I found Daedalus in his workshop outside the Tartarus Menagerie proper. It was a long building, about the size and shape of a two-story warehouse and built along those lines inside as well. I’d long since stopped bothering to knock on the front door or ring the doorbell…he was usually so wrapped up in whatever he was doing that he didn’t notice either. Or any other potential disturbances.
Two years earlier, Eos had set off an air horn outside the building to see if he’d notice. He hadn’t. Several of the more social and intelligent creatures in the Menagerie had been rather annoyed by it, though.
I’d talked Daedalus into giving me a key, and I’d long since gotten used to letting myself in. I made my way through the small living area he maintained near the front door, and out into the workshop.
And stopped, my jaw dropping open a little. Daedalus was busily working on a bizarre wooden contraption, roughly conical in design, with the wide base on the floor and the tapered point nearly touching the high ceiling. The conical part was wrapped in a double spiral pattern of canvas, which my mind tried to alternately translate as a weird corkscrew wing, or a very fragile drill.
After a minute of staring, its appearance finally clicked into place and I recognized it as one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s early helicopter designs.
Daedalus was perched at the top of the thing, hammering tacks into the top of one of the corkscrew-drill-canvas-wing things. He saw me, waved, nearly fell, then carefully made his way down, calling, “Hello! Have you come to see if it flies?”
I approached slowly, unaccountably wary of the thing. None of Daedalus’s experiments had actually exploded - to my knowledge - but they were all a bit off-beat. “No…I’m pretty sure it won’t, though.”
“Leonardo assures me the design is sound,” Daedalus said, wiping his hands on a bit of leftover canvas. “Of course, he was never able to make it work, but I think I’ve sussed out a flaw in his original design. If I can make it work, he’ll never hear the end of it!”
Even after death, the behavior of mad scientist inventors remains consistent. “Is this like that time where you were convinced you’d managed to fix the flaw in Nikola Tesla’s teleporter design, and ended up with two dozen identical worktables?”
Daedalus flushed with a mixture of embarrassment and defensive anger. “No it isn’t. And don’t you dare bring up Icarus! My design was sound and worked flawlessly. He’s long since admitted that was happened was his own silly fault.”
I held up my hands in a gesture of peace. “I wasn’t going to say a word. I’m glad to hear you two have settled that, though.”
He nodded, apparently mollified, because he suddenly smiled warmly again. “Well, if you’re not here to see it fly - “
“Crash,” I interjected.
He considered that for a moment, then shrugged. “If you’re not here to see it crash, then, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, Lady Pluto?” He brightened. “Have you come to see the new sphinx cub? It’s finally weaned and its mother has been letting it roam around the enclosure.”
“Another time,” I said reluctantly. I truly did want to see the little fellow. I’d grown quite fond of the sphinxes. “I have a mystery on my hands, and need your expertise and advice.” I dug out the squashed bullet and dropped it into his outstretched hand. “I need to know what this is.”
“It appears to be a discharged bullet,” he said in a tone of voice that clearly suggested he’d thought me smarter than that.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “I need to know what it’s made of.”
“Ah!” He brightened. “You should have said so in the first place. Come along!”
I followed him over to one of his workbenches, where he picked up a pair of the most bizarre glasses I’d ever seen. They were made of metal, and had various magnification lenses on little swing-arms. He put them on, making himself look rather bug-eyed and crazy, and began manipulating the little arms until he found a combination of lenses that satisfied him. Then he held up the bullet and peered at it closely.
“I think,” he said after a long moment, “that it’s Orichalcum. That gold sheen to it is very unusual, though.” He switched lenses with his free hands. “Yes, definitely Orichalcum. But it’s nothing I made.” He lowered the bullet and took off the glasses. “Where did you get this?”
“It was used to kill Michel Nichols.”
“Oh my,” Daedalus said, eyes widening. “The son of Hermes? The doctor friend you told me about?”
“My dear girl, I’m so very sorry - “
“It’s all right,” I said quickly, interrupting him. “Hades is going to set up a clinic for him so he can treat the Avatars when we’re wounded.”
Daedalus smiled. “What a wonderful idea. Why, I might make use of his services myself.” His smile faded as he looked back down at the bullet. “But this is a mystery, then. Why kill a demigod who’s chosen to live as a mortal? And where could our killer have gotten this?” He bounced the bullet in his hand. “It’s obviously not quite pure, but still.”
“Demigods are pretty hard to kill,” I observed.
“True,” he agreed absently, “but not impossible. Not by a long shot.”
I ignored the unintentional pun and gestured to the small bullet. “Evidently two of those are sufficient.”
“Oh, definitely,” Daedalus said. “Using Orichalcum - even an impure form of it - to kill a demigod is like using a rocket launcher to kill a mortal. It gets the job done, but it’s dramatic overkill. And very expensive, I would imagine.”
“For someone in the mortal world, yes.” Daedalus gestured with it. “It’s difficult to make and work with. Why, even just making the comparatively normal bullets I create for Cerberus requires several days of work for each batch. It’s not just smelting and pouring, there’s alchemical and magical components as well. Even for a bullet this size - I believe it’s a .22 or .25 caliber - the Orichalcum needed would be very difficult and cost a great deal of money to make in the mortal world.”
I knew a little about alchemy, but not much. “How difficult are we talking about?”
“Only a half-dozen mortals in history have ever managed to work with the metal in any significant way,” Daedalus said gravely, “and only two of those actually learned how to make it themselves. Tesla was one of those two, and he was only able to create enough to use as the filament in a single 20-watt lightbulb. I believe it’s still burning in a firehouse in San Francisco.”
I vaguely recalled hearing about that. “Okay, so…”
He held the bullet out to me. “Go to Hephaestus and show it to him. He always keeps a close eye on who in the mortal world has made what sort of metallurgical advances, with a special eye towards spotting people who’ve learned to make Orichalcum. Because of how dangerous it can be.”
“How dangerous it can be? How so?”
“It is, as I said, not merely a physical metal,” Daedalus said quietly. “It has a metaphysical aspect which makes it destructive to immortal beings.”
“How destructive?” I asked, with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“You’ve seen what the Minoan bronze I use for much of your ammunition does to the monsters you hunt down. And you’ve seen that two relatively small bullets made of Orichalcum - of a caliber which would ordinarily barely injure a mortal - were sufficient to kill a demigod.” He held the flattened slug up between his thumb and forefinger. “This would be enough to wound an Avatar badly, and in sufficient quantity could give even a god a potentially lethal wound.”
Shaken, I held out my hand for it and he dropped it into my palm.
“If someone out there in the mortal world is making these,” he said, “and just happened to test them on a demigod, I think it would be very wise - and very important - to find out who and why.”
I pocketed it and nodded. “Agreed.”
“Go to Hephaestus,” Daedalus repeated, “and show it to him. If he doesn’t know who made it, he’ll know how to find out. Oh, one other thing,” he added before I could turn away. “If Hephaestus’s Avatar is there - have you met Vulcan yet? - tell him I’ll have a new type of fireproof fabric for him to test next week.”
“I haven’t met him yet, but I’ll tell him if he’s there.”
Daedalus smiled. “The only god more reclusive than Hades is Hephaestus, and Vulcan was poured into the same mold. Like father, like son, eh?”
“Indeed.” I bowed politely. “Thank you, Daedalus.”
“Good luck, Talia. And for the sake of all of us, be careful! Whoever made that may have made more.”
I made my way back outside - Daedalus likes his privacy so much that he’d made sure it was impossible for anyone to teleport into or out of his workshop. Not even the gods could. And anyway, it was more polite to leave like a good guest. I wasn’t in that much of a hurry…yet. Once outside, I Stepped to Hephaestus’s palace.
Unlike the other gods, Hephaestus didn’t have a formal reception hall. He was a being of profound industry, and it was a rare day indeed that found him away from his forges. As such, his entire palace was given over to his work with metal. The foyer, for example, had an enormous metal sculpture at its center.
I’ve never been a big fan of modern art, but this free-standing enormity made of swooping arcs and swirls of steel, copper, and bronze, was awe-inspiring. I had no idea what the artist had in mind while making it, but it was so chaotic and unbound that I suspected it had something to do with the act of creation itself.
I made my way around it and down the steps that led to the forges. I was met at the bottom by a stocky young man about my height, but enormously muscled. His skin was dark, his hair black and tightly curled, and he wore thick canvas trousers, metal-shot boots, and a heavy leather apron. In his right hand, he held a hammer whose stone-like head was easily the length of his forearm, and nearly half that wide, set on a five foot long leather-wrapped metal shaft.
The leather collar around his neck had a glittering steel tag dangling from it, with the astrological symbol of Vulcan engraved on it.
I bowed politely. “Greetings, Vulcan.”
He returned my bow a bit abruptly, as if he was unused to the gesture. “Greetings to you, Pluto. What can I do for you today?”
It almost sounded like he was reminding himself of his manners, and I smiled. “I was hoping I could have a brief audience with Hephaestus. I have a mystery on my hands, and was hoping he could shed some light on it for me.”
Vulcan looked off and to the left for a moment, then his eyes returned to me. “As long as you don’t mind visiting him in the forges, he can spare you a few minutes.”
I smiled even more. “Miss a chance to see the famous forges of Hephaestus? I wouldn’t dream of it! Lead the way.”
My reply seemed to please him and set him at ease, because he actually cracked a smile as he gestured for me to come with him. “Follow me, please. Don’t stray too far towards the smelting pits and forges, they’re extremely hot.”
“Thank you, I’ll be careful.”
With that, he led me into an industrial wonderland. There were enormous open smelting pits set into the floor, huge crucibles set up on scaffolds, and every imaginable sort of conveyor belt and assembly line. I saw half-giants wielding enormous hammers at equally enormous anvils, and at one workstation an actual cyclops was carefully engraving something onto a huge sheet of metal.
I moved closer to Vulcan and asked - as quietly as I could amidst all of the noise - “Doesn’t he have problems with depth perception?”
A quiet laugh rumbled up out of Vulcan’s chest. “You’d be surprised! I thought so too, at first, but somehow that single eye manages something close to binocular vision. Don’t ask me how.”
At the end of the enormous (I keep using that word…I just don’t have anything else to encapsulate the sheer size and scale of everything I was seeing) hall was the master forge of Hephaestus. Two big anvils, its own hearth and crucibles, and in the midst of it, the god himself.
There are no words to describe the majesty, power, and mastery I saw there. It wasn’t beautiful or awful, or anything else I could put into words. If you’ve ever seen a master metalsmith at work, you’ve seen a pale shadow of the magnificence of watching Hephaestus at work.
He was in the midst of making one of Zeus’s special lightning bolts; literal arcs of electricity flew from the anvil every time his hammer came down on the jagged length of glowing metal he was pounding into shape. I think I could have stood there all day watching the movements of his muscles, listening to the ring of metal on metal and watching the sparks flying, but he noticed our presence and stopped. With a smooth, impossibly practiced motion, he lifted and quenched the stylized bolt of lightning in a barrel of some dark fluid that stood near the anvil.
“Welcome, Lady Pluto!” he boomed in a huge, surprisingly melodious bass voice. It fit him somehow, barrel-chested and very handsome in spite of (or possibly enhanced by) the imperfection of the hump on his back. I had no problem at all understanding why Aphrodite had chosen him to marry. “My son says you have a mystery for me. Come closer, and tell me what I can do for the Avatar of Hades.”
I moved forward, pulling out the bullet as I did so. “Michel, son of Hermes, was killed in Los Angeles early this morning,” I began.
Hephaestus nodded. “We heard. It is a terrible tragedy to lose a child.”
“We’re installing him in Tartarus, actually,” I said quickly. “He’s going to run a clinic for Avatars who need medical attention.”
Hephaestus glanced at his son, who had a few old burn scars on his hands and arms, and nodded. “An excellent notion. No doubt my son will make use of the service.”
Vulcan chuckled quietly. “We’re not all as fire-proof as you, Father.”
“Indeed not,” Hephaestus agreed with good humor, then looked down at me again. “You said you have a mystery for me.”
I held up the bullet. “This, sir.”
He took it from me, holding it with surprising delicacy in his huge hand. He frowned and turned, taking it into better light and looking at it closely. “This,” he said in a dark voice, “is an alloy of Orichalcum.” He frowned even deeper, his eyebrows seeming to take on an intimidating life of their own. “This Michel…was shot with one of these?”
“Two, actually,” I said. “That third one was embedded in the wall behind where he was standing.”
Hephaestus grunted, turning it slowly in his hand. “It’s shoddy work, riddled with imperfections and impurities. It’s barely even an alloy of the metal.” He sighed and his eyes met mine. “But even with its impurities, it would still have been sufficient to injure or kill those who cannot ordinarily be killed by mortal means. And I know of no one in the mortal world today with the skill to make even this imperfect version. Nikola Tesla was the last, and he only made a little before giving it up as too difficult to be practical.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. “No one?”
He shook his head. “No. I keep a very close watch on mortals who can make Orichalcum. It requires not merely a profound understanding of metallurgy, but also an extreme level of skill with alchemy to produce it. It is not just a product of science, but also of magic!”
He must’ve seen something in my expression that made it clear how badly I wanted to understand, because he smiled gently. “Young Pluto,” he said gently, “do you understand rocket science?”
“No, sir, not really.”
“This is much the same thing,” He said gently. “You could spend several mortal lifetimes studying it and not understand it completely. My son, Vulcan, is one of the oldest living Avatars, and has held the post his whole life…but even he does not understand it completely.”
“I’m close, though,” Vulcan interjected with good-natured self-deprecation. “Maybe in a few more centuries I’ll get it.”
Hephaestus chuckled appreciatively and dropped the bullet back into my hand. “Even for me, it is a difficult metal to make. What little Orichalcum I produce for Daedalus to add into some of your specialty ammunition takes all of my skill and that of Vulcan working with me, and those are very small amounts indeed. Until today, I would have said that no living mortal knew how. And yet, here is evidence otherwise.”
“If you don’t know, where should I start looking?” I asked.
‘With your mother, of course,” he said with a smile. “Athena is our intelligence-gatherer. Perhaps she can help you.”
Why hadn’t I thought of that. A visit with Mother sounded like a wonderful idea.
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