By Connor Lee Winters
Set ‘Em Up
John Wesley Harding squinted, wiped his hands on his dirty jeans, and went to work.
Pinching the thin piece of white chalk between his fingers, he sketched rapidly on the brick wall. The chalk quickly wore down to a nub, and he pulled another from his backpack.
His golem stood at the mouth of the alley, six and a half rock-solid feet of greased leather. Harding could hear it humming to itself, a deep basso rumble he felt in his bones.
A cloud passed in front of the moon, plunging the trash-strewn alleyway into darkness. Harding grunted and squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating. The silver light came back, bright and true.
Dawn came slowly as he sketched, lending color to the heaps of trash and dirty cobblestones. Harding dropped the chalk and stepped back from the wall. His hands left dusty white smears on the front of his jeans.
The bricks in front of him were covered in designs, archaic and more familiar to John than the pair of hands he currently wore. He blew on his fingers and pressed his palms flat against the rough surface.
The runes began to glow as he fed power to them. This was the sixth and final anchor. He’d spent the last four nights placing the others.
The sweat cooled quickly on his brow in the chill morning air. That was the hard work was done. He’d already connected all the anchors to the plaza he’d designated as the hub. Drawing a quarter-mile long, unbroken chalk line over buildings and across streets had been irritating, to say the least, but things worked best if the components were kept in the same plane. Stopped things from getting messy.
He patted the golem on a rocky shoulder. “Let’s go home.”
The massive creature nodded, still humming. John could hear the slow, methodical steps from behind him, bouncing from the old stone walls.
The sun was fully above the horizon when he reached the docks. His boat was at the end of the pier. As far from solid ground as possible. He was getting scalped on the moorage, but he paid it all the same. Too fluid to hold the symbols needed for any trickery, John wanted as much water between him and solid ground as possible.
Only a few beings could craft anything of power mentally, and if a true Composer came after him he’d be dead regardless of the precautions he took.
Gaining the boat’s door, he reached one hand to the door and kept the other on his gun. The lock popped open and he cracked the door, sniffing. Empty. Same as always.
The golem walked directly to its couch and stretched out. Glad to be home, its humming rose an octave.
“Bob, come on. I’ve told you a thousand times to take your shoes off when you come in. There’s mud everywhere.”
Bob grumbled apologetically.
John sighed and walked to the maintenance hatch in the corner. Ignoring the padlock, he traced the hatch’s outline and whispered a couple of words in the Old Tongue. It popped open and he climbed down the ladder into darkness.
He opened the curtains on one of the wide windows, bathing the room in a rippling blue-green light.
The space was much larger than one would expect to find in the bottom of a boat. Desks and a cluttered work bench stood under the submerged windows. Bookshelves lined one wall, novels and atlases crammed haphazardly in with globes, diagrams, dice and other trinkets. A large computer sat on an oak desk against the bow wall, next to a thick futon.
He threw his jacket over the rack and fished a beer out of the mini fridge in the corner. Cracking it open, he snapped his fingers at a record player on one of the shelves. Vivaldi crackled through the blue air, cello echoing softly in the gloom.
Dropping into the chair behind the desk, he flipped the computer on. The beer was a local ambrata, and he sipped at it appreciatively while the PC stirred. He listened to the broadband screech, logged into his email, and typed out a quick message to his contact, Angelo.
Angelo was a trapper, half human and born of this Earth. He was uncannily good at locating things. At navigating the local woods, so to speak.
They had worked together before, to their mutual profit. There was nothing and nobody he couldn’t find—-he said-—provided he was paid up front.
When Harding had first felt the interloper arrive he had gone straight to Angelo. He’d left his golem and twelve kilograms of solid gold. Half a day later Bob had clomped up to the boat with a piece of paper wadded in his hand.
The crushed letter had been short. Found her. Will arrange meeting. Send time and place. – A.
The email he sent to Angelo was even briefer. Piazza de Ferrari. Midnight.
He slugged the rest of the beer. Angelo would lay whatever breadcrumbs he needed to, plant the footprints to lead the intruder to the rendezvous. Everything was in place.
He set his alarm for ten hours, kicked his boots off, and stretched out across the bed. The motion of the boat and the concerto wafting through the air lulled him to sleep in moments.
Knock ‘Em Down
He woke all at once, shutting the alarm off after the first shrill ring.
It took him only moments to gather what he’d need. Jacket, boots. A satchel of chalk. Handgun. He pulled the curtains and climbed the ladder to the main deck.
Bob sat outside on the edge of the pier, swinging his legs over the water and watching the waves come in. John called to the golem, and it followed after him, humming happily.
John savored the fragrant nighttime air. He could have called a cab, but the thirty minute walk passed pleasantly.
The Piazza de Ferrari shone like hammered silver in the light of the full moon. Lights glimmered through the waters of the wide, low fountain, dancing merrily. The tinkling cascade reached John, sixty feet above the edge of the piazza, where he was perched on the curved parapet of the Banca Carige.
Nothing seemed out of place. Surveying the scene, he could feel the invisible chalk lines humming. He plucked a strand with his fingernail and felt it vibrate across the square.
Bob stood down by the fountain. Wandering couples and tourists subconsciously gave the humanoid creature a wide berth. He looked normal enough, sure, but even the mortals felt a subtle strangeness about him. Something not quite normal, a nudge from what miniscule intuition they possessed.
Harding’s own energy was hidden by the runes sewn into the lining of his jacket, layered so thick that he could’ve shook hands with any being in the universe and they’d swear he was just another mushy human.
The golem was uncamouflaged, though. To someone who could perceive, the golem would stick out like a neon sign.
Harding was counting on it.
A cold rain began to fall. He pulled up his hood and checked his watch. The intruder was already thirty minutes late. How long are they going to keep me waiting? He’d passed up a perfectly fine jazz show for this.
He looked back down at Bob. Too much longer and the golem would grow bored, wandering off to whatever caught its attention.
One of the lines twanged. His head snapped up. Something had tripped one of his lines, something real, and the line had rung like a bell, reverberating through the ground and in his teeth.
Where, though? A group of drunken holidaymakers stumbled across the square. A couple stood in front of the fountain, entwined. Nothing looked out of the ordinary to him.
He closed his eyes, reaching out along the lines. Feeling, searching, seeking. There. Across the plaza from him, in a darkened window. It was hunched over, peering through the open window. Something long and metal in its arms. It wore a human body, female, but in its concentration the form was beginning to slip. A tail lashed back and forth, agitated.
Harding could taste her fear, the vast pool of her nervous energy. It mounted, mounted. He crouched lower in anticipation.
She took a deep breath that echoed through the line.
The gunshot shattered the night like a bomb. Bob’s head exploded in a spray of limestone.
People screamed, running for cover. The placid square erupted like a disturbed anthill.
Harding stared at Bob’s body, waiting. People ran past the headless golem, blocking his view for a moment. They passed and she was there, crouched next to the body. John’s smile was wide, cold.
He leapt off the building. He could feel the warmth on his heels as the glyphs on the heels of his boots glowed, checking his fall.
He landed on a line and grabbed it with his left hand. The energy of it ripped through the skin on his arm, forcing it into the spikes and whipcord of its true shape.
The creature looked up, saw him. A snarl ripped from her throat and she tore out of her human body like it was tissue paper. Eight feet of fur and fangs and flying mane leapt at him.
Holding the pulsing silver line, he pushed into it with his mind. The square erupted in a dazzling silver web. Sparks flew as it tore its way into being. He wrapped the web around the snarling monster as she flew through the air and pinned her to the wet cobblestones. Her scream of rage cracked the glass windows around the plaza. He walked toward her, one fist tight on the line and one fist tight on his gun. He kept it trained on her as he approached.
Her muscles pulsed and flowed as the net forced her back into human form. Writhing and howling, fur rippled along her flanks and spine. Shrinking back into her skin, the coat was the color of an autumn veldt, the color of sun-ripened wheat.
John shook his head. What a sloppy skin-job. Damn. He tightened the net, wrapping the line once around the gunmetal muscles of his left hand.
Sirens wailed. He looked over at Bob, still lying on the ground. “Pull yourself together, buddy.”
The golem stirred sluggishly. He stumbled onto shaky legs, hands going to the jagged stump of neck.
“Rub some dirt on it, you’ll be fine.”
The golem bent down and slammed its pile-driver fists into the ground at its feet. Reducing the cobblestones to powder, he packed the handfuls of compacted rock on top his ruined neck. Craggy features began to take shape.
The sirens were close now. Blue and red lights could be seen flashing between streets and alleys.
“Do your makeup later, Bob. Grab her and let’s go.”
Obligingly, Bob bent down and scooped up the growling monster caught in the net. His humming was coarser now.
John led the way into a dead-end alley. He could hear the polizia flooding the square behind him, looking for the shooter. The sound of rapid footsteps echoed off the damp walls as they fanned out, flashlights darting and radios squawking.
John reached the end of the alley and pulled a piece of chalk from his bag. He sketched a doorway on the wall in quick, broad strokes. Another second and he’d added the center rune. Tapping it, the crumbling bricks inside the arch he’d created turned to steam. The vapor rose gracefully in the silver air. He stepped through, Bob close behind with his arms wrapped around their captive. Lights converged on the mouth of the alley, just as John tapped the wall again. The bricks reformed, solid.
Someone’s car was parked outside the building just in front of them, and a stern glance popped the locks. Bob tossed the woman in the back and climbed into the passenger seat.
Harding felt the ignition with his fingers, sensing. Piece of cake.These old Fiats all used the same key anyways. He pulled out another piece of chalk and blew on it. The excess turned to dust, leaving him with a white key. The engine coughed once, twice, started. He pulled away from the curb, headlights bouncing off the wet cobblestone streets.
After a block he turned and pulled his gun, leveling it at the captive. One of her hands was pushed partway through the net, a long claw extended. Her teeth were gritted against the silver ropes sizzling into her arm as she scratched through the metal of the car.
“Cut it out, sister, or you’ll be chewing bullets. Don’t fuck with me.”
She pulled the claw back in, snarling.
He turned around, shaking his head. He hadn’t gotten a good look at her until now. She didn’t look like a woman. She looked like a little girl.
He stopped the car in front of a nondescript apartment building. Yellow paint was peeling from the walls and the entrance was behind a door of wrought iron bars. John pulled another key—metal, this time—from a pocket and let them in. The elevator was tight, and John kept his gun close, visible, and trained on the girl. They took it up to the top floor and walked to the end of the hall.
He stood in front of the last door and knocked once. After a moment, a woman opened the door. Waist-length black hair framed a pale face.
She looked him up and down, licked her ruby lips. Her voice was a purr. “John. Sogood to see you.”
“He’s inside, baby. Come on.”
Bob went in first, with the girl in his arms. John followed, hand twitching when the woman ran her hand over his shoulder. He’d never trusted vamps.
Angelo was at the far end of the room. He sat in front of a wall of monitors displaying cctv feeds, satellite images television shows, pictures of people. Another woman, identical to the first, sat on his lap. Angelo looked up as John walked in, his hair mussed and yellow eyes bright in the hazy room.
“You have any idea what time it is, cazzo?”
“Always. I caught our stray.”
He waved a hand and Bob dropped the girl. She landed with a thud and a squawk. Her eyes darted back and forth, looking for an escape.
Angelo barely looked at her. “Your stray. You want a medal?”
The woman in his lap spoke up. Her voice was the same as the one behind him. “I knew you were fucked, John, but I didn’t know you liked them that young.”
He flipped her the bird. “She tried to kill me. I want to know what she is.”
Reluctantly, Angelo shooed the leather-clad woman off and stood.
“Take that damn thing off her, she can’t turn. The whole building’s warded.”
Harding focused on the net again, willing it away. He flexed his hand as the fingers shortened, spikes retracting from his wrist and elbow. His arm itched horribly as skin crawled back over the muscle.
The girl looked daggers at him as she stood and stretched, wincing. One of her arms was covered in a pattern of burnt and blistered skin where she’d stuck it through the net in the car. Water dripped onto the carpet from her bedraggled mane of tawny hair.
In control again, she looked like a small girl. Tiny, fragile; soaking wet and shivering in the cavernous room. The sight of her in the Piazza leaping for his throat, all teeth and claws, flashed across his mind again. He loosened his gun in its holster.
Angelo rummaged through his desk, withdrawing a pair of faintly glowing spectacles he pushed up his long nose. He looked at her and swore, stepping back. John opened his mouth and Angelo waved him quiet. He walked a wide circle around the girl, peering at her from different angles. After a third circuit, he put the spectacles back down. He pulled a bottle from a hidden refrigerator, poured himself a glass of whiskey and walked over to John.
He made a point of not turning his back on her. John was not encouraged.
Angelo’s voice was low, urgent. “Get her out of here. If you’re smart, you’ll sing one of your songs, put one of your bullets in her head, drive her body to the emptiest piece of land you can find, and forget it ever happened. Salt her grave, plant a cross, and stay far away from it forever.”
“Angelo, what is she?”
“Do I look like I’m kidding? I don’t want any part of this.” Angelo’s knuckles were white around the glass.
John opened his mouth, but Angelo overrode him. “You don’t get it, do you? If you’re both still here in ten seconds I will kill you. You brought her to my home!”
John had never seen Angelo like this. The man lived with vamps, two of them, but this wet kitten shivering on his carpet had him scared out of his wits. “What are you talking about, Angelo?”
The glass shattered in Angelo’s hand. “She’s got royal blood, John! Gallons of it, just fucking coursing through her. She’s here, all the way out here in this backwater world, wearing a makeshift body. She’s fucking hiding, John, she’s running from something and you brought her to my home! Damn you!”
The girl stepped toward them and Angelo flinched away. She looked up at John.
“You have no idea what’s happening, do you?” She said. “Kronos is out. He got out of Tartarus. Of course I’m running!” Despite Angelo’s wards, fur rippled up her arms as she clenched her fists. “Don’t you know what he does to his children?”
John’s stomach dropped. Oh, shit.
The lights flickered. Angelo looked around, eyes wide. “Get out. I mean it, John. Get the fuck out!”
The room shook, a dull pounding seeming to come from each wall simultaneously. The monitors shorted out, crazed rainbows skewing across the screens. The shaking stopped, started again.
It sounded, John thought, like something massive was knocking on every surface at once just to see what was inside.
The girl ran for the door. She pushed one of the women out of the way, shoving her to the ground.
“We have to leave, right now. He’s coming!” Her voice was high, scared.
Angelo was shouting. John followed her out in a daze. His mouth was dry, his thoughts spinning. Bob lumbered after him, a jagged whine sounding with each step.
John caught up with the girl at the car.
Holding the door closed, he looked down at her “Wait! Who are you?’
She pushed him away. He reeled. His heel caught on the curb and fell hard onto the sidewalk, stunned. Bob was strong enough to juggle wrecking balls and John had no trouble overpowering the golem. The girl in front of him had moved him with a single hand.
She cracked her knuckles. Dark brown claws slid from her fingertips. Her teeth were points. “Eris. Now drive.”
A Gun in Every Hand
They sped through the dark, through the narrow streets as fast as John could push the old car. He swerved past parked vehicles, fishtailing around the corners. Bob rocked back and forth in the backseat, arms around his knees.
John could see nothing following them. He took no solace from it.
“We need to get out of here. If we can get to the boat, grab some gear and make it to Porta Aurea before Kronos finds us, we might make it. Aurea’s a Gate, we can take it out of here. If we can jump fast enough we might lose him in the gaps.”
Eris looked at him. “Go to the Gate now. Screw the gear! He was right on us back there!”
John shook his head. “We can’t. Things live between Gates this far out. Big things. We’ll be dead without any protection. Switch seats with me, I need to work. Bob will point the way.”
She flowed around him, taking the wheel. “You’re one too, aren’t you? You’d just hide until he passed over if you weren’t royalty. And you…”
He drew his revolver, opening the nine-round cylinder with a flick of his wrist. “And I took you down, back in the Piazza. Yeah, I am. Now shut up a minute.”
He checked each round, running a finger over the glyphs etched into the bullets. The malicious glow of molten rock lit deep within them.
He snapped the gun shut and held it in up front of him. He let go. It hung in the air in front of him.
Closing his eyes, focusing every particle of his being on the gun, he felt his body shift. He started to sing, a ballad of war and devastation and instant excruciating death born on swift legs to those who declared themselves his enemy. The air hummed and crackled around him, his lengthening hair lifting in the static atmosphere.
He finished, breathing deeply. The revolver hung in front of him, and he wrapped his hands around it. The metal was black now, and warm.
Eris shivered as the air warmed again. “That’s a hell of a gun.”
John holstered the weapon. “We’ll see.”
A Short Trip and a Long Fall
The car screeched to a halt at the foot of the pier. John jumped out, slammed the door, and froze.
Eris looked back at him. “Let’s go! We don’t have time for this!”
“My boat’s gone. It’s gone.”
He stumbled toward the end of the pier. His boat had vanished. So had the last thirty feet of dock. The pier just ended, hanging out over the water. The edges looked as smooth as ice. Bob’s desperate hums hitched and the golem put his rocky hands to his face.
How? I’d warded the boat, the dock, everything. For years, years I’d worked on protecting it…
Eris pulled on his arm. “Come on! We have to get to the Gate!”
A deep voice rang out over the water. “No, I don’t think you do.”
An old man clunked down the pier toward them. His unkempt beard ran riot across his face and stretched to his belt. His pupil-less eyes were a pure, faintly glowing white. He leaned heavily on a scythe, using it as a cane.
“My children. Why must you run from me? What have I done to frighten you so?”
Eris bared her teeth. “I saw what you did to Ares! I was there, you bastard!”
Bob’s hitching sobs turned to a ground-shaking growl. Eris knelt, carving symbols into the wood with an extended claw. Smoke rose into the air from the burning runes as she stood and pulled a spear taller than herself from the dock. Flames burned in her eyes.
Harding drew, leveling the gun at the old man’s head. “Stay back.”
The old man kept coming, slow step after slow step.
John fired. The scythe whipped out. Kronos kept walking. John fired again. Metal screeched as the scythe flashed forward. John fired the last seven rounds as fast as he could, fanning the hammer. Kronos’s blade was a blur, sparks flying as blade met bullet every time.
The old man kept walking.
John looked at the golem. “Get him, Bob.”
The golem charged, roaring. He splintered the thick boards with each long stride and hit the old man like a freight train.
Kronos leaned into the impact. Dust and gravel flew from the golem’s body. Bob swung a sledgehammer fist and the scythe lashed out, fast enough to be invisible. The arm fell to the ground, crumbling into gravel.
Bob roared again. He swung again with his remaining arm, driving his fist into the old man’s gut. Kronos laughed and held the fist with one hand, lifting the scythe in the other.
Bob struggled frantically, snarling, as water began to rise on both sides of the pier. It looked like a river, flowing straight up.
John could feel the power coursing through the walls of water above the golem. It took John’s breath away. The golem looked up at the dark water, twisting menacingly sixty feet above him.
Bob fell silent, stone eyes wide.
Kronos brought the scythe down.
The water plummeted. A hundred thousand gallons blasted away at the golem, falling back into the lake to be pulled back up into the raging torrent. Bob was a dark figure in the deadly flood. He struggled, eroding before John’s eyes in the deluge. Kronos had him pinned. In seconds there would be nothing left of the creature.
Like a fist through wet cardboard, John ripped out of the human body he’d worn for so many decades.
Hooves clattering, hair streaming behind him, he galloped across the dock toward Bob.
He could make it. He would make it. Eris shouted something, her words lost to the wind.
The dock groaned alarmingly under the pounding water. John was feet away from the liquid wall. His hands shot out, breath ripping from him as he flew across the dock. He was close, so close. He could push Bob out, he had to. The old man’s eyes shone through the water like beacons.
He plunged in. The water was shockingly cold.
Bob was gone.
John slid to a stop, the water pounding on his head and shoulders and flanks, shaking boards splintering beneath his hooves as they fought for traction against the force of the raging waterfall. They scraped frantically against the dock as the vortex pulled him toward Kronos.
John could hear, could feel Kronos laughing, underwater, eyes blazing like terrible, icy stars. He looked like a monster now, not an old man, opening his mouth wide. Wider, wider. It was a black void, large enough to swallow him whole.
John screamed, bubbles ripped away by the racing current.
The water pulled him in, into the blackness. The light vanished as the jaws snapped shut behind him.
He’d been walking for days, through the black fetid space.
At first, he’d had no idea where he was. He’d awakened in his human body, soaking wet, in darkness so complete he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.
He’d found a fragment of chalk in the inside pocket of his dripping jacket and drew with shaking hands a glyph on the leather of his coat. Light blazed from it at a whispered word. The ground was a rust brown plain of cracked dirt stretching out in each direction. A sick and sultry heat oozed from it.
His human body metabolized slower, so he kept it on. He was ravenous anyways. He’d picked a direction at random, just walking straight and holding onto the hope that he would find something or somebody else. After a day—as far as he could tell in the ceaseless darkness—he came to footprints.
He shouted for whoever left them, running to catch up.
He found no one.
After another day, he’d come to two sets of smeared footprints, side by side. His heart sank.
They were his own.
After a dozen circuits, he’d stopped. He was too weak to do anything more than lie on the warm ground. It reeked of blood, and dirt. The light from the glyph on his jacket pulsed with a dim uneven light, and he idea that it might go out before he lost consciousness filled him with terror. He couldn’t stomach the idea of being alone in the dark in this place.
More days went by. He lay on the dirt, passing in and out of lucidity.
A shaft of light speared down from somewhere above him, like a trap door being opened. The ray seemed like a solid object after so many days spent in darkness, so bright it hurt. Frantic shadows flickered across it and loud indecipherable noises echoed strangely through the air.
A scream fell toward him, high and pure and growing closer. The light turned off like a switch being thrown. There was the muffled thump of a body hitting the ground, felt more than heard.
He raised his head.
The faint sound of sobs, weak and hopeless.
John climbed to his knees, shaking. He forced himself to his feet and fell over. He tried again, shedding his human skin for the stability of four legs. His hooves dragged along the ground. He pushed his matted hair out of his eyes, squinting through the dark at the source of the noise.
The glyph’s flickering light revealed a woman, lying on the ground and clutching her leg. It bent the wrong way, a shard of shockingly white bone protruding from the skin. Blood seeped into the ground around her. She whimpered in pain, tears running down her face as she looked up at him.
Her voice shook. “Chiron? Is that really you?”
He knelt next to her. She gasped as he put one hand on her broken leg. With his other hand, he scratched runes into the blood soaked dirt around the wound. He closed his eyes and focused on knitting the tissue back together. The bone slid back into place as her leg snapped around, writhing under his fingers. She screamed. He ignored her, concentrating on stitching the living cells into the right shape.
The whole process was over in minutes. She was crying softly, laying back on the ground.
John trembled. He tried to stand, made it to his knees, and slumped over. Black spots flickered in front of his eyes and there was a roaring in his ears.
He looked back at his sister. “Good to see you, Dem.”
The roaring grew louder. Everything went black.
Prime Real Estate
Water trickled onto his cracked lips and ran down his throat. He reached for the source, sucking it down before he was fully conscious. He choked, coughing explosively. His head pounded. It felt like his temples had been removed and reattached using roofing nails.
After the fit subsided, he looked up, blinking hard. Demeter, in jeans and a blouse, was crouched over him. She handed him an unopened water bottle. He tore the cap off and drank it as fast as he could manage.
He was laying on a red and white checkered linoleum kitchen floor. Demeter stood and strode around purposefully, cracking eggs and cutting herbs, pouring ingredients into a pot. Whatever she was cooking smelled better than anything he could remember.
He focused, trying to work around the raging headache. After a moment he felt his balance shift as he regained his human body. He stood unsteadily, holding onto the table.
Demeter’s voice echoed oddly off the metal appliances. “You still thirsty?”
He had to clear his throat twice before he could speak. His voice was sandpaper. “Fuck yes.”
Clucking in disapproval, she waved at the baby blue Deluxe refrigerator. The door opened and a second bottle of water sailed toward him. He caught it before it hit him in the face.
He made a mental note to watch his language.
He stumbled out the doorway next to the fridge. The linoleum ended there, replaced by the dried-blood ground and endless night. He turned quickly and sat at the table with his back to the door.
“Nice place you got here, Dem.”
“Thanks. Prime real estate. Had to pull from you for the chandelier, though. I’ve never been good with interior decorating.”
That would explain the headache, he thought, glancing above him to the fixture hanging from the popcorn ceiling. The crystals looked nice, though.
Demeter slid a steaming bowl of stew in front of him. “Beer or soda?”
He spoke around the burning mouthful of meat and potatoes. “Soda, please.”
She set a glass bottle of coke in front of him, cracking the top off with a fingernail.
He swallowed, eyes watering. “This is delicious. Not quite what I expected, but delicious.”
Demeter pushed herself up onto the counter with a beer in her hand. “What did you expect, genius? Fields of wheat and a well? Shall I knead some dough for you, flour on my arms, in my hair? Grapes the size of your fist, still on the vine?”
He shrugged. “I suppose this is easier.”
She gestured at the pot of stew and it floated toward him, refilling his empty bowl.
He leaned back in his chair, kicking his feet up on the table.
“Demeter, what are we going to do?”
She eyed his boots with open distaste.
“First of all, you’re going to take your shit-kickers off my clean furniture.”
He sighed, putting his feet down.
“Second, I saw something when I fell. Off in the distance. Like an altar or building or something. Glowing. I didn’t really have time to examine it.” She rubbed at the leg that had been broken.
John looked up. “Do you remember which direction it was?”
“More or less. Shouldn’t be hard to find again.”
A painful laugh started in his chest and he fought it down. How many days had he wandered in circles for?
She picked her nails. “And I bet we’ll have more company soon. Kronos is after all of us, the whole family. If he bothered with you, he’ll go for any of us.”
“Excuse me? Your leg’s looking better than it was earlier. I thought you’d be glad I was here.” It hadn’t even been an hour and she was starting in on genealogy. That shit was why he’d left home in the first place.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. Don’t be a child. I’m just calling it like it is: if Kronos is going after the half-bloods, then he’s going after everyone else.”
John ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, yeah.”
She slid lithely from the counter.
“We should get going, Chiron. It could be a long walk.”
A Strange and Lonely Burden
John walked behind Demeter. She held a branch in front of her, covered in shining fungus that lit the surrounding area with a greenish glow. The glyph on his jacket produced a muted white light that bobbed as he walked.
“Dem, you sure it’s this way?”
“I think so. You have a better idea?”
He kept quiet, hoping she knew where she was going. For all her pastoral background, she’d never exactly been the explorer type. He wished she would walk faster.
John was more desperate then he cared to admit to leave before anyone else got here. Kinship could get complicated over the eons, with everyone breeding and intermarrying and so rarely having the decency to die and stay dead.
He and Demeter got along okay, but that was a lot more than he could say about some of his other half-siblings. If Poseidon ended up down here, he was dead meat. Blood granted one courtesy, sure, but that only went so far, and didn’t come without its own dangers. Being eaten chief among those dangers, he reflected.
He was only Demeter’s half-brother. That and the fact that she was a stickler for rules—something he had never put much store in—made him more wary of her, and the rest of Kronos’s children, than he’d like to admit.
Godhood was a strange and lonely burden.
After six or seven hours of walking, they came to a monolithic gray stone. It lay on its side, half-buried in the bloody dirt. Words and pictures were etched into its surface, and John looked away before he’d read more than half a few. The things described were not pleasant.
As they continued, the space around them began to brighten. It was a formless, source-less light, not an illuminating so much as a lessening of the darkness. More of the gray stones littered the ground around them, arranged in a colossal circle.
Farther in the dirt gave way to dark rock. It was chipped and scratched, worn and scarred and pitted. It looked like it had been ancient before time had even begun.
More of the monoliths stood upright from the stone surface, forming doorways and plinths and arches. John and Demeter skirted around the ones in their path, careful not to touch them.
In the center of the circle was nothing. A lot of it. A massive pit, perfectly circular, yawned hungrily. The edges were worn and crumbling. Thick gouges that looked horrendously like claw marks, huge and terrible, led to the hole.
They peeked over the edge, carefully. Hot air, humid and reeking, wafted upwards from it.
Demeter gagged and backed away from the edge. “How deep do you think this is?”
“Hell if I know. Got an anvil we could drop?”
She didn’t laugh. John didn’t blame her.
They walked back to where the dirt started. As unpleasant as it was, the old broken stone was worse.
Demeter focused intently on the ground. A tiny patch of grass, just wide enough for her to sit on, grew slowly from the soil. She sat down heavily.
John ran a hand through his hair. “Demeter, I know what this is.”
She didn’t look at him.
“This is Tartarus. Kronos didn’t escape Tartarus. He ate it. He became it.”
She hung her head.
Engine of Destruction
Hermes came next. He arrived the same way Demeter did; a ray of light, echoes, and the shout of someone falling. They found him a couple days later. Dem fed him, and John helped him with the scalp wound and the missing hand. Hades followed, then Athena.
Poseidon fell next in a deluge of water. He was in bad shape.
As soon as she saw who had landed, Demeter pulled a bag of groceries out of thin air and shoved them into John’s arms. He took the hint and left, walking off into the darkness.
He managed a tent and a fire pit, and the food lasted four days. He waited three more days until hunger drove him back to the group, clustered outside the ring of monoliths.
Demeter put a hand on Poseidon’s arm as John approached. The tall, olive skinned man glared at him and spat something in the Old Tongue, so harsh that Demeter blushed.
John flipped him the bird and walked away. A moral victory, if not a physical one.
Others followed: Hestia, Apollo, Persephone. Hephaestus. Scores of lesser deities. John stopped keeping track after a while.
One by one, days passed unseen. Somewhere, just outside or in a different realm or a thousand lightyears away, the sun rose and set and rose and set again.
They fought about how to escape. Hep made shovels, and he and John took turns digging. They didn’t ask for help, and nobody offered.
John pulled himself out of the hole they’d made when flashes of light exploded far above them. Torrents of air whipped around the huddled gods, directionless, charged and lifting John’s hair from his scalp. Explosions shook the ground with their fury.
The storm raged for hours.
Silence descended. A shaft of light appeared, silhouetting a falling shape. John felt the impact in his teeth.
Zeus limped into camp soon after, bloody and bruised.
John could imagine the mood Zeus would be in. He did not go to heal him. He did not go near him. He got back to digging.
The others joined in now, out of hopelessness or sheer boredom. The hole grew into a ditch, long and jagged. The ground got harder and more compact as they dug deeper.
More days passed. Shovel in hand, Zeus jumped into the ditch. Hale and healthy and filled with a crackling rage, he said nothing. His eyes were fire.
He dug for three days without stopping. Muscles bulging, sweat soaking his thick mane as it poured from him, he tore into the dry clotted dirt with the force of an avalanche. John and the other passed the dirt out as quickly as they could fill the buckets. They passed shovels in as they shattered in Zeus’s hands.
The ditch became a pit.
The pit became a quarry.
On the third day, Hera came. A ray of light flared into being and she drifted down instead of falling. She landed near camp unharmed and stood on the quarry’s edge. Hundreds of feet below her, Zeus dug. Black with dirt, he was grunting now, breath tearing in and out of the great bellows of his lungs as he hacked at the ground. It was as solid as bedrock at this depth, but he split it with a rage John could barely stand to look at.
Leaning on his shovel near the top, John watched Hera gaze upon the engine of destruction that was laying waste to the ground. He watched her watch her husband. He saw a single tear slip down her cheek.
Hera stepped down the slope toward Zeus. She walked through the storm of dirt, unhurried and untouched. She laid a single hand upon his massive shoulder.
The shovel stopped. He turned and looked down upon her. His hands bled. His tongue and teeth were as covered in dirt as the rest of him, his eyes the only white in his body.
Neither said a word. Zeus dropped the shovel and followed Hera out of the quarry.
The camp was silent. John closed his eyes.
John leaned back against the fallen monolith and took another drink. The imprisonment had improved dramatically once Dionysus had been captured, he reflected. The man could make a damn good beer.
Tyche, stumbling slightly, strolled toward him from the direction of the camp. A six-pack dangled from each hand.
“Careful, T.” John jerked a thumb toward the stony edge of the pit a dozen feet away. “It’s a long way down.”
Tyche shook her head, red curls bouncing. “No shit, Sherlock. Why’re you always over here? You’re the only one that gets this close.”
“No reason not to, right? It doesn’t bother me.” At least, not as much as everyone else bothers me. “Why’re you over here?”
A shrug. “Just wanted to chat. They’re fighting again.”
John sighed. “Great.”
“Yeah. Hermes and Hephaestus want to try building a tower out of the dirt so we can climb out. Nobody else thinks it’ll work.”
“Because it won’t. If a big pile of dirt was all it took to get out then we wouldn’t be stuck here in the first place.”
She lay down wearily, resting her head on one of the bottles. “That’s what I’m saying.”
They sat in silence. John finished the last of his drink and threw the bottle over the edge.
“Still at Berkeley? You get your tenure yet?”
“I’ve got another review next year. We’ll see.”
“Well, I’d vote for you.”
She laughed. “It doesn’t work like that, Chiron.”
“Maybe it should. Any good students?” Tyche taught theoretical physics in California. She’d always been one of the more curious of the pantheon. The unanswerables, the intangibles, they bothered her. Oracles, prophecies, hallucinogenics, philosophy, science; she’d been hunting for answers for as many millennia as John had known her.
“A few. You know humans. It’s still too soon for most of them. It’s the great-grandchildren of the smart ones that I’m waiting for.”
“How forward-thinking of you.”
She sat up and raised a bottle in mock salute. The sounds of shouting floated over from across the pit. It sounded like Zeus had joined in.
She sighed and took a long drink. “If you had told me a month ago I’d be stuck in a pocket dimension with the extended family for all of eternity, I’d…”
“Throw yourself down a well?” John gestured to the pit. “I’ve been considering it.”
John drained the second bottle and threw it after the first. “Bottomless pit, though. It’s not like I would go anywhere. Falling forever by myself in the dark would be just barely worse than being stuck here.”
She hiccupped. “You know what gets me, Chiron? It’s not this place. This place checks out. I can explain a dimension with nothing but a ball of dirt in it. It’s this pit. This damn hole. It shouldn’t work. You can’t just stick a bottomless pit with one entrance and no exit and no end wherever you want. You can’t.” She sounded legitimately angry.
“Don’t look at me. I walked around this ball enough to know that it doesn’t come out on the other side.”
“I am looking at you. Nobody else gives a damn. I mean, are you telling me that if I jumped into that hole, right now, I would just fall forever? How? That’s not fucking possible. You don’t get to put infinite space into a finite dimension just because you feel like it. You can’t put a huge thing into a tiny space. Nobody can. Not even Kronos.”
“Tell that to Kronos.”
“No! The man does not get to just ingest a…a black hole or something! He doesn’t…” Her eyes unfocused.
“Tyche? Hello? Are you having a stroke or something?’
Her voice was faint. “Oh my god. He didn’t. I mean, he did, but…”
“Could you please use your words?’
Her eyes snapped back into focus. “Kronos didn’t put an infinite space in a finite space, he put an infinitely small space into a finite space.”
“I’m still not following.”
“Tartarus is a singularity. Or holds a singularity. Or something. It has to be. It’s the only way that any of this works.”
John’s face was still a mask of confusion. Tyche sighed. “Okay, picture a black hole. It pulls everything within its gravitational field into it, right? But it doesn’t fill up, because it’s compressing everything that it pulls in, and the more it pulls in, the stronger its gravity is. So you get a point of infinite density and infinite smallness.”
“How is that even possible?”
“I don’t know. Nobody does. The numbers breakdown. But it doesn’t matter. That’s what this is. It has to be.”
John shook his head. “Okay, great. So we’ve determined that this is actually a bottomless pit. We’re back where we started.”
She pointed. “No. We’re getting out. These singularities, they’re dense enough that space and time get compressed too. They could lead anywhere, but we’d never know because nothing that goes in comes back out the same way.” Tyche leaned in. “What if it’s a portal? What if it’s a way out?”
“What, like a door? You think Kronos just left an open door in here?’
“Not a door. More like…a pinprick. A tiny, tiny hole that leads somewhere else.”
“Who knows? There’s no way to find out. But somewhere else.” Her eyes were bright. “This is it. I can tell. This is our way out.”
John stood. “Hold on. Wait just a damn minute. I have so many problems with this that it’s not even funny. First of all, you don’t know where it leads, if it leads anywhere. You don’t know how to get into it, and you don’t know if someone could even survive doing it!”
She shook her head. “Getting to it is easy. And no, you wouldn’t survive it. None of us would. You’d be compressed to an indescribably small point as you approached and passed through. But it’s not real death, not for us. You’ve died before, and you came back. You’d come back from this.”
“I don’t even want to respond to that. Assuming that whoever went through did come back, that diving headfirst into the universe’s fucking physical aberration doesn’t actually kill us, you still don’t know where it comes out at! It could be anywhere, it could be another planet, it could be a whole different universe, it could be—“
Tyche made a cutting motion with her hand. “It could be the surface of a star, or a universe with only one dimension, or a million years from now or a thousand other shitty things, but it won’t be here! Get it through your head, Chiron, this is the only way out! We’ve been here for almost a year now! Dozens of gods who, despite the powers we’ve ruled with for thousands of years, are still stuck on this ball of fucking dirt!”
John opened his mouth, and closed it again angrily.
Tyche stood. “I’m calling it to Counsel.” She marched toward the strange irregular cluster of buildings and shelters and sheds, toward the flickering torchlight and the sound of shouting.
John hurried after her. “No. Tyche, wait. Do not call this to Counsel with the others, not here, not now, we need to figure it out first—“
She reached ring of torchlight. Zeus and Hermes were face to face, shouting and gesturing. The others stood watching, fists clenched or heads in hands.
Tyche cupped her hands around her mouth. Her voice rolled over the flat, hot ground and bounced off haphazard walls. “I, Tyche, daughter of Zeus, hereby convene an immediate Counsel.”
Silence fell, sudden and startling. Hermes lowered his fists. Zeus looked at her. His voice was grave. “For what matter do you call us to Counsel, daughter?”
She shook her head. “We will convene first.”
He was quiet. “For the love I bear you, please consider: Is the matter you have worth the risk?”
She nodded. He closed his eyes for a moment, then looked at the ring of gods and goddesses. “We will convene a Counsel.”
The debate was long. And loud. Violent, occasionally. But Tyche held her ground, against Zeus’s thunderous arguments, against Poseidon’s relentless battering, against Demeter’s caution and Hephaestus’s hammerings and all the other deities and their disagreements.
John wasn’t surprised. To call a Counsel was no small thing. To call a Counsel and fail, or renege on your argument and take it back, that was a crime. One of the crimes, actually. To call all of those blessed and cursed with eternal godhood, to pull them from the pursuits and peccadillos that they occupied themselves with, this was not done lightly. If it was done in error, knowingly or otherwise, the punishment was severe.
The debate was long, and loud, and violent. But, as John had come to suspect when she strode into the torchlight, Tyche was right. Not necessarily about it working, but about it being the only course of action besides an eternal vacation on this ball of blood and dirt. The problem wasn’t that anyone truly disagreed. The gods were strong, and valorous, and full of courage. They did not fear often and they did not fear easily.
Fear on them was ugly; long, and loud, and violent.
Many A Door
John offered to go first. Nobody stopped him. He didn’t wait to examine his motives or the motives of those who let him go. Hep clapped him on the shoulder. Demeter kissed his brow.
Tyche pulled him into a long hug. She seemed small, and vulnerable. He wondered at the kind of mind it took, the kind of woman it took, to pit her intellect against the forces of the universe and have a hope of winning. He hugged her back, breathing in the smell of her hair and holding it in his mind against the enormity of what was about to come.
He walked to the edge and looked down. The hot, meaty stench of the air seemed like the putrid breath of something alive. He turned away from the hole to face his kin. Assembled here, the dozens of them, he wondered who would follow him. He wondered who wouldn’t, and who would be last. That would be even worse than going first, he imagined. He shook his head slightly. Better to get it done with.
They regarded him in silence. No one spat or spited him or jeered or took pity. He was half-blood, but for the first time in millennia it seemed as though it didn’t matter. There was, he noticed, something approaching an air of admiration.
He grinned, waved jauntily, and stepped off the edge backwards.
A Short Trip and a Long Fall
The fall was long. He fell, and fell, and fell. He fell for what had to have been more than hours, could have been more than days, what felt like years in the dank dark blackness.
Sometimes the temperature fluctuated. Once, a blinding brightness swept over him for an instant. It filled him with the sense of being watched from far away and with an inexplicable, unbearable melancholy.
He wept, and he fell.
After a time, the falling felt different. He felt heavier. He felt longer. He felt the stirring of fear as pinpricks of pain worked through his toes.
They grew, the blossomings of pain, from pinpricks to stars in what felt like like an instant and like the whole of eternity. He was being stretched, pulled, lit on fire from the inside.
He burned, and fell, and was torn apart.
Breath tore into him, a first breath that felt like the cracking of ice struck by lightning.
Chest heaving, clutching at the ground beneath him, John shuddered and shook with a terror he had never known.
He was freezing and covered in sweat. The ground was cold and wet beneath him, and when he rolled on his side to vomit the motion stirred up a cloud of fine grey ash that stuck to his skin. He gasped in and choked on it, retching again.
Tears ran from his eyes. His skin felt fresh, brand new and unbearably sensitive. It tingled and stung, his face burning from the salt of his tears. His gasps slowly turned into sobs, thick and wretched. He passed from exhaustion into sleep, and didn’t notice the difference.
“He’s alive. Get me a blanket and some water, quick. We have to move.”
John stirred at a touch. He opened his eyes, slow and unfocused. They were gummy, and he rubbed at the skin around them wincing.
“John, get up. We have to move, now.”
Her voice was familiar, familiar. He couldn’t place it, but he knew he’d heard it. Before.
A flashlight came bobbing toward them, a bright fuzzy shaft of light in the darkness that enveloped them. Someone lay a thick, scratchy blanket across his shoulders and he flinched violently.
Hands pulled at him, forcing him to get to his knees.
“Damn it, John, get up. He’s going to find us.”
The flashlight illuminated a mane of tawny hair for a brief instant.
“Eris?” His voice was cracked and horrible. It sounded like a grave had shattered open to utter a single broken word. He coughed a terrible, wracking cough.
“You bet your ass. Now get up.”
He clutched at her wrist with a red and shaking hand.
“What happened? Where am I?”
“Earth. The same Earth, although at this point they all look like this.”
John pushed himself up to one knee, head spinning. His eyes were slowly adjusting to the lack of light. Eris looked down at him. She seemed taller, thinner and harder than he’d remembered. A long gun was slung over one shoulder, knives on each hip and on her bandolier.
He paused, his thick and wooden brain trying to catch up. “Wait. ‘At this point?’”
A single low laugh came from a figure that stood behind her, facing away. The gleam of the flashlight reflected of a full suit of dark armor.
She shook her head. “John, it’s been five hundred years since Kronos came. Five hundred years. We’re all that’s left.”
He sat back down, hard, in a cloud of ash.
She looked back down at him, hand on the bone hilt of her knife.
“Welcome to the resistance.”
- The Pit – Silversun Pickups
- Short Change Hero – The Heavy
- The Four Seasons, Violin Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, RV 27 “Winter”: II. Largo – Antonio Vivaldi, Dmitry Sinkovsky, La Voce Strumentale
- Four Seasons op.8 (1987 Digital Remaster), Summer: Presto – Antonio Vivaldi, Itzhak Perlman, London Philharmonic Orchestra
- Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in F Minor, RV 297 “L’inverno” (No. 4 from “II cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione”, Op. 8) I. Allegro non molto – Antonio Vivaldi, Nigel Kennedy, English Chamber Orchestra
- Cello Concerto in A Minor, RV 418: III. Allegro – Antonio Vivaldi, Guy Fishman, Handel & Haydn Society
- Cello Concerto in C Minor, RV 401: II. Adagio – Antonio Vivaldi, Guy Fishman, Handel & Haydn Society
- Cello Concerto in F Major, RV 410: II. Largo – Antonio Vivaldi, Guy Fishman, Handel & Haydn Society
- Before the Storm – Young Lions
- Hurt – Johnny Cash
- Believer – Imagine Dragons
- Heavydirtysoul – Twenty One Pilots
- Cry Of The Black Birds – Amon Amarth
- Counting Bodies Like Sheep To The Rhythm Of The War Drums – A Perfect Circle
- It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) – Bob Dylan
Bio: Connor Lee Winters was raised near both ends of the Mississippi on a steady diet of sci-fi, fantasy, and video games. Twenty-six years old, he nurses an eternal love for 1970’s space operas but will read, watch, play, or listen to anything that holds still long enough.
In no particular order, his hobbies and interests include traveling, writing, reading, listening to music, and being outside.
His next big thing is an epic, multi-part vehicular ground war love story road opera set in post-apocalyptic North America; rev up and stay tuned.
Currently living in Seattle with his wife, he likes the planet Earth, piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain.
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