A Gorgon Comes for Hades' Helm
by Tony Pi
The journey to Crete was arduous, even for my monstrous wings. Wracked by hunger, I chose to feed before I braved the Labyrinth ruins; days might pass before the shade of Minos answered my plea. I alit on Mount Ida, and masked myself for the hunt. After all, stone made for poor nourishment.
Just before dusk, I caught a wild goat, crushed it and devoured it raw. Sated and tired, I found a deep cave and fell asleep.
I dreamt of coins for a bone comb, their cold licks against my bare skin. The merchant caught my eye and smiled, and I haggled the price down to two obols. Pleased with my bargain, I sauntered in the agora as one of the crowd. All these things that men took for granted, I cherished.
I would have gladly lingered in that simple dream, save that a man's cry and the tang of blood roused me. I woke to scales instead of skin, snakes instead of hair, and fresh blood on my viper-tongues.
I was Gorgon, still.
By instinct, I hissed and sprang to mute my waker with stony death. But the cave's gloom spared the man the horror of my face. He did not move, but called to me from the shadows.
"Lethaea? Are you hurt, my love?"
He mistook me for a woman he adored, and cared more for her health than his own.
"Leave me to my peace, stranger. You've stolen a perfect dream, and I'm rarely forgiving. Be wise and seek aid before the poison robs you of your breath."
"Stranger?" His voice cracked. "If that's the truth, I will go. But if you turn aside only to spare me pain, know that your lie cuts a far deeper wound! Whatever the gods have done to you, let me help you bear your burden, as a husband should. Then, perhaps our love will appease the gods, and they will lift your curse."
"Pray your gods are more merciful than mine. I am not Lethaea, but your devotion to this woman intrigues me. Who is she, to inspire such love? And what is her crime against the gods?"
"I must go. Lethaea knows the mountain, but not by night. I fear she might have fallen into a ravine. But if you're injured, I cannot abandon you here."
"I'm touched by your concern, but these serpents are mine. I'm the Gorgon Euryale, on a quest of my own."
"A Gorgon!" Even at that revelation, he did not flee. "Then you know Lethaea is in true danger from the gods! I must find her, soon. Please help me."
Would Athena have spared me centuries ago, if I had but known such love? I might have married instead of following Medusa into the priesthood, or a true love such as he might have persuaded the gods to undo my curse.
How I envied Lethaea!
"I will," I promised. "Whom gods scorn, I am kin. My wings will make short work of the search. But do not resume your quest too soon, or your exertions will aid the venom. Go instead into the sun, and draw out as much poison as you can. Then tell me about her."
"Thank you. I'm Olenus." He paused. "You will not turn me to stone?"
"I have a mask." I held my gorgoneion to my face, and my snakes Thalia and Melpomene secured it in place. I followed Olenus into daylight, where the young man collapse against a Cretan maple not far from the cave. Likely, he was a goatherd beneath that dirt.
He saw me for the first time. To his credit, he did not cringe, but set to the task of drawing poison from his wounds and spitting it to the ground.
"I do not revile you?" I asked.
"The mask helps. Lethaea described her nightmares in vivid detail. Satyrs ravished her; harpies harangued her. So real, they must have been sendings. I tried to imagine what she saw. That prepared me." He paused to catch his breath. "A little."
He was taking shorter breaths, a symptom of my poison. I approached. "Show me your arm. How do you feel?"
"Dizzy." Olenus winced and turned his arm towards me. I examined it: there was a constellation of punctures on his hand and forearm. The bite-marks were swollen, and I could only guess at his pain. In prime health as he was, Olenus would likely survive a single bite. But so many?
His fever would come, soon. "I'm sorry, Olenus. When I sleep, my vipers defend me by instinct. Had I been awake, this needn't have happened."
"I should have been more careful. But neither of us can change what's past."
My serpent-coils have poisoned before, but I learned some techniques over the years that might ease Olenus' suffering. I ripped a strip of woven wool from his cloak, and wrapped it tightly around his arm, two-claws' width above the highest bite. I spied several bay trees next to a small stream. "Rest. I will return."
I re-entered the cave and found the goat's horns. I brought them to the stream, washed and hollowed them. I reached up and broke a bough of laurel off the bay tree, then coiled Terpsichore around it, leaving my hands free. I then soaked the tatters of his cloak, and filled the horns with water.
When I returned to him, he took the horns and gulped down the water. "You spoke of a quest," he said, wiping his lips with his good hand. "Why did you come to Crete?"
I bade him to press a cool rag to his forehead, while I washed the blood from his bites. "Days ago, I pried a secret from a drunk philosopher named Zeno, in a town called Elea. He claimed that I could find a cure for my curse in Athens. At first I scoffed, but then reconsidered his words. Athena's city was one of few places I avoided in my wanderings. Where else might the cure be, if not hidden there? It was a thread-bare hope, but a lead nonetheless. To become human again, I must try."
"But Athens is far from Crete."
I crushed the bay leaves from the bough. "Rub this into your wounds. My fingers are too coarse and would do more harm than good." He obeyed. "There's one obstacle: I cannot enter Athena's sacred city without reprisal. How could I enter her sacred city unseen? Cunning Zeno knew a way. He reminded me of a prize that would shield me from even goddess eyes: the Helm of Hades, which made its wearer invisible. With it, Perseus quietly slew my sister Medusa, and fled without a trace. Since the helm was stained by that murder, Zeno reasoned, it was mine to claim by right of vengeance.
"I know no gods will aid me. But I have a Hadean ally, one whom I knew and loved of old: King Minos. Now that he's a judge in the underworld, I pray he will intercede on my behalf. And so I came to Crete, to cry for justice in the ruins of his Labyrinth."
"I hope you find your heart's desire, Euryale," Olenus said. Sweat beaded on his forehead. "After we find Lethaea, we will go with you to Knossos, and tell of your kindness to Minos."
I turned away. I could not tell Olenus the truth. I had done terrible things with my power in the past thousand years, and Zeno, more like than not, was sending me into a trap for what I had done to his city. Nor could I tell him that he would more likely die than see Lethaea again.
"Tell me about her."
"Lethaea's only crime was that the gods made her too beautiful," Olenus whispered. "Her beauty lured men with gold and wine, but she refused them and chose me. A simple goatherd." He stopped to catch his breath. "I asked her, why? The names of trees, and the mountain's secrets, she explained. No one else thought to teach her that. I would die for her."
I knew Lethaea's tragedy. "The most beautiful woman of her generation, was she not? Once modest, but the constant praise had gone to her head. I knew such women. They boast they are fairer than the gods, and invite catastrophe upon themselves."
"Be calm, my love," Olenus moaned, wiping sweat from his eyes. "It is but a vulture." He was growing feverish, and incoherent. Sometimes in his delirium, he made sense, but often he would confuse me with Lethaea, or call me a harpy and crawl away. I calmed him, and ministered to his wounds as best I could.
From his babblings, I pieced together their life and how it fell apart. Lethaea loved Olenus for the simple things, but the village women ridiculed her for choosing poverty. She took to scorning them, saying she had such beauty that gods only dreamt of. After a priest openly condemned her for such hubris, the nightmares began. "Yesterday, as she was teaching our nieces about trees, she suddenly recoiled from a vine and clutched at her throat, as though it would lash out and strangle her," Olenus revealed. "The children told me that a mad look came over her eyes, and she fled into the mountain woods. I've been searching our secret places ever since."
Despite my ministrations, Olenus fell sicker. I sparked a fire with claws on flint, to roast goat meat for him. He ate a little, but threw up. There was blood in his vomit.
In his last lucid moment, he touched my arm, and begged me to find Lethaea. "There's a goat path, east of here. Leads to a gorge. She might have fallen. Or the grove of strawberry trees, up further. I didn't get a chance, to look there."
I knew his desperation. It had been mine, once. "The sun's setting, Olenus. I can't be sure I'll find you again in the darkness. It might even be too late; the gods might have changed her beyond recognition already. By now, she might be a tree, or a flower!"
"Lethaea needs me. I cannot die!" A fit came over him. I cooed and calmed him, but he had begun to babble again.
Days ago, a mortal life was cheap as grass to me. I owed this man nothing. It was he who disturbed my rest!
But if had I not come to Crete, might he have found Lethaea? Might he have saved her?
"You don't deserve this," I murmured.
It was beyond my skills to save him, but perhaps not beyond the power of a judge of the underworld. If I could sway Minos to save his life, he might be able to reunite with his beloved.
I gently picked him up in my arms, and leapt into the sky.
I followed the coast to Knossos, and found the ruins of Minos' palace. To light my way, I wrapped Terpsichore tight around the haft of a burning torch, and carried Olenus into the dark maw of the Labyrinth.
For someone thrust into the dark Labyrinth without any knowledge of its secrets, it might take days to reach the core. But Minos had once given me the freedom of the Labyrinth, and I danced the intricate dance that doubled as a mnemonic to the twists and turns within. Where stones had fallen, I set Olenus down gently and used my strength to open the way.
Would Minos help me? Perhaps, if our friendship survived the grave. I befriended King Minos long ago, on the isle of Corcyra. By chance, we both answered a woman's cry to the sea to save her daughter from rape at the hands of pirates. No stranger to monsters, he saw beyond my curse for the woman beneath. "It is not by chance that our quests collide," he remarked. "The woman invoked the gods, and the Fates sent us to do justice in her name. Go, friend, find and turn that pirate ship to stone. Then come with me, and let us learn from one another."
So I journeyed with Minos awhile. I spoke of my search for Medusa's assassin, and he of his hunt for the traitor Daedalus. I learned his code of justice and took his teachings to heart, but there came a time when our quests forced us back onto different paths. We parted as friends at Thera, vowing to renew our acquaintance someday. That was the last time I saw him alive.
I wondered how death had changed him.
A final twist to the right, and we entered the heart of the Labyrinth: where the Minotaur lived, where he was buried. I left Olenus to slumber against the wall, and planted the torch in a high crevice. I knelt and carefully unearthed a horned skull. "Asterius, Minotaur," I whispered. "Forgive me my trespass."
I polished his skull with care. With a claw dipped in Olenus' blood, I anointed the tips of the horns. I set down my mask, raised the skull high, and addressed it with reverence. "Minos, hear my cry! By blood and bone, I call for justice!"
Thrice I called. Thrice I waited.
A chilling wind extinguished my torch and left us in utter darkness. The only sounds were our labored breathing. At last, a ghostly flame ignited within the skull, and lit the walls with blood-red light.
I heard movement behind me, and I turned. Olenus, eyes closed, lifted off the ground as though phantom strings pulled him up. "Speak," said Olenus with Minos' voice. The king was in his skin.
I put my hands to the ground and lowered my head. "Old friend, you know my ancient grievance. I have come for justice, and would ask two boons of you. The first, the Helm of Hades, so I might seek salvation in Athens unhindered. The second, another chance at life for Olenus."
"My justice is for the dead, not for the living or the immortal."
"Death comes too soon for the boy, and too late for me. I beg you, right these injustices; give us back our lives. Then, when our mortal flaws one day bring us to your court, we will own our deaths."
"The Helm of Hades is no mere toy, given on a whim," he admonished.
"Fit for a hero, but not a monster?" I spat venom on the ground. "All I ask is balance. The gods gave Perseus four gifts to slay my sister, four! It is only one I need. Should I not be repaid for the blood of my family spilled?"
"For all your crowing about justice, you've failed to avenge two deaths. Mine and Medusa's."
I dared not look up. "Daedalus proved too clever, and escaped me. Perseus took his place among the stars, robbing me of vengeance."
"Poor excuses." Minos circled me, blind yet sure of foot. "And Olenus? What makes his life worth more than the other lives you've taken, that you would plead to save him?"
I could keep the truth from Olenus, but not from the judge of the dead. "I don't deny it: Athena made me a monster, so a monster I play. My curse is also power: you taught me that! Wisdom herself put a sword in my hand, and told me to wreak havoc. I've killed countless men with it, both guilty and innocent.
"Now, with reprieve so tantalizingly close, I realize I was wrong." Before Minos, I could not lie, even to myself. "Though Athena gave me this terrible power, it was I who chose to use this power for evil. If I had but chosen self-exile as my sister did, I would not have these atrocities to answer for. Immortality blinded me to consequence. I had forgotten your lesson: no actions without reprisal."
"No justice without conscience," added Minos.
"Olenus is innocence. All I aspire to but cannot be. I admire him for it." I finally looked up. "It was only by chance that he came upon me, and found an early death. I would have him live to find Lethaea, and save her from a fate like mine."
"For the likes of us, there is only fate, not chance." Minos-in-Olenus paced, deliberating. "While blood does taint Hades' Helm, you also ask to rescind a death. There is a price."
He stopped in front of the skull, and sat cross-legged across from me. "You and I were once called to Corcyra, to answer that woman's cry. We were tools of the gods then, as we are now." He touched the tips of the Minotaur horns in turn. "Both the Helm and Olenus' life are yours, but there is a catch: you must turn Lethaea to stone."
I shook my head. "Olenus lives for her! If he revives but I destroy Lethaea, what life do I leave him?"
"She's proud unto death, and will not recant. The gods decree that she spend eternity in stone, and use you as a sculptor does a chisel. Your role in her punishment is set. Such is your power and your curse."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then Hades' Helm will return to shadow, at sunset tomorrow. You must mete her doom by then, or relinquish the Helm forever."
If I obeyed the will of the gods, I would win the Helm of Hades. Yet in doing so, I would kill the very man I fought to save! If I thwarted the gods and let Lethaea live, she and Olenus stood to live a long, prosperous life. Would I throw away my last chance to be human again?
It was a diabolic test, worthy of the ancient king. For a long time, I stared at him, and weighed my choices.
Finally, I reached out and took his swollen hand. "Minos, you said there would be no justice without conscience. I've lived without a conscience for a thousand years, and know the depths of my sins. I must atone, and you offer me a chance now, by sparing Lethaea.
"But this choice is an illusion. Olenus, I do respect your love for Lethaea, but I know nothing about you besides your obsession. Better that I try for the life I lost, than waste eternity tasting joy vicariously! If you brand me villain for it, so be it." I let go of his hand.
"Then prove it with deed, Gorgon. Look for Lethaea high on the southern slope, where the trees dare not climb higher."
My heart beat faster. "And the Helm?"
"The Helm is yours to take. Claim it from the shades of the unavenged." He swept his damaged arm in an arc, and drew my attention to the Labyrinth walls. The skull's glow flared, and distorted our wall-shadows into scenes from the past.
Against the wall behind Olenus, the shadow of a naked warrior swung its sword at a half-man, half-bull silhouette. He clove deep into the Minotaur, and my brethren's shadow mimed a roar and fell.
I realized with horror what Minos would have me do: relive my sister's murder in these shadow-plays.
I bit back my revulsion, and turned to the left. A brute shadow struggled with a many-headed darkness, cutting off its heads even as new ones grew from the stumps. A smaller silhouette aided the warrior, touching a circle of light to the neck-shadows to stop their regeneration.
Beheadings, but not the one I sought.
I swiveled again, and caught sight of three shadows curled in sleep. Stheno, Medusa and I! I could not prevent what would happen soon: the beheading of my sister by an invisible assassin.
Or could I?
It was Minos' second test: I had to catch Perseus in the act, and rip the Helm from him. Could I reach into the scene, and save Medusa from dying?
The Helm of Hades had rendered Perseus invisible; he would not have a shadow in the scene before me. Perseus could have been flying above any of us. While I could hazard a guess at where he was, if I reached at the wrong moment, I would miss my invisible foe. That mistake could cost me the Helm. The only time I could be sure of catching Perseus was the instant he beheaded Medusa, and reached for his trophy.
I couldn't let him murder my sister again! I had to risk catching him now.
I did not want to remember that grisly scene, but I did. Every detail could be crucial. Medusa had slept between us, on my left, facing Stheno. Surely Perseus had hovered, not risking footprints or the sound of sandals against earth. I recalled that a tickle of the wind had roused me, and I sneezed before falling back to sleep. Could that have been the tiny wings on Perseus' sandals, lifting him above me?
I decided that it was. I crouched, and waited for my shadow-double to sneeze. Her soundless convulsion was my signal. I pounced, striking my claws at the emptiness above the shadow. My talons should have dug into stone, but my hand passed through the wall and struck phantom flesh. I dug in with my claws, and with a roar, swung my other hand to rip the phantom out of the wall. Though I couldn't see him, I knew it to be Perseus. The ghost fought back, slashing with the sickle but drawing no blood. I laughed; my scales were stronger than adamantine. I battered him with my wings, and forced him to drop his sickle and shield.
"This is justice for my sister, hero!" I poured centuries of fury into my final assault. I did not stop tearing until there was nothing left to rend.
I collapsed in front of the sickle to catch my breath. The shadows on the wall stirred, and Medusa's silhouette slowly rose. Though I could not read her face, I imagined she looked into my eyes and smiled in thanks.
Her shadow diminished and was lost in light.
I picked up the sickle and stood, eager to claim my prize.
But I could not find the Helm.
At first, I thought it simply the cap's magic, concealing its wearer even after death, but I quickly realized that the Helm was not the only thing missing. Gone too were the mirrored shield and the winged sandals.
"Olenus!" I screamed. "I fought to win you your life, and this is how you repay me? Give me the Helm!"
"I see your true face now, Gorgon," his voice came out of thin air. "I heard all that you and Minos said, and I will not let you kill Lethaea."
"The gods will punish Lethaea, whether it is my hand or not. I want my life back. I have no choice."
"You do! There must be other ways for you to enter Athens." My serpent-tongues tasted him in the air. "You may have saved my life, but my life and hers are one. Take hers and you take mine too. I beg you, Euyale, have mercy."
I listened carefully for his breathing, or anything that would tell me where to strike. "Don't you see? The gods pit us against each other like dogs for the betting. They know I would do anything to end my curse, and as would you for Lethaea. Only one will prevail, and I am stronger. You have no hope."
"But to defeat you, I only need to elude you for one day," he countered. He should have fled instead of spoke; I knew where he was by his voice. A slice with the sickle and his head would roll.
My fingers gripped the sickle so tight, if I were mortal I would bleed. But I held my hand. It seemed the gods had placed power in my hands again, and dared me to use it. The choice now was the same as it was then, when I was given the curse: use it to kill or resist its temptation. I would not fall into a god-trap again.
"Go, Olenus, find her while you still have time. Do not mistake this for mercy, for I tarry only for one, final task here. I am coming for her."
I heard nothing else from Olenus, but a gust of wind extinguished the flame inside the Minotaur skull. I was left alone in darkness.
I would follow Olenus, soon. I only hoped that the Labyrinth would entomb him awhile in its confusing corridors. But first, I knelt, and slowly searched the ground for the skull and my mask. I took great care to rebury the Minotaur's bones, along with the adamantine sickle.
"Rest, brother Asterius," I said over the Minotaur's grave, and wondered if any of our kind would ever find peace.
I emerged from the Labyrinth at dawn and took to the sky. I did not know if Olenus had already spirited Lethaea away, but I clung to the hope that I would find her first.
I found Lethaea where Minos said she would be, alone on the south slope, where the only trees that grew were broken rods and twisted branches. Lethaea herself was a frightful sight: her dress torn, cuts all over her skin, and what hair she had not torn out, a bird's nest. Despite all that, she was beautiful.
She rambled to herself, and mimed the combing of her hair. When she caught sight of me in my mask, she shrieked. "Oh Furies, hold your lashes! My nightmare comes!"
No harpies assailed her; it was clear the gods had stripped her of her sanity. It would be so easy to petrify her, but I held my mask in place. In part, it was pity, but it was also selfish: if I turned her now, I would lose the only bait that lured Olenus here.
I approached her slowly. "Don't be afraid. My name is Euryale." I didn't know how much sanity she had left, but there was one trait that even the gods could not take from her: her vanity. I would use that now. "The gods have sent me to grant you eternal beauty."
"Beautiful?" That, she understood. "Forever?"
"Yes. Let us fix your hair for the occasion. For Olenus."
Lethaea scurried to me, and leaned against my legs. I picked leaves out of her hair, and teased apart tangles with my claws. "My hair was once as luxurious as yours," I told her.
I prayed that Olenus would come, soon. I would wait only until dusk.
The sun was low on the western horizon when he came. Lethaea was sitting before me, tracing the curves of my mask. She asked if she could wear it, but I said no.
"Why haven't you destroyed her yet, Gorgon?" said Olenus, his voice somewhere around us.
"Olenus," I breathed. "I spared your life so you could see her alive, one last time."
Unseen hands gripped Lethaea. She cried out in astonishment and struggled. "My love, it is I! Come, we must flee!"
I grabbed Lethaea by the wrist. He would not bear her off.
"Olenus?" Lethaea smiled without understanding. "I can't go. Euryale promised to make me beautiful forever."
"The gods have taken her mind," I told Olenus. "Please, listen. You love Lethaea, not the madness she's become. She barely comprehends where she is, only that her destiny is near. It would be more merciful to turn her to stone."
I sighed. "I wish I did."
He whispered to her, tried to reason with her, begged her to sleep through dusk. But the more he asked of her, the more she resisted. Olenus wept, and threatened to blind her to spite me. But I knew as well as he that he could never hurt or mar Lethaea, even to save her.
Dusk was near. "Please, Olenus. There's little time left. Say what you must. Perhaps her heart will understand. Then, I beg you, leave the Helm of Hades and live. Let us both make the best of our second chances."
"Live?" he whispered. "I cannot live without her, and she is already gone."
He did not reply, but murmured into Lethaea's ear awhile. I did not hear what he said, but Lethaea smiled and murmured back, and kissed the air.
The sun was setting. "It is time," I said.
"Then do what you must," answered Olenus. "I know you could have killed me in the Labyrinth, or taken her from me sooner. For that, you will have your Helm."
A gleaming shield fell out of thin air, and rolled to rest at my feet.
"What are you doing, Olenus?"
"I love Lethaea with all my heart," he answered calmly. "I cannot let her be alone for eternity. I only ask that when I am stone, turn me so I can gaze upon her forever."
"You're innocent, Olenus! There's no need to share her fate!" I could not let him do this. I spent a thousand years trying to cast off an undeserved curse, and now he chose it willingly?
"I know what I do."
Poor Lethaea. Like my sister Medusa, her beauty brought not only her own doom, but cursed the others she loved.
I looked down at the mirrored shield, and caught a glimpse of my mask. Bronze, expressionless, my distance from the world. It inured me to my conscience.
Never again. "So be it," I conceded. I whispered to my serpents, and they let my mask fall.
I did as Olenus asked. In the morning, I placed the lovers on Mount Ida's peak, and faced them so they gazed into one another's eyes. I sat at their feet, and contemplated my own reflection in the mirror. I saw the horror I had become.
I lashed the shield to my arm, and held Hades' Helm high. As I lowered it onto my head, my serpents quieted and curled to sleep beneath the cap. The sunlight seemed to pass through my body and warm my blood.
Silent, I flew from Crete, and flung my mask into the sea.