I answered Hermes Trismegistus in the medieval version of Coptic that he had just spoken. “Very enlightening, I must say, and well worth it. But what brings you here?”
“Why, to see you, of course,” the sorcerer replied, still smiling. “While you have not seen me for over a thousand years, I saw you only three days ago, as you might recall.”
That answered an important question: I had traveled back to ancient times from only three days earlier. No doubt some part of me had remembered that, and had nudged me to resurface into the world of gods by recovering my memories of them. Now that I knew that only one Hephaestus remained on earth, I could do that without worrying about tangling with my younger self.
But I needed to deal with much more urgent issues. I let a hint of a growl into my voice, something I had hardly done for centuries. “All right, a good subject for a long talk over some drinks. But what have you brought into my business, Tris? What is hunting my people?”
Hermes lost his smile, and acquired instead a haunted look. “Those are my apprentices,” he said sadly, “or rather, they were. Fine, brilliant students, all three, and so young—at least by our standards, yours and mine.” He paused, and I saw poignant grief in his eyes. “All dead, or so they must be. Whatever beings took over their bodies in their sleep are not human.”
Seeing the pain of my old friend’s loss goaded me into curbing my impatience. “I’m sorry,” I responded more gently, “but I don’t understand. Something possessed them in their sleep?”
“You know, Hephaestus,” Hermes remarked, “I never did explain to you the secret of my longevity. I manage to take three or four centuries to grow old in the mortal way. Then I go to sleep, wrapped in strips of cloth the way they once did with dead Pharaohs, and rejuvenate slowly in a very well-protected place. That might take as long as a thousand years.”
He was right. He had never told me this, and I had not thought about it. Ironic, a god failing to ask a mortal how he could live for so long. I suppose some of us take our immortality for granted.
“I can only speculate,” Hermes continued sadly, “that my apprentices failed to protect themselves very well. When I awoke, only seven days before I came to you in Crete, they did not rise—“
Something warned me that immediate danger had returned. I shushed the sorcerer, and concentrated on what my instincts told me. Yes, something watched us from a corner just out of the light.
As quickly as I could, I pointed my weapon toward the corner, targeted the object extending just into my line of sight, and fired. An indigo beam, only dimly visible, crossed the distance to the corner and impacted the being observing Hermes and me. A piercing screech sounded, but for less than a heartbeat, and the targeted area smoldered. The figure dropped onto the floor, spasmed, and lay still.
Hermes whispered something that took me a second to translate. “Good shot,” I finally understood him to say. He rose to his feet, and we walked toward what I had shot.
The figure now sprawled on the floor resembled a shabbily-wrapped mummy. Patches of skin, however, showing through in spots, revealed the creature beneath the linen to be nonhuman. I saw greenish-blue scales, much like those of a lizard or a snake. Claws protruded through the badly-shredded fabric covering the hands and feet. The head, still mostly shrouded, told me little, but the jaws protruded forward like those of an animal, and the cloth had been ripped open around the gaping mouth. Blood stained the linen there—mortal, human blood, I knew beyond a doubt.
A cloud of rage began to form in my mind, as it had so often in the ancient times. I pointed to the bloody fabric around the predator’s mouth. “Is that the blood of any of my people?” I grated, the growl returning to my voice in full force.
Hermes sighed heavily. “I don’t know,” he replied forlornly. “It might be.”
Rather than plunge into an abyss of ferocity, I elected to target a smaller source of irritation: Trismegistus’ archaic language. I took a deep breath, then remarked, “I know you’ve only been here a few days, but it would have helped if you’d troubled to learn English.”
Now the sorcerer himself grew visibly testy. “Pardon me; I haven’t had time to think of that.” He raised his hands before him, palms out. Then he closed his eyes and stayed motionless for a few seconds. Finally, he opened his eyes. “There,” he continued in American English. “Will that do? Besides, I thought you could understand any mortal language.”
“I can,” I answered more calmly, “but when even a god speaks basically only one language for a century or more, it gets hard to switch. Now back to the subject at hand. There are two more of those…” I pointed down at the cloth-wrapped monstrosity on the floor. “…somewhere in this building, right?”
“There are,” Hermes confirmed, “but they’re on the lower levels, or I wouldn’t have chattered with you like this.”
I raised my hand to silence Hermes, and again fully opened my senses. Yes, two more predators lurked somewhere in the three levels beneath this one. So did some human beings—how many, I did not know. Things seemed relatively quiet at the moment; hopefully my people had taken shelter in some of the various offices and other rooms.
“The lower levels,” I echoed, “both these creatures and my people. I guess it’s also a good sign that we haven’t found any bodies yet.” At the very least, I reasoned, there would have been a receptionist at the front desk. Not having found her dead, I still had grounds for hope that she had escaped.
“Don’t assume that they’ll kill your people,” Hermes suddenly burst out. “They might capture them to kill them later, or maybe even leave them alive. I don’t know what motivates them, but the fact that we haven’t found anyone dead is, as you say, a good sign.”
“All right,” I said. “This is what I have in mind. You, Tris, will tell me what happened since you first noticed something wrong. Then we will go into the lower levels and save my people from whatever these demon mummies have in store for them.”
“Demon—” Hermes began to repeat; then he dropped it. “I expected my apprentices to awaken when I did, ten days ago. When they did not, I thought little of it; they could have overslept for a dozen reasons. I expected to puzzle that out when I returned from seeing you.
“I saw your younger self off from Crete, then began to search for you as you are now. I knew that you would choose to live apart from your kindred of Olympus, to avoid crossing paths with your other self. Finding you took two days; then I sent a signal to you in your sleep, to nudge you into remembering and resurfacing into the world. Maybe that drove you to remember; perhaps you did it yourself. It doesn’t matter.
“Then I decided to come here, after the working day had probably ended, as far as I’d had time to learn in this age. I meant to help you if you needed it, and reminisce over long-ago times with a very old friend. I hoped for a joyful, carefree reunion.
“Apparently, the monsters that my apprentices have become had some means to track me here. I don’t know what they want with me, or with anyone else. The first I knew of them, I had just walked into this building. A pretty young woman, seated directly in from the glass doors, smiled at me and asked if she could help me. I had time only to rule out a bawdy response—an unfamiliar culture, after all—before the flameless lights blew out, like candles in wind.
“At that time, the windows let in enough light that I could see fairly well, but deep shadows had grown in some places. At any rate, I never saw the creature appear. I only noticed it as it grabbed the young woman, and she had no time even to scream before they both vanished. Then something I never saw slammed into my head, and I knew nothing more until you came in.”
I nodded. I wished for more to go on, but what I had would have to do.
“Then let’s get moving to the lower levels,” I said. “Tris, do you have magic that can kill those things?”
Hermes nodded in turn. “Yes, and maybe something better. I can make the creatures unaware of our approach. They won’t be able to smell us, hear us, or see us. They won’t even see that sorcerous light of yours; only we will.”
I could not help but be impressed. “So why won’t it be that easy?”
Hermes looked puzzled for a moment; then his face lit with understanding. “I can only do it for a moment at a time. I have to let the effect fade before I can renew it, and they can see us until I do. Also, I don’t know for a fact that they don’t have other senses that I’ve never heard of. What I mean to do might be completely useless.”
I sighed. “Well, let’s proceed on the basis that it does work, don’t you think? What other choice do we have?”
“None,” Hermes answered, “if you care about your people, and I know that you do.”
“Well then,” I said, trying to sound confident, “shall we head down?”