“’ve gotta go,” mumbled Crupky, her face turned away, as she stepped back. “’ts good to see you again. Ariel. Achilles. Uh. Megan. Need to, uh. Gotta go make sure things are okay at the station.”
“Uh, Crupky, we only brought one car,” began Reynard.
“I’ll walk! Good exercise.” She pushed the door open, and began marching down the street at a determined pace.
“Well,” said Odysseus, frowning. “That was not quite how I imagined that going.” He sighed, and settled back in his seat. “Diomedes, my boy, come. Have a seat with us.”
“It’s been a long time since I was a boy,” I said, taking one of the chairs from the counter, and setting it at the end of the table. Reynard sat at the counter, her back against the edge of the counter, facing us with legs spread provocatively. She had changed clothes, and was wearing a pair of men’s trousers, a button-down shirt, and a musketeer’s hat, a single feather stuck into it. I turned away from her towards the others. “So. You finally escaped.”
“Hah! I wish. No, nobody escapes from Hell. I was freed.” He smiled. “By a young man you might well know. Let me recount the whole story, so I was told…”
I turned my head. Coyote stood in the doorway, his eyes warm. I turned my head back to Megan. She had her handsome face buried in her hands, and let out a soft groan. “I’m in the city for half an hour, and already…”
“My darling!” said Coyote, his eyes heartbroken. “To cut me so deeply! I came with gifts!” He reached into his pockets, and drew out a large number of the lollipops he’d stolen. “Come now! I come bearing food, and what more can a man do to show his sincerity than willingly go hungry in order to prove his-“ He paused, and sniffed, staring at the meal in front of them. “Are those sausages?”
Megan sighed. “God save me from pathetic men.” She scooped them off of her plate, onto one of the smaller dishes to the side, and held them up. “You can have them. If you shut up, and don’t talk.”
Coyote gave his most ingratiating smile as he accepted the plate, sitting down at the booth behind Megan. One hand holding the plate, the other on her shoulder, squeezing and kneading her lightly. She looked annoyed, but she didn’t say anything, so I refrained from throwing him through a window for now. My eyes turned back to Odysseus.
“So. Silas, I’m guessing.”
“Yes. And Bastet.”
“What? She’s still alive?”
“And kicking ass, apparently.” Odysseus smiled. “It was quite a thrill to fight alongside her. I got to see both of them fight at their utmost. And Hell is empty, now- or nearly so. They bound the inhabitants of Hell to do no harm, and then sent them out into the world.”
“Shit,” I murmured. “That’s going to make the world more unstable.”
“Won’t it just? But I get the feeling that your friend, Nash, didn’t much care for stability. And who could blame him, with the course we’ve been set on?”
“Nash?” asked Reynard, an eyebrow raised suspiciously. “The agent of the Titans? The servitor of War, the Horseman? You accepted help from such a man, and you trust him to have done it with any aim but destruction in mind?”
Ariel turned her head slowly to focus on Reynard. Her eyes, one blue, one green, flashed with something dangerous. “Reynard. I have, at times, been quite fond of you. You have style, you have an attitude I can respect. But don’t speak of things you don’t understand.”
Reynard raised an eyebrow. “Is that a common attitude among the people in Zion, and in Paradise?”
“War or not, he freed everyone in Paradise from a plan that would have turned them into lost gods, and set them loose on the world. If he had the nihilistic desires of the Horsemen,” said Odysseus, “he could have let us all burn.”
“Oh, that is just the question though, isn’t it?” said Coyote. “Pardon me for interrupting.” He smacked his nips noisily, stuffing a sausage between his molars before continuing. “But I’ve always thought that the whole ‘destroy the world’ thing seemed a touch unlikely. Yes, nihilism, the desire to kill everything, that’s a great argument, but there are plenty of people who have tried to play themselves off as nihilistic genocidal maniacs, because it makes it so much easier to get what you want. People are so relieved to not be dead, that- well, if that maniac happens to have a country now, it’s still a win, isn’t it? And now, this Nash fellow- Well, he has the love and respect of every denizen of hell who is now walking the Earth, because he saved them all.” Coyote nibbled on the tip of a sausage. “I’m just saying.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t,” said Achilles, looking up. And I felt my breath catch in my throat.
I still remembered when Odysseus brought the boy to the campaign. A sweet-faced youth. He’d never grown out of that appearance, still pretty, still with those soft, full lips, the body lean and toned, nothing excess, his eyes soft and beautiful. We’d clashed more than a few times during the campaign, with both words and arms. He’d always been better than me- But then, he had the advantages that I did not.
“I do not mean to offend you, nor to cast aspersions on your choice of friends,” said Reynard. “But he is human, and a force of the Horsemen. No divinity by birth.” Her eyes flickered to Odysseus and Achilles. “No patron god.” Her eyes flickered to me. “For better or for worse, his power comes through the connection of the Primordials and the Titans, and so far as I can tell, he did not earn any of it. He was given it. Did you not, Ariel?”
Ariel gave Reynard a very level look. There was a flicker of bright light, and the distant crack of thunder several seconds later. Reynard returned the look, but she did not look nearly so calm.
“I merely wish you to consider-“
“He gave back the power. When it was a choice between my life and power, he chose my life. I believe in him. I believe in War, too, now. I believe that they both had my best interests at heart.” Her eyes narrowed. “I haven’t forgotten the court where my sister was sentenced, Reynard. When it comes to a choice between humans, and gods, you should know.” She lifted the cup, and sipped at her coffee, letting out a sigh. “I’ll choose humans, every time.”
“And the rest of you?” asked Reynard, a smile on her face. “I am quite glad to see you, Odysseus, Achilles. You have been missed in Avalon for a very long time.”
“I cannot help but notice,” said Achilles, his tone bitter, “that we did not see any of you coming to rescue us from Prester John.”
“You entered that place,” said Reynard, apologetically. “We can hardly be expected to save you from your own unwise decisions. Where would life be if we did that?”
“Well, then,” said Odysseus, smiling. “Turnabout is fair play there. You have released your hold on the Earth. You and the gods of Avalon have created your walled city, where you hide. Are you sure you want one such as I, and one such as Achilles, in that safe place of yours? We have a rough record on them.”
“You assume,” said Reynard, “that I want you to be in the city because I think you would keep it safe.” She smiled. “I am not interested in either faction. I want a single thing, the same thing every Trickster desires: For the game to keep going. If the gods retreat behind their walls, never to reemerge, then the game ends in stalemate. If the Horsemen kill everyone, the world goes dark, and the game ends with the table flipped. You’re the greatest Trickster Greece ever produced- Greater even than your Grandfather was. You know how it is. It doesn’t matter who wins, or who loses, so long as both sides can agree to another round.”
Odysseus sat back in his hair, his eyes dark. “Perhaps that’s the difference between gods and men. I was never willing to lose, because if I lost, the game was over.” He shrugged. “I will consider it, nonetheless.”
“That reminds me.” Reynard reached into her pocket, and withdrew a pair of letters. “Ares, for both of you. Athena seems to have been neutral on the subject, but the god of war was quite eager to see both of you again.” She handed them to the two men, leaning back. Her eyes drifted to Megan Smith and Coyote. “As for you- I cannot say that anyone explicitly asked me to invite the Natives of this continent, but if you were willing to make the journey, you are gods.” She winked. “We’re all in this together.”
“I’m sorry,” said Coyote, smiling pleasantly. “Your flirtations are quite welcome, but I’m quite happy with my dear cow.” He slid an arm around Megan’s shoulders, planting a kiss on the back of her head as one of her eyelids twitched.
“Well, we could always arrange a threesome.”
“Oooh. That does have its possibilities. What do you think, honGNF-“
Megan leaned her head back forward, Coyote rubbing his broken nose where she had slammed the back of her skull into it, a bit of blood dripping down his nose. “I think that any place of serenity, any place of paradise, which looks inwards, will find invaders at its gates sooner or later. We ignored humanity for a hundred years, and look what we reaped. A human has shattered two cities, and it’s only a matter of time until he comes for Avalon, too.” She took out a long pipe, and began to pack tobacco into the bowl. “I would rather be out among the humans when the end comes, instead of waiting inside walls for it.”
“Yeah, apocalypse is always the most fun. Seeing everything going to hell, war profiteering, getting to tell people ‘I told you so’,” said Coyote, grinning.
“I think I might go there,” said Achilles, his voice soft. “Is Apollo still alive?”
I looked up sharply. “Achilles.”
He looked up, meeting my eyes, his expression calm. “Yes?”
“I know what you are thinking. Apollo was playing his part. Paris was the one who fired the arrow. You cannot blame the gods-“
“Tell me,” said Achilles, his voice soft. “If you had not turned back, if you had struck home, do you think that your name would have been forgotten as it was?”
“My name was not forgotten by those I valued,” I said softly. “I was still there to make sure that everyone remembered your name. For that, I would gladly turn back a hundred times from battle.”
“Well,” said Coyote. “It’s true. Get a bunch of vets together, and the conversation always turns back to the war. You know, I fought in a war, too.”
“Which one, and which side?” asked Megan, a smile on her face.
“Oh, who remembers? It was really more about the experience than the ideology, I think.”
Achilles looked back towards me. “Everyone has to be called to term for what they do. The gods are not special. They are not invulnerable. They are not right.”
“They’re dangerous,” I said, softly. “What is it worth? He does not hold a grudge. You are alive now. You have been given a second chance. Why bother with revenge? If I had followed the path you wanted, I would have my name alongside figures like Ixion. Tantalus. Sisyphus.” I noticed Odysseus turning his head away, and turned towards him. “Do you disagree, Odysseus? You have always been a canny person, though…” I coughed. “Lack of confidence was never your vice, shall we say.”
“No, no. Just… thinking.” He smiled. “I think that killing Apollo would be a great waste, Achilles. But a little humiliation… That’s good for a god.”
“No, it is not,” I said, resting my face against my hand. “Did both of you learn nothing from your entire lives? Gods are awful, petty people, who need to be handled with kid gloves-“ I paused, and coughed, my eyes going to Megan, Coyote, and Ariel. “I am sorry, but it is true.”
“You won’t get much argument from me,” said Ariel.
“I think that your view is somewhat skewed, but I will confess that many gods are volatile,” said Megan.
“I, personally, am an incredibly reasonable and magnanimous person.” Coyote leaned in. “Hey, uh, Achilles. You going to finish those sausages?”
Achilles silently lifted one of the sausages to his mouth, and bit in, his eyes fixed on Coyote’s.
“Just a question, no need to get all Bobbity on me.”
Megan let out a snort, and covered her mouth. Coyote’s grin widened just a little bit more.
“Ariel,” I said, softly, my eyes moving over to her. “Are you doing alright? We were worried about you.”
“A lot happened. A lot of crazy shit.” She grinned. “But yeah. I’m doing alright. I think I’m doing better than I have in a very long time. How about you, huh?”
I raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“You’re working the border guard, here. You’re watching to make sure that nobody naughty slips through. That’s respectable, but…” She tilted her head to the side. “A little bit of a waste of your talents, isn’t it?”
“It’s the job that needs doing.”
“Is it now?” asked Ariel, and she smiled. “If you say so. Now, I need to go clean up the kitchen, that old goat Laurence is awful at this.”
“And I should be checking on the clinic. I’ve had a busy year, but now, home again.” Megan smiled. “Come on, Coyote. I’ll let you sleep on one of the clinic beds, before you leave,” she said, adding an extra bite into the last word.
“Of course, love. Of course.”
Reynard smiled. “In the meantime, I should return to my accommodations. I will be returning to Avalon in five days. If any of you should change your mind, and wish to return home, I would be more than pleased to bring you with me.”
And then, it was just three old veterans. Odysseus settled back in his chair, and smiled. “So. What have we missed?”
“Well. The current incarnation of Heracles married Echidna. The relationship began on rocky ground, but they seem to be quite in love, now.”
Achilles coughed into his coffee, and stared up at me. “You’re joking.”
“One would think,” said Odysseus. “But… stranger things have happened than a hero and a monster falling in love.”
“Romantic,” I said, smirking. “You know, I once heard a tale- Briefly told, but quite interesting- about your journeys. After all, everyone knows that you had quite a pleasurable time with the nymphs- And who can blame you for that-“ I said, giving a smirk at Achilles. “But this one told of the tale of your survival of the wrecking at Charybdis’ hand. Quite astonishing, really. The daughter of Poseidon and all, and one who was famed for leaving no man alive in the ships she wrecked. The story as I’d always heard it told goes that you clung to a fig tree, growing above her lair, and that at the next outflow of water, you captured your raft from her.”
“Yes?” asked Odysseus, an eyebrow raised.
“Well, this man told the tale that you seduced Charybdis. That you saw her, and flattered her while hanging from the fig tree, in order to escape. That you spoke with such warm words that she could not bear to kill you on her father’s behalf.”
“Confessedly not out of character for me,” said Odysseus. “I always was a deft hand with a kind word. But I am afraid that it was just as the boring tales would have it. Some people wish to insert romance into every story they can, in order to fan the passions, even when it doesn’t fit there. Charybdis was a shelled beast, and I must confess, not entirely my sort.”
“Not at all like Officer Crupky, then,” I said.
There was a very embarrassed silence in the room. Odysseus frowned down at his cup of coffee. “Mmmm. I always wondered why you wound up in Hell,” said Achilles. “Or at least why you didn’t get me out.” He grinned. “You DID get me killed, after all.”
“We both knew the prophecy,” said Odysseus, staring down glumly at his coffee. “A glorious death seems so important, sometimes, then you realize that you don’t want to die yet, that life is so sweet…” He sighed. “Always the tension for us, isn’t it?” He looked over at me. “But maybe not you, anymore. You seem to have found something better than glory.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But Officer Crupky.”
“You know, I learned afterwards that Athena had pushed Penelope to encourage the suitors. She never gave into any of their requests, but Athena pushed her to fan their flames, to show off to them.” He glared down at the food. “All to make a better story, how she was so noble and fine to never give into temptation. While I…” Odysseus held the words for a few seconds, and breathed out. “Well, I loved her, and I never stopped fighting to return to her, but it might have been better if she had forgotten me. She underwent a great deal of pain and suffering, all for the sake of my happy ending. And now, she has passed on to Elysium, and I…” The man smiled, and he looked quite old for a moment, his hair almost all gray, though that may have just been the light. “I continue to linger on. Looking for new fights. Perhaps that was what Cerberus was about. I’ve known what it is like to be trapped.”
We were quiet for a few minutes. Then Achilles laughed. “Come on, now. I saw her. She’s actually quite pretty. And you always had a thing for the exotic women.” Achilles leaned forward a bit, grinning. “I don’t think I ever met Penelope, but I heard she was quite… dusky.”
“She was Greek,” said Odysseus, rolling his eyes. “Goodness, nothing but sex on the mind of the young. That’s what started that damned war, you know?”
“Funny,” I said. “I thought it was the vanity of goddesses.”
Achilles and Odysseus stared at me for a moment, and then broke out into laughter. “Imagine Athena hearing you say that!” said Odysseus, grinning. “She would pitch a fit at you! The smiling old schemer. Now she was the real Trickster of that pantheon, Hermes and I be damned.” He leaned back, and frowned at me. “I must confess… I never quite understood your piety.”
“You two have the blood of immortals,” I said, and tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice. “You are equals with the gods, at least in some senses. I was always a man, through and through. With all the frailties that implied. Only ever… a conduit, for their will, one way or another.”
“As though we were any different,” chuckled Achilles.
“Your rage could have changed the flow of the battle, Achilles. You could have destroyed the gods’ prophecy. Your wisdom and tenacity saw you home through the opposition of the gods.” I sighed. “Damn. I could really use a bit of wine, now.”
Ariel was standing there, a smile on her face. “I was wondering when it would turn that way.” She slipped down into the seat next to Odysseus, a bottle of red wine in her hand. I noted it was from Ithaca. Not the one in Greece. The one in Upstate New York. “Gentlemen, you are heroes. Not gods. The distinction’s a fine one.” She waved a hand, and produced four wine glasses, placing them in front of each of the four of us. “But it really comes down to: I still like all of you. Your wanderlust, Odysseus. Your drive, Achilles. And Diomedes, for all you may believe that you have settled down, you are still watching and waiting for something fantastic to do.” She poured the red wine out. “I am glad heroes like you are in the world again. It certainly needs you.” She took a glass, and held it up. Each of us took one in turn- First me, then Odysseus, and finally Achilles. We clinked them gently together, and then each took a deep drink. The wine was rich and sweet, and ran over the tongue like honey. The four of us took our time finishing the entire bottle.
“Has anyone heard from Ajax?” asked Achilles.
“Still in the underworld,” said Odysseus, somewhat morose. “I haven’t seen him in so long. Perhaps we could talk with him again. I don’t even know where that damned armor is, now.” He sighed. “We could use his strength, too, the bear. It seems like so many of our friends dwell in Hades, now. Only the stubborn ones keep fighting, long after we’re useful.” He shook his head. “And what of Jason, hmmm?”
“Still at large in the world, last I heard,” I said. “Runs a mercenary company. I heard news of him from Heracles- The man worked with them, back in the 70s or 80s, for a very brief time. Might be about time to look them up, if I can.”
“Another adventure, hmmm?” asked Odysseus, and he smiled. “But after the way the last one shook out…” He chuckled. “Oh, who am I kidding. I’m sure we’ll find some disaster for ourselves. But for now, I think that I should go find a room at that motel.” He stood up, somewhat unsteadily. “A good walk will help me shake off that wine. Your choices are as good as ever, Nyx.” He bowed his head to Ariel, who smiled, returning to the kitchen.
And that left just the two of us. Me, and Achilles. We were silent for a moment, sitting across from each other.
“I am sorry I did not do what Odysseus did. There was much to protect here, and…”
“And, you were jealous,” said Achilles. “And right. Patroclus was not there, after all. I don’t know where he is, at this point. Perhaps he reincarnated. Perhaps he passed to somewhere other than Hades. In any case, you were right.”
“I am not glad about that,” I said. “I would rather you had been reunited with him.”
“It has been three thousand years since Troy fell,” I said, softly. “I have done all I can to bury the hatchet. Can’t you do the same?”
“You tried to bury the hatchet to overcome your own jealousy. Your anger that I was always remembered as the better warrior, that you could never live up to the standard I set.”
“The standard-“ I gritted my teeth. “The standard of laziness! Of arrogance! All those men who died, Patroclus included, while you sulked in your tent! Oh, yes! What a great warrior you were! If only you had been a better person!” I reached out, and grabbed his collar, dragging him to his feet, and punched him, as hard as I could, in the nose. It hurt like hell, and I shook my hand as he glared up at me.
“Are you finished?”
“Like hell I am!”
“Mmm,” murmured Achilles, lying across the bed, sheets draped around his slender shoulders. “Do you have to go?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, I’d like to spend a little bit more time with you, but I really need to check on Megan. She’s a good person, but Coyote… Well, he tends to bring out her more unpredictable side. The two of them just have a way of egging each other on, you know what I mean?”
“Mmm,” said Achilles, a lazy grin on his face. “I can probably guess.” He rolled over onto his back, and frowned. “Is that a pizza box? Do you mind if I clean?”
“Go ahead,” I said, and sighed, but only to hide the grin on my face. I felt a great deal better. Catharsis after all of those years, all those millenia. A chance to finally express some things that needed to be expressed. Nothing beat a little catharsis.
Unfortunately, what Coyote provided to Megan was less catharsis, and more chaos.
It was afternoon, and the small cabin where I lived was already shadowed, sitting on the west side of the valley that was Zion. I would also have to talk with Cerberus about her feelings towards Odysseus when I got the chance. In the years I had known her since moving to Zion, she had always been… Well.
“Zion?” I asked, my head tilted as I regarded the serpent. “Another City? Why not Avalon?”
“I think we both can understand why that place is not inviting. There needs to be a place,” said Echidna. “A place for the monsters and the freaks. Those without a place, those who do not wish to live in servitude to Prester John, under the thumb of the Western Pantheons, under the strictures of Shangri-La… There is a place for those who do not fit in. Somewhere where they can intermix. Where the mortals can be… brought. Somewhere safe, for monsters, and heroes. Somewhere with as few Gods as possible to set us against each other.”
“And you?” I asked, turning my head to the young woman in the chiton, her skin black as coal, her eyes a fiery red.
“I’ve got someone I’m waiting for. Here is as good a place to wait for them as any other.” She raised her head, meeting my eyes. “Cerberus.”
“That name might draw some eyes if this place is meant to be open to humans.” I rubbed my chin. “How about something that’ll fit in a little bit better? Krupke, or something.”
She shrugged. “What’s that mean?”
“It’s German. Don’t actually know.”
“That’s an absolutely awful choice for a name.”
I pulled to a stop at the apartment towers, and got out in a bit of a panic. I was not normally someone who got particularly worried or angry, even in relatively stressful situations. But there was something about steel jerrycans, the smell of gasoline, and abandoned buildings that could bring it out in me. We were on the lake shore, at the two massive apartment towers. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
Megan looked up guiltily from where she had been pouring gasoline across the foundation of the apartment tower. Coyote turned towards me, and coughed into his hand. I noticed the matches in his hand. “Well, officer- Dio, we’re friends now, I think-“
“We really are not, Coyote.”
“Well, Officer. Megan was talking with me about these towers. About how they had been bothering her. Sort of a reminder of losing another home, you know? Well, we did a quick run through the building, and no one is in here, so we decided- Well, why leave this monument standing here, a reminder of failures, pain, and all that suffering stuff? So, I suggested, we could find some gasoline, and give them a proper send-off!”
“Zeus preserve,” I said softly. “Megan, this is precisely what we mean when we say you should not be interacting with Coyote! A few hours, and you’re about to commit arson! This is-“
“He cares!” said Megan, glaring at me. “He came to find me, which is more than anyone else did!”
“You said you wanted some time alone,” I said, softly. “You said that you had to go consider things. If I’d known you meant it as a cry for help, then I would’ve been happy to help.”
“It wasn’t a damn cry for help! It was, just- It was-“ She sighed, and stared down. “It’s just all happened again. You know? Everything fell apart again, and everyone broke up again.” She sat down on the grass, and looked up at the tower. “I helped build that tower.”
“I know. I worked with you on it.”
“And someone just came out of nowhere and smashed it all to hell. They broke it, and it all fell apart.”
“And it won’t fix things, to burn that goddamn tower down.”
“But,” said Coyote, as he took out the matchbook, snapping off one of the matches. “It will be extremely cathartic, which will do both of you some good. After all, you have had a very hard time of things. But, you know, every structure, every permanent things, you have to abandon them eventually. Make a change. And what could be more changing than a good fire?” He held the match between thumb and forefinger, clasped between the little rough patches on the matchbox, ready to be lit.
“You know, the alarming thing is, you make an amazing argument for arson. But I am not letting you burn down a building. We’ll find another way to get you some catharsis.” I frowned. “Besides, there’s a good chance that if you light that match, we’re all going up like a roman candle. There’s an art to this kind of thing, you know.”
Megan sighed. “He’s probably right, Coyote.” She took the matchbook from him, and the three of us began to walk away from the building. She paused, struck the match, and tore off the sleeve of one of her shirts. Before I could stop her, she’d set flame to it, and thrown it in a high arc into the garage, into one of the jerrycans.
There was a sudden whump as the fumes ignited, the flame spreading rapidly, crossing the line between the two buildings to erupt under the second tower, as well. Flames rose around the two towers, moving rapidly, the drywall and old construction quickly going alight as I stared up at them.
“Thank you, Diomedes. That was a much better way to do it,” said Megan.
“God,” said Coyote. “I love watching you burn things.” He began to kiss noisily at Megan’s throat, and I walked back to the car, content to let the two of them fuck on the grass while the buildings burned. I had better things to do with my life just now.