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Chapter 8

Standoff. I could probably Skip over to Cerberus and reclaim it easily, but the minotaur had proven to be quite a bit faster on his feet than I’d expected. I was willing to bet he was braced to charge again. The question was, could I recover Cerberus and get out of the way before he hit me.

Only one way to find out.

I took a half-step and saw the minotaur start to move as I Skipped up onto the steps, grasped Cerberus in my right hand, and pulled it free of the stair. I raised my shield in front of me as I moved, and it was a good thing I had. Even as I pulled Cerberus free, the minotaur struck me going at what I hoped was his full speed. My shield caught his horns and sent them off at an angle, but the blow was more than powerful enough to send me flying again.

I crashed through the rickety side of the next building down the lane and slammed into an old diner-style counter, barely getting my shield around in time to take the blow rather than my back. Even still, the force of the impact was enough to leave me feeling numb all over and a bit dazed. I groaned and slid to the floor, trying to get my legs under me as I shook my head to clear it.

“You’re not half bad, Avatar,” the minotaur called, his deep, rough voice filled with laughter. “You make a good target! This is fun, don’t stop now!”

I groaned again and pushed myself to my feet, leaning against the counter for balance as I took my first couple of steps. But my head cleared quickly, and by the time I reached the hole I’d made in the wall on my way in, I had transformed Cerberus into its rifle form.

I noted with interest – as I flipped the selector switch to full auto and pushed the intensity slider all the way up – that the energy level had already risen back to 100%. It recharged pretty quickly then. That was good to know.

I stepped into the opening, aimed at the minotaur’s head, and opened fire.

This time, the red-gold bolts that Cerberus spat at the creature were powerful enough to leave smoking craters in the minotaur’s tough hide. Unfortunately, at full power, I only had thirty shots before Cerberus would need time to recharge. While I’d be able to do some damage, I knew it wasn’t enough to kill the creature.

I raked my fire across its head as it brought up its arms to protect its remaining eye, which was what I’d really hoped to accomplish. Managing to blast off one of its curved black horns and the ear right below it was a bonus.

He threw back his head and howled again, which was my cue to move. I hopped back, then took several running steps towards the opening, transformed Cerberus into a spear, and jumped. I Skipped forward as I went through the hole in the wall, gripping Cerberus’s shaft in both hands, prepared to drive it into the minotaur’s throat.

I was spot on target this time, but just a hair’s breadth too slow. Cerberus’s tip had barely scratched the minotaur’s throat before he swatted me aside with a powerful sweeping blow. It caught me under my right arm and sent me sprawling across the lane to slam into the funhouse’s concrete foundation. Cerberus clattered away across the ground as I was forcefully stopped by the wall.

Between the minotaur’s repeated blows, and my impact with the wall and counter, I’d finally had the breath completely knocked out of me. My side burned like it was on fire when I tried to suck in air, my back ached abominably, and I suspected that I’d’ve been knocked unconscious if I hadn’t been wearing my helmet. Thank goodness it couldn’t just fall or be knocked off.

The minotaur snorted like the bull he resembled and scraped the dusty pavement with one enormous foot. “Do you have any idea how long it’ll take for that horn to grow back?! I’m gonna stick the other one in your freaking -”

He was cut off by a bolt of freaking lightning that came down from the clear sky and lit him up. He howled again as he was blown off his feet by it, ending up on the ground, twitching and spasming as little arcs of static crackled here and there across his body.

“Hey ugly,” a woman’s voice said from above me, “sure you won’t come quietly? The newb’s already done some damage, and now she’s got reinforcements.”

The minotaur and I both looked up as the newcomer jumped down off the roof of the funhouse. As she jumped, I noted that she was wearing jeans, motorcycle boots, and a long black leather coat over a red t-shirt. By the time she hit the ground, she was dressed like I was, though her mini-dress was white, like Danae’s. Her armor too was almost identical to mine, though her helmet was open-faced and she carried no visible weapon or shield.

Instead, she balled up her fists and displayed a pair of golden armor bracers that covered her arms from wrists to elbows, and had a flexible piece that covered the backs of her hands. They were covered with stylized lightning bolts, culminating in the astrological symbol of Jupiter, its base almost touching her knuckles.

Lady Jupiter, Zeus’s Avatar, had arrived, and had done so in high style. I wasn’t sure why she was there, but I was impossibly glad that she was.

I opened my mouth to thank her, but what came out instead was a dazed-sounding “Teach me to make entrances like that!”

Jupiter giggled.

Oh, swell. Way to make a good first impression, Talia.

The minotaur snarled and rose, slowly and unsteadily. “The gods shouldn’t send little girls to do their dirty work. She’s no real threat, and you won’t be either.”

Without looking away from him, Jupiter said, “You okay, Pluto?”

I finished pulling my rattled wits together. “Gonna be sore in the morning,” I quipped weakly, struggling to my feet and limping over to scoop up Cerberus as she shifted to cover me.

“Don’t you have something special for that fancy toy of yours?” She asked pointedly, keeping her eyes fixed on the Minotaur. I could tell that she was smiling though, and from the way she was shifting on the balls of her feet, she was itching for the fight.

Embarrassment washed over me for the second time since her arrival. “Oh, yeah.” Daedalus’s Minoan bronze bullets.

“All right, then,” Jupiter said, her smile turning into a vulpine grin. “We need to soften him up a bit more first. Let’s party!” Lightning crackled around her fists, then formed into a pair of short swords made of constantly moving electricity. Without another word, she darted forward and ducked under the minotaur’s grasping lunge. She slid around to the right, slashing with both blades, leaving smoking scorched lines across his side.

I followed her in, Skipping forward and to the left, swinging Cerberus around so that its butt-end slammed into the minotaur’s head on its injured side. Jupiter slid beneath Cerberus as I whipped it back around, then jumped straight up, bringing one crackling fist up in a brutal uppercut that caught the minotaur under his chin, leaving his muzzle scorched, as I brought Cerberus’s shaft down on top of his head.

He reeled back drunkenly, shaking his head and staggering from the force of the combined blows.

Jupiter nodded. “That’s more like it! I was starting to worry for a minute there.”

I grimaced. “It’s my first time, and he’s not what I was expecting.”

She shot me a quick, friendly smile. “They never are. Nice to meet you, by the way.”

“Likewise, I’m sure.”

“Your head clear enough to shoot now?”

Briefly, I wondered how much of the fight had been to ‘soften up’ the minotaur, and how much had been to buy me a bit of time for me to catch my breath. Jupiter had evidently noticed how rattled and dazed I’d been.

“Yeah. Can you ‘soften him up’ a little more?” I asked.

She grinned. “Done!” With that, she bolted forward, fists cocked and sparking violently as she began to rain blow after electrically-charged blow on the minotaur’s body and head, giving him no time to regain his balance.

As she did, I transformed Cerberus into its rifle form and slapped home the magazine of huge ammunition that Daedalus had given me. I brought the rifle to my shoulder as the barrel finished extending, slid my right foot back as the muzzle brake formed, and braced myself.

“CLEAR AWAY!” I shouted.

Jupiter did, making an impressive leap straight up and vanishing.

The minotaur, dazed from her furious assault and not in complete control of his muscles because of the electricity she’d jolted him with, stared at me stupidly.

I lined up my shot right between his eyes and pulled the trigger. Cerberus boomed and bucked in my hands. To my surprise, the Energy Level readout in my helmet’s HUD dipped by 15%, and the recoil was incredible, hitting me harder than any rifle I’d trained with. Evidently, Cerberus was designed to do more than just fire the big bullets with their own gunpowder. Fortunately, I’d braced for it, so rather than knocking me over, it just slid me back about two feet.

Unfortunately, I’d been totally unprepared for so much recoil. A fist-sized hole appeared in the wall above and behind the minotaur’s head as an oversized brass shell casing clattered to the ground a few feet to my right.

Yikes.

I adjusted my aim down and pulled the trigger again. Another boom echoed through the abandoned street as I was pushed back a few more feet across the pavement. This time, I’d overcompensated and ended up shooting too low. Part of the Minotaur’s stomach was blown out his back, spraying the pavement and wall behind him with gore, and causing him to stagger backwards.

“Your aim kinda sucks,” Jupiter said teasingly from behind me as a second shell casing joined the first on the ground.

“I’ve never fired this type of ammo before, give me a break!” I sighted again, hoping she didn’t realize I’d never even fired this gun before today and was still adjusting to its kick. I took aim again, sighting on the minotaur’s throat…while I was pretty sure we’d dealt lethal damage already, considering the beating he’d given me, I wasn’t prepared to risk it. “Third time’s the charm, right?”

I pulled the trigger again before she could answer. As I did, I felt her hands press against my shoulders, bracing me, and I didn’t slide back at all as Cerberus boomed a third time.

With Jupiter’s help balancing me against the recoil, my aim was perfect. The minotaur’s neck fairly exploded in a bloody spray, and its head tumbled back to thump on the ground as a third shell casing clattered to the dusty pavement.

“I’d say so!” Jupiter agreed. “That was a pretty shot. Hope you don’t mind the help.”

I lowered Cerberus and held it cradled in my arms, a bit of smoke trailing up from its muzzle. “Not one little bit,” I said earnestly as my legs started shaking.

Jupiter laughed and caught me by the elbows, easing me down onto my knees. “You okay?”

I nodded weakly. “Yeah. That was…”

“Intense, I know,” she came around to crouch down in front of me and smiled. “It’s nothing like training, but you’ll get used to it.” She offered me her hand. “I’m Eos. Eos Leonidis. You’re Talia, right?”

“T-talia Redowl,” I stammed, shifting Cerberus to free up a hand so I could shake hers. She was amazing, all the more for the excitement shining in the blue eyes I could see beneath her helmet in the wake of the fight. I was tremendously glad my own helmet covered my face…my cheeks were burning.

Eos rose, stretched, and her armor and dress suddenly changed, flowing out and changing color, becoming again the outfit she’d been wearing when she arrived. With her helmet gone, long, braided, golden-blond hair flowed down her back, framing her pretty face and making her blue eyes stand out even more. “Not bad,” she said. “Minotaurs can be a real pain in the ass to handle solo because of how fast and strong they are. We make a pretty good team.” She looked down at me. “You okay?” she asked again.

I absolutely did not want her to think ill of me. I stood slowly, noting as I did the familiar comic book lightning bolt logo on her red t-shirt, transforming Cerberus back into a sword and sheathing it. Then I collapsed my shield and helmet so she could get a good look at me. “A bit short of breath. Feels like someone went at my right side with a baseball bat. But I’ll be okay.”

She moved close to me, and I saw that she was a few – maybe three or four – inches taller than me. “Lift your arm, let me take a quick look.”

I did, wincing a little as my bruised side ached with the motion. She ran her fingers down my side, pressed here and there, then nodded. “Nothing broken, but you’re going to have one hell of a bruise. It’ll heal pretty quick, but it’ll be sore for a couple of days.” She smiled. “Still, not bad for your first fight. You’ve got a lot of potential.”

It would’ve sounded condescending, if not for the genuine warmth in her voice. “Thanks. And thanks for showing up to help.”

“Dad sent me to keep an eye you, see how you did. I wanted to anyway, really.” She clapped me on the shoulder lightly. “Avatars have to stick together, you know?”

I nodded as if I did, but the sentiment was reassuring. I wondered if she was single. Heck, I didn’t even know if our jobs would leave us time for that sort of thing. “How’d you do that with your clothes?”

“It’s easy. The dress has a glamour laid into it that lets it look like any kind of clothing. It just takes practice…you’ll get the hang of it.”

“I would’ve if I’d known about it,” I said dryly.

Eos laughed. “Hades being stingy with information? Dad says he can be a real stiff sometimes.”

I grimaced, feeling profoundly loyal towards my patron. “Maybe he just thinks I’ll do a better job if I have learn it all by myself…” I frowned a little. “That’s not what I meant to say.”

She smiled, seeming to understand. “We can’t say anything bad about them, not really. We’re loyal to the end.” She tapped her golden choker, with its yellow gem containing the symbol of Jupiter floating in it. “You’ll get used to that too…though I guess it might be tougher for you.”

“Not being his daughter?”

Eos nodded. “Bingo.” She laid a finger alongside her nose. “There’s ways around the restriction, of course…” She looked up at the sky and cheerfully added, “Isn’t that right, you big old windbag you?” She said it with what sounded like genuine affection, and laughed when thunder rumbled faintly from off to the west. “He hates when I do that, but it amuses him too.”

I shook my head, amusement and relief washing over me. She was loud, brash, and charming, but she was undeniably her own person and not a puppet. I was extremely glad she’d come to check on me.

“So,” I said, pointing to the minotaur’s body, “what do we do with that?”

“Let’s haul it into the funhouse, and I’ll spark the building up.” Eos shrugged. “I don’t think anybody’ll look twice if these old rat-traps burn down. Now that he’s dead, his body’ll burn like anything else.”

“But then where will kids go to meddle?” I asked teasingly.

Eos grinned. “They’ll just have to find another abandoned theme park. I like you.” She clapped me on the shoulder again.

We smiled at one another for a moment, then I nodded to the corpse. “Do you want the head – er, the shoulders, that is – or the feet?”

“You shot him, you get the head. And don’t forget to police your brass.”

I did, scooping up and pocketing the three shell casings before we reached the body. It was bloody, sticky, disgusting work, but I figured it was only fair. I’d made most of the mess, after all.

A half-hour later, we stood in the middle of the road at the edge of town, watching as the funhouse burned brightly in the falling twilight. Eos had found a bucket of relatively fresh rainwater, and I’d scrubbed off my hands as best I could.

I sighed. “I really, really want a shower.”

“I get that,” Eos said with real feeling. “This is what, your second day on the job?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Is it always like this?”

“Like what?” she asked, tipping her head curiously.

“Massive piles of paperwork, people complaining about things, missing people, hunting monsters…”

“Aside from the massive piles of paperwork, it sounds about right,” she chuckled. “Not every day, mind you. I can go seven or eight days sometimes without anything to do but practice, study and relax. I suppose you have a huge backlog of work to deal with though.”

I sighed. “Yeah. I should get back to it, in fact.”

She turned and laid a hand on my arm, squeezing gently. “Got a phone?”

I nodded.

“Lemme see it.”

I dug it out and handed it to her. She opened up the address book app and started typing, then handed it back to me. “There. I put my number into it. Dad said if I liked you, I could offer my help when you need it. I like you…so don’t hesitate to call me if you need an extra pair of hands. Of course, that means I might do the same.”

I smiled and held out my hand. She grinned and dropped a phone that was identical to mine into it. I went to return the favor, and had gotten as far as creating a new entry before stopping and blinking. “I…don’t know my number yet,” I admitted sheepishly.

Eos laughed.

Once I’d found the number of my new phone and added it to hers, we shook hands again. “Thank you, Eos,” I said warmly.

“You’re welcome, Talia. It was fun. Let’s do it again soon.”

“It was fun,” I said, surprising myself by meaning it. It had been fun, in a weird sort of way, if a bit painful. “Considering the backlog I have, I might be calling you very soon,” I added ruefully.

We stood and watched the fire for a few minutes as it swelled, and the equally rotten building beside it caught and burned merrily. “That’s really going to spread,” I said.

Eos shrugged. “It’ll be judged a random lightning strike or something. This place is so out in the middle of nowhere that it might be weeks before anybody even notices. Just wait until we have to do this downtown in a major city. It’s a good thing mortals are so expert at rationalizing all the weird shit that goes on around them.”

She suddenly looked up and sighed. “I’m being paged. Call me anytime, even if you just need someone to talk to.” She squeezed my shoulder, then took a step forward and was gone.

I watched the fire burn for a few more minutes before turning and Stepping back to the Tartarus Menagerie. I had to tell Daedalus that his escaped minotaur wouldn’t be coming home.