“I’m glad you made up your mind,” said Athena, a warm smile on her face. “I had been concerned. It’s been a somewhat trying year. For both of us, I imagine.” Her smile faded, and her eyes went down. “I’m sorry about your friends. About Alfred, and about Polly. Betrayal hurts, and there are few betrayals greater than a hero’s death.”
Irish Kevin’s was doing a blockbuster business. Everyone present was dressed in costumes, myself included. Granted, my costume was “Woman not dressing up for Halloween”, but I was really pulling it off. Athena herself had acquired a cheap plastic wig of snakes, and wore a chiton over her shoulders. A blindfold rested over her eyes, but it was the kind that you could see through. I assumed, anyway. She hadn’t had any trouble navigating the party and taking a seat across from me.
“Well… Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do. Fate was against me.” I smiled apologetically. “I suppose that Alfred won’t become King Arthur, then. The myth always said Arthur was preserved on the edge of death. I wonder what became of his body.”
“She left it behind,” said Athena. “Alfred’s mother found his body, drawn by her bond of blood. She has returned him to Avalon, and is in mourning. He lies on the brink of death.” She slipped the blindfold down around her throat and looked up, her silvery eyes soft. I could almost believe that she was sorry. “The man named Alfred will never awaken again. Someone else, something else, will awaken in his place. The hero named Arthur. The hero that the world needs. That Alfred died on the spear of someone he loved will never be remembered.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said, automatically, my stomach twisting.
“Atina, we both know why you called me here today.” She smiled apologetically. “I must confess, I’m impressed. I was very careful, and while I know you were pushing yourself hard, I was quite careful to leave no clues.”
“Then why are you confessing?” I asked, trying to keep my breathing under control. Trying to keep my gaze from flicking to the crowd. This was rather quicker than I expected.
“Because I don’t wish to insult your intelligence. You know the truth, regardless of how you found it. What harm does it do for me to reveal that you are right? Consider it a consolation prize, for all the hard work you have done.” She smiled. “But it doesn’t change things. Alfred had to die. He was an ideal bergentrückung. The King under the Mountain shall return, in the world’s moment of greatest need. He will not stop the world’s destruction, but as the world outside Avalon burns, he will rally the last survivors. Humans need a strong leader in times of turmoil and strife. They need someone who is hard as iron, and bright as the sun. And I am sorry that it had to be your friend, Atina. If he was your friend.”
“Of course he was my friend,” I hissed. “What the hell could you even mean by that?”
“Oh, nothing. I’m just surprised someone like you has friends.” She smiled. “You are very proud, aren’t you? Calling me here to confront me. Nobody else would have the guts to do this. They would fear what my reaction is. They would wonder what the point is. But here you are… It’s something I admire about you.” She looked around the party. “It’s Halloween. Is it a time to put masks on, or a time to remove them?”
“Did you even care? When you ordered or insinuated or whatever the hell you did, did you care about the fact that you were killing an innocent, kind-hearted, gentle man?”
“Every hero was once a man,” said Athena, softly. “I am their patron. I watched them as they pulled their way up. Guided by destiny, buoyed by luck, as they made their way up the bell curve of survival to the far end. I am the patron of heroes, Atina, and I have seen every hero. Not just the ones who were lauded in history, not just the ones who had names etched in the memories of storytellers. I see every nameless soul who worked silent, desperate miracles. Every soldier who could not be identified after they threw themselves upon a grenade to save their comrades.” She sighed softly. “Do you know who the greatest hero of the last year was? He was a foolish engineering student, some boy with no friends, who set himself in the path of a cult. He died, saving the world. Snuffed out. And only I know the man’s name. The rest of the world barely remembers he existed. His parents know only that he was found dead. They don’t know the great and noble deed he did by saving the world.”
“What was his name?”
Athena paused for a moment, and tilted her head. “What does it matter?”
“It clearly matters to you.”
Athena smiled. “His name was Patrick Kilnick. He died saving the world from a lost god. It would have reduced the entire world to a silent sea of dolls, mindless, faceless, emotionless. And I saw him torn limb from limb for the sake of everyone.” She sighed. “When the man dies, all that is left is his legend. All of those brave heroes I’ve seen die over the ages, and all they left behind was a shell. It is what humanity needs to protect it, but it is not the man.” She crossed her arms and looked out the window into the dimly lit parking lot. “Do you know how it feels, to watch people you respect, people you love and admire, die, disappear, be forgotten, leaving only the hollow shell of expectations that were left around them?” She shook her head. “I did not want to do what I did to Alfred. But he did what all heroes do, sooner or later.”
“You murdered two people.”
“Oh, your Dean Morton will be back. Quite a clever man. I didn’t anticipate anyone finding that phylactery of his, but there was a reason I chose him. Very clever on your part, too, to find him.”
“It was luck.”
“Luck is when Chaos takes an interest.” She smiled. “So. What will you do now, Atina? Tell the city what I did? Save Queen Wen, a woman who tried to kill you, at the cost of the people learning that the law is meaningless? Or let Wen die, and preserve the law, at the cost of justice? I don’t envy you the choice.”
“I was thinking, I might bring you to justice.”
Athena sighed, softly. “Oh, Atina. You were doing so well, avoiding all those tired old clichés, and then you had to break out the oldest and most tired one of all.” She shook her head softly, sadly. “We both know you don’t have that power.” But she didn’t sit up. She just kept watching me, and I saw her fingers tightening slightly.
“I could set the dragon on you,” I said, softly.
“Really?” she said, an eyebrow raised. “You… set the dragon, on me?”
“I’ll do it. I’ll tell him.”
“Him?” said Athena, her eyes widening. “You’re… Oh, lord.” She sighed, and shook her head, sitting back. I kept my eyes on her, not on the woman in the Schnappi mask approaching the table. “Well. Don’t I feel a fool. Here I was, playing it safe, trying to avoid causing trouble, not wanting to step on your toes… And you weren’t at all what I thought you were.”
“You-“ I paused. “You thought I was the dragon?”
“I did. I really did. And I appreciated what you were doing all the more because of that. I thought… Well, I really thought that you could help.” She sighed. “It would’ve been nice to have luck on my side. If you actually had any kind of real power over the dragon, if it even exists, then you would not be making vague threats. I would be cowering on the ground.”
“That’s not the only threat I have,” I said, softly. “There’s a lot of people in this city who aren’t happy about what you did. Powerful people.”
“Oh, yes. Ghosts and fairies and demons.” She smiled. “I’m shaking.”
“You should be,” said Chaac. She stood by the table, removing the cartoonish alligator mask. Jenny stood next to her, Jack carried loosely in one hand, the short blade shining. The others removed their masks slowly.
“A lot of people owed favors to Dean Morton. Not many of them liked him, but nobody in this city is glad that you killed him. And Alfred… Everyone loved Alfred,” I said, softly. “He was a genuinely good, kind man. Everyone here will remember him. And no matter how good you think your reasons are, no matter how certain you are that saving the world absolutely required him to die, I think you’re wrong.”
Athena raised an eyebrow, letting her eyes run across the array. Everyone, even the bartender, was a part of the upper crust of Binghamton’s supernatural world. Tadodaho was giving her a baleful look. Lady Ann Willing approached, flanked by King Sidney, his arms bandaged, but looking extremely functional. Prince Vassago hadn’t joined us, a fact which had made me very nervous.
“Pallas Athena,” said Lady Ann Willing, voice grave as the grave. “You are banished from the borders of Binghamton. You, and Polly Wen, have committed grave crimes against the Night Court of Binghamton, the Four Fairy Courts of Binghamton, and Prince Vassago’s court. You have admitted this in the view of the highest nobles.” She placed the vellum scroll, sealed with wax, on the table. “If you ever again set foot in Binghamton, you will be executed.”
Athena sighed, softly. “So, this was your big threat.”
“Just walk away,” I said.
“Will you come with me to the city?”
“No. I’ve got things to take care of here.”
“That is unfortunate.” Athena smiled. “The thing is, I could walk away. I could just leave this all behind. My plans will work anyway. But I would not be who I am if I did not demand respect.”
“Don’t make this into a fight,” I said. “You’re not the only god here.”
“Oh, please.” She chuckled, and waved a hand at Chaac lazily. “I am Justice. I am Wisdom. I am the patron of Athens, the victorious. Throughout history, my tales have never been forgotten. They have spread, far and wide. They are among the most powerful myths in the world. They underpin all of civilization, now. That handful of Greek philosophers had an idea, and they made me magnificent. Do you, any of you, truly believe that you could stand up to me? On my worst day, I would struggle, but I would crush every single one of you.” She eyed Jenny. “Even you.”
Jenny’s fist tightened around the knife.
“But today is not my worst day. It is a thing you might not know, but Samhain is special. Summer’s end, the time when masks come off. This is the day when things are revealed. After all, the mask you wear is a far better reflection of who you are than the face that nature gave you.” She smiled, and reached up, removing the wig of snakes, tossing it to the ground. “Today, I am Myself.”
The shield appeared in her hand even as Chaac and Jenny lunged. There was a soft soundlessness. And then we were the only two. Everyone else stood, frozen, staring into the oblivion, eyes graven marble. Chaac, Tadodaho, Jenny, King Sidney, King Baynson, everyone. All nothing but frozen stone.
“Oh,” I said, softly, feeling my guts turn to icewater.
“The proud uniter. Bringing together everyone to fight. But Chaac, Tadodaho, Jenny… They are very small gods. Gods of dead lands, remembered only by a handful of scholars, and believed in by fewer.” Athena sat back, and sighed. “They relied on blood to sustain them. They regressed. Whereas I… I was there when the laws were written. I wrote the laws. Every time that justice prevails, I am made stronger. Every criminal executed for his crimes against his fellow man is a blood sacrifice in my name. Every light lit in dark places, bringing knowledge, and wisdom, and thought, that is a prayer sent to me, Atina.” She looked at Chaac, her eyes narrowed. “This continent was full of fools. Wasting their time. To think that people admire them, think that they lived in harmony with nature. You cannot live in harmony with nature, Atina. You can either master it, or be crushed by it.” She reached up, and stroked Chaac’s chin slowly.
“Don’t hurt her,” I said, hoarse. “I’m the one who convinced everyone. Don’t hurt them because of what I did.”
“I’m not going to hurt anyone, Atina,” said Athena, shaking her head. “I am content to simply leave them be, and abide by this contract. I have done wrong, and it does rankle me. Embodying justice is useless if I treat it like a toy.” She smiled. “I am not the villain, Atina.”
“Who thinks they are?”
“Oh, trust me. There are those who wear their villainy like a badge to be proud of. I will not kill any of these who raised their hands to me. Not so long as you do what I tell you. I am simply reminding them all of how… weak…” She paused a moment, and stared at Jenny.
The rock fell from one of Jenny’s eyes. The eye burned in its socket, as she held the knife in front of her. Unable to move, unable to talk. But still witnessing.
“Well. You are special, aren’t you?” She smiled. “That’s good. All that anger, that pain, at the unfairness of the world? I’m glad you feel it, Miss Nishi. You have some small inkling of what I feel. Your hero was stolen from you? You were given an unfair fate? You saw defeat snatched from the jaws of victory? That is life. If you hate it, if it burns you the way it burns me, then we have much to discuss together. Perhaps if you can find it in yourself to work with me… We can save him.”
“I thought that was impossible,” I said, softly.
“Impossible is just a word. It has simply never been done before. Isn’t that what you want to believe? That he is within reach?”
“Why do you want me so badly?”
“Well, in truth, up until now, I did believe you were the dragon. One hears rumors. Your confrontation with Chaac, your confrontational attitude with creatures far more powerful than any human… I thought no human could be so foolish as to put themselves at such great risk.” She sighed softly. “Really, it was rather naïve of me. I suppose I wanted it to be true. But I still find you amusing. I would rather you not die.” She looked up. “I’ll let you bring the vampire girl, and the knife. Both of them can be of use. The rest, well, you should say your farewells to them. The world will end. I wish only to keep alive what I can.”
“But why me?” I said.
“I am going to war against Fate. I need Luck on my side. And while I suspect, now, that I was wrong, well. I would be foolish to waste a possible lead.” Athena smiled.
“Guiness for the goddess, and a roll in the hay for the lady?”
“We didn’t order any drinks, you…” began Athena. The words died in her lips as she looked up.
Roy stood by the table, holding a platter.
“Roy?” I said, rather weakly.
“You know this man?” asked Athena, frowning. “What, were you in the bathroom? You didn’t notice anything-“
And then Roy looked her in the eye.
Roy doesn’t look all that intimidating, most of the time. But when he is intimidating, it isn’t because his face changes. It’s his demeanor that changes. That cold, level gaze, that absolute confidence. He looked her in the eye, and Athena flinched.
“You wanted me,” said Roy, softly. “You got me. Now what will you do?”
Athena swallowed very slowly. Her poker face was crumbling. “I… wish to propitiate you. I have a plan. A plan to fight your ancient enemy.”
“Oh, goodie,” said Roy, his voice cold as the abyss. “Such a clever goddess. I bet this one will be a real laugh.” He straightened up, and rapped Jenny’s shoulder. The stone shattered, and Jenny stood, whole once more, gasping hard, clutching the knife. “Hello, Jenny.”
She stared at him, shaking slightly. I’d never told Jenny what he was. Seeing him do what he’d done was sure to raise questions. “Can we save Alfred?”
I guess the other questions could wait.
“No,” said Roy, shaking his head. “It is not in my nature to preserve.” He tapped her in the chest. “You can save Alfred. At terrible, nightmarish risk to yourself, to the world, and to Athena in particular.” He turned towards Athena, and smiled. “I know your plan. It will fail. But I will come along nonetheless. It will be entertaining. Atina will remain here.”
“I’m- I’m not-“ I stopped, the words hanging in the air. I remembered the dream.
I remembered the blood rushing down Roy’s throat, because I had distracted him.
“It’s not that I don’t want you along,” said Roy, softly. “You just wouldn’t be any use.”
“You will help?” said Athena, shaking slightly, still.
“Yes. I’ll join you presently. Jenny, join us on the Winter Solstice. Athena will arrange the trip. Won’t you?”
Athena nodded quickly. The change was palpable in her. The arrogance, the confidence, the sense that everything was proceeding to her plan, everything had vanished when Roy appeared.
“And you will never, ever return to this city,” said Roy. “I saw your little crow entering the dean’s office. I allowed it to happen, that time. If I see a repeat performance…” He smiled. “You saw how pitiful it was. All of these silly little fairies and corpses trying to stop you. What could they have been thinking? You were so far above them, they couldn’t even see you.” He leaned forward, and smiled. “But that distance is nothing compared to what separates you and I.”
Athena nodded quickly, sharply, and swallowed. “Then… I will go. And you-“
“Will join you presently, in my own time. Run away, little goddess. Back to your shelter. Back to your little plans. I will play my part in your farce.”
Athena nodded, and fled without saying another word.
Roy sighed. “Jenny. I trust you won’t spread this around? I swear, you keep a secret for ten thousand years, and then it all comes out at once…”
“What are you?” said Jenny, softly. Roy blinked, and then smiled.
“I’m Atina’s boyfriend, of course.”
“What I am,” Roy said, “is not something for you to worry about. What you should worry about is how you will be dealing with a city full of treacherous immortals, and the murky gray of the world ahead of you. There is always a price when you wish to save someone. Oftentimes, the price is simply having to give a damn about someone. But if you go with me, you will recover everything that was taken from you.” He stood up. “I will see you on the Winter Solstice.”
“Roy,” I said, not quite sure what I would follow it up with. He turned towards me, an eyebrow raised. “Please don’t go yet.”
“Oh, these parties are much too big for me. Look at all of these people. They might ask questions.” He chuckled. “Finish what you must here. Don’t hurry. I won’t be going anywhere.”
He walked out of the bar. As he left, the spell that Athena had put on the bar ended. The music started again. The stone disappeared. And everyone was deeply confused.
I spent the next hour or so smoothing things over. The answer- that Athena had agreed to the terms, and was just throwing a bit of a tantrum- seemed to satisfy most, though I could see the disquiet in the expressions of the older Undead. Chaac, in particular, seemed rather struck by what had happened.
“He saved us,” she said, softly, as we stood in one corner of the party.
We both knew who she meant. She’d been the one to face him, last time.
“What is he?”
“I don’t really know,” I admitted, softly. “He did save us.” I looked down. Right at that moment when I was in trouble. Of course, he could have intervened before, but…
“It feels… disgusting,” said Chaac, softly. “To have so little control. To be helpless.”
“How do you think I feel?”
“I can’t imagine you feel helpless. You won. Stared down another goddess, and won.”
“I just clung on desperately, and had my stupid ass saved,” I said, softly.
“You lay the groundwork for the success,” said Chaac. “You kept on top of it.” She sighed softly. “I’m just a useless old bat.”
“You stepped up,” I said, softly. “That meant a lot to me.”
“Yes. How fun, to be an object lesson.” Chaac smiled softly. “And Dean Morton?”
“He’s in the hands of the Mission. We’ll see how things go on that front, they said a couple of months.” I shrugged. “I’m going to head home. It’s been a long day.”
I was tired as I trudged home. No car, and it was close enough that I could make the trip by foot. The brief cold snap had disappeared, leaving the air maddeningly warm once again, the heat wave continuing unabated. The trees hadn’t even changed color. Hell of a summer’s end.
By the time I reached home, I was feeling on the end of my rope. My body felt as though I had been wrung out. Nearly a full year of stressing and worrying, and it had all come to an end. All I wanted to do was sink into a bottle of tequila, and bed.
It took me a couple of tries to tell which house was mine. For one thing, I certainly hadn’t put up all of those decorations. My house was rarely a center of attention from the neighborhood kids, either. The large animatronic witch was definitely not my style, nor was the tape of spooky Halloween music playing on the porch. A large iron pot sat, with a large selection of candy. And…
It couldn’t be my car. My car was torn apart, sitting in Danny’s auto shop.
But that was my car. Sitting, whole and undamaged, in the driveway, as though nothing had ever happened. I reached out, and rested my fingers on it, as a group of kids came up to the step, giggling and laughing as they gathered their tithe from the cast iron pot.
I opened the door, and saw Roy, standing in the kitchen. The smell of pasta filled the air. Fresh pasta. The kind he made with his bare hands, from scratch. A bowl of pesto sat on the chair. He smiled at me. “Welcome home, sweetie.”
“So this is what you do?” I asked, feeling annoyed for reasons I could only vaguely describe. “You disappear from my life for months, let me lose one of my friends, then you show up out of nowhere to save the day, stop the villain in their tracks, tell me everything’s going to be okay? Do you think this is funny?”
“Hilarious,” he said, a slight smile quirking his lips. “It is your car.”
“It was dead. The Atlantean girl said so.”
“As though she would know. The car’s steel remembered a time when it was still alive. I simply… reminded it.” He poured the pesto over the food. “Death is nowhere near so powerful a force as you may think.”
“That doesn’t actually answer anything.”
“I know.” He chuckled softly. “I was keeping an eye on you. I didn’t interfere because I saw that Bel… that The Half-Faced Man’s ally would preserve you. Besides, Alfred would never learn if he wasn’t allowed to make mistakes.”
“He was killed.”
“Yes. It is a harsh lesson.” He met my eyes. “Would you have me preserve everyone? Keep them from the risks of their lives, ensure that they never face danger or consequence? Death happens, Atina. Far worse things happen.”
“You know… I always thought, if I were God… I would. I’d protect everyone, if I could.”
“They wouldn’t thank you for it.”
“They don’t have to thank me. It’d be worth it.” I was quiet for a moment. “I just want to save people.”
“Of course you do. That is why I love you. That is why I stepped in. I am old, and cynical, and very, very tired of stupid, stupid people. Sometimes, it’s nice to see the world through fresh eyes.”
“What I did wasn’t stupid?”
“Well, it was intriguingly stupid, at the very least.” He smiled. “Do you think I am cruel for not saving Alfred from Polly’s blade? For not aiding Jenny when she made her desperate struggle?”
“I thought you’d abandoned me,” I said, softly.
“You told me to be proud, and… I wasn’t. I gave in. To Wen, to Vassago, I- I practically told people who you are, I kept using you, and-!” I realized the tears were running down my cheeks. I’d wondered if I’d ever seen him again, and it had hurt.
“You let people think that you could use me. I am not so easily trapped, Atina.” He smiled. “And I admired the way you did it. You gave up so little, and accomplished so much. You cured the sword. You saved the Ice Queen. You fought fate, and forced it to use every dirty trick it had in order to kill Alfred. You did quite well.” He turned back to the food, scooping out a large spoonful of pasta and drizzling a dash of parmesan over it, and then raised his hand, wiping the tears from my cheek. “For a mere mortal.”
“Watch it.” I was quiet for a moment, my face burning. “You told me… that if you interfered, you’d die.”
“I don’t want you to die.”
“Really?” He turned towards me. “Run with me, then.”
There was something in his voice. Something deep, and abyssal. He sounded like staring into the infinite night. I felt the wind howling in his words. I blinked. “What?”
“I can run from this cataclysm. I’ll take you. Just you. But we can escape. I, of all people, can keep you safe.”
“I can’t,” I said, softly.
“I know. And that is part of why I love you, though I am serious when I tell you I could run.” He turned back towards the food, grating some cheese. “You will not leave your friends. I will not leave you. And so, I will die.”
“I don’t want you to die for me.”
“The only way to not die is to eschew connections.” He smiled. “There are worse fates than death. I, of all people, should know. And besides. The only reason I fight is because something has changed.”
His teeth flashed brilliant and savage, and the tyrant king grinned at me, his eyes mad and wonderful.
“I can kill him too.”
I shivered slightly at the words. He laughed, and held out the bowl to me. I took a bite. What he’d just said was too big for me to confront. “Mmm. It tastes… really, really good.”
“At any rate, this won’t be dangerous. There is no one on this world who can challenge me. Chaac and her little friends, they had to learn that lesson the hard way. But where I’m going, no one will be foolish enough to challenge me.”
“Alright.” I swallowed, and wiped my lips. “Just you and Jenny? You don’t want to bring… I don’t know,0 Jack, or something?”
“Jenny will more than suffice. I like her. She reminds me a great deal of you, though…” His eyes ran up and down me, and I’ll be honest, the hunger in his expression was something I would never get used to. “She’s not my type the way you are.”
“Thanks,” I said, flushing. “So… You’re not going to die?”
“I’ll just be visiting the city.” He smiled. “It’s amazing how much you can do, by just having the right reputation, and smiling at people. After my little performance for Athena, I’m surprised you could worry about me. Come on. Let’s watch something nostalgic. It’s Halloween.”
The two of us sat together in the bedroom. I lay back, my head on his chest. That was the funny thing. I could lean on him, and he never complained, never seemed remotely bothered by the weight. He seemed to be amused by it, if anything. There was a very direct metaphor in there. And then, memory struck me. Well… Foresight.
“Roy… promise me one thing.”
“If you meet a man with hazel eyes… Don’t fight him. Alright?”
“I don’t fight, Atina,” he said, cheerfully. “Fighting implies an equal. Don’t worry.”
“Can you stay? For just… You know. A bit longer? Just stay here with me, until you have to leave with Jenny?”
Roy blinked, and then smiled. “Of course.”