The first task I took on for myself the next morning was starting to go through the second of the two piles Mel and I had been setting aside for my personal attention.
"So, these are the reports we've found so far about escaped monsters?" I asked as I sat down behind the desk and picked up the first one.
"Ones that might still be relevant, I think," Mel said. She was busily putting papers into the filing cabinets. Today, she appeared to be organizing things by how thick the files were. "I was looking for those especially while we were sorting yesterday. There might be some stragglers, but those're the ones that are relatively recent."
"Relative by whose scale?" I asked with a smile. "Yours, or mine?"
"Somewhere in between," she replied absently. I made a mental note to check the age of each file and look for the ones that were actually recent, and not two hundred years old.
"Do you know if any of the other Avatars tackled any of these?" I asked hopefully. The pile was two feet tall, and rather intimidating.
"If they did, it should be noted in the file somewhere," she said. Then added, "I hope."
"Oh boy." I opened the first one and sighed. "Vampire."
"What kind" Mel asked curiously, pausing to look over.
I skimmed down the first page of the file, which had all of the relevant details. It read a lot like what I expected a police report would be. "Eastern European. According to this, he originated in Romania."
"Oooh, they're tough," she turned to face me, her exaggerated expression displaying excitement. "They don't have many vulnerabilities, and they can blend in with normal humans without too much trouble."
"You know a lot about vampires?" I asked, a little surprised. A moment later, I realized I shouldn't be...a lot of the 'traditional' types of vampire had Greco-Roman roots.
Mel nodded eagerly. "Oh yes. I love reading supernatural romance novels."
I groaned inwardly. "Ah, well, I think I'd better do some research before jumping to any conclusions about them."
She nodded again. "If you'd like, I can start gathering some of the better books about the various types of creatures you might have to deal with."
"Romance novels?" I teased.
Mel giggled. "No, silly. Actual dry, dusty, scholarly stuff.
I smiled. "Thanks, Mel, that would be very helpful. I looked back down at the file. "This one's ten years old. I should ask Hades how he wants me to handle - "
I cut off mid-sentence as information poured into my brain. It was like someone flipped a light switch...as soon as I thought about asking him a question of policy, I knew with absolute certainty how he'd want me to handle it. One moment I had no idea, the next I just...knew.
I was so startled and disoriented that I actually dropped the file.
Mel was watching me sympathetically, seeming to understand what had just happened. "I saw that happen to Mom a few times when I was little. Are you okay?"
I nodded and started gathering the pages of the file back together. "Just...a little unsettled. We'll work our way backwards, newest to oldest. That way we'll be able to take care of the most immediate ones, and can track down the others later."
Mel watched me for a moment longer before turning back to her work. "That makes very good sense."
"Yes, it does," I agreed. But the implications of what had just happened were a little disturbing. Was I really still my own person, or had I become just an extension of Hades's will? Maybe I should try to talk to him about it at some point. Either he'd set my mind at ease, or make it clear that I was just a puppet on very long strings.
Would it make a difference? I wasn't sure, but the distinction felt important to me. That, in and of itself, was probably a good sign.
But there was work to be done. Important work.
"This looks like the most recent," I said, carefully extracting a very new manila folder from the bottom of the pile and opening it. "Mmhm...just a few days old." I grimaced. "A minotaur on the loose? Really?"
Mel glanced over at me. "Seriously? In this day and age?"
I sighed. "I guess I'd better start by finding out if any are missing. Who's responsible for keeping track of the monsters in captivity here?" I rose, picking up Cerberus from where it leaned against the desk in its sheath and attached it to my belt.
I blinked and stared at her. "The Daedalus? Inventor, philosopher, and so on? Made wings for himself and his son, designed the maze on Crete that held the original minotaur? That Daedalus?"
Mel nodded absently. "Mmhm. He's a bit of a kook, if you ask me."
That was really saying something. "He's in charge of keeping track of the monsters held in the Underworld?"
She looked up from her work. "Yeah, why?"
I tried to frame the thought I was having. "It just seems a bit..."
"Poetic?" Mel said for me, then smiled. "That's Father in a nutshell."
I stopped at the office door and looked back. "I just realized I don't actually know where I'm going."
Mel smiled. "Just Step there. Think of the Tartarus Menagerie, and the magic will know where to take you."
Of course. "Thanks, Mel. I'll be back soon. Um...one more thing...how can I get in touch with you if I need to?"
She snapped her fingers and hurried over to the desk. “I knew I was forgetting something.” She opened a drawer and pulled out…a cell phone. She tossed it to me, and I caught it as she held up another one. “The numbers are pre-programmed, and the battery should last pretty much forever.”
It was a smartphone. It looked, in fact, quite a lot like the kind you could buy at any good electronics store. I chuckled. “How very mundane and utilitarian.” I put it into one of the small pouches on my belt. “You’re prepared for anything. Can I play games on it too?”
“If you have time to.” She smiled. “And being prepared for anything is my job.”
“Top marks, so far. Thanks, Mel. See you soon!” And with that, I fixed the thought of the Tartarus Menagerie firmly in mind, closed my eyes, and Stepped.
The Tartarus Menagerie both was and wasn’t what I’d expected. When one pictures such a place, one envisions outdoor areas where animals are free to roam, with indoor enclosures for the smaller or more dangerous animals. The Tartarus Menagerie was half that, and half prison.
The outside portions were pens made of tall, transparent walls, with walkways between them. The paths led back to large doors in the wall of an enormous cliff, which rose out of sight to the unseen cavern surface. As I approached, I saw what I thought were a pair of wyverns in a huge enclosure with a mesh roof of some sort. They were perched on big trees inside, watching me with a hungry look, their scorpion-like tails whipping back and forth restlessly.
I stopped to look. How could I not? I’d never seen wyverns in real life before. They were fantastically dangerous creatures, after all.
As they fluttered their wings restlessly, staring at me in return - in a way which clearly communicated that they had decided I was food - a slightly shaky-sounding man’s voice said from behind me, “We tried docking their tails, but the stingers just grew back.”
An old man came to stand beside me, his face lined with years, his long hair and neat beard both iron grey. He wore old-fashioned Greek robes of a dirty white color, decorated with black embroidered geometric patterns. He gave me a warm smile and offered his hand. “I’m Daedalus. You must be the new Lady Pluto.”
I shook his hand. “I am. It’s quite an honor to meet you, sir. I had no idea you were still alive.”
He laughed, apparently delighted by the comment. “Oh, dear child, I haven’t been alive since before Persephone died. She came for my soul personally, you know. I was terribly honored.”
I felt my cheeks warm, embarrassed that I’d forgotten that in the Underworld, the souls of the dead could be as tangible as normal people. It’s one of the reasons why mortals (living mortals) can’t stay here for long…it starts playing merry hell with their metabolism after a few hours.
“I’m very sorry, I just forgot - “
“It’s quite all right, child,” he interrupted me gently, patting my shoulder and smiling, “you’re very new at this. Of course, the news that you’d taken up the Office spread quickly. It’s good news.” He rubbed his hands together. “But I’m sure you’re not here to see the Menagerie and chatter with an old inventor. You must be here about my escaped minotaur.”
I nodded. “Though I’d like to see the Menagerie later. How did the minotaur get out?”
He sighed and gestured for me to follow him towards the big doors into the cliff. “The high security wing is inside. Come and see.”
“Wyverns don’t belong in the high security wing?” I asked incredulously.
“Not at all,” he said happily. “They’re surprisingly docile, unless they’re provoked. It’s the true dragons that you have to watch out for. The ones we have in custody are as deep into the mountain as we can put them.” He made a sad sound. “I just regret not having a mating pair. They’re an endangered species, you know.”
“I imagine most everything here is,” I observed.
“You might be surprised! Quite a few of the creatures we have here are technically very rare, but come from species which are actually common animals.” He stopped in front of a pen and gestured me over. “These, for example, are amongst the rarest mythological animals in the world…but they’re descended from common lions.”
I looked into the savannah-like pen…and suddenly found myself almost face to face with a sphinx that slunk out of the tall grass to examine me. It was female, and its face was very nearly human. Its…excuse me, her…intelligence was unmistakable, as she met my eyes and bowed politely at the shoulders. “Greetings, Lady Pluto,” she said in a purring voice that was clearly audible through the transparent wall. “Have you come to try my riddles?”
I bit my lip. Oh, how I would have loved to, at least with the transparent wall separating us. “Not today, I’m afraid. But when I have the time, I’d dearly love to.”
She smiled a very feline smile. “Any time, Lady Pluto. It will be my pleasure.” She bowed again, turned, and vanished into the foliage.
“How many do you have?” I asked in a hushed, respectful voice.
“Two mated pairs. Every few years they have a kitten or three, and when they’re old enough we train them to act as guards and companions for some of the gods and demigods.” Daedalus smiled. “They’re fiercely loyal to their owners, but it’s a good thing the wall is here.” He rapped on the transparent material. “It’s safe to play riddles with them this way, but in the wild, they eat people who fail to answer their questions correctly. Come along!”
I glanced back as I followed him, making a mental note to come and visit as soon as I had the time. I really, really wanted to see what other amazing creatures he had in his care.
“In here,” Daedalus said, leading the way through the doors. “Down the main hall and third right are the minotaur pens.”
The main hall was big enough for…well, I guessed it was big enough for one of the dragons to get through. Side corridors opened off of it, all of it lit with torches and wall fixtures.
“So, how did it break out?” I asked.
“He,” Daedalus emphasized the pronoun gently, “broke out by twisting the door right off its hinges. Again. I’ve been working on new ways of reinforcing them.”
He nodded. “They escape every few years, I’m afraid. Usually they don’t get very far, or one of the other Avatars will bring them down or bring them in. It’s been a couple of centuries since one made it out and managed to stay on the loose for more than a week.”
“And it’s been about two weeks since this one broke out, right?”
“Correct,” Daedalus nodded.
“And…how are these escapes still happening after millennia?” I felt a little disturbed by the thought. Were the security precautions here really that bad?
“Oh, we’ve tried everything,” Daedalus said wearily. “And most of the creatures we keep here either can’t - or won’t escape. But you know what they say about motivation.”
“If you’re sufficiently motivated, you can do anything?” I said dryly.
“That’s the one,” he agreed. “Why, Lord Hades even tried closing some of the ways into and out of Tartarus, but they opened right up again, or new ones opened in their place. It’s almost like something wants this to be happening.” Before I could ask the obvious question he waved me off. “Don’t ask me why. I’m just a scientist. I don’t pretend to understand the universe.”
I smiled in spite of the disturbing concept underlying his comment.
When we reached our destination, I immediately saw that he hadn’t been exaggerating. The doors to the minotaur’s pens were made of a dark metal, heavily reinforced and with big, sturdy hinges. The escapee had somehow managed to bend his door outward at the top corner, then twisted the hinges right out of the stone wall.
I whistled softly. “How strong are they, exactly?”
“I’m not sure, not precisely. They’ve never been willing to participate in any tests to find out.” He gestured to the door. “Strong enough to do that, at least. I’ve been keeping the others on mild tranquilizers since he escaped, just in case.”
I looked down the hall and counted eleven other doors. “A dozen?”
“Twenty, actually,” he said. “We’ve doubled up some of the smaller specimens to save space. It also keeps them…um…easier to manage if they’re male and female in a pen together.”
The look I gave him must have been as alarmed as I felt, because he immediately added, “They’re neutered, of course. We don’t allow minotaurs to reproduce. They may be an endangered species, but they’re also a very, very dangerous and hostile one.”
I sighed. “I guess it’s up to me to find and deal with this one. Can you tell me anything about it?”
“He,” Daedalus emphasized again, his tone a bit chiding this time, “is one of the biggest we’ve ever had in captivity, and very, very surly. Not a nice fellow at all. The only one I’ve seen who was worse is the one that went into the original Labyrinth on Crete.” He huffed out a small laugh. “Shame we can’t send Theseus after this one too.”
“At least I won’t need to deal with a labyrinth,” I said with a smile.
“Very true! Oh!” He reached into the satchel hanging by his side. “You’ll want these, just in case.”
He handed me a big box magazine filled with huge rifle cartridges, a half-dozen in all. They were brass jacketed, tipped with a copper-colored metal of some sort, and were as long as my hand and thicker around than my thumb. “What’re these? Anti-tank rounds?”
“Actually, they could be. They’re high-velocity, high-impact, armor-piercing rounds,” Daedalus explained. “The bullets themselves are Minoan bronze, so they’ll penetrate even a minotaur’s thick hide. Combined with your rifle’s special abilities, they should be devastating. Ordinarily, I’ll have more for you than just the one magazine, but…well, short notice and all.”
“Who told you I had a rifle?” I asked.
He gave me a quizzical look. “Why, I helped design it myself.”
I glanced down at Cerberus, hanging at my left hip. If swords had faces, I think it might have smirked at me. “Ah. Um…what can I carry it in?”
He pointed to my belt. “The pouches on your belt should be big enough.”
I looked down at them. There were three on the right front side, and three more behind where Cerberus hung on the left side. They looked just about big enough to put a wallet into, or maybe a small notebook and a couple of pens. But…
I opened one of the pouches, brought the magazine to its opening, and it slid in effortlessly. Magic is so cool. “Okay, then. Can you give me an idea of where to start looking for the minotaur?”
Daedalus considered the question for a moment. “Well, the last one that escaped for any length of time headed for the American West. It seemed to think it could disappear into a cattle drive?”
“Yeah? How’d that work out for it?”
I smiled a little. “How about this one? Do you know which exit from Tartarus it used, at least?”
He nodded. “It was the gateway that comes out in Nevada, in the United States.”
As soon as he identified it, I knew precisely where it was, and where in the mortal world it emerged. “Thank you, Daedalus. I’ll start there.”
“Good luck, Lady Pluto!”
As I Stepped to the Nevada entrance, I pondered my knowledge of the location; as soon as Daedalus had mentioned it, I had known precisely where it was. It was as if the information had always been in my brain, but I hadn’t known to look for it before that moment.
As I stood at the entrance to the rough-hewn tunnel that led out into the mortal world, I thought about Hades’s palace, and instantly knew where it was relative to my current position. I thought about the Fields of Asphodel, where the common dead rest, and knew precisely how to get there from where I was. I had, at my metaphorical fingertips, encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain and features between here and there.
It was like having perfect instant recall and real-time information about everything to do with the Underworld. I just had to ask the right mental question, so to speak, to bring that information to the surface.
On one hand, the instant knowledge was undeniably useful and would probably be of vital importance someday.
On the other hand…
I shivered a little. Coupled with my unconsciously respectful behavior towards Hades (not that I would have been anything less than delicately respectful anyway, considering how intimidating he was) and my earlier instance of instant knowledge of his opinion on how to handle a matter of policy…something was influencing my mind and behavior.
The conclusion was unavoidable. Something - or someone - was directing my thoughts and actions. Not to a degree that made me question my free will, but enough to make me wonder how long my leash was.
It had to be the choker I’d woken up wearing. There was nothing else it could be.
‘Ambivalent’ barely scratched the surface of how I felt about that idea.
I sighed. Wasting time worrying about it wasn’t going to either answer any of my questions about how much control I had over my own actions, or accomplish my current task: retrieving (or killing) an escaped minotaur.
“There is a time for words,” Mother used to say, “and a time for deeds. The most important thing is to be able to know which is which.”
This was a time for deeds. I felt that instinctively. Not merely to prove myself competent to Hades, but also to take care of a problem that had escaped from our realm to threaten the mortal one.
Setting aside my doubts, I turned and started walking up the tunnel.
Josh is a life-long native of Western Massachusetts. He spends his daylight hours disguised as a mild-mannered IT specialist, trying to get inanimate objects to talk to him and work the way he tells them to. He spends his nights trying to keep all of the animated characters in his imagination from saying too much…and work the way he tells them to.
For the past couple of decades, Josh has been creating worlds for his characters to inhabit, and dreaming up ways to push at the practical implications of a wide variety of Science Fiction and Fantasy tropes. He loves telling stories, entertaining his readers, and sparking fun debates about how to make the implausible plausible. He has a degree in Folklore & Mythology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.