Nayeli Knossos

Street Lawyer 5.11

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What we found in that cell resembled the fiery bearcat of a woman I’d come to know and begrudgingly tolerate about as much as roadkill resembled an opossum. “Worked over” would’ve been a gross understatement. She looked like nothing less than the underworld warmed over, which raised a couple of very disturbing questions. Were the Untouchables really so well-equipped that they could do this to a high-class demigod like Nayeli? And worse, what in the hell would Marq do to them if he ever got the chance?

“Heheh…” Marq giggled softly to my astonishment. His fingers were splayed across the invisible barrier between them like a gecko, trying desperately to find any sort of purchase or point of entry.

“Boss?” she croaked. I wasn’t sure if she was asking if he was okay, or if she was so beat up she only just realized we were there.

“Nayeli,” he said, smiling and swallowing softly. “I want to know who did this to you. Do you have any names? Can you tell me what they looked like?”

Soft tears trickled down his cheeks. Right then, I was considering taking a step back. I’ve seen Marq mad. I’ve seen him furious. I’ve seen him scream and cuss so loud you’d think he was trying to wake up a dead dog. This wasn’t like that. I’d never, ever seen this. This was anger transmuted.

It was then I realized he’d already reached his boiling point the moment we’d stepped foot on this island. Everything since then had just been steam building up inside him, pressure rising with every new injustice he imagined. Seeing it now, that anger had crossed a new threshold, building up so violently inside him that what was hot just became cold. He’d gone so far in one direction he’d ended up right back where he started, or someplace like it. Except now he was like a spring-loaded knife, or a coiled viper. One wrong move and he’d just snap, and when he did, someone was gonna bleed. I was determined to not be that guy.

“Boss…” Nayeli croaked. “I didn’t… it wasn’t-”

“Nayeli, it’s okay,” Marq said, putting away all his questions for now. “I’m just glad you’re back home. You’re safe.

Nayeli collapsed on the other side of the glass-like barrier, sobbing like a child. The prodigal daughter returned to us and Marq hadn’t even bothered to mention how much she’d made him worry or how her actions may have affected the family. She was forgiven in his eyes. The two of them tried to approximate a hug without actually being able to touch each other, a gesture I would’ve laughed at if I hadn’t known who these two were.

After a few moments of quiet sobbing and consolations, Marq approached the subject again.

“Nayeli, who did this to you? Was it the Untouchables?” he said. His voice was gentle but his intentions were deadly sharp, like a knife.

She nodded. “They caught me in California. I… don’t actually remember what happened. I just know it was them. I remember their voices.”

“Voices?” Marq asked. “You remember what they said? Did they read you your rights?”

She shook her head. “It’s not like that. I don’t know…” She sighed, angry with herself. “I don’t know how to fucking explain it, it’s like I remember the sound of their voices, but every time I try to remember what they said it’s all just… garbage. Crap. I can’t understand it, it’s like they’re whispering or muttering.”

I looked at Marq. “You think they used some sorta magic to, y’know… erase her memory?”

I had no clue how you’d go about doing that, but I was pretty sure it was possible. It could be done without magic, if you were willing to risk serious brain damage. Stands to reason you could do it with magic too, and probably a lot more precisely.

Thankfully Marq seemed to agree with me, which spared me the embarrassment of admitting I hadn’t been keeping up with all my studying like he’d wanted.

“Seems likely,” he said. “I know a couple ways you could do it. In theory, anyway. But they’re all pretty complicated. It takes a pretty intricate ritual to dig your fingers into someone’s grey matter, and you’d need an expert to perform it step-by-step if you wanted to remove any specific memories instead of just blasting an entire day or month from your brain. It wouldn’t be an easy process is my point. I mean if it was, we’d be doing it already.”

“Those fuckers…” Nayeli whispered. “They were inside my head… those fuckers…!

She’d curled up into a ball without me noticing. The notion of someone toying with her memories clearly didn’t sit well with her.

Like it’d sit well for anyone… I thought.

She looked up, suddenly seeming like she’d thought of something very important. “Boss, we were really… we’re still… right? They didn’t make that up, right?

Her tone of voice was urgent, and she looked about ready to cry again. The thought of being apart from Marq, or worse, the thought of all the time they’d spent together being nothing but fake memories, had clearly settled in. Paranoia was probably the rational response here, after all. We had no idea what they’d done to her. She already seemed like a reflection of her former self.

Marq smiled gently. “No Nayeli, those aren’t fake. They’re real. They happened. Don’t let this make you think otherwise. I still love you. I’ve always loved you. And we’re gonna find out the truth. If we can prove they tampered with your memories, it might give us an edge in the upcoming case.”

“How?” I asked.

“Memory alteration is a class B magic, Al. Even using it for therapeutic purposes is illegal. Sanctity of memory and the protection of your mental faculties is considered a basic right of life for everyone, even criminals.”

“No, I mean,” I said, being patient with him. “How are we gonna prove it? You said it yourself, memory magic is complicated. Besides, she’s inside an atelier. What are we gonna do from out here?”

He smiled reassuringly, although there was something bitter in his usual triumphant grin. “We don’t need magic, Al. Just a good ol’ fashioned party trick.”

He pulled his pocketwatch out of his jacket and swung it around like a pendulum.

“Hypnosis?” I asked.

“Post-hypnotic memory recall, actually,” Marq said. “I read about it once. Apparently the shrinks think you can use hypnosis to trigger repressed memories. I thought we’d give it a try.”

“Might work,” I said, shrugging. Marq blew me off with a chuff.

Will work,” he said. It’s got to, is what I imagined he was thinking. He turned to Nayeli. “Alright Nayeli, I need you to lie down on your back.”

Nayeli didn’t really agree to it at first, I could tell. The idea of someone, anyone digging around in her skull so soon after the last time, even if it was Marq, upset her. To her, her mind probably already felt fragile enough. It’s not that she didn’t trust his intentions, she just didn’t trust him to not cock it up.

But eventually she did exactly as she was told, following his lead more out of faith than anything else, and I began to wonder. Maybe she wasn’t afraid of Marq making a mistake. Maybe she was afraid of what she might remember. After all, it could just be simple paranoia on the part of the Untouchables, a desire to leave out any potential loose ends, or perhaps even a mercy to make her forget the pain of the beating, but you generally didn’t bother to erase someone’s memories without having a good reason. And usually, that reason was you did something that you didn’t want anyone else to remember. Something that had to be pretty fucking awful.

A number of delightful scenarios entered my head, and I knew they’d seem just as unpleasant to Nayeli if she was imagining them just then. The best we could hope for was just a history of her bruises. The worst could help us build a case, but… well, I hope Marq understood that it wouldn’t be worth it. Still, he seemed determined to find out the truth.

I put a hand on his shoulder.

“I think I’m having second thoughts about this, Marq.”

“Oh yeah?” he asked. “Why’s that?”

“I mean…” I struggled to find the words. “You know this is just gonna hurt her, right? What if she doesn’t want to relive those memories? What if they’re bad?

I stressed that last part, thinking it was important he understood “bad” meant more than just physical pain or injury.

He looked at me sternly. “Al, we have to know the truth. We have to know who did this to her.”

“Why?” I asked. “So you can get revenge? Doesn’t that seem… selfish?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean, Al?”

Marq’s gaze was so cold it made me flinch. He made it clear I was pushing my luck. But for now, I still had the right to speak.

I chose my words carefully. “I mean… are you really sure you wanna put her through this, whatever happened to her, again? I’m not saying anything did happen to her, whatever that may be, but do you really wanna hurt her just for your own self-satisfaction?”

Marq grit his teeth, raising his voice. “She has to know, Al! Do you think there’s any other choice?! If anything happened,” he said, the potential implications of that word hurting him so much it showed in his voice, “then they happened. We can’t undo it just by ignoring it. If anything that means they’ll just get away with it and we’ll have nothing to use against them in court! She deserves to know.”

“You mean you do,” I said, then immediately regretted saying anything. Marq looked at me, utterly desperate and more unstable than I’ve ever seen him, and I quickly began to backtrack. “Look, all I’m saying is that this should be her decision. If you-”

“If I really love her, yeah… I know,” Marq said, taking a deep breath. This was difficult for him. Difficult for me too, but I suspect for vastly different reasons. He looked at Nayeli.

“Nayeli… doll… do you want me to do this?” he asked. “If you really don’t want me to…”

She shook her head. “No, you were right. I wanna know what those bastards did to me. Just promise me that… if it’s that… it won’t change how we-”

Her voice croaked as she tried to swallow that bitter pill.

“No. God no,” Marq said, forehead pressed up against the glass. “But it won’t be that. I know it won’t. And no matter what it is, whether they beat you with sticks or just tickled you until you passed out, I’m going to make sure they regret it. You hear me Nayeli? They’re gonna fucking pay, no matter who they are or what they did.”

Nayeli nodded without saying anything, and laid back down.

I didn’t know exactly what they meant when they so artfully dodged around the subject by using the word “it”, but I could guess. But why would they think the Untouchables would do that to anyone? Mickey Donahue was one thing, but not them. Corrupt cops they may be, but I don’t think they’d ever go that far. Unless Marq had a reason to suspect they would, but that equally didn’t make any sense. Still, like I said, there weren’t many reasons to use memory alteration magic that weren’t… unpleasant.

The pocketwatch pivoted back and forth, its clock-like motion captivating as it wove arcs through the air. Marq gave her the usual set of instructions used in stage hypnosis, then waited until she’d fallen asleep, deep into a trance.

“Now Nayeli, I want you to describe for me what happened when you were… attacked,” Marq said, hesitating. “Tell me everything you remember. Did you see your attacker’s faces? What did they look like? Did you hear any names? Tell me what they did to you.”

I could hear him grinding his teeth as he said that. Then, as soon as he stopped, Nayeli began to speak.

Her story was a lot like what we’d been expecting, with a few extra twists. The invisible city-sized blimp kinda threw me for a loop. But so far there was nothing that suggested they’d done anything worthy of memory alteration. Had they only been trying to protect state secrets like that ziggurat?

“Alright,” Marq said. “Can you remember anything else after you blacked out?”

“Yeah…” she said drowsily. The words tumbled out of her mouth the same way a sleepwalker talks. “They’re taking me up… into the floating city. They’re taking me… to meet someone.”

“Who?” Marq asked patiently.

“I can’t tell,” Nayeli mumbled. “It… looks like a man. I can only see his back but he’s turning around. He-”

And then she just stopped, mouth still open, lips quivering. Concerned, Marq leaned in closer.

“Nayeli?”

“I can see.. His eyes…” Nayeli said, a steady drip of panic flooding her calm voice. “His eyes… Marq, I can’t… I can’t see his eyes! They’re black! His eyes are black!”

Marq jumped on that. “Black eyes? Is he a demon?”

“No,” she said. “Not black like that. Black like… like space. Like an endless pit but with no stars. There’s nothing. There’s just nothing! No light, no pupils, no eyelids! All I see is black! He doesn’t have a soul!”

Nayeli started writhing on the dirt floor of her cell, her own eyes closed, twitching. Marq rushed over and pressed his hands against the barrier.

“Nayeli? Nayeli listen to me! You’re okay! What’s he doing? What’s going on?”

“He’s coming towards me!” she said. “He’s just… walking through the gravity, like it means nothing! Make him go away, Marq! Make him go away!”

Her convulsions started pressing against the barrier, shaking the space in her cell with the unrestrained strength of a fearful demigoddess.

“It’s okay Nayeli, he’s not really there!” Marq shouted. “Tell me what you see!

“He’s reaching out!” she yelled back from across the veil. “He’s trying to touch me! His fingers… they’re so cold! I can feel them on my face like a blizzard! No… no! Stay back! Get away from me! Get away!

Then, like a snapping piece of wood, Nayeli’s back arched sharply, her mouth stretched wide open into a scream like nothing I’ve ever heard. The noise must have been tuned for us by the barrier, because inside the volume of her agony was reducing what little adorned her cell into powderized atoms, smoothing the walls into an inoffensive dark slab of polished rock. But I could hear her. I could hear her all the same, and the sounds she made weren’t human. They sounded like an animal being tortured, like a monkey in the cold hands of a probing scientist being pricked and stabbed with needles. Whatever it was, it wasn’t touching her body. Something was touching her mind.

And then she stopped, collapsing to the floor. We both stared, shocked into silence. Marq was the first to react.

“Nayeli…” he said, clamoring against the barrier. “Nayeli wake up! It’s over! None of it was real! Someone get this cell open!

I stared at her. “What the fuck was that?

Marq, however, didn’t share my confusion. He was too busy seeing to Nayeli. Her eyes flickered open.

“Oh thank god,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Nayeli are you okay? What happened back there? Do you need to talk about it? What am I saying, of course you do…”

He fumbled for something to comfort her with before remembering nothing but light and sound could pass through the barrier. Nayeli just looked at him, confused.

“What are you talking about, boss?” she asked. “Talk about what?”

He stopped. I chimed in.

“Uhhh… your memories? The little episode you just had where you tried to burst God’s eardrum?”

She scowled. “Stop giving me shit, you little shit. What are you talking about?”

I tried to ignore how irritating it was that she was calling me that too now. “You mean you literally don’t remember? Not a thing you said, not even destroying your cell?

“What do you mean-” She stopped and looked behind her, shocked once she saw her new interior decorations. “I did that?

I huddled over to Marq, and whispered in his ear.

“Marq, what the fuck is going on? She doesn’t remember anything!”

But he didn’t say anything. Didn’t even look my way. Just kept staring straight ahead, like he’d remembered something himself. Something important.

“Marq?” I asked. “Pal? You look like you got something to say.”

I waited for him to start talking. When he didn’t, that’s when I knew shit was going to get really fucked up really fast.

“… Please say yes. Please? Just for me?” I tried to negotiate. “Because that freaked me the fuck out just now, and if you don’t start explaining shit I think I’m just gonna start sweating.”

Marq not taking the role of the little exposition gnome to dump the magic knowledge on me at times like this was something that was really, really unsettling. It meant he either didn’t know, or didn’t want to. Either option scared me.

“Al,” he said softly, wetting his dry lips. “I don’t know about you, but… I’ve seen a face like that before.”

“What, like old Black Eyes?”

“No, Al. Not a demon,” he said. “A fae.”

“Oh,” I said softly. “Shit.”

It was quickly becoming clear Nayeli’s captors hadn’t erased her memories to cover up them doing unspeakable things to her or anything else like that. The violence clearly wasn’t the part they’d cared about. I imagined they’d admit to torturing her without shame if they’d actually done it. No, Nayeli had been silenced because she’d seen too fucking much.

“Marq,” I said, trying to take a deep breath. “Please tell me you know what the fuck’s going on, because I don’t.

“Me?” he replied back. “Not a clue.”

Nayeli looked at us funny. “Boss? What’s going on?”

Marq tried explaining it to her. Me, I just left. Couldn’t stand the darkness. Not after what I’d just seen.

I leaned back against one of the tunnel walls, breathing hard like I’d just run a marathon.

“Holy shit…

What the fuck had we just gotten ourselves into?

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Street Lawyer 5.10

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We saw it from the NYPD headquarters as just a bright flash of light. Blindingly bright, like a miniature sun had been brought into being above Riker’s Island. All it did was hover for a second or two, although you wouldn’t have been able to tell where exactly it was in the sky just because of the glare. Then it descended, touched down, and disappeared. I’m telling you, there was nothing. Almost as if the light that had, for just a moment, consumed the entire city had just been spontaneously generated by some unknown force, and then just as quickly shut off. Like flicking a goddamn light switch, except with the sun.

We didn’t know what it was but we knew it had something to do with Nayeli. What else could it have been? Weird supernatural shit happens all the time here in the Big Apple, but not like this. Magic on this scale either meant we were all gonna die, or that the government was somehow involved. Sometimes, both. Given that we were all still breathing after five minutes, fears of smiting and of giant monsters quickly gave way to the realization that the Untouchables had just paid us a visit. And, no doubt, they’d brought Nayeli with them.

Riker’s Island. Formerly owned by a particularly ballsy Dutch settler who had the sheer fucking audacity to name an island after himself, the land remained in the possession of his family for nearly two and a half centuries before they were forced to sell it to the state of New York for a pittance sum of $180000 in 1884. And just like that, two hundred years of history and an entire island changed hands, becoming a Civil War training ground in 1861, a workhouse in 1884 upon the eve of its purchase, and finally a prison for demihumans and magic users in 1925. That last one’s what people still know it as. They call it the Cairn.

That’s not it’s real name of course. Matter of fact the island’s home to a dozen different correctional facilities, some of them housing demihumans and some not, but seeing as how every one of those facilities is buried deep underneath what may as well be a gigantic burial mound, the name is fitting. They built it like that to keep some of the rowdier inmates from destroying the prison, of course. Having a few millions tons of dirt hanging over your head ready to bury you alive at the slightest sign of trouble is a great motivator to not cause trouble in the first place.

Marq insisted we leave right away, even before Annie had finished or before Cavvy knew we had left. Bastard practically dragged me along by the collar the whole way there. When we got there though, I saw Marq’s fears, and my assumptions, had not been at all incorrect. The media was amassing around the Cairn like flies, fittingly enough, buzzing and swarming around the stone tower atop the mound that was the only way in and out of the prison. Lights atop the stone structure speared through the cloudy evening twilight like thunderbolts, momentarily illuminating a crowd that seemed like it could fill Grand Central Station shoulder to shoulder and then some. I shuddered in the crisp dark sea breeze.

“Outta my way, coming through!” Marq said as he abruptly started pushing and shoving his way through the crowd. “Official legal representative here! Make way, make way! I said ‘make way’, asshole!”

For a moment I panicked. If I lost him in this crowd, I might get fucking trampled.

“Sonuva-… Marq, wait for me!” I yelled pathetically as I clumsily tried to wade through the rapidly shrinking wake he left behind him. Unfamiliar shoulders bumped into me every step of the way, and I raised my arms to protect my head from the swinging of wayward fists and cameras, hands grasping for hair to grab on to, raking past me for blood and ink.

At last we made it to the front of the crowd, Marq looking pristinely untroubled compared to the beaten up mess I’d become after emerging from that island-sized mosh pit. Looking annoyed, he rapped the glass window of the empty booth where a guard should have been minding the door. Poor bastard must have come to the reasonable conclusion that now was as good a time as any to clock out and be on the next boat home.

“Hey,” Marq began.

“Go away!” a voice said from inside. “Visiting hours are over! We’re not taking any more questions!”

“Cool it pally, we’re not with the vultures,” Marq said. A timid-looking guard who’d sequestered himself in hiding from the mob slowly un-sequestered himself from his hiding spot, crawling out of the fetal position he’d assumed under the counter. He looked at Marq, trying and failing to project an image of calm.

“P-Please state your business then.”

“I’m here to see someone new you’ve got locked up. Name should be ‘Nayeli Knossos’-”

“Weekend visiting hours are from seven am to two pm,” the guard insisted robotically, reading off a mental checklist. “All visits must finish by four pm. If you want to come back tomorrow or on Wednesday or Thursday, visiting hours will be-”

“I’m not her family, I’m her fucking lawyer.”

That shut him up, or at least interrupted his meticulously rehearsed list of responses. He stared at us with the same look as a deer in the headlights as Marq waited for him to say something, anything that’d move things along. I got the feeling this guy didn’t do too well in high-stress situations. What a job to pick.

Marq continued to stare at him. He stared back.

“… Well?”

The guard snapped out of it and started fumbling with the phone in the back of the booth, the one that (presumably) connected him to his boss. After a brief exchange he hung up, and gave us two tickets printed from some sort of hand-cranked machine. Moments later, the colossal doors behind him creaked open, flood lights framing the unforgiving darkness that lay behind the gates.

“Well that’s not fucking ominous…” I muttered under my breath. But my quiet complaints were drowned out by the sounds of hundreds of reporters scrambling and squeezing past us to get at the door, like they thought it contained some kinda free candy and ice cream buffet instead of the literal army of murderers, rapists and thieves it actually held. A goddamn stampede is what it was. I guess reporters really are animals.

Thankfully at least for us, the prison had a handy dandy little system for dealing with such situations. They prefer not to use it unless they have to (or so I’m told), but once you see it, you can’t deny its effectiveness. The exact moment the first reporter made it past the gates, he fell over and immediately began puking, wrought with the kind of sickness that makes you believe in the existence of an angry God (that’s with a capital G, because we already know we have plenty of the angry lowercase ones). From what I’m told, the effect is caused by a curse barrier that inflicts acute delirium and disorientation, the kind that gives you ringing in your ears and makes it impossible to stand. It’s nonlethal, but… messy. Useful for preventing escapes and unwanted entrances though.

The wave crashed into the doorway, and dozens of others met the first reporter’s same fate, all of them collapsing onto the floor in a giant vomit circlejerk. Marq and I took a step back, then I took two more. Ceiling sprinklers turned on above them, washing the upchuck down into little drains I’d just noticed were spread evenly throughout the doorway.

“Sorry about that,” the guard said apologetically. “Happens everytime. Oh, but you two are okay! Just grab those tickets I gave you and hold on to them tight when you’re passing through the doorway.”

I looked at my ticket and saw little glyphs and symbols had been printed on it, the most prominent being a large stylized eye. So they were charms then.

Marq nodded, holding on to his ticket. “Thanks.”

The guard turned and waved to us as we passed through the door, dodging the wayward jets of high velocity vomit. “Have a nice visit!”

Uh huh. We’ll do that, pally.

The descent into the prisons was a long one, broken up by a bunch of small stops. Our first few took us through the ground-floor facilities meant to hold the human prisoners. Mages, witches, wizards and warlocks of all stripes. Shamans, priests and faith healers galore. Nearly all of them were being kept in straightjackets behind enchanted and magically reinforced bars suffused with a trace amount of orichalcum. Dwarf-forged, of course. That was the bare minimum in prisons these days. Keeping the inmates from causing trouble had understandably become more complicated now that a pre-war prison cell could be escaped by gnawing off one of your fingernails and drawing a sigil in blood.

Of course prisons aren’t made of money and with the astronomical crime rates these days, they’re gonna cut corners wherever possible. In a perfect world, every cell would be its own atelier, perfectly inescapable from the inside while simultaneously providing the ne’er dowells with something to tinker with. But because ateliers are expensive and time-consuming to make, that kind of high-security imprisonment is usually reserved for the worst of the worst. It was my guess that we’d start seeing more of those the deeper we went, and probably where we’d find Nayeli.

But aside from the security measures that would’ve seemed downright draconian twenty years ago (had they even been able to conceive of some of these things back then), everything seemed normal and pretty above board on the “ground” levels. For the big house, I mean. Things were being kept clean and well lit, relatively speaking. The prisoners didn’t show any obvious signs of being mistreated, and some of the model inmates were even outside of their cells playing cards and reading the news in a small communal area. Good behavior in here earns you extra time each day that you can spend outside your cell without wearing a straightjacket, or so I’ve been told. I’ve never quite been on this level of lock-up before, due to Marq’s good graces.

For a while there I was starting to think that some of the horror stories I’d heard about the Cairn were baloney. Things didn’t seem too bad here. Kinda like a regular jail, just without windows. Then we started descending again, and I realized this was just Level 1. Minimum security. The human part of the prison. Things changed when we started moving down into the parts of the prison where they kept the demihuman prisoners.

As we moved on from the minor assaults and petty thefts down into the belly of the Cairn, the well-lit facade of the ground levels started to bleed away like the edges of a painting. The modern facility lit by halogen lamps and presided over by relaxed guards and genial prisoners disappeared, slowly at first, until we were plunged into a full on medieval oubliette. The kind designed to hold monsters. This is where they kept the demihumans. And this was where our journey started getting difficult.

You see, turns out they’d endeavored to make the whole underground complex as maze-like as possible to further stall and prevent escapes. To add to that, the only light in the whole place came from dimly lit bulbs of foxfire that gave the whole place the air of crawling through some vast, ensnaring cave or root system, one which only got darker the deeper you went. The giant tunnels even stretched out like gnarled roots, branching out into dead ends and smaller capillaries whose entrances were hidden by the shadows. I swore I heard some of them growling. Images of dragons or minotaurs shackled to the tunnel walls, waiting to be fed by the next hapless wanderer, were all I could think about, and I stuck close to Marq. I remember almost jumping when I felt a moist droplet of condensation drip onto my shoulder. All around us, I thought I could hear crying and the faint screams of tortured inmates reverberating through the walls into the endless darkness. The Cairn was starting to look more and more like it had earned its name.

If it weren’t for the tickets we held, which provided a crude map and a source of light beyond the mushrooms growing on the walls, we would have been all but blind. That didn’t mean, however, that it was easy for us. Reaching the checkpoints that marked the entrances to the various facilities and the individual cell blocks required a lot of backtracking out of dead ends and diverging tunnels, and even the guards who manned the checkpoints were suspicious and unhelpful until we presented our tickets. The whole miserable experience made me feel more like a spelunker than a gangster, and the morale of the expedition was not at all being helped by Marq’s mood.

“Keeping in a place like this… like she’s some sort of animal… I swear to fucking god if they’ve harmed a hair on her head…” he mumbled, fists clenched.

“Uhhhh, I think they’d kinda have to, Marq. You really think Nayeli’s the type to just let herself be taken in quietly? Besides, at least it’s not as bad as Alcatraz.”

“God… don’t even joke about that, Al. Sending people to Tartarus wouldn’t be as bad as Alcatraz. At least people have escaped from Tartarus. Not that I think the Titans really count as people…”

We finally reached it. Cell block 19. I had no idea if it was the last cell block or not, but by this point, we were deep. Had to be at least a couple hundred feet underground, not counting the fifty or sixty feet of the prison that was still above ground. The guard checked our tickets, nodded to us, then led us to one of those wire birdcage elevators. A satchel of TNT was wired to the roof, with the detonation cord extending all the way back to the guard’s station.

Pulling the door open, the guard beckoned for us to enter. He slowly closed the door again, like someone closing the lid on a coffin. I was willing to bet my bottom clam most of the people who rode this elevator down probably never got to ride it back up. The look on the guard’s face seemed to agree.

He pulled a lever, and then we were gone. Vanishing down the vertical shaft into cell block 19. The smooth walls roared past us like the slimy gullet of some giant creature, expanding and contracting in the dim light of the elevator. Nervously, I checked the TNT satchel above our heads.

Then finally we made it. The doors opened, and I realized with a sickening sensation of clarity that it was so, so much worse than I’d imagined.

The cave-like aesthetic of the underground prison continued out from the tunnels and into the cell block, except now it lacked even foxfire to illuminate it. The tickets were the only source of light in the entire cavernous block, and it immediately garnered us the lion’s share of attention. Hundreds of reflective, predatory eyes lit up in the darkness. Screams, both angry, pleading, desperate, and blinded by the sudden appearance of light, nearly caused us to go deaf. Bars rattled, and the whole prison felt alive with hate. Now I knew where those noises I’d been hearing came from.

“Come on,” Marq said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “It says it’s this way.”

We began walking, surveying each cell as we passed it. I looked around, and almost jumped out of my skin the first time one of the inmates tried to gank me. He didn’t get far of course. Some of the cells were completely open to the air, and this I realized was where they kept the high profile cons. In the ateliers. The guy who tried pouncing at me bounced off an invisible barrier as soon as he got too close to the door of his cell, and he scurried back into the darkness of his room, hiding beneath his bed. But I saw enough of him. He was wiry, pale, and malnourished, skin stretched over a loose, elongated set of brittle bones. It looked like he hadn’t had a decent meal in years, and he’d long ago gone blind. His prison uniform resembled nothing much more than rags, perhaps a tribal loincloth, and his behavior indicated the presence of an animal rather than a man. In the corner of the cell, far from what could possibly described as a bed, the man had made a neat pile of his own turds. Flies buzzed around it. I wanted to barf.

As we continued down the line, we started to see this was the norm for this place rather than the exception. People, far be they from innocent people but people nonetheless, had long ago lost their minds down here, eating rats to satiate their hunger and mutilating themselves just to provide themselves with some sort of sensory input to remind themselves they had a body in this vast, unforgiving darkness. Regenerators, at least the clever ones, had long ago realized that their own dismembered body parts could be used as an emergency stash of food, or better yet, bait to attract the rats and other things they could eat, and had piled them up against the walls. Some people had just flat out died in their cells, and nobody had come to clean them out yet.

It was all true. Everything I’d heard about the Cairn was true.

“This is fucking inhumane…” I whispered. Then, we found her.

“Nayeli!”

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Bonus Interlude (Nayeli Knossos, pt.4)

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“Miss!” the young Marquis exclaimed a moment later, throwing open the cargo door. “Are you okay back there? We heard-”

But she was fine. Whatever had made that sound like a gunshot was, it was gone now. There was just the girl, curled up in a nest of empty boxes, sleeping like a newborn baby.

Marquis scratched his head. How could anyone fall asleep in the back of one of these rickety rustbuckets?

“Everything alright back there?” the man named Sostene grunted from the driver’s seat.

“Yeah, she’s fine!” Marquis called back. “I swear I heard something though…”

Just as he was about to turn around and close the doors however, he caught sight of something. It was a tiny detail, really. Easy to miss, given the lighting and just how fucked up they’d found her to begin with. But there were… holes in her blouse.

“Come on boss, let’s go!” Sostene yelled.

“Yeah yeah, gimme a minute! And watch your tone, Sostene! Capos don’t like it when the men underneath them get mouthy,” Marquis said. He’d never particularly liked or demanded that people call him “boss”, but Sostene had to learn the rules sooner or later if he was going to work for them.

Looking around, the young Marquis climbed into the back of the truck to take a closer look. He edged slowly towards her, not wanting to disturb her sleep and risk angering her again.

The girl had fallen asleep chewing on a thumbnail it looked like, almost like a real baby. Her arms were folded over her chest, making it difficult to see where the fabric had been torn. But Marquis could still make out tiny holes, about the width of one of his fingers, arranged in two vertical lines. There were about eighteen to twenty of them that he could see, all symmetrical and equally spaced. That didn’t seem normal. Were these bulletholes?

He frowned. No, not with that kind of precision. Besides, he’d only heard one shot. This was something else. Most people would’ve dismissed it, but it was weird as hell, and lately his business and “weird as hell” had been colliding a lot. He needed to make sure she was okay.

Taking a few steps back as a precaution, he carefully whispered “Hey! Hey!”

The girl refused to say anything.

“Can I talk to you? Are you awake?”

Still nothing. Determined, Marquis grabbed a long wooden stick that was lying around with all the boxes and gently poked her cheek with it. No response. He poked again. She was definitely still breathing but she was out like a light.

Well that was just great. Looks like he’d have to take a look for himself then.

Delicately, he rolled her over onto her back, her arms falling to the side. There they were. Twenty-four perfect little holes, lined up side by side. Both lines started beneath her sternum and terminated just above her stomach, almost like…

Marquis frowned. He needed to see. He couldn’t pull up her clothes though. I mean he could, but that wasn’t exactly the proper way to treat a lady, especially after what she had been through. So he stuck a finger inside one of the holes, tracing a path across her skin looking for irregularities.

He couldn’t help but marvel at the girl’s complexion. She had amazingly smooth skin, like silk. To find imperfections in skin like this, he thought, was impossible. He ran his finger across her midsection, stopping only when he bumped into her plump breast and quickly pulled back, yanking his finger out of the hole. But then…

Wait…

Had he? No, he was sure of it. Despite what he’d thought, for a brief second there it felt like he’d found just such an imperfection. Not a pimple or a crease, but…

He stuck his finger back in through the hole, approaching the spot beneath her breast with trepidation. He touched it, lightly rubbing his finger against the patch of even smoother skin.

A scar…

What could have happened to her that she had a scar there? Now Marquis was worried. All pretenses and embarrassment on the girl’s behalf thrown aside, he carefully rolled up the fabric of her dress up to the midsection.

Scars. Lots and lots of scars. Little tiny ones, the shapes of odd, malformed circles like the holes in her dress. And they were lined up…

Where her ribs would be… Marquis thought. Then he heard a tiny squeaking.

He looked down at the floor beneath him. The girl was wide awake, staring at him with wide, angry eyes as her face turned a shade of red brighter than coals.

“Ummm…” Marquis said, stepping back. Tears welled in the girl’s eyes, and she glared at him. Next thing he knew she was throwing him off of her and into a pile of crates, a loud snapping sound punctuating a swell of fresh, white-hot pain. Marquis hoped it was the wood.

The girl held out her arm, and something miraculous began to happen to the bracelet she was wearing around her wrist. The gold trinket grew with supernatural speed, groaning with protest as its gross expansion rendered a full-size battleaxe in her hand. It was nearly as tall as she was, with a double-sided head that looked as though it could easily cut a man in half the same way a lumberjack would fell a tree.

Their gazes met. Marquis could see nothing but unbridled fury in her eyes. In her tears however… That’s where he could see her story shine through. It wasn’t hard to understand why she was angry. But those tears…

“Boss?”

Sostene appeared in the doorway unexpectedly. Jerking almost reflexively, the girl swung the axe without thinking.

“Boss!” Sostene yelled. Marquis held out his arms.

“Wait!”

The axe stopped. Its head hovered inches from Marquis’ own, its edge close enough to see. Sostene held his hand to the girl’s throat, and she turned to stare at him with cold contempt.

“Wait!” Marquis repeated, thrusting his hands out as he tried to discourage the Mexican standoff. “Just wait! Alright? Sostene, back off.”

“No way boss. She tried to kill you,” Sostene replied curtly. The girl narrowed her eyes.

“Yeah, and she’s gonna try to kill you, too,” Marquis said. “Just back off, and let me do the talking.”

Grunting, Sostene acquiesced, and removed his pointed nails from her throat. Acknowledging this, the girl raised her axe again to try for another swing.

Wait!” Marquis yelled as Sostene got ready to jump. “Just wait! I’m sorry, okay?!”

“Not good enough,” the girl said.

“Huh?” Marquis asked.

“You’re just gonna try and do it to me again just like he did,” she whispered. “I know you will! Auntie Athena told me!”

“Athena?” Marquis asked, confused. Does she mean…?

He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Or maybe he was trying to look innocent.

“Please, you have to listen to me,” he said. “That’s not what I was trying to do, I swear!”

Liar!” she screamed. “You were… touching me… That’s all men will ever want from me! Auntie said so, she said!

Not me!” Marquis protested. “I ain’t some sorta scumbag. And what do I look like to you? I’m fourteen!”

“Doesn’t matter!” she yelled. “You’re all the same!”

No, we’re not,” Marquis insisted. “I ain’t like my father and my brothers.”

“Then why did you touch me like that?!” she accused.

“Because I was worried about you!” Marquis yelled, raising his voice for the first time. That got her attention. He lowered his voice and continued. “When I saw those holes in your dress I thought you mighta been shot, so I took off your clothes to get a better look. I was just trying to make sure you were okay. Okay?”

“What holes?” she asked, confused. “What are you talking about…”

She looked down at herself to check. There they were. Twelve holes on each side, just like he said.

“Where did these come from?” she wondered aloud, confused. The axe shrunk back to its earlier size. Apparently indifferent to her audience as long as she was the one undressing her, she wiggled out of the dress right in front of Marqui and started touching her chest, feeling for bumps. She found them exactly where she thought she would. Twenty-four scars, each of them located where a rib should be.

“What the…” she said, shaking. “What are these… where did they come from?”

Marquis sighed, crossing his legs now that the immediate danger was over.

“That’s what I wanna know,” he said, his face still a light red. “Did someone shoot you? What happened?

“I… don’t know…” she mumbled. Then in an instant it all came back to her. She remembered.

The girl screamed as if she’d been mutilated anew, holding her ripped dress tightly to her chest as she shut her eyes. Her fingernails clawed so tightly into her flesh it seemed like she would draw blood, and tears rolled down her face.

“Father… father…” she sobbed, choking. “Father please…

Sostene flinched and took a step back. “The fuck’s wrong with her.”

The young Marquis knew though. He knew those sounds very well. That’s what it sounded like to be shocked and disappointed in someone. To be betrayed by a parent. He scooted over to the girl, sitting next to her. Slowly, he tried to put an arm around her bare shoulder.

She immediately slapped his hand away so hard you could hear the boy’s fingers scream as they were nearly ripped from their sockets, turning an ugly black and purple color towards the base. Marquis winced, but did nothing else. Sostene just watched him passively from afar.

Marquis tried again.

Predictably, she beat his hand away again. The pinky finger on his outstretched hand snapped back at the slap, bent unnaturally towards the back of his hand.

“Tch,” he said. He tried not to cry but it was obvious he was in a lot of pain. Mere mortals weren’t meant to take the kind of casual abuse dished out by the gods. He reached out to her again. This time, she caught his hand by the wrist, squeezing tightly. The way it looked you could almost hear the carpal bones grinding up against each other as the skin became ugly and bruised.

“Stop that!” the girl cried angrily. “What’s wrong with you?!”

That’s when he made his move. His other arm reached around, and immediately Nayeli flinched in anticipation of what was coming. Stupid! How could she not see that coming?! He wanted her to grab him, so she’d use up her one free hand. He’d outsmarted her. She didn’t know what this boy wanted with her, but she knew it couldn’t be-

His roving hand stopped, gripping her shoulder. Not her breasts or her groin but just innocently touching her shoulder. With his other arm still held in hers, he slowly drew her into a hug.

What?

He just hugged her, rubbing her back and giving her a comforting pat on the shoulder when she needed it. He made no moves for her axe or her gown, taking things slowly and delicately. A show of kindness and intimacy, not violation or aggression.

Her bewildered face didn’t last long. She frowned, eyes squinting in a pouting way.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked angrily.

The boy was silent for a few seconds. Then, he said, “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”

Her eyes were wide open in shock. What did he just say?

“…”

“It’s okay,” he said, repeating himself. “It’s gonna be okay. You’re safe now.”

His words. Why did she believe him? Why, when the only people she’d met here were killers and the kind of people who’d do unspeakable things to little girls like her? This had to be some sort of trick. Just like last time, with the driver! He’d lure her into a false sense security and then pounce!

She reluctantly lowered her head into his shoulder. This time she wouldn’t be so lucky. This time Auntie Athena and Artemis might not be there to rescue her. Father certainly wouldn’t be. She closed her eyes.

“Who are you?” she mumbled, her eyes red and puffy.

“Just someone who wants to help,” Marquis said. “And who could use yours.”

“No, I mean… what’s your name?”

“… Marquis. Marquis Allesandri.”

Nayeli looked mournfully towards the darkened sky.

Ever since that day mortals hadn’t stopped proving her right in believing what Auntie Athena had told her. They were liars, cheaters, rapists, murderers and thieves. But she’d also learned an important lesson from them. Two, in fact. The first was that for all their posturing, the gods were little better than the humans they lorded over and pretended to supervise. Perhaps worse. When you needed them, they were ineffectual. When you didn’t, they’d use their power to play cruel games with your life. Games that seem funny to them, but to the person they were victimizing, well… it’s easy to laugh at pain when you can just look down on it safely from the skies. The second was that although many mortals were just as bad, if not worse than she’d been told, a number of them could be good people. Maybe not always an equal number, but for every group of evil mortals there was always at least one glimmer of hope among them. Someone who could be trusted, and confided in.

Marquis had been the first one to show her that things like trust and kindness weren’t as in quite a short supply as she’d assumed landing on Earth. He’d taken her in, shown her patience and acceptance she hadn’t deserved, even when she did her best to turn him away. And how did she repay him?

A speck of warm ash drifted onto her cheek. Like this. This is how she repaid him. Causing him trouble, getting him wrapped up in one disaster after another as they trailed behind her like ants… holding him back. Causing him so much pain.

She was unfixable. She saw that now. Her curses too, yes, but it ran deeper than that. She was uncontrollable. Always had been, always would be. She was a mangled trainwreck Marquis had wasted years of his life trying to fix, never once stopping to think about how much easier it’d be to just scrap her.

Because he loves you.

And didn’t that just make it all the worse? Even trying to ease his burden, all she could do was cause him more pain and suffering. Everywhere she went, she left devastation in her wake. Lives, lost and destroyed. People she would never know swept away as if they’d been culled by her father’s own cruel hands. She was a burden, on everyone. On the whole world. And it was about time Marquis was free of her. He could be with Felicity, live a wealthy, happy, successful life. He could change the world like he’d always wanted. And he’d do it… without her.

The tears began to fall like the ash that made her screw her eyes wide shut, falling to her knees and hugging herself. No one else would. She’d just burnt the last bridge she had connecting her to anyone. All alone just like she’d been all those years ago, she cried without reservation, without restraint. Trees shook, the ground rumbled and groaned. Birds and animals took off in all directions, trying to escape her and her noise.

Now she really was totally, completely-

“-alone.”

“Huh?”

“I said ‘how stupid of you to be traveling alone’,” a voice explained to her. “Here I thought we’d be getting a nice break after spending all week trying to fill in that hole with Amenonuhoko, and then we find you in under a day. Couldn’t you at least tried to hide?”

She got up and looked around. No one. Not a soul in sight.

“Who the hell are you?” she asked.

Me? Hehehehe… try ‘we’.”

A massive weight fell on top of her shoulders, a gravitational effect strong enough to flatten mountains. She dropped to the ground, pressed against the concrete. She craned her neck upwards.

There was a ziggurat floating above her in the sky, a massive flying fortress. It shimmered as it revealed itself, its spires and towers and domes painting the picture of an enormous palace temple. It grew and it grew until it seemed like an entire city unto itself, and yet it seemed like there was no end to the bulk still concealed.

“What… the… fuck?” she barely managed to scrape out of her collapsing lungs.

A disk bathed in a pillar of light descended from the bottom of the ziggurat, carrying a group of shady figures, their faces hard to make out as she slowly lost consciousness. One took a step towards her. He, or she, knelt down in front of her.

“We,” it said, as the light faded completely from her world, “are the Untouchables.

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Bonus Interlude (Nayeli Knossos, pt.3)

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After a lot of coaxing and promises, the boy and his taller, older friend convinced her to ride in the back of the truck that they’d stolen. Someone needed to get rid of the evidence, so they cleared some of the cargo and rolled their car into the trailer, which was where Nayeli now lay. In the dark, all by herself. Completely alone. Maybe that was better.

She curled up on the seat in the fetal position, holding her trinket so tightly to her chest that it hurt the palms of her hands. Occasionally she would cry softly for a few minutes before running out of tears, and then she would wait until her eyes were ready to be wet again. She missed Olympus. She missed Auntie Athena and Uncle Hephaestus. She missed playing with Cerberus when she went to the underworld to visit Uncle Hades. But most of all, she wanted to see her father again, so she could ask him why he’d abandoned her in this horrible place and beg him to take her back.

A familiar presence filled the cabin. She looked up, searching for something she couldn’t see.

“Auntie Athena?” she asked, incredulous. “Artemis?”

Immediately a warm static feeling enveloped her from in front and from behind.

“Nayeli!” her aunt’s voice boomed in her ears and hers alone. “Oh Nayeli! Are you okay?!”

“Auntie!” she yelled back, crying. She tried to hug her, but as always all she grasped was air. Whatever. It’d do.

“Auntie!” she sniffled. “You were right, this place is horrible! These people, they… they…”

“I know, my child. You don’t need to speak of it if you don’t want to. I’ve been watching over you since you left.”

“H-Huh?” Nayeli sniffled, confused. “You have?”

“Yes,” her aunt said, sounding almost ashamed of herself. “I was… worried.”

“But then why didn’t you… couldn’t you have…” she stuttered, looking for the right words. “Why did you let that horrible man-?”

“Let him?!” Artemis roared in outrage. “Nayeli, that’s enough! You know I would never let him do such a thing to you. But your grandfather, he forbid Athena and I… forbid all of us from intervening in the affairs of mortals a long time ago. He said it was ’not time yet’. So I sent you that boy. And see? Didn’t he take care of the problem?”

“But the blood! And the way he… it smelled so bad! And he showed me his-”

She sniffled. The question she wanted to ask hung silently in the air, until finally she found the courage to give it voice.

“Where’s father?”

Artemis paused, unsure what to say, a feeling that radiated throughout the truck. Athena picked up the slack.

“He’s… not coming, my child. He thought it would be better if he sent us instead. To comfort you.”

Father… wasn’t coming? She couldn’t believe it. Had he just forsaken her?! No. No, clearly that couldn’t be. He had still sent her aunts in his stead, so clearly he cared. But if he cared, why wasn’t he here?

“Why wasn’t I strong?” she asked. “I feel strong now! Why wasn’t I then? How could he do that to me?”

Her Auntie Athena sighed, a buzzing noise that reverberated in the center of her brain.

“Nayeli… you’ve been cursed.”

The word shot her through the heart like a poisoned arrow, filling her with fear. Cursed.

“I’m… what?” she asked again, hoping she’d heard wrong.

“Cursed. By our degenerate whore of a sister and her disgusting pet cripple-!” Artemis’ voice peaked with unimaginable fury before she took a deep breath and calmed herself. “Listen carefully, Nayeli. During the ceremony, do you remember the gifts you were given?”

“A blessing of luck in love from Aunt Aphrodite,” she said. “And this axe from Uncle Hephaestus. Father had him make it especially for me, remember?”

“Aye, he did. And I bet he regrets ever asking the deformed little monster for that favor. When you touched the handle of that axe for the first time, do you remember feeling a prickling sensation? Maybe feeling lightheaded or weak?”

“Yeah… yeah I do,” she told her.

“I thought so. Your strength didn’t leave you, Nayeli. It’s sealed in that axe. Your uncle placed a curse on it that would render you powerless unless you were holding it. That’s why that man could overpower you. Without that axe, the strength you inherited from your father is gone. You’re little more than a mortal without it. Just one that’s tougher to kill…”

“No…” Nayeli said, staring at the trinket dangling on her bruised wrists, wounded. “That’s impossible! Uncle Hephaestus would never do such a thing! He loves me!”

“That twisted little freak doesn’t love anyone but himself and that whore!” Artemis roared. Athena soon stepped in with a calmer voice.

“Whatever love he had for you, it was a lie. He just wanted to use you to get back at your father.”

“What are you talking about?” Nayeli asked, confused. “Why would Uncle Hephaestus want to do that?”

They both became quiet. The air chilled.

“Nayeli,” her Auntie Athena said, speaking slowly. “A long time ago, in the ages before man, many of us lay with our brothers and sisters. Your uncle and Aphrodite, and your aunt and I included.”

“Aye. And she’s still the love of my life,” Artemis said, and Nayeli could feel the goddess’ gentle, loving caress on the crook of her aunt’s back.

“Ew!” Nayeli yelled, throwing up her hands in embarrassment. “Why would you tell me that?!”

“Because it’s important!” her father bellowed. Nayeli’s eyes lit up.

“Father!” she exclaimed. She tried in vain multiple times to hug the air where she expected he’d materialize, but found nothing. Surely he realized he was wrong and he was here to take her home now. Surely father would protect her and rescue her from all this!

“Oh? Back already, brother?” her aunt’s voice said doubtfully. “I thought convincing our father would’ve taken longer.”

“Bah! Why should I even bother? You know the old man won’t be moved. He despises me,” her father said casually, dismissing the question. “Anyway, you said you wanted to hear more about my youthful conquests, Nayeli?”

“What?! No I didn’t!” she adamantly refused. But when it came to bragging, whether it be about battle or broads, nobody could top her father.

“You see, I was a handsome young stud, and your aunt was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”

“Ewewewewewew…”

“But there was a problem. Despite my strapping good looks, prowess in battle and generally being better than your lame bastard uncle, Aphrodite was already engaged to him by decree of Zeus so she’d stop offering herself to every man who passed her. Neither she nor I were very happy about this, so we decided to have an affair in secret.”

“Like grandpa?” Nayeli asked timidly, hoping to get this conversation over with as soon as possible.

“Like grandpa, yes. Anyway, we made love in secret, but somehow Hephaestus found out about it and began plotting in that wormy little brain of his how to get back at us for it. When next we laid together, he set a trap and bound our feet together, then dragged us out in front of the rest of the gods to be laughed at and mocked.”

“It… doesn’t really sound like Uncle was the bad guy there, father…” Nayeli said.

“But apparently that wasn’t enough for the cripple bastard!” he continued, ignoring her. “Now he plots with my sister to turn my own flesh and blood against me!”

Nayeli’s blood ran cold.

“What do you mean, father?! What did Aunt Aphrodite do?!”

“The blessing she gave you, to find luck in love?” Aunt Aphrodite explained. “She only told you half the truth. ‘Luck’ has two sides to it, Nayeli. Her ‘blessing’ is actually a curse, meant to attract the worst kind of men. Rather than meaning to help you find love, she means to never let you find a partner who is not willing to abuse you for his own needs. Their impurities are amplified in your presence, and if they mean you any harm or ill-will, they will attack you like that man did. You must always be sure to have your axe with you at all times.”

Nayeli’s gaze shot uneasily to the thin metal wall separating her and the boy sitting in the cabin up front. If what they said was true, that meant she couldn’t trust him. Dammit. She should’ve thought of that from the beginning! I mean, what kind of child her age can kill a man in cold blood and not even blink?! This act of charity was probably all some sort of plot to get her to lower her guard again. Well she wasn’t going to fall for it this time!

Her grip on her axe tightened. She looked up at her aunts and her father.

“Why? Why would they do all this? Can’t you get them to remove the curses?! I mean, maybe Uncle Hephaestus isn’t the best man in the universe or even the man I thought he was, but he wouldn’t be so cruel as to just leave me here like this! R-Right? And neither would you, right father?”

Her aunt sighed, causing her heart to plummet.

“We already tried, Nayeli. They refused. So we tried making an appeal to Zeus, our father. He refused too. There’s nothing we can do.”

Nayeli’s blood ran cold. “But why?!

“What you need to understand, Nayeli, is that gods are always going to be stuck in their ways. We’ve lived too long, done the same things for too many years to change. Human grudges rarely last more than a lifetime, and most fade away in years. This one has been brewing in your uncle since the rise and fall of the Hellenic empires. Your aunt as well. Though Hephaestus tried, her trysts with your father never completely ended. She was just as jealous when your mother gave birth to you. Couldn’t believe he’d chosen a mortal woman over her. She doesn’t understand what’s at stake to your father.”

“What’s at stake?” Nayeli asked impatiently.

“Honor! Honor and glory!” Her father’s loud, booming voice invaded the truck. “The kind of glory in battle that the gods haven’t seen in over a thousand years!”

Brotherrrrrr…” Artemis warned. “This is not what she wants to hear right now.”

“You’re right. It’s what she needs to hear. If I left this all to you, you’d just fill her head with silly lies. She needs to know what’s at stake,” her father said.

“I thought you said you wanted to leave this to us,” Auntie Athena said tersely. “To comfort her.”

Her father continued, ignoring them.

“I may be barred from performing my duties on Earth, but she’s not. You were supposed to descend to Earth and remind them of me,” he said, locking gazes with Nayeli. “Tales of your strength and valor were meant to spread across the globe like wildfire, and all would kneel at your feet and know my power! But now the cripple has crippled you. He has insulted me. Turned my own flesh and blood against me!”

He sighed, grunting.

“But it may not be too late.”

What?!” her Aunt Artemis exclaimed.

“Brother!” Auntie Athena yelled.

“What… what do you mean by that, father?” Nayeli asked, smiling uneasily.

“These curses are a burden, certainly, but nothing deal-breaking! Nothing that will prevent you from fighting at least! We can still make this work! It’ll just take a little bit of extra effort, and then we-”

“No!”

“Hmm?”

Nayeli felt her father’s withering gaze focus on her. She started to sweat but held her ground anyway.

“I said no! I don’t want to be your champion, father! I want to go back to Olympus! At least there it’s safe! At least there I won’t have to worry about getting run over by cars or strange men assaulting me! Olympus is my home! Why won’t you let me go back?!”

“Nayeli,” her father said in a dangerous tone. “Think carefully before you say anything. Do you really think you’d be welcomed back to Olympus? Do you really think that’s an option? You’re going to stay here, and-”

“And what? Fight for the rest of my life just because you can’t anymore?! I’m not like you, father! I don’t want that! This isn’t about wanting what’s best for me! You’re just being selfish!”

“How dare you!” her father roared. “You are my child-”

“Yeah, fat lotta good that’s done me!” she yelled back.

“Nayeli, stop it!” her aunt warned her, her voice stern.

“In fact if it wasn’t for you doing… t-that with your own sister, I wouldn’t be in this mess right now! This is your fault!

“Nayeli-!”

“Why you ignorant, ungrateful little-”

I hate you, father!

A sound like freshly cooked wishbones being broken cracked throughout the car like a lightning bolt, the sound comparable to a gunshot, as Nayeli’s ribs burst forward from her chest in a grisly shower of blood and tissue. Nayeli gurgled, choking on blood as rapidly draining arteries emptied into her punctured lungs. Artemis and Athena stared, struck dumb by what their brother had just done. Her father, equally surprised, turned his head in shame and fled the scene.

Nayeli!” Artemis yelled, racing to heal the wounds. Athena whipped around to face her brother, but found him gone.

“Brother…” she muttered, frowning, before turning back to Nayeli.

“Artemis!” she yelled. “How is she doing?”

“Not good!” the goddess yelled back. “All the energy he poured into these wounds is making it hard to close them! Damn him! Why would he do this? To his own daughter?!”

Athena did not know. But Nayeli’s pained moans and incomprehensible gurgles made it plain to see they had other priorities to deal with first.

“Hold her still…” she instructed Artemis. Then she placed her hands on Nayeli’s chest and got to work, raw magic coursing into the wound.

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Bonus Interlude (Nayeli Knossos, pt.2)

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A frightened, now mortal Nayeli walked down the long, stretching highway to the city of angels for what seemed like hours, clinging to her axe for comfort. The road twisted and turning constantly, she wondered when it would ever end, when she would find civilization and relief from the oppressive darkness and rain of the country at night. Why couldn’t her father just send her to live in Italy with her mother? Why did she have to fall in America? She didn’t know anyone in America! Everyone here was a stranger and everything she saw was even more frightening and unfamiliar than the last. She was cold and wet and occasionally something called a car would drive down the road and beep loudly at her, spraying water. They weren’t very dangerous, which she’d learned after a few of them crashed into her, but their constant, overbearing presence hardly made her feel welcome.

She sighed. Why couldn’t mortals just drive chariots like everyone else? They were much less noisy and the horses that pulled them were usually much friendlier to her than cars were.

Her shadow on the road stretched out in front of her and she turned around. Here came another one. A truck. This one looked big, and its beeping and honking was so loud it hurt Nayeli’s eardrums. She hoped this one wasn’t going to try and hit her too.

The sound of tires squealing blocked out all other thoughts and just as the light became blinding, the car stopped. Nayeli opened her eyes. As she’d thought, the mechanical chariot was enormous, easily ten feet tall and the length of a temple pillar. A man, large and overbearing, climbed out of the front seat.

“Hey, watch where you’re goin’! The fuck you think this is, the NYC boardwalk? Do I look like a Coney Island clown to you?”

Nayeli was surprised. Not shocked, but surprised.

To think they act like this to people they’ve just met…

“Um, excuse me?” she said, trying to shield her eyes from the bright headlights. She ignored the man’s harsh tone. “I’m sorry if I offended you, but you can you please help me make it to the nearest city? I don’t know where I’m going. I just got here and-”

“Just got here?” The man looked at her like she had nine heads. “What in the name of god is that supposed to mean? How do you ‘get’ to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and say ‘I just got here’? What kind of fucking moron are you? Are you lost?

“No,” Nayeli said. “I just got here.”

“From fucking where?” the man almost yelled. “There’s nothing around for miles!”

“From the sky!” Nayeli shouted.

“Oh!” The man laughed. “That’s rich. What are you supposed to be then, an angel?”

“No!” she shouted. “I’m the daughter of-”

The trucker sighed. “Look, kid, I really, really don’t care who you are. Because unless you got a rich daddy that can pay me for a ride and my flat tire, then I don’t want anything to do with-”

“I said I just got here and I need some help! Why won’t you listen to me?!” she shouted, stepping out of the blinding headlights.

“Whoa,” the man said, stopping mid-sentence.

She should’ve known then. The way he looked at her. It was obvious what he was thinking, but not to her younger self, who knew so little about the world. All she knew was that it seemed strange.

“Ummm… sir-”

“Huh? What?” he said, snapping out of his trance. “Oh, yeah. Ummm, sorry for almost hitting you there, angel. How about I take you to the next town down the road to make it up to you? The next city is a little far but me and my buddies at the mill might be able to help you out. Get you something to eat, give you a place to sleep. How does that sound?”

“That sounds great!” Nayeli exclaimed.

“Alright, just climb in the passenger side next to me,” he said, heading back for his truck. Nayeli reached out and hugged him from behind.

“Thank you so much, mister! I thought I was going to have to walk in the dark forever! You’ve really saved me! The gods won’t forget this!”

His body tensed up when she touched him, becoming firm and rigid in her grasp. Though she couldn’t see his face through the shadows, his eyes were wide open, and his breathing suddenly ragged.

“Yeah… no problem…”

She walked around the side of the truck and saw it was carrying logs, dozens of them.

He must work at that lumber mill he mentioned, she thought, staring at the vehicle in awe. I thought father said the humans were weak. How do they carry all these logs on their back and then load them onto the truck?

Without giving it much more thought she opened the passenger side door and got in. The compartment smelled uncomfortably of old smoke, musty and damp. The garbage lying everywhere and the pillow and blanket stowed beneath the driver’s seat indicated this truck had seen many long nights.

Must get lonely, she thought. I bet he’s glad I’m here to keep him company now. I wonder why he was so rude at first though?

“You all buckled in?” the driver asked. “The company quacks say we gotta start using these harness… belt… things to prevent accidents. I think it’s a load of crap but they’ll fine me if they find out I wasn’t using them when the truck’s in motion.”

“Do accidents happen a lot?” Nayeli asked.

“Not as much they’d probably tell you, that’s for sure,” he snorted.

Nayeli fiddled with something that looked like what he was describing but she couldn’t figure out how it fit.

“Here, let me help you,” he said. He reached across Nayeli’s lap and started grabbing for something tucked into the seat. But his arm wasn’t long enough, so Nayeli kept feeling him brush up against her butt and thighs, his hands sometimes lingering just a little too long. Long enough to be noticeable.

“Mister…” she said, uncomfortable. “Please stop… you shouldn’t be touching me like that… my father isn’t going to like it if you do…”

She didn’t want to hurt him. Father had told him how weak the humans were. If she wasn’t careful she could kill him.

“I’ve almost got it…” he said, his groping becoming more aggressive.

“Mister!”

“Just shut up!” he yelled in her ear. “I’m almost there!”

Finally his hands reached for something besides Nayeli’s flesh, taking hold of a belt inbetween the seat cushions.

“See?” he said, fastening it around her. “You were sitting on the damn thing.”

“Oh…” she said. “Sorry, mister. I thought…”

“Don’t worry about it, angel,” he said, settling back into his seat. “Let’s just get going. I’ve got a timetable to keep.”

She nodded. Maybe she’d just misread the situation was all. She was the one sitting on the belt after all. That had to be it. But…

Her eyes drifted to the creases of the man’s pants. A small dark spot had appeared, like a stain.

What is that? she wondered, looking up at the driver. Did he… wet hinself?

The driver’s eyes were glued firmly on the road ahead. He hadn’t noticed her staring. Quickly she snapped her head back and buried it in her lap, playing with the trinket that symbolized her axe.

Father… she thought, frightened.

Hours of silence passed in the truck’s cab, with nary another passing car to interrupt the long stretches of quiet. The breaking of the morning sun brought some relief, but the road ahead still seemed long and never-ending. Any sense that they’d made progress since last night was eclipsed by the light of the sun showing only more grey asphalt stretching into a pinpoint on the navy-blue horizon.

Nayeli sat quietly in her seat, spinning the little handle of her trinket for comfort.

“Say,” the driver said, breaking up the quiet for the first time since 4:00 AM. “That little bracelet you got there. What is it?”

“Oh,” Nayeli said, surprised. “This is my axe.”

“Your axe?” the driver asked.

“Mmhmm,” she replied. “My father gave it to me. He says it symbolizes my strength.”

“Huh,” the driver said. “Your father sounds like a pretty weird guy.”

“He’s not weird!” Nayeli protested. “Just because a mortal like you doesn’t understand-”

“Yeah yeah, whatever, I get it,” the driver said. “Sheesh. You uhhh… you mind if I look at it?”

Nayeli thought about it. There shouldn’t be any harm in it, right? The axe was too heavy for him to lift, and it’s not like he could steal it from her or anything. If he wouldn’t give it back, she’d just make him. Of course that ran into the problem of potentially killing him again…

Deciding it would be okay this one time, she loosened the knot that kept it tied to her wrist, and handed it to the driver.

“Wow…” he said, squinting at it through the dawn’s dim sunlight. “This is really something! You mind if I pull over so I can get a better look?”

She shook her head, and the truck came to a slow stop on the side of the road facing the shore.

The tiny axe spun slowly in the light of the dawn, practically weightless so long as it was in this form. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be nothing more than ornate jewelry. A trinket of fine craftsmanship certainly, but a trinket nonetheless. No one in this world knew the power of the gods yet. They had no understanding of magic.

The truck driver whistled.

“This sure is some good-lookin’ bracelet you got here. Must be worth like, what, fifty sawbucks at least, right?”

She had no idea how much that was.

“More than that,” she said, making an educated guess. “It’s very precious.”

Really?” the truck driver said, suddenly very interested. “How’d a little girl like you get ahold of something like this, angel? How old are you, anyway? Sixteen? Seventeen? Twenty?”

“I’m thirteen,” Nayeli said. “And my dad gave it to me.”

“Thirteen? No fucking way! A girl as pretty as you, dollface? You must think I was born yesterday!”

The truck driver continued to stare at the gleaming golden axe, captivated by dreams of wealth and power. Nayeli fidgeted, seeing the look in his eyes.

“Umm, mister?” she said. “Can I please have that back now? It’s very precious to me.”

“What? No! You’re gonna need this to pay for your ride!” the truck driver said, gripping the trinket tight in his meaty fist.

“What?!” Nayeli said, taken aback. “But you said the ride was free!”

“I never said that,” the driver said, brushing her off. “Besides, it’s my truck. I get to decide how much you pay.”

“But that’s not fair!” Nayeli shouted. The truck driver raised a hand and slapped her, hard, across the cheek. She felt her head and shoulders collide with the passenger side window.

Nayeli lifted a hand to her cheek, touching where it stung. No way…. Had he just hit her?

The truck driver started to yell at her.

“Life isn’t fair, angel! You think I wanna be out here in the cold driving all night for minimum fucking wage so some fat cat can pocket all the profit? ‘Course not! But life don’t care! Life is just life! It don’t care what happens to you or me. That’s why,” he said, staring greedily at the gleaming gold bracelet, “you gotta always be looking out for number one.”

She couldn’t believe. The axe father had given to her… the one Uncle Hephaestus had made! It was like she thought. Mortals were the absolute worst! So corrupted by greed and lust…

She didn’t want to have to do this, but it looked like she’d have to force him to give her back her axe. Once he felt the kind of strength she had, she was sure she wouldn’t cause her any more problems. She’d show him what it meant to be her father’s daughter!

Summoning up the courage to strike the man against her father’s explicit warning, Nayeli swung hard and hit the truck driver, bending his nose in a most unnatural way with a sickening crunch. He screamed as blood flowed out of his nose. It was, all things considered, a solid blow. But something was wrong.

I know I wasn’t hitting him as hard as I could but that punch should’ve at least thrown him out of the door! she thought, staring at her own fist. What’s going on?!

“You… stupid… bitch!” the truck driver roared. Suddenly he was on top of her, pinning her to the seat by her wrists. Nayeli struggled but couldn’t break free. What was going on here?! Something was wrong! Something was definitely wrong! Where had all her strength gone?!

“Look at what you did to my nose, angel,” the truck driver panted, positively manic. “Look at what you did to my nose! Did your daddy tell you to just go punching nice guys who offer to give you a ride? Huh?! How you gonna pay me back for this, angel?! Tell me how you’re gonna pay me back for this!”

Nayeli kept struggling. “I don’t know!”

“You don’t know?!” roared the truck driver.

“Please!” Nayeli screamed. “I’ll do whatever you want, just let me go and give me back my bracelet!”

The truck driver stopped. He smiled perversely. “Well if that’s how you feel about it, then I’ve got a couple ideas.”

He reached for the hem of her blouse and started to lift up. Nayeli realized all too late what he was doing.

“No!” she screamed, kicking as hard as she could. “I didn’t mean that!”

“You said you’d do anything, didn’t you angel? Well this is what I’ve decided on!” he said, nearly tearing her clothes right off her. Nayeli felt her hair get yanked on as he pulled her head through the hole. She couldn’t see what was going on. What was happening?!

Her head popped out of the hole and she opened her eyes. Ugly purple marks blotted her wrists. She was naked. In front of this mortal, this complete stranger, she was naked! Tears welled up in her eyes. What was going on? Why couldn’t she fight back? Why wasn’t she strong?!

“Whooheeee!” the truck driver whooped and hollered. “Thirteen years old, huh angel? Sure doesn’t look that way to me!”

“Please, stop! You can’t do this! My dad won’t let you!”

“Your daddy, huh angel? Your daddy isn’t gonna come help you out here. That’s if you even have one, that is.”

“Of course I do!” she said, struggling. “And he’s going to punish you when he finds out what you’ve done! Daddy! Please, help!”

“See, I’m having a hard time believing you, angel. First you lie to me about your age, then you lie to me about how you got that jewelry-”

“I didn’t lie!” she screamed, unsure how anything she said could help at this point.

“Of course you did! Your daddy bought it for you? Which daddy? Your sugar daddy? Because I’m having a hard time believing any rich man’s kid is just gonna show up walking in the middle of the road out in no man’s land, California! Hell, I bet you stole that jewelry, and now you’re on the run!”

“No!” she yelled. “That’s not it!”

“Isn’t it, angel?” he said, his smile wider than the sky. “Looks to me like you’re nothing more than a homeless golddigger some pimp left on the side of the road! And ain’t nobody gonna miss you if you just disappeared right here. Guess that means I got a free ticket to do whatever I want with you.”

The truck driver’s thick fingers reached for the zipper on his trousers, slowly pulling them apart. Nayeli screamed, louder than she could ever remember screaming before.

No! Stop, please stop! Daddy! Auntie Athena! Help me!”

The truck driver laughed, his exposed member hanging in the languid ocean breeze like a corpulent sausage. Covered in filth and the excess of its last discharge, it looked like some vile serpent. Only she had no blade with which to slay it, no means to defend herself, and she could smell the fetid breath of the monster’s other head looming over her as it whispered in her ear, entirely too close.

“What’s the matter, angel? I thought a girl like you would be used to doing this by now.”

He wrenched her legs apart. Nayeli shut her eyes, trying and hoping that she could shut out the world. That if she blacked him out hard enough, that he wouldn’t be there the next time she opened her eyes. But she could feel him coming closer, even if she couldn’t see him. She felt it brush up against her inner thigh and cringed, shutting her eyes even harder as tears ran down her cheeks.

There was the clicking of a gun, followed by a loud, abrupt discharge. Something warm and sticky splattered all over her face, and she opened her eyes, fearing or perhaps hoping the worst was already over. But the man hadn’t entered her. He still stood, kneeling on the precipice with a giant hole in his head. Teetering under his own weight, the man’s meaty body collapsed on top of her, emptying its last all over her and the leather seat behind him.

“Ugh,” she heard a voice mutter as someone opened up the door. “This fucking reeks. Did he have to shit himself all over the upholstery?”

Someone, she knew not who, dragged the corpse off of her, leaving her to stare at the cab ceiling in vegetative shock. The face of a young boy soon entered her view. He held out his hand.

“It’s okay, you’re safe now,” he said. “That stiff won’t be bothering you anymore. Let’s get you cleaned up and, y’know… back in your clothes.”

The boy’s face was glowing a soft red. Her eyes opened all the way, taking in every detail of his face.

“Well? Come on! You’re making this really awkward already…”

Nodding tokenly, she took his hand. Was this it? Was she safe now? Was it over?

The boy walked her over to the ocean where she could clean herself of the man’s stench and other bodily fluids and turned around, giving her some privacy. Off to the side, a taller man started to dig a shallow grave for the corpse of the truck driver.

She washed herself with the warm ocean water. It was… fresh. Welcoming. She could feel Poseidon’s embrace. And it felt like as long as she stayed in the ocean within it, she might be able to wash away the memories of what had just happened.

When she was finished, the boy offered Nayeli her blouse and her bracelet with the axe still intact, which he’d washed in the ocean water. Silently, she put the wet clothes on.

“I know it’s still wet, but it was the best we could do,” he said. “They’ll dry off soon. Come on, hop in the car. We’ll give you a ride to wherever you’re going.”

She immediately felt herself tense up at the offer. That was exactly what the man now lying in a shallow grave had said to her. The man who’d tried to… tried to…

No! She shook her head back and forth, adamantly refusing. She clutched her axe tightly in her hand this time. She knew what would happen this time, and she wasn’t going to let it.

“Come on,” the boy said, taking her hand. “I’m serious, we just wanna help-”

Nayeli recoiled sharply at his touch, jumping in her skin.

“No! Don’t touch me!” she screamed. This time, the effect was profound. The sand all around her was picked up like a maelstrom by the sound of her voice and the boy was thrown back, caught by the taller, quiet man who’d been digging the grave. Nayeli took a step back and curled up on the beach, her head tucked in her lap.

The boy grimaced. “Well Sostene, I think we may have found another one.”

That was how she first met the young Marquis. It wasn’t an easy relationship at first. In fact, she actually used to hate him when she first met him. That took some time to change. But then again, it wouldn’t have been so rewarding if it didn’t.
Nayeli laughed a little remembering those days. It was a bitter sound, full of joy and hopelessness and sadness and regret. And love. So much love. Perhaps that feeling was why there was so much of those other things.

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Bonus Interlude (Nayeli Knossos, pt.1)

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Nayeli left as soon as she was able to, before Marquis could find the note. In those few brief seconds, she walked out into the street and quietly selected a darkened alleyway to disappear into. Then, when no one was looking, she leapt.

For the first few seconds air resistance fought her, but as she neared the apex of her jump she began to float gracefully like a butterfly or a bumblebee in flight, flying over Manhattan high above its towering buildings as she scraped the clouds. She heard his voice crying out for her with the phrases she’d taught him as a child as the cityscape slowly began to disappear underneath the layers of overcast weather, and she screwed her eyes shut, biting her lip so as not to cry.

“πρώτa αγάπη,” she repeated. “πρώτa αγάπη, πρώτa αγάπη…”

Tears fell like rain amidst the dark clouds, and finally, mercifully, her jump ended as she made landfall outside the city limits. She wiped her eyes clean so she could check the road signs.

“New Jersey, seventy miles. Rhode Island, a hundred and sixty-eight miles,” she read aloud. Two options. Go further inland where the feds might be waiting, or head for the Atlantic.

“Guess we’re going home,” Nayeli muttered.

Her destination decided, she set out for New Jersey, headed to the west.

She traveled for a few days after that, slowly making her way to the edge of the continent, giving Arizona a wide berth and stopping only occasionally to see the sights. Or perhaps “visit old haunts” was the better way to phrase it.

Her last major stop was in California, near Lake Tahoe. It was when she saw the trail marker that said “Mt. Reba Scenic Tour”, and wondered why it felt oddly familiar. Her bracelet swung heavily in the breeze.

Ah, that’s right. She remembered now. She didn’t actually fall in New York. It was here, just a few miles out from the city of angels. It was easy to forget that sometimes, with how much of her life she’d spent in New York with Marquis since then. But this is where it happened. Where she was abandoned by her father. Where she’d first discovered her curses.

Life in Olympus was good, while it lasted. Twelve or thirteen years by all accounts, but it felt so much longer. Concepts like age and time meant different things for gods, so she could spend as much time as she wanted there without ever getting the sense that she was growing older, always make-believing that she was daddy’s little girl. But eventually she had to grow up. Everyone does. And one way or another, her time in Olympus had to come to an end.

“But father, why do have to be your champion? I don’t wanna go to Earth!” she pleaded. “I wanna stay here with you!”

Immediately her father’s stern gaze penetrated her defenses. She couldn’t see him, but then again she never could. The presence of the gods was something you felt, not something you saw. Without the use of avatars, a god could not appear before mortals because their minds could not comprehend the enormity of their true being. Even now she doubted if this room was real or simply something created for her convenience. It had never bothered her before, but now that she risked losing it she wondered if she’d ever belonged here to begin with.

If her father’s reply was anything to go by, the answer to that question was probably “never”.

He grunted. “Why?”

“Auntie Athena says the people there are cruel and disrespectful!” she protested. “It’s cold and dark and filthy… She says Earth is at war!”

“Earth is always at war,” her father said dismissively. “It’s our job to keep it that way.”

“But why?”

“Why not? It’s good for them. Stimulates the economy.” Her father placed a firm hand on her shoulder, a buzzing sensation like static. “Listen to me, Nayeli. There is nothing more glorious than war. Heroes are born there. Civilizations are built, rise, and then fall. All in the course of war. If you want to become great, there is no surer way to do it than in battle. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“But you’re great, aren’t you father?”

“Of course,” her father grunted. What a silly question. As if it was worth asking.

“Then why can’t I live here with you? If you can be up here and still be great, why do I have to go down to Earth?”

“Because you’re not me,” he said, his voice losing what little patience it had. “I had to prove myself in order to be as great as I am. That is the way of a true man, a warrior. And this? This is no place for a warrior. There’s no hunger or strife, everything is warm and safe, and worst of all you’re waited on hand and foot all the time. It dulls you. Paradise is for the weak. You are strong. I made you that way. Now you’re going to prove it. To your grandfather and to everyone else.”

“But-”

“Nayeli!” he said, raising his voice. “I will hear no more of this! You’re going to Earth, to live amongst the mortals, and become the warrior I meant you to be. This isn’t for you to decide. Do you understand?”

Nayeli lowered her head. “Yes, father.”

With that she felt her father disappear, his presence leaving the room. She sighed.

“Hey. What’s the matter, kiddo? Something got you down?”

She turned around. A cripple in a wheelchair was suddenly behind her, paddling the floor like river water with his walking stick while two metal hounds flanked him on either side. One of his legs was shriveled to the point of hideousness, but his upper body was muscular and well built with strong arms. He had youthful, springy, finely-cared for facial hair (such was the pride of many of the gods), with color that was red and wild like fire, and half his face seemed to sag on the side opposite his crippled leg. The bright blue eye on that side rolled lazily around in its socket while the other one focused mindfully on Nayeli. His overall appearance gave the impression of an outcast or a hermit, a man of knowledge shunned for his physical deformity.

“Uncle Hephaestus,” Nayeli said as he approached in one of his many mortal bodies. “What are you doing here?”

“Just checking up on my favorite niece,” he said affectionately, ruffling her hair. “Word on the grape vine is you’re nervous about making the trip to live on Earth.”

“Mmhmm,” she nodded. “It seems scary.”

Hephaestus chuckled. “Earth isn’t scary! I mean it’s no Mt. Olympus, but that still doesn’t mean you should have to worry. You’re strong, right? I bet you could beat me in an arm-wrestling competition!”

“That’s not true, uncle. You work the forges all day long!”

Nayeli still blushed at her uncle’s praise. He smiled. Uncle Hephaestus had always been like that. Not everyone Olympian was happy about her presence here, but Uncle Hephaestus had always treated her kindly, and maybe even perhaps spoiled her if you asked her father or her father’s father. Her father wasn’t the most well-liked Olympian, but he hadn’t let that stand in the way of being a loving uncle to his niece.

“Well, if you’re still nervous, you wanna see the weapon I’m making you? Your dad had me make it extra special, just for you!”

“Really?” she asked, smiling.

“Yeah, sure,” he replied nonchalantly. “Just don’t tell him, okay? He wanted it to be a surprise.”

“Okay!”

The room shifted in dimensions, and a pathway materialized that spiraled downwards into a chthonic forge, its twenty bellows belching with the fires of Tartarus. Nayeli took careful steps down the spiraling staircase while her uncle was carried by the dogs, the metallic beasts never once voicing a single complaint. Metal in motion. That was her uncle’s specialty.

Once his dogs set him down, he rolled himself over to the forge and picked up the crude beginnings of what looked like an axe.

“See this? This used to be a mountain, Nayeli,” he said, lifting it as though it were just any other weapon. “I still have to finish plating it in gold, but this is your weapon now. Think of it as a gift.”

“Really?!” Nayeli asked happily.

“Mmhmm,” Hephaestus said, nodding. “Your father said he wanted something simple and elegant. Of course he understands very little about what actually goes into all those weapons he uses, but I thought this might be a good opportunity to experiment. So I took a mountain, and tried to wring it into the shape of an axe. It has lots of mass, so just swinging it normally can be deadly, but the catch is because it’s so heavy, it can only be wielded by someone with extraordinary strength.”

He offered it to her. “Wanna try?”

Nayeli nodded. Gingerly, she picked up the axe. Almost immediately she felt the handle tingling in her palm, like her hand had gone numb. She quickly let go.

“Uncle, this axe feels… weird,” she said, confused.

“What’s wrong? Don’t tell me our little princess can’t lift it,” Hephaestus said, smiling glibly. “Now that’d make daddy really upset.”

Nayeli pouted, rising to the provocation. She stubbornly grabbed hold of the axe. All she had to do was just power through it, whatever that strange sensation was. She wouldn’t let her father or Uncle Hephaestus down.

The numb feeling quickly spread from her palms up through her arms. In a matter of seconds it felt like her whole body was being pricked with ice-cold needles. The axe had barely budged. So she tried harder, used even more of her colossal strength, until her muscles felt burnt by cold fire.

Hephaestus smiled. Nayeli just took it as a challenge.

“You don’t have to try so hard if you can’t do it, y’know,” Hephaestus said. “I can always make it lighter if you think it’s too heavy for you.”

“I can do it, uncle!” she protested. But she wasn’t sure. It didn’t feel like she had any strength left, and the mountain wasn’t yielding.

Nayeli grit her teeth. If she didn’t have any strength left, she’d just have to find more. For the first time in her life, she gave it everything she had, summoning every last bit of strength she had and exerting herself until she could practically hear her muscles starting to snap like rubber bands. And just like that, the axe-head began to rise.

Hephaestus’ eyes widened. Nayeli grunted with pain, but it didn’t seem to be slowing her down. Finally, she managed to hoist the axe over her head for a proper swing.

“Nayeli!” Hephaestus shouted. “Nayeli stop!”

But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. He thought she couldn’t lift it, that it was too heavy for her. But she wouldn’t disappoint her father, and she wouldn’t let her uncle have the last laugh! The strange tingling feeling was gone. The axe’s weight meant nothing.

The bellows belched fire and flame like volcanoes erupting over the plains of the underworld, and Nayeli brought the axe down in an overhead swing that cut right through the furnace, spilling coals and white-hot metal all over the floor. Warm air blasted through the room like a tempest. Hephaestus sighed.

“Well, I guess you proved me wrong. And destroyed one of my forges…”

“Wha-?” Nayeli looked down at the axe she was holding. “Oh no! Oh no I’m so sorry, uncle!”

He chuckled. “It’s fine. Look, see? I’ve already repaired it.”

She looked at the forge again and lo was it so. The power of the gods knew no limits, it seemed.

Nayeli tried lifting the axe again, and found it strangely lighter this time, which is to say it still felt like swinging a sack of bricks. But that was still preferable to what it felt like swinging the first time, which is to say a humpback whale.

“Uncle, why did it feel so weird the first time I picked up the axe?” she asked curiously. “Now it feels so much lighter.”

“Oh, that’s just because you’re not used to it yet, sweetie,” Hephaestus said quickly. “But hey, you proved me wrong. You can swing it, can’t you? That’s a lot better than I was expecting for your first time.”

Nayeli beamed. Hephaestus smiled back.

“Hephy? Are you still down there in that sweatshop you call a forge?” a thick, syrupy voice cooed.

Hephaestus groaned.

“Yes, dearest wife! I am! I’m a little busy right now!”

“Oh come on! Why don’t you come up here and pay more attention to me for once? Grab a couple of those golems you made – you know, the ones with the really nice asses – and maybe a few of the dogs too, and we’ll have some fun! It’s the least I deserve for being forced to marry a cripple who can’t even make a woman c-”

“You should watch what you say, Aphrodite dear,” Hephaestus said, clearly not sympathetic to her plight. “Nayeli is here with me.”

“Oh,” the voice said, deflating. “Her.”

“Hi, aunt Aphrodite,” Nayeli said timidly. Aphrodite ignored her.

“Heph, whenever you’re done entertaining our brother’s little mistake, come see me up in the bedroom.”

Normally the prospect of being invited to the bedroom of the goddess of love would send heart palpitations through any man. But Hephaestus was not man, nor was he unwise to the games his sister played. Frankly, he’d stopped wanting any part of it centuries ago. The pleasure wasn’t worth the premium.

“I’ll be there once I’m done working on Nayeli’s axe,” he said, lying through his teeth. “Her father wants it done ASAP.”

“Really? That’s your excuse? What a load. And trust me, I know loads,” Aphrodite said scornfully, before her tone took on a cajoling air. “Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve had any proper fun that I might just go and ask Ares to keep me company.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Hephaestus growled. “I know you wouldn’t. Not after the last time.”

The air became frigid with the chill of spousal neglect and cold bedsheets. Sensing her chance, Nayeli pitched in.

“I could keep you company if you wanted, aunt Aphrodite.”

The colors of the room suddenly became vibrantly energetic, like a buzzing bee.

“Oooooooohhh-?”

“She doesn’t mean it like that, Nayeli dear,” Hephaestus said, covering her mouth before she could say anything else. “And you’d better not be getting any ideas, Aphrodite. I know lying with children isn’t anything new to the kind of courtships you’ve approved in the last four thousand years, but I’m not having it, understand?”

He turned to face Nayeli, whose face was beet red. Looks like she’d gotten it.

“Tell you what, kiddo. While your aunt and I talk this out, how about you take that axe and practice swinging some more out in the courtyard? I’ll come get it later.”

“You sure, uncle?” Nayeli asked.

“Yeah, it’s fine. Now go out and practice,” he said, giving her a light shove until the entrance to the forge closed behind her.

“That was a good joke, coming from you. Acting all protective like that when you know what’s coming,” Aphrodite said.

“Yeah…” Hephaestus said, watching the spot where Nayeli left. “I guess you’re right.”

He turned back to his forge as Aphrodite’s thoughts and presence drifted away and he himself reverted back to his immaterial form, the forges losing all substance until they smelted nothing but pure thought.

Sorry, kiddo, he thought. This isn’t about you, it’s about your dad. Wish I could tell you that…

Nayeli kept walking. What point was there in remembering that anymore? Except to make her mad, of course. No, she still had much farther to go. And her path would take her right through that place. Through the city of angels, where she first met Marquis.

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Street Lawyer 5.6

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We watched them wheel Frankie out of the house on a stretcher. Sometime in the past seven minutes, he’d lost consciousness. I’d done all I could in the meantime, but was hard to know if he’d ever wake up again.

Milo lifted Frankie into the ambulance himself, then marched on over to us.

“How does he look?” Marq asked. “Is his heart rate stabilizing-”

He barely got to finish that sentence as Milo decked him in the face, knocking him to the floor.

What did you do to him, Marquis?!”

“Whoa whoa whoa, easy,” I said, stepping in front of him with my knife out. To my relief, Theo backed me up. Milo glared at me with every ounce of hate he could squeeze out of that sour lemon smile of his.

“Out of my way, soldato trash,” he growled. “Know your place or I’ll put you in it.”

“My place is with my boss,” I said firmly. “You’re not my boss. Now take a step back.”

He smiled. No, it was more like an imitation of a smile, wrought from anger and forced through clenched teeth like toothpaste in a tube.

“You have a lot of nerve talking to capo like that. I could have you stripped of your rank if I wanted.”

“Really? Is that what you are?” I replied. “I guess we’ll have to see how long that lasts after Boss Frankie wakes up. If he wakes up. I get the feeling he won’t take too kindly to you almost killing him today.”

That wasn’t me!” Milo roared. “It was Marquis! He… he did something… to the stone!

“Like what?” Marq said, wiping blood off his lip. “I don’t know the first damn thing about how that stone works. Kichirō doesn’t either, so I have a hard time believing you do. Admit it, Milo. You went in half-cocked not knowing what you were doing, and it almost got dad killed.”

“Stop trying to pass the buck!” Milo shouted. “You did something to the stone, admit it!”

“When exactly would I have had a chance to do that?” Marq asked. “You watched us cut it out of a live unicorn and then you took it for yourself. I haven’t seen it since. You just fucked up trying to make daddy love you.”

Milo bit his lip, a thin rivulet of blood forming as his teeth squeaked across the delicate flesh, ripping it open. A drop hit the floor, then two drops. On three, Milo went for his gun.

“Shut up shut up shut up!” Milo screamed, pointing his revolver at Marq and through me. “This is your fault! I didn’t… I couldn’t…

Marq stared at him coldly.

“And you think I would? What reason would I have for killing dad? Me, the supposed ‘favorite’? Why would I go out of my way to shake this family up even more than it already has been with this stupid blood feud? Take some responsibility for yourself, Milo. Whatever happens to dad from hereon out is on you. You made a mistake. Now you have to live with it.”

He brushed the dirt off his coat, ignoring Milo completely.

“Come on Al, let’s go.”

With that, Marq turned his back on Milo even while he still had his gun out, and I guess I followed suit. Wasn’t really sure what else to do.

Milo’s gun hand shook, and he almost pulled the trigger, but Theo knocked it out of his hands before he could, the tip of her throwing knife wedged into the steel of the barrel. Then she waggled her finger at him like a disapproving nanny, a move I found surprisingly sassy for Theo. I liked it. I liked the expression on Milo’s face even more.

We all piled into Marq’s car before things could get any worse, and I turned my head to look out the window at Milo as we pulled out into the street. Even without my powers, I don’t think I would’ve forgotten that face. It looked something like a kneecapped lion or a cornered wolf. Desperate, broken, unrestrained anger with a little fear mixed in, a highly unstable mixture that almost always blew up in your face.

I looked away, trying not to let it worry me. If it really was supposed to be my job to protect my boss, I would’ve told Marq right then. I should’ve told him. We’d just made a very big mistake.

“Al,” Marq said, catching me by surprise.

A moment of quiet passed.

“… Yeah?” I asked, taking his silence as an invitation.

“Does this seem a little convenient to you?”

I thought about how I wanted to respond to that very carefully. “Convenient how?”

Marq sighed. “I mean, Milo won. He had the stone, there was nothing we could do to keep him from using it on our dad and curing his disease. Then dad nearly dies when the stone conveniently starts acting up. Doesn’t that seem a little suspicious to you?”

“What, you think Milo used the stone to try and kill Frankie on purpose?” I asked, confused.

“No, no,” Marq said, waving his hands. “Not like that. You’re approaching this all wrong. Even if it was just a freak accident or a mistake Milo made going in all half-cocked, the most likely outcome of someone mishandling the stone should’ve just been nothing happening at all, not a blood vessel popping in my dad’s brain. And besides that, I can’t see Milo ever trying to kill him to begin with. It’s like I said, what do we have to gain? For someone in Milo’s position it’d be a risky move at best, and career suicide at worse. And Milo’s too much of a daddy’s boy anyway.”

“So what are you suggesting?” I asked. “That he was framed or something?”

“It’s possible, though I don’t see why anyone would do it. Everyone knows Frankie never really liked Milo, so what point would there be in trying to knock him out of the race when he’s already not a threat? You’d have to be pretty low on the waiting list to be less popular with dad than Milo, and frankly we’re running out of brothers and sisters,” Marq said as if it were just simple mathematics. “Besides, why not just kill him if that’s what you want to do? Anyone who can sabotage the stone or Frankie’s medical equipment should already have the resources to do that.”

“Maybe they were worried it wouldn’t work?” I suggested. “It’s not a guarantee that a demon would take a deal to have him assassinated, and hitmen can make mistakes.”

“And this roundabout method is somehow more foolproof?” Marq asked me sarcastically. He sighed. “Look, right now I’m not suggesting anything. All I’m saying is this smells way too much like fish for us to ignore it.”

We parked outside Marq’s office a half an hour later. I looked at Theo as we all piled out, and she cocked her head at me questioningly.

“You should head back home, Theo,” I said. “… Make sure Annie’s doing okay.”

“And you, Master-”

I put my finger on her lips.

“Don’t. Say it. I’ll be home soon. Just gotta take care of some things here at the office.”

She closed her eyes and tipped her head forward in a bow. “Understood.”

“Don’t do that!” I hissed, whipping around to make sure no one was looking. “It’s really embarrassing! Besides, you don’t want to get caught, do you? If anyone finds out you’re a homunculus we could both go to prison!”

“I’m sorry, Master. My apologies,” she said, and bowed again.

God-!” I started, then took a deep breath. “Look, just go. I’ll see you at home.”

Theo nodded. “Please call me immediately if you think you may be in danger.”

“What do you mean? Why would I be-”

But she was already gone. I hadn’t even seen her leave. Damn she’s fast, I thought to myself.

I sighed.

“You know, you really don’t have to be so hard on her,” Marq said. “She’s just trying to do a good job.”

“A little too good if you ask me,” I said. “Makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want her to feel like she’s still a slave. Makes me feel shitty.”

“Maybe this her way of trying to thank you,” Marq suggested. “You saved her life, so now she figures being the best familiar she can be is the least she can do.”

“Speaking of that,” I said. “What did she mean by ‘call’ her? This telepathy thing, how do I use it? I haven’t had much practice.”

“Oh, that?” Marq said. “That’s easy. Just think about your familiar really hard, then tell them what you want them to do or whatever kind of message you’re trying to send.”

“That? That’s it?” I asked. “Sounds a bit too easy, don’t you think? I mean, a guy has to worry about his privacy now and again. What if I’m uhhh… thinking about Theo but I don’t want to call her? That seems like it could get embarrassing.”

Marq snorted. That got a chuckle out of him.

“Don’t worry. The geas we use for familiars was designed to prevent that from happening. You have to be very deliberate in what you’re doing, otherwise your message won’t go through,” he explained. “It takes a little practice though. Try to train your mind to associate calling her with a very specific set of stimuli. A strong mental image, like a phone ringing. Maybe snapping your fingers to a certain beat or clicking your heels together three times and saying ‘There’s no place like home!’ You’ve gotta make a ritual out of it. That way it doesn’t happen by accident, and you can trigger it whenever you want.”

I tried to think of something that’d make a good trigger. Mental images were out. I didn’t trust my brain enough for that. After all, your brain can be tricked. Doesn’t even take magic to do it. So it had to be something I did physically, or with my voice. Wouldn’t that be inconvenient if I wanted to make a call in secret though? It’d have to be something inconspicuous then.

I frowned, deep in concentration. Damn this was hard!

Master Alfonso?

“Huh?” I said aloud. Was that Theo’s voice? Had I accidentally called her?

What is it that you need?! Theo asked urgently. Are you in danger? I shall head there right away-

No no, Theo, I tried thinking back to her. I’m just trying to get this telepathy thing down. I didn’t mean to call you.

Oh, she said, her voice sounding much calmer. Well that is certainly a relief. Should I…

Yes, go check on Annie. I’ll see you at home.

I paused.

How… do I disconnect?

I could feel Theo’s sigh of exasperation on the other end of the line, then I felt nothing at all. The connection had been cut, presumably on Theo’s end. Well that was embarrassing.

“So what are we here for again?” I asked Marq as he opened the door, trying not to think about my ineptitude as a mage.

“Just wanted to go through our stories and all our information together,” Marq said. “Make sure everything matches up. You will be testifying, right?”

“Hmmm…. I dunno,”’I said, faking uncertainty. “I mean technically I was inebriated, so I don’t know how much of that fight I really witnessed  per se. And when you take the curvature of the Earth and the early morning light into account, I can’t really be sure what I saw…”

Marq raised his eyebrow at me.

“… Of course I’m going to testify, you idiot. Nayeli’s family, no matter what your dad says. She’s loud, annoying, obnoxious family, but she’s still family. And besides, what kind of mafioso would I be if I didn’t look out for my boss or my blood brother?” I said, ribbing him with my elbow. He smiled as he pushed open the doors and nearly bumped smack dab into the lady of the hour herself.

“Nayeli,” he said, surprised. “You’re up… and out of the house. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, ummm… just picking up the apron I left here,” she said sheepishly. “I thought I’d head down to the soup kitchen to help out one last time. You said we still had a few days before the news got out, so, y’know… I figured I’d make the most of them. Do something good.”

“Really?” Marq asked, still bewildered. “You’ve been cooped up for the last couple days. Are you sure you’re ready?”

Nayeli giggled. “Come on boss, I’ll be fine. Really, I will.”

“Ookayyyy…” Marq said, still somewhat disbelieving. “Well, do you want me to drive you there?”

“No, I’ll walk,” she said, heading for the door. “What are you so worried about?”

“Nothing, it’s just…” Marq faltered. “I love you… you know that, right?”

Nayeli smiled warmly, one of the few times I’ve seen her do that.

“Yeah. ‘Course I know that.”

“Well… see you later then, I guess.”

“Yeah. See you later, boss. Take care.”

Marq watched her go. She sounded so sad when she said that. I didn’t think about it too much though. I had problems of my own I needed to talk to Marq about.

“Marq. Hey Marq,” I said, snapping my fingers in front of his face. “We were gonna do our stories or whatever?”

“Right, right,” he said, the trance broken. “Here, let’s just head into my office quick.”

He turned the doorknob. The room was absolutely cluttered with stacks of paper, mostly legal documents. Court transcripts, letters, laws, bills, dossiers, the works.

“Johnny Numani v. the State of Florida, Adler v. the Black Cove Coven, ‘On Demihumans and How to Judge Them’, ‘A Short History of Post-War Law’, ‘Our New Reality’…” I read aloud. “Marq, what is all this shit? I’m feeling a bit behind the grind, here.”

“It’s demihuman defense law, Al,” Marq said. “I’ve been studying it, trying to find something that’ll keep Nayeli out of the hoosegow.”

Marq scowled once he saw his desk.

“Oh what the hell is this? Who moved my papers?! I had these all nice and arranged in a specific order! Now I’m gonna have to redo this whole thing…”

He sat down and started sifting through the mess, shuffling folders and packets of paper around in ways that only made sense to him, I’m sure.

“Hmmm… looks like there’s a letter here,” he said, picking up a folded envelope at the bottom of the pile. “Did I leave this here?”

He pushed a bottle of brandy to the side and cut the letter open with the knife he kept next to his pens. Now seemed like as good a time as any.

I took a deep breath. “Listen, Marq, about we talked about on the train. I was thinking I should-”

But he wasn’t listening. He was just staring, at the piece of old paper he held in his hands. Staring at it like a cyclops. Worst of all, his hands were shaking.

“… Marq?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t say anything. That everything was still going according to plan, like they always did. “What’s wrong?”

He looked up at me, slowly, like someone was cranking a car jack attached to his neck. I’d never seen that look in his eyes before. I’d seen him mad, sad, frightened, worried, anxious, happy. Afraid. But never this. This was true fear. We stared at each other wordlessly, then he bolted for the closet.

“Marq!” I yelled after him.

Nayeli!” he shouted, dropping the piece of paper at the door as he hurried to the stairs. Not thinking twice, I grabbed the paper and followed him through the trapdoor.

“Marq, what’s going on?” I asked him, extremely worried, but he wouldn’t respond. Instead he just skidded out the door on the bottom floor, making a mad dash for the exit. He flung open the front doors wildly and yelled out into the streets at the top of his lungs.

Nayeli! πρώτa αγάπη!” He yelled in Greek. “Isn’t that what you said?! πρώτa αγάπη?”

I held the piece of paper up to see what was written on it. My eyes scanned the chicken-scratch Greek lettering, and suddenly I understood.

“υγεία χαρά…” I read aloud. That meant goodbye.

“προτιμώ εσένα!” Marq trumpeted into the streets, desperate for his pleas to be heard. “προτιμώ εσένα! προτιμώ εσένα…”

He dropped down on his knees, sobbing.

“προτιμώ εσένα…” he croaked. “Please… Nayeli…”

I walked over and put a hand on his shoulder, concerned. He looked up at me, crying.

“She’s gone, Al,” he said, choking through tears. “Nayeli’s gone.”

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