Chapter 16: The Chapter wherein Hero finds a powerful ally, and meets a stranger who claims to be a friend
I blinked in the darkness, feeling like an idiot for even trying to call a cerberus. What did I think was going to happen? Some three-headed dog was going walk out of hell and lick my face?
I blinked in the darkness feeling the cold, wetness against my hand again and damned if there wasn’t a dog sitting in front of me. It didn’t have three heads, but it was a dog, or maybe a puppy. I’m not a dog expert, but it was about three feet long with huge pointy ears, a narrow face, and black silky fur. I know it was silky because the mutt was busy trying to shove his head under my hand. I absently petted the dog’s head and glanced around the yard, expecting to see the back gate open. The dog must have wandered in from someone else’s house. This was a puppy, not some hellhound.
I glanced back at the dog, and for a second its eyes glowed purple. “Holy shit,” I muttered at the animal, “Are you really a cerberus?”
As if responding to his name, the dog yipped at me and started licking my hand. I gave in and rubbed between the dog’s ears, and he thumped his skinny tail in delight. His tongue lolled out and he lay down and rolled over, exposing his belly. I rubbed his belly, noticing he had fairly skinny legs, almost like a greyhound, but large paws. I didn’t know much about dogs, but I thought that I’d heard the paw sized was an indicator of how large a dog would be. If that was true, the Hellpuppy would be getting a lot bigger.
I continued to absently pet the puppy and realized that I’d actually done it. I’d called a creature from the underworld, and he had come. “Wow, puppy” I whispered to the dog, “I didn’t really believe that this would work. I don’t know if you’re all that scary, but I did it.” The dog licked my hand in response. I started wondering what I would need to take care of a dog. I was starting a mental list when the dog stood up, his ears pricked up.
I frowned at him, and he faced the house and let out a low growl.
“What’s the matter, puppy?” I asked shifting to my knees and standing up. Maybe Jenny had come back, or maybe Kyle had made some noise only the dog had heard. I laid my hand on the dog’s head and started walking toward the house. The dog glanced up at me and trotted a few steps ahead of me, still growling. He entered the house before me and trotted toward the front door. His growl got louder, and I heard a tentative knock at the door.
I rested my hand on the dog’s head, and I told him to be quiet. I didn’t want him to attack anyone, and it was probably just Mrs. Finch coming over. I looked down at the dog, ready to shush him again, and jumped back a step. My Hellpuppy had grown up fast. Instead of the round-bellied, skinny-legged puppy at my side, I had a dog whose head reached almost to my chest. “Puppy? What happened to you?”
He swiveled his head to look back at me, and his eyes were glowing violet.
Someone knocked at the door again, this time louder. I continued to stare at the dog but called out, “Who is it?”
“Um, I’m looking for Hero Adams. I’m, um I was a friend of her aunt’s,” A female voice carried through the door.
She sounded young, younger than me at least. I glanced down at the hell-dog and he gazed back at me. Maybe it was just me, but he seemed to be waiting on my lead. His hair was still a little bristled, but he’d stopped growling. I leaned over and whispered to him, “Ok, I’m gonna open the door. If she’s bad, can you warn me?” Yeah, I was talking to a dog, and expecting some sort of intelligent answer. He wagged his tail as an answer. I nudged the dog over so that he would be behind the door when I opened it. He didn’t seem to like that, but he stayed put.
I flipped the deadbolt and opened the door. I wasn’t sure who I expected to find standing there, but the young woman I found wasn’t it. She looked to be in her early to mid-twenties. She had light brown hair in was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She looked like any of the local co-eds. There was nothing particularly remarkable about her at all.
She seemed equally surprised to see me. Maybe she expected a lemuria to have a ring-tail too?
“I’m Hero, who are you?” It wasn’t polite or even friendly, but I had no idea who this woman was. She could even be the one responsible for Dee’s murder.
“Hero, I’m Kate,” she paused, maybe expecting her name would explain anything. “Um, I was one of Dee’s students.”
I continued to stare at her, and Kate seemed to be losing confidence.
“Um, I just found out about Dee, and I wanted to offer my condolences.” Kate stammered.
The dog, who had stayed quiet, trotted around me and sniffed at the woman. Seeing him, she paled, and I’d swear that Kate looked ready to bolt. He finished his sniffing and looked up at me, and let his tongue loll out in a dog-grin. I looked at him and back at Kate, “I guess he thinks you’re ok.” I said petting his head.
Kate swallowed and without taking her eyes off the dog asked, “Is he,” she paused again, “Is he a…” She barely whispered and seemed unwilling to say the word cerberus.
Hellpuppy didn’t bother waiting for my answer. He let out a small yip and trotted back into the living room. I realized that I needed to give him a name before “Hellpuppy” stuck.
“Oh man, I’ve never seen one before,” Kate gushed. “I’ve never even met anyone who could even call one, let alone bring one over!”
I’ll admit I felt a momentary twinge of pride. Ok, maybe more than a twinge, but of course, impressing “Kate the coed” was a long way from scaring off a real threat.
I ignored her question, “What do you mean you were Dee’s student?” I asked, still not inviting her in.
Kate blinked and opened and closed her mouth as if searching for the right words. “She… she never mentioned me?” Kate’s lip quivered a little, “Um she was teaching me to,” she paused again and lowered her voice, “to use my gifts.”
I felt a little bad making her look so sad, but I wasn’t ready to believe her, doe-eyed or not. “Uh-huh, can you prove it?”
She stared at me blankly, “Prove it? I don’t understand.” She stared at me a moment longer, “She’s taught a lot of us over the years, and I know I was her last student, but you never met any of them?”
I narrowed my eyes at her, “What are you talking about?” I was suddenly confused. Dee had been running witch school out of our house and I never knew? I remembered that Aidan and Kyle had both claimed that Dee didn’t have a, what was the word, witch group… No coven. They both said she didn’t have a coven. So, where did Kate come from? “Look, maybe you’d better come inside,” I said and held the door open wider.
She took a tentative step inside. I wasn’t sure if she was more frightened of me or Hellpuppy. I noticed that he had returned to his puppy state and was happily curled up on the floor next to one of the chairs. I sat down and gestured for her to do the same. “Ok, start over. How did you meet Dee?”
She sat down and seemed familiar enough with the house. “Well, Dee was involved in the preterworld. She found students like me and the others and trained us,” she shrugged like this was the most normal process ever.
“Riiight, but how did she find you?” I asked again, still feeling confused. There was no way I was telling her I knew nothing about the preterworld. Of course, Hellpuppy seemed ok with her, so I wasn’t feeling like she was a threat or anything. And, with her big doe eyes and college sweatshirt, she looked like she would be more at home in a library than in my living room.
Kate looked at the floor, “She kept track of all the kids,” she swallowed, “the Wasteland Kids.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but it seemed to bother her to admit to being a wasteland kid, whatever that meant. Hellpuppy pricked his ears up when she said it, so maybe it was some other preter thing I was supposed to know about. I sighed, “I’m so over the vocabulary lessons and cryptic code crap. Explain this to me in normal-people English.” It came out sharper than I’d intended, but I was getting tired of being the only one in the room who needed a dictionary.
She jerked her head up and frowned at me a moment, “Wait, you don’t know about us? She didn’t tell you anything about us?” She must have caught my impatient stare because she continued.
“Um well after Sosostris was disbanded, the adults had mostly lost their powers, but all of the kids, the ones created from their,” her voice dropped again, “their breeding program, needed help. They needed training and parents. And all of the parents were broken or unfit, so those kids were adopted by other preters. By people Dee and Lenore trusted.” Her nervousness seemed to be waning, “I mean, it was better than the alternatives, ‘cause most of the preters who opposed Sosostris wanted us dead. But Dee kept track of all the kids, and if they had kids she kept track of them. I’m like the grandchild or great-grandchild of Sosostris, but we’re all still Wasteland Kids.”
“They had a breeding program?” I felt sick wondering what kind of people would be willing to be part of that? “That’s what it sounds like right?” I recalled Travis mentioning bloodlines and even Jenny mentioned something about it with her family.
Kate nodded, still looking like she wasn’t sure what I was talking about. She bit her lip, “One of Sosostris’ goals was to understand our preter nature, using the science of their day.” She glances at me to make sure I was following.
I nodded for her to continue.
“What do you know about eugenics?”
I hadn’t been big on history or science, but something about the term made me think of Nazis. I said as much.
“Yeah, they used it to,” she shook her head, “but it mostly originated here in the good old US of A. It was bad science, ideologically driven science. It linked good and bad traits to heredity and race.”
“Like the Nazis thinking they were the superhumans or whatever?”
Kate nodded, “The preters who became interested in the ideas adopted a lot of the same flawed thinking.” She ran a hand through her hair, “They wanted to create more powerful preters, a kind of super-preter I guess.”
“But who would agree to that?” I blurted out. I couldn’t imagine having sex with some random dude to make a super-baby, and I was pretty sure artificial insemination wasn’t possible in the 30s.
“Some of them did, but a lot of them weren’t willing – but they made them anyway.”
Her words hung between us. I couldn’t believe that Dee would have been involved with people like that. She would never endorse ideas like that. But a small voice in my head reminded me that, until recently, I never would have believed Dee would lie to me. I stared at this young woman. She looked normal enough, but from what she’d told me about this creepy breeding program, the kids were supposed to be all super powerful. “Um, why Wasteland kids? That just sounds, well cruel.”
Kate gave me a weak smile, “From the poem.” I must have looked confused again because she bit her lip and went on, “Um, The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot? It’s where Sosostris comes from. She’s a character in the poem.”
I had vague memories of a poem that I was probably supposed to have read back in my college days. But I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why this group of preters chose a poem for their inspiration. “Why the poem?”
Kate blinked at me, “Because Eliot and some of his poet buddies were all involved.” She cocked her head at me, “They were all into the Spiritualist movements and they founded Sosostris.”
I hadn’t expected that. Some dead white guy poet had been part of the preter-league of supervillains. It made me wonder if other famous people were preters too. I mean it had to be possible, not like I knew how many of us there were or anything. “Huh, that I didn’t expect,” I sat silently a moment, trying to figure out my next move. What was I supposed to say? I was guessing that any other preter wouldn’t be ok with a Wasteland Kid, but I couldn’t see getting all worked up over something she couldn’t control. Sure, her grandparents were creepy as hell to go along with some breeding program, but that wasn’t Kate’s fault.
Kate sat twisting her hands in her lap and looking just as uncomfortable as I felt. Hellpuppy raised his head from between his paws and looked at her. He got up and trotted over to her and sat down at her feet. She looked down at the dog, unsure what to make of his movement. Of course, I wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing either.
“I think he likes you,” I said with a nod at Hellpuppy.
She gave me a shy smile and reached hesitantly down to stroke his head. “Wow, he’s soft. What’s his name?”
I paused, I hadn’t given him a name yet. I didn’t know if he had his own name. “Um, I’ve just been calling him Puppy,” I blushed a little, “I haven’t had him for very long.”
“Oh,” she was busy scratching behind Hellpuppy’s ears. “You probably should give him a name. I don’t think he’ll like being called puppy for long.”
As if agreeing with her, Hellpuppy thumped his tail on the floor and looked over at me. He probably liked Hellpuppy even less.
I sighed, “I’ll add that to my ‘to do’ list.” Hellpuppy let out a small yip and seemed to be smiling. He shifted back toward Kate’s hand so she could continue petting him. “So, you really came by, just to pay your respects?” I asked.
Kate looked at the floor, “No, not only for that.” She kept her eyes on the floor, but I could see the shift of emotions play across her face. I figured she’d already told me her deepest secret with the whole Wasteland thing, what could be worse than that?”
Kate finally dragged her eyes from the floor and looked at me, “I don’t think Dee died of natural causes.”
I managed to keep my face neutral. How would she know that Dee had been murdered? “Why would you think that?” I asked my voice weak, and my suspicions rose again. If she knew about Dee’s murder, then maybe she knew who killed her. Maybe she killed her. But looking at her quivering lips, and her fear, I had a hard time believing she could kill anyone.
Her eyes glittered and her lip quivered, “Because she wasn’t old enough, she wasn’t sick or anything.” She paused, and I nodded for her to continue. “And well, she was worried about someone. She let it slip last week.”
I sat up straighter in my chair listening.
“I was here for training, and she left the room to take a call. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop or anything, but she left the office door open. She said, ‘they’d found her’ and she was worried.” Kate’s eyes finally overflowed, and tears ran down her cheeks. Her brow furrowed as she continued. “I don’t think any of the original members of Sosostris could be a threat to her, but I don’t think they ever found all the kids. I mean Dee and Lenore and the others, I don’t think they found all the kids from the Sosostris experiments. Some of them got away, and who knows who raised them.” Her voice had risen and was bordering on hysterical. She’d stopped petting Hellpuppy and was clenching her hands in her lap.
“So you think that Sosostris, killed her?” I asked, my voice was barely a whisper. I’d hoped to maintain a poker face, but knew I wasn’t. I’m sure my face echoed her white-eyed terror, “Could they do that?”
Hellpuppy stood up and seemed to be deciding which of us needed him more. He must have decided I did because he came walking over and rested his head in my lap. I rested my hand on his head and found that his warmth and even his weird purple-eyed gaze comforted me.
Kate watched the cerebus and ran her hands through her hair, “I don’t know, at least not for sure. It would have to be a group. Some really-strong circes working together could do it. Or even a few weaker ones working with a strong hecate.” She shook her head, her expression still strained. “It’d take a lot of power and generating that kind of power…” her words trailed off and her eyes grew distant. Like she was considering how a group could get that much power, “I don’t know how they did it, but I know they did.”
I swallowed and opened my mouth, but I couldn’t seem to find any words. I continued to stare back at Kate and felt myself shiver. “But, why?” I finally asked. I swallowed the lump in my throat, “After so long, why now?”
Kate wiped at her cheeks with the sleeve of her sweatshirt, “Because of The Gate.” She said, with a frown, “And well you.”
I could only take her revelations one at a time, and this wasn’t the first time I’d heard about The Gate in connection to Dee, “The Gate?” I asked.
She nodded, “They want it back.” She seemed to be regaining her composure. Maybe my willingness to hear her out helped. Maybe she’d expected I’d send her to the underworld, or sick Hellpuppy on her when she told me about Dee’s murder. Regardless, this new line of conversation seemed more comfortable for her.
Of course, it left me confused once again. “Wait, what gate are you talking about?”
The furrow returned to Kate’s brow, “The Gate to the Underworld, at least the one in this part of the world.”
I blinked at Kate. Kyle had told me about Sosostris trying to find it, but no one seemed to think that they had. “Dee knew where it was?” I thought about the power that Jenny and Kyle seemed to think The Gate had. Any preter could use it for all sorts of hinky stuff – and that hearing about it made me feel strange. It was almost like an echo, or déjà vu. I realized that I wanted to find The Gate too. No, I needed to find it. It was like a switch flipped in my head, she knew where it was, and I needed to find it.
Kate shifted in her seat, inching closer to the edge with her muscles tensed. She looked ready to bolt out of the room. I noticed that she was flexing her hands, shifting her fingers around.
I glanced at Hellpuppy and he jumped to attention. “Stop whatever you’re doing,” I snapped at her, “And explain this to me. Where is it?” The room seemed to waver for an instant. Almost like the way you can see the heat on asphalt on a really hot day. And behind the room, or maybe through the wavering, I could see another place.
“Hero, please calm down,” Kate said her voice frantic. She stopped moving her hand and was watching Hellpuppy. “Please, I don’t think you understand what you’re doing right now.” Her voice had edged away from terrified and was perfectly calm.
I was too focused on what I was seeing to notice her. But I noticed Hellpuppy when he nipped at my hand. At first, I absently pushed his head away.
He responded with a growl and bit harder.
I tore my eyes away from the other place and glared down at the dog. “Bad Hellpuppy,” I snapped at him and tried to pull my hand away, but he bit harder. If he bit any harder, he’d break the skin and draw blood. “Ow, quit it,” I said and heard some of the anger draining from my voice. The dog continued to hold my hand in his teeth but lessened the pressure.
“I think it’s ok now,” Kate whispered from across the room. She’d left the chair and was hovering by the open front door.
I blinked and glanced around the room. It was normal again. “What happened?” I wasn’t sure if I was directing the question at Kate or the dog.
Hellpuppy let go of my hand but continued to stand next to me with his ears pricked up.
Kate closed the door and took a step back into the room. “You started to tear a hole in the veil.”
I bit my lip; I’d heard those words before too. Kyle had told me I’d almost torn a hole in the veil when he told me about Dee. I started to shake; I’d almost opened a door to the underworld in Dee’s living room. The place I’d seen, the gray stone, and blacker than black water, that was the underworld?
Kate came back into the living room, and after taking a look at me, she went into the kitchen. I heard her opening cupboards and moving around. I probably should have been worried about her rummaging through Dee’s house, but I was still too stunned. I couldn’t ignore the underworld incident. I really shouldn’t be ignoring everything I’d been doing today. I’d spoken to my dead mother, and called up a cerberus, and now I’d almost ripped open an entrance to the underworld. And why did I suddenly feel a gnawing, emptiness inside?
Hellpuppy laid his head in my lap and whimpered softly at me. I absently stroked his head. “Hellpuppy, what’s going on with me?”
He didn’t answer, and I hadn’t expected him too. He did lick my hand and continue to look up at me, with well puppy-dog eyes. I scratched behind his ears. I felt my eyes sting with tears. It was becoming too much to deal with.
Kate returned with a cup of tea, a packet of crackers, and a sliced apple. She set both on the table in front of me. “Sorry, I couldn’t make you something better, but the pantry is pretty bare.” She nudged the crackers toward me, “You should eat.”
I nodded absently, my mind still trying to process everything. I nibbled on a cracker and tasted nothing. “Kate,” I managed to look at her and saw that she still looked terrified. “I need to know what Dee and Lenore did sixty years ago; I need to know where the gate is.”
Kate sat back in her chair and shrugged, “Dee never told me where it was. I don’t think anyone other than Lenore knew.”