Every good story uses threes. The reasons for this are complicated, but mostly come down to what humans call prime numbers. Numbers that cannot be easily separated. Amounts which are difficult to split. From such unity comes strength, but also, great pride and a tendency towards self-reinforcing behavior. Three, Five, Seven, Eleven; Thirteen.
Take the Triplicate Goddess. The Maiden, Mother, and Crone, representing the three stages of a woman’s life. It is a strange truism that men do not have the same division represented in mythology. I couldn’t tell you why, but it is probably to do with men hating to be reminded that they are growing old.
There are those who say that the triplicate goddess may also represent past, present, and future; But it is an odd connection. The Maiden lives in the moment, the instant bliss, following her heart where it may lead, even though the heart has no compass and is notorious for leading people astray. The Mother lives always in the future, concerned constantly with what may happen to her children. The Crone lives in the past, in the days that were warm and sweet. God knows she doesn’t have much to look forward to.
I am a triplicate goddess, though few know either side of that. But then, Cerberus was never much of a focus in the stories.
Today, I was the Crone. This started with waking up. I coughed and snorted, phlegm filling my lungs. Was I growing older? It’s difficult to tell. I feel weaker and more infirm, but I am not. Perhaps I simply forget all the days gone past where I was phlegmy and sick. When one lives in the past, one risks idealizing it, idolizing your own youth and foolishness. But things were better, back then. There were believers, and respect, and you knew what the world was like. The Primordials, the Titans, the Olympians, the descending ages of man. The Greeks had believed that the world just kept getting worse. Considering how often I woke up the Crone, that was little surprise.
I shuffled into the kitchen, eyes lidded, trying to keep my head up. I frowned, noting a dry spot on my arm, where the black-as-pitch skin was chafed. I opened a jar of foul-smelling ointment, a gift my mother had sent me from Greece, and slowly began to rub it in. Was it age and infirmity forcing me to rely on such things? Or simply an accumulated weight of habit from thousands of years? On a rational level, I knew that I was the same as when I had first grown to adulthood. My body had not changed. It was simply the weight of years in the form of habits.
That was why I was Crupky. I had needed a change. I needed to try something new. But that had been close to a hundred and fifty years ago. And a hundred and fifty years as a police officer was more than anyone could be expected to do.
The time was coming for another change. But not yet. Not quite yet. I still had a promise holding me here.
The scent of coffee brewing filled the air. I was not a creature that was susceptible to the simple chemical trickery of caffeine; I had no adenosine receptors for the caffeine molecules to bind to, I was not truly a flesh and blood creature. But the ritual- The process of making the coffee, of consuming it. That worked for me. It made me feel more awake, more capable. And when you got right down to it, was the difference particularly important?
The sunshine flowed down onto Zion. Not as vibrant as it used to be, not as magical, not as heartwarming. Zion had been a City, once, a city of Gods and Monsters and Heroes. It had been broken- For the best of reasons, for the best for all of us, but there’s no getting back something that’s been broken. That’s the nature of an entropic universe: It’s harder to fix things than it is to break them.
So, the world had been broken. Like a cut in the skin. And now I had to make sure that nothing slipped in that would harm it.
I poured out the mug of coffee, and took it black, bitter and strong. You are what you eat, after all.
You may be wondering- Keeping nasty things from getting through into the Earth, is that my reason for staying here? Is that what I had to do? And the answer is no; It was instinct, like a dog chasing things that run, or a human doing what they shouldn’t. It was something to do. For lack of a better word, it was fun.
I poured the rest of the coffee into a tall thermos, and stepped out into the sunlight. I remembered that I hadn’t put on clothes that morning, and went back in, pulling on my uniform. The badge glowed on my chest, a silly little meaningless bauble and a mandate from humanity and the gods themselves. All depending on the mood people had when they looked at it.
I took a step, and winced. That fight last year had been brutal, when the city had fallen. The little green snake had taken a chunk out of my calf, and though I had been prepared, though I had been strong, though I had been a Monster with a capital M, I’d gone down like one of the King’s Trees under the axe of a poacher. I’d thought I was prepared for what life was going to throw at me, and there was a tremendously useful message in that.
The wound had healed. I was an elemental force; I could not be felled so easily. I was the only one of Echidna’s children who had never died. This was in no small part because I was incredibly tough. But as the wound proved, the other part was because, most of the time, I stayed out of trouble.
A dog that stayed in its home was a safe dog. A dog that went out wandering onto the streets- That was a dog that had forgotten how savage the wilderness was. And I was nothing but a dog, some days.
It wasn’t even the goddamn wound. Just the fear that the wound had reminded me of.
Humans cannot conceive of a world without them in it. Either as a species, or themselves personally. This is why many humans are wasteful, why they use all they can, why they take to excess. They believe that the world will end when they do, and before resources run out. Promethea, the Titan of Fire, of Innovation, of Hope, had believed otherwise. She had believed that humans needed to rush as fast as they could, because they knew the world was always on the edge of destruction, and the only way to keep it alive was for them to struggle ever forward, to reach higher.
My beliefs explained SUVs. Hers did not. That, I think, was a point in my favor.
Of course, I owned an SUV too. I had two excuses. First, I knew that the world was going to end soon. Two Cities had been destroyed. The end was coming, and all would collapse, if I were any judge of things. Second, I lived on the southern shore of Lake Ontario.
Have you seen lake effect snow? There have been days when the only way I arrived at work was breathing fire.
I stepped out under the sun. The clear blue sky was brilliant, wide overhead, shining gloriously. I took a deep breath of the air, and groaned. It was disgustingly hot outside, and humid from the water. I was a hellhound, and even I thought this was a bit much.
The SUV hummed to life, and cool air conditioning filled the cabin. I leaned back, and let out a sigh of relief as it washed over my skin, opening my mouth and panting hard. I stared at the house for a few moments, the stately old Victorian, which was feeling more and more empty every day. My eyes stung for a moment, and I turned down the air conditioning. My morning ritual complete, I pulled out of the driveway, and set down the road.
Zion is a magnificently beautiful city. I have lived here since it was built, watch it grow. While there was some tension between the three waves of settlement in the city, they had mixed and melded. The hills were mostly where the old Greek settlements had been. Those who had been too stricken by wanderlust, too outcast, or simply too ornery to go to Avalon, to live among the Olympians. There had been a lot of us. The suburbs down in the city had been built in the fifties, as the influx of Japanese refugees had created a boom of businesses and opportunities. The apartment towers down by the shore had been built in the 70s, when the White Buffalo Calf Woman had decided to seek a home for her people.
The towers were abandoned, now. The damage to their structure had been too much to easily repair, and in the fall of the city, many of the Native American people in Zion had spread out again. The city had perhaps two thirds the population it had before Silas Nash had come to visit.
There was a man who could provoke a lot of different reactions. I tried not to hate him for destroying Zion, for cracking the keystone that had made this city a sanctuary, not just a name on a map. He’d done it for the right reasons. But maybe, if he’d tried a little harder, he could have preserved everything that I’d loved about this city.
God, I was getting old.
I looked aside at the diner. An old man sat behind the counter, minding the store while Ariel was away. He wasn’t anything like the cook that she was. And there were quite a few of us who were worried about her. She’d never left before, in all the years. Gene had gone too, and Pearl. Heather still visited frequently, but she wasn’t the one running the motel anymore. The Sisters had abandoned Zion.
That was unfair of me. But I was in a Crone kind of mood.
Diomedes’ car was already in the parking lot. That was a man who was straight as an arrow, except of course in the sexual orientation sense, where he was what I might call ‘Gay as Dick’s hat band’. That in itself didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that he hadn’t had a good date in months, and Diomedes was wound too tight at the best of times. I resolved to invite him out this weekend, and take him to some strip club where the two of us could watch some men gyrating.
In the locker room, I changed into my sergeant’s uniform. I was the second one there that morning. I opened the large jar of lollipops sitting at the front desk, and picked out a cinnamon one, popping it into my mouth, slowly twirling the white stick. Pearl had always insisted on no smoking in a government building, and Diomedes had taken her seriously about it. But you had to have something to menacingly suck on in front of civilians.
“Good morning, Crupky,” said Dio, as he stepped out of the holding cells. I raised an eyebrow.
“What were you doing down there?”
“We had someone try to cross over last night.”
“What?” I was supposed to know about those things. I was a guard dog. I was, in point of fact, THE guard dog. I was the one who kept people from crossing over. If someone had been able to- Oh no. “Don’t tell me. Please don’t tell me that it’s a Trickster.”
“Okay,” he said. I rested my face against my hands, and groaned.
There are archetypes that every pantheon seems to need. Never universal, but always ubiquitous, if that made any sense. The triplicate goddess was one, because of the aforementioned reasons of prime numbers. The crippled god was another, some god who had lost a limb, because humans both feared and respected those who kept fighting despite being a fraction of themselves. And Tricksters were another, because humans were first and foremost perverse beings. That was the whole reason that none of these archetypes were universal; If they were, then humans would create a pantheon without one of them, just to be contrary bastards.
“There’s a lot of crazy news today,” said Dio. “Paradise was destroyed. The City, not the people. So, I’m guessing Nash has been having a busy weekend.”
“Oh, there’s a visitor from Avalon in the city. Apparently they came with a message, though they haven’t actually shared it yet.”
“Fantastic. Any idea who it is?”
“Not a clue.” He smiled. “But I do know who’s in the holding cells. Come on.”
Black iron, wrought from Tartarus, made up the bars of the holding cells. Nothing- within reason- could damage them. Nothing could get through them without my permission. They were augmented by my power. I glared at the bronze-skinned man laying back lazily in the cot. He dipped his hand into the large jar of lollipops sitting by the cot, pulled one out, unwrapped it, and deliberately crunched down on it, cracking the little marble of sugar between his teeth, messily chomping and slurping. He wore a buck-skin jacket and excessively tight leather pants, and feathers were tied into his long, dark hair. He looked up at me, and smiled. “Hey, bitch. How’s it going?”
I took a deep breath, and went back up the stairs. The jar of lollipops was indeed missing from the desk. As I walked back down the stairs, a vein was throbbing in my forehead. “I’m going to beat you senseless.”
“Hey,” said Coyote, frowning at me. “That’s police brutality. I could sue you.”
“You’re not a citizen.”
“The hell I’m not! I’ve been here a lot longer than you have!”
I barked at him. That was pretty embarrassing, in retrospect, but he was really working my nerves. That smug expression, that ‘who me?’ attitude. Dio rested a hand on my shoulder, and I calmed slightly, enough to remember that he was in fact a god, and if I wanted, I could simply give him a good thrashing.
That was the thing about Tricksters: You could always just punch them if all else failed. All the intelligence and cunning with words in the world couldn’t stop that. All their false promises, all their fake bravado, all the things that they said and didn’t mean, they weren’t worth a damn in the face of a good beating. They weren’t nearly as good as they thought they were.
“Why are you here?” asked Dio. “Business, or pleasure.”
Coyote, for once, seemed bemused. “What?”
“You’re crossing into the human world. Leaving the world of myths, of the happy hunting ground and all that shit. Business, or pleasure?” Dio narrowed his eyes. “I know you like to fuck around, Coyote. I know what tricksters are like, and I can respect their desires. But things are on a precipice, here. The world’s a bit unstable, and the thing we don’t need is a god, going around, fucking with humans, and making a nuisance of themselves. Because the humans are getting aware again, and they are a lot more dangerous than they used to be.”
“Oh, come on,” said Coyote, rolling his eyes. “I stole food and screwed around with a few chief’s wives. I was never the scary one. Humans love me! I’m so roguish and charming.” He smiled, standing up. “But the answer is, pleasure. I’m back to claim the White Buffalo Calf Woman as my bride.”
“Oh, Zeus, no,” I muttered.
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” said Dio.
“What? I never kid about love,” said Coyote, grinning, taking out another lollipop and crunching it down.
“Give that to me,” I said, holding a hand out. He grabbed a gigantic handful of lollipops, sticking them down into his pockets, making them bulge comically, before handing the now half-empty jar through the bars to me. I glared at him. “You two are not a good mix.”
“Nonsense! We always have so much fun when I’m around!”
“You make her more reckless. She eggs you on. The two of you are a disaster together. There is absolutely no way I am letting you see her.”
“Cerberus,” said Coyote, his face suddenly serious, holding the bars. “I must see her. It’s been decades. Centuries, since the two of us were together. I’ve had other women, of course. Dozens of other women. Hundreds, maybe. I wouldn’t mind having you, in fact, I like a girl who can be fierce-“ He yanked his hand back from the bar just in time to avoid getting a knuckle broken by my nightstick, holding his hands up apologetically. “I digress. My point is that I am in love. And surely, you must know what that’s like. Bitter though you are, surely you too must have felt love’s keen sting. I mean, Hercules tied you up once, that must have been kinky.”
“Coyote, I’m going to let you out of that holding cell,” said Dio. “On three conditions. One, you don’t do any harm to any mortals.” He paused for a moment, and sighed. “Petty theft and adultery, in this case, are not technically harm, but try to keep your goddamn pants on. Second, stop hassling Crupky. And third, Megan Smith isn’t even in town.”
“Oh.” Coyote frowned. “Well, are you seeing anyone, Crupky- Whoa!”
He pulled back just in time to avoid getting brained with the nightstick, as I growled at him. “I would sooner fuck an actual coyote.”
“Well, that can be arranged-“ The lock clicked open as Dio turned the key, and the door swung inwards as I surged forward, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Not in the face! Not in the face!”
One of the rookies’ wife had brought in donuts. Diomedes and the two younger officers sat in the break room while I brewed a pot of coffee. I was the only one of the four of us who could work the ancient and steam-spurting machine properly, without getting a third-degree burn. I poured myself a cup and sat at the table. The two rookies were new to the force. We’d lost almost everyone after the whole thing last year. Nobody had died, but people had come face to face with riots, with the death of everyone in the town.
I still remembered that eye. The eye of Madness, an ancient god trying to drive us into insanity. I still remembered what I had seen, what I had heard.
I told you I would return.
I shook my head, and sipped the coffee. “So, this visitor from Avalon. What’s their deal?”
“Haven’t been able to track them down, yet.” Dio sighed. “Went to the motel, they’d just left. Tried to catch them at the diner, he said they were there just a couple of minutes ago, went to use the bathroom, never came out.”
“Sounds hard to track down,” said one of the rookies, chomping down on a donut, and guzzling down half a cup of coffee. I frowned. Since when had we had another woman on the force, let alone one with a French accent? I turned towards her, and stared.
The young woman had golden-brown eyes, slitted like a cat. A thick head of rich russet-red hair was piled under her cap, and two fox-ears pointed up on either side. She smiled. “Reynard, at your service,” she stated, holding out one white-gloved hand. “I was wondering how long it would take you to notice me. You are perceptive.”
“You still smell like a fox,” I said, bluntly.
“Dear me, and here I was thinking that America did not go in for such racist statements. I should talk to your supervisor.” Reynard’s eyes twinkled, and I fought the incredibly strong urge to punch her in the face. If she was from Avalon, that meant that she was here on behalf of someone very important, which meant that she was here on behalf of someone who could make my life miserable if they pleased.
“Reynard,” said Dio, pleasantly. “What brings you here?”
“Oh, that,” said Reynard, and she smiled. “It is something of a private matter.” She gave the other rookie a pointed look.
“Jacobs, go take your patrol shift early,” said Dio, nodding his head once. “Just to make sure.” He looked over at me. “Nobody crossing over?”
“Not that I can feel,” I growled, my eyes narrowed on the fox. I really, really hated Tricksters.
“Very well,” said Reynard, as Jacobs drove away in one of the squad cars. “I am here to offer you a place.”
“What?” asked Dio and I, at the same time, in the same shocked tone of voice.
“Is it such a strange offer? We are in strange times. We are on the eve of great disaster. You are, both of you, part of the Pantheon of the Olympians. Minor, perhaps, but no less important for it.” She smiled, trailing a finger through her red hair. I noticed the tips turning white. An affectation of her vulpine nature, or simple age catching up with her? “You are being welcomed into the fold, to weather the storm that is to come. All of Zion is welcome. There is room and food enough in Avalon.”
“And if the world is ending, you need plenty of people to keep it supported,” I said, frowning. “What makes you so certain that the world is going to end?”
“The humans are growing restless. Violent. Destructive. There are gods who will strike back against them, and realize that they are no longer able to win. They will die, and take everything with them, and all of the world will fall after them.” Reynard smiled, holding her hands up to either side of her. “If you stay in this world, the humans will come for you eventually. Avalon may be an ark, a place of safety. A place where we can start fresh again.”
“Then there is no hope to win this?” asked Dio, an eyebrow raised. “The end is taken for granted?”
“Everything ends,” said Reynard. “Cycles are how immortality works.”
The cycle. She was right, there. If you just kept on growing, forever, you would be crushed under your own weight. It was how many things died that otherwise could live forever. It was how cancer worked. If things did not end, they could not begin. Of course, every cycle, it seemed like you lost a little bit more. You came a little closer to falling apart completely.
“I can’t leave,” I said, firmly. “There’s still someone I’m waiting for. Sorry. If the end comes, I’ll meet it with teeth bared. But I don’t think you’re right.”
“Yes,” said Reynard, her eyes twinkling. “I heard about that human. The one you taught the Eleusinian Mysteries to. The first completely normal human in millenia to learn the Eleusinian Mysteries. The secrets of life and death. What a wonderful thing it was you did, there.”
“Anyone can learn the mysteries, if they are willing to abide by the rules,” I said, with more heat than I should have, my pride stung. The fox held up both hands placatingly.
“Of course, Cerberus. Of course. But speaking as a trickster… That was the sort of decision I would make. Hades was… in an interesting mood when he learned that you were the reason that human arrived there. That you were the reason why Promethea was freed.” She smiled. “The gods have their ordered hierarchies. They like them, because they help them figure out what is supposed to happen. They keep immortals from becoming easy prey for humans. Tricksters like us, we exist to destroy the old by making the new mischievous. We disrupt the status quo.”
“Do we have some time over the decision? We’re doing an important job, here,” said Dio.
“Of course. It is an invitation. You may take it up when you wish. But please, do not dally too much. This world is coming to an end.” Reynard took out a pair of gold filigreed letters. One, she handed to Diomedes. The other, she handed to me. Hades’ signature, in iron, written on the bottom. I looked over, and saw that Athena’s silver signature adorned Diomedes’ letter. “Now, there are some others who have arrived in town just recently. They have an invitation to be delivered, as well. Would you care to come?”
“Newcomers-“ I asked. Then, I felt it. The rush of cool air. Ariel. Back in the city, bringing guests. “Oh,” I said.
“Well,” said Dio, standing up, closing the box of donuts. “What are we waiting for? By the way, where’s Officer Titus?”
“Oh, him,” said Reynard. She winked. “Sleeping off a very enjoyable night. He was very enthusiastic, if not particularly cautious. I do like an easy mark.” She sashayed out through the door, and I fought off the urge to bite off her tail as we went to the squad car.
The bell over Ariel’s door rang as we pushed it open, for the first time in too long. Ariel stood up from one of the booths, turned towards us, and smiled. “Crupky, Dio! And Reynard, you old whore! Get over here!”
She looked rough. Her eyes were sunken, her skin sallow, her hair pale. But she looked like she was also recovering. She waved to the three of us.
We approached. Sitting across from Ariel was Megan Smith, who was talking animatedly with the others, and-
Diomedes gasped. The young man sitting there was unmistakeable. His face was pretty, much prettier than I liked my men. His dark hair hang in delicate curls around his olive face, and he wore a chiton that emphasized his slender but whipcord thin build. There sat a man I had not seen for a very long time, who I had thought gone, forever. Achilles. Hero of Troy, the Invincible, one of the greatest heroes ever produced by Greece. Gone, disappeared, for millenia. I had seen him, once before.
He couldn’t be there. Where I had seen him, no one escaped. They were freed, occasionally, but he would never have accepted it, proud and strong as he was. He was unmarked, unscarred by his time there- physically, at least. It was impossible. A dream.
The man sitting beside Ariel turned in his chair, and smiled. An older face, worn with lines. Dark hair peppered with gray, here and there. Dressed in a loose cloak, a staff hanging from his side with a long string. He turned towards me, and smiled.
I lay on the ground, aching. I raised my left forepaw, trying to focus on it with at least one of my three sets of eyes. The serpent’s tail grew from the paw where I had been gashed. This place, corrupting me. Twisting me. I had been able to take a human form, once. This place had stolen that from me.
“There she is,” said someone. I couldn’t understand them. I couldn’t even tell who they were. I couldn’t recognize human faces. I’d been here so long. Captured by a man with a flaming sword, driven into this place. Hell. Where they put the monsters. I had done something to deserve it, I supposed. Everyone who was here deserved it. By the time they were done, they deserved it for what they did to each other. And I was no different. I bent forward, and gnawed on the lost soul, the companion of the one who had cut open my paw, ripping off strips of flesh. He screamed. He didn’t die.
“What has happened to her?” asked the other man. It sounded like someone humming, or singing a song in a foreign language, perhaps. I lifted my head, tilting it to the side. There was something dark in those words, something angry.
“She has been treated like the beast that she is. She is here because she dared to try to take back those who were of the Greek dead, without permission.”
“And those wounds?”
“That is what those she sought to free did to her. She is free to go… If you can convince her, hero.” A chuckle rolled through the air.
“Thank you, Michael. This should be easy.”
The man approached. My hackles raised. He was entering my territory, and I could tell he was a fighter. A killer. I could smell it on him. I still remembered how it felt. A memory from- too long ago, too far- washed through my head. Another human. Who beat me, chained me, took me from home. I had wandered, till I had found this place, and- Memories, memories of being a person, of freedom, of the clear blue sky, they hurt too much.
The snake hissed and snapped at the man as he approached, and I growled.
“It’s okay, pup. It’s okay.” He set down the staff by his side, and knelt down, just outside of my reach. “Poor creature. You’ve been poorly treated here.” He reached out towards my wounded paw, and I snapped at his hand. He did not pull back, even as my teeth clamped shut within inches of his skin, hard enough to remove his hand. He looked up, and met my eyes. His gaze was firm, and steady, and somehow comforting. Slowly, I lowered my heads, letting them rest on my paws, letting him approach.
His touch on my paws sent the aches and pains rushing away. He ran his fingers behind my ears, scratching slowly. “Good dog,” he whispered softly, and my tail wagged weakly, my ears lifting. “Don’t worry. I wasn’t too late, this time. You’ll be home, soon.”
He looked up, at the man. “You know what the price is,” said the man. “You will never escape this place.”
“Yes, yes,” said my savior, chuckling softly. “Gods are often tremendously certain of themselves. Oh, it can never happen. But everything ends. Legendary reputations most of all.” He turned back towards me, and smiled. “I’m going to find you again, pup.”
I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, I lay beneath an olive tree. My mother was there, tears dripping down her cheeks. Hades stood to one side, his arms crossed, his brow wrinkled. Echidna kissed my forehead softly, and I noticed that I was in human shape. That was strange. I did not often take it. “Mother?” I asked softly. “You got me out.”
“Not without price,” said Hades, his brow wrinkled. “You were saved because another took your place.”
“Who?” I asked, trying to sit up. I still ached. “Who did it?”
“I do not know,” said Megara. “He said he was not special, that he would not be missed.”
“That’s not quite what he said,” said Hades, his eyes shadowed. “He said he was nobody.”
“What is the difference?” asked Megara, frowning, as I stared up at the clear blue sky.
“See, pup? I told you that I’d find you again,” said Odysseus.
And I felt young again.