The basement was full of strange items that were apparently necessary to the ritual. “The rock-salt.” Irayama pointed, and Nash hefted an eighty pound bag over his shoulder, legs shaking slightly under the weight. “We will need to create a place of purity. Souls can escape easily if there isn’t a circle of salt ready to catch them.” She studied the walls. “There.” She pointed towards a rolled up scroll. Isabelle gently lifted it in both arms. “And of course, we will need to get Dean’s body.” With this, the old woman opened the door of the meat locker. She pulled a body bag out. All the racks had been withdrawn and discarded to make room for it.
“Did Wendy sell you that locker?” Nash asked, lip quirking up in a smile.
“As a matter of fact, she did. She said she didn’t need it anymore.” Irayama straightened. “We will need a path to Hades. I can open it, provided you can think of an appropriate place.” She hefted the bag over her shoulder, carefully, and the five of them climbed the stairs. It was as they reached the front door that they noticed the mob.
There were at least three dozen people standing in the street. None of them had yet stepped onto the grass of the lawn, but they were clearly psyching themselves up. Nash called them people because he was trying to be more sensitive. Most of them were clearly not human. Cassandra’s father was visible at the front of the crowd, his arms crossed over a massive, round pot-belly. He was visibly drunk, although that probably wasn’t the reason his skin was red. A pair of massive bull horns rose from his head.
The clear leader of the group stood in front of him. A young woman, her arms were crossed under her chest. She looked mostly human, draped in a loose silk dress that covered her hands. The rest of her body was that of a tremendous spider, black-shelled with yellow stripes around the legs. Nash’s throat tightened. He didn’t have anything against spiders. But he had never before met one that was the size of a horse.
“Stay here,” Irayama stated, as she opened the door. The frail old woman stepped out into the peaceful night. The sky was still dark as pitch. It had to be evening. There was just a hint of purple in the sky to the west. She lit a cigarette, and puffed serenely on it as she studied the crowd. It burnt down about halfway, before she tapped the ash off, and blew out a tremendous cloud of smoke. There was almost no wind in the air, and the smoke hung above Irayama like a personal stormcloud as she studied faces.
“May I ask what my friends and neighbors are here to inquire about? I am sure that you wish to talk with me about something terribly important, but as you may know, we are experiencing quite the crisis at the moment. If you need a coroner, or wish to make a complaint about how I have held back the chaos threatening to descend upon us, please, wait until morning.”
The spider woman stepped forward. “Indeed, we could hardly fail to be grateful that you have prepared so thoroughly for these impossible circumstances.” She was polite, in the way only someone preparing to do great violence could be polite. Getting in all the civility now, in preparation for what was to come. Her black hair hung across one side of her face. Four eyes were still visible. “One might go so far as to suggest that you may have been forewarned, Izanami. That you saw trouble coming.”
“Yes, I suspect that could be explained easily by my natural pessimism. I know all about inevitability.” Irayama puffed at her cigarette. “I will not allow any of my children to come to harm. Not even you.” She held her gaze levelly with the spider.
“Except, perhaps, through inaction.. You know the rumors. That your daughter was the killer. That we are infested with War. I am afraid I must make two requests of you. First, we will take your daughter, and offer her body to Megara. I know that you wish to protect her. But her death may be the only thing that can stop events from deteriorating further. Justice must be done. And second, I must ask that you give up the keystone. Not to me, perhaps, if you fear my ambition is a product of War. But you cannot be trusted with it anymore.”
“I would say over my dead body. But I fear that would be taken as an invitation. If you attempt to take my Isabelle, or the keystone, I will not kill you, dear daughter. But I will make you wish you were dead.”
“You would turn against your own people, for the sake of that- chankoro?”
It had been the wrong thing to say. Izanami let out a low, grinding noise from somewhere deep in her throat. The tension outside was growing. Nash swallowed, hard, his heart beginning to pound. His hands balled into fists, tension growing inside of him. Then Cassandra stepped out through the door, grabbing his wrist and pulling him along. The entire crowd turned to stare at the two of them.
“Daddy,” Cassandra said, quite simply. She turned towards the others. “First of all, I want you all to know that I am extraordinarily ashamed of you. That you would let fear turn you against two girls who have been a part of our community since they were children. Miss Gumo, you once knit a sweater for every child at the school, including Dean, Isabelle, and I. Mister Gyuuki, you once announced that Isabelle was the sweetest young lady you had ever met when she helped you after you were hospitalized. She watched over you day and night. I know you are all monsters. I have seen it. But I did not think you were bad, or cruel, until now.”
Nash watched, amused and bemused, as every one of the terrifying creatures failed to make eye contact with the young woman.
“… We do not wish our families, and our friends, and our town, and our peace, to be broken because of a foolish girl.” The spider woman, Miss Gumo, had her arms crossed tightly over her chest. She couldn’t meet Cassandra’s eyes either. “There must be justice, or the contract will be broken.”
“And there will be justice. Nash, tell them.” Cassandra pushed him forward. He took a couple of steps forward, surprised by the confidence in her words. She gave him a look, and nodded. He swallowed.
“I have apprehended the ones responsible. I am going to take them to the police station, now. They have surrendered of their own free will. If there was a crime committed, then the guilty parties will be punished. There will be no vigilanteism.” Everyone, including Irayama and Cassandra, were staring at him. “If you wish to assault anyone while they are under my protection,” he said, as his knuckles clenched and a slight wind picked up around him, “I will react with appropriate force.” He couldn’t help the satisfaction he felt at the sight of the lynch mob taking a step back in fear. In respect.
There was a moment of silence as they digested the near-threat. Then, one of the figures in the crowd snorted. “‘If there was a crime committed’? There’s a body bag over Irayama’s shoulder!’
“Not, in itself, a crime,” he replied. That seemed to be enough for the people, as they exchanged bemused glances. Cassandra stepped forward again.
“Go find your families. Keep them safe. If this doesn’t work, it’s going to get dangerous in the morning. Stay with the people you trust. And don’t hurt anyone else. And you.” She pointed at Miss Gumo. “Don’t you ever use that word again. I know what it means. You can leave that kind of shit where it belongs, in the past. If we survive the next few days, no more divisions. We’re all in this together.”
Finally, they broke up, and dispersed into the night. All except for Mister Hirosata. He frowned at his daughter as he approached, crouching down in front of her. Nash stood to the side.
“You’re going to do something very dangerous, aren’t you?” the man asked, simply, as he rested a hand on her shoulder. She nodded. The man looked up at Nash. “Does she have to?”
“No,” Nash stated. “Cassandra. You’re 14 years old. I can do this without you. You don’t have to-”
“Stick to the truth, Silas. It’s what you’re good at,” Cassandra shot back. He closed his mouth. “He’s going into the underworld, dad. He doesn’t know what’s coming. He’s clever, but he’s going to get himself killed if there isn’t someone there to help him. I need to do this, alright?” Cassandra wrapped her slender arms around her father’s brawny shoulders, hugging the ferocious looking man tenderly. “I’ll be fine. I’ve foreseen it.” She smiled softly, and kissed the big man on the forehead.
“I love you, Kyuri-chan. I just wish you hadn’t been forced into this madness so young.” He smiled tenderly, and Cassandra blushed.
“I need to go now. Okay? You find mom, and make sure she’s safe. She should be staying with Grandma.” She released him, and looked over her shoulder at Nash. “We should get going, now. Do you think the police station is the right place?”
“If Officer Crupky is who I think she is, then yeah.” He nodded, with rather more confidence than he actually felt. It was a long-shot, but she seemed like his best chance. He had started to trust his instincts. He wasn’t sure he was insane. Maybe his instincts were worth trusting after all.
He carried the bag of rock salt to the small brown station wagon sitting in the driveway of the Onnashi household. When Irayama opened the back, he slid the rock salt into the trunk, followed by Dean’s body. “Is it really alright for us to carry him around like a piece of luggage?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.
“The dead do not care much about the state of their bodies, any more than you concern yourself with what is happening to the corpse of your previous incarnations. But I will try to make sure that his body isn’t damaged. That’s why I put him on top of the rock salt, rather than underneath.” Susan, Isabelle, and Cassandra climbed into the back seat of the car. Irayama handed him the keys. He raised an eyebrow.
“I have never particularly enjoyed driving, Mister Nash. Would you mind?” She smiled more pleasantly than she had in the entire time he’d been in the city. He gave a slow nod as he took the driver’s seat. The driving was easier. His reflexes were sharper, he noticed. The anti-psychotics were wearing off. That meant he was getting faster. A lifetime of dealing with slowed reflexes, and for the first time, he didn’t have to watch half a mile ahead to make sure he stopped in time for crosswalks.
He wondered what else was going to happen because of it. It wasn’t pleasant going off of anti-psychotics. There was quite a lot of vomiting involved.
The car’s headlights illuminated the street ahead of them. “The spider woman mentioned something that stuck out to me,” he began, in a conversational tone. “She said you had a keystone. She suggested that something bad was going to happen. And she was going on a lot about ‘justice’. I’ve heard that this town balances the spirit world and Earth, and that if that balance is disrupted, bad things are going to happen. But how the hell does that work?”
Irayama nodded slowly. “Alright.” She looked over her shoulder, and sighed. “I suppose that it is alright to share the information. It is not widespread, but War would already be aware. And all four of you should know. There are three ways. The contract, the land, and the keystone.”
The cities, Irayama explained, were a seal. Like the roofing tiles holding out the rioters in the Japanese neighborhood, but larger and infinitely more powerful. The four Sisters had given their blessing, a god of death had produced the barrier necessary to hold the two worlds apart, and it had been enshrined in three ways. The first was the contract. A code of conduct. The inhabitants would not murder each other. When you were of Zion, that meant that you had nothing to fear. No murder, no assault, no theft of truly valuable things. The code was simple and straightforward.
“The initial crime is what did it. Murder. It was a tragic accident, and it was fated, but it was still a violation of that old code. The decay will be slow, but unceasing; It is an open wound in the life-force of the city.” Irayama sighed softly, puffing on her cigarette.
“But this is happening fast.”
Irayama nodded. “The crimes, assaults, all those little cuts add up. Each additional crime will make it worse. And when the contract’s power is gone, the city’s seal will be ripped apart. The end of the world will accelerate. The violence will spread out everywhere. It will set humanity on a spiral towards extinction.”
The next aspect was the land. That was simple enough: the city itself was important. If it was destroyed, depopulated, or abandoned, the seal would dissolve.
“It was lucky that you stopped Echidna before she could destroy my barrier.” Irayama shook her head. “She is a passionate person. That is not always a good thing. Had she broken the barrier, Zion would have been devastated. And as for the keystones…” She reached into her shirt, and withdrew a small, glittering golden chain. A gem, cracked, hung from it. “The truce needed a physical form. When Megara made this city, she split it into three pieces, so that it couldn’t be destroyed.”
Nash opened his mouth, and Irayama held up a hand. “The long and short of it is, the true keystone is more than the sum of its parts. It represents the truce. If the three gemstones were combined, they could be used to destroy it. But separated, no one gemstone has that power. They can’t be destroyed, because the contract would still exist, and would recreate them. But if they were put back together…” She sighed. “Always two agents of War. That’s why there are three pieces. So that no single Horseman could co-opt the entire system at once. They are jealous conquerors, thankfully. They have never worked together.”
Nash nodded slowly. “So… Then the problem right now is Dean’s death. Someone’s been murdered in Zion, and so all the peace is bleeding away. And the longer he stays dead, the worse it’s likely to get.” He frowned at her. “And is there another way to fix this?” Irayama didn’t speak for nearly a minute. “Is there another method besides undoing the harm that was done?”
“If the person who is responsible for Dean’s death is slain, as punishment for what they have done, then the town will be saved.” The three girls in the back hadn’t been speaking, and yet it grew even quieter behind him. “It would reverse the corruption. Fix everything. And I will not allow that.”
“I’d rather risk my life talking with Hades before I kill a young woman for showing her boyfriend what she really looks like.” He adjusted the mirror. Isabelle was staring down at her hands, as Susan hugged her from the side. Her offer, to take her own life, was still fresh on his mind. “If the city fell apart- Would it really be all that bad? People here really do seem to get along when there are no murders.”
“You know human nature, Agent Nash.” Irayama said, her tone dry. “And monsters are nothing if not shaped by human nature. If you woke tomorrow to find that a death goddess was living next door to you, do you think you would take it calmly?”
A frown twisted across Nash’s lips as they kept driving. The dark streets were unfamiliar in the midnight, but he could still remember the way to the police station. Several long minutes passed in silence. Finally, the ragged ruin of the police station came into view. It was unlit, and there were no sign of the police cars in the back lot. But Pearl stood in the entrance. She gazed at them levelly, as the five of them got out of the car. “So, you really were behind it, Irayama.” She shook her head. “You could have told me, you know. I could have helped.”
“I would hate to break your streak of uselessness, Pearl.” Izanami’s voice was sharp, clipped. “We are performing the ritual to bring him back. The crime will be undone. The contract will remain whole. Do you intend to hinder us?”
Pearl smiled sadly. “Still not over your feelings about fire, are you? I cannot help directly, but I brought two people who can.” She waved for them to follow her into the building. In the morgue, Officer Crupky and Sergeant Dio were seated in a pair of office chairs. “Officer Crupky and I cannot accompany you into Hades. It is a timeless place, and we already exist there. It would go poorly. But Sergeant Dio will ensure that you are protected there.” Dio nodded. His baton was gone. Instead, he held a bronze spear by his side. The tip was covered with wet blood, which glowed eerily in the fluorescent light of the morgue.
Officer Crupky stepped forward. “You two aren’t initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries for a whole day, and already you’re going to go questing into Hades, to find a soul and bring it back?” She snorted. “Then three things. First, the way in will be fraught. Hades doesn’t allow visitors in the easy way anymore. He sealed it a long time back. Even with a god of the underworld helping along the ritual, you’re going to need to break in through Tartarus, the jail of Hades. There are dark things in there. Don’t let anyone free. They are all there for a damned good reason. Second, do not eat anything in there. Just like Yomi, those who eat of the land of the dead cannot leave it. And third, when you have Dean, do not look back. No matter what you hear, no matter what touches you, no matter how great your concern becomes. Do not look behind you. When you leave Hades, it must be with confidence, or everything will fail.” She looked between the group. “Alright. Then let’s get this door opened.” She took the body from Irayama’s shoulders.
Irayama, Crupky, and Isabelle took up positions around the morgue table. Crupky set down the body bag, and the rustle of fabric as she opened it was the only sound in the morgue. Dean’s body lay on the table, naked. The inky marks that Nash had seen last time were still visible on his body. While they began to work, he rested a hand on Pearl’s shoulder, leading her away from the rest of the group, towards the corner of the room. The two of them stood in the corner, under the harsh fluorescent lights, and Nash crossed his arms. “So?”
Pearl raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“I’ve talked with the other three Sisters. Mastered their abilities, at least enough to use them. This is the last play. This is the final act. What are you going to tell me? What do I have to learn from you? I’m sure that where I’m about to go, I’m going to need what you have to teach, Pearl. You’ve been the person who’s supported me most all along. You put your faith in me, your trust. You went to bat for me in front of the other Sisters. What is your quest?”
Pearl sighed. “My quest is the most difficult, in many ways. It is not a single act, a display of strength or willing or a sacrifice. What I demand is a lifestyle. Those who I empower must have a code. And Nash, I am sorry. I really am. But you’re not worthy yet.” She smiled softly. “You are growing stronger. You are showing great courage. But everything that you do, you do to satisfy other’s desires. You came to this place because of your superior officer. You stayed because I begged you for help. You venture into the underworld because others need you to do so.”
“But-” Nash groped for an argument. “That’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s what a hero does. Right? They help people. They care about other people. They would do anything to save others.”
“My gift is not an easy one to claim. It is dangerous. It could do you far more harm than good. If you want to receive my power, you must have a goal. Something worth fighting for.” She studied him. “In Tartarus, you will be confronted with things that will challenge you. They will make you doubt yourself.” She rested a hand on his shoulder. “When you return from there, you’ll be worthy. I believe in you, Nash.” She smiled softly. “If you wanted a kiss that badly, though, do not worry. There’ll be one waiting for you when you escape from Hades.” He went bright red as Pearl turned to Cassandra, and waved her over. The two of them began to talk under their breath, as Nash went to stand by Sergeant Dio.
“I never asked, you know, who you were. My education in the Classics did not prepare me for this case.” Dio nodded, the older man rubbing his chin slowly.
“Fair enough question. I don’t get taught as widely as some of the more famous players in the Iliad. But I played my part in that war. Diomedes.” He studied Nash’s face for any sign of recognition, and sighed at the blank look. “Amazing. I wound two gods in a single day, and now, nobody remembers me. That’s gratitude for you. Though I am given to understand that you have accomplished the same, now. Not a bad showing. Of course, you had the aid of the Sisters, but Athena was watching over me when I did what I did. Behind every great man…” His eyes flicked towards Pearl.
“Oh! Diomedes. that makes a lot more sense. I was wondering why you hadn’t been looking around for an honest man.” Nash smiled, and to his surprise, so did Dio. “Tell me. What did you fight for?”
“Glory. Everlasting glory. Clearly I didn’t fight hard enough for it.” Dio saw the expression on Silas’ face. “Oh, yes, glory is looked down upon, nowadays. Pride goeth before a fall, the meek shall inherit the earth. But the nature of heroism is to inspire others. It is to show that even gods can be wounded by men. It is to show that anything is possible. If my deeds are forgotten because I was too modest to share them, it diminishes all of mankind. Greatness deserves to be shared, otherwise, it has no benefit to anyone. Heracles did his great labors out of guilt for the murder of his wife and children. I personally think the seeking of glory is a better story to tell.” He looked at Nash. “Tell me, Nash, do you have a woman?”
“What-? No, not really. I’ve never been in a relationship.”
“Do you have a man?”
“Well, it’s a great heroic tradition, you know. You’re a bit taller than I like my partners, but you are rather fair.”
The laughter was inside Nash’s head. His cheeks flushed, as the three Sisters laughed their heads off at his embarrassment. When was the last time someone had actually propositioned him? Not just flirting with him, but openly stating their interest? “I think you should go for it, Nash.” Ariel tittered. “I mean, come on, how many people can say that they have slept with a Greek hero?”
Heather was doing her best to hold back her giggles, without much success. “Oh, don’t tease him.” she said, even as another burst escaped her. “Remember, he’s from a culture where it’s a lot more embarrassing to be interested in the affections of other men. There there, Nash, honey. We won’t think any less of you if you decide to take him up on it.”
“Why, I imagine we’ll be thinking about you a lot more if you take him up on it,” responded Ariel.
Nash gave a polite smile. “I’m flattered. Maybe even a little curious. But I’m not much for romance.” Dio looked faintly disappointed, but nodded understandingly. “If I ever decide to experiment, I’m sure I’ll approach you first.” This seemed to cheer the other man up. No reason for him to feel rejected while they were going into the mouth of hell.
Pearl and Cassandra broke away from one another. “Remember what I told you, Cassandra,” Pearl said. The eight of them gathered around the body. Dean’s corpse was anointed with some soft oil that Crupky had produced, washing away the marks. A circle of salt surrounded him, a trail breaking off and leading to one of the walls, where the morgue’s fridges waited. They began to chant in what sounded like ancient Greek. Isabelle lay her hands upon Dean’s chest, while Crupky rested her hands on the boy’s feet, and Irayama rested her hands on the boy’s head.
There was a soft rumble of the ground beneath their feet. Dio stepped towards the refrigerator doors, and opened it. It was much deeper than it had any right to be. He gave Nash a look. Nash sighed, and stepped forward.
“Alright. FBI agents first.” And so, Nash crawled in through the three-by-three foot opening. At first, he crawled on his hands and knees over metal. Then, his fingers pressed against rough stone. There was the sound of someone else climbing in, and then a third person, and then, light vanished. Nash took a deep breath, and followed the stone passageway onwards.