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 me 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.
It 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.”