Nash stared vacantly out the classroom window. His mother had been behaving strangely all week, ever since he told her about his dream and the red-haired woman. The woman in his dreams had been… strange. A little scary, very pretty. Thinking about her left him with a dreamy expression on his face. This became embarrassing when the teacher called on him.
Nash was not the brightest of students, he knew. He struggled to remember the textbooks he’d read the day before. All around him, giggles were breaking out. Everyone laughed at him, of course. It was because he was quiet, and shy, and didn’t stand up for himself. There were a few people who reached out to him, but he wasn’t good at returning the favor. So they all left, eventually. That was okay, though. His mom said it would get better. “Um… Guava?”
The teacher clucked her tongue as the laughter raised from amused to mocking. Nobody laughed with Nash. “Agua, Nash. Class, repeat after me. Aire. Tierra. Agua. Fuego.” The Spanish lesson continued, and Nash looked out of the window. His eyes wandered over the playground. The small playground was on the third floor of the school building, high fences preventing any unfortunate accidents. It was a beautiful October day. The city was always warm in the fall, right up until the frosts hit, and he was tired from lack of sleep.
Each day, when he woke up, he felt like he could almost remember what had happened. He started out of bed with the memory of the red-haired woman dancing in his mind. He leaned his chin forward onto his hand, feeling his eyes drift shut. He knew he shouldn’t sleep in the class, but something about the combination of heat, exhaustion from the long nights, and the teacher’s droning voice made it so hard to resist.
His head dipped. A flicker of red caught his eyes. He jerked upright again, staring out the window. His heart pounded, as he scanned the playground. The bright, clear sun was shining down on the slightly bouncy rubber surface. He swallowed dryly. His heart was pounding, and the temptation to sleep had fled. The bell rang, signalling the mostly free period optimistically referred to as ‘gym’. When he left the door, he saw her.
She was his age, a young girl. Her skin was dark, which wasn’t all that strange, considering how many black girls he knew at his school. What was odd was that she had bright red hair, and was dressed in a pretty red dress. He’d never seen anyone who looked quite like her. She was standing in a corner of the playground, by herself, a book in her hands, reading peacefully. He walked over towards her, and felt a sudden wave of shyness. He didn’t know much about young women, but he smiled anyway.
“Hi!” She looked up, and smiled briefly over the book, before turning her head back down to it. He wilted, and stood awkwardly for a couple of seconds, before he thought of something else to say. “I, um. I like your hair! It’s really pretty!” She looked up again, and nodded, before returning to her reading. He made a last, desperate gamble. “What are you reading?”
“The Chocolate War.” She smiled at him. “It’s a very good book. Would you like to read it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Is that like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I really enjoyed that book.” he smiled brightly. She considered this for a moment.
“No. Not really. It’s a story about the danger of not conforming to other’s expectations and demands. I think that you would appreciate it.” She smiled, and slid the book under her shoulder. “You’re Silas, right? It’s good to meet you. I’m Bella.” She shook hands with him. He smiled. He didn’t know how she knew his name, but she was pretty, and she sounded smart, and the book sounded interesting. “I’m just finishing up. Here.” She pressed the book into his hands, and smiled. “You’ll promise to bring it back, won’t you?”
An interesting name I chose, isn’t it, Silas? Taunting you with who I am. Perhaps it was a little unfair to use Latin with a child, but you’re all children to me.
Silas looked around, frowning. He could have sworn he’d just heard something. He took the book, and smiled. “Yeah. Of course I will.” She nodded politely, and walked away, not even giving him a backwards glance. For the next day, he read it voraciously. He neglected his homework. When he finished it, he lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling for a very long time.
“I hated it.” He admitted, the next day, in the playground, handing the book back to her. “It just… All of those things happened and there was nothing the main character could do. Everything ended wrong! It was horrible.” He shook his head, frowning.
“That’s what I love about it. It hurts because it feels so real. It’s the way things would actually happen. The people in power get away with their crimes, the brave lone hero is outnumbered, and loses, because he doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Isn’t there something beautiful in knowing that’s the way the world works?” She smiled. “Better than one of those stories where everything turns out just fine because of some contrived coincidence. Besides, what do you think should have happened in the story?”
“I think that… Archie should have drawn the black marble. He should’ve had to fight Janza. Or at least Jerry.” He shook his head. “How could he just get away with everything? How is it more realistic when bad people have everything go their way?”
“Would it make it better if he got beaten up? What would that solve? He’d still be a horrible person, and he’d still have the power to make others lives miserable. He might get even worse.” Bella tilted her head to the side. “Besides, even if Archie had his face beaten in AND became a good person, it wouldn’t change the way the world is. Even if you could change things, how would you change them?” She stared into his eyes, her head tilted to the side. It was a strange expression, that reminded him of a bird. Something not quite human, at any rate.
He thought about the question. His father, who existed in pictures around the house but who he had never met. His mother, who sobbed sometimes, late at night, when she thought Silas was asleep. The teachers, who seemed certain that he would never amount to anything. The little snippets of news that he heard, where people were suffering. “I would want to make sure… that everyone has a happy ending.”
She smiled, but it wasn’t a very nice smile. “Really? You want to be powerful so you can help? A lot of people say that, but most of them find that the ones they help aren’t very grateful. Even if Jerry had won at the end, people would still be people. They would still be cruel, and petty, and thoughtless. But maybe you’ll be different, huh?” He considered asking what she meant by that, but his head already hurt from thoughts far too abstract for him to handle properly. The two of them just sat, and read books from the library together for the rest of the free period.
Oh, Silas. Such a simple dream. Men hope that if they’re strong enough they can stop any injustice, and then they end up committing those injustices themselves. Your innocent wish was exactly the kind of thing I needed.
It continued like that for a couple of weeks. He didn’t tell his mother about Bella. She had been so frightened when he told her about the dream. His mother cried enough as it was. He didn’t want to make her life any worse by telling her something that would probably make her more upset. Then, one day, while he was sitting with Bella, a pair of boys approached. They were a couple of grades older, tall, lanky, much larger than he was. They grabbed the book out of Bella’s hands. She stood up, and for once, he saw anger on her face. “Give that back!” she said, her eyes narrowed.
“Or what?” asked one of the boys. Then, the other boy said something. Silas had never heard the word before, but the tone of voice was filled with venom. The boy swung a hand, and clumsily punched Bella in the cheek. She stumbled back and fell to the ground, cheek bruising. Silas’ world filled up with a red haze, as his heart began to pound.
He was sitting outside the principal’s office. Bella wasn’t there. The two boys weren’t there. They had left with the ambulance. His mother had been called in. She entered the room, and looked at his torn and bloody knuckles. Her face was drawn, tired, sorrowful. “Silas.” He cringed inside at the soft suffering in her voice. The pain that he’d caused her. He felt the hot tears run down his cheeks, shame filling him. He’d thought it would feel good. Sticking up for someone who you cared about, protecting them. But then, after the fight, there had just been the blood and the sobbing and the pain and the guilt. He walked into the principal’s office with his mother. They talked for a while. Words were exchanged. Words like expulsion. Like medical bills. Like criminal charges.
“The two boys say that you attacked them, unprovoked. Do you have anything to say about this, Silas?” The principal asked. A tall, pinch-faced woman, she stared at him over a pair of half moon glasses. His mother was silent, her head bowed, like she was held under a terrible weight, her pretty hazel eyes full of pain.
“They- they hurt my friend. Bella.”
The two adults went horribly quiet. “And who, exactly, is Bella?” the principal asked.
“The girl with red hair.”
In all of the dark years that followed, in all the times when Silas hurt most, his mind would return to that moment, when he’d first been told how damaged he was.
There was a Bella, Silas. It was me, and I was very real. And when I was finished setting you on your course, I made sure everyone forgot her. It was easy, you were the only one who had connected with her. I needed to teach you the most important lesson of your life: You are alone.
Years passed like that. Suspended and then expelled, passed from school to school. Eventually, he outran his past. His mother, though, had changed. She told him that there was a reason for what happened. A reason she had kept secret for a long time. That she had made a deal, when she was a young girl. A promise that she had made to a woman with red hair, in a red dress, with bright green eyes, just like Bella. Strength, in return for adversity.
She trained him in Aikido. It hurt. At the end of some days, he cried himself to sleep. She didn’t hug him anymore. She told him that it was important, that he had to be strong. They moved a lot. Through it all, he studied hard. He dreamed of being a police officer someday. Then an FBI agent. He dreamt of stopping people from hurting each other.
He saw the woman in red from time to time. She never came very close, but when he saw her, he felt the anger inside of him, burning. Along the way, he started taking the pills. They helped. He saw her less. He was angry less.
I never visited her, you know. She was just schizophrenic. There was no meaning to her madness. She was just twisted by her own desire to mean something. It’s so often the way. Of course, in a way, I was responsible. The human desire for significance, that casts them and those they love into hell… That is me. That is what I am. Your desire to be special.
It was a standard drug bust. It had been a tense two day stakeout. The people they were watching got spooked when a local cop wandered too close. Nash had forgotten to take his anti-psychotics that morning. And so, when the sound of a flushing torrent was reported, the agents broke down the door with a warrant in hand, guns out. She came out of the kitchen door. Red hair, black skin, green eyes, and a fine red dress. The red haze had fallen over him. He had squeezed off two shots, on instinct.
It had been a kitchen knife in her hand. She was a young woman, a kind-hearted mother. There were consequences. His once-promising future was shattered. He had been found not guilty, but he never believed it. It had felt wrong. And everything had fallen apart. He found out his mother died two days later, her wrists cut with a razor in the institution where she was staying. He didn’t give a damn about his career, or his mother. He’d murdered someone innocent, and he’d never forgive himself.
His head spun. He had been through all of this before. The sound of screeching brakes and the crunch of metal impacting wood. The clatter of bones. The hiss of snakes. The sound of rioting. The crack of lightning. The fight in the underworld. Tartarus. And then-
He was sitting in his bedroom. Five years old, with a racing car bedframe.
Is this how it’s going to end, Silas?
His mother coming to comfort him.
Dying as your body starves in Tartarus, your mind lost like Theseus?
The little girl.
What a disappointment you are.
You wanted this. You asked for it!
Come and get me, Silas.
The woman in the red dress.
COME AND GET ME!
He opened his eyes, gasping for air. He lay in a rough, endless darkness. There was absolutely no light. He clawed madly at the shadow. His fingers dug into rough earth. He pulled himself forward, crawling on his hands and knees. His body screamed in protest, as though it was made out of stone. He looked up, and saw a distant ember, so far from him that he was barely sure it was there.
He struggled slowly towards the beacon. His mind screamed in protest every inch of the way. And every time that he felt the urge to stop, he thought of the woman in red, and the rage filled him with the strength he needed to keep moving.
He found himself crawling past a great beast. The thing was chained down under great links of diamond, holding it in place. Its head was human, and its shape was broadly along those lines. Countless wings covered it, and its eyes flickered with flames. Eight hissing vipers emerged from its lower body, and the sound of their scales rubbing against one another was like a hurricane blowing through a forest in the fall, the sound of dry leaves rattling together in countless numbers. The creature turned his head towards Nash, and his gaze burned and smoked. “Say hello to my whore of a wife for me,” the thing growled as Nash passed it.
The flame grew larger, until it revealed itself. A woman, fair-skinned, red-headed, lay naked across a rock, her arms and legs chained down. Her side was torn open, bleeding. She sobbed piteously, her eyes full of tears. The woman was beautiful. And she was familiar. “Pearl?” he asked, his voice weak. She did not respond. He stood up, legs shaking. It was her, there was no question. He reached out to rest a hand on her shoulder, and she flinched from it, her eyes opening.
“Please. Not again. I’m sorry. Zeus, please, forgive me, don’t-!” She stopped speaking, her eyes clearing as she stared at him. “You are… What are you?” She narrowed her eyes, peering at him. Then her eyes burned and she screamed, arching her back and clawing at him. “Human! You filthy clay doll! Come to laugh at me?! To mock my pain! I gave you everything, I sacrificed everything-” She broke down into tears. “Nobody remembers me. The eagle tells me. Humans have forgotten about me. I brought them fire, and wisdom, and life, and they don’t even remember my name…”
“Your name. It’s Promethea, isn’t it?” She looked up at him, her expression hunted.
“How do you know that?”
“We know about you, Promethea. We’ve met you. In another time, when you’re freed from this place, by a hero.” Nash turned his head. Dio and Cassandra were walking up the path. The girl didn’t make eye-contact with him even as she spoke to the Sister. “I’m sorry, Nash. Are you okay? I had to trust that you would survive the fall safely.” She looked down at Pearl. “And I am sorry, Promethea. You’ll know freedom, someday. But not today.” She began to walk past, and Nash grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around, the rage filling him.
“How can you just-”
“I know!” she shouted, her teeth gritted, tears showing in her gray eyes. Had they always been gray? The pain there quenched his anger instantly. “This one isn’t fair! You’re right! It’s cruel, and it’s wrong, and it’s not something she ever deserved, because she only ever wanted to help people! But this story already has its happy ending. It just won’t happen now. She’s got to suffer for a very long time, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.” She turned her eyes to Pearl, who was staring into some unseen place. “I know. I want to change things, too. But if we did, it might mean that she never gets freed when Heracles arrives. Pearl told me this herself. She told me how this is supposed to happen!”
He looked between her and Dio. The man couldn’t meet Nash’s hard stare. “You think this is fair?”
“The gods do as they will. And heroes do what they must. She will be freed. The story will have a happy ending, as long as we allow it to run its course.”
Nash watched the two of them. “Fine. Go on, I’ll follow on. I’m just going to stay here. Alright? I just have something to tell her.” He looked at the two of them. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. It’s not like I could break her bonds, anyway.” The two exchanged a look, but they nodded, and began to walk. He sat down next to Pearl. She was sobbing softly. He leaned forward, and rested a hand on her forehead. He could feel Heather’s power. He was no healer, he never would be. All he could do was provide a little human contact, his palm cool against her burning forehead. It seemed to be enough to help her, a little. “I know the story of Prometheu… Of Promethea. But there are many different versions of it. I’m going to tell you about a special one, alright? It’s the story of the Rainbow Crow.”
Once, the snow began to fall. Cold drifts of it grew across the land. At first, it brought wonder and delight, as animals and men gathered to explore the strange new phenomenon. As it continued to fall, people began to die. It grew into a terrible plague upon the land, and the peoples of the world gathered together. They decided that they would plead with the Creator for some end to the winter, so that they would not all die. Of all of the animals and people, only one of them could hope to accomplish the task.
Rainbow Crow was the most beautiful of all the birds, each feather a subtly different shade, and her song was the most beautiful in the world. She volunteered to go to the Creator, and plea for his intervention. She flew, for three days, and three nights, and reached Heaven, her joints and muscles aching from the long flight. There, she asked the Creator for something that could banish the winter, and protect life from the cold.
He ignored her, his mind lost in thought, and so she sang her song, drawing the great Creator’s attention. His interest aroused, he agreed to help her. He took a great branch, and stuck one end into the sun, and gave her Fire.
Rainbow Crow flew from heaven to Earth again. On the first day, the fire burned down far enough that it began to scorch her feathers. By the second day, her body had been blackened with soot, until there was only the barest hint of her former beauty. On the third day, the smoke ravaged her lungs, reducing her song to a ragged caw. She arrived among the animals and creatures of the world, and left them fire, and then flew off to be alone.
The world celebrated, all things returning to their proper order. Crow did not join the festivities, for she was maimed. And she felt a certain understandable bitterness towards those who she had helped. The Creator told her that her meat would be made smokey, and she would never be caged because she was so plain, and while she thanked him for his gifts, she was not thankful. They were poor replacements for what she had lost.
And so, Man came to speak with her. And he thanked her for the sacrifices that she had made. He promised her that there would always be a place in his cities for her, and that plentiful food would be left out to be taken, and warm places made where she could stay. Man saw that more than her beauty and her song, it was Crow’s wisdom and dedication that he loved. And he promised that he would always admire her for what she was capable of. And while men would disappoint her, and behave badly towards her, they would never forget her. Her sacrifice would be remembered, for it was fire that allowed humans to be human.
The two of them sat together for a moment, and Nash’s expression hardened. “To hell with stories,” he muttered, his fingers tightening around her chains as he reached for the strength of the earth.
“Wait.” Her voice was soft, ragged, but it began to sound almost human. “People really do remember me? They haven’t all forgotten what I sacrificed to give them?” she asked, desperate hope in her eyes.
“I can’t promise that some haven’t forgotten. People are like that.” He whispered, feeling slightly embarrassed. “But to those who know anything… You’re important. Your gifts have saved so many lives. Fire was the first tool, and we still depend on it.” The words seemed natural. He thought of the belief Pearl had in him. The way she supported him, right from the start. “I know you, in the future. You convinced the others that I was worthy of their gifts. That is… Nyx, Gaea, and Thalassa.”
Pearl- Promethea- opened her eyes a bit wider. “My sisters are still alive? They… help humans?”
Nash tried to remember. “They take some of their power, and give it to… People who interest them.” The wound on her side had closed. She looked slightly healthier. “It’s a gift that can’t be taken back, so they have these kinds of… quests. Something to prove that the person that they’re approaching is worthy. A way to make sure that the recipient won’t misuse their gift.” He sat next to her. She reached out, and the manacle clinked as it arrested her movement. He took her hand, holding it gently. “I could free you. I don’t care about the stories. You could be free, now. There’s so much good that you could do.”
“It is alright. I know, now, that I will be freed. I had been certain that I was trapped here forever. You gave me-”
“That’s the same thing that’s trapped the others! Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion, they were all trapped by their hope. How on earth-” He looked down at their hand. “How can you be sure that it will work out that way? What if no one else comes? What if the story doesn’t work that way? What if-”
She smiled softly. “I trust humans. I had feared you forgot me, but what you told me sounds more like the truth than what the eagle said. When all other creatures feared me, you embraced me. I remember when I was rage, and hunger, and pain, and death, and you humans…”She bent her head forward, and rested it against his shoulder, as he sat next to her. Her eyes were wet with tears.
“You found me, dying among the ashes. You fed me, and tamed me, and carried me with you, and you welcomed me into your homes. You believed in me. You do such foolish things sometimes, just for the sake of those you care about. But hope is the most beautiful thing about you humans.” She smiled. “I was like a pet, I suppose. But that felt better than being a wild animal. When fire was taken from you by the gods, it was the least I could do to give it back.” She looked up at him. “So… What was my quest for you? I can’t sense my power in you. Have I not given it to you, yet?” she asked, her head tilted.
“No. You told me… I had to believe in something. Something I would do anything for.”
“And have you found it, yet?”
He thought. Of the woman in red, and all the harm she had done. Of Dean Constantinou’s pallid body. Of Megara and Harry. He thought of Wendy, trying to be something more than an addict. He thought of Megan Smith, trying to keep her people intact. He thought of revenge, and glory, and love, and cleverness. He thought of his mother. And he thought of Bella.
“I still want to be strong enough to give everyone a happy ending. I want to be the one who’s responsible for the happy ending. No matter how selfish that is. I want to be the one who saves everyone.” He looked up at the cavern roof. What a ridiculous goal. “Because how else can I be sure that they’ll be safe?” he added, so softly he wasn’t sure she heard him. He risked a glance down at her.
She looked up at him, frowning softly. “I don’t know if I can give you that kind of strength.” she admitted, her voice soft.
“I know. But it’s not about succeeding, is it? It’s about having that passion. Something that you would do anything to achieve. It’s the last aspect of martial arts. That’s what my mother told me. You have to believe in something with all your heart, or you could never really succeed. The fire to fight through the pain. Giving life…” The words felt bitter in his mouth. “Meaning.” The meaning she’d never had.
Promethea smiled. “She sounds like she knew quite a bit. So. How am I supposed to give you this power?”
“Ah.” Nash coughed. “That’s… Well. I’m not sure, exactly. The others always said it was through an act of intimacy, but what that meant tended to vary a lot. I mean, I wouldn’t want to…” The kissing had seemed so funny to him in the light of the day. What would it mean to a lonely spirit lost in the darkness? But she laughed softly at him, an amused expression on her face, and for once he was happy to be the butt of someone’s joke.
“You humans. Always so intrigued with intimacy. If you grow intimate with fire, you know, you may end up burned.” She smiled, and he leaned forward, planting a single gentle kiss on her forehead. She closed her eyes. “I’ve been cold down here in Tartarus, for so long,” she murmured, softly, her voice barely audible, as she squeezed his hand. “Thank you. I know you have something important to do. I won’t forget you, either.” She smiled softly at him. “Could you stay for just a little longer?” she asked, softly. And he nodded.
The two of them sat together in the darkness for a long time. His arms resting around her, comforting her as she shivered and slowly warmed up. He thought about it all, and in a flash it made sense. The reason she had trusted him from the beginning. Maybe even the reason she had requested him. The reason that she couldn’t give him her power. It made his head ache. So he decided not to worry about it, and simply held her, wishing for all the world that she didn’t have to spend another minute in this dark place.