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Chapter 13

Nobody in the world knew more about supernatural and mythological beasts than Daedalus, so it was off to the Tartarus Menagerie. We found Daedalus – and Gregor – at the gryphon paddock, tending to a newborn gryphon.

Gryphons, if you’ve never seen one, are majestic animals with the body of a lion, and the head, forelimbs and wings of an eagle. They were frequently the subject of Medieval heraldry, were very easy to domesticate for riding, and could be both fiercely loyal and fearsome in battle.

Unfortunately, like the young of most animals, newborns gryphons looked…odd.

Gregor looked up from carefully checking out the little creature – under Daedalus’s watchful eye – and gave the three of us an uncertain smile as we approached. Seeing his pupil distracted, Daedalus looked up as well and smiled more warmly.

“Talia! I’m so glad you’re here. Come and see the newest member of our family.” He waved us over. “Greetings to you, Lady Minerva, and to you Lady Jupiter!”

Danae and Eos spoke at the same time.

“Danae will be fine, Daedalus.”

“You know you can call me Eos, old friend.”

They looked at one another and laughed, and the three of us approached.

Yeah, the little thing was just as ugly up close. All beak and ungainly wings.

“Isn’t he a precious little thing,” Danae crooned, making both Eos and I look at her with mild incredulity. “It is a ‘he’, isn’t it?” She asked after a moment.

Daedalus chuckled. “Yes, it’s a he. You can tell by the heavier wings and deeper chest,” he said, and I got the impression he was saying it as much for Gregor’s edification as ours.

Gregor, meanwhile, seemed to be taking a genuine interest in the process, carefully cleaning the baby gryphon and checking everything against a book of some sort he had open on the ground nearby. Perhaps he’d finally found his calling.

We all looked up as one of the adult gryphons approached and peered over Daedalus’s shoulder, making an inquisitive chirruping sound.

Daedalus looked up and smiled. “Yes, he is a handsome little thing.” He gave the baby gryphon a gentle push on its hindquarters, and it got to its feet unsteadily. “Up you go, little fellow! There we are!”

The little gryphon made a plaintive sound, and the adult bent and gave him a gentle push towards another nearby gryphon – obviously a female. The baby quickly got the idea and tottered off towards his mother, in search of his first meal.

Gregor wiped off his hands on a towel and gathered up the book, rising and stretching a little. He looked more content than I’d seen him in five years, watching after the departing animals. I gave Eos a little nudge and she leaned in and whispered, “That’s a relief to see.”

I nodded silent agreement.

Daedalus smiled. “Now, what brings three Avatars to my Menagerie. Not something as mundane as the birth of a gryphon, surely.”

“What can you tell us,” I asked slowly, “about hydras?”

He made a face. “Beastly creatures, if you’ll pardon the pun. Their natural habitat is wetlands, usually marshes or swamplands. Until about a thousand years ago they had a wicked habit of breeding close to population centers. They’re brutally difficult to kill because they heal wounds incredibly quickly, and have that unfortunate tendency to grow two new heads when one is cut off. They’re best handled with fire, but not close-up…they smell very, very bad when they’re burning, and it’s a smell that doesn’t come out easily if you get their ichor on your clothes. Considering what an oddity they are, I suspect they didn’t evolve naturally.

“You don’t have a problem with a hydra, do you?” he asked, looking from one of us to another. “I have some incendiary and high explosive anti-tank rounds for Cerberus that might be helpful if so,” he added, nodding to me.

I noticed that Gregor had been listening closely during Daedalus’s recitation of basic hydra lore.

“I don’t think I’ll need them,” I said with a smile, “but thank you. No, Circe mentioned that Persephone had been telling her about an ongoing problem with hydras before she died. She seemed to think there might be a lead in that direction.”

“Circe? Interesting.” Daedalus nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said slowly, “I seem to remember there being some sort of problem with hydras breeding faster than usual not long before Persephone died. Why don’t you come inside, and we’ll consult my records.”

“If you all don’t mind,” Eos said, “I’ll stay out here. I’d like to catch up with my little brother.”

Gregor looked a little surprised, but gave her a hesitant smile. “I don’t mind.”

Daedalus smiled. “Lovely. I do so enjoy seeing families together. Come along, Talia, Danae. We’ll see what we can find.”

Once we were inside his workshop, he made a beeline for the miniature library’s worth of bookcases that lined one wall and extended out into the room. “Let’s see now, where did I put the records from around those times…”

He disappeared into the shelves. After a brief, silent consultation, Danae and I chose not to follow him. Considering the rickety appearance of the bookcases and the way they were piled high with books in no particular semblance of order, it seemed safer. We could hear him shuffling around piles on the floor and rummaging through the shelves, muttering to himself about how he really needed to get better organized.

After a few minutes of that, he emerged with a leather scroll tube tucked under one arm and a map case slung over one shoulder. “Here we are. Come over to the table here…no, that one has my Philosopher’s Stone research on it. Bother. Talia, Danae, would you be so kind as to clear off this table over here? Just be careful with that model of the Nautilus, please.”

It was, indeed, a lovely (and apparently hand-crafted) model of the Nautilus from the Disney version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I carefully moved it to another table, admiring his craftsmanship as I did so.

“Jules is a charming fellow,” Daedalus said as Danae carefully rolled up a sheaf of schematics and moved them. “He rather liked the Disney version of the Nautilus, even if it wasn’t quite true to his original image of the ship. He said it had more character than the original. Thank you, my dears.”

He descended on the clear table, and in moments it was once again covered in unrolled scrolls and maps. “Let’s see now…” He put on a pair of half-moon reading glasses and started going through the scrolls, moving them aside and discarding them as he went. “Ah! Here we are. Yes, Persephone reported several encounters with hydras around that time, including having to deal with…my goodness…a half-dozen nesting sites filled with eggs. According to this, she had Heracles helping her, but the hydras were breeding more quickly than they could keep up with.”

Daedalus compared one of the scrolls to a map. “Two of the nests were very close to Athens, which was extremely unusual. That was why she was pursuing the matter.” He looked up. “According to her notes here, she suspected that someone had placed them there intentionally, hoping for the eggs to hatch and cause problems in Athens.”

“Odd,” Danae said. “Athena would’ve taken that very personally.”

“Indeed,” Daedalus nodded. “Talia, might your office have more of Persephone’s records on this?”

I sighed. “According to Mel, most of Persephone’s writings were brought over here when her office was closed down after her death. We went through everything that was left there together, and it was mostly paperwork that had built up since then. There was nothing earlier than shortly after her death, aside from a few old ‘To Do’ lists.”

“Bother,” Daedalus sighed. “I imagine they’re buried in here somewhere.” He gave me a surprisingly winsome smile. “Perhaps you could loan me Melinoë’s services for a few days at some point?”

I smiled. “I’m sure she’d be thrilled to help get you organized. But I’m not sure you’d be able to find anything afterwards. Her filing system is…unique.”

“Shame,” Daedalus said with a sigh. “Still, I doubt she could make things worse,” he added cheerfully. “Anyway, you might be surprised to learn that there are still three hydra preserves, dedicated to carefully maintaining the species.” He pointed to two maps. “All three of them are in the Americas…Florida, Louisiana, and the Yucatan.”

“There are still hydras around?” I asked incredulously.

“They’re breeding them?” Danae asked a split second after me.

“Oh yes!” Daedalus said cheerfully. “We don’t allow any supernatural species to go extinct. Not even the extremely dangerous ones we think were man-made.” He tapped one of the unrolled scrolls. “You might want to go and talk to the handlers at the Yucatan preserve. According to this, two of them are demigods who were involved in helping Persephone and Heracles round the things up back then.”

“That sounds like a solid lead,” I said, leaning over his shoulder to look at the map. “Maybe I should take a couple magazines of those incendiary and high explosive rounds you were talking about.”

He made a dismissive gesture. “Oh, you have nothing at all to worry about when visiting these preserves. They’re very well designed and perfectly safe.”

I looked over at Danae and she rolled her eyes.

“I think I’ll take them anyway,” I said gently. “Just in case.”

Daedalus shrugged and nodded. “As you will. I suppose it’s wise to be prepared for any eventuality.” He headed across the workshop towards his ammo locker.

Danae shook her head. “He probably just jinxed us.”

“You don’t believe in that sort of thing, do you?” I teased.

“You know I do, little sister. Don’t you?”

I grunted. “Yeah, I do. Especially since starting this job.”

Daedalus returned carrying four large box magazines, two red-striped and two orange-striped. “They’re single-stack, six rounds in each magazine, two magazines of each type.” He held them out them to me. “The red bands are high explosive, the orange ones are incendiary. Use them sparingly, this is all I have at the moment.”

I took them and slid them into the little pouches on my belt. “Got it. I’ll try not to use them at all, if you don’t mind.”

He chuckled. “I won’t be offended if you don’t.”

On our way out, we collected Eos – who had been having a friendly, if somewhat uneasy-looking, conversation with Gregor – and walked to the big gate that marked the entrance to the Menagerie.

“Shall we continue now?” Danae asked. “This mystery is older than all three of us put together…I’m sure it can wait a few hours if any of us has something more pressing to deal with.”

I shrugged. “If I did, Mel would contact me immediately.”

Eos gestured towards me. “Dad released me to, and I quote, ‘Assist young Pluto in any way she needs for the duration of her quest.’ Not that we don’t have an ongoing arrangement anyway.” She chuckled.

“To the Yucatan then?” Danae asked.

“Let’s go.”

The Yucatan, if you’ve never been, isn’t just hot. It isn’t just humid. It’s both hot and humid, in a way so profoundly different from anywhere else I’d been that it was almost overwhelming.

“Good grief,” I said, wiping sweat from the back of my forehead within moments of us arriving. “I can’t remember the last time temperature affected me like this.”

Eos whistled and fanned herself. “Remember that cannibal Yeti we hunted in the Himalayas wearing these outfits?” She tugged on her toga-dress, identical to mine down to the overlaid armor design, except hers was white and gold instead of my black and gold.

I nodded. “Hard to forget. They were comfortable there.”

“Wish I was there now. Or that we could strip down.” She leered at me teasingly. “Wanna go first?”

Danae slapped the back of Eos’s head lightly. “Save it for later, Casanova.”

“Aww, c’mon mom, I was just joking!” Eos pouted.

“I doubt that,” I said dryly. “I seem to remember you taking me to a certain tropical island and tearing off my…”

Danae groaned and started walking, pushing through the heavy foliage. “I don’t want to hear this. I absolutely do not want to hear about my little sister’s escapades. She just had to get involved with the Avatar of Zeus…”

Eos and I exchanged grins and followed her. Not that my big sister was a prude or anything, but she did babysit for me when I was little. I suppose it was weird for her.

It was, thankfully, only a couple of minutes walk before we passed through a curtain of invisible magical energy. I felt a quick sensation of not wanting to go any further and a brief feeling that turning around was a great idea before the magic protecting me from such things shrugged it off.

Eos stopped and turned slightly. “That’s a neat trick. So, what, mortals hit that and just turn around, thinking it was their own idea?”

“Yup,” a deep and heavily accented voice said from nearby. “Works real well, especially on you Euro-types.”

A deeply tanned man pushed his way out of the jungle into the little clearing we were in. He had thick, straight black hair that hung past his shoulders, and was wearing just a loincloth, soft leather shoes, and a variety of adornments made of bone, semi-precious stones and gold. His face was weathered with many years, but he still looked strong and had an undeniable vitality about him. He carried a spear in his right hand.

“Help you ladies?” he asked politely, but there was an undertone of warning in his voice and his body language suggested he was ready to turn us around with gentle force if necessary. We weren’t really welcome there.

Danae stepped forward. “I am Minerva, Avatar of Athena. My companions are Pluto, Avatar of Hades, and Jupiter, Avatar of Zeus. We’ve come to speak with a couple of demigods who work here at the hydra preserve.”

The man looked surprised, then smiled warmly. “Welcome, Avatars. Didn’t mean to be rude. We don’t get a lot of visitors, and the ones that do show up usually shouldn’t be here.”

Before he could say anything else, there was a fearsome roar from somewhere nearby in the jungle. He half turned, his eyes wide with surprise.

“What was that?” I asked, my hand automatically going to Cerberus on the back of my belt.

“I don’t -” He was cut off by another roar – this time in three distinct ‘voices’ (for lack of a better term) – and several unquestionably human screams of terror.

“Aw, shit,” he said. Then he turned and ran in the direction the noises were coming from.

I didn’t ask. I didn’t wait. I yanked Cerberus from the back of my belt and shifted it into its leaf-bladed sword form, unfolded my circular shield on my left arm, and crashed through the jungle after him.

I heard the crackle of lightning and running footsteps behind me as my companions followed me without a word. If there were people in danger from a supernatural threat, our place was there, trying to protect them.

It was less than three minutes before we burst out of the jungle and into a man-made clearing. The jungle had been cleared away, the ground smoothed as much as possible, and a few single-story wooden buildings were scattered around the area. There were a couple of Jeeps that looked like they might’ve been Korean War vintage, two canvas-sided cargo trucks, and…

All of the rest of it stopped registering when I saw what was struggling out of the jungle at the other side of the clearing. It was enormous, about the size of a Brontosaur, but that was where the comparison ended, full stop. This creature had a mottled gray and tan hide, and was almost twice as wide at the shoulders than at the hips, to support the seven necks extending up and out of its torso. The necks were amazingly flexible and sinuous, curving and curling like snakes, each one ending in a head that looked half-snakelike and half-leonine. All of the heads were looking in different directions, glaring balefully with huge eyes that were visibly reddish-orange even at this distance.

And the teeth. By the gods, the teeth. Each gaping maw had what appeared to be triple-rows of upper and lower teeth, and each tooth was probably about the length of my forearm. The mouths reminded me terrifyingly of pictures I’d seen of Great White sharks.

It had six legs, its body tapering towards its hips and ending in a tail that was easily as long and flexible as any of its necks. Its feet were elephantine, with huge yellow nails on the fronts, and each looked large enough to flatten a person.

“That,” Minerva said quietly, “is the biggest hydra I’ve ever seen.”