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.”
“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.