are righteous, refusing to believe they could serve War. And both only become aware of their true nature at the end.” She rubbed her forehead.

“What happens afterwards?”

“When they become aware of what they are and what they’ve done, most go mad. War is conflict, itself. She destroys from within. And of course, so often, people think they know who War’s servants are, because of their pre-existing beliefs. And so, they act against them. Paranoia and grudges are her spear and shield.” She frowned. “I suppose that I fell for it too. I was sure that Megara had War’s hand guiding her actions.”

“I don’t know. Megara tried to help me, but she also guided me here. That help could’ve gotten me killed.” He frowned. “I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that using the power of more than one of the elements is- If not impossible, very odd.” He swallowed. “I know I’ve seen War before. Is it possible that I’m one of her agents?”

Irayama studied him, for a long time. “As it happens… I would think that your mastery of the elements shows you are not. The Horsemen and the Sisters are opposed. Those four are not easily fooled. I do not know why you can hold their power so easily. You should not have been able to use water the way you did, I know that much. You moved with a grace and- if you’ll pardon the pun- fluidity, that I have never seen. And you had it for only a few hours.”

“That’s not very reassuring. Doesn’t that make it more likely that War’s changed me, somehow?”

She shrugged. “Perhaps. But humans produce heroes, and freaks. Sometimes, a human being is simply a paragon. A one in a billion chance. Perhaps it was just something you were born with. Many heroes started that way. Being extraordinary can be a great aid to being thought of as extraordinary.”

He took a deep breath, and plunged on. “Then-?”

“Many people see the Horsemen. Many are affected by them. But their agents are given gifts.” Nash thought of the rage, and his expression darkened. “War’s gifts are as subtle as she is. Her agents would hardly be very useful if they waded into battle personally, in a way that everyone could identify as obviously the work of War. I suspect that you are simply an angry, hurt young man who has some severe issues with women.” He winced. The words hit home. But…

“Then I’m not her thing.”

“I don’t think so. You strive to be better than your anger. I think that is a very admirable thing. Your rage had strength enough to give me pause. However…” She studied him for a moment. “It was not your rage that defeated me, but serenity. Remember that. Anger can make you strong, but only serenity can make you wise.” She took a breath, and straightened. “I do not believe I am working with War, but you cannot take my word for it. Any two of us could be a servant of War. And so, we must travel in groups. I am certain that if any of us is a servant of War, you will be more than capable of defeating them in single combat.”

Nash looked around the room, feeling a sense of relief mix with worry. It had been preying on his mind for some time. But the vote of confidence from the person who he’d been fighting only a few minutes ago helped. “Alright. I think I have an idea for why you’re having trouble bringing Dean back. You’re a god of the dead, but there are many of them, right? And Dean isn’t Japanese. He doesn’t believe in Shinto. He’s the child of Harry Constantinou, who is the reincarnation of Heracles. I think that he’s being held in Hades. And if there’s one thing I know about the stories of Hades, it’s that he doesn’t respond well to attempts to force him to give up a shade. But… he’s also an old romantic. I think there’s a chance- a small chance- that we could bring Dean back.”

Cassandra leaned forward on her elbows. “So what’s your plan?”

He looked between the four women. “We enter Hades. We find Hades himself. We ask him, very politely, if he’ll give back Dean Constantinou. And we hope like hell that he’s in a charitable mood.” He looked between the women. “I think that we’re dealing with a story. I don’t know if we have a chance. Because I think the story that’s being told is ‘The children of Heracles die because of his choices’. And Dean’s nothing but a prop. He’s played his part, and been pulled off stage. We need to change the story to ‘True love triumphs over death itself, and the white snake and her beloved are reunited.'”

Isabella flushed at that, and Irayama frowned.

“I know you don’t like sticking to stories, Irayama. But it’s easier to change to a different story, more like what you want, than to leave the stories behind altogether. At least when you’re following a story, you have some idea of what to expect.”

Irayama was silent for a while. “This will be a great sacrifice for Isabelle,” she growled. “The white snake story is a special one, daughter. If you do this, the two of you will be bound together. Forever. His soul will become a part of yours. All for a simple high school crush. Love fades, you know. It dies away slowly, until the day it is no longer there. But with this story, you will be locked together. Separated many times, and always reunited. Forever.”

Isabelle didn’t even hesitate. “It’s worth it. He died because he wanted to show me he cared about me, no matter what. He deserves to be alive.” She bit her lip. “It’s unfair for me to bind him to me like that, but I think that it’d be better than being dead.” She looked around the group, soft brown eyes desperate for some confirmation.

Cassandra shook her head. “Having spent an hour in Yomi? I think he’d agree. Besides, at least you know who you’ll be taking to prom.” She gave a sardonic smile, but Nash noticed the flinch when she mentioned Yomi. He reached into his jacket, taking out the small pink book. He slid it across the table to Isabelle, whose eyes widened. She looked up at him.

“It’s the original. Pearl wrote in translations. I’m sorry for reading it, but I think you should use it to write a message to him. Something you’d want him to see.”

Isabelle frowned. “I… can’t I come with you? If we’re going to save him-“

“I want to make sure he has a body to come back to. You, Irayama, and Susan, stay in the real world, where you can take care of his body. Keep his body whole and healthy. Protect him. I go into Hades, and save his soul.” He tapped the book. “I want to make sure that he knows there are people desperate for him to come back. This is a romance. Dig in deep. I don’t know what the hell you’d find romantic, but use your imagination, alright?” He stood up straight, and the world went dark.

When he woke up, he was lying on the floor, Cassandra bent over him, worry in her eyes. “You have been pushing yourself.” Irayama stated, simply. “I suspect you could use a bit of rest.”

“Do we have any kind of time for that?” he asked, grunting as he sat up. Irayama frowned.

“Tomorrow, at dawn’s first light, the barrier will shatter. Chaos will erupt. Every moment that passes, the chance of someone dying in the violence increases.”

Nash nodded, and staggered to his feet. His head was still spinning. “Then we take just enough time to make a cup of coffee, and we head out into the night.” He smiled. “Do you mind if I take a moment, Mrs Onnashi?” She waved a hand dismissively, and he walked into the kitchen, his head still throbbing. He leaned heavily against the counter, rummaging through the cupboard.

A hand reached up beside him, and he turned to see Isabelle. She smiled pleasantly, as she poured the beans into a small coffee grinder. The high-pitched whine of the damned appliance made his head ache.

“I thought I might offer a little help.” She carefully plucked out a coffee filter. “Mister Nash. You have taken great risks already just to do your job, and find out the truth behind this investigation. You did more than could be asked.” She poured the beans into the filter, and the filter into the coffee machine. The scent of hot coffee filled the air, as hot water began to drip down through the beans, into the large pot. “If I may ask. Why?”

He frowned. “What do you mean, why? It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?”

“Forgive me for saying so, Mister Nash, but you do not strike me as a self-sacrificing altruist. Not a bad person, mind you, but you seem far too withdrawn to have gotten involved in others lives before. What exactly is it that motivates you this time?” she asked, as the pot filled slowly.

“I…” He frowned. He had joined the FBI because it had been a career he could dedicate himself to. A way he could lose himself. Something to escape his mother’s madness. Something that would make the world make sense. And ever since he had arrived in Zion, he’d given into the madness, gone among mad people. He wondered if he could even return to that job now. And… he still wasn’t sure why he was trying to help.

“Because you care about people, dummy.” Ariel was resting a hand on his shoulder. “Because you’ve finally got people to care about.”

“I think it’s because he is a good-hearted soul, and simply never thought he had enough strength to be good before.” Heather stated, smiling gently as she watched the coffee drizzle into the pot.

Gene simply sat on the counter, legs kicking back and forth, an enigmatic smile on her face.

Nash shrugged. “Maybe I just think that it would be nice to save someone’s life for once. You don’t usually get to save people’s lives in the FBI. Mostly, what you do is punish people, and get there too late to save someone.” He watched as she poured out a large cup of coffee. He accepted it gratefully. The rich, black coffee swirled slowly in the ceramic mug, and he took a deep swig of it, letting out a sigh of relief even though it was scaldingly hot. He began to feel almost human again.

“In that case… Thank you.”

“I can’t promise you that this will work, Isabelle. There are a thousand ways this could fail, and even if everything goes right, it might be a doomed effort. Most people don’t get an opportunity like this, either.” He looked into her eyes. For the first time since he had met the girl, there was no red in them. No tears. She looked like she had some hope in her. She smiled.

“I know, sir. I promise I won’t waste it.” She smiled up at him. “It means a lot to me that you’re doing all of this. I didn’t think any outsider, any human, could care that much about us. We’re just… monsters.”

He smiled softly. “Yeah, well. Aren’t we all, Isabelle?” The two of them shared a soft little laugh together, as he leaned against the wall.

“What if Hades doesn’t want to let Dean go, though?” she asked softly.

“Then I suppose I try to force him, and die nobly.” Nash wasn’t a fool. Megara and Irayama were immensely powerful, but they weren’t fighters, or killers. They had plenty of experience in it, but very little desire. He’d seen the kind of force they’d thrown at one another when they were truly determined. He’d gotten by on grit, guile, and being completely underestimated. That was going to end, sooner or later.

“… Don’t, Mister Nash. Please.” Isabelle looked down. “If it comes to that. If you can’t bring him back. I’ll join Dean. I think that might solve everything, just as much as saving him would. If War is acting in this town… I am sure she’s doing it through me.” The girl leaned against the counter, her arms crossing, a dark but determined expression on her face. “If I die, everyone wins, Mister Nash. And I can keep Dean company. I am sure that Hades would be willing to make a space for me there. And I am not afraid of the darkness.”

Nash was quiet for a moment as she finished speaking. There was no way he was going to let that happen, but no need to tell her that yet. He lifted his cup of coffee, and drained it. “You’re an adult, Isabelle. You can make your own decisions, and I won’t second-guess them. But don’t commit suicide. Trust me. It never solves anything.” He placed the mug down on the counter. “I know you feel responsible for Dean’s death. It’s to your credit, young lady. But do you think Dean would be happy, to know that you had given up everything to be with him?”

“He did the same for me. I suppose it would be a little selfish.” She smiled. “But isn’t it important to be a little selfish, sometimes?”

“If you say so. But no suicide without your mother’s permission, young lady. I imagine that she’d be quite miffed if her daughter went and did something like that. And death would appear to be no escape from your mother.” She stared at him for a moment. Then, she began to laugh. The two of them walked out of the room together, and he put thoughts of death away. For now, he was going to try to save someone. It seemed like a welcome change of pace. And he tried not to think of Isabella’s promise.

Chapter 20: Escapism

The basement was full of strange items that were apparently necessary to the ritual. “The rock-salt.” Irayama pointed, and Nash hefted an eighty pound bag over his shoulder, legs shaking slightly under the weight. “We will need to create a place of purity. Souls can escape easily if there isn’t a circle of salt ready to catch them.” She studied the walls. “There.” She pointed towards a rolled up scroll. Isabelle gently lifted it in both arms. “And of course, we will need to get Dean’s body.” With this, the old woman opened the door of the meat locker. She pulled a body bag out. All the racks had been withdrawn and discarded to make room for it.

“Did Wendy sell you that locker?” Nash asked, lip quirking up in a smile.

“As a matter of fact, she did. She said she didn’t need it anymore.” Irayama straightened. “We will need a path to Hades. I can open it, provided you can think of an appropriate place.” She hefted the bag over her shoulder, carefully, and the five of them climbed the stairs. It was as they reached the front door that they noticed the mob.

There were at least three dozen people standing in the street. None of them had yet stepped onto the grass of the lawn, but they were clearly psyching themselves up. Nash called them people because he was trying to be more sensitive. Most of them were clearly not human. Cassandra’s father was visible at the front of the crowd, his arms crossed over a massive, round pot-belly. He was visibly drunk, although that probably wasn’t the reason his skin was red. A pair of massive bull horns rose from his head.

The clear leader of the group stood in front of him. A young woman, her arms were crossed under her chest. She looked mostly human, draped in a loose silk dress that covered her hands. The rest of her body was that of a tremendous spider, black-shelled with yellow stripes around the legs. Nash’s throat tightened. He didn’t have anything against spiders. But he had never before met one that was the size of a horse.

“Stay here,” Irayama stated, as she opened the door. The frail old woman stepped out into the peaceful night. The sky was still dark as pitch. It had to be evening. There was just a hint of purple in the sky to the west. She lit a cigarette, and puffed serenely on it as she studied the crowd. It burnt down about halfway, before she tapped the ash off, and blew out a tremendous cloud of smoke. There was almost no wind in the air, and the smoke hung above Irayama like a personal stormcloud as she studied faces.

“May I ask what my friends and neighbors are here to inquire about? I am sure that you wish to talk with me about something terribly important, but as you may know, we are experiencing quite the crisis at the moment. If you need a coroner, or wish to make a complaint about how I have held back the chaos threatening to descend upon us, please, wait until morning.”

The spider woman stepped forward. “Indeed, we could hardly fail to be grateful that you have prepared so thoroughly for these impossible circumstances.” She was polite, in the way only someone preparing to do great violence could be polite. Getting in all the civility now, in preparation for what was to come. Her black hair hung across one side of her face. Four eyes were still visible. “One might go so far as to suggest that you may have been forewarned, Izanami. That you saw trouble coming.”

“Yes, I suspect that could be explained easily by my natural pessimism. I know all about inevitability.” Irayama puffed at her cigarette. “I will not allow any of my children to come to harm. Not even you.” She held her gaze levelly with the spider.

“Except, perhaps, through inaction.. You know the rumors. That your daughter was the killer. That we are infested with War. I am afraid I must make two requests of you. First, we will take your daughter, and offer her body to Megara. I know that you wish to protect her. But her death may be the only thing that can stop events from deteriorating further. Justice must be done. And second, I must ask that you give up the keystone. Not to me, perhaps, if you fear my ambition is a product of War. But you cannot be trusted with it anymore.”

“I would say over my dead body. But I fear that would be taken as an invitation. If you attempt to take my Isabelle, or the keystone, I will not kill you, dear daughter. But I will make you wish you were dead.”

“You would turn against your own people, for the sake of that- chankoro?”

It had been the wrong thing to say. Izanami let out a low, grinding noise from somewhere deep in her throat. The tension outside was growing. Nash swallowed, hard, his heart beginning to pound. His hands balled into fists, tension growing inside of him. Then Cassandra stepped out through the door, grabbing his wrist and pulling him along. The entire crowd turned to stare at the two of them.

“Daddy,” Cassandra said, quite simply. She turned towards the others. “First of all, I want you all to know that I am extraordinarily ashamed of you. That you would let fear turn you against two girls who have been a part of our community since they were children. Miss Gumo, you once knit a sweater for every child at the school, including Dean, Isabelle, and I. Mister Gyuuki, you once announced that Isabelle was the sweetest young lady you had ever met when she helped you after you were hospitalized. She watched over you day and night. I know you are all monsters. I have seen it. But I did not think you were bad, or cruel, until now.”

Nash watched, amused and bemused, as every one of the terrifying creatures failed to make eye contact with the young woman.

“… We do not wish our families, and our friends, and our town, and our peace, to be broken because of a foolish girl.” The spider woman, Miss Gumo, had her arms crossed tightly over her chest. She couldn’t meet Cassandra’s eyes either. “There must be justice, or the contract will be broken.”

“And there will be justice. Nash, tell them.” Cassandra pushed him forward. He took a couple of steps forward, surprised by the confidence in her words. She gave him a look, and nodded. He swallowed.

“I have apprehended the ones responsible. I am going to take them to the police station, now. They have surrendered of their own free will. If there was a crime committed, then the guilty parties will be punished. There will be no vigilanteism.” Everyone, including Irayama and Cassandra, were staring at him. “If you wish to assault anyone while they are under my protection,” he said, as his knuckles clenched and a slight wind picked up around him, “I will react with appropriate force.” He couldn’t help the satisfaction he felt at the sight of the lynch mob taking a step back in fear. In respect.

There was a moment of silence as they digested the near-threat. Then, one of the figures in the crowd snorted. “‘If there was a crime committed’? There’s a body bag over Irayama’s shoulder!’

“Not, in itself, a crime,” he replied. That seemed to be enough for the people, as they exchanged bemused glances. Cassandra stepped forward again.

“Go find your families. Keep them safe. If this doesn’t work, it’s going to get dangerous in the morning. Stay with the people you trust. And don’t hurt anyone else. And you.” She pointed at Miss Gumo. “Don’t you ever use that word again. I know what it means. You can leave that kind of shit where it belongs, in the past. If we survive the next few days, no more divisions. We’re all in this together.”

Finally, they broke up, and dispersed into the night. All except for Mister Hirosata. He frowned at his daughter as he approached, crouching down in front of her. Nash stood to the side.

“You’re going to do something very dangerous, aren’t you?” the man asked, simply, as he rested a hand on her shoulder. She nodded. The man looked up at Nash. “Does she have to?”

“No,” Nash stated. “Cassandra. You’re 14 years old. I can do this without you. You don’t have to-“

“Stick to the truth, Silas. It’s what you’re good at,” Cassandra shot back. He closed his mouth. “He’s going into the underworld, dad. He doesn’t know what’s coming. He’s clever, but he’s going to get himself killed if there isn’t someone there to help him. I need to do this, alright?” Cassandra wrapped her slender arms around her father’s brawny shoulders, hugging the ferocious looking man tenderly. “I’ll be fine. I’ve foreseen it.” She smiled softly, and kissed the big man on the forehead.

“I love you, Kyuri-chan. I just wish you hadn’t been forced into this madness so young.” He smiled tenderly, and Cassandra blushed.

“I need to go now. Okay? You find mom, and make sure she’s safe. She should be staying with Grandma.” She released him, and looked over her shoulder at Nash. “We should get going, now. Do you think the police station is the right place?”

“If Officer Crupky is who I think she is, then yeah.” He nodded, with rather more confidence than he actually felt. It was a long-shot, but she seemed like his best chance. He had started to trust his instincts. He wasn’t sure he was insane. Maybe his instincts were worth trusting after all.

He carried the bag of rock salt to the small brown station wagon sitting in the driveway of the Onnashi household. When Irayama opened the back, he slid the rock salt into the trunk, followed by Dean’s body. “Is it really alright for us to carry him around like a piece of luggage?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.

“The dead do not care much about the state of their bodies, any more than you concern yourself with what is happening to the corpse of your previous incarnations. But I will try to make sure that his body isn’t damaged. That’s why I put him on top of the rock salt, rather than underneath.” Susan, Isabelle, and Cassandra climbed into the back seat of the car. Irayama handed him the keys. He raised an eyebrow.

“I have never particularly enjoyed driving, Mister Nash. Would you mind?” She smiled more pleasantly than she had in the entire time he’d been in the city. He gave a slow nod as he took the driver’s seat. The driving was easier. His reflexes were sharper, he noticed. The anti-psychotics were wearing off. That meant he was getting faster. A lifetime of dealing with slowed reflexes, and for the first time, he didn’t have to watch half a mile ahead to make sure he stopped in time for crosswalks.

He wondered what else was going to happen because of it. It wasn’t pleasant going off of anti-psychotics. There was quite a lot of vomiting involved.

The car’s headlights illuminated the street ahead of them. “The spider woman mentioned something that stuck out to me,” he began, in a conversational tone. “She said you had a keystone. She suggested that something bad was going to happen. And she was going on a lot about ‘justice’. I’ve heard that this town balances the spirit world and Earth, and that if that balance is disrupted, bad things are going to happen. But how the hell does that work?”

Irayama nodded slowly. “Alright.” She looked over her shoulder, and sighed. “I suppose that it is alright to share the information. It is not widespread, but War would already be aware. And all four of you should know. There are three ways. The contract, the land, and the keystone.”

The cities, Irayama explained, were a seal. Like the roofing tiles holding out the rioters in the Japanese neighborhood, but larger and infinitely more powerful. The four Sisters had given their blessing, a god of death had produced the barrier necessary to hold the two worlds apart, and it had been enshrined in three ways. The first was the contract. A code of conduct. The inhabitants would not murder each other. When you were of Zion, that meant that you had nothing to fear. No murder, no assault, no theft of truly valuable things. The code was simple and straightforward.

“The initial crime is what did it. Murder. It was a tragic accident, and it was fated, but it was still a violation of that old code. The decay will be slow, but unceasing; It is an open wound in the life-force of the city.” Irayama sighed softly, puffing on her cigarette.

“But this is happening fast.”

Irayama nodded. “The crimes, assaults, all those little cuts add up. Each additional crime will make it worse. And when the contract’s power is gone, the city’s seal will be ripped apart. The end of the world will accelerate. The violence will spread out everywhere. It will set humanity on a spiral towards extinction.”

The next aspect was the land. That was simple enough: the city itself was important. If it was destroyed, depopulated, or abandoned, the seal would dissolve.

“It was lucky that you stopped Echidna before she could destroy my barrier.” Irayama shook her head. “She is a passionate person. That is not always a good thing. Had she broken the barrier, Zion would have been devastated. And as for the keystones…” She reached into her shirt, and withdrew a small, glittering golden chain. A gem, cracked, hung from it. “The truce needed a physical form. When Megara made this city, she split it into three pieces, so that it couldn’t be destroyed.”

Nash opened his mouth, and Irayama held up a hand. “The long and short of it is, the true keystone is more than the sum of its parts. It represents the truce. If the three gemstones were combined, they could be used to destroy it. But separated, no one gemstone has that power. They can’t be destroyed, because the contract would still exist, and would recreate them. But if they were put back together…” She sighed. “Always two agents of War. That’s why there are three pieces. So that no single Horseman could co-opt the entire system at once. They are jealous conquerors, thankfully. They have never worked together.”

Nash nodded slowly. “So… Then the problem right now is Dean’s death. Someone’s been murdered in Zion, and so all the peace is bleeding away. And the longer he stays dead, the worse it’s likely to get.” He frowned at her. “And is there another way to fix this?” Irayama didn’t speak for nearly a minute. “Is there another method besides undoing the harm that was done?”

“If the person who is responsible for Dean’s death is slain, as punishment for what they have done, then the town will be saved.” The three girls in the back hadn’t been speaking, and yet it grew even quieter behind him. “It would reverse the corruption. Fix everything. And I will not allow that.”

“I’d rather risk my life talking with Hades before I kill a young woman for showing her boyfriend what she really looks like.” He adjusted the mirror. Isabelle was staring down at her hands, as Susan hugged her from the side. Her offer, to take her own life, was still fresh on his mind. “If the city fell apart- Would it really be all that bad? People here really do seem to get along when there are no murders.”

“You know human nature, Agent Nash.” Irayama said, her tone dry. “And monsters are nothing if not shaped by human nature. If you woke tomorrow to find that a death goddess was living next door to you, do you think you would take it calmly?”

A frown twisted across Nash’s lips as they kept driving. The dark streets were unfamiliar in the midnight, but he could still remember the way to the police station. Several long minutes passed in silence. Finally, the ragged ruin of the police station came into view. It was unlit, and there were no sign of the police cars in the back lot. But Pearl stood in the entrance. She gazed at them levelly, as the five of them got out of the car. “So, you really were behind it, Irayama.” She shook her head. “You could have told me, you know. I could have helped.”

“I would hate to break your streak of uselessness, Pearl.” Izanami’s voice was sharp, clipped. “We are performing the ritual to bring him back. The crime will be undone. The contract will remain whole. Do you intend to hinder us?”

Pearl smiled sadly. “Still not over your feelings about fire, are you? I cannot help directly, but I brought two people who can.” She waved for them to follow her into the building. In the morgue, Officer Crupky and Sergeant Dio were seated in a pair of office chairs. “Officer Crupky and I cannot accompany you into Hades. It is a timeless place, and we already exist there. It would go poorly. But Sergeant Dio will ensure that you are protected there.” Dio nodded. His baton was gone. Instead, he held a bronze spear by his side. The tip was covered with wet blood, which glowed eerily in the fluorescent light of the morgue.

Officer Crupky stepped forward. “You two aren’t initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries for a whole day, and already you’re going to go questing into Hades, to find a soul and bring it back?” She snorted. “Then three things. First, the way in will be fraught. Hades doesn’t allow visitors in the easy way anymore. He sealed it a long time back. Even with a god of the underworld helping along the ritual, you’re going to need to break in through Tartarus, the jail of Hades. There are dark things in there. Don’t let anyone free. They are all there for a damned good reason. Second, do not eat anything in there. Just like Yomi, those who eat of the land of the dead cannot leave it. And third, when you have Dean, do not look back. No matter what you hear, no matter what touches you, no matter how great your concern becomes. Do not look behind you. When you leave Hades, it must be with confidence, or everything will fail.” She looked between the group. “Alright. Then let’s get this door opened.” She took the body from Irayama’s shoulders.

Irayama, Crupky, and Isabelle took up positions around the morgue table. Crupky set down the body bag, and the rustle of fabric as she opened it was the only sound in the morgue. Dean’s body lay on the table, naked. The inky marks that Nash had seen last time were still visible on his body. While they began to work, he rested a hand on Pearl’s shoulder, leading her away from the rest of the group, towards the corner of the room. The two of them stood in the corner, under the harsh fluorescent lights, and Nash crossed his arms. “So?”

Pearl raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“I’ve talked with the other three Sisters. Mastered their abilities, at least enough to use them. This is the last play. This is the final act. What are you going to tell me? What do I have to learn from you? I’m sure that where I’m about to go, I’m going to need what you have to teach, Pearl. You’ve been the person who’s supported me most all along. You put your faith in me, your trust. You went to bat for me in front of the other Sisters. What is your quest?”

Pearl sighed. “My quest is the most difficult, in many ways. It is not a single act, a display of strength or willing or a sacrifice. What I demand is a lifestyle. Those who I empower must have a code. And Nash, I am sorry. I really am. But you’re not worthy yet.” She smiled softly. “You are growing stronger. You are showing great courage. But everything that you do, you do to satisfy other’s desires. You came to this place because of your superior officer. You stayed because I begged you for help. You venture into the underworld because others need you to do so.”

“But-” Nash groped for an argument. “That’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s what a hero does. Right? They help people. They care about other people. They would do anything to save others.”

“My gift is not an easy one to claim. It is dangerous. It could do you far more harm than good. If you want to receive my power, you must have a goal. Something worth fighting for.” She studied him. “In Tartarus, you will be confronted with things that will challenge you. They will make you doubt yourself.” She rested a hand on his shoulder. “When you return from there, you’ll be worthy. I believe in you, Nash.” She smiled softly. “If you wanted a kiss that badly, though, do not worry. There’ll be one waiting for you when you escape from Hades.” He went bright red as Pearl turned to Cassandra, and waved her over. The two of them began to talk under their breath, as Nash went to stand by Sergeant Dio.

“I never asked, you know, who you were. My education in the Classics did not prepare me for this case.” Dio nodded, the older man rubbing his chin slowly.

“Fair enough question. I don’t get taught as widely as some of the more famous players in the Iliad. But I played my part in that war. Diomedes.” He studied Nash’s face for any sign of recognition, and sighed at the blank look. “Amazing. I wound two gods in a single day, and now, nobody remembers me. That’s gratitude for you. Though I am given to understand that you have accomplished the same, now. Not a bad showing. Of course, you had the aid of the Sisters, but Athena was watching over me when I did what I did. Behind every great man…” His eyes flicked towards Pearl.

“Oh! Diomedes. that makes a lot more sense. I was wondering why you hadn’t been looking around for an honest man.” Nash smiled, and to his surprise, so did Dio. “Tell me. What did you fight for?”

“Glory. Everlasting glory. Clearly I didn’t fight hard enough for it.” Dio saw the expression on Silas’ face. “Oh, yes, glory is looked down upon, nowadays. Pride goeth before a fall, the meek shall inherit the earth. But the nature of heroism is to inspire others. It is to show that even gods can be wounded by men. It is to show that anything is possible. If my deeds are forgotten because I was too modest to share them, it diminishes all of mankind. Greatness deserves to be shared, otherwise, it has no benefit to anyone. Heracles did his great labors out of guilt for the murder of his wife and children. I personally think the seeking of glory is a better story to tell.” He looked at Nash. “Tell me, Nash, do you have a woman?”

“What-? No, not really. I’ve never been in a relationship.”

“Do you have a man?”

“What?”

“Well, it’s a great heroic tradition, you know. You’re a bit taller than I like my partners, but you are rather fair.”

The laughter was inside Nash’s head. His cheeks flushed, as the three Sisters laughed their heads off at his embarrassment. When was the last time someone had actually propositioned him? Not just flirting with him, but openly stating their interest? “I think you should go for it, Nash.” Ariel tittered. “I mean, come on, how many people can say that they have slept with a Greek hero?”

Heather was doing her best to hold back her giggles, without much success. “Oh, don’t tease him.” she said, even as another burst escaped her. “Remember, he’s from a culture where it’s a lot more embarrassing to be interested in the affections of other men. There there, Nash, honey. We won’t think any less of you if you decide to take him up on it.”

“Why, I imagine we’ll be thinking about you a lot more if you take him up on it,” responded Ariel.

Nash gave a polite smile. “I’m flattered. Maybe even a little curious. But I’m not much for romance.” Dio looked faintly disappointed, but nodded understandingly. “If I ever decide to experiment, I’m sure I’ll approach you first.” This seemed to cheer the other man up. No reason for him to feel rejected while they were going into the mouth of hell.

Pearl and Cassandra broke away from one another. “Remember what I told you, Cassandra,” Pearl said. The eight of them gathered around the body. Dean’s corpse was anointed with some soft oil that Crupky had produced, washing away the marks. A circle of salt surrounded him, a trail breaking off and leading to one of the walls, where the morgue’s fridges waited. They began to chant in what sounded like ancient Greek. Isabelle lay her hands upon Dean’s chest, while Crupky rested her hands on the boy’s feet, and Irayama rested her hands on the boy’s head.

There was a soft rumble of the ground beneath their feet. Dio stepped towards the refrigerator doors, and opened it. It was much deeper than it had any right to be. He gave Nash a look. Nash sighed, and stepped forward.

“Alright. FBI agents first.” And so, Nash crawled in through the three-by-three foot opening. At first, he crawled on his hands and knees over metal. Then, his fingers pressed against rough stone. There was the sound of someone else climbing in, and then a third person, and then, light vanished. Nash took a deep breath, and followed the stone passageway onwards.

Chapter 21: Optimism

Silas Nash crawled through the darkness for an unimaginable length of time. The rough stone under his hands gradually smoothed, until it resembled glass more than anything else. In the distance, he could hear a distant thumping that reached right into his bones and shook them. It grew louder with each move forwards, making his stomach clench each time. He started counting seconds, and realized it was happening regularly, once a minute.

The darkness ended, and he immediately wished it hadn’t. He stood up slowly, the tunnel expanding into a large cavern. Nations could fit in the vista that sprawled across the cavern floor. Dio stood beside him, while Cassandra stepped forward, her eyes closed, lost in concentration.

Crupky had told Nash that Tartarus was both a place, and a person. A Titan, the peer of creatures like Gaea, Chaos, and Uranus, it was vast beyond measure. The cavern was made out of black marble, small streaks of white shot through like veins. In the distance, hundreds of miles away at least, barely visible through the haze of Tartarus’ air, were a rack of ribs. They reached from the horizon up to the distant ceiling, curved in a great arc. They were bright as diamond, and glittered a vile red.

Against the roof of the cavern, a red sun was planted in the black basalt. Its light barely illuminated the thick black marble, absorbed by the depths of the stone, creating a strange and sickly twilight. “God have mercy,” Nash whispered.

“When you find yourself in this place, the Gods have no mercy left,” Dio said, his voice soft, awed, as he stared around the depths. The sun contracted and expanded, with a sound like the world’s largest bass drum being struck. The sound echoed through the cavern, as a wave of red raced out from the sun, pouring across the white veins of the marble. It reached them, a great wave of red, in seconds. Then it was racing off into the distance, temporarily lighting up the landscape. It was Tartarus’ heart, still beating.

Dio turned to Cassandra. “Do you know which way to go, Seer?” She nodded slowly, and raised her arm, pointing in a direction that was not particularly distinguishable from every other direction. Nash considered asking if she was sure, but he certainly didn’t have a better idea. The three of them began to walk.

The footing was unstable. The black ground was almost impossible to see, and while Cassandra and Dio both walked with confidence, always seeming to know where they were going to put their feet next, he had to deal with a great deal more uncertainty. He felt a whisper of air, and his footing became more sure, as Ariel appeared next to him. “Well, well, Nash. Seems you’ve found yourself in another cheerful place. Do you ever question the choices you’ve made in your life when you find yourself in a situation like this?” she asked, lightly, a smile on her face. He rolled his eyes. No need to talk to himself in front of the other two. The walk was disturbing enough as it was without him behaving insane.

“You remember what she said, yeah? About your goal. About passion. So, what are you fighting for, Nash? What are you going to do after you finish all of this? Maybe go back to the FBI, go back to arresting people for drug-smuggling? You’ve tasted the kind of things that are out there. Gods, monsters, and heroes. Do you think that you’ll be satisfied with kingpins and informants after that?”

Nash didn’t answer.

“Or perhaps you’ll settle down, hmmm? Maybe marry Doctor Smith? Nice young lady, and she’s a doctor. You could live your life with her, have some kids.” She studied him. “Everyone’s searching for something, Nash. Some people want peace and safety, and Zion is designed to provide that. Some people want to help others, and you’d get plenty of chances to do that if you stayed here. Or maybe you’d go out there, and forget it all happened, and settle back into your life?”

He still didn’t answer. “I gave you the power. It’s yours, now. This kind of gift has no strings attached, besides the big one. You can do whatever you like with the abilities I’ve given you, but your decisions have a great weight now. You know the old adage about power and responsibility.” She tilted her head. “You’ve been running to keep ahead of the end. When this settles, what are you going to do with your life? That’s what we want to know. What is going to guide you? Personally, I think romance would be a nice thing. You deserve a little love in your life. You could use someone to keep you on an even keel. And of course, it would give me and the others something to watch.” She began to fade, as the wind died down around him.

“Just promise me one thing, Nash. I didn’t give you this power to sacrifice yourself. Come back, alright?” With that, she faded away, leaving only the phantom sensation of a kiss on his cheek. He sniffed the air, and his nose wrinkled at the unmistakable roasted pork scent of burnt flesh.

They didn’t see the wheel until they were nearly on top of it. It was a thin rim of wood, fixed with great spokes the same color as those distant ribs. It was miles across, at least, and reached right to the roof of the cavern. It turned at a sedate pace, and the rim was covered in a thick, sticky tar. Someone had set the tar on fire, and it burned insatiably, without consuming the wheel itself. The heat was intense even from where they were standing. The great circle rotated slowly, barely any faster than the walking pace that Cassandra was setting. And hanging from it was a man. His skin was burnt black, cracked and revealing oozing red beyond it, and he shifted constantly, his teeth gritted together.

His back was against the wheel, pressed against its outer edge. His arms and legs were bent backwards, manacled together against the wheel by glittering black-diamond cuffs. He opened his eyes, and his expression of agony changed into a broad grin. “Ah! What luck. Do any of you think that you might be able to break these manacles?” His voice was rich and warm, with a distinctive Greek accent.

Cassandra turned towards him. “Ixion. Kin-slayer. You are here because you slew your father in law in a fit of rage, which would have been sufficient to curse you to Tartarus for eternity. When Zeus showed you mercy and invited you into his house, you made advances on his wife, and tried to sate your lusts with her.” Cassandra spake. That was the only way to describe it. There was enough judgement in it to burn Sodom and have enough left over to damn Gomorrah with it. Dio visibly narrowed his eyes at the man’s name. To Nash’s surprise, the burnt figure simply laughed.

“Well, I will admit to killing my father in law. I promised him wealth for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and took a little longer than I should have to pay, so he stole my finest horses. I invited him to a feast, and in a fit of pique, threw him onto a bed of burning coals. And people say step-mothers are hard to live with! For this, I was labeled kin-slayer, and condemned. An interesting irony, considering how Zeus seized his crown. But as you say, Zeus did not condemn me to Tartarus for that act. No, he condemned me because I dared to find his wife lovely. An act he certainly was never guilty of!”

The burnt figure twisted a hand, and a key appeared in his fingers. He inserted it into the manacle, and they opened. He deftly bent himself over, freeing his feet, and dropped lightly to the ground, beginning to walk with them. “I hope you do not mind that I walk with you, but I must reattach myself soon if I wish to escape. Otherwise, I shall have to wait eighteen days for another chance. “

“How in the world-” Dio asked, his eyes wide, staring, shocked, at the figure. “You’re meant to be chained to those, trapped! If you could escape any time you wanted-“

“Ah. You have put your finger on the problem. Yes, I am free to wander Tartarus whenever I wish. But the great wheel carries me out of Tartarus, and into the world of men. While I am here, I can free myself with the key at any time.” Ixion walked alongside them, keeping pace with the manacles. Already, his flesh repaired itself, growing flush and healthy, the nauseating scent fading. “But under the light of the sun and the moon, the key disappears. If I could break the manacles, I would be able to ride them to the sky once more, and be freed. Under the sun, I feel almost as though I could break them myself, and return to the world.” He sighed softly.

“Why?” Nash asked, frowning. “Is it so awful here that you’d torture yourself like that just to escape?”

Ixion was silent for a few moments as they walked together. “I have done many shameful things. Of that there is no doubt. I regret laying with the cloud that Zeus conjured. I regret slaying my father. But I do not regret loving Hera.” He stared up at the roof of the cavern. “She is the definition of fidelity, always faithful to a husband who dallied with anyone who he could get his hands on. She is faithful to the end, and does not act against him. She is treated as a cruel antagonist by storytellers, who explain of the anger she takes out on heroes and women unlucky enough to attract Zeus’ attention. But when I lay my hand upon her thigh, she did not shy away. She embraced my hand in hers. She had not been touched since she bore Zeus his six children.”

“A likely story,” snorted Dio, his hand on his spear, watching Ixion with a tensed arm.

“Believe me, or do not. Hope is a prison, and a torture, for it binds me to the wheel for eighteen days while it burns my flesh. But hope for love, that is a shield that makes the pain bearable.” Ixion smiled towards them. “I do not expect you to think better of me. It is a shameful thing to desire another man’s wife, and to think yourself a better lover than him. But I am accustomed to shameful things. The determination to prove my love, that at least I can be proud of.”

With that, he took out the key. Carefully, with a painful looking movement, he locked his feet once more into the manacles, and then his wrists, they key sliding back into the manacles with a smooth click. The scent of burning flesh filled the air, and they did their best not to look at him as the wheel carried him upwards.

Heather was beside him, Nash noticed. She was watching the man, being carried into the sky. “Fidelity is a terrible thing when it’s unrequited.” She shook her head. “What do you think, Nash? Would you do all of that for love? If, say, one of us were trapped in this underworld, what would you sacrifice to save us?” She smiled. “Don’t answer that. It’s a silly question, really. Why on earth would any of us be stuck here?” She laughed softly. “Tell me, Nash, have you ever wanted to have children?”

He considered the question for a while. He’d thought about it, certainly. He couldn’t imagine it, though. He’d never met a woman who was right for it. And he could still remember his own mother. The way that she had raised him. He didn’t want to damage a child, the way he had been damaged by his own mother. The idea of passing that same damage on to some innocent made him sick inside. And so he shook his head. This seemed to make Heather quite sad. “That’s a real shame, Nash. I think you would make a wonderful father.” She smiled wanly.

“My lover wanted children. But he died before I could give them to him. And now, the only thing left of him is his memory.” She leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek, gently. “You deserve to exist, Nash. I believe that you will make the world a better place with the power I’ve entrusted in you.” She smiled, and then was gone.

Water splashed around his shoes. They were walking through an ankle-deep pond. Overhead, a tree hung across the water. Its branches were filled with rich, juicy looking plums. Dio’s eyes opened wide. “It’s… a celestial plum tree. They’re real. Not food of the underworld.” He seemed struck. “I never thought I’d see one here.” He reached up, and the branch pulled away from his hand.

“It’s no good, you know.” The voice was gravelly, parched. A man stood in the pool of water, staring longingly at the fruit. He was naked except for a loincloth, and his stomach was swollen. His arms were spindly, and Nash was reminded uncomfortably of a famine victim, their body stretched tight by hunger, stomach paradoxically seeming full even as it emptied. “If it were that easy, I would be long free of this place,” he growled. He sounded as though he hadn’t had anything to drink in a very long time.

“You are Tantalus. Slayer of your son, you butchered him like a prized head of cattle. Then, you stole the food of the gods, and gave it to your people. Your name is atrocity, and your punishment is just,” stated Cassandra, although she seemed slightly less sure of herself, this time. Tantalus burst out laughing, and began to walk with them through the pool.

“Oh yes, the storytellers thought that sounded better. That, of my own volition, I butchered my son and served him to the gods. As though I was a madman.” he snorted, looking at the pool suspiciously. “You know, the last time that I wandered away from this pool, one of the plums fell into the water. I arrived back just as another lost soul rushed forward, and ate of it. He rose back into the world, life restored to his body. It was maddening. But it also showed me that my waiting here is not for naught.”

“Your hope of freedom deserves to be for naught,” growled Dio.

“Perhaps. It is true, I slew my son, and served him as a meal. I was invited to the table of the Gods, alongside Zeus himself, and asked to bring a dish that would be worthy of the meals of the Olympiad. I worried for many weeks about what I could possibly make. Then, a spirit whispered to me, telling me that Zeus would accept only the sacrifice of that which I loved most. My son. I saw the horror in my boy’s eyes before I took his life, and made a stew with his flesh, because my god had demanded it of me.” His eyes were hollow.

There was a soft choking sound from Cassandra, but she kept her eyes on the way forward.

“When I set the meal down, and explained what it was, the gods refused to touch it, save Demeter. And as I watched their disgust, Poseidon passed Zeus something sparkling when he thought my eyes were elsewhere.” He snorted. “They restored my son. But my boy looked at me with such hate in his eyes. My god sacrificed my firstborn’s love for me, for the sake of winning a bet.” His eyes grew hard. “So I stole Ambrosia and Nectar from the gods in a fit of pique. And they called me cannibal, and kin-slayer. But I know that Zeus wished me to do it.”

“That does not make your crime right.” Dio said, his expression stormy. “The gods are capricious, but Zeus had a plan. Your son was restored. You were made whole. You could have restored your faith in your god, and your son, but you threw it away.”

Tantalus stared at the man. Fire burned in his eyes. “I know you. You wounded the gods, and were protected only because another god supported you. Have you never hated them for the power they wield over us?”

Dio shook his head. “The gods are not things to hate. They act according to their nature. Hating them is like hating a storm. Pointless, and dangerous.”

Tantalus snarled, eyes angry. “The gods have choice. They simply choose not to change, because they do not know fear.” He shook his head. “I do not eat the food of the dead. I wait here, knowing that it may never happen, that the fruit and the water will forever remain out of touch. Because if I escape, I shall have my revenge. I shall take the life of Zeus, if I can have it,” he hissed, his teeth gritted, and turned away from them, walking back under the tree.

They watched as he studied the tree, and then leapt, his arm lashing out like a snake. The plum lifted out of reach just moments before his fingers could wrap around it, and he fell into the water, which surged away from him, leaving the starved man lying on the stone, cursing profusely. They walked for a long time.

Gene was keeping pace next to him. She studied him silently for a moment, as though asking a question. He didn’t respond. She nodded, and they kept walking together, as Nash stared down at his hands.

“It doesn’t seem fair, does it?” asked Nash, as the low bass beat of the heart began to get to him.

“They earned their fates here with their actions. If the god’s reasons for trapping them in Tartarus were fickle, then they were still right in what they did. They were kin-slayers, murderers, cannibals. The gods did right, even if that was not their intention.” Dio’s head was lowered.

“Do you think he was telling the truth about what Zeus did?”

Dio was silent for a very long time as they walked. Finally, Cassandra spoke. “I think that he thought he was telling the truth. So it doesn’t matter much what we think, one way or another.”

Nash considered this. Something inside of him rankled at what had been done to the men. Then he screamed as a boulder rolled past them, nearly man-sized, completely round, and at high speed. It slammed into a large outcropping of diamond bone further down. A man ran down the hill. “Damn! Are you all alright?”

He was slender, although he had the kind of wiry strength that suggested an incredibly strenuous workout. He wore nothing but a sash and a tight loincloth of white fabric, and placed his hands on his hips. “Ah, visitors! Sorry about that. I don’t suppose you would give me a hand pushing that, would you?” he asked, a winning smile shining on his bright teeth, reaching all the way to his eyes, surrounded by wrinkles.

“You.” Cassandra said, her eyes narrowed. “Murderer. Hospitality-breaker. Tyrant. Secret-teller. So in love with your own cleverness.” Her voice was becoming less… her. The words took on a strange, echoing quality in the darkness. Nash was beginning to worry about her. Being here was doing something to her, and it didn’t seem entirely pleasant. The man gave a smile so innocent that it was practically virginal, an expression of ‘Who, me?’ on his face that would put the most glib scoundrel to shame.

“Come, now. We both know, seer, that those days are long behind me, and not my true crime in any case. Yes, I was a tyrant. It was a waste, and I was a terribly foolish man to hold onto power so desperately. But Zeus had me bound in Tartarus because I told a father where Zeus had stolen his daughter away to. He did not like that I acted as though I were his equal.” The strange man smirked. “But then, I was never his equal, per se.”

Dio growled, and reached out, grabbing the man by the throat. “Your foolish pride has cursed you, again, and again. You who chained Thanatos. You who mocked Persephone. Your punishment is well deserved.” The man made a choking noise as he was lifted into the air, but the grin never left his face.

“Oh, yes! I did indeed do all of those things, for just a few more short days of freedom! Three times, the gods dragged me back, twice I was taken here! And given the impossible task, at the end of it all, to roll this boulder to the top of this mountain.” He wriggled free of Dio’s grip, a grin on his face, as he ran down the hill to where the burden waited against an outcrop of bone. Soon, he was pushing the massive stone up again. His strength was impressive, rolling the massive orb up along the hill next to them, keeping pace despite the impossible size of his burden.

“Zeus thought himself immensely clever with this, giving me a task that seemed easy but was seemingly impossible. But Zeus is no clever trickster god, as anyone would know.” Dio’s face turned scarlet, and the stranger rolled his eyes at the cop. “Oh, do threaten me. As though it would do you any good,” he sneered.

“Can you not let us walk in peace?” Dio asked, growling.

“Wait.” Nash frowned. “What do you mean?” Despite himself, he was curious. The man did not seem like a broken prisoner condemned to an eternity of suffering.

“Ah! So glad you asked. Indeed, every time I roll the boulder to the peak, it rolls back down, and I must begin again. An impossible task. But every time the boulder rolls down, it wears away just the smallest fraction of the mountain top. Time and again, I push it up, and it rolls down. But each time, the flat space at the top of the mountain grows a little bit wider. I have all eternity in which to work. And eventually, I shall be freed. Zeus thinks that he is clever, but he is not as clever as I.” The man gave a broad grin. Nash stared at him. It was a compelling idea, but the flaw became apparent immediately.

“You’ve pulled these tricks twice. Right?” The stranger nodded, grinning cheerfully. Nash wondered how long he’d been without someone to listen to how clever he was. “So. What’s to keep the gods from just slamming you in here again, after you’ve escaped?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

The stranger grinned. “Oh, I expect they will force me back into Tartarus, and give me some new, grand torment to show how hopeless defying the Gods is. And I shall come up with a way to break free from that, as well.” He tapped the side of his nose, continuing to push the boulder with his other hand, as the two of them kept walking. “The gods believe that they are better than us. That we are merely a tool. But I know the truth. The gods are only what people think of them. And most people are not nearly as clever as they think they are.” He grunted, as he pushed the boulder carefully around a particularly large hump of stone. “Whereas even if I were half as clever as I think I am, I would still be the cleverest of all men.”

“It doesn’t sound worth it,” Nash said doubtfully.

“Doesn’t it? I am forever a reminder to people that the gods can be fooled. My simple existence embarrasses them, and yet, try as they might, they cannot erase my name from history. And when I am finished, the name Sisyphus will ring through the ages once again. I am the symbol of hope. Some people think of hope as a torment, a trap for the unwary, luring people into harming themselves for no real gain. I say that hope is a strength that allows us to overcome any obstacle for the most slender of chances. And who knows? Perhaps this time, when I escape, they will not be able to drag me back. Ah! Nearly there.” He sped up, pushing the boulder up quickly past them, running up the slope, shoving it upwards. There was the sound of crunching rock, a rumble, a curse, and the sound of a boulder rolling downward very quickly.

“He is a fool, defying the gods. He could live without pain if he was not so obsessed with his own success.” Dio said, shaking his head as they neared the top of the ridge.

There, at the top of the mountain, they found a place where the rock was worn smooth A circle, three feet wide, was visible. It was cupped in the middle. It was very nearly large enough to hold the boulder in place. Dio didn’t speak. “Looks like he might have a genuinely good chance,” Nash suggested, innocently.

“And what good will that do him? He cannot change who he is. He, and all others like him, are here for a reason. They have earned their punishments. Would the world be a better place with that clever a man, with so little empathy, running through it? Things are safer as they are. Do not weep for scoundrels, Agent Nash. They seldom show any gratitude for it.”

Nash didn’t answer. He just wondered if they had learned anything from their imprisonment. Ixion and Tantalus, maybe not- They seemed determined to repeat their mistakes, even if they escaped. But Sisyphus… He peered down the slope. A long bridge was visible. “Are we getting close, Cassandra?” Nash asked, frowning. Something was lighting the bridge from beneath.

“Yes. Quite close, now. We’ll find the exit from Tartarus ahead, lit by the guide-light.” Cassandra’s voice was soft, and a little bit sad. As they approached the bridge, the mysterious source of its lighting became obvious. The bridge was formed of the same black marble as the rest of Tartarus, and vast pillars held it aloft above a colossal river of flames. The fire licked at the pillars, and a roasting heat filled the air. They approached the black stone, and stared as the hungry fires licked up in great waves and flickers.

Relucantly, they stepped onto the stone bridge. Dio took the lead, and Cassandra walked just ahead of Nash. “I’m really sorry, Silas,” Cassandra said. “For everything. You know? I treated you really unfairly, judging you because I was scared of the way you looked. I hope things turn out alright. You deserve that much.”

Nash raised an eyebrow. “Is there any reason you’re telling me this?” There was a sound of cracking, and suddenly, the bridge lurched beneath his feet. There was the sound of crumbling mortar, and he dropped. He saw a flash of Dio turning, reaching out for his hand, the touch of fingertips against fingertips, and then he tumbled and rolled, down into the scorching flame. He closed his eyes tightly and braced himself for the pain.

Silas Nash started up out of his bed. It was the one shaped like a race car. His mom had bought it for his last birthday. The young boy sobbed a bit, as the door opened. His mother stood there. She was tall, and pretty in a run-down kind of way, a concerned look on her face. He was five years old, and when she embraced him, he almost felt safe again. “What’s wrong, son?” Carol Nash asked, her tone soft, gentle. It had been so long since he had heard her speak in that warm, tender tone. She rested her forehead against his, holding him gently. He tried to remember what had happened. The fear, the fury, the strange memories. Only one thing was still clear in his mind from the dream. A flash of red hair, and strange eyes.

“I… had a dream. About this woman. She had red hair, and a red dress, and-” His mother’s grip tightened. “Mom? What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry, son.” Her voice was soft, barely a whisper. She held him, whispering a rhyme until he fell back into sleep, his eyes closing in the comforting embrace. She was awake for a long time after that, staring out of the window.

Chapter 22:  Idealism

Nash stared vacantly out the classroom window. His mother had been behaving strangely all week, ever since he told her about his dream and the red-haired woman. The woman in his dreams had been… strange. A little scary, very pretty. Thinking about her left him with a dreamy expression on his face. This became embarrassing when the teacher called on him.

Nash was not the brightest of students, he knew. He struggled to remember the textbooks he’d read the day before. All around him, giggles were breaking out. Everyone laughed at him, of course. It was because he was quiet, and shy, and didn’t stand up for himself. There were a few people who reached out to him, but he wasn’t good at returning the favor. So they all left, eventually. That was okay, though. His mom said it would get better. “Um… Guava?”

The teacher clucked her tongue as the laughter raised from amused to mocking. Nobody laughed with Nash. “Agua, Nash. Class, repeat after me. Aire. Tierra. Agua. Fuego.” The Spanish lesson continued, and Nash looked out of the window. His eyes wandered over the playground. The small playground was on the third floor of the school building, high fences preventing any unfortunate accidents. It was a beautiful October day. The city was always warm in the fall, right up until the frosts hit, and he was tired from lack of sleep.

Each day, when he woke up, he felt like he could almost remember what had happened. He started out of bed with the memory of the red-haired woman dancing in his mind. He leaned his chin forward onto his hand, feeling his eyes drift shut. He knew he shouldn’t sleep in the class, but something about the combination of heat, exhaustion from the long nights, and the teacher’s droning voice made it so hard to resist.

His head dipped. A flicker of red caught his eyes. He jerked upright again, staring out the window. His heart pounded, as he scanned the playground. The bright, clear sun was shining down on the slightly bouncy rubber surface. He swallowed dryly. His heart was pounding, and the temptation to sleep had fled. The bell rang, signalling the mostly free period optimistically referred to as ‘gym’. When he left the door, he saw her.

She was his age, a young girl. Her skin was dark, which wasn’t all that strange, considering how many black girls he knew at his school. What was odd was that she had bright red hair, and was dressed in a pretty red dress. He’d never seen anyone who looked quite like her. She was standing in a corner of the playground, by herself, a book in her hands, reading peacefully. He walked over towards her, and felt a sudden wave of shyness. He didn’t know much about young women, but he smiled anyway.

“Hi!” She looked up, and smiled briefly over the book, before turning her head back down to it. He wilted, and stood awkwardly for a couple of seconds, before he thought of something else to say. “I, um. I like your hair! It’s really pretty!” She looked up again, and nodded, before returning to her reading. He made a last, desperate gamble. “What are you reading?”

“The Chocolate War.” She smiled at him. “It’s a very good book. Would you like to read it?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Is that like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I really enjoyed that book.” he smiled brightly. She considered this for a moment.

“No. Not really. It’s a story about the danger of not conforming to other’s expectations and demands. I think that you would appreciate it.” She smiled, and slid the book under her shoulder. “You’re Silas, right? It’s good to meet you. I’m Bella.” She shook hands with him. He smiled. He didn’t know how she knew his name, but she was pretty, and she sounded smart, and the book sounded interesting. “I’m just finishing up. Here.” She pressed the book into his hands, and smiled. “You’ll promise to bring it back, won’t you?”

**An interesting name I chose, isn’t it, Silas? Taunting you with who I am. Perhaps it was a little unfair to use Latin with a child, but you’re all children to me.**

Silas looked around, frowning. He could have sworn he’d just heard something. He took the book, and smiled. “Yeah. Of course I will.” She nodded politely, and walked away, not even giving him a backwards glance. For the next day, he read it voraciously. He neglected his homework. When he finished it, he lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling for a very long time.

“I hated it.” He admitted, the next day, in the playground, handing the book back to her. “It just… All of those things happened and there was nothing the main character could do. Everything ended wrong! It was horrible.” He shook his head, frowning.

“That’s what I love about it. It hurts because it feels so real. It’s the way things would actually happen. The people in power get away with their crimes, the brave lone hero is outnumbered, and loses, because he doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Isn’t there something beautiful in knowing that’s the way the world works?” She smiled. “Better than one of those stories where everything turns out just fine because of some contrived coincidence. Besides, what do you think should have happened in the story?”

“I think that… Archie should have drawn the black marble. He should’ve had to fight Janza. Or at least Jerry.” He shook his head. “How could he just get away with everything? How is it more realistic when bad people have everything go their way?”

“Would it make it better if he got beaten up? What would that solve? He’d still be a horrible person, and he’d still have the power to make others lives miserable. He might get even worse.” Bella tilted her head to the side. “Besides, even if Archie had his face beaten in AND became a good person, it wouldn’t change the way the world is. Even if you could change things, how would you change them?” She stared into his eyes, her head tilted to the side. It was a strange expression, that reminded him of a bird. Something not quite human, at any rate.

He thought about the question. His father, who existed in pictures around the house but who he had never met. His mother, who sobbed sometimes, late at night, when she thought Silas was asleep. The teachers, who seemed certain that he would never amount to anything. The little snippets of news that he heard, where people were suffering. “I would want to make sure… that everyone has a happy ending.”

She smiled, but it wasn’t a very nice smile. “Really? You want to be powerful so you can help? A lot of people say that, but most of them find that the ones they help aren’t very grateful. Even if Jerry had won at the end, people would still be people. They would still be cruel, and petty, and thoughtless. But maybe you’ll be different, huh?” He considered asking what she meant by that, but his head already hurt from thoughts far too abstract for him to handle properly. The two of them just sat, and read books from the library together for the rest of the free period.

**Oh, Silas. Such a simple dream. Men hope that if they’re strong enough they can stop any injustice, and then they end up committing those injustices themselves. Your innocent wish was exactly the kind of thing I needed.**

It continued like that for a couple of weeks. He didn’t tell his mother about Bella. She had been so frightened when he told her about the dream. His mother cried enough as it was. He didn’t want to make her life any worse by telling her something that would probably make her more upset. Then, one day, while he was sitting with Bella, a pair of boys approached. They were a couple of grades older, tall, lanky, much larger than he was. They grabbed the book out of Bella’s hands. She stood up, and for once, he saw anger on her face. “Give that back!” she said, her eyes narrowed.

“Or what?” asked one of the boys. Then, the other boy said something. Silas had never heard the word before, but the tone of voice was filled with venom. The boy swung a hand, and clumsily punched Bella in the cheek. She stumbled back and fell to the ground, cheek bruising. Silas’ world filled up with a red haze, as his heart began to pound.

He was sitting outside the principal’s office. Bella wasn’t there. The two boys weren’t there. They had left with the ambulance. His mother had been called in. She entered the room, and looked at his torn and bloody knuckles. Her face was drawn, tired, sorrowful. “Silas.” He cringed inside at the soft suffering in her voice. The pain that he’d caused her. He felt the hot tears run down his cheeks, shame filling him. He’d thought it would feel good. Sticking up for someone who you cared about, protecting them. But then, after the fight, there had just been the blood and the sobbing and the pain and the guilt. He walked into the principal’s office with his mother. They talked for a while. Words were exchanged. Words like expulsion. Like medical bills. Like criminal charges.

“The two boys say that you attacked them, unprovoked. Do you have anything to say about this, Silas?” The principal asked. A tall, pinch-faced woman, she stared at him over a pair of half moon glasses. His mother was silent, her head bowed, like she was held under a terrible weight, her pretty hazel eyes full of pain.

“They- they hurt my friend. Bella.”

The two adults went horribly quiet. “And who, exactly, is Bella?” the principal asked.

“The girl with red hair.”

In all of the dark years that followed, in all the times when Silas hurt most, his mind would return to that moment, when he’d first been told how damaged he was.

**There was a Bella, Silas. It was me, and I was very real. And when I was finished setting you on your course, I made sure everyone forgot her. It was easy, you were the only one who had connected with her. I needed to teach you the most important lesson of your life: You are alone.**

Years passed like that. Suspended and then expelled, passed from school to school. Eventually, he outran his past. His mother, though, had changed. She told him that there was a reason for what happened. A reason she had kept secret for a long time. That she had made a deal, when she was a young girl. A promise that she had made to a woman with red hair, in a red dress, with bright green eyes, just like Bella. Strength, in return for adversity.

She trained him in Aikido. It hurt. At the end of some days, he cried himself to sleep. She didn’t hug him anymore. She told him that it was important, that he had to be strong. They moved a lot. Through it all, he studied hard. He dreamed of being a police officer someday. Then an FBI agent. He dreamt of stopping people from hurting each other.

He saw the woman in red from time to time. She never came very close, but when he saw her, he felt the anger inside of him, burning. Along the way, he started taking the pills. They helped. He saw her less. He was angry less.

**I never visited her, you know. She was just schizophrenic. There was no meaning to her madness. She was just twisted by her own desire to mean something. It’s so often the way. Of course, in a way, I was responsible. The human desire for significance, that casts them and those they love into hell… That is me. That is what I am. Your desire to be special.**

It was a standard drug bust. It had been a tense two day stakeout. The people they were watching got spooked when a local cop wandered too close. Nash had forgotten to take his anti-psychotics that morning. And so, when the sound of a flushing torrent was reported, the agents broke down the door with a warrant in hand, guns out. She came out of the kitchen door. Red hair, black skin, green eyes, and a fine red dress. The red haze had fallen over him. He had squeezed off two shots, on instinct.

It had been a kitchen knife in her hand. She was a young woman, a kind-hearted mother. There were consequences. His once-promising future was shattered. He had been found not guilty, but he never believed it. It had felt wrong. And everything had fallen apart. He found out his mother died two days later, her wrists cut with a razor in the institution where she was staying. He didn’t give a damn about his career, or his mother. He’d murdered someone innocent, and he’d never forgive himself.

His head spun. He had been through all of this before. The sound of screeching brakes and the crunch of metal impacting wood. The clatter of bones. The hiss of snakes. The sound of rioting. The crack of lightning. The fight in the underworld. Tartarus. And then-

He was sitting in his bedroom. Five years old, with a racing car bedframe.

**Is this how it’s going to end, Silas?**

His mother coming to comfort him.

**Dying as your body starves in Tartarus, your mind lost like Theseus?**

The little girl.

**What a disappointment you are.**

The fight.

**You wanted this. You asked for it!**

The madness.

**Come and get me, Silas.**

The woman in the red dress.

**COME AND GET ME!**

He opened his eyes, gasping for air. He lay in a rough, endless darkness. There was absolutely no light. He clawed madly at the shadow. His fingers dug into rough earth. He pulled himself forward, crawling on his hands and knees. His body screamed in protest, as though it was made out of stone. He looked up, and saw a distant ember, so far from him that he was barely sure it was there.

He struggled slowly towards the beacon. His mind screamed in protest every inch of the way. And every time that he felt the urge to stop, he thought of the woman in red, and the rage filled him with the strength he needed to keep moving.

He found himself crawling past a great beast. The thing was chained down under great links of diamond, holding it in place. Its head was human, and its shape was broadly along those lines. Countless wings covered it, and its eyes flickered with flames. Eight hissing vipers emerged from its lower body, and the sound of their scales rubbing against one another was like a hurricane blowing through a forest in the fall, the sound of dry leaves rattling together in countless numbers. The creature turned his head towards Nash, and his gaze burned and smoked. “Say hello to my whore of a wife for me,” the thing growled as Nash passed it.

The flame grew larger, until it revealed itself. A woman, fair-skinned, red-headed, lay naked across a rock, her arms and legs chained down. Her side was torn open, bleeding. She sobbed piteously, her eyes full of tears. The woman was beautiful. And she was familiar. “Pearl?” he asked, his voice weak. She did not respond. He stood up, legs shaking. It was her, there was no question. He reached out to rest a hand on her shoulder, and she flinched from it, her eyes opening.

“Please. Not again. I’m sorry. Zeus, please, forgive me, don’t-!” She stopped speaking, her eyes clearing as she stared at him. “You are… What are you?” She narrowed her eyes, peering at him. Then her eyes burned and she screamed, arching her back and clawing at him. “Human! You filthy clay doll! Come to laugh at me?! To mock my pain! I gave you everything, I sacrificed everything-” She broke down into tears. “Nobody remembers me. The eagle tells me. Humans have forgotten about me. I brought them fire, and wisdom, and life, and they don’t even remember my name…”

“Your name. It’s Promethea, isn’t it?” She looked up at him, her expression hunted.

“How do you know that?”

“We know about you, Promethea. We’ve met you. In another time, when you’re freed from this place, by a hero.” Nash turned his head. Dio and Cassandra were walking up the path. The girl didn’t make eye-contact with him even as she spoke to the Sister. “I’m sorry, Nash. Are you okay? I had to trust that you would survive the fall safely.” She looked down at Pearl. “And I am sorry, Promethea. You’ll know freedom, someday. But not today.” She began to walk past, and Nash grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around, the rage filling him.

“How can you just-“

“I know!” she shouted, her teeth gritted, tears showing in her gray eyes. Had they always been gray? The pain there quenched his anger instantly. “This one isn’t fair! You’re right! It’s cruel, and it’s wrong, and it’s not something she ever deserved, because she only ever wanted to help people! But this story already has its happy ending. It just won’t happen now. She’s got to suffer for a very long time, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.” She turned her eyes to Pearl, who was staring into some unseen place. “I know. I want to change things, too. But if we did, it might mean that she never gets freed when Heracles arrives. Pearl told me this herself. She told me how this is supposed to happen!”

He looked between her and Dio. The man couldn’t meet Nash’s hard stare. “You think this is fair?”

“The gods do as they will. And heroes do what they must. She will be freed. The story will have a happy ending, as long as we allow it to run its course.”

Nash watched the two of them. “Fine. Go on, I’ll follow on. I’m just going to stay here. Alright? I just have something to tell her.” He looked at the two of them. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. It’s not like I could break her bonds, anyway.” The two exchanged a look, but they nodded, and began to walk. He sat down next to Pearl. She was sobbing softly. He leaned forward, and rested a hand on her forehead. He could feel Heather’s power. He was no healer, he never would be. All he could do was provide a little human contact, his palm cool against her burning forehead. It seemed to be enough to help her, a little. “I know the story of Prometheu… Of Promethea. But there are many different versions of it. I’m going to tell you about a special one, alright? It’s the story of the Rainbow Crow.”

Once, the snow began to fall. Cold drifts of it grew across the land. At first, it brought wonder and delight, as animals and men gathered to explore the strange new phenomenon. As it continued to fall, people began to die. It grew into a terrible plague upon the land, and the peoples of the world gathered together. They decided that they would plead with the Creator for some end to the winter, so that they would not all die. Of all of the animals and people, only one of them could hope to accomplish the task.

Rainbow Crow was the most beautiful of all the birds, each feather a subtly different shade, and her song was the most beautiful in the world. She volunteered to go to the Creator, and plea for his intervention. She flew, for three days, and three nights, and reached Heaven, her joints and muscles aching from the long flight. There, she asked the Creator for something that could banish the winter, and protect life from the cold.

He ignored her, his mind lost in thought, and so she sang her song, drawing the great Creator’s attention. His interest aroused, he agreed to help her. He took a great branch, and stuck one end into the sun, and gave her Fire.

Rainbow Crow flew from heaven to Earth again. On the first day, the fire burned down far enough that it began to scorch her feathers. By the second day, her body had been blackened with soot, until there was only the barest hint of her former beauty. On the third day, the smoke ravaged her lungs, reducing her song to a ragged caw. She arrived among the animals and creatures of the world, and left them fire, and then flew off to be alone.

The world celebrated, all things returning to their proper order. Crow did not join the festivities, for she was maimed. And she felt a certain understandable bitterness towards those who she had helped. The Creator told her that her meat would be made smokey, and she would never be caged because she was so plain, and while she thanked him for his gifts, she was not thankful. They were poor replacements for what she had lsot.

And so, Man came to speak with her. And he thanked her for the sacrifices that she had made. He promised her that there would always be a place in his cities for her, and that plentiful food would be left out to be taken, and warm places made where she could stay. Man saw that more than her beauty and her song, it was Crow’s wisdom and dedication that he loved. And he promised that he would always admire her for what she was capable of. And while men would disappoint her, and behave badly towards her, they would never forget her. Her sacrifice would be remembered, for it was fire that allowed humans to be human.

The two of them sat together for a moment, and Nash’s expression hardened. “To hell with stories,” he muttered, his fingers tightening around her chains as he reached for the strength of the earth.

“Wait.” Her voice was soft, ragged, but it began to sound almost human. “People really do remember me? They haven’t all forgotten what I sacrificed to give them?” she asked, desperate hope in her eyes.

“I can’t promise that some haven’t forgotten. People are like that.” He whispered, feeling slightly embarrassed. “But to those who know anything… You’re important. Your gifts have saved so many lives. Fire was the first tool, and we still depend on it.” The words seemed natural. He thought of the belief Pearl had in him. The way she supported him, right from the start. “I know you, in the future. You convinced the others that I was worthy of their gifts. That is… Nyx, Gaea, and Thalassa.”

Pearl- Promethea- opened her eyes a bit wider. “My sisters are still alive? They… help humans?”

Nash tried to remember. “They take some of their power, and give it to… People who interest them.” The wound on her side had closed. She looked slightly healthier. “It’s a gift that can’t be taken back, so they have these kinds of… quests. Something to prove that the person that they’re approaching is worthy. A way to make sure that the recipient won’t misuse their gift.” He sat next to her. She reached out, and the manacle clinked as it arrested her movement. He took her hand, holding it gently. “I could free you. I don’t care about the stories. You could be free, now. There’s so much good that you could do.”

“It is alright. I know, now, that I will be freed. I had been certain that I was trapped here forever. You gave me-“

“That’s the same thing that’s trapped the others! Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion, they were all trapped by their hope. How on earth-” He looked down at their hand. “How can you be sure that it will work out that way? What if no one else comes? What if the story doesn’t work that way? What if-“

She smiled softly. “I trust humans. I had feared you forgot me, but what you told me sounds more like the truth than what the eagle said. When all other creatures feared me, you embraced me. I remember when I was rage, and hunger, and pain, and death, and you humans…”She bent her head forward, and rested it against his shoulder, as he sat next to her. Her eyes were wet with tears.

“You found me, dying among the ashes. You fed me, and tamed me, and carried me with you, and you welcomed me into your homes. You believed in me. You do such foolish things sometimes, just for the sake of those you care about. But hope is the most beautiful thing about you humans.” She smiled. “I was like a pet, I suppose. But that felt better than being a wild animal. When fire was taken from you by the gods, it was the least I could do to give it back.” She looked up at him. “So… What was my quest for you? I can’t sense my power in you. Have I not given it to you, yet?” she asked, her head tilted.

“No. You told me… I had to believe in something. Something I would do anything for.”

“And have you found it, yet?”

He thought. Of the woman in red, and all the harm she had done. Of Dean Constantinou’s pallid body. Of Megara and Harry. He thought of Wendy, trying to be something more than an addict. He thought of Megan Smith, trying to keep her people intact. He thought of revenge, and glory, and love, and cleverness. He thought of his mother. And he thought of Bella.

“I still want to be strong enough to give everyone a happy ending. I want to be the one who’s responsible for the happy ending. No matter how selfish that is. I want to be the one who saves everyone.” He looked up at the cavern roof. What a ridiculous goal. “Because how else can I be sure that they’ll be safe?” he added, so softly he wasn’t sure she heard him. He risked a glance down at her.

She looked up at him, frowning softly. “I don’t know if I can give you that kind of strength.” she admitted, her voice soft.

“I know. But it’s not about succeeding, is it? It’s about having that passion. Something that you would do anything to achieve. It’s the last aspect of martial arts. That’s what my mother told me. You have to believe in something with all your heart, or you could never really succeed. The fire to fight through the pain. Giving life…” The words felt bitter in his mouth. “Meaning.” The meaning she’d never had.

Promethea smiled. “She sounds like she knew quite a bit. So. How am I supposed to give you this power?”

“Ah.” Nash coughed. “That’s… Well. I’m not sure, exactly. The others always said it was through an act of intimacy, but what that meant tended to vary a lot. I mean, I wouldn’t want to…” The kissing had seemed so funny to him in the light of the day. What would it mean to a lonely spirit lost in the darkness? But she laughed softly at him, an amused expression on her face, and for once he was happy to be the butt of someone’s joke.

“You humans. Always so intrigued with intimacy. If you grow intimate with fire, you know, you may end up burned.” She smiled, and he leaned forward, planting a single gentle kiss on her forehead. She closed her eyes. “I’ve been cold down here in Tartarus, for so long,” she murmured, softly, her voice barely audible, as she squeezed his hand. “Thank you. I know you have something important to do. I won’t forget you, either.” She smiled softly at him. “Could you stay for just a little longer?” she asked, softly. And he nodded.

The two of them sat together in the darkness for a long time. His arms resting around her, comforting her as she shivered and slowly warmed up. He thought about it all, and in a flash it made sense. The reason she had trusted him from the beginning. Maybe even the reason she had requested him. The reason that she couldn’t give him her power. It made his head ache. So he decided not to worry about it, and simply held her, wishing for all the world that she didn’t have to spend another minute in this dark place.

Chapter 23: Romanticism

At a run, Nash soon caught up with the other two. “It’s the danger of the underworld, Nash,” Dio said, giving him a sympathetic smile. “You go there for the sake of one person, but you meet so many who seem deserving. The only reason I’m even going along with this is because of the stakes involved. Sad though the boy’s death was, Dean Constantinou is not the one we are coming to save. The town is.” He shook his head. “We will be lucky indeed if Hades allows us to take one soul from his care. Asking for many would be an insult. Particularly those souls who wander through Tartarus.” Nash sped up, until he was walking alongside Cassandra.

“You couldn’t have warned me about that?” he asked, an eyebrow raised. She shook her head. “Cassandra, you’re behaving a bit oddly here. What’s the matter?”

She turned her head towards him. Her gaze was hollow, her face crestfallen. “It’s just… a tough place to be.” She was lying. “That’s the last of the major issues, okay?” That was a lie too. “Let’s just keep going. We’re almost to the mouth of Tartarus, and from there, we’ll make our way past the three judges. We’ll need to talk our way past them. They’re meant to judge the souls who come before them, and determine whether they belong in Tartarus, Elysium, or the Meadows of Asphodel. We need to show them we don’t belong in Tartarus.” She sighed softly. “Then, we can find Dean, and leave with Hades’ permission. I hope.”

She waved a hand towards the path ahead of them. A broad, black swath of marble arched up towards a distant light, ashy and gray. The path was steep, and the marble was slippery, but they managed to climb it. The broad avenue lead out of the mouth of a cavern. That word was more apt than Nash had expected; great diamond teeth ringed the edge. There was also the occasional exhalation of breath- a hot, wet wind that rushed past them from behind, leaving the skin clammy.

When they finally stumbled into the light, it was a strange mixture of relief and despair. The fields were covered in fog, thick and cloying to every surface. A grove of trees, bare and skeletal, were barely visible in the distance. It was a barren landscape, really. Without life, or warmth. Except for the asphodels.

They were beautiful. A stalk rose from the ground, covered in dozens of white blooms, small at the top, larger near the bottom. There were countless numbers of them in the meadows, waist-high, filling the air with a delicate perfumed scent. They rustled as though blown by a breeze that Nash could not feel, and the scent of the flowers filled the air. The three of them stood for a moment, transfixed by the lovely moment in the middle of the gloom and gray. Shades walked through the flowers, their bodies little more than partially transparent silhouettes.

Standing by the base of the marble path, where it met the silty earth of the Asphodel Meadows, were three men. They wore great masks, obscuring their face; one of a bull, one of a dragon, one of a wolf. They stood in dark robes, their arms crossed. As Cassandra approached, their eyes lit up, bright and fierce. “Halt!” shouted the dragon-masked man. “I am the Judge of the Asiatics. I ask you to look in my eyes.”

Cassandra stood, her back straight, and the judge stared into her eyes. “Cassandra. Seer of Troy, woman of sense, and the one who knows what is truly there, even when she is not believed. You are welcome to Elysium and all other places within our bounds. I trust you have not been assaulted by the base inhabitants of Tartarus?” he asked, his voice firm and proud, as she bowed at the waist.

“I have not, King. Thank you, I shall pass with your blessing.” She bowed, and Dio stepped forward next.

“Halt!” shouted the bull-masked man. “I am the Judge of the Greeks. I ask you to look in my eyes.” Dio nodded, and he did the same. “Diomedes! Chosen hero of Athena, the man with the strength to wound two gods and the wisdom to let them escape! I am glad to see you again, and to know you still walk the earth. As always, you have the right to pass here. I trust that no inhabitant of Tartarus was fool enough to stand in your way!”

“No, Minos. It is good to see you again, wise King. I trust that your judgments remain as fair as ever.”

The three judges stood silently as Nash approached. The last one spoke from behind a mask like a leering wolf. “I suppose you are of my people.” He locked eyes with Nash for a moment, and Nash felt as though someone had used a melonballer to remove everything inside of his skull in a single brutal movement, his head spinning as he grew woozy. The judge was silent for a moment, as though trying to digest a difficult meal. Then he spoke. “Silas Nash. No glory, no great faith. Some hubris. Some wroth. But not enough of either to condemn you to Tartarus. You are welcome, so long as you remember your place. You are, and always shall be, a simple shade.”

Nash stepped past the judges, looking vaguely annoyed at his companions, who couldn’t keep the smiles off their faces. “You know, I did beat up two goddesses. I thought that would be worth something,” he grumbled, as he joined the two of them.

“Maybe you just didn’t feel very proud of it,” Cassandra said as she patted him on the shoulder. “You don’t strike me as the kind of person who has a very Greek mind-set. The underworld is suited to the morals and ethics of the society it belongs to. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be unworthy, here.”

Dio nodded. “There are worse fates than winding up in the Asphodel Meadows. They are given a dark reputation for a place full of senseless shades, but I am given to understand that it only appears that way to the living. They live a pleasant and cheerful enough life here in the meadows; There is darkness and gloom, but there is life, too.” He brushed his fingers across one of the asphodels, and the fragrant scent filled the air.

“Yeah, you two can afford to be magnanimous about it. I noticed they were kissing your butts pretty hard,” Nash grumbled, but he smiled all the same. Out of Tartarus, the oppressive memories were fading. It had been painful to confront that place. Letting his mind scab over again was a rare pleasure. He looked around. “How do we find Dean, though? Do we know where he’d be?”

Cassandra shook her head. “Even I cannot see that. It is a terribly large place, the Asphodel Meadows, and though he is most likely here, we could search for a long time and not find him. No. There are two beings with an absolute knowledge of the underworld. Hades, and Persephone. We will not be able to remove Dean from this place without their permission, anyway. We may as well present our case to them. And Silas…”

Cassandra looked slightly pained. “It may be best if you don’t talk to them. They are Gods, and they are incredibly old fashioned. They respect Heroes and Monsters, like me, and Dio. But they consider humans, normal humans…” She winced. “They basically think of them as living props.” Nash was quiet for a moment, and then sighed.

“Yeah, I get it. When dealing with someone who holds all the cards, you have to play their game. Let’s just get this over with.” He shook his head. “How do we find them?”

“Well, that part is fairly easy, at least.” Cassandra held out a hand, and pulled it through the mist. The fog bunched to the side like a curtain, to reveal a great palace. It sparkled like the most tastelessly expensive jewel in existence. “The abode of Hades. Carved from a single great ruby.” Black and red glittered ferociously despite the pallor. Cassandra held the fog aside, gesturing for Nash and Dio to step through. They did so, and she dropped the curtain of fog behind her as they made their way toward the castle.

“Hades. God of the Underworld. His is the domain of wealth; The word plutocrat comes from his name. All the mineral wealth of the earth belongs to him, by right.” Cassandra explained. “His personality is not widely known, because he was one of the most diligent of the gods. He did not leave his realm much. He is not the villain of the Greek Pantheon, and in fact, is one of the least likely gods to torment those who don’t deserve it. His wife, Persephone, is also his niece, being the daughter of Demeter, his sister.”

She looked over her shoulder, and caught Nash’s raised eyebrow. “Gods do not have the mortal frailties that make incest a taboo. That, and they are gods, so they tend to be jaded.” She smiled as Nash’s other eyebrow raised. “And don’t refer to it as the Rape of Persephone. He knows what the modern day meaning of those words are. He would probably not be pleased.” She followed the path, and lifted a great gold knocker, riveted into the ruby gate. She brought it down, twice, and the echo of the metal against the stone rung through the air. It took nearly a minute for the sound to die down.

The door swung open. Inside stood a tall man with black hair, bronzed features, and a broad smile. He was wearing a KILL THE COOK apron of uncertain parentage. He also wore slippers. “Ah, lovely, visitors! And living ones, too! Please, come in, come in!” The tall man waved them in. Cassandra and Dio seemed bemused as they were ushered in, Nash following after with an amused expression.

Within, they were led through the halls by the tall man. They looked about as one would expect the abode of the lord of the underworld to look. Writhing faces, spectral figures pawing at walls from the far side, the distant wails and screams of the damned echoing out from beneath them.

All of this contributed to the surprise when they reached their destination, stepped through an ominous gate, and into an adjoined kitchen-dining room straight out of the 70s. The walls had a faux-wood paneling, cheery orange-and-yellow wallpaper, and a set of plushy upholstered chairs around a dining table. A beautiful young woman, slender and with skin the color of milky coffee, was standing at a counter, rolling dough out into small crescents. She wore an apron and a marked absence of anything else. She turned, and flashed a warm smile. “Ah, darling. These are the mortals?”

Hades embraced his wife tenderly, spinning her and planting a kiss on her cheek. “Would you mind making a bit of coffee for them, Melindia? And do we have any of those honeycakes we made when that nice Orpheus fellow last came to visit us?” he asked, smiling warmly, as he took a seat at the table. She nodded, and bustled in the small kitchen. Hades turned to the three of them. “All food from the surface, of course. I’ve never been one to rush people into their tenancy in the underworld; You’ll all be enjoying my hospitality eventually.” He smiled cheerfully. Cassandra coughed, as she stood very stiffly.

“Oh mighty Hades, lord of the Underworld, he who chains the vile; We have come to ask you for a favor. A mortal has passed from the world too soon, and it threatens to cause chaos. Zion is poisoned by War. It will crumble if we do not return him to life, and with it, so too will the borders between the world of humans and the world of monsters. War will sweep over the lands, Conquest shall ride roughshod, Famine shall gnaw, and Death will reap a great harvest. The Horsemen are behind this. We seek your aid, to bring the mortal back to life, and are prepared to pay whatever price you deem necessary.”

Hades was quiet for a few seconds. “And?”

Cassandra faltered at this. “And… We need your help, my lord Hades. We know that you are not bound to provide it, but the world will burn. Surely-“

“Do you see this apron I’m wearing?” Hades asked, his head tilted. “I wear it because mortals believe I am a monster. Their fear of death makes them mistake me for the one who deals it, and they think poorly of me. I wear these silly things so that those who die and come to my land may know that I am not so bad as they think. I wear this so that I can put a smile on the faces of the shades who come to visit me. It is not a dignified outfit, but it makes them laugh, and so, they feel a little bit safer knowing that I hold their fate in my hand. But their hatred and fear are still a constant.”

Dio blanched. “But my lord, you wouldn’t allow the world of humans to fall, simply for the sake of your own vanity-” The man quailed under the fierce gaze that Hades delivered to him. There was a ringing silence in the room as Hades tapped his fingers on the table. Dio bowed his head. “I am sorry, my lord. I have worked for decades to preserve my city. It matters to me.”

“I am aware. And no. I would not do anything that would destroy humanity. While humans may have their misguided ideas about me, I am understanding, and I do my thankless job. But humans have forgotten who I truly am. Persephone and I are bound here, beneath the earth, by the power of the cities. When the third city arose, we Gods lost our place in the world. Ever since, we have been forced to work through intermediaries, and watch as faith diminishes and dissolves.”

The cheerful smile was gone. Hades brow was dark, as he leaned his head forward, resting his head on his chin. “I am tired of being forgotten. I would savor the chance to walk under the open sky again. It will mean great difficulty for the world, and many may die because of the changes. But humans die in droves all the time. I am there to take care of them, no matter the cause of their death. I would have them remember all that I give for them.”

Persephone arrived at the table, carrying a large pot of coffee, and a few cups. She poured out cups for everyone. Nash accepted it gratefully. It was Turkish. He took a deep breath of the hot coffee, and sipped at it, watching as Dio and Cassandra exchanged a quick, whispered conversation. “Would you entertain a wager, my lord?” Dio asked, hopefully.

“No, I don’t think so. The only things you three have to offer here are your lives, and those are of little interest to me at the moment. As I said, I do not want humanity to die out. If the monsters return to the world en masse, heroes will be needed, and people of vision. You can ill afford to be trapped here in the underworld. That would simply make matters worse.” Hades sipped the coffee, rumbling pleasantly and smiling at his wife. “I know that you have come a long way for this. I know that you are banking your future on it. But I have trust in humans. You have a great deal of spirit. Even the worst of you are nonetheless filled with hope.”

“That reminds me. Did Zeus use Tantalus to win a bet?”

Nash looked around to see who had said that. Cassandra, Dio, Persephone, and Hades were staring at him. Oh. He took a deep breath, and plunged on. “Pardon me if I am overly forward, Hades.” He held out a hand. “Silas Nash. Neither hero nor monster. Just a prop.” Hades reached out, and grasped his hand firmly, and they shook once. “I don’t mean to show disrespect. But the story Tantalus offered was… compelling. It reminded me a great deal of the book of Job. When it comes to humans, the gods can be very callous. After all, if the gods made us, that gives them the right to unmake us. Even if your plan would result in the death of countless humans, guilty of nothing more than being ordinary, it would mean your freedom. And that’s an easy trade to make for a god.”

Hades eyes narrowed, and Cassandra was making a violent cutting gesture across her throat, trying to stop him. “Perhaps.”

“Do you think that it would be just for a god to test a human’s love for them against their love for their child?” Hades’ eyes were red, like embers, as the god leaned forward.

“I think… that in Tartarus, there are only a handful of people who are there because I wish them to be. There is hope, even for those in Tartarus. They must simply wish for the right things. It is not a horrible place to be. You will notice, there are no guards there, no wandering horrors. The only chains are the ones inside the prisoners minds. If they could give up on what drives them to repeat their crimes, they would be free. Do you doubt my judgment?”

“I’m sure I’m not in a position to do so. But I do doubt your motives, Hades. I was introduced to the Eleusinian Mysteries. And I learned something about you.”

“Really.” Hades said. Cassandra had her face in her hands. Dio was trying not to make eye contact. Persephone was watching her husband, with a curious expression on her face. “Was it the depths of my patience?”

“In a manner of speaking. They might be here to save a city. I’m here for something much less lofty. Dean Constantinou died because he loved his girlfriend with all of his heart. She’s risking her life to keep his body safe for his soul to return, as we speak. The two of them fell in love, knowing that it would mean he would die. They live the story of the White Snake. It’s a romance with something that’s supposed to be dangerous, and frightening. It’s the story of a young man who would die for the woman he loves, even if he knows she’s a monster. And in that story, the young man is brought back, and reaffirms his love.”

“I know the story well,” Hades said, his expression inscrutable and dark.

Nash picked up one of the small, round cakes, golden, sweet and sticky, and bit into it, washing it down with his coffee. He chewed, allowing the tension to build while he picked his next words carefully. “I believe that is the kind of story that you love, Hades. There’s a reason that you call Persephone ‘Melindia’.” ‘Honey’. That had put a smile on his face.

Hades stared for several long seconds. The entire room seemed to hold its breath. But Nash could see Persephone was giggling behind her hand, her eyes full of laughter. “I’m sorry, Agent Nash,” the brown-skinned woman said, smiling kindly. “My husband would sometimes prefer to be thought of as a tyrant than a romantic. But he simply cannot help himself.” She leaned over, and kissed Hades cheek, and the man flushed deeply, his arms crossing tightly in front of him, a slightly petulant expression on his face. But he couldn’t stop the smile spreading across his dark face.

“I know that it’s asking a great deal of you. To ask you to stay locked here, away from the world of mortals, for the sake of a pair of young lovers.” Nash admitted. “But-” Hades held up a hand.

“I could not allow my selfishness to divide a pair of young lovers. I will help you. Eat your cakes, drink your coffee, and then, we will go to see the young man. Persephone, has he eaten anything of this world yet?”

Persephone shook her head. “No. Honestly, I have become rather worried. He was withdrawn when he arrived, and he has only grown more so. He’s refused to interact anyone, stuck in his own memories. I fear he has some regrets that are making it difficult for him to let go.”

Hades frowned. “I must warn you, this is not a rare response. There are those who fall into catatonia in this world. None of the three of you knew the boy very well, and it may be that you will find him and he will be unable to hear you. I do not wish to raise your hopes unduly. And even then, there will be a price.” He sighed. “There is always a price.” He stood up. “You.” He pointed towards Dio. “You must do nothing.” Dio frowned. “You.” He pointed towards Cassandra. “You must act on your instincts.” A momentary look of pain drifted across Cassandra’s face, and was then replaced by a determined expression. “And you.” He pointed towards Nash, and Nash swallowed. “You must have faith.”

Nash raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound like much of a price. What happens if I don’t, exactly?”

“Then the boy will die again, and everything will go horribly wrong. The same will happen if any of you fail to pay the price I have named. You will know when you must pay that price. And now…” Hades stood. “Let me take you to meet the boy.”

The five of them walked. Persephone and Hades were hand in hand. Nash and the other two walked slightly apart from them. Nash was troubled by what he had been told, but obviously not as much as Cassandra or Dio. Dio had a stormy expression on his face, and Cassandra was looking downright tormented, her arms around her, squeezing herself tightly. He moved a bit closer to her. “You alright, kid?” he asked, his voice soft. “Being an adult not quite all its cracked up to be?”

“I’m fine,” she lied. “It’s what I have to do, and it’ll probably all turn out alright. What else matters?” He walked alongside her for a couple of minutes.

“It means a lot to me that you accepted me, you know,” he said. “I know you had reason to not believe in me when I started out. I owe my life to you, Cassandra. Whatever you do, that won’t change. Alright? Whatever the price Hades set for you entails, I’ll help you. I believe in you.” He smiled. She returned the smile, and he could see how little she believed him. That was fine, though. He believed in her.

“Thank you, Silas,” she whispered. He looked over towards Dio, and stepped closer to the man.

“It’s none of your business,” Dio grumbled, his voice low, a frown on his face.

“Yeah, but it might help you to talk about it anyway.”

Dio shook his head. “It is something you learn. No matter how powerful you are, sometimes, the most important thing you can do is nothing. So it was when I wounded gods. I could have slain them, but that would have caused worse consequences down the line. I had to allow them to flee, to do nothing as an opponent fled me. That is the way of things, sometimes.” He looked at Nash. “But it is difficult not to act. For a man like me, it seems so much easier to act and think that I was not strong enough, than to not act, and be tormented with the idea that I could have done better had I only tried.”

“Funny. I had the opposite problem. I acted when I should’ve done nothing.” Nash smiled- **Come and get me**- and his head ached for a moment. He could barely remember what had happened in the pit of despair that had been Tartarus’ depths. But it gave him a horrible sick feeling of foreboding.

Dio sighed, drawing Nash out of the momentary reverie. “Hades is a place where we are forced to confront dark things. It is a place where we learn our true mettle.” The man gave Nash a smile. “It can be a deeply disheartening experience.” The asphodel rustled around them as they continued walking. Then, the fog parted around them, revealing a small clearing. There was a little bit of true sunlight, here, glittering down on the flowers.

“This is not Elysium,” explained Hades. “But it does offer a path to that place. It is not unusual to find spirits in these places. They warm themselves in the sunlight.” He waved. A single spirit stood in the middle of the beam of sunlight. It was transparent, barely visible. “He has not eaten. He barely even exists anymore. I must admit, I do not know if you could even bring him back to his senses, let alone convince him to return to the world. He is in pain, forgotten, and alone. These things are not a condition of his existence here. He died with deep regrets.”

Hades stepped aside, and the three mortals examined the shade. It was the outline of a person, more than anything else. Nash looked at the other two, and stepped forward. He opened his jacket, and took out two items. One was the ring that he had been given by Megara. The other was the pink book. He stepped closer to the shade.

“Dean?” The spirit didn’t move. It didn’t respond. It simply rocked from side to side. “Dean. I’ve got a couple of gifts for you.” He held up the silver ring. “This is from your step-mother. Megara Drakos. I know that she was sometimes cold, and distant. That she argued with you about who you loved. She was harsh with you. But it was because she loved you. Your father’s love for you was enough to shake her out of a self-destructive spiral that had lasted for thousands of years. She swore that she would do anything within her power to save you. She was willing to tear down the city to bring you back. And she gave me this ring, because it belonged to one of her children. She wanted you to have it, as a reminder that you were hers.” He pressed the small ring into Dean’s palm. The spirit let out a ragged little shudder, shoulders shaking violently.

“Mom?” The shade whispered, rocking slightly, fingers tightening around the ring. The blackness faded, revealing just a hint of color, providing contrast and definition to the shadow. The handsome young man’s features resolved. “She’s not my mother.”

“Dean. She was willing to fight for you. She would do anything to preserve you. She loves your father, Dean, and she loves you. She’s not the person who gave birth to you, but she’s your mother, through and through. She treated you the way she did because she worried for you. She wanted to protect you, and she didn’t know how to do it.” He took a deep breath. “Your mother is Echidna, the mother of monsters. Your father is Heracles, the hero of heroes. They have both lost the people they loved, time and again. They don’t deserve to lose someone again.” Something burned inside of him, like an ember caught against his heart, scorching at his soul. He hefted the book.

“And they’re not the only ones who care about you. Your death shouldn’t have happened. It was the work of someone who wanted to destroy the city. The world isn’t ready to leave you behind, and neither are the people who love you.” Nash pressed the book into Dean’s hands. “Isabelle is in love with you. She wrote these words for you. She was frightened of you being hurt. That was why she pulled away. She really does love you, Dean. You need to come back for her.”

“Why.” The shade whispered, weakly. His eyes were hollow, his cheeks drawn. He was more visible, now. Wearing a jersey and a pair of shorts that hung loosely on a body that looked emaciated with hunger, his movements shiftless. “She’ll move on. It didn’t matter.”

“She’s not going to move on.” Nash looked from side to side, and leaned closer. “She promised me, Dean. If I can’t bring you to her, she’s going to come to you. She’ll take her own life, Dean, because she wants to be with you, no matter what the cost is to her.”

The boy’s head turned up sharply. Color returned in a flash, and solidity. Dean’s eyes were angry, brown and full of sudden fury. Hands reached up for Nash’s lapels, and possessed with sudden strength, dean yanked Nash up off of his feet, holding him in the air. “She can’t! You can’t let her!”

Nash stared down into the young man’s eyes, toes barely grazing the ground, keeping cool despite himself. The young man was strong. “I’m not going to stop her. No one else will, either. This is the choice, Dean. If you don’t live, she has to die to save everyone. And she’ll do it. If you want your girlfriend to live, you’re going to have to damn well tell her to live yourself, kid.” There was no sympathy, no gentleness in his voice. The young man stared at him for a long few seconds, and then looked around, at the others, looking slightly surprised.

“Cassie? Mister Dio?” he said, looking slightly surprised. “You came here for me?”

“Get over yourself. I’m still here because a lot of other people are going to die if we don’t get you out of here.” Cassandra said, looking quite annoyed. Then she smiled a little bit. “But I really would be a lot happier if you were alive. The town is kind of going nuts without you. Don’t let that go to your head, though.” Dio simply shrugged, and grunted.

Dean looked down at the ring on his hand, and the small pink book. He rubbed his eyes with his sleeve, and then grinned brightly. “Let’s get out of here. I can’t wait to see everyone again.” His voice was slightly strained, but his smile was bright as the sun.

Nash looked towards the god of the underworld. “Hades, is there a path out of here that’s closer than the way out through Tartarus?”

Hades nodded, and swept a hand. A grand sweeping path appeared, looping and long, composed of silver light, and ascending to the endless grey sky. A great spiral ramp, leading into the light. “Just follow this. And remember, as I’m sure you’ve been warned. No matter what you hear, do not look back. The only way to escape me is with confidence.” Nash nodded, and stepped onto the path, beginning to follow it. He kept his eyes forward, as they began to walk. All four of them were quiet, as they ascended into the sky, Nash in the lead. Five minutes passed, and soon, the ground was out of sight, as they kept walking. There were occasional low moans from behind them, but Nash didn’t look back. He was confident that there was nothing behind them that could hurt him.

“Nash?” It was Cassandra’s voice. He didn’t turn to face her.

“Yeah, Cassie?” he asked, a little humor in his voice. They were almost out. Everything was going to be okay.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

The fist caught him in the side of the head with shocking force. He pinwheeled off the side of the path, and fell into the gray mist. There was a sickening crunch as he struck the ground, and everything went dark.

Chapter 24: Cynicism

The first memory Dean Constantinou had was of his father. The tall, burly man laughing as he embraced Dean, a ragged beard scratchy against Dean’s cheek. He coughed and squirmed, but laughed with delight along with the man. It was also the first time he’d seen his father in person. Up to that day, the man’s sole presence in Dean’s life had been in photographs.

His mother, usually a stoic and sad-eyed figure, was smiling too. She stood, her arms crossed over her stomach, just a little withdrawn. Harry reached out, pulling her in as well, and the three of them hugged, tightly squeezing one another.

“I’ve got a month before my next tour of duty.” Harry looked into Acanit’s eyes. “Are you alright, darling?” he asked, as Dean sat between the two of them, the movie playing on the small TV. The on-base housing wasn’t luxurious, but it was fun, and there were always lots of other children around to play with. His mother spent a lot of time crying, but she seemed to be happy enough right now as the three of them sat together. Dean was turning five next week. He was terribly glad that his father would be there for it, because his mother hadn’t been sure he’d make it.

“It’s fine, darling.” Acanit smiled softly. “You’re going out again, are you…?” Harry smiled apologetically, and kissed her softly on the lips.

“You saw the planes. The next one might be carrying a nuclear weapon, or something worse. This can’t happen again.” He shook his head softly. “I hate being away from you two. But I want to make the world safe.” Acanit laughed softly, and pressed her face against Harry’s father. Dean groaned, squirming off of the couch, to sit on the floor. His parents could be so embarrassing sometimes.

“I know you do. That’s part of why I admire you, Harry.” She kissed him softly.

Dean didn’t remember the birthday. There were lots of pictures of it, though. He was happy in the pictures, holding his new copy of Alice in Wonderland. The book was a strange one, but he’d enjoyed it a lot more than the movie, which always made him a little scared and tearful.

“Does Dad love us?” Dean asked his mother. He was eight. His father had left on another tour of duty, only a few weeks ago. Dean was helping to dry the dishes as his mother washed them. He looked up at her slightly surprised face, his expression calm.

“Of course he does, son. What would make you think he doesn’t?”

“He’s never around. And you look sad when he’s not around. I know you miss him a lot. Sometimes, at night, I hear you calling out his name when you’re having bad dreams.” Acanit’s face grew softer, and she smiled.

“Oh, son. Of course he loves us. I could never doubt that. He protects us the way he knows how. You know, neither your father nor I were born in America. We moved here, when we were both quite young. He used to be a mechanic, and I was a young dancer. We met in a club. There was a very cruel owner there, who had forced your father to take out a very harsh loan. I had been working there for a long time. It was a very unpleasant place.” She laughed softly, and stared into the distance.

“Your father had an idea. We managed to rob the club, and we got away, to America. Your father became a great soldier, and started working for the United States, because it was a place where there was a sense of honor. And justice.” The corners of her lips turned down. “At least, it used to be. I fear that he is being taken advantage of sometimes…”

“But what matters is that your father fights hard to make sure that we will be safe, and taken care of. And when I have bad dreams, about… the club, then I remember him, and the way that he saved me. He really is a decent and kind-hearted man.” She smiled softly, and ruffled Dean’s hair. And Dean forgave his father a little bit for not being there.

When Dean was twelve, the woman in red came to visit. She knocked at the door, and Dean opened it. On the base, there was no fears of outsiders. They weren’t going to get away with anything when there were so many military police around. “Excuse me, young man.” She knelt down, and smiled.

She was pretty, and looked a lot like his own mother, though her hair was bright red and her eyes brilliant green. She wore a red dress that hung down to her knees, and a pair of red high heels. She looked much fancier than anyone on the base. “Do you know where your mother is? I’m an old friend of hers. We have to talk about something.” He gave her a suspicious look, and she laughed softly. “Tell her that it’s her old friend, Bella.”

His mother looked surprised when he gave her the woman’s name, but she invited the stranger in. “Here, Dean.” She handed him a ten dollar bill. “Go see a movie with your friends. Me and Bella are going to catch up. Alright?”

He never forgot the movie he saw. It was Star Trek. He’d never seen the old ones, but he liked the new one well enough. He still couldn’t think of the movie without tearing up, even years later. When he returned home was a group of military police, standing around, speaking softly with one another. One of them, Sergeant Rourke, spotted him. A look of guilt crossed his face immediately. Something in Dean knew what had gone wrong. His mother had always been sad. There’d always been pain in her expression. But he’d never heard the word suicide before that day.

Dean’s godfather, O’Malley, was a kind man. He had gone to ranger school with Harry, and had been there at the wedding between Acanit and Harry. O’Malley and Dean lived together for two years, until the call came from his father. He was coming back. It was Christmas. It would be the first time that Harry had seen his father since his mother died.

“I don’t want to go with him. I’ve seen you for more of my life than I ever saw him.” Dean spoke softly, his chin on his hand. He was tall for his age, and strong, he knew that. He took after his father more than his mother. The only things that she had given him were his temperament, O’Malley would say.

“Your father’s a bit of a wanderer, I know that much. He wasn’t there as much as he could’ve been, but he did what he did because he loved you and your mother. He was going to retire when he knew he had a proper nest egg for you two. But there was always another war, another police action, something new that had to be done.” O’Malley shook his head. “He did it because he wanted you to grow up in a world that was safe.”

“If he’d been around, maybe Mom would still be alive. He cared more about his wars than he did about us.”

O’Malley sighed. “Your father hated war. That’s why he fought so hard. You know, he and I were in Somalia together. I never saw someone with such a depth of compassion for people who were trying to shoot him.” The old sergeant smiled softly. “I know it hurts, son. But I hope you’ll give him a chance. If he’s coming back for you, it’s because he wants to be with you. Something’s changed, that much is for sure.”

What had changed was obvious. When Harry arrived, it was with a new woman. Dean hated her immediately. She had arch, stern features, and a haughty attitude, so unlike his own mother. She looked down her nose at him, and she was cold as ice around both him and Harry. Her name was Megara Drakos, and she introduced herself as a nanny. Soon after, she and Harry’s father were married.

Harry sat in the moving van ahead of them. Dean did his best to stay calm as he sat next to Megara. He was fifteen, now. His father had completed his last tour of duty. He was retiring from the armed forces, and they were moving to some town in the sticks called Zion. There would be nobody he knew there, and Megara was the one who insisted on it. “I don’t understand why we have to move there.”

“It is where I was born. I own a house there. It will be a chance for the two of you to settle down somewhere new, and fresh. To start a new life together. Your father’s final tour of duty has finished. He wishes to devote his life to being with you, now. He has made sacrifices you could not begin to imagine so that he can spend this time with you. You owe it to him to be grateful.”

“What, he’s sacrificed being shot at for me?” Dean asked. He knew the tone was petulant. He hated it, but she was so damn arrogant. Something inside of him rankled at it. He had forgiven his father for his mother’s death, mostly. He’d even forgiven him for the things that had happened while she was alive, mostly. His father had always done his best to leave him in good hands. “Why can’t he look at me?” Dean asked, trying to look the woman in the eye. Her gaze was as cold as ice, and he had to break eye contact quickly, his eyes watering.

“Dean. Your father fears losing you. I have had children, too, and I lost them all. It has never stopped hurting. Your father is afraid of getting too close to you, because he worries that his past may come back to haunt you. Your father has lived a far more chaotic, and a far more dangerous life, than you have any idea. I will not tell you the details now, because those are for him to share with you. But you should show him a bit more gratitude than you do.” Her eyes flashed. “Were you my child, I would discipline you physically. But your father has far more mercy and belief in you than I.”

It had not been a very satisfying answer. Dean sulked the whole way on the drive, nearly twelve hours in a small car. Every possession they had fit in the U-haul truck ahead. The endless trees were an odd experience for him. Soon, they were at the manor, and Harry unloaded the car. “You know, , they have a football team at the local school. I’m told that tryouts will be happening soon.”

“I don’t know, dad. Nobody knows me there. Are they really going to want me on the team?” Dean asked, doubtfully. He turned a page as he read Through the Looking Glass. He was taking a moment to rest, in defiance of Megara, whose frosty gaze was fixed on him.

“Trust me, son. It’ll come naturally to you.” Harry smiled. Some of what Megara had said had rubbed off on Dean. Even if he didn’t trust the woman herself, he’d spent the last two years seeing more of his father than he ever had before as he worked on the base, finishing up his tour of duty. He was going to be a lumberjack or something. It was hard not to get closer to him under those circumstances. “Besides, maybe you’ll meet a nice young girl. I know you’re missing McKayla, but you’ll make friends easily.”

For the most part, he did. Dean didn’t find most of the people at his new school very interesting. They all seemed- He hated to use the word- civilian. Normal, quiet lives, lived by normal, quiet people. After living on the base, they seemed so dull. He went out for the football tryouts, and was on the varsity team by the end of the month. It was easy for him. He practiced diligently, but he didn’t particularly love the sport. He cared about his teammates, and the people around him, but they weren’t what made him happy in Zion. That honor went to her.

He met her after school on a rainy spring day. She was in the grade above his. She sat in the library, in a small, out-of-the-way corner. He had been searching for a book. He forgot entirely which book when he saw her. Her hair was pure white, and she sat in a delicate white skirt, and a sunny yellow blouse. Her skin was pale, and he recognized her as one of the Asian students, though he was sure he’d never seen her before. She was wearing a large sunhat, and she looked quite surprised as he approached her. “Um. Hey. You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever met.” She raised an eyebrow at this, but her cheeks flushed slightly.

“That’s… very nice of you to say.” She closed the book. It was a copy of the Hunting of the Snark.

“Oh! You’re a fan of Carroll?” he asked, grinning as he took a seat next to her. This seemed to get a little bit more of a reaction from her, as she tilted her head and smiled.

“Why, yes.” She smiled. “I always liked his stories. They’re full of very strange things happening, and sort of silly people, but even though it’s hard to recognize anything that’s happening, it all seems familiar enough that you can guess, right?” She smiled, holding out a demure hand. “I’m Isabelle Onnashi.”

He took her hand, and smiled. “Dean Constantinou.” The two of them ended up talking until the library closed, hours later, discussing the story. As they were ushered out by the school librarian, he smile. “I’d really like to see you again tomorrow.” She giggled softly.

“I’m sure we will. I’d enjoy reading with you some more. Do you mind if I invite my friend Susan? I think she’d love to meet you.”

Isabelle made life suddenly worth it. She was kind, shy, clever, and if Dean were completely honest with himself, incredibly attractive. Susan was quick-witted and had a sharp tongue, but she seemed to like Dean enough to take it easy on him. The three of them spent many evenings in the library together. While he enjoyed the football practice, he didn’t need it as much as the others on his team did. His natural talent for the sport gave him time to be with Susan and Isabelle.

“So… You’re Chinese? I thought most of the families here are Japanese?”

Susan nodded. “Yeah. My parents adopted me, because they couldn’t have children. They were Japanese, but they didn’t really care about me being Japanese. I wish everyone in the town were a bit more like them.” She frowned softly. “The adults are usually polite, but the other students can be pretty mean. And… Well, it’s hard getting along with someone when you look different from them.” She waved at her own eyes, emerald green and shining brightly.

Isabelle nodded sadly, smiling. “Most of the Greek kids are nice enough, and the Native ones are really sweet, but… You know how it is.” She tugged at her hair self consciously, her face down. Dean leaned in, and kissed her cheek. It was the first time he’d kissed her, and her face went red, but she was smiling.

“Jeez, get a room you two,” Susan muttered. Then all of them laughed.

“Hey, Dean. Have you ever heard of the story of the White Snake?” Isabelle asked, smiling brightly. He shuddered slightly.

“Ugh. I hate snakes. My step-mother has a bunch of them. They’re all weird, and scaly, and slithery. They creep me out, big-time.” There was a brief, awkward pause as the two young women exchanged a look. “What?” he asked, an eyebrow raised. The two of them laughed. “What? They’re weird! They’re all hissy and stuff, and they try to crush you.” Isabelle wrapped her arms around him, squeezing tight, a grin on her face.

“You wimp. Like you’re ever going to get hurt by a snake. So, there once was this immortal…” And she told him the story. And he listened, frowning at first, and then beginning to smile. It was hardly Lewis Caroll, but…

“I guess that’s an okay snake. You must like that story a lot, huh? A pretty white-haired woman as the romantic lead, a green-eyed girl as her best friend, and she winds up with everything she wanted.”

Isabelle looked down at her hands. Susan reached over, and pat her on the back, while she gave Dean a look he couldn’t quite decipher. “It’s kind of a cruel story, though, really. The guy dies of fright when he sees her. And even when he gets brought back, they spend most of the story trying desperately to get back together. Even if they love one another, they end up spending so much time apart.”

“It’s about a monster. Even if the monster falls in love, it’s still wrong, and they suffer a lot because they don’t just do the sensible thing, and look for their own kind,” Isabelle said softly.

Dean smiled. “I think that if it were me, I’d rather go through all the trouble. Even if it hurts a lot, you know things are going to end right. And true love is worth that pain.”

“I am not so foolish as to believe that forbidding you to see Isabelle Onashi would stop you. I only hope that you can be wise enough to recognize trouble when you see it.” Megara sat at the dinner table, her eyes locked on Dean’s. “She is trouble. Not in the sense that she is a bad person. But if you stay around her, your life will be filled with pain. And so will your father’s.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” he asked, his knuckles white around the steak knife’s handle. She narrowed her eyes. He met them. He didn’t flinch away from her gaze like he used to, and they stared at one another for a long time before she sighed, and spoke.

“The Onnashi family is a dangerous one. I am not certain of the motives of Irayama Onnashi, and she does not care for those who are not her own.”

“How can you say that? She’s not racist. Hell, she was willing to take Isabelle in!”

“That is not what I mean.” Megara sighed. “This will all become so much clearer when you’ve turned 18, and are an adult.” She frowned at him. “Why can you never once simply take me at my word?”

“Because you never explain yourself,” he growled, as he stood up, practically daring her to command him to stay. “How can I trust you to know what you’re doing if you want to keep everything secret?”

She sighed, and he walked out of the door.

When Isabelle turned 18 things started to go wrong. She withdrew. She grew more secretive, more fearful, and she started avoiding him. He sat in the cafeteria with Susan. It was the fifth day in a row with no sign of Isabelle. “I wish she’d talk with us.” Susan rested a hand comfortingly on his shoulder.

“She’s going through some things at home. We’re all going through some strange things. Dealing with growing up, thinking about college, and family. You know she still cares about you. This is just another thing that she has to work through.” Susan hugged him gently from the side, and he sighed softly.

“I just want to be there for her.”

Susan nodded sympathetically, and squeezed him. “I’ll talk to her. Okay?” She smiled softly.

The call came late in the night. It was a Friday. “She’s going to be at the shack, tonight. Go there. Be with her. Okay? I convinced her to tell you the truth about everything that’s been happening.”

“I don’t want you going out with that girl.” Harry stood tall and fierce, his arms crossed. Dean stood in the door-frame, full of anger. He hadn’t expected this from him, of all people.

“Dad, she’s one of two actually fun people in this town. What, are you going to lock me up?” Dean frowned at his father. This wasn’t like Harry. Megara must have put him up to it.

“I just worry about you. You’ve got your whole future ahead of you. I want you to be careful, so… Just. Call me. Alright? Check in with me. I want to make sure that you’re alright.” Dean struggled to avoid rolling his eyes. “Yes, I know, your old dad worries about you. And try to get along with Megara, alright? She really does care about you, you know. She just wants to make sure that you’re safe, too.”

“She’s not my real mother.” Dean slammed the door behind him, and walked into the night.

When he reached the shack, it was lit from within. An old storm lantern was flickering merrily. He opened the door, and Isabelle froze. She had been crying. Tears ran down her cheeks, dragging long lines of black mascara across her cheeks as she sniffled. Her hair was a mess, and she was curled up on the couch. She swallowed. There was a half-empty bottle of wine on the small table next to the couch. “Go away, Dean,” she muttered, softly. Her voice was slightly slurred, and she rubbed her eyes. “I’m a messs. I don’t want to ssee you right now. Okay?” She grabbed the bottle, and took another swig, and he pulled it gently from her hands. She put up only a token resistance. He took a seat next to her, and took a sip of the wine. It was unpleasant as hell, and he coughed. It was rather bitter, and stung a little going down. But drinking it seemed to stiffen his resolve a little bit.

“I know you’ve been worried lately. I know that something happened, and you’re stressed. But I’m here for you, Isabelle,” he said as he rested an arm over her shoulder, setting the bottle down. “Whatever’s happening, whatever you’re worried about, I’m going to be there for you. I promise.” His throat tight was tight as he stroked her shoulder.

“I’m a monsster. You sshould jusst leave now, before you get hurt. Because you wouldn’t want to ssee me ass I really am, Dean, I know it.” She sniffled. “I’m curssed. Jusst like the white ssnake. You’d probably never forgive me if you ssaw what I really looked like. And I couldn’t sstand to hurt you by sshowing you.”

Dean was silent for a few seconds. The White Snake had always been a story to him. Just a silly metaphor. Tonight, in the low light of the storm lantern, on the edge of the lake… “I want to see. No matter what it cost me, Isabelle.” He squeezed her gently, both arms around her shoulders now. They heaved with each breath she took, her body shaking like a leaf. “Hey, come on. What could possibly scare me that much? The guy in the story was from an ancient, suspicious culture. I’ll probably be fine,” he suggested gamely, smiling. Then, he kissed her, very softly, on the lips.

“I… I can’t,” she whispered softly, and hugged him. “I’m ssorry. I jusst can’t.” He nodded, and held her. The two of them nodded off, and sleep came for them, eventually. He trusted her, after all. She’d show him eventually, and it would be no big deal. He reached over, and turned off the storm lantern, as Isabelle’s breathing grew regular.

He woke, in the middle of the night. The shed was almost pitch black. He grumbled, his fingers reaching out for the lantern. There was a curiously vivid feeling to the air, a sense of significance that he couldn’t quite describe. His head felt light, and his heart was pounding. He found the storm lantern, and gently groped at it. He could hear the sound of rustling in the trees, as the wind blew through them. He lifted the glass, and found a match by feel. He lit it, and then the wick.

His eyes went wide as the light flared. A great serpent lay across the ground, glittering and white. Its scales were constantly moving, creating the sound that he had mistaken for the rustle of the trees. He froze, as nightmarish images of the snakes in Megara’s manor returned to him. The snake’s eyes opened, and nictitating membranes flickered across those huge, yellow eyes. He went very still, as the snake’s head rose, and came closer. Its mouth opened, and its tongue flicked out. Then, it spoke, with Isabelle’s voice. “Dean?”

He felt an incredibly sharp pain in his chest. He gasped for air, his vision flickering. It was as though someone had plunged their fist into his chest, and was squeezing his heart with all their might. His nails dug into the couch, as he heard Isabelle’s voice again, higher, more frightened. “Dean?!” Then, he fell backwards into darkness. The light of the world faded away, and he fell for what seemed like forever.

He was in a dark and shadowed place. He felt numb, and couldn’t taste even his spit in his mouth. A young woman was standing in front of him, wearing an apron, full of color, her skin the color of milk chocolate, with a concerned expression on her face. “Young man?” Her voice was distant. “Can you hear me?” He swayed from side to side vaguely. He was trying to recall what had just happened. “You have died.” He froze, his breath catching in his throat. He realized, after a minute or so, that he had no breath anymore. He didn’t need to breathe. It was just a reflex. “I am very sorry. If you ever need to talk, please, feel free to come see me and my husband. You rest here, in the asphodel, alright?”

He realized that he had been remembering. All of the things that brought him to this point in time. He spent a long time simply standing there, not sure what had happened. Eventually, he began to wander. The asphodel. Megara had told him about this, occasionally. The underworld. Hades. That was a myth, though. He wandered, until he found a bright light, and stood under it. There had been other things she’d told him about the underworld. He wasn’t supposed to eat anything. She’d said that people came back from it. So he stood, and waited. It seemed like an eternity. The sky never changed. He never needed to breathe, and though he grew hungry, and thirsty, it didn’t seem to kill him. So he stood, staring, his mind racing. Without anything to grasp hold of for the passage of time, he began to wonder about his own perception of time. He thought of his step-mother, and of Isabelle. He wondered if they would remember him. He thought of it all, and he felt like a fool for not realizing it sooner. That he hadn’t even recognized that he was in a story. Everyone had tried to warn him, and now he’d left his mother-in-law and his father and Susan and the girlfriend and worst of all Isabelle alone. He could have avoided it all if he’d thought. He let his head hang low. Maybe they would just leave him here forever. It seemed like a fitting ending. And so he stood there, and stopped responding to the other shades that came to speak with him, and let himself slip away. There was a time when something tore at him, pulling, hard- But something else caught him from the other side, trapping him there. He would never escape.

“n”

“n, i le gi f y”

Something was glittering in front of him. It shone. Nothing in this place reflected light like that. It was metal. Someone was speaking. Telling him about his mother. He felt his hand lifted up by someone’s warm grip. “She wanted you to have it, as a reminder that you were hers.” His mind flashed with confusion, remembering Acanit, and her soft, sad smile. Then he saw the ring, and his eyes ran across the glittering inscription. *To my dearest Dean. I will love you in this life, and every other. Megara and Harry.*

He gritted his teeth, as some flicker of emotion returned. “Mom?” he hissed. The memories of Megara flared inside of him. The coldness. The anger. The dismissal. The guilt that he felt. The conversations. The birthday when she had baked a cake for him, so unlike anything his own mother had made but sweet as honey. It had been a happy day. He breathed out, rasping. Each word he spoke seemed to be coming from an abyss inside of him. “She’s not my mother.”

The man spoke. Dean stared at the man’s face. He was not someone that Dean knew. Honestly, he didn’t stand out. A five o’clock shadow and a scruffy looking suit. “Your mother is Echidna, the mother of monsters. Your father is Heracles, the hero of heroes. They have both lost the people they loved, time and again. Do you want them to lose that again?” Dean felt a little spark inside of him, a twinge of guilt. The pain burned him, and the shame at what he had done to his parents. The man was still speaking, and a book found its way into Dean’s hands. Isabelle’s diary.

“Why.” He hissed. “She’ll move on. It didn’t matter.” They’d forget about him soon enough. He had already spent so long here.

“She’s not going to move on. She promised me, Dean. If I can’t bring you to her, she’s going to come to you. She’ll take her own life, Dean, because she wants to be with you, no matter what the cost is to her.”

Color returned to the world in a flood. Red haze flared in Dean’s eyes. He grabbed hold of the man’s collar, lifting him into the air. “She can’t! You can’t let her!” The idea of her dying because of him. It was the thing he’d been most afraid of, he realized. The man met his gaze, colder and more imperious than Megara had ever been.

“I’m not going to stop her. No one else will, either. This is the choice, Dean. If you don’t live, she has to die to save everyone. And she’ll do it. If you want your girlfriend to live, you’re going to have to damn well tell her to live yourself, kid.”

The words burned in Dean’s ears as he gritted his teeth. He set the man down. Then he saw the others. The woman who had spoken to him when he had first arrived here, a strange dark-haired man, and- “Cassie? Mister Dio? You came here for me?”

Cassandra he remembered. She was a troublemaker, and a sweet kid. He’d seen her fishing with that boy, Kintaro, down in the lake, more than once. She frowned at him. “Get over yourself. I’m here because a lot of other people are going to die if we don’t get you out of here.” Her expression softened. “But I really would be a lot happier if you were alive. The town is kind of going nuts without you. Don’t let that go to your head, though.” They began to talk with the strange, dark-haired man- Hades, Dean realized with a start. Soon, they were climbing up a pathway, into the sky. As they walked, he felt his spirit lightening.

He looked down at the book, and saw tears staining the cover. He looked at the ring, glittering softly. They had remembered him. He held them tightly to his chest, and as they walked, he opened the book to stare at the last page. The little inscription was in Hiragana. He recognized the words. Isabelle had taught him it, once, like her mother had taught her. “I’ll always love you.” In that delicate script that she used, each symbol a show of utmost care. He felt his smile pull hard at his cheeks. It felt like it had been forever since he’d smiled.

“Nash?” Cassie asked. The young woman was walking just behind the stranger, Dio standing just in front of Dean. She had her head hung low. A tear was glittering on her chin.

“Yeah, Cassie?” The man seemed quite chipper, a smile visibly creasing his cheeks.

“I’m sorry.” Dio had an arm over his eyes, his shoulders tensed, head turned away from the two.

“Sorry for what?”

Cassie threw a prize-fighter’s haymaker. Her fist struck the side of the man’s head with more force than a 14 year-old girl should be capable of. The strange man who had brought Dean out of his stupor never stood a chance. He didn’t make a noise as he fell off the pathway. He just disappeared into the mist. Cassie stood, completely still, for a few seconds, her hands balled into fists at her side. Then, she kept walking.

Dean’s jaw dropped. “Cassie, what the hell-!”

“He was a servant of something horrible, Dean.” Cassie’s voice was very soft. “I knew that he was from the moment I saw him. He was the servant of the same thing that set you up to die. He helped us get down here, and all he had to do was have a single moment of uncertainty, turn around, and you’d be stuck here, forever, and Isabelle would kill herself, and Irayama would lose her mind, and everyone would probably die. Hades told us that we had to follow our instincts, and my instincts told me that he was going to be trouble from the moment I saw him. Dio had to do nothing, and I’m really glad you didn’t try to stop me, Dio, because you could have.”

The gruff officer stared down at his boots.

“And the worst part is, he was a really decent person. He was a kind-hearted guy, who actually believed in me, and it was just the shittiest possible luck that meant he was going to get us all killed.” They walked in silence for several minutes. Dean stared. It had been more than he’d ever heard out of Cassandra at one time. “Pearl told me that I had to trust my instincts. That I had to do what I thought was right. Hades said the same thing. And the right thing was to not give him a chance. I had to make sure he didn’t have a chance to betray us, which meant I betrayed him first. And he trusted me! He thought I was his friend!”

She furiously rubbed her eyes. “Now let’s get back to Zion,” she said, her voice a little less ragged They walked in silence. The light-hearted atmosphere from before had vanished. Instead, they walked together in the shadow. “We don’t tell anyone about this, alright? We tell them that he stayed behind. That he saved us from something horrible. Nobody has to know about it. He deserves to be remembered as a hero.”

They were ashen-faced as they reached the summit. There was a moment when light surrounded them. Then, Dean jerked up, gasping for air. “Give him some room!” He recognized the voice of the town doctor. He blinked blearily. He was lying across a cold metal table, wearing nothing. There were a lot of people around. He recognized most of them. Miss Onnashi, the local police chief, and-

“Isabelle!” He sat bolt upright, his arms going around her shoulders. Her body, from the waist down, was that of a snake. He didn’t give a damn, as he hugged her tightly, pressing his face into her throat. “If you ever kill yourself because of me, I won’t forgive you,” he whispered, softly, under his breath, gripping her tightly. After a minute or so, he released her, and coughed. “Does anyone have some pants? Something I can use to cover myself?” Megara stepped forward, delicately handing him a pair of jeabs. He pulled them on, and stood up.

His whole body ached, his muscles terribly weak. Despite that, he wrapped his arms around Megara, squeezing her tightly. “Mom.” He whispered. “I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to you. Thank you.” He turned, and hugged his father, too. There was a soft hush in the room, broken a few seconds later by the sound of a knock from one of the large metallic freezers. He was in a morgue. He was going to have nightmares about this for a long time, but he could deal with that. The doctor opened the refrigerator, and Cassandra climbed out, followed by Dio.

“I can’t believe you did it…” Megara began. Then her voice trailed off as she began to frown. “Where’s Nash?”

There was silence. The police chief crossed her arms, looking down at her feet. There was a terribly sad look on her face. “He didn’t make it, did he.” She sounded as though she’d been expecting to hear that.

“No. Nash stayed behind, to save us. He told us to keep going, even while they dragged him down.” Cassandra rubbed her eyes. “It was the only way we could get out. He was a real hero. We couldn’t have done it without him.” The whole room was silent. Even Megara seemed pained at this news. Even Irayama Onnashi, who he’d never seen display the least bit of sorrow, had a soft frown on her face.

“I don’t think I’ve ever known a finer man,” said Harry. “He gave me my son back. He deserved better than this. I hope that his soul stands in Elysium, alongside the heroes of legend. It is the least the Gods could do.”

Chapter 25: Overlord

Consciousness returned to Silas, alongside unbearable pain. He let out a low groan, his eyes opening slowly. His head was spinning, and he was being dragged along through the asphodel. “I am sorry about this, Mister Nash,” said Persephone, her voice soft, and a bit sorrowful. “I really am. You seem like a genuinely decent man. But the laws of Zeus are sacrosanct. The agents of the Horsemen are agents of the Titans themselves, seeking to overthrow the gods and to destroy mankind. The only appropriate way to deal with you is with Tartarus. I shall leave a plea with the judges that they show you mercy in whatever torment they decide you must undergo, Mister Nash. I only hope that you can find it in yourself to understand why this is necessary.”

He drifted. He was wrapped in thick chains of iron, and being dragged across the ground. The memories of what had happened to him returned. “Fall. Didn’t kill me?” His voice was rough, throat dry, lips cracked.

“Even if you are still alive, there is little that can kill in the underworld. Plenty that can hurt, though.” The woman sighed softly, shaking her head. “Personally speaking, I find it all a bit draconian, but I understand my husband. He does not choose to enforce the punishments. It is simply in his nature. I hope you can find it in you to forgive him.” She set him down on the ground. The man in the dragon mask, the man in the wolf mask, and the man in the bull mask loomed over him. They stared at him silently as he sat in front of them. “Do not try to fight them. You would not stand a chance against all three.”

“Did they make it out safely?” Persephone nodded, and he let out a sigh of relief. “Then I guess this is the way things were supposed to end up.” Hades had said that he needed to have faith. Perhaps this was what he had meant. Nash looked up at the three dour masked men. He took a deep breath, and stood up, slowly. It was difficult with his arms bound to his sides by the heavy chains, but he stood with his head high, his back straight. “I will hear what my crimes are, and what you believe to be an appropriate punishment.”

“Your crimes are many,” rumbled Minos. “Locked within your mind by the artifice of your mistress. Now, your soul ready to be sentenced, they become apparent to us. You have done violence to your betters. You have not honored your mother’s memory. You have forgotten the place of your mother’s bones. You have believed yourself the equal of gods. You have accepted the power of the Horsemen. You have spread chaos and horror. You have spilled the blood of those who are divine. You are an evil and dark thing, and your fate is clear. But do you have anything to say in your defense?”

He felt like his guts had been ripped out. Cassie had betrayed him. She’d thrown him in here. Could she be an agent of the Horsemen-? No. She was the one person who couldn’t be. She could have just refused to help, and he would’ve been helpless twice over. She was doing this for a reason. And a flash of red hair made Nash realize the reason.

Maybe this was the happy ending. Maybe he was meant to wind up in this place. He reached out with his senses, trying to feel Ariel, Heather, or Gene. There was no sign of them. They were gone. Instead, he felt someone else entirely. The fields of asphodel suddenly became grey, as a woman in a red dress walked out of them. With green eyes and a gunmetal smile, she stepped in front of him, her expression nostalgic. “Well, well, Nash. So this is how it ends, hmm? I really did think you would be more interesting than this.” She sighed softly, and shook her head. “It seems like you’re a failure, just like all of the others.”

He managed to muster defiance. He was so tired, but he had enough left in him to sneer. “You failed, Bella,” he said, not caring about the looks that the judges exchanged. He’d been talking to himself all his life. “Even if I am your thing. Even if I was doing your bidding. Dean was freed. He’s safe. They’re all safe. Nobody had to die, except maybe me. And I’m willing to offer myself up for the chance to see all your plans fail.” He grinned. “I finally won, you hateful bitch. Cassandra did the right thing.”

Then, she began to laugh wildly, her voice pitching up rapidly towards the manic, her teeth flashing in the light as she bent forward, slapping her knee. “What in the hell do you think is so funny?” he hissed, his eyes narrowed, a vein in his forehead beginning to throb.

“You think the game is over because one of my pieces is captured? Oh, Nash. Sweet Nash. You useless son of a bitch. You were never anything but a distraction. A big noisy bull to distract people from the subtle knife.” Bella lifted her hand nonchalantly. On her wrist was a rather nice Rolex. She clucked her tongue as she checked the watch. “If you’ll pardon me, my other servitor needs me. Enjoy Tartarus, my disappointing champion. You deserve it.” She laughed softly, as she vanished, disappearing into the ether. All that remained of her were the mocking echos.

He stared at the open air. The three judges were watching him with hands concealed in robes, the hard lines of weapons visible. The other person she was manipulating. But surely, with everyone in the morgue, they would be able to handle it. Dio had said that the most difficult thing that a person could do was to do nothing at all. There were many capable people on the surface to deal with whatever had happened. He wasn’t of any use to them anymore.

“I have nothing more to say in my defense,” He said, his head hanging low as he closed his eyes. There was nothing for it now. He would accept the punishment for trying to stand up. Someone else could worry about saving the day. He wasn’t the hero. He wasn’t even a champion. He was just an idiot.

“Very well. For the crimes that you have committed and abetted, your punishment will be a return to the darkness. Within the depths of Tartarus, you shall see your own life, time and again, trapped within the decisions that have brought you to this moment.” Minos said, his voice sonorous. The king produced a large steel mask. It depicted a screaming human face on the outside. Nash stared at it, eyes widening. The nightmares in Tartarus. Again, and again, and again. The king lifted it into the air. “Thus always to the servants of evil,” he rumbled, his voice low.

Nash moved explosively. He lunged forward, his skull colliding with Minos’ solar plexus His head rang with the force of the blow, but the man was clearly stunned. He couldn’t feel the power of the elements, but he still had his rage. He strained, pulling at the chains as hard as he could. Nash wasn’t ready to give up, here. They still needed him, even if they didn’t think they did. The chains refused to budge. He gritted his teeth. The spirits weren’t helping him. They had said that the gifts they gave him were for good. Was it a lie? Had they abandoned him here, now that they had no more use for him?

He watched as Minos drew a great axe out from his robe. “This will not kill you, human. But you will very much wish you were dead. You have raised your fist against the Kings of the Underworld. What happens to you now is on your head.” The great king raised his axe into the air. There was a distant rumble, and Minos frowned, looking around as Nash struggled fruitlessly with his bonds.

A great, spherical boulder rolled through the asphodel, plowing Minos down. Dozens of black-feathered arrows fell on the dragon-masked king like a murder of crows. The judge lifted his cloak into the air, catching the arrowheads in it, though one sank an inch into his mask. A figure, lean and rangy, rose out of the asphodel, carrying a single-bladed copper sword, which he sank into the chest of the wolf-masked judge.

“Nash!” shouted Sisyphus, racing up. He bent low over Nash, grabbing ahold of the chains. He had a chunk of diamond in one hand, and brought it down with his wiry, terrible strength on the liks. He raised the glittering chunk of gemstone for a second strike, when Minos lunged up from behind him. Sisyphus must have seen the look in Nash’s eyes, because he spun, and dodged out of the way of a tremendous axe blow. Nash hopped backwards and overbalanced, landing on his ass as the fight raged.

Sisyphus was dodging each blow from the bull-masked king, showing no apparent exhaustion, a grin on his face. There was no sign of Ixion, but the arrows continued to rain down on the dragon-masked king, forcing him on the defensive as he ran for the cover of one of the groves of dead trees. Tantalus’ opening blow had not apparently killed the wolf-masked king, who had drawn a gleaming bronze sword. Tantalus dodged around blows with surprising speed for someone who hadn’t eaten in millenia. He seemed to be trying to get his hands on the blade, to draw it out of the king’s chest. The wolf-masked king was not cooperating.

As Sisyphus dodged a blow, Nash managed to get to his feet. He threw himself forward into Minos, catching the king in the side. Temporarily off balance, Minos couldn’t avoid the chunk of diamond in Sisyphus’ hand when it smashed across his jaw, cracking the mask. A second blow came down, and the mask tore, revealing a skeletal jaw visible beneath the metal. At that moment, an arrow thudded into the ground by their feet

A quick look around showed the dragon-masked king wielding a massive horn bow, strung with sinews, crouched behind a tree covered in Ixion’s arrows. The open field was becoming increasingly dangerous. “Go for cover!” Nash shouted, and Sisyphus nodded, lifting the agent over one shoulder.

“Tantalus! A strategic withdrawal!” The emaciated king nodded. With a quick roll, he darted inside of the wolf king’s range, his hand grabbing the hilt of the sword. There was a meaty thud as the lean prisoner’s foot slammed into the king’s robes, somewhere in his midsection. Nash could guess where from the low wheeze that drifted out of the mask. Sisyphus and Tantalus raced towards the vast spit of black marble that lead into the heart of Tartarus.

“We’ve got a plan to get you out, Nash! But we’re going to need to get rid of those Kings, first! Is there any chance that you’re going to be able to fight them off if I can get those chains off of you?” Sisyphus asked. Ixion stood at the mouth of the path into Tartarus, a bow in his hands. It was a crude thing, bone and gut, but it danced in his hands, arrows firing into the gloom.

“I- Maybe! But Sisyphus, what on earth brought you up here?” Nash could see the judges following. Minos and the wolf-masked king were in close pursuit, while the dragon-masked judge followed at a distance, firing arrows occasionally that the three sinners dodged along the way.

“Oh, hell if I know! Call it hope.” Sisyphus laughed wildly, as the boulder rumbled after them, like an dog chasing its master. Minos was forced to leap to the side as the boulder swept past him. Nash and the three sinners raced up the black marble, and down, into the depths of Tartarus.

“Nash.” The voice was terribly weak, but filled with fierce determination nonetheless. He lifted his head. Pearl was there. That is to say, Promethea was there. She was naked, her voice soft, but with the same determination that he had seen in her while she was locked in chains. “I’m here for you,” she whispered, her voice soft. Nash felt a sudden calm come over him, as her presence soothed him. Sisyphus dropped him roughly to the ground. Tantalus and Ixion took up flanking positions, their weapons ready, as the judges charged them.

As Ixion fired a hail of arrows at their foes, Sisyphus raised the diamond into the air, and brought it down. There was a loud, metallic clang as the chains began to bend. He lifted the stone again, and brought it down with all his strength. The chain broke.

The rage consumed him like a bonfire. Betrayed by those he trusted, discarded after he had been useful, dismissed as a mere pawn. The red haze of madness began to cover the world, and then suddenly he was in control again. The burning became cold, and his mind cleared. He let out a breath, his eyes snapping open as the three judges charged. The whole world seemed to be moving in slow motion. He reached out, snatching an arrow from the air as it bore down on Tantalus’ forehead. He turned away from the judges, tendons creaking under the force of his movement, haft of the arrow catching fire as he maintained its momentum, and then accelerated it. He threw the arrow back, pinning the wolf-masked king against an outcropping of diamond.

He charged forward as Minos and the dragon-masked judge bore down on him. The latter swung his bow in a broad arc. Nash plucked it out of the man’s hands, and held it in the path of the axe. There was a splintering crash as the bow was sheared into two equal lengths of horn, the sinew hanging off of them. Nash lashed out with one, the sinew wrapping around the dragon-masked judge’s wrist, providing a perfect leverage. With the other hand, he swept the other bowstring around Minos’s wrist. With a tremendous effort, he pulled the two men together, his arms aching with the sheer strain as their metal masks crunched together.

The two kings fell to the ground, and Nash felt the rage drain away. Instead of the usual shaky horror at what he’d just done, he felt perfect serenity with himself. He turned, and saw Promethea standing in front of him, her eyes blazing, a smile on her face. “You were the one who told Cassandra to leave me here. You spoke with her before we entered Tartarus. Why would you help me now?” he asked, frowning.

“I don’t know why precisely I will tell the girl to force you to stay behind here.” Promethea said, her voice soft, and gentle, as the three sinners picked over the unconcious, heavily injured kings. “But I would not sentence anyone to spend their lifetime here in Tartarus. If I did tell her to do this, it was not out of hate for you.” She stepped forward, and wrapped her arms around him. “They’re getting you out of here,” she whispered softly, squeezing him. “Trust them. At least for now.” With that, she vanished, leaving behind just the memory of her warm body pressed against his.

The group walked through the dark shadows of Tartarus, underneath the artillery-shell thumping of the heart. “You three really came back to save me?” Nash asked, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice. “I’ll be honest, I thought you were pretty focused on your- Well, your torments. Sisyphus, this is time you could be chipping away at the top of your mountain. Ixion, you must have given up your chance to ride the wheel to do this. And Tantalus-“

“With any luck, when we get back, some fruit will have fallen,” Tantalus said. “That’s how you’re getting back to the surface. It’s the best chance we have of getting you out.”

“Why?” It was a simple question, and he seemed to take the three men by surprise with it. They exchanged looks, eyebrows raised.

“Why, lad?” Sisyphus asked, and snorted. “Because damned be the gods. You showed compassion and thought, and now they’re tossing you down here. Whatever reason they might cite for that, they’re wrong.”

“But, I mean… Are you going to stop trying to get revenge or prove the gods wrong? Are you hoping that you’ll be freed for good behavior?”

“Hades with that, Nash. We’re not going to stop trying to escape. But just because we’re obsessed doesn’t mean we’re compulsive. Now come on.” They were approaching the great stone bridge, with its long moat of fire. Nash stopped.

“There’s something we have to do, first. It’ll only take a minute.” Nash moved towards the stone where Promethea still lay. She opened her eyes as he approached. He reached down, and snapped the bonds holding down her wrists and her ankles, the strength of earth flowing back into him. She stared at him, surprised, as he ripped the chains open. “You don’t get a happy ending unless you make it happen.” He bent forward, and pecked her forehead quickly after she sat up.

Then, the five of them made their way across the bridge together. Promethea stood tall, the fire bending backwards away from them, as though recoiling in fear from her. They walked past the great hill, and its cupped top. They entered the great lake of water, and Tantalus stepped forward. “Wait a second-” Nash started, as Tantalus reached up. The fruit did not recoil from the skeletal hand, as he pulled one of the plums down. Tantalus turned, smiling a bit.

“The fruit was never for me to eat, I suppose.” He looked down at it, his head tilted. “I suppose that whatever my escape from this place is, it is not through the tests that Hades has set for me. I will escape, have no fear of that. But I suppose that I must do it on my own terms. I must become a different man than I was when I came to this dark land.” He placed the plum in Nash’s hand. “And you are the man you need to be, to venture into the light again.”

He stared down at the fruit. And the uncertainty filled him. “Promethea. I can feel War inside of me. She gave me a gift, when I was very young, and I think that it was to make me do something horrible today. What if…” He took a deep breath. “Maybe I’m supposed to be here. Maybe this really is what I’m meant to do.”

Promethea took hold of his hands, squeezing them. “Nash. When you were asked to choose a cause to fight for, to dedicate your life to, you chose to give people happy endings. Even betrayed, you are willing to stay in Tartarus for the sake of the people you care about.” She held his hands between hers, and pulled them against her chest. “I can feel War in you. She burns with madness, and she drives you to rage, and pain. But my gift is stronger. You have the focus you need so that your rage is never your master.” She looked up at him. “Passion, belief, emotion, these are the things that make you a human. They are beautiful things, not to be feared. You will always have control with me in your heart.”

She stood up on her toes. Her lips met his, warm as a furnace. The kiss held for several long seconds, before she finally released it, her eyes wet. “You still have to live. You haven’t given everyone a happy ending yet. Remember that.” She looked up into his eyes. Tears were dripping down her cheeks. “I won’t have a happy ending without you, Nash.” She lifted the plum from his hands, and held it gently to his lips.

He bit into it. It was the most deliciously sweet thing he had ever tasted. The sweet juices dripped down his cheeks, as he chewed and swallowed. His stomach rumbled loudly, in protest. It felt like it had been a long time since he’d last had the chance to stop and eat something real. It would have been… the feast.

Warm summer days, and bright light, and things worth living for. If he stayed here, he’d never be with them again. He’d never get a chance to enjoy the company of the people he cared about. And for the first time, perhaps, he realized that he loved them, and the little town, and that nothing would ever be able to make him hurt the people of Zion. There was a moment of utter peace and serenity that ran through him. And then, he was gone, leaving behind the four solitary figures in the pulsing glow of the heart of Tartarus.

“Do you think he has a chance?” Tantalus asked, frowning.

“Fighting one of the Horsemen? He’ll be back among us before you know it.” Ixion shook his head. “I can’t believe I agreed to this plan. What could have possessed you, Sisyphus?”

“Mmm. Maybe I just wanted a chance to play the hero, for once. Being a trickster is all well and good, but there’s something satisfying about being direct.” Sisyphus opened and closed his hand. “And you know what? That felt good.” He grinned. “Another one over that bastard Zeus.”

“And if it means that the Horsemen succeed?”

“Pfah. They’re things of men. They cannot exist without humans to give them meaning. Nothing that old is suicidal.”

Ixion shook his head, as the four of them watched the ceiling. Then, Promethea spoke. “He will succeed. A man like that could succeed at anything he puts his mind to.” She looked down at her wrists, flexing her hands slowly, and smiled. “How would you gentlemen like to help me kill an eagle?”

The earth poured down Nash’s throat. He was buried in slimy, wet mud. He reached up, his arms straining through the mud. There was no air for him. He dragged at the slick mud, trying to propel himself upwards, searching for some handhold. His fingers reached out, scrabbling, and closed on something stone. He could remember nightmares he’d had about drowning, and nightmares about being buried alive. This was the worst of both worlds. He tried to cough out the earth, but that just left his lungs burning for oxygen.

He scrambled at the stone, pulling his other hand free of the cloying mud. Then slowly, painfully, he pulled himself free. He felt cold air on his face, as he broke the surface. He spat up a large wad of earth, panting, as the fresh air filled his lungs and pushed the darkness away. There was a gentle rain falling as he climbed free of the muddy earth, pulling himself up onto the stone slab.

Nash rubbed the mud out of his eyes, feeling tears run down his cheeks. The rain helped, clearing the earth as he blinked owlishly. He was standing in the middle of the graveyard. His suit was ruined. His heart was thumping in his ears, the rush of oxygen feeding his starving brain. He looked around. He was miles from the police station, and he didn’t have a car. He began walking, up towards the woods, and the hotel.

His body was aching, and his throat was raw. He could still taste the bitter mud as he walked slowly through the woods, struggling his way through branches and across slippery undergrowth. The bright grey of pre-dawn filled the sky through the clouds. He walked for what felt like far too long, stumbling on the muddy path between the trees. Could it have been less than a day since he walked the trail for the Eleusinian mysteries? At least this time, he reflected, it wasn’t while he was tripping his balls off on tainted Greek wine. You had to find your victories where you could.

It was the dawn of his fifth day, he realized. He had been so caught up in the chaos of this place that he hadn’t had a chance to check in regularly with the field office in Buffalo. There was going to be hell to pay for that. The idea was strangely comforting. After all, if the worst that he had to worry about was an angry assistant director, then he was doing fairly well. He smiled, and even managed a chipper little laugh, as he stumbled up a steep slope covered in dead leaves from the previous year. The little joys and pains of life. Maybe by the time he got to the others, the other minion of War would be defeated. Maybe he would arrive there and they could all have a happy meal together. He could treat everyone to dinner at Ariel’s. That sounded just perfect to him.

He reached the top of the ridge, and a gap in the trees gave him a good view of the town. The sun was peeking over the edge of the horizon, glittering brightly. There were a few isolated places were smoke was rising from the city, but from here, it looked unharmed. The dome was gone from over the Japanese suburb. And near the lake, hanging over the police station, a massive eye hung in the sky, about a mile up.

It had to be a few hundred feet across at least, and it darted and twirled madly. A colossal white orb, it stared into his soul, brilliant golden iris surrounding a black slitted pupil. It stared at him. He felt the world lurch around him, and then he dropped unconsciously into a stance. The eye darted away, breaking its glare as though frightened, scanning across the valley’s bottom. He felt calm return to him, his shoulders shaking slightly. He could feel the cold brilliance of Promethea’s power inside of him, holding the madness back. He looked down at the valley, as the consequences of what had just happened dawned on him.

“Fuck.”

Chapter 26: Pearl Harbor

Silas Nash walked across the grass. There were still imprints in the ground from where the tables had been set up the previous day. The memories flooded back. The taste of good food, and the laughter of his friends. Zion was a quiet town at the best of times, but the silence in the streets was profound, right now. The words ‘sepulchral’ and ‘silent as the grave’ were marching to mind, and that was not a very happy thought.

He crouched down, and picked a paper plate off of the ground. It must have blown out of the trash, he considered, as he carried it with him. He walked through the small alley to the parking lot of the hotel.

The city was not erupting in violence. There was simply no one around. That was worse, somehow. If people were fighting in the streets, he could stop them. If they were screaming and fighting, he could hold them apart. This silence was the sound of ‘too late’. He approached his hotel door. Against all the odds, he still had his keys in his pocket. He opened the door. His room was as he had left it the previous day. He felt a little twinge in the pit of his stomach at the familiarity of it all. The last time he’d been here, Heather had promised to protect him.

He undressed, and climbed into the shower. He stopped for a moment, and looked around. “Pearl?” he asked softly. “Ariel? Gene? Heather?” His words were absorbed in the silence. There was no giggle. There were no Cheshire cat grins appearing out of thin air.

Nash had spent his entire life fearing the voices in his head. Hating seeing things that weren’t there. Feeling imprisoned by jailers who no one else could see. The sense of having his head entirely to himself was something new. And it was awful. As the hot water began to pour down his face, washing the mud away that the rain hadn’t cleared, he felt tears running down his cheek. “Please, someone. Talk to me.” He spoke barely above a whisper, his eyes closed.

Nothing responded. Even Bella seemed to have disappeared. He felt, for the first time in his life, as though he was absolutely alone. He let out a scream, and lashed out, his fist striking the tile wall of the shower, leaving a gaping hole in the wall. He stared at his knuckles. They should be torn, bleeding, gashed open by the sharp, cracked tile and the sheer force of the impact. But his hand was unharmed. He turned off the water. He still had their gifts. He just had to trust that in some way, they were still watching over him.

He stepped out of the shower, toweling himself off. He dressed slowly, deliberately, taking his time. His hands passed in an unconscious pattern, stringing the tie around his neck. He stared into the mirror, and looked down at the desk. His badge and his gun were gone. He wondered for a moment how he would explain the loss of his firearm. He shook his head. No time for the real world. He had to go out into the madness.

Under the gray sky, the rain dripped down his cheeks. He opened the door to Heather’s office but predictably, nobody was there. The hotel seemed empty. His car wasn’t in the parking lot. It hadn’t been in the graveyard, either. On a hunch, he walked across the street, to the garage. He opened the door, and Gene was nowhere to be seen. He had expected that, but it still made him hurt a little bit inside. What he did find, however, was a set of keys, and his car. He pulled open the garage door, and started the engine. It responded instantly, purring to life, as he drove out into the streets.

The massive eye was still sweeping across the streets, but it seemed to be unwilling to make eye contact with Nash again. As he drove, he noticed a few people out on the streets. Some of them were wandering, seemingly insensate. He had to slow the car, avoiding a young man walking in a daze through the middle of the street. Others were screaming and raving, though most of them didn’t make any noise as they did so. Still others seemed to be clawing at their own skin, scratching themselves badly. And a number simply lay on the ground, face up or face down in the rain, catatonic. The entire city was being driven mad. He could see faces in windows, briefly, but they stayed back, away from the glass, and out of the sight of the eye.

Someone ran out of a door. He recognized the bronze-skinned man whose hand he had broken the day before last. He made it a half dozen steps before the eye turned towards him, staring wildly. The big man began tugging at his hair, growing larger, his body swelling, skin turning to metal, as he screamed and beat his hands against his skull. After a few moments of this, the man fell to the ground, and didn’t move again, simply clenching and relaxing his hands as the rainwater dripped down his body, pooling around him. It was one of the more unsettling things that Nash had ever seen.

The Japanese suburbs were no better. Quite a few more people were out in the streets, apparently caught by the eye while they were trying to find family members. Nash recognized a few of them from the crowd he had seen on Onnashi’s doorstep. One of them in particular stood out. Cassandra’s mother, Mrs Hirosata. She was walking, her eyes darting madly, seeming to search for something. Nash stopped the car, and got out. “Mrs Hirosata?” She didn’t turn her head towards him. He approached a little bit closer, moving slowly, trying to act nonthreatening. She slowly turned to face him, her eyes large, questioning, her head tilted, a frown on her face.

“My… I lost them.” She spoke in a soft, sing-song voice, her eyes having trouble focusing on his face. “My husband. My daughter. I lost them. I don’t know where they are.” He gently reached out, and took her hand. She didn’t resist as he lead her to the car, opening the door for her. He started the car again, and they drove for some time.

His eye was caught by a bright red man lying in the middle of the road. Nash stopped again, and got out of the car. Miss Hirosata did too, seeming slightly more focused as she did. The two of them lifted Mister Hirosata into the back of the car. Cassandra’s mother sat with his horned head cradled gently on her lap, crooning something softly as she ran her fingers across his head. Nash started the car again, and drove onwards.

The clinic was empty, as they drove past. There was no sign of cars in the gravel parking lot, and no sign of anyone inside. He hoped that the people who had been hurt in the riot the day before last were simply staying out of sight of the eye. He looked up at it again. They were closer to it, now. Close enough that he could see the way the rain fell on it. It spread across the eye, leaving a dry patch beneath it that covered the police station.

The building was damaged worse than before. Its roof was caved in, and rain dripped from the bottom of the eye into the center of the building. There was a visible hole leading down to the morgue in the middle of the station, but it looked as though it had been caused by something erupting out. Nash’s gaze returned to the massive eye. “You two stay here in the car, alright? I’m going to check to see if anyone made it.” He didn’t say what he was thinking. If he found Cassandra down there…

He walked across the damp floors. He couldn’t see much of what was downstairs. There was a lot of water filling the morgue, and some of it was disturbingly red. He felt his head pound as he made his way down the stairs. The morgue’s floor was slick. The furniture had been thrown around, the metal examination table bent in half. His breathing came fast. There was nobody down in the morgue. He had no idea whether that was good, or bad. On the one hand, there was a fair amount of blood. And bodies could be moved. But why would anyone move-

There was a faint metallic click. He had his hands up in an instant. He approached the row of refrigerators. He reached out, running his fingers over them. Most of them were quite cold to the touch. One was not. He turned the lever, and pulled it open. He saw a pair of bright eyes, twinkling in the darkness of the refrigerator. They were terrified. “Oh god. Oh god, please no.” Cassandra’s voice was soft, pleading, terrified. Tears were in her eyes.

He felt the rage bubble inside of him. He had been betrayed. She had struck him. Stabbed him in the back. She had sentenced him, through her actions, to an eternity of being trapped in a mask, revisiting the worst memories of his life, over and over again, trapped in a hell that would never end. He could reach out and punish her. He could take her life away, the way she had tried to take his life away. There was nothing she could do to stop him. There was nothing anyone could do to stop him. And wouldn’t he be right? Hadn’t he believed in her? Hadn’t he shown her compassion and told her the truth and protected her? Hadn’t he trusted her?

He held out his hand, and smiled gently. He crushed the rage underfoot without a second thought. “It’s alright, Cassandra. You did the right thing,” he whispered softly. “It’s okay. I’ve got your parents outside.” He stared at the young girl, as she burbled and shivered softly. She’d been so full of fire and confidence before. So determined to prove herself. He wondered if he should have tried to try to hold her back from the things that were happening. If he should have refused her help. She would wear the scars from this time, he knew. But he could at least make things turn out alright. “Tell me about what happened, Cassandra. Who was the other agent of War?”

Cassandra shivered. She shook her head.”I can’t say. If I tell you, she’ll know. She’ll come back for me. She’ll drive me insane.” Cassandra’s voice was a ragged whisper, as she shivered. She reached out, and took his hand, squeezing it for dear life, shaking like a leaf. “She did something. Her eyes were glowing. And she made that thing, that eye. Everyone went mad. Megara attacked Irayama, and Harry got involved. Officer Dio got cut open when he tried to pull them apart. Doctor Smith was trying to get him to the clinic. Her part of the keystone got taken. The person who did this, she’s insane. She’s going to destroy the city. She said she needed the keystone for something. To bring War into this world, to break the rules.”

Cassandra shook, and Nash nodded. He started to stand up, and she grabbed his wrists, burying her face against his chest. “I’m so sorry, Nash. I’m so sorry for what I did. I thought I was doing the right thing. I knew it meant something horrible was going to happen to you, and I did it anyway.” She was breathing heavily, her eyes full of dripping tears, as she shook like a leaf.

Nash had never spent much time around kids. And right now, that’s what she was. He softly rested a hand on the top of her head, and pet her hair gently. She sobbed into his shirt, and he felt the anger blossom in him again. This time, it was directed at the things that had forced her into this position. He took a deep breath.

“It’s okay. If I’d known what you were thinking, I’d have thrown myself into Hades for you, Cassandra. I trust your judgment. And it was important.” He looked up, still holding her with his other arm. “I’m just sorry you had to be the one to push me. Now come on. I’m going to get your parents in here. The three of you take shelter. Where did Susan go?” He felt her jerk at his guess. There were only so many people who could have been responsible for this, though. The girl quaked against him.

“She… She went to the apartment towers.” The girl let out a little sob. “She’s going to find me, for telling you. She’s going to find me, and she’s going to-” Cassandra let out a little choking sound. She had to have one hell of an imagination.

“No she’s not, Cassandra.” Nash stood up straight. “I’m going to stop her.” He lifted her in his arms, carrying her, his arms around her. Her legs didn’t seem to want to move, and he couldn’t blame her. The eye darted down, and he met its gaze head on. Cassandra tensed, as he stared into the golden eye. It darted away, like a socially awkward Sauron. Cassandra let out a strangled little sound, and looked up at him, eyes wide. If anything, she seemed more afraid of him. He smiled. “It’s all going to turn out alright, Cassandra.” He didn’t lie.

The two of them made their way up to street level. Cassandra sat gratefully with her parents in the back of the car, clinging to them.

The twin apartment buildings near the edge of the water were visible. One of the towers seemed somewhat shorter than it had been before. The eye did not look at the four of them. Cassandra’s parents seemed to be recovering somewhat. They were speaking softly in the back of the car, as Nash drove. A combination of Japanese and a little Greek drifted from the back. He let them speak together, regaining their sanity as a group.

There had been that flash of anger towards Cassandra. He knew what she had done, why she had done it. He had still felt, for just a moment, like he could have killed her. She could have spoken with him. She could have trusted him. But of course, that was exactly what she couldn’t do. He was a servant of War, she had been right. It wasn’t easy to trust the judgment of others, sometimes. But he had done his best with her, wherever he could. She seemed like she needed that little spark of belief like other people need air.

He parked the car several hundred feet from the towers, where the two modern structures blocked the view of the eye. A garage was open at the bottom of the shortened tower. A bit of stone fell, crashing onto the pavement, crumbling as it struck. Someone was on top of the building, fighting. He opened the car door. “I’m going to end all of this.” He made to step out, and Cassandra grabbed his arm.

“I’m not letting you go up there alone,” she hissed, her eyes wide. He smiled.

“Not this time. You’ve had more than enough pain, Cassandra. I’m going up there, on my own, and I’m coming back down with everyone.” He smiled. “Have a little faith.” With that, he gently pulled free of her grasp.

He stood up, out of the car. Another piece of concrete fell from the roof of the building, and smashed to powder on the pavement in front. The lobby looked badly damaged. Instead, he went for the garage. It appeared to be an underground structure, large enough to hold several dozen cars. Inside, the fluorescent lights hummed. There was a rumble, and they flickered, briefly plunging the building into darkness.

He walked serenely in the black, feeling the air swirling around him. Ariel’s gift led him forward through the blind shadow, as quickly as if he was walking through a fully lit corridor. He effortlessly sidestepped a discarded glass bottle that could’ve given him a nasty concussion if he’d stepped on it and fallen. His hand pushed open a door, leading him into a stairwell.

Under the red emergency lights, he ran into people at the third floor. Residents were beginning to evacuate the tower, fleeing the place of safety that was clearly no longer safe. He slipped through the crowds like he was swimming, moving faster by the second as he stepped between the lines of people. Heather’s gift made it easy. Soon, he was free of them again, the only sign of their passing a desperate scent of sweat and fear that hung in the air. He fought free of it, and came to an abrupt end. The stairwell was filled with debris.

He looked around. The stairwell was on one side of the building. He reached out to the wall, feeling the solid stone, and swung his fist into it. The power of the earth made him strong, and he ripped open a man-sized hole, revealing the fresh rain-swept air and the endless lake beyond. He swung himself out, driving his fingers and toes into the concrete exterior of the building. It crumbled under his touch, and then become solid when he pulled himself upward.

He could hear the sound of conflict. Screaming, the crashing of flesh against flesh, and the intense suction of power. He struggled to keep moving upwards, and to not pass out. It felt as though he was being summoned, as though he would just float upwards towards the fight if he released his death grip on the wall. He did not put the theory to the test. He just kept clinging, and dragging himself upward. It was only a couple of stories to the roof, but even supernaturally enhanced, he was aching and exhausted by the time he got there.

He tried to tally his efforts. He’d been going since the previous day without any rest besides being temporarily unconscious. He’d been in two absolutely life or death fights. The fatigue was making itself apparent as he pulled himself onto the top of the tower. And yet despite it all, he could feel the adrenaline pounding in his veins, driving away the exhaustion.

The top two floors had been almost entirely removed. The third floor from the top was still half there, walls holding parts of the second floor upright. Underneath this shade, Irayama Onnashi stood. She was Izanami. Her body was rot, and decay. She stood nearly twelve feet tall, her arms too long and too skinny, almost ape-like in appearance. She was wearing no clothing, but her body was hardly recognizable, ravaged by maggots and suffering. Her ribs were visible in her sides, hanging out of open holes, and her eyes were gone, replaced with something that writhed unpleasantly. The scent of her ran across the roof, foul and polluted, as she let out a bestial hiss of rage. Her hands glowed with black fire, as she traced green runes in the air.

On one of the two open corners, Harry Constantinou stood. The man’s skin was red, his eyes darting wildly, foam running down his lips. His breathing was audible from where Nash stood at the edge of the roof. He was undressed, and under one arm, he carried a massive tree trunk, groaning under its own weight. Roots were visible at one end, and branches at the other. It looked like a young White Pine. The big man held it in a one-handed grip, watching the other two. There was none of the calm, gentle compassion of the man that Nash had met. There was just a berserk animal, waiting for someone to make a move, so that it could know what to tear apart.

Across from him, Megara stood. She had taken her monstrous true form, standing tall, skin blue as sapphires. Her eyes glittered malevolently, as she drew sigils around her, a great hiss rising from her throat. She was watching the other two, one hand extended towards each of them, creating intricate combinations of mystic symbols in front of her, as though waiting for something to draw her ire, and send her surging forward.

The power was overwhelming. They felt stronger than they ever had when Nash had fought them before. He felt as though he was going to be torn apart, each of the three pulling with an impossible strength. And behind them, visible in the sky, the eye was watching. Its pupil widened, becoming almost circular as it opened, shaking violently in the air. The world, just for a moment, held its breath, and the rain seemed to stop falling as the three waited for a sign of weakness.

Nash didn’t give them the chance to strike. He leapt forward into the middle of them, his hands up. Harry seemed to take the challenge first, charging forward with a roar like a wounded bear. Nash turned to face him, and felt the crackle of electricity on the hair on the back of his neck. He spun to the side, out of the way of the lightning bolt that Megara had just thrown at him. Harry caught the bolt in one hand, and threw it backwards, over his shoulder, where it sizzled into the sky with a crack-snap like a falling tree. The rain began to fall harder, and heavier.

Nash assessed his surroundings. Harry was swinging the tree trunk. Nash leapt agilely into the air, pulling his legs up, as the pole swept beneath his feet. Harry reversed the grip with impossible force, and backswung. The massive log creaked, sizzling in his grip, as he reversed its immense momentum with sheer strength, catching Nash in mid air.

The gift of earth, Nash remembered. No use against a still-living tree trunk with the spark of life still barely aflame in it. He briefly empathized with a baseball in a major league game, as he was struck towards Irayama. She sidestepped him easily, and his body pounded into a concrete wall, digging a deep gouge in the surface as it shattered under his touch. He rolled drunkenly across the ground, and leapt to his feet.

Harry was charging at Megara, the fractured tree trunk still in his hands. She threw handfuls of flame, which hissed and spat violently in the rain. Each one was batted away with the tree trunk, eating away at a bit more of its mass. Onnashi appeared to be waiting for them to weaken one another, pacing like a caged tiger. Nash took advantage of this, and threw a chunk of concrete at the back of her head. She spun, writhing eye sockets full of rage. He ran for her, and just as she raised a hand to snuff out his life, he slammed his foot into the ground underneath her. Gene’s power crumbled the already strained roof beneath her feet, and Irayama tumbled downwards into the darkness. That gave him a moment.

Megara had coiled her tail around Harry’s chest. The muscles in the tail bulged and writhed as they tried to crush the man’s ribs. One of Harry’s hamhock-sized hands was wrapped around Megara’s throat, and squeezing. Her face was turning a shade of purple as she struggled. Nash sprinted into the pouring rain. He wasn’t as physically strong as either of them. But he didn’t have to be. He stepped forward, and reached out. His fingers closed on one of Megara’s pinkies. Even with her relatively delicate frame, he had to center his stance, drawing on the strength of Gene, just to bend it back.

Her eyes glowed with rage as she kept squeezing Harry, even as the pain became obvious. The sudden snap that filled the air made her face turn ashen, and Harry turned his head towards Nash, his eyes glittering dangerously. His free hand released Megara’s throat, and swung at Nash’s head with a blow that could have removed not only Nash’s skull, but most of his body above the waist. Trapped in Megara’s coils, however, the blow was slower than it could have been, and Nash danced out of the way.

The enraged couple exchanged a glance, and suddenly, both were charging at Nash. He had succeeded at keeping the two of them from killing each other. Now it was only a matter of keeping the two of them from killing him.

He reached for Heather’s gift. The waves of bloodlust pouring off of the two were palpable. They weren’t trying to be subtle. They weren’t fighting like people. They were fighting like animals. Impossibly strong, enraged, and deeply cunning animals, but he could do this. He took several steps backwards, forcing them to follow him, and took the moment of respite to breathe in.

Just for a moment, he thought he heard Heather’s laughter. But it was just his imagination.

He leaned back a fraction of an inch, avoiding a swipe from Megara’s clawed nails that would have ripped open his carotid artery. Harry tried to grab his wrist, and Nash easily reversed the grip. He couldn’t overpower the bigger man, but he could outmaneuver him. Nash slipped out of Harry’s fingers like an eel, jumping back a few steps further.

The only warning any of them had of Irayama re-entering the fight was when Nash sprang into the air. Two glowing black-wreathed hands thrust up out of the floor, where his feet had been moments before. The last time he had fought these three, they had been uncertain, easily swayed, not wanting to really hurt him. Now, all three were in their own worlds, full of rage, hurt, and violence. He knew that they were determined to kill him. And so, he began to laugh. Partly to damage their resolve, to make them enraged, to make them sloppy. And partly because he was winning.

Irayama pulled herself free, and all three of them chased him, getting in one another’s way. Blows that should have killed him were being redirected to strike each other. It would have been easy to kill them. It would only take the right strike. He could have driven fingers into eye-sockets, or flayed open arteries with a piece of broken glass. He could have thrown them from the roof to land, punishingly hard, on the ground, many stories below. He could have redirected Irayama’s murderous hands against them. Instead, he exhausted them. He let them chase him, as the power of Heather made his movements perfect. They expended ten times the energy he did with each attack, and with Ariel, his lungs never tired. He could toy with them as long as he needed. But he didn’t have all day.

Harry was first. The big man was the most obviously exhausted. He was the most skilled of the three in hand-to-hand combat, but he wasn’t using that now. That left him a weak link. Nash removed his tie in a single flowing pull, providing himself with an incredibly strong silk garrote. He dodged under one of Harry’s blows, and when the man tried to follow up with a brutal haymaker, Nash leapt. He passed over Harry, and the necktie wrapped around the big man’s throat. Nash hit the ground and crouched, pulling forward with all of his might, his back to Harry’s. The combination of the biting silk pressing against the man’s jugular, and Nash’s weight hanging off of his shoulders, began to pull Harry off balance. Nash had to pull with all his might to keep the man from sliding a hand underneath the necktie, and breaking the hold.

It was a horribly dangerous technique. Ten or fifteen seconds would leave an average man unconscious. More could cause brain damage. Lose focus, and it might result in a corpse. Nash would never have used the technique in any normal circumstances. But he could feel Harry’s bloodlust, with the help of Heather. When it waned, disappearing, Nash released the hold. The colossal lumberjack hit the ground, still breathing, but his anger gone. Nash darted away, and was shocked when he realized the man was still conscious. Harry had fallen to his hands and knees, but the madness in him seemed to be receding, as he blinked in the cold rain.

Irayama lunged for Nash again. Her long-nailed hands reached for his chest, trying to stop his heart. He did not allow them to find purchase. He darted back, feeling the rage building inside of him. He let it flow. His limbs, growing leaden with fatigue, became spry again. He could feel the strength flooding him as adrenaline and anger did the work of a dozen pots of black coffee, supercharging his reactions. He caught her wrists, hefting the corpse goddess’ arms into the air. Her skin was like tallow, flowing slightly under his grip as he held on for dear life. He could see, out of the corner of his eye, Megara, tensed to spring at him. As she leapt, her tail was caught by Harry, and he pulled her close. Two arms that could have snapped her spine wrapped around her like an iron bar. She hissed and screamed, clawing at him, and he didn’t stop holding her for a moment, his eyes closed as she struggled.

Nash bent low, and flipped the death goddess. She slammed into the ground with a sound like thunder, and he lifted her arms into the air, while leaning his foot against her chest. He held her immobile in the position, his arms straight out to either side, holding her until she finally went limp, no longer fighting. Nash released her. He saluted the eye with a single finger, and fell to his knees. Fatigue flooded his body, refusing to be denied. He sat, and panted, as Megara relaxed. “Everyone sane again for the moment?” he asked, his voice weak.

Harry released his wife, the woman laying on the floor, panting heavily. He spoke, and there was just a bit of rasp to his voice that hadn’t been there before. “What the hell happened? The last thing I remember, we’d gotten Dean back. Cassandra told us that you had stayed behind to save them, that you’d given your life to save my boy. Then, that Susan girl began to laugh. And then…” Harry shuddered. “I couldn’t think. There was nothing but pain. I could remember things tormenting me, and I kept trying to stop them, but I couldn’t catch them.” He stared down at his hands, and his wife, who was rubbing her own throat slowly. The look of horror that ran across his face was a terrible thing to see.

“Madness is difficult to sustain.” Irayama whispered, her figure shrunken back to that of an old woman. “It burns you out. Her eye only managed to overpower us through a great investment of power from without. After that was spent, the madness would naturally fade when we ran out of energy. Of course, in the middle of a fight, that would likely only happen when we were killed by one of the others. It would have taken away one of her foes.” Irayama wiped the rain out of her eyes as she slowly stood up, her tie-dyed shirt ragged. “Twice in one day you have escaped from the underworld, Nash.”

She kept wiping her eyes. It wasn’t the rain she was trying to wipe away “I am ashamed to ask this of you. But I must ask you to risk death once more. The girl has my part of the keystone, and I suspect Megara’s, too.” The blue-skinned snake woman’s hand went to her throat, pulling out a gold chain. it was noticeably absent of any gemstone. “She is going to corrupt the keystone, and bring War into this world. Fully formed, free of the bindings of the rules that hold back the Elementals and the Horsemen. She will give power to that eye, and spread its gaze across the world. Everything is going to end, Nash. And she will use the life of my child to do it.” Irayama shook her head. “I know I ask much of you. Can you save her?”

Nash stood up. His bones hurt. His chest was aching from where he had been struck with the tree trunk. He could still feel the fatigue. Everything was catching up with him. “No problem.” He got a running start, and sprinted, as the three people watched him. His legs pumped, and he leapt lightly to the remains of the roof. A second leap carried him to the top of a tattered wall, standing on its own. His third leap carried him to the top of the opposite tower.

Four people stood on the roof. Susan was holding a small fruit knife, and she turned in surprise, raising it as he approached. Dean and Isabelle lay, back to back, their eyes unseeing, with the same catatonic look that the people in the street had. A gold chain rested around both their necks. A single great ruby, at least three inches across, shaped like a perfect disc, hung from the chain. And beyond them, fiery red hair and a dress like the red of dying suns and dying men both flapping in the wind, War smiled with gunmetal teeth. It was like standing by a singularity, the sheer pull of her power growing more intense by the second. She opened her mouth, slowly, her tongue like a scarlet obscenity as it moved.

“My champion.”

Chapter 27: Barbarossa

Silas Nash stood in the rain, his eyes on Bella, keeping Susan in his peripheral vision. His arms were aching. He could feel the pain in his fingers. The stabbing pains in his nose and forehead, where Megara had hammered him with blows. The soreness of his throat from Harry’s stranglehold. His solar plexus still ached. He could feel sharp pains in his chest, his heart beating erratically. He was shaking. The cold was getting to him. It was almost enough to make him laugh as he studied her. “So, Bella. Just the servants of Bella, here. What do you intend to have me do to make things worse?”

The woman’s arms were crossed. She smirked. “I admit. I didn’t think you’d make it out of Tartarus. Did you like that little touch? Frightening the girl by letting her see your wounds. I knew that she would recoil from you, that it would scar your relationship. It’s in the nature of people- Humans, or monsters- to fear the things that remind them of death, and pain. There was a very interesting study on the subject I read once.”

“What do you mean by my wounds?”

“You don’t have a soul, Nash.” He gave her a skeptical look. “Oh, it’s not something special. You could’ve had a soul. You had the beginnings of one, once. But I stole everything that gave you meaning. Your mother. Your sanity. Your belief in yourself. I ripped all of that away, piece by piece. I stole your joy in the world. All to make you the perfect weapon. That’s why Cassandra and everyone else in this place recoils from you. That’s why you could take on the Sisters’ power so quickly.” Her eyes twinkled, merry and green. “You didn’t have any soul to conflict with their power. You’re not special. You’re maimed!”

“How the hell am I alive without a soul?” he asked, his head pounding, that familiar anger racing up inside of him. How long had anger been the only thing driving him?

“It’s not a soul that keeps you alive. That’s the job of meat. The soul just makes that life worth living.” His eyes went to the ruby. Black lines were growing outwards along its surface. “Oh, yes. We have a little while, still, before I break free, and ride rampant across the world. Time for us to talk. Time for you to regain your strength, and snap the little green snake’s neck.” Susan took in a sharp breath, her eyes widening. She’d been standing silent while Silas and Bella had spoken, but now seemed hunted, aware that the focus was on her.

“What, Susan? I promised you that you wouldn’t be a side player in the story anymore. I promised you a starring role. I didn’t say that you would live. It’s as I said. If you want to survive, you have to be the strongest. And Nash here… Oh, he’s been getting stronger by the day. He convinced the Sisters that he was a good man, through a bit of temporal trickery. Approaching Fire when she was at her most vulnerable, ‘saving’ her. She fell in love with him long ago, and spent all this time pining for him. She believed that, maybe, just maybe, he was a good man.”

“What did you do to the Sisters? You’re acting awfully directly, here. Aren’t they going to smack your hands if you try to make yourself manifest here? I thought there were rules.” He let his eyes wander. Isabelle and Dean looked in worse shape than he did. He’d thought momentarily of trying to get Isabelle to heal him, but in her current state, it could kill her. Besides, she seemed unconscious. If he was going to do this, it’d be wounded.

Susan was squeezing the knife tight. She could hear what Bella was saying. Maybe he could use that to his advantage. He had to hope that she wasn’t a truly horrid person deep down inside. That she didn’t really want to murder her friends. That maybe she, too, was just a victim of Bella’s madness.

“Oh, that was easy. When Susan here unleashed the Eye, this place was no longer a part of the earth. It is now part of my domain. They cannot interfere here, because of their own precious rules.” She smiled. “It’s rather like the contract, really. It seems like a wonderful idea, to bind the stability of your place to laws, and rules. After all, the people who want to live here are dedicated to keeping those laws and rules already. Order and peace are what they want out of life. But when you depend on the rules to hold your enemies in check, it means you cannot break even the spirit of those rules, while your enemies can.”

She chuckled softly, her eyes glittering. “You know that, don’t you, Nash? The rules are only an impediment to those without will. When you have power, you can choose which rules you’ll follow. You can ignore the commands of others. You can even upset the order of life and death. You can threaten the gods in their abodes, and make them love you for it.” She laughed, and the sound of it was familiar. High, cold, shrieking, mirthless.

He narrowed his eyes. “And what exactly was the gift that you gave me?” he asked, his voice soft. He could feel the anger inside of him. He already knew the answer, but he wanted Susan to know it, too.

“Rage.” Bella smirked. “Just as I gave Susan Madness, I gave you Rage. I gave you the raw strength that you needed. When your pride was pricked, when your significance was doubted, when you were given less than you deserved, I gave you the might to take what you wanted. I gave you power, and fury, and an unstoppable heart. And you did such magnificent things with it, Nash. Humbling the gods of this place, and winning them over. Believing that you could do the impossible, changing stories without a care for the consequences, defying the rules of life and death.” She smiled sweetly.

“And because you were too mad to know the danger, the consequences, you were able to persevere. You did not hold back. And I must say, I am very proud of you.” She cast her eyes over to Susan. “Of course, the girl played her part, too. You were told my methods. I am not a direct person. You were… an experiment. A very successful one, mind you. One that has provided my ultimate victory.”

Nash turned away from Bella. It was hard, like turning his back on a drawn gun. He tensed slightly, preparing for the fatal blow from the red woman. When it didn’t come, he looked Susan in the eyes. He felt the same strange bubbling rage that had built in him when he had stared into the eye hanging over the police station. He held it down just as easily. She seemed slightly shocked by this, as she backed away a couple of steps, holding up the knife. “Susan.” he spoke softly. “What did she do to you?”

“Do-” Susan’s eyes narrowed, her teeth gritted. “You arrogant son of a bitch. Just like the rest of them. You think a little green snake can’t do anything on her own!” She held up the knife, sneering. “Just like those two. Always so in love, always together. Leaving me behind, like I was just a prop!” She grinned, and there was no joy in it. “I accepted power. Enough power to tear this place down! To get rid of Zion, and to be free of it! Enough power that I could go wherever I wanted in the world! I could be a hero! I could be a monster! I could be whatever I pleased, with War’s power, because nobody would force me to play a bit part in their stupid, self-centered love-story!” Tears were flowing down her cheeks, turning her eyes red as she spoke.

“Oh, she makes it sound so grand. I made her a focal point of madness. Distorting the senses of those around her. Making them act irrationally. Altering their priorities. It was a deliciously simple way to work. Subtle. With everyone so focused on you, and the way you were disrupting the city, nobody thought of little Susan. It seemed like a perfect power for some as insignificant as her.” Bella giggled softly. “And of course, I gave her madness, too. The same gift that I gave you, altering her perceptions, changing her mind, making her less stable. It gave her the power to lie to you, because she believed the lies she was saying with all of her heart. ‘I don’t care about them’. ‘All I care about is power’. ‘When I do this, I’ll be free.'”

Susan’s eyes were flicking from Bella to Nash. “Of course, it was all a lie she was telling herself. Because you hate her, don’t you, Nash? You see the way she has betrayed those she loved. She, who grew up surrounded by people who loved her, and cared about her. It was never enough for her. She’s going to destroy the first place that you ever felt like you were accepted. The first place where anyone showed you any love and compassion. All because she wanted more.”

“Shut up.” Susan said, through clenched teeth. “I had a good reason for this. I had… I…” She ran a hand through her wet hair, the knife weaving erratically.

“Why don’t you just cut down the little green snake? It’ll be so much easier to stop me if you do. You could still be the hero, Nash. You could save everyone. But not while she’s alive. If you turn your back on Susan for just a moment, she’ll stick that knife in it. She can kill you, Nash. I made very sure of that.” Bella reached behind her back, and took out a gun. Susan and Nash both turned to stare at it.

The red-headed woman carefully slid out the clip, checking it. “Sixteen bullets. Plenty to put down a mad beast. You know more about her, now. She’s no Izanami. She can die easily.” She slid the clip back, slapping it into place, and clicked the safety off. “Will you accept it, Nash? Be my champion. Only one of the two of you can survive this, now.”

Nash took a deep breath. The sharp scent of rain filled the air, as he looked slowly around the roof. ‘Can you save her’, Irayama had said. But it hadn’t been Isabelle that Irayama had been talking about. Izanami was a mother to every person in this city. “Shove it, Bella.” It wasn’t the coolest line he could muster. But you couldn’t beat it for sheer dismissiveness, and the toxic glitter in Bella’s eyes made it clear that it had hit home.

“Have it your own way. Here you go, Susan.” Bella threw the gun to Susan’s feet. The girl picked it up. “Nash has decided to die heroically, making a point that he is nobody’s puppet. But we both know how untrue that is, don’t we? Just point, and pull the trigger.” Susan stared at the gun, picking it up. Nash saw the look in her eyes, empty and hopeless. She started to lift the barrel, placing it against the underside of her own chin.

Nash had never moved so fast in his life. His fingertips closed around the barrel, and pulled it away, to the side, just as the trigger pulled. Susan’s eyes snapped opened and she jammed the knife into his stomach. He grunted. He hadn’t had the time to summon Gene’s resilience. He took a breath, and blood bubbled down his lips, a dark red spreading across the white dress shirt’s front. “Both such disappointments.” Bella sighed, her head shaking slowly.

“I-” Susan sobbed, and her eyes looked suddenly, horribly clear. She stared down at the blood running down his stomach. The gun dropped from her hand, tears running down her cheeks. “I didn’t want to kill anyone. I just didn’t want to be left behind.”

Nash gently rested a hand on the back of Susan’s head, pulling it against his chest. “I’m not going to let you become a killer that easily.” His voice was ragged, as he hugged her gently. Rain poured down his face, a smile on his lips. Her fingers untensed around the knife. It was his own fault for startling a snake. He reached down, and gingerly pulled the knife free. He was probably doing more harm than good, but he didn’t care. He let go of Susan, and she sank to her knees, sobbing. “I know what it’s like to be powerless to change things, Susan. It’ll be alright.” He gently tousled the girl’s hair, and turned. Bella’s face was cold, and impassive.

“How many times can you sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, Nash?” she asked, her voice a soft whisper. Her voice had lost its harshness, its cold steel grate, as he ran his fingers over the wound. Blood was dripping out. A wound like that could kill a man. He removed his jacket, and placed it around Susan’s shoulders, the young woman trembling in the rain.

“As many times as it takes.” He gave her a cocksure smile. “I can handle it, after all.” He took a step, and his leg gave out underneath him. He hit the ground hard, hands scraping across the gravel roofing of the apartment complex. He was down for only a moment before he pushed himself back to his feet, but Bella laughed.

“Look at you, Silas. You are so careless of your own body. So desperate that you would destroy yourself. How can you ever hope to succeed?” She smiled sweetly as he approached Isabelle and Dean. The two of them were pale. Paler than they had been before. He checked the ruby. The black lines were deeper. There wasn’t much time left. “There’s no hope, now. Zion is doomed. I have tied my essence into the keystone, and soon, it will all fall apart.”

Nash became aware of someone else crouched next to him. It was Susan. Her eyes were red, but she was focused. “She’s right.” The girl whispered. “She had me do something. A ritual. It’s draining the life out of my-” She ran her hand across her face, wiping away rain and tears. “My friends. It’s killing them to provide her a gateway into the world.”

“Oh yes. And I will arrive, full, and terrible. The keystone is important to that, of course. It will determine the form that I will take when I enter this world. The blood of two lovers, slain by their closest friend for petty, selfish reasons…” Bella laughed. “I will be a terror beyond words, Nash. I will be an abomination. An apocalypse. And all thanks to our dear little Susan. I’m sure the two of you will enjoy the life in the world that I will create.” She licked her lips slowly, as though savoring a coming meal.

“Perhaps I will make your little Cassandra strangle her parents. I saw how it hurt you to see Echidna and Heracles at each other’s throats. That will be my world. Wife shall murder husband, lover shall maim lover. Parent shall kill child, and vice versa. I can turn it all rotten.” She laughed softly into her hand. “What a world. I’m sure that you’ll feel right at home, Nash.” She put her hands on her hips and stretched. “Well, I can’t be late. I’ll see you two again in a few minutes. You both fought very hard. I couldn’t kill you myself, after all of that. No, I think that I’ll enjoy seeing what you do in my world.” With another wild laugh, she disappeared.

Nash ran his finger over the ruby. It was cold as ice, and he had to pull his fingers away, sucking on them, frowning. “How does this work?” he asked.

“It- She said it would work like a gas siphon. Once it started drinking up their life, it would keep going. It would be connected to the two of them. She said that it was practically unbreakable. You could take a diamond drill to the thing, and it wouldn’t even get scratched. Even if they died- It’d still drain them away.”

“Is there any way that we can move it away from them? Break the connection, so that it stops taking their life, and stops getting corrupted?”

Susan shook her head, her eyes tearing up. “No. It’s connected to them on a deeper level than that. You could take it to the underworld, and they’d still be connected to it- Oh no.” She stared over his shoulder.

Nash turned. The eye had turned black. It wavered and shivered, tearing open, revealing a gaping hole into… nothing. There was no fire, no brimstone. Just an endless night. He saw a figure there, and it rode a red horse across the most utter black he had ever seen. He turned back to the ruby, trying to think. They still had a minute. “Is there any way to undo the corruption? Could we cleanse it?”

Susan shook her head. “Miss Onnashi might have been able to, but it would’ve taken her hours, at least. I…” She rubbed her eyes. “I just wanted them to not leave me behind. They were going to have a story together, and I wouldn’t be a part of it. I was just going to disappear into the background.” She sobbed softly. “I just wanted us to be happy together!”

He stared down at the keystone. “Susan. Have you heard what the worst that could happen is? If this stone is broken, and Zion is destroyed?”

She rubbed her eyes. “They… Irayama said it would be chaos. Humans and monsters, at war with one another, until both were dead. The end of everything.”

“What’s the best thing that could happen?” he asked softly.

“What?”

The thoughts ran through his head, spurred by adrenaline and desperation. It was an insane idea, but that seemed to be the only kind he could come up with anymore. “It could work. This place is magical, and at its heart is the idea that we can all get along. There are flaws, there’s conflict.” But there were heroes and monsters living together.

There was a goddess of death who adopted lost children and cared for them like her own. There was a butcher who didn’t eat one ounce of human flesh, no matter how much she wanted to. There were mothers who couldn’t have children, and there were fathers who couldn’t protect their children, and still tried with all their might. There were white snakes who thought they would be alone forever, and there were young men who would have given their lives to prove them wrong.

He held the gemstone up. It was such a fragile thing. “She said that the way this stone was treated was important. Breaking it to kill someone, for selfish reasons, and it would make the world spiral into hell. What if we broke it for the right reasons?”

She frowned. “Even if that worked… how can you be sure, Nash?” she asked softly.

He remembered what Hades said. Faith did not come easily to Nash. Trusting others, that they would do the right thing. He had always been forced to trust himself. Even his mother had lied to him. But she hadn’t, not really. There had been someone in the darkness. Someone who had been watching him, and who had dark plans for him. He held the ruby up to the light. The black lines had nearly reached the center. The sound of hoofs beating the nothing behind him was growing louder. “I can’t. But it’ll save these two.”

He closed his hand around the ice-cold gem, and there was a soft grinding sound. He had expected more resistance, but there was no life in the gem. It was nothing but a stone, and he crushed it without effort. Red and black powder fell from his hand, pouring into a small heap on the ground.

It was not a dramatic change. The magic of Zion disappeared without a fuss, and went out into the rest of the world. The sky was just a little bit brighter, the rain a little sweeter. The trees were just a little greener. And behind them, there was no black hole into space, or mad, staring eye. There was just the horizon. “Did it work?” Susan asked, looking around. Her irises were jade green, with the slit pupils of a snake. He smiled.

“You know, Nash, you really should take up a little chess,” Bella purred. She stood a little ways beyond the two young teenagers, a smile on her face. “This was a classic fork. Threatening in two places. If you had shown greater care, perhaps you could have saved the city, as well as those two children. You must be terribly disappointed in yourself.”

There was a crunch. Megara and Harry climbed up over the edge of the building, looking somewhat the worse for wear. Irayama was riding on Harry’s shoulders, in her tie-dyed shirt. The three of them ran to their children, picking them up, and then stared at Bella. She smiled pleasantly. Irayama hissed out a word in Japanese. “Close! Very close,” Bella said. The red-haired woman laughed softly. “A century of your work, undone in moments. The painful truth of the battle between entropy and order. It takes incredible amounts of painstaking work to create something like this, and a single lonely, frightened girl to destroy it.”

“I liked you a lot better when you just said ‘come and get me’, Bella.” Nash said, crossing his arms as he studied her. “So what’s this? The world isn’t ending around us. There’s no fall of stars. You lost, and now you’re just going to badger us to death? I’m sure that Gene, Heather, Pearl, and Ariel are going to be here any minute, and I bet they could do you a bit of harm for all of this. Why don’t you run away, now, before things get any worse for you?”

She smiled. “Aren’t you curious, Nash? Don’t you wonder what my motive is?” She smiled sinisterly. “All you have to do is meet my eye, for just a moment, and you will know it. It’s such a wonderful secret, Nash.”

“You want to destroy things. It’s what you are. It’s who you are. What more is there to know?” asked Megara, her face cold and haughty, as she held Dean gently against her chest, stroking the unconscious boy’s hair, her stance protective. “Flitter away, spirit. The city can rebuild or disperse as the people choose. You have done nothing more than disrupted life for a moment. It will soon regain its step.”

“Don’t do it, Nash,” Irayama said. “That woman is a thing of darkness. You can’t trust her. She could drive you mad, or steal your soul with a glance. I wouldn’t put any of those things past her.”

Nash considered his options for a moment. His guts ached where the knife had plunged into him. He would have to ask for help with that. His best shirt was smeared with his own blood. His hands hurt. And he wasn’t afraid of her anymore. “There’s nothing more that Bella can do to me,” he said, his voice firm. “She’s given me her best shot. She’s nothing but anger, and hate, and those things can’t control me anymore.” He lifted his head, and made eye contact with her. In a moment, he knew her like he had known few other things in his life, and he realized that a tear was running down his cheek.

She stepped back. A hole opened behind her, into that same dark nothing-space that he had seen before. Her expression didn’t change. He knew that it couldn’t. She didn’t weep. She couldn’t show that weakness. Where she was about to go, there was no room for weakness. But when she spoke, the tone of her voice was nearly enough to break his heart.

“Come and get me.”

Then she was gone.

“I will.”

Chapter 28: Fall Weiss

When first one creature slew its sibling out of hunger, or fear, or rage, she was born. She did not have thought, because she was an idea. She existed only in the thoughts of others. When the winter came, or when food was scarce, or when the mating season became fraught, or when overcrowding threatened, she arrived. And things died. She did not think that this was good or bad, because she did not think. She simply existed, and grew very powerful, because she lurked in the hearts of all living things. Life was conflict, and struggle, and this turned living things against one another.

When humans warred, they prayed to her. They asked her for strength, to protect themselves. Some of them asked for her to kill their foes, but that was not her way. She was not a being of murder. She was a being of survival. She wanted nothing so much as she wanted to survive. And she found that humans were much the same. They prayed to her in jungles, in wide open fields, in foxholes, in streets, underground. They wanted her favor with all of their hearts, and she gave them gifts. She gave them the strength to protect themselves.

She played favorites. The strong did not pray to her, because they did not think that they needed to. When strong made war on the weak, it was not war. That place belonged to her sisters, Death, or Conquest. She was the one who responded to the prayers of the weak. She made shopkeepers into vigilantes. She made uprisings into revolutions. She made usurpers into kings. She did not do this because she wanted people to die. She did not care about who died. She simply did it because it was in her nature. And one day, she realized that she had become a monster.

It was the strong who feared her most. The ones who had the most to lose hated her, and so they called her an abomination. They were comfortable in the positions that they had, and so they wanted things to stay as they were. They told the weak that they should be satisfied with the way things were. And so even those who she had blessed began to fear or hate her. When she made the weak strong, they began to hate her, too.

She and her sisters kept the world chaotic, and that threatened everyone who had something to lose. It wasn’t because she was vile or hateful. It was simply in her nature. And yet, because she was hated, she began to hate humanity in return. She and her sisters, in the time of a great empire, came together. The four of them agreed that they would destroy the world of men. They rode rampant, and created the threat of apocalypse for the first time; The end of humanity.

And then, the city was proposed. War sat uneasily at the table. She and her sisters shifted with obvious annoyance as their leader spoke with the god Marduk. “Why?” she had asked, her eyes narrowed at the woman Pur across the table. Her red eyes and green hair mocked War. The two were so often conflated, though War’s own rich, dark skin contrasted with the pale white of Fire.

“Because they are building. It is the nature of chaos,” their leader said, a smile on his face. “If you knock down a single stone, it does not do much. But allow them to build a tower, higher, more unstable, and when we knock it down, it will destroy them all. These rules are ways for them to hold us back. They will take advantage of this peace to grow soft, and weak. And when they have grown enough, we will annihilate them. It is inevitable.” He laughed, his voice rich, and low.

War had not cared. She simply wanted to punish them. She had been jilted by humanity, and so, she would see that they suffered in turn. It was not because she hated them. If she had simply hated them, it would be so much simpler to ignore their disdain. But she had been helping humans to survive their wars for so long. And those she had loved had turned their backs on her. “Whatever,” she muttered, as she walked with the other four. White-haired Conquest, blonde Famine, and raven-black Death. And their leader, whose hair was silver. He laughed again at this.

“Have patience, War. It will all prove worthwhile. When we are finished, the humans will be no more. We will have won, utterly.”

And so it continued. She was the downfall of empires. Her sisters were skilled, but she was always the one closest to humanity. A human dynasty could be so powerful that Conquest could raise no force large enough to crush it. It could be so rich that Famine could never empty their granaries. And it could be so vast that even Death’s touch couldn’t empty it. But when War walked with men, even the greatest crumbled. She could take the very strongest and turn them against their brothers, for such simple reasons. And she did it, and laughed, because men had called it upon themselves.

She did not feel guilt for what she had done. They deserved it. She didn’t believe that humans would ever truly die, at any rate. Their civilizations could be shattered, but the humans, their beliefs, their thoughts, they always survived. She still loved that about them. More Cities were born, and each time, they locked the world of the spirits away. But there was always room for War to find her way through. She could not destroy empires with her bare hands. But she had never needed that. All she needed to do was speak with the humans.

She stood among a group of men. White-haired scientists, clever men, full of brilliance. Conquest had invited her. They wore dark goggles, and stared into the desert. She watched with them. There was a moment of pure white that encompassed the world, and then, a roiling cloud of flame, dust, and ash. It rose into the air slowly, leaving behind a pillar of black smoke, like a poisoned mushroom. She watched, impassive. It was impressive. “It will end war,” said one man. She smiled.

“It worked,” whispered another man.

She wasn’t there when the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were impressive, but they were much like the other weapons the humans had made. It would be nearly ten years before she saw the true horror behind it. This time, she stood with a different group of scientists, still white-haired, still clever, still full of brilliance. They stood on the deck of a ship, watching a new weapon. Conquest stood with her again.

There was a flash. There was a sound. And an island was gone. A sun had taken its place, and it blossomed upwards. The Trinity explosion had been a firecracker in comparison. Alarms rang on the observation ship, and it began to move. The explosion had been larger than they expected. They would need to move quickly to avoid being swamped by the man-made tsunami. She watched as the ship turned, the fireball rising higher. Great halos surrounded it, like the radiant crowns upon the heads of angels. Her fingers tightened on the railings.

War had lived since life had begun. She could not be killed by something like that. But the humans had finally discovered a way to destroy themselves. A weapon that they couldn’t survive. And she realized what fear was. Fear was having everything she was, taken away. Fear was there being no more humans to believe she was a person. She realized, in that single, horrible moment, that she depended on them. If there were no humans left, she would exist only as a mindless force, a compulsion to kill. Her love, her hate, her beliefs, her personality, all of these things were because of humans. And tears ran down her cheeks. Conquest leaned across, smiling. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” War said, her voice strained with the horror of it all. She could never let the others know. They wouldn’t understand. They would hate her for it. Their purpose was meant to be unshakeable. They were supposed to destroy the ones who had cursed them as monsters. There was no room for a lack of conviction. For this thing that would end War. “It’s really something.”

In 1989, the call came from their leader. They all met in a diner. He smiled. “The time has come.” She raised an eyebrow. “Five cities have been built. The fifth has been completed, and now, the world of humans and the world of monsters is held apart. We can destroy them all in the course of a few years. The twin worlds will collide, and it will destroy both. Peace will be ours, at last. You will no longer be hated pariahs. We can make them all pay.” Their leader laughed, his voice rich, and smooth. “Judgment day.”

He turned his head towards War. “You will strike the opening blow. If we can land a single telling strike against the cities, then the Sisters will be helpless to stop us. Simply destroying the city will be sufficient, but if you can corrupt it, we can end this war in one strike. Turn the city’s Keystone into a symbol of War, of betrayal, and we shall have the world within a handful of months.” Their leader let out a sigh that was almost sexual, a smile on his lips. “Of course, if you should fail…” He laughed. “It will be alright. Just destroy the keystone, and we can do the rest. As for you, Conquest…”

She had listened as the plan was set out. It was simple, and straightforward. It would work. The Sisters would have no chance against the plan. They were creatures of rules, and peace. They didn’t have it in them to destroy the world, and that was why they were going to lose. Humanity itself would fall, and the Horsemen would be lobotomized. Just like they wanted. As the meeting ended, she stood up, and walked out. She knew where she would begin.

She had known of Echidna’s mad crusade over the millenia. It had been an all-consuming passion of the ancient mother of monsters. Sublimating her own guilt and pain and blaming the actions of her husband and herself on a man who had been ordered into each act. It was a familiar story for the Horseman. Children were such a weak point. War’s part would be simple. She simply had to direct Heracles into her path, and give him enough strength to master her. The man had a curious effect on strong women. Something about him seemed to appeal to them. She had her own theories on why that was, but it didn’t matter. She walked through a marketplace in Greece, and he followed her, fascinated. Men could not resist her.

She sat in the bar. Rough men surrounded her, but they always did. The men in this room did not know exactly what she was, but they could taste a predator. They did not harass her. She had spent weeks here, becoming familiar to them, so they would not be shocked by her actions. Harry entered, his face curious, and walking without fear. One of the men snickered. “Oy, boy, you look a little young. Have any hair on that chest of yours?” A man sitting next to her stood up as Harry walked towards War, purpose in his eyes. The boy felled him with a chair.

The weapons around her came out, and War laughed. She couldn’t help her delight. He was a man of passion, a man of unthinking violence. He simply needed the chance to refine it. So often, Heracles lived an unchallenged life until his wife and children died. And so, Echidna would kill him while he was rough and untested. The man next to her spoke to Harry, and they discussed for a long time. Without their notice, War slipped away.

The fire was going to happen. It was a mad man who did it. War could have whispered to him. She could have stopped him. It would have simply meant that Harry would live with his family until Echidna found him. She would kill the untrained Harry, murder his parents, and then return to her place. She still felt guilt as she watched the man dumping gasoline in the basement. She watched as he set up the rags, oil-covered and pregnant with destructive malice. She watched as the fires caught. And she stayed and watched as the family died. Not because she took pleasure from it, because she did not. But because someone had to be there to witness the sacrifice.

She knew the Constantinou family, as she knew many people. They had taken in a lost infant out of the good of their hearts, and had been drawn into a tragedy. She had considered, for a time, giving Harry the power to break the chain of tragedies he was a part of. But it would be too obvious. He was a hero. If he gained that power, it would be clear where it had come from. He was the wrong person. So she let his story continue, and heard the screams of people dying. It didn’t haunt her dreams. She had heard far too much of it already.

The next interference was in the jungles of Uganda. Harry had been captured by a cell of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He had found a woman who he cared for. Horrible things happened to her, but they never broke her. They had made her stronger. Acanit. She was someone that War could respect. And so, when she walked away from Harry that fateful night, War appeared to her.

“Hard times.” She spoke in the girl’s language. “It’s a good name, you know. Very accurate. You are planning to try to stop the man who does violence to you.” Acanit stared at her. War stood, in all her glory, in the fine red dress that she favored. It stood out in the jungle. That was the way that War liked it. “He will kill you. You are determined, but he is much stronger than you. He will laugh at you, gut you, and then murder the man who you are trying to save. I do not wish to see this happen.”

Acanit’s eyes narrowed. “What do you intend to do about it, whore?” War laughed. A shame about the language. It would have been a wonderful pun if they had been speaking in English.

“I will give you power. I will make you strong. Give you the determination that you need to save this man. You two will live together. It will not be a perfect life, but you will be safe, and you will have a strong child.” War smiled.

“And your price for this?” Acanit was clearly no fool. Her eyes were cool and calculating. She crossed her arms. The girl was thin, her muscles weakened by hunger that she had taken on herself to keep Harry alive. But her heart was iron.

“You will die, and your husband will remarry. He will think of you, but he will move on. Your son will find a new mother.”

Acanit didn’t even hesitate. “I will accept it.” She held out her hand. And War gave her the power that she so desperately needed. War’s power took many forms, but it was almost always subtle, easily mistaken. To Acanit, she gave a willingness to kill, and something to protect. The anger of a mother, to a young woman who would still be a girl in most of the world. War made people hard, even as she scarred them.

War walked unseen by Acanit’s side as the girl entered the colonel’s tent. He was counting his gold. He laughed, as he turned to her, standing up. His breath stank with drink. The clarity that War had granted to Acanit’s vision let her spot the knife at his side. She approached, smiling sweetly, showing no resistance to him. He moved to embrace her, and she slid the knife out of its sheath. He moved to kiss her, and she drove the knife up through the soft meat at the throat. Then, Acanit was sick, her most recent meal adding to the stench of the room as she heaved. She recovered herself quickly, and moved to the drawer. Her skirt was soon loaded with the heavy golden coins, as she moved back to help Harry.

The journey was long, and difficult. The great Heracles depended on her, because she was strong. And she depended on him, in turn. Together, they made a trip that would hav killed either of them alone. And with that, War allowed the two of them to escape this place, to another world. She was still there in America, but she had to content herself with smaller ways of influencing things.

Her next step was with a child, a green snake. Alone, afraid, bullied, until a savior arrived. A white-haired girl. And Susan fell in love with her. Perhaps not a romantic love, although War would not be prepared to rule it out. The two of them cared about each other. War inflamed that love. She spoke in the ears of others, and isolated the two from the rest of the community. She could only do a little, but the natural tendencies of those of Zion were easy enough to manipulate. So the two of them had only one another. That kind of loneliness could create desperate feelings. It set the two of them at war with the rest of their city, in a thousand small ways.

The next step came in 2009. Echidna had set out on the hunt. It was time for Harry to meet his destiny. And so, War made a house-call. A young man greeted her, only twelve years old. She knelt down, smiling. “Excuse me, young man. Do you know where your mother is? I’m an old friend of hers. We have to talk about something. Tell her that it’s her old friend, Bella.” The name was not one that she had shared with Acanit. It was more recent than that. But Acanit would know it.

Acanit ushered her son out, and took a seat at the dinner table in the small kitchen. War sat across from her. Acanit raised an eyebrow. “Bella? A curious name for you.”

“It was given to me by someone I quite care about. I rather fancy it. I have come for the price, Acanit. How have you enjoyed these last twenty years that you never thought you would have? Have you been able to live a good, happy life knowing that you would be forced to give it all up, someday?”

Acanit shrugged. “Humans die, spirit. It is something we are all born knowing. I knew that I would die much later than I should, and by doing so, I would guarantee a good man that he would not be bereft when I died, and that my son would be cared for when I was gone. You said it was a price. I saw it as another benefit to my inevitable death.” The woman sighed, and stood up.

“Please, allow me to get you something to drink. You say that it is my time? Will you be cutting me down while my back is turned, or perhaps giving me a last cigarette to smoke while I die?” she asked, as she opened the refrigerator. She hadn’t grown any weaker. War let a smile pass over her lips. There were still moments when she was reminded why she couldn’t stop caring about humanity. Most of them disappointed her. But she still had a few moments where they impressed her.

“Nothing so impressive, I’m afraid. You must take your own life. How, precisely, is your choice, but you need to be dead by the end of the day.”

Acanit took a seat, passing a tall glass of orange juice to War. The red-haired woman lifted it to her lips, and sipped it. “And, just for the sake of my curiosity, what should happen if I refuse to take my life in this manner?”

War nodded. Curiosity was not a flaw, in her mind. It was simply human. “Then when your son dies, there will be no protection for him. Harry will be consumed with guilt, and he will die when faced with a challenge that he will not be able to conquer. You will live a long life, losing both of them. And you will wish, every single day, that you could come back to this moment, and take your own life.”

Acanit snorted. “You are a dramatic woman. You do not need to persuade me. We made a bargain, and I know that it must be fulfilled. I am just glad to know that good will come of the pain.” She stood up. “You may go now. You do not need to see me die.”

And War left. But she was still there, alongside Acanit, watching as the woman drew a bath. Another person dying for the sake of the end of the world. It was not the first time she’d caused someone’s death, but something inside of War stirred as she watched the woman die. The Ugandan girl’s soul left her body. War did not see where it went. She did not know much about the afterlife. It was a human thing. When War died, she would not endure on in any form. There would be no one to remember her. The thought terrified her.

When Harry met Echidna, it was with the loss fresh in his heart. The two wounded myths saw a mirror in one another, and that mirror fostered at first violence, and then love. The two of them grew closer, and promised one another that they would save the boy. When Dean died, it would destroy Echidna. War knew how love could damage a soul. After all, it was love that had drawn her to humans, and it was love that had made their betrayal cut her so deeply. When the Mother of Monsters failed to protect the boy, she would be driven mad by it. A line of dominoes that would guarantee the destruction of Zion. The powerful hated to be reminded of how little power they really had.

There was one last piece to be set into play. The destruction of Zion was not enough. War would have to be made manifest. To unleash herself onto the world. There was a chance that it might fail, but it was not in War’s nature to allow half measures. She did not want to die, but if she was going to, she would die gloriously. And so, she went to visit the young girl named Susan.

Susan’s mother was a Kitsune, and her father was a Tanuki. The two did not draw much attention to themselves. They were natural chameleons, fitting in easily in the city, but they couldn’t have children, and so they adopted Susan. They had taught her how to blend in, to fade into the background. They had thought they were doing the right thing for their little girl, teaching her how to protect herself. It was amazing how easy people made it, sometimes.

War appeared in the girl’s room one evening, taking on the appearance of a teenager, about Susan’s age. “Hey.” She smiled pleasantly. Susan was frightened at first, but when War had introduced herself as an imaginary friend, it seemed to calm Susan somewhat. The girl was used to talking to people who weren’t actually there. “So, what are you working on?” War asked, pointing to the large sheaf of paper stapled together, sitting in her hand.

“Oh! I’m practicing for the drama club tryouts. I’m going to play Juliet!” She smiled brightly. “Me and Isabelle are trying out together. I’ve been practicing for nearly a month.” She looked down at the papers, a look of fierce determination on her face. “I’m going to have this part.” War let her eyes run up and down the girl. Full of the hunger to prove herself. Full of the desperate desire to mean something. It was amazing. It was as though the world wanted to be destroyed. It certainly filled itself with people who could do such damage to it.

“I’m sure you’ll be chosen,” War lied. It was nothing specific that told her that Susan would not get the part. It was simple knowledge of the stories that surrounded people’s lives. She could see them more clearly than most. The green snake; Faithful friend, and insignificant aid in the story of love. The legend of the white snake had played out many different ways. Either Susan would be the truest friend that Isabelle Onnashi had, while never once being recognized, or she would betray her. And Susan’s desire to be noticed, to stand out, was like a bonfire. She didn’t want to be ignored. She didn’t want to be unrecognized.

Susan had been given the part of the nurse. Isabelle had been Juliet. Susan had been terribly kind about it, gushing about Juliet’s performance. It was only in private that she’d spoken. “I can’t believe it!” she said, her fingers balled into fists as she held a pillow over her eyes, soaking up the hot tears. “She forgot three lines, and they still put her as Juliet! Every time, she always gets the attention! I can’t believe it!” She gritted her teeth. “Why does everyone pay attention to her?! Why does she get the roles, and why is she always the one who’s saving me? I just…” Susan sniffed, wiping her tears away with the pillow. “I just want to be special too. Is that so much to ask?”

“Some people aren’t suited for that kind of thing.” War said, softly, compassionately. “Maybe it’s just the way you’re supposed to be. It’s not that bad, right? It’s not like you’d want to see Isabelle hurt just because she’s the one who gets things.”

And so it continued. When the boy, Dean Constantinou, arrived at the school, it caused a stir among most of the girls. Susan had been terribly impressed by him, and harbored a secret crush inside of her heart. She didn’t tell anyone about it. Nobody but her imagination. “He’s just- There are all these little things, you know? He’s really handsome and athletic, but you can see he’s such a kind person, too. He’s always doing little things for the people around him, helping them out. But- Ah, what am I thinking? He’s probably not into someone like me. It’s just impossible. Right?” She looked up at War, as though hoping she would say otherwise. And War was all too happy to oblige.

“I think that a man like Dean wants to be approached. I think that if you picked the right time, he’d fall in love with you. All you need to do is show him that you’re the right person for him.” War felt a little bad about the words. Maybe they were the truth. Even as the two of them spoke, Dean and Isabelle were sitting together, having met for the first time. The story was already in the works. It would break Susan’s heart. It still wasn’t enough, though. But the next day, when Susan wandered home, dejected, her eyes hollow, looking as though someone had ripped her open and tore out her heart, War knew that they were close.

The balancing act continued. Threatening to buckle at any minute, but Susan kept it together so well. She still cared deeply about both of her friends, even as they spent less and less time with her. And when Isabelle told Susan the truth, about the white snake story, Susan nodded sympathetically, and talked her out of breaking up with Dean. Because she shouldn’t give up, just because it was a story. “I just- I can’t stand to see them like this. The two of them hurting like this.” Susan said softly, sitting with War in the small shack. “They know they care about each other. I just want to help them.”

“You could persuade them. Give Isabelle some wine. Slip a little of your own venom into it, so it’s a bit stronger. She and Dean are together, she changes involuntarily, and he sees her. What’s the worst that could happen?” War laughed, softly, a cheering sound. “He dies of fright? That’s the sort of thing that only happens in stories. You know that you want to help them. So do it.”

It had been predictable. A thousand little things lining up perfectly for her, because people wanted so badly to believe they were doing the right thing. When Susan had learned about Dean’s death, she had thrown up into her wastepaper basket. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.” the girl said, her eyes full of tears, as War sat with her, patting her back sympathetically. “They were my friends, they were-“

“They hurt you. Over, and over again. Isabelle always overshadowed you. Dean ignored you, even though you loved and cared about him. They deserved what they got. You know that’s true.” She spoke softly, soothingly. It helped when people thought that your voice was coming from inside their own head.

“You wanted to be the heroine of the story. It could never happen while you were just the green snake. But there’s a way you can make this all right again. If you can help Isabelle save Dean, you can be the hero. Maybe you could even take her place. You just have to be strong enough to change the story. Maybe you can be the noble heroine, who saves Dean’s life, and who is remembered.” Green eyes glittered, as War laughed, the sound just a little bit higher and colder than she had meant it to be. “I can give you that strength.”

Susan had looked up at her. And in a moment of weakness, she nodded. Their hands met, and the power of madness entered Susan. She would become a focus for the insanity, like the eye of a hurricane. It allowed War to bend others through her, and the power itself twisted Susan. She would grow more and more convinced of the rightness of her actions. People were suckers for confirmation biases.

She sat on the lake that night. She watched the stars, feeling satisfied with a job well done, and the little hint of despair that always filled her after she had set things on their path. The city would crumble, she knew. Then, a fish bobbed in the water in front of her, as though trying to catch her attention. War frowned, and reached into the water. It was a Chinook salmon, its white belly and iridescent-green top glittering in the moonlight. It didn’t flee as she plucked it out of the water. “Lady War! I come to beg a boon of you,” The salmon said. She studied it. It was a god. Not a large or meaningful one, but it was a wish-granter. She raised an eyebrow.

“Very well. If your wish is reasonable, I am sure that I could find some amusement in fulfilling it.”

“It is not my wish. A girl of this place begs for aid. She wishes for the return of Dean Constantinou. She wishes for him to live again.” The fish wriggled in her hands, as War stared. “I know this is antithetical to you, War. But perhaps you know of someone who can do this thing.”

“Why should I do this?” she asked, her voice cold.

“I know you, War! You are a being of conflict. Even conflicting yourself. Your plans are known to me, though I cannot share them!” The fish laughed wildly. “You would not start a game like this if there was no possibility of defeat. That is all that I ask. That you set the finest champion you have against your agent in this place. Unless you are afraid to lose when the stakes are at their highest?”

She was silent for a moment under the cold night sky. “He can’t succeed. Humans never do. It’s in their nature to disappoint me. If you think he’ll be any different, you’re bound to be disappointed, too.”

“Then it could hardly do you much harm, could it?” the salmon asked, laughing. She stared down at the fish. Then she sighed, and tossed it into the waters. It swam away in darting movements, as she stood up.

When Pearl entered her office, War was waiting, a smile on her face. Pearl snarled at her. “You. I should have known. Trying to destroy Zion. To bring humanity crumbling down. You know what it will mean for us if the humans are destroyed. What will your victory mean when you are nothing but an errant violent impulse again, War?”

War laughed. “Come now, Fire. We always knew that it would end this way. It was a good run. But the humans will disappoint you every time.”

“Not every time.” Pearl’s eyes burned. War knew only a little about what had sentenced Pearl to Tartarus. The gods had been so arrogant in those days, to think that they could bind humanity down. It had been a strange little thrill to hear that Fire had been freed from its prison down there, in the darkness. The elemental flame had been freed by a human no less. It had been a sign that the primacy of the gods was ending. War did not know the details of the liberation. She only knew enough to be sure that her next words would set everything into place.

“A shame that there is no one you can trust to be your champion now, Pearl. The world of men is so degraded, now. The only heroes have no fire left in their bellies.”

War left the office. And as she did, she could hear Pearl dialing on the phone.

Nash would soon be here.

Chapter 29: The Manhattan Project

Throughout history, War had empowered people. She had harbored the secret little dream that one of them would not come to resent her for what she had done. It was a foolish dream. People resented power, once they had it. They became powerful, and they forgot what it was like to be weak. Once in control, they found she raised champions against them, and they hated her for it. They did not understand that it was in her nature. That she had to do it, because that was what defined her. And so, the people she cared about most ended up despising her.

Perhaps she was unfair. After all, it seemed to be as much in the nature of people to hate her as it was in her nature to betray them. But she never gave up on them. She gave her power without condition. Once she had empowered one of her tools, they were free to do with the power as they wished. They could go against their natures, if they really wanted to. But as sure as day became night, they wound up corrupted by their own anger, their own hatred, their own lust, their own desires. And she watched them destroy themselves. Every single time.

She chose him because he was much like the others. Sensitive, weak, and unimportant. He was an idealist. She didn’t know who his father was. His mother was schizophrenic, and he was not. The mother was filled with a fear of the world. And War had the curious feeling that Miss Nash could see her. She found that amusing. Things came to a head when the boy dreamt of her. War didn’t know the details of the dream, but she felt herself called to it. She waited for him, outside his school, in the shape of a young girl.

The shape was, in details if not in age, the one she nearly always used. It had been in the cradle of humanity where she had become who she was. In a skin soaked in the blood of beasts, she had appeared to men. She had teeth of metal, and eyes that glistened with the greed that drove men to kill their brothers. Her hair was red with the fury that burned in the hearts of warriors. She was unforgettable, and she enjoyed that aspect of her appearance. She had been thought of as a woman, and so she had favored that appearance. It made men love her. It made her stand out.

And so, the boy came to her, full of curiosity. “Hi!” She smiled at him, though the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I, um. I like your hair! It’s really pretty!” She nodded. She wondered for a moment if she was wasting her time with him. “What are you reading?”

She looked up, and this time, her smile was at least slightly genuine. “The Chocolate War. It’s a very good book. Would you like to read it after I’m finished?” She hated the story. People adored it for how realistic it was. That made it powerful. They presumed that attempting to stand up against conformity was a doomed process. It was everything that she was not.

“I don’t know. Is that like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I really enjoyed that book.” She raised an eyebrow. A book where a young man ended up getting everything he wanted. She shook her head as he smiled like an idiot.

“No, not really. It’s a story about the danger of not conforming to other’s expectations and demands. I think that you would appreciate it.” She held the book out to him. “You’re Silas, right? It’s good to meet you. I’m…” She paused for a moment, and thought. The name came to her in a flash of intuition. Bella. Beautiful. And false friends with Bellum. A perfect pseudonym for War. She smiled at her own little joke. He would never appreciate it, of course. She doubted that he would even understand the reference if she explained it. “Bella. I’m just finishing up. Here. You’ll promise to bring it back, won’t you?”

He frowned for a moment, and looked around. Then the smile returned to his face. “Yeah. Of course I will.” She walked away from him, and disappeared. She had met so many naive, optimistic men like him. They were full of kindness and light until they had power. Then, they discovered how easy it was to be cruel, and how satisfying. And they gave into it with joy. When the weak finally had the chance to be strong, they were just like the strong. And yet, she kept trying. Perhaps she was a masochist. Perhaps she wanted to be proven wrong. Or perhaps she just enjoyed being proven right.

“I hated it. It just… All of those things happened and there was nothing the main character could do. Everything ended wrong! It was horrible.” She smiled.

“That’s what I love about it. It hurts because it feels so real. It’s the way things would actually happen. The people in power get away with their crimes, the brave lone hero is outnumbered, and loses, because he doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Isn’t there something beautiful in knowing that’s the way the world works? Better than one of those stories where everything turns out just fine because of some contrived coincidence. Besides, what do you think should have happened in the story?” She watched his reactions. The pain he felt from reading the story. The pain he no doubt felt every time he saw the world refuse to conform to his expectations. That kind of man could do such a great damage.

“I think that… Archie should have drawn the black marble. He should’ve had to fight Janza. Or at least Jerry. How could he just get away with everything? How is it more realistic when bad people have everything go their way?” The boy’s uncertainty made her smile. She did enjoy that about the book, providing that little hope that maybe things would go against the villain. But the truth was that the marbles didn’t matter.

“Would it make it better if he got beaten up? What would that solve? He’d still be a horrible person, and he’d still have the power to make others lives miserable. He might get even worse. Besides, even if Archie had his face beaten in AND became a good person, it wouldn’t change the way the world is. Even if you could change things, how would you change them?” She watched him hungrily, like a hawk waiting for some small, squeaking thing to betray itself by making a move.

“I would want to make sure… that everyone has a happy ending.” She grinned. It was all she needed.

“Really? You want to be powerful so you can help? A lot of people say that, but most of them find that the ones they help aren’t very grateful. Even if Jerry had won at the end, people would still be people. They would still be cruel, and petty, and thoughtless. But maybe you’ll be different, huh?” And she gave him the power. For better, or for worse.

She had thought a long time about this experiment. She gave people subtle abilities, because she wanted to make them think. To force them to be creative, to force them to be wise. She decided to do something unexpected. She gave him strength. The power to leech strength from his opponents. He would be as strong as the foes he faced. He would always be outmatched, but he would never be without hope. It was a strange thing for her to give him, and she felt the exhaustion in her soul, as she carved away a portion of her power for him. It was no matter. When he died, the power would return to her, and it was only a modest part of the force that one of the Horsemen held. Much more than she gave most, though.

And with her power inside of him, she would always be with him.

She decided to test him, a few days later. He was a shy, retiring boy. He didn’t fight back when people pushed him. She reached into the hearts of a pair of boys. She inflamed the fear and hatred of that which is different. She watched as they approached. And to her rather great surprise, they approached her, instead of him. One of them yanked a book from her hands. She felt a black rage fill her, and the desire to kill the boy. But that would give away the game. Instead, she said “Give that back!”

One of the boys smirked. “Or what?” The other said something unpleasant, and swung his fist. He smacked Bella, hard enough to leave her ears ringing. The pain was shocking. She was a goddess, after all. But in the shape she was in at the moment, she was nothing but a small girl. Her power hidden away, so that she didn’t raise the ire of the Sisters. The blow made her ears ring, and she fell to the ground, tears in her eyes. It had been so long since she had needed to pretend to be weak.

One of the boys approached her, and lifted his foot to kick her in the face. She raised her hands up reflexively to ward off the blow. She could have disappeared. But it would have spoiled the work she had put into Silas. She would simply have to accept the beating. It was not the first time.

There was a muffled grunt. She lowered her hands. Silas was standing with one foot on the boy’s midsection. The larger boy was on his back on the ground, his leg held in the air, ankle in both of Silas’s hands. Nash wrenched, and there was an ugly noise as the boy let out a howl of pain. Nash’s face was twisted with anger. “Don’t you touch her!” he screamed, as he lifted his foot, and stomped the boy’s face. There was an unpleasant crunching sound as the boy’s nose broke.

The other young man charged at Silas, artless, but with twenty pounds and at least two inches on the boy. Silas twisted, and the boy tripped, his arm in Silas’ hand as he struck the ground, his arm wrenching in its socket, dislocated by the force. Silas stared around, and ran over to her, his arms thrown around her shoulders, tears in his eyes. It was the first time that she had ever had someone defend her.

She hadn’t needed it. It was even rather insulting, for a mortal to think he needed to protect War. But as he wrapped his arms around her, she felt his heartache. There was no pleasure in his victory, no joy in the pain he had caused. He just wanted her to be safe. A small part of her felt sorry for what she was about to do to him. But he deserved it, for his hubris.

When he was dragged away to the principal’s office, she disappeared. All the little places that she had written herself into the world were scrubbed clean. The girl Bella no longer existed anywhere except in Nash’s mind. She left him to his life. Though she still visited him occasionally, the anti-psychotics that he took kept her from being able to reach his mind. That was fine, though. She left him be while the world cut him in a thousand ways, leaving him bleeding and maddened.

And then, she decided to test him once more. It was a simple test, putting him in fear for his life. She inserted herself into an already tense situation, leaping towards him with a knife. She filled his heart with anger and fear, not magically, but the old-fashioned human way, and he shot her. A perfectly justified moment of taking another’s life. And the experience very nearly destroyed him. He was left aimless, drifting, pained, and lost his will. She had almost given him up as broken under the weight when the fish made its request.

She expected nothing of him. Some people were too weak to be strong. Even when they were given power, they feared it. They refused to use it. She was determined to despise him. She watched as he gave into the rage and fought the animated bones. He won, and vomited in horror at what he had done to things that were not even able to think.

It was when her two pawns faced each other that she began to hope. She watched as he put away his gun, faced with an unknown enemy. The two of them fought, Susan biting into him, poisoning him. She could feel the way his heartbeat slowed. And she realized, she didn’t want him to die. She wanted him to win. She sent a message to Cassandra, warning her ahead of time. And so, the girl was there when Nash needed her.

She hadn’t deliberately left a hole in Nash’s disguise. The little seer’s gift was just not worth defending against. And Cassandra was visibly terrified. The seeds of betrayal had been planted with that little moment. It would show Nash the error of his ways. Being betrayed by the girl would do him some good. The three of them walked, War hidden within Nash’s mind. But she could feel the turmoil, the poison eating him away inside. He didn’t want to live.

A part of her considered her options. The plan would work, at this point. She could let him die, and she would still win. She watched him fall to the ground, his life dripping away slowly, the poison stopping his heart. And she realized she couldn’t stand to watch him die. She couldn’t stand another disappointment. She couldn’t stand to see him weak. She wanted him to save her. She wanted, so badly, so desperately, for someone to be strong enough to save her from the suicidal course she was on.

She hated her job. She hated her fate. She hated the inevitability of it. So she pulled him up by the shoulder, and forced him to look into her eyes. She saw the hatred in him. The rage at her. Well-earned. And so she spoke. “Come and get me.” *Please save me*. He lunged at her, and her heart sank. He was still filled with the anger. The passion and the rage. So she danced out of his grasp, and ran from him, laughing wildly as she did, driving him onwards.

She would give him every chance he needed to fail her, to prove that he was just another worthless human. She ran and pumped her legs, always staying a little bit out of his reach, as she lead him to the doctor’s clinic, where his life would be saved, if he wanted to try hard enough to live. Or he could go and join his mother.

The second time she met him in Zion, she whispered in a deputy’s ear. While Nash was unconscious from a blow that could’ve split his skull if Echidna had wanted it to, she slipped the gun from the car, and took it with her. She carved a message into the bullet, leaving him with the words. “Come and get me.” *Please save me*.

The next time he called on her strength, it was in the dark and the rain. He fought Echidna. She gave him the strength that he needed to cut and stab, and the other Sisters had trusted him with their powers. It was a heady sensation, seeing the way he was growing in strength. He brought the mother of monsters to her knees before his own soft-heartedness stopped him, leaving her to recover, and nearly getting him killed when Heracles arrived.

She watched as he confronted Izanami, and died. She stood over him, shaking her head. The life had flowed out of him, ripped free, leaving his heart still. “Is this the end, then?” she asked his corpse. “Are you giving up, champion? What a disappointment you are.” His heart pounded, and she stared. It should have been impossible. He’d been touched by the hand of Izanami. Nothing could survive that. But his heart was beating again. She had not thought the blessing she’d given him was that strong. And she felt the warmth begin to flow in her chest. The faintest flicker of hope.

It hurt like a knife. The hope for the end of hatred. The hope that she would not always have to be a monster. She’d thought she had snuffed it out, that she had given it up. The despair inside of her was preferable to this horrible burning. But she couldn’t help but want it. Like someone freezing to death, she clung to the fire, and she smiled, holding back the tears in her eyes. “That’s more like it.” Her voice was a soft whisper. “Come and get me.” *Please save me.*

The rage filled him like a bonfire, as he lunged. He humiliated Izanami. Then, when she revealed her true self, the rage disappeared from him. His movements became serene, flowing, a calm in his eyes. He wasn’t touching her power anymore. The strength that she had given him wasn’t something he needed. And relying on the simple flow of water, he held Izanami’s hand at her own throat, and forced her to surrender. Without a flicker of anger or the desire to kill her, she was beaten.

War had loved many humans during her long life. She had been disappointed just as many times. Some of them came close to fulfilling her dream. But they all failed in the end. She had been prepared to give up any hope that it would ever change. She had even welcomed that despair. Now, she watched as Nash released his defeated enemy, and turned her into a friend in a single action. It was a madness, of sorts. Infectious. It was the belief that he could really defy the universe.

It was impossible, of course. The victory of the Horsemen was inevitable. Even if, against all of the odds, he could convince the others that they could save this city, they would succeed elsewhere. To expect otherwise from him was a fool’s errand. She was just lying to herself. And as she told herself that, the little ember of hope burned brighter.

He entered Hades. He fell into the flames. He landed in the abyss. And so far from everything, she could reach him only lightly, speaking to him, as he dreamt. His eyes were closed, but she could feel what he was dreaming. “An interesting name I chose, isn’t it, Silas? Taunting you with who I am. Perhaps it was a little unfair to use Latin with a child, but you’re all children to me.”

She taunted him, because she was frightened of what he believed. She couldn’t stand to be disappointed again. She couldn’t stand to trust him, only to see him fail. Watching him there, in the darkness, she raged at him. And she felt his foolish wish burning her. She should never have chosen him. “Oh, Silas. Such a simple dream. Men hope that if they’re strong enough they can stop any injustice, and then they end up committing those injustices themselves. Your innocent wish was exactly the kind of thing I needed.”

His face was twisted with pain. The only person he had ever really had the chance to love. He’d known her for a handful of weeks, and then she had disappeared. And it still tore at him inside. She had wounded him when he was just a child, torn away any chance for love, and a happy life. “There was a Bella, Silas. I visited you, in the shape of a person, and I was very real. And when I was finished, I made sure everyone forgot her. It was easy, you were the only one who had connected with her. I needed to teach you the most important lesson of your life: You are alone.”

It burned her inside. She could still feel the name, ringing in her soul. She had allowed him to use a name. He had forged this weakness into her, she knew. And she had let him. Love was a knife you slid into your own heart.

“I never visited her, you know. She was just schizophrenic. There was no meaning to her madness. She was just twisted by her own desire to mean something. It’s so often the way. Of course, in a way, I was responsible. The human desire for significance, that casts them and those they love into hell… That is me. That is what I am. Your desire to be special.” She knew it would prick him. The young man had lost his mother, and for nothing.

She had known of the madness that was inside of Silas’ mother. She could have saved the woman. She was there in the last moments, when Carol Nash prepared to die. And Silas would know that. He would never forgive Bella. And why should Bella be forgiven? Even if he succeeded, there would be no happy ending for her. But maybe that was fine. She watched as the dream began again, and she felt the hope wane. He wasn’t strong enough. He never had been. She had been foolish to think otherwise.

“Is this how it’s going to end, Silas?”

He shuddered.

“Dying as your body starves in Tartarus, your mind lost like Theseus?”

His teeth clenched.

“What a disappointment you are.”

His fists balled.

“You wanted this. You asked for it!”

Just like all the others, he would disappoint her.

“Come and get me, Silas.”

*Please save me.*

“COME AND GET ME!”

*Save me!*

He opened his eyes. And he crawled out of the flames, and comforted a fallen titan, and restored a little bit of hope in those the gods had cursed, leaving War behind. She stared silently into the abyss, feeling the uncertainty in her. And she realized that there was a way that they could both win. There was a way that she could end herself and give him closure. Deal a blow to her plan that it might never recover from. It would just mean creating the right circumstances. She laughed softly to herself. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to die, if it were at his hands. Better than letting him try to rescue her from her fate.

She watched as Hades set the stage for Silas’s failure. The agent tumbled to the asphodel, fool that he was. He should have felt the attack coming. He had trusted Cassandra to his own peril. She watched as he was dragged in chains before the judges. Unsure of himself. Ready to give up, to believe that he was nothing but her pawn. It nearly drove her mad. The bastard was prepared to give up when he thought he had achieved a happy ending for everyone else. And so she walked out of the darkness, to give him the strength he needed to go on.

“Well, well, Nash. So this is how it ends, hmm? I really did think you would be more interesting than this.” She sighed softly, and shook her head. “It seems like you’re a failure, just like all the others.”

“You failed, Bella.” Her heart shivered at the name. On his lips, it sent a frisson of delight down her spine. A name that didn’t mean War. He didn’t know what it did to her, and she wouldn’t let him find out. “Even if I am your thing. Even if I was doing your bidding. Dean was freed. He’s safe. They’re all safe. Nobody had to die, except maybe me. And I’m willing to offer myself up for the chance to see all your plans fail.” She stared, amused. “I finally won, you hateful bitch. Cassandra did the right thing.”

He looked her firmly in the eye, gaze level and steady. Then, she began to laugh wildly, her voice pitching up rapidly towards the manic, her teeth flashing in the light as she bent forward, slapping her knee. It was unbearable. The arrogance of men. “What in the hell do you think is so funny?” he asked, outrage on his face.

“You think the game is over because one of my pieces is captured? Oh, Nash. Sweet Nash. You useless son of a bitch. You were never anything but a distraction. A big noisy bull to distract people from the subtle knife. If you’ll pardon me, my other servitor needs me. Enjoy Tartarus, my disappointing champion. You deserve it.” She turned away, refusing to look him in the eye again, in case he saw the weakness inside of her.

She left him, and watched as Susan turned the happy reunion into a brutal battle. Fights broke out instantly, madness overwhelming sense. The four sisters were scattered to the winds. Bel- War had practically won. There was nothing for it now but for Susan to finish her work. As the maddened girl sacrificed her friends, War watched the three strongest beings in the city tear into one another. They had followed Susan, trading blows, drawn along in the current of the madness, blaming each other out of habit. And now, they were preparing to kill each other.

War didn’t mind it. One way or another, it would all be over soon, and there was a part of her that still greatly enjoyed watching the three of them, torn apart by the love they held for those close to them. It was good to see she wasn’t the only one tortured by love.

Then Nash arrived.

She couldn’t help the delight. He was glorious, the hero she’d always prayed he could be. He had taken hold of all four elements, and he fought with effortless ease. He had crushed his own hatred underfoot without a second thought, and forgiven someone who had condemned him. And he was strong. The three most powerful beings in the city, and he was holding his own. He was winning. She watched him choke the madness out of Harry, and bring Irayama to her knees.

She was War. She was drawn to those who were weak and without power, but her heart belonged to those who mastered the strength that they were given. She watched eagerly as he leapt up to face her. “So, Bella. Just the servants of War, here. What do you intend to have me do to make things worse?” She shuddered internally, feeling her heart pound at the sound of her name on his lips.

She spoke. She wasn’t concentrating on what she said. She felt the weight of the gun. The bullets in it held some of her power. Now, as the corruption filled the keystone, and made her real, she was vulnerable. It was just a matter of making him angry enough. She spoke cruel words. Words that echoed the deepest fears of men. It was easy for her. They came from the heart. She answered his questions, and mocked him. Treated him like an evil man. Acted like the unthinking villain, so confident that she could drive him towards hate. She insulted Susan, whose pain was so obvious to anyone with eyes. She made him angry. And she watched as he fell for it. It was so simple.

He spoke to Susan gently, and War kept pushing. “Why don’t you just cut down the little green snake? It’ll be so much easier to stop me if you do. You could still be the hero, Nash. You could save everyone. But not while she’s alive. If you turn your back on Susan for just a moment, she’ll stick that knife in it. She can kill you, Nash. I made very sure of that.”

She took out the gun. Susan and Nash stared at her. She smiled. And Nash broke her heart. “Shove it, Bella.”

She frowned. He had mastered his passion. The fury burned inside of him, but he didn’t raise a hand against her. She sighed, and tossed the gun to Susan. She watched as the girl lifted the gun. Perhaps with her dead, he would have the rage he needed. And then, he surprised her again. He moved fast, leaving behind a trail of emptiness where the rain had been thrown out of the way, sprinting forward with impossible speed. There was the firing of the gun, and the smell of blood. War’s heart froze in her chest, as she saw the red dripping down, along the length of the blade. “Both such disappointments.”

Her voice was low, ragged, and choked by the smell of Silas’ blood. She’d given Susan the ability to kill him. This was twice she’d come close to it. Nash spoke softly to the girl, and then turned his head towards her. Tears ran down War’s cheeks, hidden by the rainwater, as she watched him impassively. “How many times can you sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, Nash?”

“As many times as it takes.” He smiled, and stepped towards her. “I can handle it, after all.” Then he fell, and it was all War could do not to run towards him. She laughed as he stood back up, and it was giddy and full of panic.

“Look at you, Silas. You are so careless of your own body. So desperate that you would destroy yourself. How can you ever hope to succeed? There’s no hope, now. Zion is doomed. I have tied my essence into the keystone, and soon, it will all fall apart.”

The way that the Keystone was destroyed mattered. It was a little hope. She smiled, as Susan spoke to Nash, softly, crouched next to him by the ruby. “Oh yes. And I will arrive, full, and terrible. The keystone is important to that, of course. It will determine the form that I will take when I enter this world. The blood of two lovers, slain by their closest friend for petty, selfish reasons…” War laughed. The nausea filled her. She would lose herself, entering the world in that way. She’d become everything that men feared she was.

“I will be a terror beyond words, Nash. I will be an abomination. An apocalypse. And all thanks to our dear little Susan. I’m sure the two of you will enjoy the life in the world that I will create. Perhaps I will make your little Cassandra strangle her parents. I remember feeling the horror inside of you when you saw Echidna and Heracles at each other’s throats. Wife shall murder husband, lover shall maim lover. Parent shall kill child, and child shall kill parent in return. I can turn it all rotten.”

She laughed softly into her hand, hiding the grimace on her lips. “What a world. I’m sure that you’ll be able to carve out a place for yourself in that, Nash.” She stood up. “Well, I can’t be late. I’ll see you two again in a few minutes. You both fought very hard. I couldn’t kill you myself, after all of that. No, I think that I’ll enjoy seeing what you do in my world.” She disappeared, and entered Limbo.

In the darkness between worlds, she felt herself changing. The compassion dripping away from her. Everything that made her a person, and not just a thing. She could still feel the gaping wound that was the power she had given to Nash. Maybe he would stand a chance against her. Maybe he would kill her. It was another little hope. But hope was nothing but a prison. She rode forth on a red horse, galloping towards an entrance into the world. And then, the gap closed.

She was shocked. He had done it. He had closed the way, and she was still alive. She stayed in the dark ice of Limbo for a long time, allowing it to freeze the tears to her cheeks. Then, she brushed them away into a cloud of glittering ice, and appeared before him again, faking a cold smile.

“You know, Nash, you really should take up a little chess.” She smiled, and to her shock, it was genuine. “A fork. Threatening in two places. If you had shown greater care, perhaps you could have saved the city, as well as those two children. You must be terribly disappointed in yourself.” Though she was not.

The three parents vaulted the wall, Irayama, Harry, and Megara. Irayama’s eyes burned with hatred. “Yariman!” War sighed inwardly. Another pun, ruined by the wrong language.

“Close! Very close. A century of work, undone in moments. The painful truth of the battle between entropy and order. It takes incredible amounts of painstaking work to create something like this, and a single lonely, frightened girl to destroy it.” Like Bella.

“I liked you a lot better when you just said ‘come and get me’, Bella. So what’s this? You lost, and now you’re just going to badger us to death? I’m sure that Gene, Heather, Pearl, and Ariel are going to be here any minute, and I bet they could do you a bit of harm for all of this. Why don’t you run away, now, before things get any worse for you?” She stared at him for a moment. He had risked everything to save just two more lives. She wondered for a moment. Then, she let herself be infected with his madness.

“Aren’t you curious, Nash? Don’t you wonder what my motive is?” She gave her cruelest smile. Begging him to shy away. To not reach out to her. “All you have to do is meet my eye, for just a moment, and you will know it. It’s such a wonderful secret, Nash.”

Megara and Irayama warned the man. They might as well have been telling a child that a stove was hot. “There’s nothing more that Bella can do to me.” he said, his voice firm. “She’s given me her best shot. She’s nothing but anger, and hate, and those things can’t control me anymore.” She shuddered inside. That damned confidence would be the death of him. But it hadn’t been so far.

He tilted up his eyes. And she showed her soul to him. The pain. The loss. The hurt. All the ways she had wounded him, all the things she had done, the atrocities and the little nobilities, the pain and the hope. And she showed him the plan. Just for a moment, she trusted him with everything. Then the moment was broken, and she stepped back. The darkness opened behind her.

“Come and get me.” *Please save me.*

“I will.”

Then he fell. But she knew he would get back up. She believed in him.

Chapter 30: Exodus

Nash woke up with a start as the bad dreams drifted away. Panic fled with Pearl’s gift, holding away the nightmare visions. The last thing he remembered had been speaking to War. He felt a little stab inside of his heart. The memories of the pain she had been through. She had hurt him so many times, and she had wanted to do it every time she did. She had wanted to die, and she had pushed him to be the one to kill her. She was probably quite disappointed that he hadn’t picked that up. He blinked slowly. He was sitting in the clinic again. His stomach was bandaged. Nobody was there.

He grunted, and reached over to the table by the side of the bed, searching for water. He frowned. There was a significant amount of paperwork. Firearm discharge forms, incident reports. They had all been filled out in his handwriting. He shuffled through them quickly, studying them. They perfectly explained everything that had happened over the last five days, along with an injury report. He’d apparently sustained a bad fall during the riot, and had been cut while saving three teenagers from a storm-damaged structure. Dean had been in a comatose state that had been taken for death, and had made a full recovery. All the loose ends, tied. They had contact information for Pearl, to corroborate them. A sticky note was attached to the table.

“Hope this helps! Thank you for saving the world! – Pearl”

He sat back in the bed, and laughed. It was so perfect, he worried for a moment whether he was dreaming. Then his chest spasmed, and he grunted, bending forward. When he sat up, Doctor Smith was standing in the doorway, looking concerned. “Good god, man! I used enough tranquilizer to knock out an elephant so you wouldn’t injure yourself! What are you doing up already?” She clucked her tongue as she approached, fussing over him. The golden chain lay over her labcoat. There was a noticeable lack of gem hanging from it. She ran her fingers over his chest.

“Thank god. The stitches aren’t torn. You really could do with a little bit of knowledge of your own limits. You’ve been asleep barely twenty four hours, and your body was badly in need of it. If you try to move around before you are fully healed, I intend to put you into a medically induced coma.” He laughed, and turned it into a cough when he saw she wasn’t smiling. It was probably a joke nonetheless.

“How’s the city doing?” he asked, as she wrote down a few notes on a clip-board.

“Well enough. There were quite a few bad injuries, especially during the last few hours of… unpleasantness. Dio and I were caught outside. He very nearly bled out, but the tough old cuss managed to survive. The inhuman toughness of most of the people here, combined with their lack of focus while enraged, meant that nobody died, although there are a few people who will be crippled.” She sighed softly. “The city itself is dead. The seal was shattered when you broke the Keystone. Zion only exists as a fictional set of boundaries on a map, now. Nearly ten percent of the population have already left, spreading out. A great diaspora.” She had a haunted expression. “Just like before.”

“Not just like before. People got along here. Maybe it wasn’t magic or laws that did it. Maybe we can all get along, Megan. Ah, Doctor Smith.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, it’s got to work better than just trying to bury the truth and staying away from one another did. If we can’t get along, staying apart isn’t going to fix that. This country’s tried that experiment a whole lot of times already.”

She snorted. “Well, there have already been some obvious effects. A veritable explosions of cryptid sightings, UFOs, and inexplicable phenomena. The CDC is reporting Black Plague in New York City. People are getting nervous out there. So far, no concrete evidence of the supernatural, but there has been a great deal of worry.”

“There’s always worry. And yet it never does any good.” He frowned. “I destroyed Zion.”

“Many here blame you for what happened. But from what Susan told us, you didn’t have any choice.” He felt a sudden spike of worry. “Susan is fine. She is young, nobody blames her for her actions. War is prone to preying on the naive and foolish. There are a great many who are angry at her, but she’ll survive that.” The doctor smiled. “In fact, she and her friends arrived here just a few minutes ago. I’ll go let them in, shall I?” She stepped away from the bedside.

Dean and Isabelle still looked a bit shaky, and Susan was downright miserable, as the three of them entered. But they also looked as though they were recovering. “I don’t think any of you three got stabbed. What the hell are you frowning about?” he asked, and smiled. This seemed to restore a little bit of their good humor. None of the three were looking at one another. He smiled softly. “Yeah. Not an easy experience, was it?” They shook their heads. “But you came through it all with your friends still alive. Nobody died. None of you are going to prison for life.”

“I died, sir.” Dean suggested.

“Oh, please. I died twice. You’re walking around now, so it doesn’t count. You know what was eating Susan, and I hope you have the wisdom to recognize that she was hurting pretty bad. I’m not always going to be around to save you kids from the underworld and your own stupidity, so you’d better get it in shape.” He smiled again. “A lot got sacrificed for you. That doesn’t mean you owe anyone a debt, but I know you’ll do great things.”

Isabelle rushed forward, and hugged him around the shoulders. His pain faded, suddenly. She winced a bit as she released him, limping a bit, but flushed. “It was the least I could do for you, sir. Thank you. For saving the people I love. Both of them.” She flushed, and looked up towards Dean, and then towards Susan. Neither of them met her gaze, but she smiled anyway. “You risked a great deal to save them. I will try to treat both of them well.”

“Ugh. You kids and your weird menage a trois. I don’t understand your generation.” He saw the confused expression on two out of the three faces. Susan just blushed. That girl was well-informed. “Don’t look that up. And don’t tell your parents I said that. I’m absolutely sure that they can and will kill me for it.” He rubbed his face. “Now get out of here, I’m glad you three are alright, but I’ve got better things to do with my convalescence time than talking with a bunch of kids. If I play my cards right with Doctor Smith, I might get a sponge bath.”

“Yeah, from Wendy.” Isabelle said, and then blushed. There was a moment of shocked silence from everyone in the room, and then they all burst out laughing, Isabelle wincing a bit as she did. It wasn’t that funny, but the timing was everything. Even a bad joke will get a laugh if people need to laugh.

“Thank you, sir.” Dean smiled. “For everything. But… do you know what you’re going to do now?”

Nash shrugged. “Oh, who knows. Probably go back to the exciting life of danger and uncertainty that is the FBI. It’ll make a nice break. I can’t wait to tell my superiors that it turns out the kid who was reported as dead was just in a mild coma, and how exactly I wound up discharging my service weapon eighteen times without hitting anyone. Going to be a really fun time of things. Maybe I’ll even survive being chewed out by the Deputy Director.” He grinned cheerfully. The three turned to walk away, but Susan hesitated. She waited until the others had left, before returning to his bed-side.

“You could have killed me. You could have let me kill myself. I would have deserved it, sir. I nearly got people killed because I was-” The dark-haired girl looked down at her hands, shame glittering in her green, slit-pupilled eyes. She brushed the tears out of them slowly. “I didn’t deserve a second chance.”

“Nobody died because of what you did. Not for good, anyway.”

“But what if they had?! The riot could have been much worse! Dozens of people could have died. Many more were put in danger. My actions were- Unforgivable.”

Nash was silent for a few seconds. Then, he sighed. “If I killed you, it wouldn’t have brought back the people who had already died. It would just mean one more body. It wouldn’t have been a happy ending without you.” He smiled. “I can’t change what happened in the past. I can’t keep you from having endangered or killed people. All we can influence is the future. If I’d killed you because of the past, it would’ve meant that you’d never had a chance to make things right.” He looked up, face serious.

He looked up, face serious. “And trust me when I say that life is not going to be easy for you. You’ve got an entire lifetime of winning back trust, and doing good, to make up for the harm you’ve caused. Some people are never going to forgive you for what you’ve done. Some people are always going to look on you as… Well, as a monster.” He reached out to her, and took her hand. “It’s your job to prove them wrong, every day. Do you think that you have it in you?”

She was silent for a moment. Then, she nodded. “Yes, sir.” She turned, about to go, and then turned back to him, frowning. “Do you think that’s true of everyone? … Even War?”

“Bella?” He was quiet for a moment. There was no telling who could be listening. There was a reason she never showed her weakness where someone else could see it. There was always something watching. Something with silver hair. “Nah. That was just in her nature. You had a choice about being evil, which means that you could be good. She’s just a mad dog. When I get the chance to put her down, I will.” He smiled, a glossy, fake smile. “Don’t worry. When I get ahold of her, she’s never going to harm anyone again.” He didn’t lie. She seemed to regard him suspiciously for a moment, but then she nodded.

“Yes. I think that is just what she deserves.”

The next group to arrive were Megara, Harry, and Irayama, later that afternoon. Nash smiled as the three of them entered. “Well, you three all seem well enough. You going to join the Diaspora, or going to stay here?”

Irayama laughed. “My. Is that what they’re calling it?” She looked at the other two, smiling. “Many of my people are still here. We still have a strong community. I am happy to remain in this place for a while longer. Taking care of my foolish children, and seeing that they do not repeat their mistakes. Thank god they all lived. Death is a very poor teacher indeed.” She tapped her chin. “With the noticeable exception of Dean. Being a corpse has been good for him. You, on the other hand, managed to die twice without learning even to avoid repeating your mistake.”

Her smile grew softer, and the wizened old woman stepped closer, tousling his hair. “Thank you for rescuing Susan, as well. I did not think it was possible. But you did well.” She shook her head. “I hope that you never learn to be a different person than you are now, Agent Nash. It would be a terrible loss.” She laughed softly. “Even if you would most likely deserve it. I would tell you to stop picking fights that you cannot hope to win, but you seemed very determined to win them nonetheless. I’m rather impressed you made the Horseman stand down. She seemed ready to try to fight.”

Nash smiled, but he didn’t say anything. “And you two?” he asked, turning his head towards Megara and Harry.

“We’re going to wait until Dean graduates. Then, we were thinking of going on a trip, together with Susan and Isabelle; Dean refused unless we invited them along.” Harry grinned. “I was hoping to take them to visit Greece. Learning a bit more about Dean’s heritage. Then, maybe China.”

Megara nodded. “I was hoping that we might take the opportunities there to visit the two Cities, Avalon and Shambhala. Provide them with a bit of warning, so they know what the Horsemen are planning. An attack on one city is likely to be followed by an attack on the others. The world is vulnerable, Mister Nash. You could have killed Dean and Isabelle, and perhaps deprived the corruption of the energy it needed. It might have been the wiser thing to do.” She looked around at the others. “It would have been the logical way to stop her. But… I am glad you did not.” The admission that not murdering two teenagers had been the right move seemed to embarrass her somewhat. “I suppose I have become too soft over the years. We will cope.”

Nash’s face was hard. “It wouldn’t have worked. But even if it could, I wouldn’t have done it. You can’t make a better world by killing innocents.” Then he smiled softly. “Besides, if anyone’s convinced me that humans and monsters can get along, it’s the two of you.”

“Ah! That reminds me, dear. I think that your attempt while the two of us were maddened was the twelfth attempt on my life.” Harry was grinning cheerfully, particularly for a man celebrating an attempt on his life. “That means the twelve tasks are finished. No more chances to kill me.” Megara looked utterly crestfallen.

“What- But I was planning one for your birthday! I even found a poisoned negligee! It was going to be a special present! It took ages to find a poison that would work on contact with you, but which wouldn’t harm me!” Megara was actually pouting. “This is going to take all of the passion right out of our marriage!”

Harry sighed, rolling his eyes. “Oh, very well. How about another two chances, hmmm?” He grinned, and the two of them kissed softly. Irayama let out a bark of raspy laughter, and Nash quietly wondered whether he had made the right choice in letting humans and monsters live together. Then the kiss broke, and the two of them had nothing but warmth in their eyes. He decided that it was probably going to be alright. The two of them walked out of the room together, arm in arm, leaving Nash with Irayama.

“So. I take it that you are not going to simply settle down now that you have tasted this life, hmm?” She asked, smiling.

“No. I talked a bit about the other cities with Doctor Smith. She mentioned the Caribbean having one of the Cities.”

Irayama nodded slowly. “That would be Paradise, a part of the district of the Cayman Islands.” She frowned. “I suspect that it will be quite dangerous. Prester John is an… eccentric monarch. Are you prepared to deal with a situation in a foreign nation?” Nash smiled.

“I doubt it. But I’ll figure out something. We don’t have a long time to prepare for this insanity. I’m going to be heading out shortly.” He sat up, and winced slightly. “Still aching a bit, but we’ve got to move like hell if we want to save the world.” He stood up, and smiled. “The ground burns my feet.” He reached out, and hugged the woman. She went stiff at first, and patted him on the back, slightly awkwardly. She was smiling as he let go, though.

“Thank you, Nash. For everything. I only wish I could do more to help.” She smiled, and stood on her tiptoes, giving him a motherly peck on the cheek. “But… What about Cassandra? Are you not going to wait to see her?”

He was quiet for a few moments. “Cassandra saved me more than once. She ensured I was in the right place at the right time, and she did everything she could to make things end well. And I didn’t protect her nearly as well as I should have. In the end, I hurt her, just like my mother hurt me. I thought I was doing it for a good reason, but I…” he sighed. “I don’t think I could see her again. I just have to hope she’ll forgive me for all the bad that I did for her, and hope she grows up, happy and healthy.” He stood up straight, and smiled. “Besides, I need to leave this place. It’s too comfortable here. I almost feel happy. And I don’t have time to worry about feeling happy.”

“I think you should stay. You should see Cassandra. She has never been believed in before. She needed it, as much as you needed her.” He smiled, and shrugged, and turned his back on things. “Nash.”

“Irayama… do I have a soul?” She was silent for a moment. “War said the reason I could use the Sisters’ power was because I had no soul. Nothing to conflict with their power. Just an empty vessel. Is that true? Would that work?”

“A soul is our connection to others. The love we feel for those around us, the love of sensation and experience, and the love we are given in turn. I am given to understand you have lived your life terribly alone.” Irayama clucked her tongue. “If you died in such a state, I can see how there would be nothing left behind after the meat went rotten. I could… also, I suppose, see how that would give you that power. It would explain the discomfort people feel around you.” He turned to face her. “It is not permanent. You could have a soul again. You are growing one even as we speak.”

“What would happen to me if I kept the power of the Sisters, and had a soul again.”

She didn’t answer, which was its own kind of answer. He remembered what Megara had said. *That much power should burn your soul out through your eye sockets.* His eyes watered, and he wiped away the half-formed tears with the back of his hand.

“You could give up the power. You could live here, with us. Be a person. Be happy.” She frowned. “I am a goddess of death, Nash. I offer peace, and safety. Yomi is a dark realm, but I try at least to make it a refuge. Without a soul… The day you die, everything you are will be gone. That idea terrifies me. The end of you, utterly. Not merely being constrained to the safety of the underworld, or returning to the wheel of reincarnation. Perhaps that is even why you are so hard to kill. Everyone else instinctually knows they have a refuge, an escape from pain and suffering, in death. Whereas you… All that waits for you is oblivion.. Can power really be that important to you?”

“There are things that make it worthwhile. That power saved Dean. It saved Isabelle. It saved Susan. Think about all of the people who I’d be letting down if I gave it up.” He smiled. “I’m the only one who can do this. I’ve already suffered through for decades, just to be the person who could do this.”

“That’s some arrogance, Nash.”

“Hubris, Irayama. When I compare myself to the gods, it’s called hubris.”

She embraced him with her thin, bony arms. “I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to. You’ve certainly proven that.” She looked up at him sternly. “But don’t you dare die.”

“Who, me?” He grinned. “I hope I see you again.”

He found his rental car in the gravel lot, and climbed in. Pearl was sitting in the passenger seat. She hadn’t been when he’d approached the car. “It’s good to see you again, Pearl.”

“You did as well as I’d hoped,” Pearl whispered. Then she looked across the divider. “So. You saw into War’s head. What did you see there? It’s safe to speak, here. Nobody else can hear us.” He started the car, and reversed out of the small lot, beginning to drive.

“I saw someone who was alone, and trapped by her nature. I saw someone who’s helpless. She needs someone to save her.”

“It could be a trap,” Pearl muttered. She didn’t make eye contact. She hugged herself gently. “I’ve known the Horsemen for a very long time, Nash. They are terribly skilled at preying on human weakness. There’s a reason that War and her kind take the shape of women. It lowers the guard of those they interact with. It makes them easy to fool. She is not a damsel in distress. She is the dragon.” Nash kept driving, giving a brief look at the red-haired woman in the car, before returning his eyes to the road.

“I know that it may sound crazy. This may be me playing into her hands,” he admitted as he drove. “But I think that she can change. I think that she wants to change. She’s just trapped in that nightmare, with no way out. She can’t figure out a way to she can stop being a part of this self-destructive urge. She thinks that it’s what humans expect of her, and the worst part is, she’s right. But I think we can change the story.” He stared into the distance. “I want to save Bella.”

“War.”

“Bella.” He insisted. “It’s important. If you refer to her as War, that’s just reaffirming that it’s who she is. That it’s all she is. Names means something to her.”

Pearl looked over the divider at him. “You sound a bit like you’re in love, Nash. It’s a dangerous thing, falling in love with something that powerful. It can end very poorly.” She folded her hands together. “But I’m with you.”

“Do you still love me, Pearl?”

She looked up at him sharply. “What makes you think I was ever in love with you?”

“I was told that all of the sisters were in love, once. That that was why they wound up giving away their powers.” He looked out through the windshield, staring into the distance.

“I was… very enamored with you, for a long time. But that was millenia ago.” She crossed her arms. “You were magnificent, though, Nash. When you first arrived five days ago, I was worried. You weren’t a bit like the man I remembered saving me. But you became that man so fast, it was a little frightening.” She reached out, and then did not quite touch his shoulder. “If I had known what it would cost you-“

“When I was five years old, I made a foolish request. I asked to be strong enough to give people happy endings. I regretted it every day of my life until yesterday.” He smiled. “I don’t care if I’m alone. I don’t care if it kills me. I don’t care if I fade away when I die because I don’t have a soul. I saved everyone. The world needs people who’ll give up everything.” She looked at him with a very sorrowful expression. “Do you think I’m wrong for believing that?”

“Not exactly. No. I’m just sorry that someone who would give up everything is the most likely to die. What will the world do when we lose you, Nash? How will we survive?”

“You’ll find some other damn fool who’ll give up everything just to feel like they matter.” He smiled. “I’m not that narcissistic. This may be a wasted effort. But if there’s even the slightest chance it’ll work, I have to do it.”

Pearl was gone without a sound. Then, sitting where she had been, War appeared. She looked over at him. He looked back. “Are you really here?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.

“No. I am in your imagination. You are mad, after all. Just talking to yourself.” She looked down. “You could have killed me. It never even occurred to you. You should have done it. It would have made life much easier for you. I cannot change who I am.”

“Why not?” She was quiet. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t change who you are. But I can. I’ll find you again.” He smiled. “Everyone deserves a happy ending.”

“You didn’t kill anyone, Nash. You don’t have a great sin to be absolved.”

“I thought I killed someone. I’ve lived with that. The fact that I didn’t succeed doesn’t change what happened. Besides, it’s not about atoning for my misdeeds. I can’t just let people suffer because I wasn’t the one to hurt them. I can make things better.”

“You don’t have to hurt. I did this to you, and you didn’t deserve it.”

“No, I didn’t deserve it. But that’s what makes a gift a gift.”

She leaned across the divider. Her hair was soft, and her head was heavy on his shoulder. It was a beautiful, crisp, September day. The sun streamed through the white pines, as she leaned gently into him, her eyes closed, as the two of them drove through the golden hour. Who could’ve thought that War could feel so soft to the touch. He reached out, and stroked her hair. It wouldn’t be easy to save her. He might well die again. And if he failed, he’d probably have to take her life. The stakes were terribly high. So it was rather strange that he couldn’t stop smiling. “I can do it, you know. Give you a happy ending.”

“I believe you, Nash.” And with that, she vanished, leaving behind nothing but the lingering scent of gunpowder.

Cassandra looked up. There was the distant rumble of an engine. She took a deep breath. Gene had tuned the brakes. Silas was no longer on the antipsychotics dulling his reflexes. She’d be fine.

God, she couldn’t even convince herself.

She stepped into the road on a tight curve. There was a screech of brakes as the rental car came to a suspension-ruining hard stop, less than an inch from her. The door opened, and Silas frowned down at her as he stepped out. “Oh, come on, Silas. You know this was the only way I was going to ever get in touch with you. You’ve spent your life avoiding people.”

His face was still butchered. His body was still maimed. His voice was still a horrorshow. He’d been healing, slightly. Now it was as though all of that was collapsing. He looked away, and spoke softly. “I’m sorry. I caused you a lot of pain.”

“You bastard.” She took a deep breath, to steady her nerves. Her eyes burned. She still remembered when he’d appeared, maimed and terrible, at the morgue. All of the strength and certainty that she’d had in Hades had evaporated away when she’d realized how badly she’d fucked up. How she’d thrown the one man who could have saved them into hell. How she’d doomed the entire city, and how he’d torn his way out of Tartarus. She’d been sure he was going to reach out and snap her neck, with all his careless rage and power. Like he’d broken Megara and humbled Irayama.

And then the anger had disappeared from his face, and he’d stared Madness in the eye and made it blink, saved her and everyone else. If anything, that had been more terrifying. Watching him forgive her for what she’d done was more frightening than all the terrible feats he’d performed before.

“I deserve that.” His head was lowered, a guilty expression on his butchered face.

“No, you don’t! I threw you into Tartarus, to die or be trapped there forever! I couldn’t stop thinking you were a tool of War-“

“I was.”

“No! You fucking overcame her! You believed in me, when nobody else did! You kept fighting, and you forgave me even though I’d done something unforgivable! You saved the city and gave us all a second chance! What the hell were you thinking?!”

“I’m sorry, what are you berating me for?”

“Take me with you!”

“What? No! You’re fourteen.”

“Do you know where you’re going, right now?! I can see the future! And do you know what I dreamt of, all night long?” She pointed at him accusingly. “I see you, at the end of everything! I see you, spending the rest of eternity fighting and suffering for everyone else, forgotten. I’m not going to let you be trapped like that!” She began to sob, the tears running down her cheeks, all of the tears she hadn’t shown, and wiped furiously at her face, trying to beat back the tears. “Please. You promised you’d trust me. You can’t go down this path.”

His hands gently rested on her shoulders, and he hugged her. The tears flowed free, staining his shirt. She could still see the blood there, even though it had been washed away. His blood. “I’m not going to lose.”

“That’s not what happens if you lose,” she whispered softly. “That’s what happens if you win.”

He was silent for a few moments. Then he tilted her head up, and smiled. “Sounds like a happy ending to me.”

“I’m not joking!”

“Neither am I.” He straightened up, and his hands fell away from her shoulders. “Cassandra, you’ve got your future ahead of you. I believe in you. You’re going to do great things. But first, I need to make sure that future exists. It doesn’t matter what happens to me after that.” He looked back towards the car. “I finally learned why I look the way I do to you. I don’t have a soul.” He grinned down at her. “So what do I have to lose?”

“Please,” she whispered softly.

“Cassandra, I took you into the world of the dead twice. I forced you to do something terrible to save Dean, even if I didn’t mean to. I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself for that. The most I can hope for is that you can live a happy and content life, and never have to sacrifice your happiness for my life again.” She let out a rough bark of laughter, which turned into a coughing fit.

“I can’t believe it. You’re seriously apologizing for the fact that I threw you to Hades to be killed or dragged into Tartarus.” She rubbed her eyes. “Can’t you let me help?”

“I’m sorry. I really am. There’s no one I’d rather have by my side, believe me. You helped me more than anyone else in this entire damn city, even including the Sisters.” He smiled, terribly kind. “But if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that I have to be alone.”

He got into the car, and drove away, leaving Cassandra standing in the road, eyes red and tears spent. She’d known her warning wouldn’t work, but she’d had to try anyway. It would have been easier if he’d been a callous, cold bastard. If he hadn’t trusted her, if he hadn’t believed in her, if he hadn’t fought to protect her, if he hadn’t saved her parents and her from a nightmare that would never end. She could just say that he deserved whatever he had coming, then. But he didn’t deserve the ending he was going to get.

She turned back towards Zion. She knew that wasn’t the only way things could turn out. She could save him. Silas wasn’t the only person who could give people a happy ending.

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