Trenches

Alright, I’ll admit it. I have no idea what I’m doing here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the cause. I made my sign myself after a late night craft store run. The cashier was so funny, asking if we had a project for school.
“No, ma’am, we’re actively participating in our democracy.”
That had been my best friend’s flippant response. I’d seen this kind of thing on TV and I was scared. They kept saying it would be fine though. Somehow, I don’t think they really understood.

Now, I was trying not to cry as I heard shouting and loud bangs that sounded a lot like explosives to my ears. That was when he appeared out of the smoke. A tall man with dark hair cut military short. He was wearing wraparound shades that obscured his eyes, a bandanna over the lower half of his face, and a tight t-shirt with a Spartan logo on it. He grabbed my arm and hauled me up.
“Come on, kid. How’re you doing?”
I tried to speak and started coughing. He cursed in a language I didn’t understand and handed me a bottle and a bandanna.
“Swish and spit. Wet the bandanna and hold it over your mouth. Got me, kid?”
I nodded once, uncertain. We both heard the sound that caught his attention then. It was like a loud pop and then something hissing. I didn’t think, I just moved. Doing as he’d told me, I kept the bandanna over my mouth as I stayed low hoping this stuff worked like smoke. He grabbed my arm and pointed, making signs I’d never seen. I could follow it though. Grab the woman near us and follow him.
He led us up a side street where there were a few people working on a sort of street triage. He nodded to them, clearly knowing each and every one of them. My eyes were burning and tears streamed down my face. The woman we’d helped out was worse off though. Another woman grabbed a bottle of something and was talking quietly to her, saying she was here to help. Not to worry a bit.
When my eyes were clear, I started helping. He coached me, teaching me things I never thought I would learn. I learned more about how medicine really works than I ever had before. And not gentle, kind, sterile medicine. This was rough and we could only do our best. Sometimes, I wondered what he was doing here. He was a soldier. He had to be. But he just laughed and said he fought in these trenches now, in this new kind of war for liberty. If he was a general, I think I would follow him to the ends of the earth.
“Come on, kid. You and me, we’ve got more people to help.”

Monsters and Heroes

The first thing Lysandra did was belt on a sword stolen from her brother. If she succeeded, he need never know. If she failed, it would never matter. The second was to tie a cloth over her eyes. It was hard to be certain when she would meet the monster, so it was best she be protected. With any luck, the patron of Athens would be with her. Or maybe the Goddess of Love, given the nature of her quest. Taking a breath, she began to feel her way through the rocks that led to the cave. She was certain she would find what she was looking for there.
It was slow going, that sightless progress from beach to cave. Lysandra stopped twice, certain she heard movement but never once daring to adjust her blindfold just in case it was the monster. Her questing hands found stone before her and she nearly jumped out of her own skin when it moved, falling backward.
“Lady of Wisdom, please let that not have been her I just knocked over…”
A voice sounded from behind her, disturbingly close.
“The Lady of Wisdom has no place on my island. And neither do you.”
Lysandra didn’t turn. It would have done her no good. She let her hands fall to her sides and tried to keep from shaking.
“Neither does Pelagia.”
She wished for a moment that her voice had sounded more fierce, more determined, less afraid. But there was nothing she could do now. Snakes snapped all around her head and Lysandra knew that Medusa had come right up behind her. For a long moment, they both stood there like that. Then Medusa spoke, her voice low and dangerous.
“Do you know what happens to the people who come here?”
Lysandra licked her lips nervously.
“They turn to stone. When they see your eyes, they turn to stone.”
“Which is why you wore a blindfold, clever Athenian girl. Then you know the girl you’re looking for is stone. So why are you here?”
“Because I think you know how to turn her back.”
Lysandra listened to the shifting behind her as Medusa considered her words.
“Assuming for a moment that I could, why would I? Why would I restore any of them? What do you know about any of this?”
Medusa grabbed Lysandra by the arm and the girl screamed. Clamping her free hand over her mouth, Lysandra felt hot tears beginning to soak her blindfold.
“I don’t. I don’t know anything beyond the stories. They…they said you were a monster. I just came to rescue Pelagia. Because. Because I love her.”
When Medusa spoke, there was distaste in her voice.
“So, of course, you carried a sword to face a monster. Everything becomes clear. Once, I was as human as you, girl. As it happens, I can do what you wish, but it will be for a price.”
Lysandra’s heart leaped into her mouth and her pulse hammered in her ears.
“I’ll do it. Anything you want, I’ll do it.”
“There’s spring on the island. Use the water from that to wash the stone off of her and only her. Then take your Pelagia and go tell them that I am dead. I don’t care what story you tell, but make it convincing. I’m tired of would-be heroes trying to test themselves on me. I just want to be left alone.” Medusa let go of Lysandra’s arm. “I’ll be in my cave, so you can take your blindfold off. If you swear to the deal.”
Lysandra didn’t hesitate.
“I swear it on the River Styx.”

Lysandra had tucked the sword back among her brother’s belongings before she and Pelagia went to the agora with their news.
“I tell you, the gorgon Medusa is dead.”
Lysandra stood on a low wall, hands on her hips.
“And who slew that monster?”
“Was it you, girl?”
Lysandra glanced at Pelagia at her side and then smiled, spinning a tale no one would ever forget.
“Not I. It was a hero, a demigod named Perseus. I can tell you exactly how it happened.”

Flame

    She watched as the stripped the colors from the old statues and wept. Why were they doing this? These people weren’t from here. They didn’t know, didn’t understand. They had never seen the nymphs of the forest or the satyrs frolicking in a field. But they imagined that they had. They had read Herodotus and Homer and Pliny and dreamed that they had stood atop Olympus among staid and stolid gods of dignity and refinement, relegating their fatal flaws to mere misdemeanor and rendering their colors to muted silence. She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders, wondering if her family would ever come back and set to rights what had happened. Would they hear her silent tears or sense the bitter anguish? She took up the poker once more and checked three small brazier before her. They might remove the colors, these foreigners, but they would never extinguish the flame

The Runner

None of the other runners noticed when he joined them, keeping pace with the others. There was something about this man that seemed familiar, especially to those who had been running marathons for years. The cameras would catch him as he jogged, but no one ever saw him start and no one ever saw him finish. For those who had seen the runner, there was no question who he was. He always encouraged the others, pushing them to finish the race. He had made it once, and they would too.
When they looked through the pictures, through the whole history of the sport since the invention of the camera, they found the same man running with the pack. He wore a number in every race and that number was never on the registered list of runners. They’d looked in every marathon, even when there were two races on one day. And there he was. They called him the Runner, but he had once had a name.
He burst into the assembly, just another soldier from the Athenian army. He bore news from the battle but all he could do was cry out one word, declare their victory. Then he fell to the stones of the floor, dead. He was the messenger. He was the runner. He was Philippides and his was the marathon.

Another Day, Another Deity

There was something about the man leaning on the counter that inherently bothered me. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was. He was probably just another tourist, or maybe one of the souls trying to argue their fate with my Lady.
“Can I help you, Sir? We’re having a special today on clay pots and carnival glass if you’re interested.”
He chuckled and gave me a grin.
“Actually, I was hoping your boss was in.”
That caught my attention and I stood straighter, trying to identify him. He was tall and thin, but in that muscular way, with a crop of bright red hair that didn’t seem to know what gravity was. His eyes were hard to describe, but something in them reminded me of open flames. He had spiraling tattoos going up both arms that looked almost like some kind of snake, but the style was pretty distinct. Not exactly tribal, a little more… Then it hit me. They were Norse. He wasn’t an Olympian. He was something else entirely.
My comprehension must have shown on my face as he started laughing again, calling my attention to the scars on his face. They were around his mouth…like someone had sewn his mouth shut.
“So, is the flower child in?”
“I think she’s out back, World Breaker.”
He flipped a coin into the fountain as he strode out the back door of the shop. It wasn’t until he passed through the door and I heard him greeting my Lady that I relaxed again, slumping against the counter. My momentary peace was shattered utterly by two sets of giggling voices and I looked up again, eyes huge. Children. There were two little boys running around now, in and among the various items in the shop. Suddenly one of them poked his head over the side of my counter, blue eyes huge in his small face.
“Where did Dad go?”
Then the second one appeared at his side, slightly taller but built nearly the same.
“Who are you?”
“Do you have any candy?”
“Will you play with us?”
I pointed towards the back, hand shaking slightly.
“He went that way. I work here. I don’t have candy. I’m working.”
They both nodded, clearly happy with my answers. Then they scampered off towards the back. Closing my eyes, I silently prayed that I wouldn’t hear crashing or shattering.

The White Elephant

The problem with working at the white elephant is that you never really know what’s going to come through the door. When that white elephant is on the seashore at the convergence of two ley lines, it gets worse. Or at least more exciting. Really depends on your outlook on life. I was the summer help that year, hired largely to deal with the sudden influx of tourists poking through the labyrinthine barn that was the store. Make sure they didn’t got lost amid the knick-knacks and statues, keep the fountain in the center running, cover the register if it looked like someone might actually want to buy that lobster trap they found under a pile of sea glass and clay pots. Things like that.

Mostly the store was run by my boss and her daughter Mel. It wasn’t a serious job for them, but then they didn’t need it to be. Not when her husband wore perfectly tailored suits and drove a car that I’d have to work for the rest of my life to even consider affording. The front of the shop had two pillars holding up the overhang, dressed up to look like old Greek columns. The first time Mom dropped me off, she laughed and said it looked like I was working in a mausoleum. It was funny then, I suppose.

It was a work day like any other. Mel was out for a bit to walk Spots the Great Dane and my boss was on the front step watering the flowers. I was rearranging the collection of questionably acquired street signs. How the couple got in past her to end up in my sphere of responsibility, I will never know. But then, I’ve also never seen tourists this lost. The woman was sure they’d taken a wrong turn, the man laughed, somehow certain they were in the right place.

“If you need help with anything, just give a shout.”
They didn’t seem to hear me, their argument becoming less and less clear to understand. For a moment, I thought they’d switched languages. Finally, she hissed at him, baring her teeth and he chittered back. I set down the stop sign I’d been working on positioning and turned. Taking a step towards them, I held up my hands defensively.

“Excuse me? Sir? Ma’am? Are you alright?”

They both turned towards me and I nearly fell backwards. Their faces were gone. He leaned in, chittering loudly at me. Before the scream could issue from my lips, my boss was there. Her hand was on my shoulder, her eyes on them. When she spoke, it wasn’t that distant and distracted tone she normally had.

“You’re being rude.” She wasn’t speaking to me. “Are you here to appeal the decision of the Judges?”

Both of them nodded and she sighed.

“Fine. But I would say it’s fairly clear that Asphodel is already calling you. If you wanted Elysium, maybe you should have lived your lives. Now, get out of my store.”

They turned into shadows at her command and vanished through the cracks between the floorboards. I knew I must look like someone had just slapped me with a fish. That would have made more sense.

“Sorry about that. Sometimes people just don’t like harsh truths.” She pulled a cloth out of her pocket and held it out to me. “Wipe your face, you’ve got some dirt. We’ve got a box coming in this afternoon. Can you take it?”

“O-of course.”

Her eyes focused on me again, pure and direct.

“Very good. And don’t worry, I’ll teach you to deal with them properly when we’ve the time. You’ll need to learn if you’re going to be in my service.”

The problem with working in the white elephant is that you never know what’s going to come through the door. But with the stygian iron in my pocket and the words in my mind, I know I can face just about anything. But that’s what you get when you end up in service here.