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 you her 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.

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