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.
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. Dean was the last chance I had, and I thought- I really believed!- that I could change fate. That I could save a single child. 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?”