Part One: Strawberry Rain
The rain tasted strange that day.
Vanth woke late, to the sound of heavy drops on her van’s roof. She’d driven North this month, during winter the nights were cold but something about the rain reminded her of Home. Maybe it was the way they danced in the heavy showers that weekend in Scotland. Vanth couldn’t say but the goddess often longed to feel the rain’s kiss.
Maybe she just missed her own Hell, the one she used to rule. Rained all the time there. Vanth’s primary focus as a goddess was death, truly she was a psychopomp but her parents were gods so she counted. Back then, she counted. Exile didn’t change a being but what is a god without worship?
“An ever aging fool,” she said to the empty vehicle. “Never gonna grow up, at least. Still feel like the bottom of the jar this morning.” She flipped the blanket off, fixing the snap on her jeans, and ignoring the rattle of empty beer bottles. The cold made her shiver, but she could warm up the VW after she peed.
Pulling the door back, she stepped barefoot in the rain and hobbled the icy ten steps to the nearest tree. She noticed the taste then, and sticking out her tongue confirmed her first impression. The heavy drops tasted like cold strawberry wine.
Just like that first night with Home.
Vanth rushed her business, sanitizing her hands with the bottle of rubbing alcohol she kept under the seat.
Leaning back, she let the rain collect on her tongue.
Strawberry wine fell like demented tears from a drunken god.
She slammed the van door, walking around to the drivers side. Dawn seemed liked a good time as any to start her day. And today would be a strange one. Vanth could already tell, booze didn’t fall from the sky on normal days. She climbed into the van, pulling a handful of cheez-its from the box safety belted into the passenger seat. “We’ve got a mystery,” she said to the air. “Or at least something to do today.”
The van turned over easy, she’d just had it looked over on her way up here. Good thing, as she didn’t have anything resembling insurance on the vehicle. She didn’t have the money, or even an address, for that sort of luxury.
Vanth needed to get in touch with someone. Reynardine might be a god, and a friend of Fate’s but he still took Vanth’s calls. Even sent her something at Christmas. More than she expected from the General and much more than she got from anyone else from the old days.
Her phone needed juice, she cruised through the wet streets looking for lights. A fast food joint shined bright, the goddess could already smell sausage and eggs.
Parking in the empty lot, Vanth slipped flip-flops on before heading out the door. She had to turn back to grab the cord from her glovebox. The rain had picked up on the short drive from her sleeping spot, her long brown hair hung in messy curls by the time she made it to the restaurant. Standing under the overhang, she tasted the rain again.
Normal water. Good but confusing. At least the area’s wild animals wouldn’t be drunk all day.
A blonde with nice eyes manned the counter, wiping down trays and yawning sleepily in dawn’s light. Vanth approached the registers, eyeing the menu. “Hola, can I get a muffin special, extra sauce and a large breakfast tot? And a milkshake.”
“We can’t serve shakes before ten-thirty. We do have a new cafe line of drinks, the blended latte is a coffee based milkshake.”
Vanth smiled at the girl, taking a deep contented breath. “Oh, what a marvelous time to be alive. I’ll take one of those.”
“Sure.” The woman tapped her order in.
“You got a place to charge this?” Vanth pulled the phone and cord from her pocket.
The woman pointed to the small hall that led to the bathrooms. “Last booth down.”
Vanth waited for her food at the counter, starting up her phone and texting the General to see if he could talk. <Hey, are you okay to chat? It’s was raining booze over my van this morning. Weirded out.>
Her food arrived, Vanth got a few mustard packets to go on the sandwich and with the potatoes. Breakfast burger unwrapped, Vanth just bit down when her phone rang.
“‘Lo,” she said around her food, chewing the hot sandwich fast.
“Was it beer or wine? Or the hard stuff?”
“No clue, just curious. Even I’ve never heard of random rains of booze. Interesting.”
Vanth chugged some of her coffee shake to cool her burned tongue and seized under a sharp headache.
“Good to know you’ve got one right?”
Vanth rubbed her offended forehead, wondering if a bite of her steaming sandwich would help. “Know anyone that might be able to offer some advice?”
“Ask around town maybe?”
A dark truck pulled into the lot, a new trailer bumping over the cement behind the vehicle. The front door popped open, and a tubby man in dark coveralls dropped from the seat. He stared aoround the lot, stopping on Vanth. Drawing a cell phone from his pocket, the man turned and jogged toward the back of the trailer.
Reynardine cleared his throat. “Vanth?”
The driver opened the trailer, running for the front of his truck.
“I’ve got to go,” Vanth said, taking a fast bite of her burger and chewing.
“What? Is everything okay, V?”
A withered dark harpy climbed to the top of the van, eight feet tall and covered in sparse black feathers. The lean bird creature walked on thin wings and taloned legs. She sniffed the air, sticking out a scarred tongue for a taste of the wind.
The driver climbed into his truck, leaning back out to slam the door. With a cry, the harpy dropped to the ground. One long arm caught the man’s, he slammed the door on the limb. Her shrieks filled the air, the restaurant work started screaming in time with the horrible creature. The harpy pushed back, a metallic groan filled the air and the door reversed. She grabbed the man, slamming him to the ground. Eight inch talons went straight through his shoulder, pinning him to the cement. The harpy shifted it’s heavy body, leaning the human face down to the screaming man’s back.
Vanth stood, shaking her head. “No, Reynardine. Things are not okay.” She ended the call, setting her phone on the table. Things were about to get messy, and she couldn’t afford a new one.
The bird woman fed, tearing at his spasming meaty shoulders.
Pulling magic from the air, Vanth drew the her sword from the small plane of existence she used for a sheath. The black blade came from her scythe, the goddesses symbol of power since her first, a torch, went out in the fourteen hundreds.
The harpy’s victim stopped screaming, ending the creatures interest in the meal. She used her long wing-arms to shove the corpse away, retching some of the flesh onto the pavement.
Whimpering caught Vanth’s ears, she turned to stare at the blonde. “Go into the back, wait for me to give the all clear, okay?”
She didn’t move, her eyes locked onto the giant creature.
Two thumps, and the restaurant’s double doors crashed open. Vanth turned to the harpy, holding her sword high to block. Claws caught on the magic steel, the goddess pushed back against the harpy. The creature relented, rearing back with a hellish screech.
Vanth closed the gap, slashing at the spindly arms with everything she had.
Something heavy collided with the goddess’s head sending pain rampant through her. A frying pan rattled on the floor. She dropped to one knee, staring back at the wincing counter girl.
Another screech and the creature stabbed downward, all three claws tearing into Vanth’s chest. Lifting her high, the harpy slammed the goddess into the ground. Her sword bounced away, the harpy threw her in the other direction.
The world went fuzzy, Vanth couldn’t hear anything but hollow buzzing. Her ears began to clear, screams cutting like acid into the static.
Pushing herself up, the goddess rushed forward on weak legs. She stumbled, grabbing the frying pan’s handle before vaulting the counter. Gold and red god’s blood leaking behind her, she sailed through the air onto the harpy’s back.
Her feet slipped on the loose feather, the creature turned. Vanth swung the pan, all of her divine strength behind the attack. A sickening crunch, and the neck turned all the way around.
Gasping for breath, Vanth stumbled toward the head of the creature. One hard whack from the pan and the harpy breathed no more.
Vanth collapsed herself, watching the blonde scream into her hands as darkness crushed her world.
Vanth could tell the Washer was in this dream, goddesses got perks like that. She started looking for a river, and the oft sage advice of the Screaming Oracle. Water trickled in the darkness of her dream’s pure night. A wide field of tall grass stood between her and the gentle rushing sound.
A dangerous field, the grass could hide a lot of things. Vanth checked for her sword, dismayed to find the pocket empty. No waiting now though, she’d have to face her dreams unarmed. She started across the heavy green field, her violet eyes sharp for any sign of life.
The river glittered under the moonlight, not reflection but a flow of souls looking for their current. She stumbled onto the small trail. The Washer did her duty a little ways down, washing the uniform of the truck driver.
Vanth skipped a little on the way, enjoying the soft dust of the bank under her bare feet.
“Hello, Madame Banshee.”
“Aw, Mrs Vanth. I didn’t expect to see you here.” The Washer’s voice sounded like rocks in a blender, too rough to be human. Too smooth to be a banshee, truth be told, but she didn’t count as much else.
“That’s a bit hard to believe, considering you’re in my dream.”
“Am I?” the old woman asked, searching around with wide eyes. “I supposed I must be, I’m sure you couldn’t be anywhere else.”
“That I cannot, I doubt very sincerely that I’m outside California’s borders.”
“Sad state of affairs, fine wings like yours and you keep them up all the time.”
“So, you here to taunt me about my exile, or are you here to help with the booze-slash-harpy incident?”
“Drunken harpies? Sounds like my book club. No, I’m just here to see Mr…” The washer squinted at the stitched pocket of the shirt. “Mr Stanywickz? Stanwycks? Something, he’s being helped home. I’m here to offer him guidance.”
“I guess, you’re here to listen.”
Vanth sat on the bank, watching the water ripple with the approach. Slowly a corpse broke through from beneath, the truck driver stumbling out of deaths endless stream. Naked and bleeding, his flabby body turning a bluish shade.
“Shit, it got you too?” the man asked, spotting Vanth.
“Yes,” the Washer said. “Yes, you’re both dead.”
“Sorry, I thought it might hurt other people, but they said they had someone on hand to ensure that didn’t happen. To me, I mean. I guess they wanted you dead.”
“Who?” Vanth asked.
“The guy who hired us, a tall dude with dark hair. My boss hunts the things, she sells the spares to the highest bidder.”
“What was the harpy supposed to be doing there?”
“Just killing the brunette, I don’t know all the details. Sorry you died, I didn’t know it was a girl he was after.”
The Washer handed him his clothes, nodding to the man. “These things happen.”
“Yeah,” Vanth added. “It’s feeling better already.” She turned to the Washer. “Can I go?”
“Sure, let me know how things turn out, okay?”
“No problem. ‘Night.”
“Day, where you’ll wake up.”
Vanth sat up in a real bed, surprised as hell she wasn’t in a hospital. Or a freaky Government lab.
And naked. Always fun to wake up naked in a strange bed.
The goddess pulled the blanket off with her, standing and wrapping the cover tight. The dark almost hid the door, she stumbled closer yanking on the handle.
Voices reached her from a lit room down the small hall. She walked forward, listening to the soft conversation.
“…The wound is so dark though, like a deep black color. I wish it was me instead of her, she’d know what to do.”
Wound? Vanth looked at her chest, pulling the blanket down. She’d healed fine, takes more than an angry harpy to down a goddess. Even a leftover like her could heal a lot of damage.
“She’s got maybe a day or two.” Vanth recognized that voice, the soft lilting accent and deep rumble. Even her legs twitched at it, and the General really wasn’t her type.
Comforted by his presence, she strode into the room.
Reynardine leaned back in his chair, bright teal suit offset by shining red hair. One eye sparkled amber, the other had been lost. No one knew where but him.
A different blonde from the restaurant sat opposite the General. Hands clasped in front of her, she looked lost in her own worry. Fresh and drying tears marked her sun kissed face. Red cracks spidered through her pretty cornflower eyes.
“Hello?” Vanth asked.
“Oh hey, V,” Reynardine said, head bobbing an inch. “Glad you’re feeling better.”
“Yeah, it’s all gravy on my end. Naked though, that sucks.”
The blonde looked up, shaking her head. “I put clothes on the chair. Yours are covered in blood, I did my best but the shirt is ratfucked. The jeans are drying.”
Vanth nodded, adding a sorry smile. “I’ll just go put that on then.”
“Please don’t drag the comforter all over the house.”
“Yeah, yeah, no problem.” Vanth walked backward lifting the hem of the comforter, toward the room. Flicking on the light, she found a pair of blue sweats and a loose green t-shirt with just a small hole in one arm. She threw the clothes on, stopping off in the restroom before rejoining the other two.
Her hair needed a good wash, she tousled some of the dried blood out but the flakes stuck to the scalp. She looked half-bled, the icthorian blood in her veins still working on the damage. A prayer would speed things up. She expected the woman gave all she had to something else, and the General would get exiled himself just for consorting with her. Which never stopped him in the past, but she couldn’t directly plead for help like that. Another few hours and she’d be normal as ever these days.
When the goddess returned to the living room, the woman cried on the couch. Vanth edged around to the free chair. She gave the sobbing blonde a sad look, mouthing ‘what?’ at the General.
He shook his head, pushing a steaming mug of coffee in her direction.
Sipping the coffee, Vanth pieced together what she knew. Someone else is probably hurt. Bad.
But the person still lived, the woman said as much. So why the General just sat there Vanth had no clue. Gods couldn’t intervene directly, but rules and Reynardine often parted ways.
Finally the blonde spoke again. “I guess I should be with her.”
“Sorry,” Vanth said. “But what’s happening?”
“My wife is dying,” the woman said.
“She’s Kate Frew, her wife is Drystellia—”
Vanth certainly remembered that name, what’s a divine war without a chosen one? He’d passed away many years ago, so this must be— “Frew’s grandkid? What are we waiting for then, what’s wrong with her?”
“Vanth, we really can’t help. Anapa would never help a Frew, and she’s been bitten by a Stygian serpent. I don’t know any other free roaming psychopomps.”
And that’s his game. The General was a miracle man, or fox technically, but even he didn’t have a permanent pass in and out of Hades.
Vanth did though. Assuming she didn’t mind risking death to save a stranger.
Calling scraps of loose power, the goddess looked at Kate, reading the mortal’s whole life through the cornflower irises. She saw every heartbreak, every love, and moments no one, even her wife, had ever seen. Vanth’s true nature shined, she judged Kate like a newly harvested soul. Staring deep into the women, the goddess found enough love, more than enough, to make the risk worth the endeavor.
Smiling at the nicer moments, Vanth asked, “Just need a few Kore’s bells, right? Easy peasy iced squeezy.”
“What?” Kate looked at the General for answers.
“Stygian serpent venom is counteracted with Kore’s bells, the blue ones and the green work best,” Vanth explained. “The General brought me here because I’m a psychopomp, I can go to hell with relative ease.”
“Actually, Drys is a doctor,” Reynardine interjected. “I brought you here for healing, if you needed it. I traced the call to find you. Good job, by the way. Nice work with the harpy. Yeah, the doctors dying though, didn’t see that coming. At all. Just another coincidence, but a fortunate one.”
“Sure,” Vanth said, remembering the amount of heavy coincidences he never saw coming in the past.
Kate cleared her throat. “Can you really help?”
“Yeah,” Vanth said, she didn’t want to lay the heavier part of the venture on the crying woman. “I just need some food, and a nice place to die I guess.”
Kate shook her head, glancing at Reynardine. “What?”
Kate fed Vanth two turkey sandwiches, Reynardine went on a quick trip and returned with her sword. He told her he’d make the journey if he could. She had no doubt, the General would do most anything for a friend. She didn’t mind either, nothing wrong with helping people. Made the world go round, in the end.
Vanth didn’t truly die when she ventured to nether realms. Her body went stiff and vacant, she left the mortal shell behind. If she chose to, she could even view her body from outside. Interesting, but not very useful these days. Smartphones made checking out your own ass much easier.
Of course, she didn’t visit anywhere else these days. It’s been sixty years since Vanth last ditched her meat shell. Odd feeling, to be part of something else for that long.
Might all be over now, if Fate caught her out of bounds shit would really hit the divine fan.
“Be careful,” Reynardine said. “And quick as you can.”
“I land where I land, no helping that. I’ll be back soon.”
“Need anything else?” Kate asked.
“No, I’m sound as a pound,” Vanth said, dropping onto the bed. “Cover me up if it gets cold. I hate coming back to a cold body.”
“See you guys in the next life.”
She pushed her soul out on an exhale, there were worse ways to leave a body. Reynardine could still see her, she could tell from the way his eyes caught on her ass. Kate couldn’t, she didn’t notice the goddess’s pirouette as she headed for the door.
Vanth should hurry, and she did, but down the hall first. Only door she hadn’t been through.
Drystellia Frew lay dying on a pink bedspread, ashen and sweating in the dark room. Her breath came in short gasps, Vanth raised an eyebrow at the woman’s midsection. Two weeks pregnant, odd for a woman in a relationship with a woman but science worked miracles. Also the old fashioned way, Vanth knew what wanting a child could drive someone to.
For quite a while in her younger years, Vanth wanted one. Motherhood didn’t agree with her, but she knew from the rapport of love that things would be different for the Frew’s.
“Hanging out?” Reynardine asked, slipping into the room.
“Just wanted to meet the woman I’m risking my life for. She’s pregnant you know.”
“Really? Bet Kate’ll be thrilled. She’s incapable, but she wants one bad. After this, I bet they name it ‘Vanth’ or ‘Van’. One of those cool hero names.”
She flicked stray hair from her eyes. “I’m not any kind of hero.”
“Sure, V. And I’m just a dull and witless fox.”
“Pshh, lame too. Your music taste is horrific.”
“Ah, but you got the reference. Luck, soldier. See you soon.”
“Aye, aye, General.”
Vanth took another deep breath, leaned back and fell clear to Hades.
Part Two: Everything Goes To Hell
The trip wasn’t all that far, the distance varied of course. Some traveled an unending road, and other’s lived a hop away from hell. Vanth wondered what the brevity of her trip said about her.
Probably nothing good.
The goddess landed on her back, softly in a serene field of tangy scented white roses. Thorns and all.
“Fucking, fuckity, fuck flowers fuckery.” She pulled herself up gently as possible, losing a lot of skin and remembering her shoes, the ones she politely slipped off as she laid down in Kate’s nice clean bed. Looking over the fifty feet of thorny path to the beach, Vanth decided that shoes would be very nice indeed. “Fuck.”
“Wow, you are very unladylike.”
“Oh, fuckoff.” Vanth turned around wincing at the needles in her feet.
A tall demon in heavy leather armor stood on a patch of road. His orange skin glowed in the dim light. Both pitch colored eyes trapped on a phone of some type. “Hey, watch your mouth,” he said, not looking at her.
“Seriously? Okay, where the hell am I?”
“Hades.” His eyes raised from the phone, focusing on her with a flash of surprise.
“And you are?”
“Voiastra. From the demonic exchange commission.”
“Of course. So Voiceassa, how do I find the Styx?” Kore’s bells grew around the larger river, some said only near where Charon held court. The goddess hoped she didn’t have to go that far.
“Who are you?”
Vanth cocked an eyebrow, taking the well worn hard route. “A divine being asking a damned question, who the fuck are you?”
“Voiastra. From the demonic exchange commission.”
Clenching the bridge of her nose, Vanth reminded herself he was just a demon. All they knew could be summed up in their name and job training. They voted republican and had opinions on torture and little else. “Okay, and I just need some flowers and to get out of here.”
The demon cleared his throat, covering his mouth politely with one hand. “I don’t think so. You’re not supposed to be here, I think I should call—”
“What size boots are those?” Vanth asked, nodding at his feet.
The goddess let her power go, surging forward to sock the demon with everything she had. He flew backward, face twisting in pain. Like lightning, she followed through the air. Vanth landed on top, punching again to leave him unconscious in the hellish soil.
“Should have just given me directions, Foccacia.”
She stole his shoes, they were actually pretty clean. Uggs, but beggars can’t be choosers. The rest the armor wouldn’t fit, the boots were a few sizes too large but better than miles of rocky shoreline. This river must connect somewhere, Hades five rivers formed a perimeter around the underground world.
Looking around, she decided left seemed good path as any. Never done right all that well to begin with.
The red sand of the beach shined in Hades sunless light. She’d never liked this underworld, too much flora and fauna for her tastes. Way too many snakes, of course. Every version of hell had a lot of snakes, whether metaphorical or just scary ass reptiles.
Usually the latter, to be honest. Hells weren’t really meant to be nice places.
Vanth rushed, moving at a decent jog for her loose boots. The miles passed but her steps didn’t slow. She could move for days at this pace, living off just the spare energy in the environment. If she had some prayers, she could move much faster or even teleport. No such luck today, but other bits of fortune had the goddess’s back.
Along the opposite bank the horizon glowed. Streetlamps of some type, Vanth guessed. “Towns in Hades, things have changed.”
Gaslamps, as it turned out. And a brass drawbridge, with a rather imposing patchwork tower above. The rivets were a darker metal, some type of iron she guessed. Nice looking place, very imposing. She’d have to apologize to the builders, if she burned it down or something.
Not that she planned to burn any cities down, just events often got out of hand on adventures. The natures of such quests, Vanth reckoned.
She considered going around the town, but a sign on this side of the river advertised rooms, foods, and apothecaries. Be easier to find the right plant, and she wouldn’t have to traipse over half of Hades.
“Sounds about right,” she muttered, staring at the tall tower. A guard stared back, a proper soul in heavy steel armor. “Oi, can I get into town?”
“Got a passport?”
Vanth wondered if her sword counted. Fighting a whole town face on wouldn’t work anyway. She’d be better off not attracting such robust attention.
“A’ight then. Move along, you’re scaring the ugly off the walls.”
“Whoa, say that to my face!”
“Got a passport?”
Vanth hitched him a fig, turning away from the mouthy spirit. She walked along the river, crossing over soon as the last guard tower faded from sight and heading back. The water stung with icy cold that pulled at her spirit. The goddess bitched her way through the waist deep water.
To be counted as a proper town they needed a criminal element, and that would include smuggling. She’d find a way in, even if she had to beat a few smugglers into showing her the path.
As Vanth approached from this side, she could see a slant to the walls to the outer walls. A bright yellow tent caught her eye, most likely a small market. Surely, with a passage into the city.
She hurried along the bank, spotting a cobble road snaking in from the other direction. A dirt highway.
The market covered about five-hundred square feet, a motley of tents and stands. Gorgeous colors, especially with the dusky blue backdrop of dead sands.
Vanth slipped in among the tents, keen eye for anyone dressed shady. Unfortunately, everyone in Hades looked criminal. A guard with a little more innocent face than most passed by, wearing boots that were much closer to her size. Maybe shady is overrated.
The goddess tailed him to the outskirts, watching the guard walk a wide circle. He passed by a large stable and she hurried to catch up to him.
She tried to sound flirtatious, but her coquette days were buried longer than her temples. “Hey, Mr handsome guard gentlemen. Can I borrow you for a moment?”
He raised one long arching brow. “Is there a problem?”
“That would depend on your definition of ‘problem’, I guess.” Vanth shimmied closer, trying to look non-threatening as possible.
He looked down at her face, raising one lip slightly and sniffing. “Your teeth are stained and crooked. You smell like the river, honestly.”
The goddess punched him in the jaw. He dropped into the sand. “Thanks, douche. I almost felt bad about that.” Glancing around, Vanth grabbed his ankles and dragged him to the stable. She stripped him, leaving the underwear and socks.
A horse whinnied, adding, “I’m telling.”
“Not if you want to keep the ability to stud, Mr Ed.” Vanth ditched her borrowed shirt, slipping on the guards dark red tunic. If she wore his clothes, and snuck with a group. Maybe a distraction, I might have to burn this…
“Damn, calm down. It’s fine.” The horse looked her over. “You trying to sneak into town?”
“No, I’m just in the habit of clubbing guards and knicking their pants. It’s like yoga, but for the less spiritually inclined.”
“Wow, sarcasm your first language?”
“Just been a long day.”
He whinnied sympathetically. “Are you wanted or something?”
“Sort of. And I don’t have a passport to get into town.”
The horse nickered, shaking it’s head. “You’re in Hades, we don’t have passports.”
“This is Faren’s Folly, sassybritches. We don’t have any sort of paperwork. The last town council went insane ten years ago, since then we’ve been ruled by a coalition of corruption and darkness.”
Cold anger iced the goddess’s heart. “But the guard, by the drawbridge…”
“Probably just didn’t want to lower it. Or he was fucking with you.”
“Dammit. Fuck.” She kicked a hay bale, scattering golden flecks into the air.
“Although, I should think clubbing a guard and stealing his kit would get you into trouble.”
“Shut up, I don’t need more shit to worry about.” Vanth ditched the guard’s clothes, slipping her own on but keeping the comfy leather boots. She took the leather purse as well. Apothecaries must charge something. “Can I leave him here?”
“With me? No! I’m not getting hanged for this.”
“They’d hang a horse?”
“I… I don’t really know. Maybe, best not to risk it.”
“What should I do with him?”
“Take him with you?”
Vanth crossed her arms. “No, that’s horrible. I’d need to steal you to carry him.”
The guard groaned, shifting over on his side. The horse kicked him in the head, leaving the man snoring in the dirt.
“Tie him to a rock and dump him in the river,” he ordered, murder hot in his braying tone.
Vanth stared slack-jawed at the insane creature. Grabbing the guard by one arm, she dragged him away from the horse’s pen.
“Maybe they should hang horses.”
“Maybe they should hang mouthy little girls too. You think of that?”
She left, ignoring the whinnies chasing her through the small market.
They didn’t even stop her at the gate, the guards might not have cared her if she was carrying the unconscious one. A bribe would have fixed any issue of that nature. The town looked corrupt, from it’s dirty cobbles to the dingy gaslamps adorning the wrought iron crosses on every corner. Vanth almost expected a bribery menu for the various corruptions above the guards stand.
Instead they had a crude map. The apothecary was marked in the corner opposite her, a green leaf over a caduceus symbolized them on most any plane.
She slipped through the crowded streets, eying a few of the nicer clockworks. A brass lion with a bright red mane caught her eye, being led along by a sullen faced boy. His dark red eyes were matched by a leather bandolier holding a violin. Vanth watched him pass, wondering how a kid made a life in Hades. The giant clockwork lion probably helped.
A side street was packed with stands selling food. She looked at the various delicacies and decided to wait until after the apothecary. No telling if she even had enough in the small leather bag.
The palace, or mayor’s house, or whatever stood out. A blood stone fortress, almost clear except for the thickness of the macabre gem. Gorgeous, but she hated to think how many died to make the building.
Two apothecaries sat across from each other on the quiet streets. Vanth stared between them, deciding on the older looking one.
Pushing open the door, a cacophony of scents assailed her. Fresh grasses, herbs, potions, and heavy magics; mingling with camphor and heavy alcohol.
“Welcome to Erringdor Apothecary and Psychiatry. How can I help you?” a spirit asked from behind the counter, turning his translucent head around at a horrific angle.
“Umm, just some Kore’s Bells?”
“Kore’s Bells? Hmm, we’ve got capsules and teas.”
Vanth shook her head. “It’s for an unconscious person, she’s been bit by a stygian serpent.”
“Oh, my. Well, we’ve got locust seeds, you can apply a layer of them to draw the poison out and then crush up the pills and apply them directly.”
The face split into a viciously happy grin. “I’ve been remade by dark gods to be the perfect apothecary assistant.”
“Oh, nice then. Can I pay with coins?”
“Absolutely,” he said, grabbing two small jars from containers behind him, and dropping them on the counter. He started to fill smaller glass bottles.
Vanth looked around the small shop, eyes catching on a rack of pills. “What are these?”
“Emotions in pill form. The red are anger, blue sadness.”
“What’s in the yellow pills?”
“Pure terror, drawn from spirits that died screaming. The color is just candy coating. Banana flavor.”
“Ah, sounds useful.”
“Good for the heart. Be seven silver, three bronze.”
Vanth tugged the purse string, dropping the bag as it began to scream.
The spirit in front of her turned dark. “Oh, stolen purse. Very bad things, very bad indeed, coming for the thief!”
Vanth grabbed the containers, bolting for the door. The spirit flew toward her, reaching out a long arm.
She spun, grabbing the wrist and snapping the hand off with a sharp pull. “Stay down, ghost!”
Confusion crossed the spirit’s face, probably didn’t figure her for a psychopomp. He didn’t have to follow her order, but she spoke with enough force to slow him down. Vanth ripped the door open, checking both ways on the busy streets. Nothing but people, mostly normal spirits and a few regular humans.
Hoping for a quick escape, she left the wounded spirit to stitch himself together and raced into the brass town.
Part Three: Hard Run
Vanth looked back down the alley, hearing the braying of hellhounds in the distance. Hades must have a surprisingly strict policy on thievery. She drew her sword, doubting something loud as hellhounds would be the dark gods only defense.
Creeping along the alley, she made for the guard tower overlooking the river. The two story fall would mean nothing to her, and she could swim toward the south. She just had to find a gate now, tons of the structures littered hell.
A little bit of luck and she’d be safe in California by morning.
The wall behind her exploded, throwing masonry and metal into the alley. Vanth ran, putting distance between herself and the attacker. Clicking chased her down the alley, legs creaking just behind her. The opening loomed feet in front of her, Vanth spun to the left swinging her sword behind her.
She connected, the force nearly ripping the blade from her hand.
A clockwork scorpion burst from the alley, eight foot tail slightly longer than the whole body. Her first attack had removed one hubcap sized claw. The other looked fine, gleaming steel in the sunless daylight. It struck, tail flashing forward. Vanth blocked, letting the tail push her back and saving balance. The scorpion reared back, she aimed for the face. One fast stab before she spun low and away from another jab. Slamming her blade onto the tail, she damaged the appendage enough to disable the gears.
Dancing away from the grasping claw, she took off a leg. Stepping away from another feeble grab, Vanth jumped onto the back and stabbed downward. The blade sunk clear to dirt, the hole hissed steam and oil into Vanth’s face.
Wiping her eyes, she started running blind. The hounds were closer. Voices called too, not far off in the grim city.
Vanth ran from them, correcting her course the best she could. Eyes finally clear of the sticky fluid, she aimed for the tower. Three rusty steel blocks, and darted through a clearing.
A small entryway yawned at the base, she dived inside. An arrow struck her shadow, a long dark shaft with blood stained fletching. Six more followed, Vanth dodged up the stairs, turning at the corner. A red armored guard ran up behind her, blade high.
Grabbing his wrist before he attack, Vanth ran the man through, kicking him down the stairs but holding his sword. Both blades at the ready, she met the next foe. He tread with more care than his dead friend, but not enough, catching her blade in the throat in mere seconds.
A third stepped over the choking man, Vanth roared slamming her left blade forward. He parried fast, stepping sideways.
Clanks caught Vanth’s ears, someone approaching from the top of the tower. She turned fast, trying to put distance between herself and the lower attackers and catch the other by surprise.
The blade pierced her shoulder, the guard from above moved faster than she expected. Staring down with a smile he twisted the blade, driving filthy steel deeper.
Vanth dropped her sword, swinging the other across the guard’s face. Red flowed over the man’s eyes. He recoiled and she smashed her forehead into the wound. Blood splashed hot over her skin, she dived forward slashing the man’s legs from under him.
Her scythe clattered down the stairs, she couldn’t leave the old sword. Diving toward the first guard, she rammed the blade into his chest. Leaving the steel sheathed in the dying man, she stepped farther using her good fist to backhand another. The man collapsed, rolling down the stairs. Dazed and with blood pouring from his nose, he pushed him to stand.
Vanth gave him a moment to take in the carnage. Wisely, in her opinion, the guard ran. She didn’t give chase. Picking up her dropped blade, the goddess started the long climb to the top.
The guard who lied about the passport stood on the flat roof, bow at the ready. He fired, Vanth sliced the arrow in half before it reached her.
“I don’t know, can I see a passport?” Vanth smacked him in the head with the flat of her blade. She gave him a good kick, and sliced his bowstring more out of annoyance. He’d be sleeping off the love tap for a while. “Dick.”
Finally, she jumped off the tower. The freezing water helped with the blood and pain. She’d need soap and hot water for the oil. And a week in bed, after this day.
The goddess floated on her back, letting the river have its way. Coming to rest on a sandy shore, she climbed out of the icy river.
“Vanth. How strange seeing you here.” The voice sounded as if chipped from cold stone, and blended with cries from the dead.
“Oh, cousin Hades.” Vanth laughed. “What are you doing in California?”
Hades looked around his regal eyes genuinely confused. “We don’t even have a sun, or grass, this wouldn’t even pass for Salton Sea.”
“Oh, no. How did I get here? Fugue state, or… or something?”
Hades sighed, shaking his head. “No, Vanth. What the hell are you doing in Hades? And truth, cousin. I don’t have time to screw around here, and I should be chopping you to bits right now. Or calling the F-bomb down on you.”
“Screw Fate. A friend’s dying.”
“Well not a direct friend, per se. But the granddaughter of a friend.”
The god of shadows conjured a seat, a large skeletal throne with an iced drink in a hallowed skull on the extended side table. Giving a tired snap, he created a folding cheer and a bottled water next to Vanth. “Who, exactly.”
She stalled with a long chug of the water. “Drystellia Frew.”
Hades shook margarita over his hand. “Frew?! You’ve got to be… Vanth, you fucking… Every time I see you, it’s worse and fucking worse. I offered you a good job here.”
“As a fucking lackey, that’s not me Hades. I’m my own goddess, not a foot soldier.”
“Whatever, I’m not even debating this with you tonight. Or ever, cause we’re not seeing each other long as you’re banished. And don’t come here fucking up my toys.”
She’d avoid a fight with Hades tonight, that was a minor relief. “On a steampunk kick?”
“Well, Kore is pretty into it. I don’t mind really, it’s her Hades too.”
Vanth smiled. “You guys are cute.”
“Thanks.” He sighed, setting the drink on the table. “I’m serious, I debated turning your ass in this whole night. Don’t think you can fuck around in my world without me noticing, little cousin. And don’t think my affection for you will allow you an easy run.” A creeping sensation rattled Vanth’s spine.
The hounds brayed in the distance.
“Nearest portal to Earth is about a mile that way. The dogs are fast, but you’re wearing comfy shoes right?” He looked at her stolen boots.
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Sure. Luck, cousin,” he called after her, sipping his iced drink on the dark beach.
“You too, cousin!”
The dogs appeared, at first shadows in the distance.
Vanth ran all out, tearing dust behind her in a stream. Hellhounds could move in shadows, blurring between spirit and physical. They’d catch up, of that she had little doubt. Three of them gained already, rangy greyhound like wraiths.
Vanth drew her blade again. The magic calling the sword from her pocket flowed weaker, all the running and healing wearing her down.
The first dog caught up, lunging from the shadow of a rock to snap ghostly jaws at her.
She rolled, slashing at the hellhound. Cold ectoplasm splashed from canine’s side, he yipped falling to the ground. Vanth leapt at the next closest, not waiting for the wolflike shades to draw into striking range. She nearly cleaved it in half with a lunging slash.
The third jumped at her, Vanth jumped backwards and away from the snarling wraith. It tried again, she stabbed the blade into the leaping spirits face, slicing into the jaws and catching ghostly teeth on one wrist. The creature shuddered, falling to die in the sand.
Blood pouring from the latest wound, she limped to the exit. A large outcropping of stone with a single dark shadow for a doorway.
A hard step through the warm veil, and she faded once more.
Back to the Washer’s river.
“Find what you were looking for?” The Washer tilted a bottle of dark liquor back, coughing on the drink.
“I wasn’t really looking for an ass-kicking,” Vanth admitted.
“Looked to me like you did your fair share. Give and ye shall receive.”
“Amen. You need something?”
“Nah, just returning a favor to an old, old lover.” The banshee revealed another bottle from the folds of her tattered dress.
Sweet pink wine. Strawberries and memories flooded the goddess once more. “You and Frew were a thing?”
“For a tumble or two. I know, I slummed it around in my youth. Well his youth, I was two hundred and nineteen. He did alright, for the record.”
“Ugh.” Vanth tried to shake her brain free of the image. “What about the harpy?”
“Oh, someone was really trying to kill you. No idea who, might want to look into that. I just made sure you’d call the Fox. So he’d find you, the bimbo at the restaurant would’ve called an ambulance. Whole other story, not near as fun.”
“Well, me. You’d have gotten laid. But like I said I enjoyed this version.”
“Great. You’re welcome, we’ll be here all week.”
The banshee laughed again. “Oh, no. You’ll be saving my friend’s granddaughter from a very undeserved death.”
“How’d she get bitten by the Stygian?”
“Must of just been a loose one.”
‘Cause hell snakes are all about the wandering. They can’t even teleport. “Huh. Should have asked Hades.”
“Oh, the one’s who know all never tell, Vanth. Luck, by the way.”
“You know Drystellia Frew is preggers?”
Mock surprise was quickly replaced by a wicked grin, enough mischief in her eyes to make even the General doubt himself. “Oh, my. Kate will be pleased, she’s been undergoing treatments for a year now.”
“Drys is pregnant, though.”
“Odd, of course. She’s never been with a man, or received a treatment.”
Buzzing filled Vanth’s ears. “Very odd. Almost immaculately so, one would say?”
“Thanks, Vanth. One day, the world might owe you a favor for something like this. And as you can see, I repay favors well.”
Vanth woke in the bed again, sweating from a heated blanket. She kicked the covers off, sure Kate would be pissed about the ruined clothes and muddy boots all over her nice bedsheets.
Slipping the boots off, Vanth pulled the medicine from her pocket. No lights shined in the small house, she crept into the kitchen. Reynardine waited at the table, cup of coffee in front of him and smile cutting his five o’ clock shadow.
Vanth held the bottles up, waving them victoriously. “I’ve had better. Saw Hades, low chance he’ll rat on me.”
“And I saw the Washer. She said someone’s trying to kill me.”
Reynardine gave a little sigh and a toothy smile. “Bad news, but something we can handle. You’re hard to kill.”
“A bit, but I’m not the goddess I used to be.” She gave the bottles a little shake. “Want to pass these on to Kate?”
The General checked his watch. Vanth eyed the timepiece, noting Ares and the god’s personal symbol etched into the mithril band. “Nope, I’ve got people to do. Umm, why don’t you wake her up? She’ll probably be pretty happy to see you. Might even let you use the shower, if everyone within nose range is very lucky.”
Vanth looked down at her filthy torn clothes and stolen boots. Even she could smell the sweat and blood, never a good sign. Hellhound drool crystallized on one arm, her legs ached… Everything ached. Yes, a shower sounded nice right now. “Okay. Uhh, one more thing. Did you know Drys is… Clean? I guess? She didn’t get treatments, Washer said.”
A serious look crossed Reynardine’s face, never a good sign. “No, I’m just a dumb fox. And virgin births, especially in such an esteemed line, are big and rather secretive business for anyone. Especially two nobodies like us. Thanks, Vanth. Have a good weekend.” The Fox-god faded from sight, single eye winking last.
Vanth went to the main bedroom, flicking on the light and wincing at the yellowish flood of brightness.
Kate lay next to Drys, clinging to her like the fading woman kept her afloat on deadly seas. I know the feeling.
Vanth went around to her side of the bed, giving Kate a light shake.
Redlined eyes snapped open. The goddess held the two small bottles in front of them. “Special delivery, Mrs. Frew.”