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This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only.
The story contains fantasy violence and scenes featuring sexual content.
CHAPTER 1: A HERO’S LABOR
Leandros mounted the steps one by one, his tanned skin baking beneath the midday sun, his sandals pounding against the hot stone. He wore a set of bronze armor that glinted in the light, his ornate cuirass molded into a muscled effigy of a male torso, the metal ornamented with flowing scenes of battle. His Corinthian helmet came down over his cheeks and nose, shielding his eyes from the glare, its decorative crest bobbing with each step. With his spear and shield in hand, he arrived at the top of the staircase, the wind that blew in from the ocean rustling the leather strips of the pteruges that protected his thighs. Behind him, the white sands of Crete gave way to the azure ocean, the sunlight reflecting off its calm surface, the calls of seabirds resounding as they circled overhead. He could see his trireme from here, the ship moored at the bustling docks below, its white sails fluttering in the breeze.
Above him, perched atop the island’s craggy cliffs, was the great palace of Minos. It was an impressive edifice of shining marble pillars, its stone painted in vibrant reds and blues, adorned with finely-crafted statues honoring the Pantheon.
As he made his way higher, a pair of armored guards moved to intercept him, but they soon backed away when they recognized the sigil of the lion on his shining shield. He jogged the rest of the way, following the winding path up the arid, rocky incline until he reached the shade of a covered walkway. His sandals echoing on the polished tiles, he made his way deeper, flanked to his left and right by the massive, ornate pillars that held up the impressive structure. It was as large a palace as he had ever seen, grand both in its incredible scale and in the minutia of its adornments. He could scarcely find a surface that wasn’t patterned with beautiful mosaic work or an alcove that didn’t play host to an immaculately carved statue of a hero or a God.
The guards watched him warily as he ascended a short flight of steps, emerging into the king’s audience chamber. Sitting before him astride a throne of white marble was Minos, the king of Crete. He was clad in flowing robes of the finest silk, the locks of his long beard decorated with heavy, golden jewelry. Atop his head sat a gilded diadem encrusted with rare gems that shone as brightly as stars. At his right hand, seated in a smaller – albeit no less impressive throne hewn from marble – was his wife, Pasiphae. She was as beautiful as the stories had told, her olive skin seeming to reflect the light of the torches that burned nearby as though it had been oiled, her long, braided hair falling down her back. Her gossamer gown did little to conceal the feminine figure that lay beneath, but not even Leandros was so bold as to examine her too closely in front of the king.
He took a few steps closer, then dropped to a knee, his armor clattering as he lay down his spear before the low pedestal that held aloft the throne.
“King Minos – I have traveled far to answer your call for aid. I am Leandros – son of Alessandro, hailing from the island of Kos. I come to offer you my spear.”
“Rise, Leandros,” Minos replied with a wave of his hand. Each of his thick fingers was adorned with a gilded ring that shone as he moved. “Tales of your exploits have reached even these shores. I met your father once – he was a skilled warrior and an even more renowned statesman.”
Leandros climbed to his feet again, puffing out his chest with pride as he stood before the monarch.
“Thank you for answering my call in this dark hour,” Minos continued, leaning forward in his stone seat. “Tell me – what stories of Crete’s plight have you heard?”
“Rumors, my King,” Leandros replied. He didn’t elaborate, seeking the king’s permission to continue for fear of causing offense.
“Speak,” Minos ordered.
“They say that a beast lurks beneath the palace,” Leandros began. “They say that under this very court, there is a labyrinth of immense proportions from which no man can escape, no matter his cunning. They say that within its walls lurks a beast – not quite man, and not quite animal – that preys on all those who might dare enter.”
“You have heard true,” Minos continued, settling back into his throne with a solemn nod. “Far below us, in the bowels of the island, is a labyrinth that spans leagues. It was created on my orders by the most renowned masons and architects of Greece, its purpose – to serve as a prison, as a cage for this beast. For nearly two decades, we have kept it satiated with tributes and offerings, but it has grown restless. Now, I fear that it might find a way to escape one day soon, and when it does, all of Crete will be threatened by its wrath.”
“What is it, my King?” Leandros asked.
“An unholy union of man and beast,” he replied, his dark eyes darting to his queen for the briefest of moments. She averted her gaze, staring off into the distance, the tension between them so palpable that Leandros could almost taste it on the air.
“I have sent warriors and assassins into the labyrinth in a bid to end this threat before it gets out of my control,” the King continued, turning his attention back to Leandros. “These were not mere sellswords and mercenaries, but men of great renown. Many have ventured into the labyrinth, and not one has ever been seen again. Whether the creature is to blame or the labyrinth itself claimed them, I cannot know for sure, but the people of Crete will not sleep soundly until this threat is dealt with.”
“Then, I, Leandros of Kos, shall be the one to set their minds at ease,” he replied as he planted the long haft of his spear on the tiles. “I vow to enter the labyrinth, slay this beast, and return with proof of my deeds. I shall deliver you its head and cast it before your throne.”
“As I had hoped,” Minos replied, waving a hand. From the shadows, an old man clad in a fine cloak appeared, seeming to melt into view beside one of the flickering torches. “This is my closest and most trusted advisor, Daedalus. I have tasked him with preparing you for the labors to come. He will guide you to our armory, where you may take whatever weapons and supplies you deem necessary, and he will answer any questions you might have about the nature of the beast and its home.”
“My king,” Leandros replied, bowing his helmeted head in supplication. He turned to the old man, who beckoned for him to follow with a crooked finger.
Leandros left the throne room behind him, following the hunched Daedalus deeper into the palace’s winding corridors. As they ventured into the heart of the structure, less natural light made its way inside, and the flickering of torches soon replaced it as the only illumination. Was this an omen of the darkness that he might soon face below?
“I was there when the labyrinth was first built,” Daedalus croaked, Leandros having to slow his gait to match pace with the old man’s unsteady footsteps. “It was twenty years ago almost to the day that the creature was birthed, and upon seeing its horrifying countenance, King Minos assembled the greatest architects of the age and ordered that a structure be built to house it. My son Icarus and I oversaw its design and construction.”
“Why not kill it before it had even drawn its first breath if it was so horrifying?” Leandros asked curiously.
“The King had his reasons,” Daedalus replied cryptically. “The will of the Gods is not so easily countermanded. It took five years to complete the project, and by then, the beast had grown several times larger than a normal child of its age. It was already strong enough to overpower an adult man. It was then sent into the maze – never to be seen again. At least, that was the King’s sincerest hope.”
“What changed? I was told that no man who sets foot in there can ever leave.”
“If you think that to be true, then why have you offered to enter?” the old man asked as he tilted his head quizzically.
“Fair point,” Leandros muttered. “I have a plan.”
“In truth, the labyrinth is very difficult to navigate by design, but nothing is impossible. If there are ways in, then logic dictates that there must be ways out. I am the only man who has ever seen the completed structure from the inside, and I was barely able to make my way out, even armed with all my knowledge. The King has grown worried that as the beast’s strength and cunning grow, it will overcome the obstacles that have been placed before it.”
“What is this creature?” Leandros pressed, the pair turning another corner in the snaking hallways. “I must learn all that I can of its strengths and weaknesses before I begin my hunt.”
“It is the spawn of man and beast,” he replied, mirroring the king’s words.
“If you were there to see the construction of the labyrinth, did you see the creature in person?”
“I did,” he replied with a nod. “Many years have passed, but that image is still burned into my mind like a brand. It was as though the Gods had taken two statues of soft clay and had melded them into one. It had the broad shoulders and torso of a man, but its face…its face was that of a bull, covered in coarse hair and sporting a pair of sharp horns. Below the knee, it had the cloven hooves of a beast of the field. Be wary, for it is stronger and more resilient than any man could hope to be, embodying the bestial traits of its father. Even the great heroes of myth would crumble before it were they to challenge its strength directly. No, only a warrior quick of both mind and blade will be able to overcome it.”
“I am well versed in military strategy,” Leandros replied proudly.
“So I have heard,” Daedalus continued with a shrewd look. “Your feints during the battle of Tegea are known to me. Your father was a master strategist, and he has clearly trained you well. But, I must warn you that this creature knows its prison well. You trespass in its home, and it will have committed the twists and turns of that place to memory over the years. While it may resemble a beast, and it might fight with the fury befitting a savage animal, only a fool would underestimate its intelligence.”
They emerged into a large chamber, the burning torches that illuminated it reflecting off the hammered bronze of a hundred weapons. The walls were lined with racks of fine swords and daggers of all sizes, spears with leaf-shaped tips – even war axes and tridents of intricate design. There were straw mannequins wearing helmets, cuirasses, greaves, and bracers – made both from metal and studded leather, capes of fine silk adorning their shoulders. It was an armory fit for a king, and that was likely its very purpose.
“I have never seen metalworking of this quality,” Leandros muttered as he walked along a rack of kopis blades. He lifted one of the flared swords, balancing it in his hands, admiring the beautiful engravings that ran down its length. He gave it an experimental swing, hearing it cut through the air with a whistle. “These must have been forged by the most skilled artisans in all of Greece.”
“These are the personal arms of King Minos and his palace guard,” Daedalus replied, pausing to place a liver-spotted hand on one of the chest pieces. “It is his decree that you shall have your pick. Everything that you see here is yours to take.”
It was tempting to just replace all of the equipment that he was carrying with these finer, more ornate versions, but Leandros had trained extensively with his own weapons. His doru spear was like an extension of his own arm – he knew its reach and balance intuitively, and his armor was tailored to fit him like a second skin. There were elements that he could afford to replace, however. The kopis was far finer than his own blade, so he sheathed the sword in a scabbard on his belt. He also found a shield that was better crafted than his own, lifting it by the straps to gauge its weight, finding that it was lighter as well as stronger. Finally, a woolen cloak in blood red, Leandros draping the flowing garment over his shoulders. It was cold below ground, and he might need something heavier than his own cape.
When he was done, Daedalus led him into an adjacent chamber, this one packed with shelves that were filled with scrolls. It was a grand library. The old man made his way to the far end of the room, pulling a dusty roll of parchment that was as tall as he was from a shelf. He laid out the faded document on a large table, walking along its considerable length as he slowly unrolled it, placing stones at its corners to act as weights. That done, he lit a candle, its flickering light illuminating the faded parchment.
“When I designed the labyrinth, I kept detailed maps and schematics,” he explained as Leandros leaned over his shoulder to get a closer look. The paper showed an overhead map of the maze as though he was looking down on it from above, and as he began to take it in, he was stunned by its intricacy. The roll of parchment was almost the length of the wooden table – a good twenty feet and near half as wide – yet the passageways depicted were as thin as the edge of his sword.
“Then, the king was not exaggerating when he said that it spanned for leagues beneath the palace,” he marveled.
“It extends far further than the foundations of the palace,” Daedalus explained as he traced one of the corridors with a shaking finger. “I would tell you the exact length of each passageway when taken as a whole, but the number would be meaningless to you.”
“Do you have a map that I can take with me?” Leandros asked.
“Nothing that you could carry with you or that would be of any real use,” Daedalus replied with a shake of his head.
“It is not all pathways,” Leandros mused, leaning closer as he squinted at the markings. “I see chambers and larger rooms. What are they?”
“I have described the labyrinth as a prison,” the old man began, staring down at the paper. “It was built to keep the creature imprisoned for as long as it lived, yes, but it was a gilded cage. The beast’s human mother had a soft heart, and she pleaded with the king not to condemn her child to a life of torment and madness, as profane as her offspring was. She had raised the child for five years while awaiting the labyrinth’s construction, and had formed a bond with it. In his mercy, the king agreed and had me incorporate these amenities into its design. There are underground streams fed by springs that make fresh water for drinking and bathing easy to find, chambers upon chambers that resemble buildings from within, and even caverns where plants and trees can grow. I devised a method of using shafts filled with mirrors to bounce sunlight down below the earth.”
“So, it is as much an underground world as a jail,” Leandros added.
“It was our intention that the captive would be able to explore for years and never become restless – that they would be able to live a life approaching that of a surface dweller.”
“But always alone, and never able to leave…”
“How was it determined that the creature was trying to escape?” Leandros added. “How can anyone know what it’s doing down there?”
“The king was wracked by nightmares for many months,” the old man explained. “Eventually, he journeyed to see an oracle, who told him that these dreams were an omen. In the throes of her trance, she had a vision that foretold the beast’s escape. The king’s only option now is to slay it before this prophecy can be fulfilled.”
“Then, I face off against the fates as well,” Leandros muttered.
“Earlier, when I asked you why you would venture into a labyrinth that is said to be inescapable, you told me that you had a plan. What is it?”
Leandros reached for a leather pouch on his belt, then placed it on the table, opening the string that held it shut to reveal a ball of fine thread the size of a man’s fist.
“I see,” Daedalus mused, picking it up to examine it. “You intended to leave a trail of string so that you might follow it back?”
“Now, I fear that I did not bring enough,” Leandros sighed.
“Here,” Daedalus said, walking over to a nearby shelf. He retrieved a sizable sack and placed it on the table, fishing inside it for a moment before handing the warrior a piece of white chalk. “You will use these to mark your way. Some parts of the labyrinth will be damp, and the marks will not last, but you should have no problems where the stone is dry. That said, even this may not be enough, and carrying much more will weigh you down.”
“It will give me a fighting chance, at least,” Leandros replied as he tied the sack to his belt. “Are you not worried that I will fail, and that the creature will be led straight to the exit?”
“If you fail, I doubt that anyone else can succeed,” Daedalus replied solemnly. “You are far from the first assassin who has been sent into the depths, and if you cannot complete this task, there may be none who can. Your heritage will give you many advantages in this task.”
“I would study this map further, but I doubt that it will be of help,” Leandros said as he gave the parchment one last glance. “It is far too large to commit to memory. The chalk will have to suffice.”
“For rations, we can offer you naught but barley porridge and dried fish – enough for three days,” Daedalus added. “A single man cannot carry more, though the king could assign a slave as a porter if you desire it.”
“No, he would only slow me down,” Leandros replied. “I prefer to travel light. Three days of rations will have to suffice.”
“Then, this is all the help I can give you,” Daedalus said with a curt bow that was little more than a tilt of his head. “You need not proceed directly to the entrance. Please, at least rest for the night and allow the king’s attendants to prepare you a hearty meal before you begin. You will thank yourself in the morning.”
“A wise suggestion,” he replied.
“Do you require any other comforts? A concubine, perhaps? All of the king’s amenities will be made available to you.”
“No, the servile demeanor of slaves bores me,” Leandros replied. “A full belly and a bed will be all that I require, thank you.”
“As you wish,” he conceded, gesturing to the door. “Please – come this way.”
Leandros did indeed eat well that night. King Minos had his cooks prepare a celebratory feast for his honored guest, which included delicacies that even those of noble birth and great wealth would have envied. The meal began with appetizers of finely-chopped cabbage spiced with coriander and rue, served with a dressing of honey vinegar that gave it a sweet bite. There were cheeses mixed with garlic and salt, and fresh-caught prawns peeled of their shells that had been glazed with honey and sprinkled with black pepper.
The centerpiece of the banquet was a young lamb that had been left to marinate overnight in a mixture of fine wine and garum – a flavorful fish sauce – in preparation for his arrival. It had been roasted to perfection over a roaring fire, then seasoned with honey and olive oil before being served. It was a delicacy beyond even what he had experienced back home, the tender meat melting right off the bone. At the end of the night, when those in attendance could scarcely eat another bite, they were served sweet honey cakes straight out of a warm pan. There was wine aplenty, but Leandros knew better than to overindulge before going into battle, favoring a mix of vinegar and water instead.
The king and queen were in attendance, as well as many of the king’s honored generals, who spoke at length of military strategy and their past campaigns. Crete had a powerful navy, and its exploits were of great interest to Leandros. They were interested in his campaigns, also, and they inquired at length about his parentage. His grandfather was said to have been conceived through his father’s union with a Naiad – a river spirit descended from Zeus. Leandros’ blood had been diluted over the generations, but it still empowered him, his reputation for inhuman strength preceding him. He was happy to demonstrate it by lifting a heavy cooking pot that had been moved by a team of half a dozen servants, much to the amusement of his hosts.
Minos seemed to leap at any opportunity to distract himself from the prophecy that hovered over his head like a dark cloud, speaking little of the creature and the labor that Leandros was soon to undertake. His wife was distant, present in body but seemingly absent in mind. She ate little and participated in their conversations even less, staring out at the ocean as though searching for some answer on the far-off horizon.
When the food was gone, and the moon was full, Leandros turned in for the night.
Their footsteps echoed hollow down the long passageway as Daedalus led Leandros deep beneath the palace, followed by a procession of palace guards. Leandros could tell that they must be far below ground by this point, as there was moisture clinging to the walls, and the temperature dropped a little more with each flight of stairs that they descended. Gone was the impeccable mosaic work and noble pillars of the buildings above, replaced by simple hewn stone, every step and corridor carved out of the island’s very bones. The tunnel was fifteen feet tall and large enough that a whole formation of men could have marched down it standing shoulder to shoulder. Perhaps its designers had envisioned just such a scenario – it was certainly spacious enough for their entourage.
Laden with his chalk and the supplies that he carried in a satchel on his back, he felt more like he was marching to a battlefield than preparing to fight on one, but he would soon be glad of them.
The long passageway culminated in an ornate archway, the stonework carved with intricate reliefs depicting a bull-headed creature of impressive stature terrorizing groups of smaller people, their faces etched into grimaces of horror. The pillars that held it aloft were as thick as tree trunks, and there was a gate of massive proportions standing between them – a pair of wooden doors plated with bronze so heavy that ten men would have had trouble pushing them open. It looked like something that one would find outside a fortified city. It was barred, too – a pair of thick logs slotting into recesses carved in the walls to either side of it.
“If you were so worried that the creature would escape, why have a door at all?” Leandros asked. “Why not entomb the beast in its maze?”
“The king did not wish it,” Daedalus replied, hesitating for a moment. “There are…other reasons. Since its construction, the labyrinth has been used as a method of execution for Crete’s traitors and murderers. Should one conspire against the king or be found guilty of other heinous crimes, they were sent into the labyrinth through one of its entrances, and the door was closed behind them. There have also been sacrifices to appease the beast.”
“Those sacrifices were in vain, it seems.”
“Open the door!” Daedalus barked, and the dozen men who had accompanied them jogged forward to set about removing the bars.
It took six men to carry each of the heavy logs, then they gripped the handles on the bronze doors, pulling them open three to a side. The old hinges creaked as they slowly swung ajar, revealing inky darkness beyond, the light from their torches penetrating only a few paces before it was drowned out. Leandros took a few steps forward, glimpsing the shimmer of the damp stone walls beyond.
“We will close the gate behind you,” Daedalus said.
“What happens if I return victorious, only to find it shut?”
“Here,” the old man said, passing him the frayed end of a rope. Leandros traced it to a small bell that had been mounted on the wall beside the door. “Pass the rope beneath the gate on your way inside. A guard will be posted here at all hours of the day and night until either you return, or enough time passes that all hope of your victory is lost. Pull the rope, and the bell shall ring.”
“How am I expected to find the beast?” Leandros asked skeptically. “Now that I have a better understanding of the labyrinth’s size, what are the chances of us crossing paths before I starve?”
“It will be aware of you,” the old man replied cryptically. “The labyrinth is all it has known for fifteen years, and its senses are far keener than those of any mortal man. You need only come close enough for it to hear or smell you, and it will do the rest.”
“I hope I brought enough torches,” he muttered.
“King Minos has one more gift to bestow upon you,” Daedalus said, gesturing for one of the guards to approach. The man held out an unlit torch soaked in oil, and Daedalus touched his own torch against it, the flames flaring so brightly that Leandros had to avert his eyes. Sparks spewed forth, showering the floor, bright embers floating up towards the ceiling before slowly fading into nothing. When he dared to look again, the second torch was lit, and Daedalus was offering it to him.
“What was that?” Leandros marveled, taking the torch from the old man. He examined it, finding nothing out of the ordinary, afterimages still lingering in his vision. “What kind of oil causes such flames?”
“It is not the oil, but the fire itself,” Daedalus replied. “What you hold in your hand is an ancient relic – a Promethean flame. Just as we trace our lineage back to our fathers and grandfathers before us, this flame is a successor of the ember that Prometheus stole from the Gods. The flame has been preserved, passed between torches and candles and lamps, each time burning with the same vigor. It can never be quenched, and it will never burn out. It shall serve you well in those dark passageways.”
“I suppose this is it,” Leandros said, peering into the black maw ahead of him. He felt like he was about to step over the threshold of Hades. “I will return with the beast’s head, or not at all.”
“May the Gods watch over you,” Daedalus said. The guards were apprehensive, restless, as though just being near the open gate was enough to spook them. He heard them muttering quietly as he passed beneath the ornate archway, then there was a clatter of armor as they hurried to close the doors at Daedalus’ order. Leandros didn’t look back, hearing the creak of the hinges, followed by a resonating thud as he was entombed. The glow from the corridor outside was cut off, leaving him standing alone in a small pool of wavering torchlight.
He found himself in a wide passageway not unlike the one he had just left, the walls carved from the very bedrock, the crude chisel marks clearly visible. The walls were damp, and the air was cool, like he had stepped into a cave. The floor was level, overlaid with interlocking slabs of stone, the path ahead completely straight. These tunnels were larger than he had expected, making the map that Daedalus had shown him in the library even more impressive.
His sandals echoed off the floor as he began to walk, swinging his Promethean torch about as he examined his strange surroundings. There were two more torches in his satchel, and he had flint to make fire, but he doubted that he would need them with such a magnificent artifact at hand. Daedalus had mentioned shafts and mirrors, too – perhaps not all of the labyrinth would be impossible to navigate without a flame to light his way.
Eventually, he came upon the first junction. The straight hallway branched off into three different paths at sharp right angles, each one identical to the last. Leandros tried to suppress the apprehension that rose in his belly as he remembered the intricacy of the map, reaching for the sack that was tied to his hip and producing a piece of chalk. Should he make any special marks – something to aid his navigation? He elected to leave an arrow pointing back the way he had come, finding that the chalk did a fair job of marking the damp stone. Hopefully, it wouldn’t just wash away by the time he returned.
Which way to go now? He had no landmarks down here – no way to navigate, save for his chalk, and no way to know where the beast might be in relation to him. It was harrowing not knowing if or when his quarry would be made aware of him. Based on what Daedalus had told him, approaching the creature unnoticed was not going to be possible. This was going to end in a duel – a duel against a creature said to be physically superior to any mortal man. Did that include him? If it could be killed, then he would find a way. He set off, venturing down the centermost passage.
Leandros walked down the winding tunnels for hours before he came across anything of note. After marking another arrow on the wall of a junction, he heard a noise echoing from further down the passage. It sounded like the trickle of water. The acoustics in this place were incredible, sound carrying for absurd distances as it reflected off the stone walls. Whether that had been the intent of its design or just a consequence, he couldn’t say, but it was easier to understand how the creature might hear him from so far away.
He followed the sound, eventually coming across a channel that cut through the rock. It looked like an open drain, the slabs of stone that lined its bottom rendered smooth by years of flowing water, the stream just wide enough that he could cross it with a stride. He knelt, dipping a cupped hand into the cool liquid, raising it to his nose. It didn’t smell foul, and there was no scum floating on its surface, so he took a tentative sip. It was fresh. This must be one of the streams fed by natural springs that Daedalus had described. At least there was no danger of dying of thirst now.
Encouraged, he continued on, his wavering flame lighting his way as he trudged down the dingy tunnel. He must have traveled for miles already, only his woolen cloak keeping the cold at bay. Could the creature really live in an environment like this? How intelligent was it? It was enough to drive an average man mad.
Keeping track of time was almost impossible in these dank depths. There was no sun, no moon, no stars – only the bare rock ceiling above his head. His stomach was growling, so he elected to take a break, leaning his spear and shield against the nearest wall. He sat down on his cloak, which did a fair job of shielding him from the cold ground, and slung off his satchel.
Inside was the dried fish and a sealed pot of barley porridge. It was a far cry from the feast that he had enjoyed the night prior, but as a soldier, he was accustomed to eating whatever was available. They carried only enough supplies for a few days at most, and usually stole or scavenged whatever they could from the settlements that they raided. He broke off a piece from one of the dried and hammered fish – it was almost as hard as fire-baked clay – and popped it into his mouth. It was unpleasantly salty, but edible. Had he more time, he could have soaked it in a pot of water to help soften it, but he wanted to keep moving. For all he knew, the beast might already be aware of his presence.
“What a shame that there are no Promethean honey cakes,” he muttered to himself, chewing on another leathery morsel.
After another few hours of fruitless walking, the environment began to change – what had once been walls of carved rock transitioning into slabs of cut stone. As he made his way along, holding his torch high above his head, he saw a glint of light in the distance. It was so small that it could have been a pinprick in a piece of cloth, but it was unmistakable. Could this be one of the light shafts that Daedalus had described?
It grew larger as he approached, and the light began to waver as though it was being cast by flames. Leandros stepped into one of the larger chambers that he had seen on the map, finding himself in an expansive room, the arched ceiling rising high above his head. It was held aloft by stone pillars of impressive size, and the floor was patterned with mosaics, making him feel like he was standing inside a great hall in a palace rather than a cave. The light was coming from braziers the size of his shield that hung from the ceiling on long chains, their flickering flames casting long shadows that danced across the ornate floor.
Nobody had been here to tend to these flames in years. It was true what Daedalus had said – any flame kindled by the fire of Prometheus would burn eternally and never peter out. These same braziers might have been lit two decades prior during the construction of the labyrinth.
A glint of bronze caught his eye, and he reacted reflexively, raising his shield as he pointed the tip of his doru at a shadowy recess between two nearby pillars. He inched a little closer, then lowered his guard, seeing a figure sprawled on the tiles. It was a man wearing a bronze cuirass and an ornate helmet with a prominent crest, a shield resting in his lap. He was long dead, his skin blackened by time, his body little more than a shriveled husk. This must be one of the assassins that King Minos had sent in before him.
Leandros ventured nearer, examining the corpse for a moment. There was no sign of violence that he could see – no severed limbs or crushed bones. Had this man fallen victim to the beast, or had he merely lost his way in this maze and run out of supplies? There was no way to tell.
He paused to make a chalk mark beside the entrance, then continued on, choosing an exit on the far side of the massive room. There was another, smaller room on the other side, the labyrinth laid out like the floor plan of a wealthy landowner’s property. Someone could have lived here if that was their wish, but it was strangely devoid of any furnishings. There was nothing functional inside it, as though it was merely a shell. No tables, no chairs, no beds. It gave the place an eerie, unnatural feel, raising the hairs on his arms.
He explored the structure for what must have been a half hour before it abruptly transitioned back to bare stone. Pausing at the threshold, he looked back, marveling at how the mosaic of tiles that made up the building’s floor stopped at the doorway. He raised his trusty torch again, leaving the warm glow of the braziers behind him.
Leandros trekked through the winding tunnels, seeing nothing but wet stone, only his chalk markings giving him any sense of direction. The layout of the labyrinth was nonsensical, with tunnels that branched off one another randomly, many of them taking him on long detours that culminated in nothing but a dead end. He had been walking for what felt like the better part of a day, and even he was starting to tire in this bizarre environment.
As he was walking along another nondescript corridor, he came across something strange. He knelt, picking up a piece of jewelry, its golden glint making it shine in the firelight. It was a bracelet – one that must have belonged to a woman. Lifting his gaze, he scanned the path ahead, finding nothing more. Slowly, he crept along the passage, his eyes open for any more evidence of people.
Daedalus had said that both criminals and sacrifices had been sent into the labyrinth at one point or another. It was a cruel fate to be exiled into these dark depths with no hope of survival, doomed to either be devoured by the beast or to succumb to hunger and exposure. Everything that his father had told him had painted a picture of Minos as a wise ruler who meted out justice with both swiftness and fairness, but this revelation brought that into question. Leandros had executed captives on the field. A swift blow with a sword or spear was sufficient to carry out a sentence – there was no need to prolong suffering unduly. If you were going to kill someone, you killed them. You didn’t make a cruel game of their deaths.
Another piece of evidence – Leandros leaning down to pick up a sandal. Someone had been here before him. As he rounded another corner that led to a dead end, he came across its owner. A woman wearing a shawl was curled up on the ground, one hand resting against the far wall. Like the armor-clad warrior that he had come across in the strange, empty hall, her body had been reduced to little more than a leathery husk by the slow march of time. She must have been resting here for many years. He felt a pang of pity as he considered that she might have lost all hope here, in this passageway to nowhere, her strength failing her in the pitch blackness.
He was still relatively close to the entrance of the labyrinth, skirting its periphery. The bodies that he had found so far had died within a day’s walk of the gate, unable to find their way in this nonsensical maze. Leandros drew his waterskin from his hip, taking a long draw of cool water, steeling himself for the journey ahead.
Leandros surmised that night must have fallen. The muscles in his legs were aching, and his feet had grown sore. It was impossible to tell how far he had marched without counting every pace, but he had experience traveling by foot, and his instincts told him that it was time to rest. He stopped, then shrugged off his crimson cloak to lay it on the cold stone, folding the garment so that he could sleep inside it. The wool would do a fair job of trapping his body heat. As exposed as he felt just lying in the middle of a tunnel, he had not come across any more dead ends in a while, and he had no other options. One of the fake rooms would have been warmer and more comfortable, but he hadn’t seen any more of those during his journey.
He sat on the rough fabric, pulling another piece of dried fish from his satchel. He had enough supplies for only three days, and one had already passed. There had been no sign of the beast yet, and something told him that he had barely scraped the surface of the labyrinth. How far would he have traveled if that map had been laid out before him right now? An inch? Less?
After eating as much as he dared, he lay down to sleep, wrapping the cloak around himself tightly. Remembering what Daedalus had said about the Promethean flame being impossible to quench, he lay his torch on the stone tentatively, finding that it continued to burn without issue. As much as removing his armor would have made him more comfortable, he kept it on – not wanting to be taken off guard if his quarry should turn the tables on him.
When Leandros awoke, he had a quick breakfast of fish and porridge, then continued on his way. He wandered the stone tunnels for many hours, then came across something strange, running his fingers along one of the damp walls. There was a covering of furry moss that was misted with water droplets, lush and green. How could such a thing grow in these depths where there was no sunlight?
As he continued on, he noticed that there was more moss, growing from sparse patches to larger carpets that covered the walls almost from floor to ceiling. No, there was light. It was just faint, and his blazing torch had been overpowering it. It grew gradually brighter, reflecting down the tunnels, and it quickly became enough to see by. Soon, he noticed that the texture of the floor had changed, glancing down to see dark soil scattered on the stone slabs. Soil, moss, light – what was going on?
He soon emerged into a long passageway that was furry with moss, seeing a point of light at the far end. This wasn’t the flickering of a brazier – it was golden and steady. Was this one of Daedalus’ lauded light shafts?
The tunnel grew steadily more overgrown as he made his way towards its mouth, more soil covering the floor until he could barely see stone. He paused, dumbstruck to see blades of grass and weeds starting to take root. There was enough light and moisture here for them to subsist. Before long, it was more like walking through a field, the dew-misted plants dampening his shins as he trudged through them. His eyes had to adjust to the light as he stepped through into a large chamber, and when his vision cleared, he was met with a sight that robbed him of his breath.
He was standing inside a massive dome that had been hollowed out of the bedrock, large enough that King Minos’ palace could almost have sat inside it. Perhaps this had been a natural cavern – it was hard to imagine even an artisan as skilled as Daedalus being able to create a cavity this large, even with a whole army of workers using hand tools. The uneven ceiling must have been a hundred feet above his head, and the dome’s width might be twice that.
At its apex, shafts of golden sunlight spilled through, emerging from a cluster of holes that had been carved out of the rock. They were being bounced by mirrors, scattering the beams to create a more natural and less focused glow, almost like he was standing on the surface once more. After so long in these tunnels, he had almost forgotten the feeling of its warmth on his skin.
Below, occupying the center of the cavern, was a cluster of trees. There were cypresses rising towards the ceiling on gnarled, twisted trunks, the vibrant pink of their blossoms contrasting with the surrounding greens. He could see a chestnut, and even a fig tree, its branches bearing fresh fruit. They were growing on a mound of soil that lifted them off the stone floor like a hill, covered over with a carpet of lush grass and beautiful wildflowers that caught the sun with their rich reds and blues. Poppies, chamomile, thyme – it was like standing in a summer meadow.
There was a rustling in a shrub nearby, and he raised his shield, aiming his spear at the source of the sound. A moment later, a little cotton-tailed rabbit came hopping into view. It dropped the daisy that it was chewing, then sped off into the trees.
Dumbfounded, he lowered his weapon, taking another look at the verdant scenery before him. How had this been achieved? Had they poured loose soil down through the shafts that had later housed the mirrors? How had they dug so deep through solid rock? These trees were mature – they must have been growing here for the fifteen years that the labyrinth had existed. Had they released these rabbits down here, and had they been breeding and surviving this entire time?
He made his way up the hill and stopped beneath a fig tree, plucking a ripe fruit from a low-hanging branch. Its taste invigorated him as he took a juicy bite, driving away the memory of the dry, salty fish. Perhaps he should camp here – try to catch a rabbit to cook up? It would help keep up his strength and let his rations go a little further. Perhaps he could even smoke some meat to take with him? He had no idea when another opportunity like this might present itself.
Again, he was reminded of how dangerous the labyrinth could be. The woman he had stumbled across had been lost in the dark tunnels, likely succumbing to hunger only a few hours’ walk from fruiting trees and fat rabbits. He would have to keep his wits about him.
It had not been difficult to catch a rabbit, and using a few fallen branches, he built a fire to cook the animal. Instead of using his torch, he had elected to use his flint, as a Promethean flame could not be put out once lit. He skinned and gutted the rabbit, then impaled it on a branch, roasting it over the crackling flames. When it was done, he ate the meat right off the bone along with a few ripe figs – there was even thyme and rosemary for seasoning. It was almost as though these plants had been chosen purposefully. There was no way that their seeds could have ended up down here on their own.
With no way to deliver food to the labyrinth’s monstrous inhabitant – at least that he knew of – was this how it had survived for so long? When Daedalus had spoken of the amenities that he had incorporated into the maze’s design, this wasn’t what Leandros had imagined. It was Minos’ mercy that had spared the beast at birth, then they had built this labyrinth to house it, which was turning out to be more of a habitat than a prison. Why? What could have driven the king to go to such lengths to preserve the life of a monster?
Once he had eaten his fill and he’d smoked a few strips of meat for later, he set off again. As loathe as he was to leave the warm sunlight and green grass behind, he had to keep going. There wasn’t just the threat of the creature. If he lingered in the labyrinth for too long without ringing that bell, Minos might assume that he had died, and the gate would forever remain closed.
The soil and moss transitioned to bare stone once again, and he was forced to rely on his torch, the sunlight slowly fading as he fought the urge to turn around.
Leandros came upon another of the majestic halls, this one sporting a different architectural style that contrasted with the domestic appearance of the last. The white marble pillars that held up the arched ceiling thirty feet above his head had been carved into the shapes of the Gods, the massive statues towering over him. This was clearly the work of a master stonemason. Where a structure built on the surface would have had decorative flairs like an entablature that ran around the building just beneath the roof, and a tympanum – a triangular relief above the entrance – these features had all been moved inside. There was scarcely an inch of space that wasn’t adorned with intricate reliefs depicting Gods and worship, even the mosaic on the tiles beneath his sandals portraying various deities from the Pantheon. From high on the walls, great metal faces with burning eyes peered down at him, Leandros quickly realizing that they were a form of brazier. Someone had hammered the faces of the Gods from bronze, like giant ritual masks, then had ignited Promethean flames behind them that would burn in perpetuity. It made for quite the effect.
He walked deeper inside the impressive edifice, his footsteps echoing off the stone walls, his neck on a swivel as he took in his strange surroundings. Was this some kind of temple? A place of worship buried deep, deep inside the labyrinth? Why would a feral beast have need of such a thing? His attention was drawn to an altar at the far end of the room – a raised pedestal that sat beneath an impressive statue. It was Zeus, father of the Gods, and his own distant relative. There was something lying upon it, draped in what looked like a cloak of white silk. As he neared, he saw that flowers had been scattered nearby, covering the pedestal and the short steps that led up to it. Some had rotted to almost nothing, while others were fresher, likely no more than a few days old. The cloak was covering a body, its shape clearly visible beneath the fine fabric. Someone had used this place as a tomb.
Leandros mounted the steps, crushing a wilted poppy underfoot, then used the tip of his spear to lift the fabric from the figure’s face. It was another shriveled husk – dead for years. Who had put it to rest here, and why? The fresh flowers implied that someone other than the beast was still alive down here.
He turned, his eyes wandering suspiciously between the many shadowy doors that led out of the temple. It wasn’t impossible that some of the assassins or the people thrown in here by Minos might have survived. There was food down here, water, and even shelter. In such a large maze, it might be possible to avoid crossing paths with the creature entirely. He had made it this far, so it was logical to assume that others could have.
The mysteries were stacking up, and it was becoming clear that Minos and Daedalus had not told him all that they knew.
CHAPTER 2: ALONE NO LONGER
After eating some of his rabbit meat and sleeping for the night, Leandros awoke on the third day, proceeding deeper into the maze. He was running out of time. While his rations could now be replenished, Daedalus might not wait more than a few days longer before declaring him dead.
The sound of trickling water soon drew him to another stream, this one flowing from a round opening barely the size of his head that was raised off the tunnel floor. It splashed down into a shallow channel that ran along the length of the passage, Leandros electing to follow it, seeing sunlight bleeding into the tunnel ahead. It ran for a considerable distance, then cascaded down a short staircase that led to a lower level. He stepped down into another hollowed-out cavern filled with grass, the stream feeding into a large pond that was overgrown with blooming water lilies, the croaking of frogs reaching his ears. Atop the hill beneath the apex of the dome was a monopteros – an open structure with a domed roof that was held up by a circle of stout pillars. It was made of white stone, shining brilliantly in the sunlight that flooded in through the shafts above it.
This was a garden – one that he might have expected to find on a palace’s grounds. A fluttering movement caught his eye, and he glanced up to see colorful butterflies flitting through the beams of golden light.
“What is this?” he muttered to himself, walking across the grass to get a closer look. As he inspected the structure, the words of Daedalus echoed in his mind.
“It was our intention that the captive would be able to explore for years and never become restless – that they would be able to live a life approaching that of a surface dweller.”
He had called it a gilded cage, and that description was becoming more accurate the deeper Leandros ventured. Someone had cared enough for this creature to go to incredible lengths to make it comfortable. Who was its mother, and what sway did she hold over Minos? Could a violent beast even appreciate such things?
One of these caverns would be an ideal place to lure the creature. It would give him the visibility and the space that he needed to maneuver. Fighting it in the dark, cramped tunnels was not an attractive prospect. He was sure that, with an appropriate ambush, he could bring the beast down. But how to do that? Maybe if he encountered it in the labyrinth, he could follow the chalk marks back to one of these rooms, leading it by its supposedly sensitive nose.
There was another passage on the far side with a stream that was feeding into the pond, so he followed it, careful to mark the wall with chalk as he went. Gods willing, those that he had left behind him had not been washed away. Soil gave way to stone, and light to darkness, Leandros raising his torch as the flame reflected off the damp walls.
It seemed that the buildings and caverns were as islands in an ocean, separated by these dank warrens. Did the creature have a way to navigate, or did it just wander aimlessly?
As he turned a corner at a junction, pausing to mark his way, he heard a sound. He froze, standing as still as a statue, worried that even the rustling of his cloak or the clattering of his armor might overpower the faint noise. It wasn’t the trickling of water – it sounded like footsteps echoing from far away. Straining his ears, he heard it again, a little louder this time. Something heavy was coming his way down one of the passages ahead of him.
His first instinct was to put out his torch, but it was Promethean flame – he had no way to smother it. The damned thing would lead it right to him. The only option was to toss it aside lest it reveal his position, but if he did so, he would be left completely blind in this darkness. Instead, he turned back, trying to move as quickly as he could without making too much noise. He followed his chalk markings, leading him back towards the cavern with the pond, hoping that the beast’s nose would lead it to him. It was said to be stronger than any mortal man, so challenging it openly would be unwise, but he might have a chance if he could maneuver around it and find an opening with his spear.
It was getting closer – he could hear its footsteps, like a hammer pounding against stone.
The sound of water drew his attention, and he followed it to the stream that he had passed on his way in, a new plan forming. He slung off his cloak, then knelt with it in his hands, pausing to listen for the heavy footfalls again. They were joined by a loud huffing, still distant, but unmistakably that of an animal. It was close – too close for him to make it back to the cavern in time.
Fighting off the adrenaline that was starting to make his hands unsteady, he shoved his wool cloak into the stream, the fabric starting to soak through as it stemmed the flow. When it was completely impregnated with water, several times its original weight now, he wrapped the sopping garment around his torch. He was plunged into darkness, his eyes taking a moment to adjust. The flame was still burning, but with any luck, the creature would pass before it ignited his cloak.
He made it to another four-way crossroads, throwing himself behind a corner, cradling the dripping cloak like a swaddled baby as he slowly leaned out to get a look behind him. It was so damned dark that he could barely have seen his own hand if he had held it in front of his face.
His world was now one of sound, the loud, bestial huffing drawing ever closer as footfalls like the banging of war drums resonated down the corridor. Just as a hound scented its prey, it was sniffing him out, hunting him…
What would he do if it discovered him? He couldn’t fight it in this darkness. He would have to throw open the cloak – try to face off against the thing in the narrow passage. Perhaps he could surprise it as it came around the corner and jab his spear into its throat?
Its footsteps shook the floor now, each thud resonating through his body like a thunderclap. He could hear it breathing, as deep and as powerful as that of a horse or a bull. Just how large was this thing? Daedalus had said that it had been strong enough to overpower a grown man at five years old…
A fear that he hadn’t experienced since his first battle gripped him, freezing his heart in his chest. He wanted to inch further down the passage – to put more distance between himself and the beast – but the slightest sound might alert it to his presence. He didn’t even dare to breathe.
There was a sudden clattering, like a pebble being tossed against stone, echoing down the tunnel from another junction. The footsteps accelerated, the huffing becoming the snorting of an angry bull, the ground shaking as the beast raced down the passageway towards him. A black mass that almost filled the tunnel emerged only a few paces away from him, cloven hooves almost as large as his shield skidding on the wet stone as it changed direction, putting its back to him. In the darkness, he could barely make out anything but hunched shoulders covered in fur and a pair of pointed horns that almost scraped the ceiling. It wasn’t a monster – it was a force of nature. He could feel its sheer mass and gauge its incredible strength just by the way that it took corners.
It barreled down the tunnel opposite him, moving far too quickly for something of that size, heading in the direction of the sound. He could hear clanking metal, too, as though it was wearing armor or chains. Leandros didn’t even exhale the breath that he had been holding until it turned another corner, and the sound of its thudding footfalls grew faint.
He unwrapped his torch and was relieved to see that it had not set his cloak alight – the waterlogged fabric was only singed. How he would get the damned thing dry now, he didn’t know, but that stream might just have saved his life. Leandros readied his spear, drumming up the courage to pursue the creature. It was fortunate that they had crossed paths so soon, and he might not get another chance like this.
He stepped forward, then froze, feeling the blade of a knife pressing into his throat.
“Quiet,” a voice behind him hissed. “The beast will not be distracted for long. Do exactly as I say if you want to live.”
Leandros could do little more than nod his head slowly, the stranger removing the dagger. He turned around to see a man standing before him, his gaunt face lit by the wavering torchlight. He had an unkempt beard, a pair of sunken, dark eyes peering back at Leandros intently. He wasn’t wearing armor, clad instead in simple garments of cloth and leather that had seen better days, his feet completely bare. He had a satchel slung over his shoulder, and there was a belt around his waist made from frayed rope, laden with various leather pouches and tools. There was a spear tied across his back, but he had no other weapons save for the little dagger, and no shield.
“Follow me, and take those off,” he said with a gesture to Leandros’ sandals.
“What?” Leandros asked, looking back at him in confusion. “Why? Who are you? What are you doing down here?”
“It’ll hear them,” he replied, turning to walk back down the passage. Leandros did as he asked, tying his footwear to his belt, then hurried after the stranger. The stone was freezing beneath his bare feet, but the loud slap of his sandals no longer echoed off the walls.
“Are you going to tell me what in Hades is going on here?” Leandros demanded, trying to keep his voice low despite his frustration. “The king told me that everyone who had been sent into the labyrinth had perished. I’ve seen nothing but corpses until now.”
“That fool of a king has no eyes down here,” the man replied. “He would think that.”
“Watch your tongue,” Leandros replied. “Such talk could get you-”
“Get me what?” the stranger scoffed, turning to look back at him. “Thrown into the labyrinth for treason, maybe?”
“Fair point,” Leandros grumbled. “Who are you?”
“My name is Olysseus,” he replied, pausing for a moment to check one of the walls before turning another corner. “Minos sent me down here to slay that thing. I think two months have passed – I stopped counting some weeks ago.”
“You’ve been surviving down here for two months?” Leandros asked in disbelief.
“This place is not what we were told,” the man replied, leading him along another nondescript hallway. He moved with purpose, as though he knew exactly where he was going. “I don’t know how much you’ve seen, but finding food and water is not difficult if you know where to look. Avoiding the auroch is the difficult part.”
“You’ve seen it before? What is it?”
“An abomination,” he replied, his voice dripping with disgust. “I’ve laid eyes on the thing in sunlight – it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s part man, part animal, perhaps the product of some vile union or the curse of a vengeful God – I can’t say. It’s big, strong, and fast. It knows this maze, and its senses are keen. Don’t assume it to be as dull as the animal that it resembles. It’s clever, and it learns quickly. It doesn’t fall for the same trick twice.”
Once again, he stopped by a junction, seeming to briefly check a nearby wall before continuing. Leandros saw something catch his torchlight as he passed – a series of scratches in the stone. They would be hard to notice if one wasn’t looking for them and easy to dismiss as just natural wear, but Olysseus was clearly using them to navigate. Perhaps he was using them in the same way that Leandros had been employing his chalk.
He followed his new companion in silence for a while, the man leading him through many twists and turns before they finally arrived at another of the underground buildings. Bare stone transitioned to tiled floors and support pillars, the glow of burning braziers greeting them. It was never any less jarring to step out of a damp underground passage to find oneself in what could be a home in a wealthy city-state. Olysseus seemed to know the layout, making his way through a couple of side doors and into a secluded chamber that might have been a pantry or a storage room under normal circumstances.
He knelt, hooking his fingers beneath a loose floor tile, the ceramic scraping as he moved it aside to reveal a shallow hole about a foot wide. He pulled out some satchels and a few packages wrapped in cloth, along with some kind of brass lantern.
“I have stashes like this all over the area,” he explained, unwrapping one of the little packages to reveal strips of smoked meat. “You have to keep moving – can’t stay in one place for too long, or it’ll sniff you out.”
“How do you find your way around?” Leandros asked, watching curiously as Olysseus began to pack the satchel that was slung over his shoulder.
“I have a system. I leave scratches, different numbers for different locations.”
“I’ve seen rabbits,” Leandros said. “Is that what you’ve been eating?”
“Rabbits, chickens,” he replied. “Eggs, if you can find a nest. Who are you, anyway? You come down into this pit for the same reason I did?”
“I am Leandros of Kos,” he replied.
“Hero of the battle of Tegea?” Olysseus asked, pausing his work to glance up at him with new appreciation. “I know your name. They say that you fought with the strength of ten men – got God’s blood in you.”
“My great-grandfather had a child with a Naiad – a river spirit,” Leandros confirmed. “I am a few generations removed, but I can trace my lineage back to Zeus.”
“Diluted blood, but a God’s blood nonetheless,” Olysseus muttered as he looked Leandros up and down with new appreciation. “Enough to go toe to hoof with that thing, maybe?”
“Hard to say,” Leandros replied. “I’ve only ever tested my strength against men.”
“Maybe the Gods are finally smiling on me if they’re sending me one of their bastards,” he chuckled. “No offense,” he added, though Leandros didn’t get the impression that he was being sincere. “I suppose you’re here to hunt the creature for honor and glory? You must stack up some labors before they’ll call you a true hero, right?”
“What have you learned about the labyrinth?” Leandros asked, ignoring his rambling. “One of the first things you said to me was that this place isn’t what we were told. I’ve seen the gardens, the temples, the houses. Daedalus told me that they designed the labyrinth to keep the creature from growing restless, but there’s more to it than that. This place was made livable, comfortable, as though someone cared about its welfare.”
“Minos built this place to bury a secret,” Olysseus replied, standing upright again as he slung his newly-filled satchel back over his shoulder. “The labyrinth reeks of guilt,” he added as he led Leandros back out into one of the tiled halls. “He told me that he put the beast in this maze to protect Crete, but it’s clear to me now that he wanted to hide it. The beast is a source of shame for him, which implies that he’s in some way responsible for its creation, but he didn’t just kill it. He couldn’t. Why?”
“Daedalus told me that it was its mother’s mercy that stayed the king’s hand,” Leandros replied.
“Who the fuck cares if some worthless peasant girl births a demon?” Olysseus scoffed. “You’d kill her and the baby and be done with it. No, this has some connection to Minos. Ask yourself – who has the power to tell a king no?”
“A God?” Leandros suggested.
“I’m thinking it’s his wife,” Olysseus replied as he stepped into another of the grand halls. There was a huge pedestal at its center, and atop it sat a bowl-shaped brazier of stone, large enough that it could have been used to cook a boar whole. It burned with a bright flame that lit the entire space, crackling as it licked at the air.
“Pasiphae?” Leandros asked. “You think the queen birthed that creature?”
“Who else would have enough influence over the king to stay his blade – to have this place built instead of just killing the thing? It’s either in some way his fault, or he’s so embarrassed by his wife’s infidelity and what it might do to his reputation that he’d rather build an underground world than risk people knowing about it. Maybe she bedded a God, maybe she fucked a beast of the field, who knows?”
Leandros was skeptical, but Olysseus had been given a lot more time to ponder these questions than he had. He had to admit – it fit with Pasiphae’s cold, distant demeanor. Daedalus had said that the creature had been raised by its mother until the age of five before being sealed away, so perhaps she resented her husband for his decision, and for his recent attempts to slay her offspring. It wasn’t only the fear of the beast terrorizing Crete that had Minos so desperate, but maybe the uncovering of a dark secret that had haunted him for twenty years.
“Give me that,” Olysseus said, gesturing to the torch that Leandros was holding. He complied, and the man tossed it into the burning brazier.
“Hey!” Leandros began, but Olysseus ignored him. Taking the brass lantern, he hooked it on the end of his spear, then dipped it into the fire. There was a small flame burning within it when it reemerged, Olysseus setting it on the pedestal for a moment, returning his spear to the rope holster that he had fashioned across his back. When it was cool enough to touch, he picked it up, demonstrating how the little door on one of its four faces opened and closed.
“Your torch will give you away. Use this instead. When the creature is near, close the door, and you will extinguish its light without choking the flame.”
“It’s Promethean?” Leandros asked, accepting the little lantern. There was a handle on top, just large enough that he could hold it or tie it to his belt.
“All the fire down here is Promethean,” Olysseus scoffed. “Do you think that servants venture down here to tend the flames? We’ll need to get you a dry cloak before you catch your death, too.”
“Why have you been evading the beast?” Leandros asked skeptically. “Have you made any attempts to slay it?”
“Sorry, but we’re not all descendants of demigods with the strength of a legion,” Olysseus scoffed. “Consider that before you call me a coward. The king hired me to solve his problem, and the pay was good, so I agreed. He made it sound like I’d be hunting an animal, not that I’d be facing off against…whatever that thing is.”
“With the two of us working together, we increase our chances of surviving this,” Leandros said. “You have clearly learned something about the beast’s behavior if you were able to distract it in the way that you did – if you have survived for all this time.”
“Aye, I have,” Olysseus replied.
“Is there anything that might help us best it?”
“Before I share anything, I want to know about you,” he replied as he narrowed his eyes. Leandros had done nothing to warrant the man’s suspicion, but he held his tongue. His time trapped alone in the labyrinth would not have improved his social graces. “What did Minos promise you for the beast’s head?”
“There’s pay, but I didn’t come here for the reward,” Leandros replied. “I came here to save Crete from the creature – to put down the abomination before it can do more harm than it already has.”
“How gallant of you,” Olysseus replied with a sarcastic roll of his eyes. “I’m afraid I can’t fill my belly with honor and fame. Minos put out a decree that anyone who could slay the beast would return home with an auroch’s weight in gold. What did they give you before you came down here? I saw shields and swords like those in the armory.”
“I was given arms and a cloak,” Leandros replied. “Daedalus gave me Promethean flame.”
“You had Promethean flame when you came in here? Old bastard didn’t give me anything,” Olysseus hissed, one corner of his mouth lifting in a sneer. “I guess us commoners don’t deserve the gifts of the Gods. What else? Did they give you anything else that we can use?”
“I was also given chalk, and some rations.”
“I got that, at least. Wait, chalk?” Olysseus’ eyes lit up, and he stepped forward to grab Leandros by the arm, the warrior resisting the urge to pull away. “How long have you been down here? Have you been marking a route back to the gate?”
“This is my third day,” Leandros replied, his frantic companion releasing him. “Yes, I’ve marked my path, though you led me away from it when you brought me here.”
“Then, there’s a good chance that the chalk hasn’t washed away yet,” Olyssesus said as he began to pace restlessly in front of the burning brazier. “I had the same plan for finding my way back, but the damned creature chased me away from the last marker, and I’ve never been able to find it again. It would have washed away by now anyway – this accursed place is so damp. I scratch marks in the walls using a stone now – it lasts longer.”
“There’s a guard posted on the other side of the gate,” Leandros continued, Olysseus turning his head to watch him intently. “If we return in time, we can ring the bell and be released. It took me three days to get here, so it will probably take three days to get back. I fear that we don’t have long before Daedalus presumes me dead and relieves the sentries.”
“Okay, okay,” Olysseus said. He stopped his pacing, sitting down on the edge of the stone pedestal, his unfocused eyes staring at the mosaic on the floor as he became lost in thought for a moment. “We don’t have long – we have to get this done quick. I remember where I found you. I can take you back there, and we can follow your markers to the entrance.”
“Tell me everything that you know about the beast,” Leandros demanded, Olysseus nodding his head slowly as he began to talk.
“When I first encountered the auroch, I barely escaped with my life. I brought a spear like yours,” he said, gesturing to the doru that was clutched in Leandros’ hand. “I crossed its path in one of the tunnels – stabbed the thing right in the shoulder, but its hide is as tough as leather, and its muscles are as hard as stone. The blow barely made it stagger. It snapped my weapon like a twig, then tossed me thirty paces – very nearly killed me right there. I only got away because there was a drainage tunnel nearby that it couldn’t fit inside. I was able to crawl through and emerge some distance away, and it couldn’t catch up with me. It’s been on the warpath ever since – it knows I’m still here. I think it can smell me.”
“Have you observed its behavior?” Leandros asked. “Do you know if there are routes it travels frequently, or if it has some kind of home in this maze where it might be vulnerable?”
“Yeah, I’ve been watching it,” he replied with a sinister grin. “Once you start to learn the layout of this place, it’s not so hard to stay ahead of the creature. I’m small, I’m fast, and I’m sneaky. I know how to distract it and how to go unseen. There are places we can go where it can’t. Well, where I can go,” he added as he glanced up at Leandros pointedly. “All of those big shiny muscles you’re showing off so proudly might be an issue if you have to squeeze through a tight gap. If you want my advice, travel light. All of that fancy armor won’t help you anyway if you take a hit. That thing can crush you like a beetle, shell and all.”
“What was your plan before I arrived?” Leandros pressed, the shaft of his spear clattering against his armor as he leaned it against his shoulder. “Surely you must have devised some means to kill it by now?”
“I’ve been mulling over some ideas,” he replied with a non-committal shrug. “Mostly, I’ve just been keeping out of the beast’s way and trying to find enough food to stay alive. Truth be told, the way that my spear felt going into its shoulder…I don’t know if a mortal man can kill it. That blow would have felled a raging lion, but it was barely a bee sting to that beast. I know where it sleeps, so I was considering slitting its throat, but I can’t be sure that my knife is even sharp enough to pierce its hide.”
“I am no mortal man,” Leandros announced.
“Good for you,” Olysseus scoffed, apparently unimpressed. “Maybe you want to try stabbing it, then?”
“If you know where it sleeps, lead me there,” Leandros insisted. “All I need is an opportunity – a way to approach it where I can actually maneuver and leverage my agility without being confined by tunnel walls.”
“I could do that,” Olysseus replied, rising to his feet with renewed confidence. “I could lead you to it. Tell me – they say that at the battle of Tegea, you lifted a battering ram intended for six men and smashed down the city’s gates single-handed. Is that true?”
“Well, alright,” he said as he set off back in the direction of his stash. “Sounds like we have no time to waste. Just remember that half of the reward is mine. If it wasn’t for me, you’d be red paste drying on a tunnel wall right now, demigod.”
They waited until nightfall, Olysseus leaving for maybe an hour to check the nearest chamber with sun shafts for confirmation, as there was no other way to tell time in the labyrinth. He was quick, and he really did know his way around the local tunnels. In this maze, one could range for miles and only see a tiny fraction of its true size, so it was no wonder that he hadn’t been able to make his way back to the gate without guidance. There was food here, and he had his stashes, so there had been little reason to go wandering.
When the time came, Olysseus led him out of the building filled with braziers and into the dark tunnels, Leandros doing his best to remain quiet. According to his guide, they had to move as quietly as dormice, or the beast’s sensitive ears might alert it to their presence. They had their lanterns, the little doors open only the barest crack to allow them to find their way.
“There was something I meant to ask you,” Leandros whispered as they paused at a junction, Olysseus checking the wall for scratch marks.
“What? Make it quick – we’re not far off now.”
“Was it you who put that woman to rest in the temple? I came across a long-dead corpse covered with a silk cloak. Someone had been bringing flowers to her grave.”
“No idea what you’re talking about,” Olysseus replied. “I’ve come across some poor bastards who lost their way or were slain by the beast – fucking thing tears them apart like an animal. Never seen any graves, though.”
“You might not be the only person still surviving down here,” he continued as he followed his guide around a bend. They hopped over another trickling stream, Leandros having to steady himself against the nearest wall to save from slipping on the wet stone. “We’ll pass through the area on our way back. Perhaps we should search for them.”
“What do I care about some lost fool wasting their time picking flowers?” Olysseus scoffed. “We haven’t the time to waste – they can starve for all I care.”
“You’d condemn them to perish in these endless halls?” Leandros demanded.
“You’re the fucking hero, not me,” he hissed in reply. He stopped, turning to jab a finger into the molded pectoral muscles of Leandros’ cuirass. “I only care about one thing, which is getting out of here with my head still attached to my body. You kill the bull, and I lead you back to your chalk. That’s the deal.”
Leandros pushed his hand away, resisting the urge to admonish him for his cowardice. It wouldn’t do to quarrel with the only person who could get him out of the labyrinth.
“We’re coming up on the thing’s chamber,” Olysseus said, changing the subject. “In the names of all the Gods, be quiet. You shall only get one chance, and I suggest aiming for something soft – maybe put your spear through its eye.”
The stone gave way to soil, the walls becoming furry with green moss, letting Leandros know that they were approaching another open chamber. There was no sunlight this time, but it had been replaced by a silver glow that must be coming from the full moon. The pair closed the little doors on their lanterns, the moonlight providing enough illumination to see by.
“Here it is,” Olysseus whispered, the silver light silhouetting him as he paused at the entrance. “I hope for both our sakes that you know what you’re doing.”
Leandros joined him at the arched mouth of the chamber, his eyes widening as he glimpsed what lay within. There was another monopteros sitting on a verdant hill that was surrounded by flowers, the moonlight pouring in through the shafts above to give its pristine, white marble a ghostly glow. It had a domed roof that was held up by a circle of ornate pillars, and there was something inside it, though it was too shadowy for him to make out from a distance.
Olysseus gestured to the structure, his knife in hand, his meaning obvious enough. The beast must have made this cavernous hollow its home. As they began to creep closer, Leandros felt the blades of grass between his toes, the moisture in the tunnels misting them with droplets of dew.
More strange details jumped out at him as he climbed the gentle slope. Strung up between some of the pillars of the monopteros were washing lines – lengths of rope with various items of clothing draped over them, some still wet. They were all makeshift and tattered, some of them little more than long lengths of fabric that looked like they had been torn from a cloak. They were too large to be worn by a man.
Off to his left was a campfire that still smoldered, and there was a rack nearby made from lengths of wood that had been bound together with strips of leather. Some looked like branches, while others had clearly been spears before being repurposed. It was being used to smoke meat – several rabbits that had been skinned and cleaned were hanging off it.
This wasn’t the nest of a monster. It looked like someone had been living here.
Leandros crept closer to the structure at the top of the hill, trudging through the colorful flowers, the moonlight reflecting off his shield as he readied it. He looked around for Olysseus as he approached one of the pillars, but he was hanging back, watching from the relative safety of the arched entrance.
Peering beneath the shadow of the domed roof, Leandros saw that more belongings had been piled inside the structure. There were satchels and bags leaning against some of the pillars, others hanging from their straps on nails that had been driven into the marble to act as pegs. There was a pile of scrap bronze sourced from weapons and armor. He could see beaten shields, cuirasses, helmets, and even the metal blades of spears and swords that had been snapped off their hafts. These must have been taken from fallen warriors. There were clothes, too, and other personal belongings like belts and sandals. It was a treasure trove stolen from all of the beast’s victims.
Lying on a pile of clothes and furs in the middle of it all was the creature. His eyes took a moment to pick it out in the darkness, struggling to find familiar shapes, its blend of human and bestial features throwing him off. The thing was enormous, its sheer mass more akin to that of a prize bull than a person. Olysseus had been right to describe it as an auroch. It was lying on its side, its barrel chest rising and falling as it slept, its powerful breaths deep and regular.
The first thing that stood out to him was its head. It was that of a bull – heavily built, with a somewhat elongated snout ending in a pair of large nostrils that flared with each breath. It had pointed ears that were somewhere between those of a human and a cow, and from its skull sprouted a pair of curving horns that looked long enough to impale a grown man. Its hair was a massive, tangled mass of dark dreadlocks and braids that looked long enough to reach the small of its back, separated into rope-like strands by the careful use of string. There were more decorations – he realized. The same colorful twine had been wound around its horns, little beads and trinkets dangling from them in places, more of the makeshift jewelry decorating its forehead and snout. Its ears were pierced with golden bands that were large enough to have been bracelets. The beast was grooming itself, decorating itself. Why?
As his eyes wandered down its strange body, he saw a pair of muscular shoulders larger than his own, its long arms sporting biceps as big as his head. Like its bovine face, its entire body was covered in a very thin coat of black fur that seemed to shine in the moonlight, leaving veins and muscles easily visible beneath. Everywhere he looked, it was pocked with pink scars and healed wounds, a lifetime of battle etched into its very hide.
Only now was he beginning to realize that the beast was female. Her anatomy was familiar enough that he could make out the way that her powerful core flared out into a pair of hips wider than an average doorway, her powerful thighs so densely packed with muscle that they were as girthy as a man’s torso. Her long legs became more slender as they went, bending like those of an animal standing on its hindlimbs, culminating in the giant hooves that he had heard pound the stone in the tunnels like hammers striking anvils.
The she-creature was sparsely clothed, wearing little more than a tattered loincloth that was draped over her wide haunches, putting her impressive physique on display. Those same decorative pieces of string were wound and knotted around her limbs in places, along with strips of leather, the uneven mesh that they created helping to hold some of the other items of clothing in place. Around her thighs and shoulders were metal rings that formed a kind of armored mail, and salvaged shields had been strapped to her thighs and upper arms wholesale – the creature so large that she could wear them as a normal man might wear greaves and bracers. He couldn’t see much of her torso from his vantage point, as she was facing away from him, but there were more leather straps across her broad back.
Leandros came within a few paces of the thing, her sheer size such that her hips and shoulders almost rose to his chest, a long tail whipping back and forth like a snake. Was she dreaming? He lifted his spear, taking aim at where he presumed her heart to be. Using all of the strength that his unconventional ancestry had bestowed upon him, he could plunge the tip of his spear through her back, likely killing her in one blow. He hesitated, however. The jewelry, the collection of belongings, the meat on the rack, and the clothes drying on the lines. This was not some insensible animal.
No. He could not stab her in the back while she slept. There was no honor or glory in that – nobody would sing songs about a hero who slits his enemy’s throats while they sleep. That was the work of assassins and murderers, not warriors. This beast could reason, she could fight, and he had to meet that challenge.
Leandros took a few steps back, then raised his shield, slamming his spear against the metal like he was beating a drum. The loud sound resonated through the cavern, reverberating off the stone walls, shattering the pristine silence of the little garden.
“What are you doing!?” he heard Olysseus wail, but it was already done.
The beast stirred, one of her ears flicking, the sound of clanking metal and rattling chain links filling the cavern as she climbed to her feet. She towered over Leandros, near twice his height, her long dreadlocks whipping through the air as she turned her head to glare at him. Her eyes were wide, wild, but there was awareness behind them. Her nostrils flared as she snorted like an angry bull, her thick lips pulling back to expose tombstone teeth, the incisors pointed like those of a predator. As she swung her heavy body around to face him, he glimpsed her from the front for the first time. Abdominal muscles that could have been chiseled from onyx rippled as she took a step closer, her suitably massive breasts protected by two plates of hammered bronze that might have been salvaged from shields or cuirasses, just large enough to cup them. They were held in place by leather straps and metal chain links, the hard bronze lined with fabric to help cushion them.
The towering beast leaned down to pick something up, Leandros hearing the sound of metal scraping against stone, and she lifted a battle axe into view. It was so large that a man would have needed to use both hands to hold it, but she wielded it with the ease of a sword, its haft wrapped tightly with strips of leather.
She seemed confused by his challenge, leaning that massive axe over a broad shoulder as she looked him up and down inquisitively. The unspoken question was obvious – he had no idea if she could even speak. Why did you forego your chance?
“You mad fool!” Olysseus yelled from the other end of the cavern. “Kill it!”
The bull’s eyes flicked to Olysseus, then back to Leandros, narrowing angrily. Did she understand?
Leandros began to retreat, walking back out onto the wet grass as he put some distance between himself and his adversary, banging his shield again in a wordless challenge. The beast followed, but she didn’t charge him like an animal as she had done in the tunnels. This time, she was wary, spinning her axe in her hand with surprising dexterity as she walked out to join him. Her hooves sank into the wet soil, each step that she took making her chains and shields clatter, the flesh of her thighs quivering.
The pair began to circle one another, stepping through the flowers, the intelligent eyes that peered back at Leandros from beneath the bull’s brow scrutinizing him cautiously. He made the first move, resting his spear atop his round shield, stepping into a probing jab. She was quick – leaning out of his reach as she batted the weapon aside with the flat of her axe head.
Now, it was her turn, the beast raising her axe above her horns. With another angry snort, she brought it down, the blade burying itself deep in the grass beside Leandros as he stepped out of its path. She pulled it out of the dirt, clods of earth flying, then swung it towards him. It rang his shield like a bell, the shock vibrating through the metal, traveling all the way up his arm. It was like being kicked by a horse.
He weathered the powerful blow, which sent him skidding a good foot across the grass, his opponent cocking her head curiously. By her reaction, he could guess that she had bisected lesser men with such a strike. The two resumed their cautious circling, wary of any movements or tells that might signal an attack, the bright moonbeams reflecting off the polished metal that adorned them.
Leandros leapt forward to deliver another jab, the beast countering with a swipe, the clamoring of their weapons echoing through the cavern. They were testing one another, attempting to gauge the skills of their opponent, neither one of them having ever faced their like before.
The bull lunged, her blade whistling as it cut through the air, close enough that it sliced through part of the crest atop Leandros’ helmet. He dodged and weaved, his sparse armor keeping him light on his feet. As strong as the bull was, she was limited by her size and mass. She couldn’t move with as much agility as he could.
Darting around to her right, he raised his spear like a javelin, leaping off the grass as he aimed its sharp point at the nape of her thick neck. She lifted her shoulder, and his spear instead glanced off a shield that she had strapped to her upper arm, making him stumble as he landed. She followed through, moving her entire body in a punch that connected with his cuirass, denting the bronze as the blow lifted him off his feet. He was tossed a good body length away, landing hard, the impact knocking the breath out of his lungs.
Leandros struggled to his feet, supporting himself with his spear for a moment as he caught his breath. The bull could have charged him while he was off-kilter, but she merely spun her axe restlessly, pacing back and forth as she waited for him to recover.
He had never taken a hit like that before – not from a person – but the prospect filled him with excitement rather than dread. Finally, a battle worthy of being celebrated!
Taking a deep breath, he steadied his spear arm, leveling the weapon over his shield as he took up a defensive posture. He began to move towards his towering adversary, matching her movements, waiting for her to strike. She swung her axe with a bestial grunt, Leandros leaping back, the blow ringing his shield as it glanced off the metal. She was strong, but he was learning how she moved now – how far she could reach.
He gave her a few more probing jabs with his spear, one of them scratching a wooden shield that she had strapped to one of her massive thighs, another finding one of the bronze slabs that protected her chest. He succeeded in provoking her, and she loosed an animalistic growl, lunging towards him. This time, he was ready for her, angling his shield in such a way that the next strike from her axe was deflected. It threw her off-balance just long enough for him to drive his spear towards her unprotected belly.
Instead of following through, his arm stopped dead, the creature catching the haft of his spear in a hand that was large enough to have encompassed his head. He gave it another shove, but couldn’t drive it any closer despite his strength, its bronze tip hovering an inch from her toned midriff. She turned, pulling him along with the spear, guiding him into her knee as she lifted it to meet him. He barely had time to raise his shield, her leg hitting it like a hammer, the powerful muscles that were packed into her thigh more than enough to send him careening backwards. The spear was torn from his hand, the strap that secured his shield to his arm the only thing preventing it from flying across the cavern, the blow sending him crashing back to the grass. He rolled for a few paces, then struggled back to his feet, seeing the bull standing before him clutching the spear. With only a single hand, she snapped it like a twig, tossing the splintered wood to the ground.
Leandros reached for the kopis on his belt, drawing the ornate blade, then banged it against his now-dented shield. The bull responded by charging towards him, closing the gap between them far faster than he could have anticipated on her long legs, Leandros having to steel himself to stave off the impulse to leap clear. She drew back her weapon, her muscles rippling as she swung it, her cloven hooves tearing up the turf. He felt the blade displace the air as he ducked under it, taking advantage of her momentum to get close – she was too heavy to stop herself in time.
He drew the blade across her thigh as he stepped past her – it was all that he could reach – intending to sever the artery. It connected above the shield that she was using as armor, slicing through her loincloth, but he felt it bite into metal. There was a spark as it glanced off the chain rings that she was wearing, failing to find purchase.
He spun around just in time to see her axe blade coming towards him, staggered as he blocked it with his shield. She pressed the attack, looming over him as she pounded his hoplon, hitting it again and again. She rained savage blows, forcing him to a knee, her fury unrelenting. With a bellow of desperation, Leandros met the next blow with his sword, only just managing to deflect it before it cleaved into his shoulder. She planted it deep in the ground beside him, Leandros feeling the impact travel up through his body.
This was his chance – her throat was within reach now that she was bending over. He lunged, driving the tip of the blade towards her neck, but her long dreadlocks whipped as she brought that massive skull down towards him. Swinging it like a battering ram, the hard ivory of one of her curving horns connected with his blade, knocking it out of his hand. Before he could react, she continued on, slamming her forehead into his helmet with a sickening thud. He felt it dent inward and was sent toppling onto his back, stars dancing before his eyes. Dazed, he lay there for a moment as his opponent reared up again, preparing to bring that heavy hoof down on him.
With but a moment to spare, he came to his senses, rolling out of her path as she slammed her foot into the soil where his head had been only a second prior. He leapt to his feet, and with a primal yell, he drove the edge of his shield into the side of her knee. The beast buckled, loosing a gruff grunt of surprise. She had to place her free hand on the ground to catch herself, dropping to a knee, giving Leandros the opening he needed. Summoning all of his supernatural strength, he balled his right hand into a fist, then threw a punch. It connected with her ovine snout, snapping her head to the side, the force of the blow sending a ripple spreading through her body. It almost sent her crashing to the ground, but not quite, his burly adversary slowly rising to her full height. Crimson blood dripped from her lips and nose, staining her teeth red as she bared them in a snarl.
Leandros lunged for the sword that was lying on the wet grass nearby, but felt something tangle his leg. The bull had wrapped her rope-like tail around his ankle, and she pulled it out from under him, planting him face-first in the dirt. He reached for the kopis again, his grasping fingers coming within an inch of it, but she dragged him away.
As he rose to all-fours, she delivered a bone-shattering kick to his stomach, her hard hoof denting his cuirass as the blow lifted him off the ground. He was deposited a few paces away, where he rolled a little further down the incline, once again winded. She didn’t even need that axe – she was going to beat him to death with her bare hands at this rate.
Through bleary eyes, he saw her stalking towards him, brandishing her weapon as though intending to take his head off with it. He searched for anything that he could use, his gaze locking onto a bronze glint. It was the last foot of his broken spear – the sharp head still attached.
His foe let out a bellow that was something between the roar of a bull and the war cry of a warrior, the ground shaking beneath her feet as she neared. It was his last chance. Leandros crawled across the grass, lunging for the spear, feeling his fingers close around the splintered wood as her heavy footfalls accelerated.
As she stepped in to swing her weapon, he drove the broken spear into the only thing that he could reach – her muscular calf. She faltered, letting out a roar of pain, taking a staggering step backwards as she reached for the shattered haft that jutted from her dark fur.
Leandros was already on his feet and running. This was not a fight that he could win – he had to regroup and find a better way. By the time the beast had noticed that he was gone, he was most of the way to the exit, looking back over his shoulder to see her toss the bloodied spear tip aside. She let out another resonating bellow, then set off after him with a lumbering gait, her injury doing little to slow her down.
Olysseus was already ahead of him, Leandros panting as he pushed himself harder to catch up.
“What in Hades were you thinking!?” the man snapped, wheeling around a corner. The moonlight behind them was fading, and he fumbled with his lantern, opening the little door to illuminate the tunnel in its uneven glow. “You could have killed that thing, and you decided to challenge it to single combat? What did you think would happen!?”
“I could not slay a sleeping enemy!” he replied breathlessly.
“Yeah? Well, you couldn’t beat it in a square fight, either. Care to explain how your plan was better than mine? You should have just let me do it if you didn’t have the guts!”
“You need to lead us back to one of your bolt holes, or the only guts we have will be painting the tunnel walls!”
He could hear the beast some distance behind them, its loud huffing and thudding footsteps echoing down the stone passageway, another bone-shaking bellow setting his teeth on edge.
“Fine, fine!” Olysseus snapped. He pulled Leandros into a side tunnel – what looked like a dead end. The pair caught their breath for a moment, his frightened companion whipping his head around frantically as another blood-curdling bray carried through the passage. “There’s a hidden door here that we can escape through. You see that crack in the wall, there?”
Leandros stepped forward, reaching out to brush his hand against the featureless rock.
A searing pain gripped him, and he dropped to the floor, reaching for his thigh to see that red blood was already soaking his leg. He looked up at Olysseus in confusion, seeing that he was holding a bloodied dagger in his hand.
“You fucked up, so you pay the price,” he snapped. “All you had to do was stab that thing through the neck, and we could have been out of here!”
“Traitor!” Leandros replied, holding a hand over the deep wound in a futile bid to stem the bleeding. “I trusted you!”
“I’ll return to where I found you and follow your chalk markers back by myself,” he continued as he wiped the knife on his sleeve. “Minos is sure to forgive my failure when I tell him of how his beast slew the mighty hero Leandros.”
There was another angry bellow from the monster – closer this time, the sound wiping the snide expression off Olysseus’ face.
“I hope this qualifies as an honorable death,” he added, wheeling around. He slipped away, vanishing into the tunnel, taking his lantern with him.
Leandros was left alone and bleeding on the stone floor, his own panicked breathing filling his ears, each beat of his heart pumping more of his lifeblood from his body. Olysseus had crippled him, leaving him to be savaged by the beast as a distraction. He could hear it approaching, the terrible sound of its huffing breath as it sniffed him out, the drumbeat of its hooves – but he couldn’t see anything now that the lantern was gone. He fumbled for his belt, but found nothing. He must have dropped his own light source during the fight. Was this how his quest for glory was to end – betrayed and bleeding in the dark?
The beast was there, blocking the tunnel that led to his little dead end, the floor shaking beneath him as it took another step closer. Leandros couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer, his consciousness slowly slipping away as it reached for him with its massive hand.
CHAPTER 3: ONE GOOD DEED
Leandros awoke to bright sunlight, blinking as his vision adjusted to the glare, the perfume of flowers filling his nose. He was lying on something soft, the gentle trickle of water reaching his ears, his bleary eyes tracking the wings of a butterfly as it flitted overhead. There was a shadow moving nearby, still too indistinct to make out.
The voice was deep, gruff, but oddly feminine. As his sight cleared, he saw the mass of tangled hair and the upswept horns, a distinctly non-human face peering down at him. The bull was standing over him. He sat upright in alarm, then had to steady himself as the motion made him dizzy. His eyes darted from the bull to his surroundings, seeing that he was back beneath the monopteros in the chamber where they had fought. Its domed roof and ornate support pillars enclosed him along with the various scattered belongings that he had seen during his approach, sunlight bleeding in through the light shafts outside, illuminating the green grass and the patches of colorful flowers. He appeared to be lying on a makeshift bed of furs, and his armor had been removed, leaving him wearing only his linen shirt and the leather pteruge that came down over his thighs like a skirt.
He wandered a hand down his leg, finding that the deep cut left by Olysseus’ betrayal had been sealed. There was a painful bruise above it where it looked like a belt had been tightened to stem the bleeding, and the wound had been stitched closed with linen thread, then dressed with bandages that stank of vinegar. It still thrummed with a dull, worrying pain, but he was alive.
“What…is this?” he mumbled, still trying to get his bearings. He peered up at the beast, slowly putting two and two together. “You saved me?”
“Do you see anyone else?” she replied, extending her long arms as she gestured to their surroundings.
The fact that there was a human voice coming out of that bull’s head was hard to reconcile, and he had to take a moment to collect himself, ensuring that he was indeed awake.
“You can speak?” he asked, reaching up to cradle his head with one hand as he supported himself with another. “Why did you not say something earlier?”
“Would you have laid down your weapons if I had asked politely?” she replied, one of her ovine ears flicking in what might be irritation. “I have tried talking. It does not work.”
Her voice was so powerful – he could almost feel it as much as he could hear it.
“Why did you save my life? I tried to kill you.”
“If you’d prefer, I can finish you off,” she replied with a shrug. She knelt beside him, raising an eyebrow sarcastically as he flinched away from her. She lay the back of her hand against his forehead – it was enormous, covered in a thin layer of black fur. “I feel no fever. The rot may yet set in if you try to exert yourself too much. You must rest if you wish to regain your strength.”
“I don’t understand,” Leandros replied as she rose to her full height, her elongated face seeming to fly away from him. She walked out of the monopteros between two nearby pillars, crouching to tend to a campfire that was burning on the grass just outside. “You tried to kill me in the tunnels – we fought to the death.”
“Is asking obvious questions all that you know how to do?” she replied, embers floating into the air as she stoked the flames. She returned with a clay bowl that was dwarfed by her enormous hands, kneeling at his bedside before offering it to him. He glanced down at the liquid within, seeing that it was some kind of stew – probably rabbit. “Eat.”
His hunger got the better of him – he might have been unconscious for a while – and he took it from her. Their fingers brushed for a moment, and he remarked that her fur was remarkably smooth. The stew was hot, but not so hot that he couldn’t drink it, the bull watching as he downed it in only a few gulps.
“Thank you,” he said, and she nodded. He felt as though he should be heaping his praises on her, considering that she appeared to have saved his life, but the situation was so strange that he wasn’t sure how to proceed. Instead, he just watched her, wide-eyed.
“Perhaps I headbutted you a little too hard,” she grumbled, the ground shaking as she sat down on the stone slabs beside him. “You are not like the others who have come here. You could have killed me in my sleep – driven that spear straight through my throat – but you didn’t. Instead, you woke me to challenge me to single combat. Why?”
“It was the right thing to do,” he replied. “What honor is there in slaughtering a helpless opponent? Nobody sings songs of executioners.”
She tilted that massive head, the long threads of her braided hair falling over her shoulders.
“Is that why you came here? So that people would sing songs about you?”
“I was summoned to Crete by King Minos,” he explained, the bull narrowing her eyes at the mention of the name. “I was told that a terrible beast was to be slain, and I saw it as a chance to prove my worth. One cannot be a hero without heroic deeds.”
“At least you did not come seeking money like the rest,” she said, snorting like a horse in a gesture of displeasure. “What do you think? Am I a terrible monster worthy of being slain?”
“I…I don’t know what’s happening now,” he replied warily.
“I have learned why I am still breathing,” she continued, ignoring his comment. “I suppose it is only fair that you learn why I didn’t crush your skull when I found you in that tunnel. You showed me mercy, so I did you the same courtesy. Stomping on your head while you were unconscious would have been no different from you slitting my throat while I slept.”
“That explains it,” he muttered. “You are a healer,” he added, nodding to his bandaged leg. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“A friend,” she replied cryptically, dodging the question. What friends could she have down here? Wasn’t she alone? “You can probably guess from my collection that such injuries are an increasingly common occurrence for me.”
He glanced down at her impressive physique, one again remarking that her onyx hide was covered in healed scars whose pink hue stood out starkly against her shiny fur. It looked as though she had been stabbed and cut with every type of weapon made in Greece.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
“Should a terrible beast not?” she chuckled.
“I just want to know what to call you. I can’t just refer to you as bull.”
“Asteria,” she replied.
“I am Leandros of Kos.”
“I would like to tell you that your reputation precedes you, but news is slow to travel down here,” she replied sarcastically.
“What happened to Olysseus?” he asked.
“The other one that was with you?” she replied. “I don’t know. He was gone before I arrived, and I decided to bring you back here rather than pursue him. You are an exceptionally poor judge of character – did you know that?”
“He was furious when I refused to kill you,” Leandros explained with a sigh. “He crippled me and left me as a distraction to ease his own escape. Olysseus knows the way out!” he added, panic gripping him as his memories came flooding back. “If he finds his way back to the gate and rings the bell before-”
Asteria lay a heavy hand on his chest – almost large enough to span it – and gently pushed him back down onto the furs.
“You can do nothing until you recover your strength. Try to walk anywhere with an injury like that, and it will only split open again.”
“You don’t understand,” he pleaded. He tried to sit up again, but found that it was impossible, his strength inconsequential next to hers. “I left chalk markings on my way into the labyrinth so that I could find my way back. The only thing preventing Olysseus from escaping was that his own markings had long since washed away. He will return to where he found me, and in three days, he can make it to the gate. If he rings the bell before I do, I will be trapped in here forever.”
“If he rings this bell, they will let him out?”
“That’s right,” Leandros replied with a nod. “He’ll lie to them – tell them that you killed me, and I will have no way out.”
“Worry about that later,” Asteria insisted. “Being trapped is better than being dead. Trust me – I know.”
He was in no position to argue, so he lay back, willing his heart to stop racing.
“So…what are you?” he asked, finding no polite way to phrase the question. “How did you come to be imprisoned here?”
“That depends,” she replied, crossing her muscular arms over her bronze chest piece.
“On what lies Minos told you.”
“I was told that a creature was born of an unnatural union between a woman and a beast,” he replied, Asteria baring her teeth in a snarl. “That the offspring was reared until the age of five while this labyrinth was built, then it was imprisoned inside. Minos has been having prophetic dreams about you escaping and wreaking havoc on Crete, and an oracle confirmed it, so he has been sending sellswords and assassins down here to kill you before that prophecy can come to fruition.”
“That explains why I’ve had to fight off an army of fools over these last months,” she muttered, her long hair bobbing as she shook her head in resignation. “Is that all he told you? I am not surprised that he omitted the most important details.”
“I suspected that he was withholding the truth ever since I set foot in this place,” Leandros replied. “Daedalus told me that it was the beast’s…your mother who moved the king to construct the labyrinth – that it was her mercy that spared you at birth.”
“But he didn’t tell you who that woman was, did he?”
“Never. I assumed that it was some nameless peasant girl.”
“Queen Pasiphae is my mother,” Asteria replied.
“Then, Olysseus was right,” Leandros marveled as he took a moment to process the information. “The queen really is your mother. Who else would hold enough sway over the King to convince him to build this labyrinth?”
“It was not out of love for me that he built this place,” she continued. “I do not even believe that it was out of love for my mother. I would never have rampaged across Crete eating peasants, but I am his shame – a secret that could topple his kingdom if it were ever revealed. Entombing me alive to spend my days in isolation was his way of protecting that secret. He may also have feared retribution if he dared to kill me. I am his punishment.”
“What do you mean by that?” Leandros pressed. “If Pasiphae was your mother, then who was your father?”
“Rest,” she insisted, rising from her seat beside him. “When you are stronger, perhaps I will tell you more.”
Leandros slept for a time, and when he awoke, Asteria was waiting with another bowl of stew. She sat with him as he ate, watching him intently. It was hard to criticize her curiosity. She had spent her life in isolation – or so he had been told – and she might not have spoken to another person in months or even years. She had mentioned a friend, but he didn’t know her well enough to press her on that yet.
“Sorry,” she muttered, averting her eyes. She must have realized that she was staring. “It has been…a long time since I have been so close to someone. At least, someone who wasn’t trying to drive a blade into my belly.”
“How many assassins have you fought off?” he asked, pausing to take another sip of the warm liquid. He glanced at her collection of scars again, his eyes wandering down her impressively toned physique, the knitted wounds standing out starkly against her dark fur.
“I lost count,” she replied. “Maybe a dozen. I’m sure there are more who never found their way to me and perished in the labyrinth.”
“I came across at least one,” Leandros replied. “I could see no wounds on his body, so it’s safe to assume that he died of hunger. There were others – criminals or sacrifices, I think. Minos has been sending those condemned to death into the labyrinth as a form of execution. He has also been sacrificing slaves and peasants in the same manner.”
“He thinks that will appease the Gods,” she chuckled bitterly. It was odd how her otherwise bull-like face could convey such human expressions. The more he looked at it, the more familiar and the less jarring it seemed. “All of this death…just for me. An assassin seeking a bounty is one thing, but sending innocent people in here to die? It’s horrible.”
“Sorry for stabbing you in the leg,” Leandros mumbled into his bowl. Asteria merely shrugged her broad shoulders in response.
“One of many scars that I bear. I want to know more about you,” she added, leaning a little closer. “I have fought many men, but something about you is different. The last man who tried to block one of my blows was crushed beneath his own shield. I’ve never been hit as hard as you hit me. Why?”
“I have some unconventional ancestry of my own,” he began, taking another drink from the clay bowl. “My great-grandfather had a child with a Naiad, which makes me a descendant of Zeus, albeit three generations removed. I have only a little of his blood, but it’s enough to make a difference.”
“You might be dead like the others if not for that.”
“You do kick pretty hard,” he chuckled. “I’ll need a smith to get the dents out of my armor.”
He finished his stew, and she took the bowl from him, placing it on the stone floor of the domed structure.
“It is…strange, talking to someone again,” she began. “Sometimes, I almost forget what my own voice sounds like.”
“How have you survived down here for all this time?” Leandros asked. “Daedalus told me that you were locked in the labyrinth at no more than five years old. You would have been a child.”
“The labyrinth had everything that I needed,” she replied. “My mother taught me as much as she could before I was taken from her. I was large and fast enough to hunt, and I could feed and clothe myself. I suppose that I was clever, for a child. Truthfully, as much as Minos built this place to be livable, I suspect he always hoped that I would die. That way, he could claim that it was not his doing – that he had done everything in his power to keep me alive.”
“And who taught you to do that?” he asked, gesturing to his bandaged thigh. “You mentioned a friend?”
“Few of those who venture into the labyrinth survive long enough to find me,” she began. “Assassins are at least given meager supplies and a torch, but most lose their way and die in the dark before I ever realize they’re there. A handful have subsisted long enough for me to find them, but they always flee – likely poisoned by Minos’ tales of my barbarity. There was one,” she said, lifting her head towards the ceiling above them as she reminisced. “An old woman – sent into the labyrinth some years ago. When I found her, she was either too old or too weak to flee, and I was able to nurse her back to health. Much like you, when she awoke to find me at her bedside, she understood that I was not to be feared.”
“Who was she?” Leandros asked.
“Her name was Corinna,” Asteria replied. “She was a teacher and a healer who had been kept as a slave by one of Crete’s noble families so that she might tutor their children. She offended her master at one point or another and was sent into the labyrinth as a sacrifice. I’m sure that would appease the Gods,” she added, lifting a bovine lip in a sneer. “A frail, defenseless old woman. She did not live long, but she taught me much in the little time we had together. Corinna was my first real friend.”
“Then…it was you?” Leandros asked, Asteria cocking her head at him. “I came across a tomb during my explorations, and there, I found the body of a woman lying upon a pedestal beneath a statue of Zeus. She had been laid to rest, and someone had been bringing her flowers. Was that Corinna?”
Asteria nodded her massive head, her long, ropy dreadlocks bouncing with the motion.
“I visit her from time to time to bring her fresh flowers. Orchids were her favorite. I wouldn’t even have known their name without her tutelage.”
Leandros couldn’t even fathom that level of loneliness – the despair that Asteria must have felt at the death of her only companion. Worse, she must still have memories of her early childhood before she had been taken from her mother. She had known family, friendship, and freedom, but it had all been ripped away from her.
“Well, I’m here now,” he replied. It was a poor attempt at reassurance, but he caught her lips curling into a smile regardless.
“That you are. And how long are you planning to stay?”
The question was more mocking than serious, but it was an opportunity to shift the conversation towards more pressing matters.
“I came here to slay a monster, but I have found none. Unless you can point me to one, there is no glory to be found in this labyrinth.”
“Oh, I can point you to one,” she replied with a low growl that shook his bones. “He’s not down here, though.”
“Asteria, listen to me,” he began. She blinked back at him, batting her long lashes, as though just hearing her name spoken by another person was a novelty. “If Olysseus reaches the gate before I do, I will be trapped down here, just the same as you are. I must beat him there, and he has a head start of at least a day. How do you navigate down here? Do you know the way back, or am I already lost?”
“Exploring these tunnels was the only thing that kept me sane,” she replied, reaching for a pouch that was attached to a leather strap at her waist. She pulled out a roll of parchment – enormous by human standards, but understated in her large hands. He sat up, leaning over to get a better look as she unrolled it, laying it out on the stone slabs beside his furs. It was a map not unlike the one that Daedalus had shown him, but drawn by hand using what looked like charcoal.
“You made this?” he marveled. It was a fraction of the size of what he had seen in the library, but even a fraction of the maze was massive, miles of tunnel and island-like chambers lovingly reproduced on the yellowed scroll.
“Which gate did you enter through?” she asked, Leandros having to lean away from her long horns as she brought her head down closer to the parchment. “I know of several.”
“Gods,” he sighed, scratching his head. “I have no way of knowing. It was in, uh…that direction.”
He pointed to the door that he had first entered the chamber through, Asteria turning her head to look.
“Most likely the East gate,” she mused, pointing to the spot on her map.
“If you knew where the gates were, why did you never leave?”
“You think I did not try?” she scoffed. “Those gates are heavily reinforced such that even my strength is not enough to break them down. They can only be opened from the outside.”
“Hence the bell,” Leandros conceded, nodding his head. “I’ve seen that gate from the outside. It’s heavy wood reinforced with bronze plating, secured by two tree trunks that sit in recesses in the stone walls. I’ve laid siege to cities that had smaller gates than those.”
“Then, that bell of yours may be our only opportunity. Who knows which gate the next assassin might enter through? There was a time when I had resigned myself to living out my days in this pit,” she added, staring down at him with those dark eyes. “I abandoned hope and decided to content myself with what little I had. That was before Minos made his intentions clear. The next assassin that finds me sleeping might not be as honorable as you are.”
“Does that mean you will help me get back?” Leandros asked.
“Will you take me with you?” she continued, drawing close enough that he could feel her warm breath on his skin. “If I lead you to the gate before your friend gets there, and you ring the bell, do you promise not to stand in my way?”
She was his only way out of the labyrinth now, but did he really want to plant himself in the middle of this decades-old feud? Minos was a powerful man, and he had summoned Leandros to do precisely the opposite of what he was now considering. He was not a just king, and he had been proven a liar, but this course of action might doom Leandros just as surely as being locked in the maze. Asteria was no fool – her eyes unwavering as she waited for his reply.
“I promise,” he finally replied.
“You are an honorable man, so I will take you at your word,” she said as she climbed to her hoofed feet. “I estimate four days for your companion to reach that gate, not three, and that’s if he knows exactly where he is going. When you are strong enough, we will head him off, and we will leave this place together.”
“Keep still,” Asteria said, kneeling beside his bed. She set a bucket of water down, along with a pile of linen rags, reaching for his bandaged thigh. He flinched away, and she glared at him. “It will fester if the bandages are not changed.”
He allowed her to come closer, and she lifted the leather flaps of his skirt to expose more of his thigh, along with the loincloth that he wore beneath it. The bruise left by the tourniquet had mostly faded now, leaving little more than a red indent around his upper thigh. He winced as she began to peel off the bandages, the scent of vinegar overpowering the ever-present smell of the flowers. As he braced himself, his heart starting to beat faster in anticipation of seeing a festering wound, he was relieved to see a knitting scar. It spanned the limb, coming dangerously close to an artery that would have killed him in minutes if Olysseus’ blade had struck true. Asteria seemed surprised, blinking at the wound in confusion as she peeled away the last strip of linen.
“You heal remarkably quickly,” she said, inspecting his injury. She reached for her bucket and retrieved a piece of damp cloth, dabbing gently at the wound site. Leandros had to focus to keep himself from pulling away from her, those furry fingers coming uncomfortably close to his nethers, but the location of the scar made that unavoidable. “It has almost closed completely already.”
“It’s my heritage,” he explained, watching as she began to apply fresh bandages. Where had she even found them? Perhaps she had torn the strips from the linen clothes of the assassins that she had killed. “I’ve always been resilient.”
“Same as me, I suppose,” she replied. She kept her eyes on her work, but every now and again, he noticed that they wandered a few inches higher. He couldn’t blame her – had she ever been this close to a man? At least a living one…
“Thanks,” he mumbled as she finished up. “Maybe we can walk out of here a little sooner than you’d hoped?”
“Maybe,” she replied, returning the piece of wet cloth to her bucket. She wrung it, then brought it back out, a few droplets of water falling to his shirt as she held it over him. “Off with it,” she said, nodding to the garment. “You have been lying here for two days, and who knows how long you had been wandering the tunnels before that. My nose is a lot more sensitive than yours.”
“I can…take care of that,” he mumbled, but she shook her shaggy head.
“You have not even regained enough strength to walk. Let me tend to you.”
He wanted to argue with her, but there wasn’t much that he could do when faced with ten feet of muscle and horns. Instead, he nodded his permission, starting to pull off his shirt. She was right – just moving around hurt. As he exposed his naked torso, he revealed more nasty bruises, likely earned during their fight. There was an ugly, purple smear across his midriff where she had kicked him, his armor doing little to soften the blow. After the beating he’d received, his every muscle seemed to ache.
“You are a mess,” she muttered, her dark eyes wandering across his unfamiliar anatomy. She brought the wet cloth to his chest and began to scrub, pressing down almost as though she was testing the firmness of his muscles. It was obvious that she was sating her curiosity as much as bathing him, but he didn’t complain. “My teacher was pale, but your skin is the color of bronze,” she mused as she wrung out the rag.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the sun,” he explained, Asteria returning to his stomach. She was especially careful with the painful bruise, lingering on his midriff for a little longer than he felt was necessary.
“You have your own share of scars,” she said, pausing to trace an old wound with her fingertip. “You fight by choice?”
“I am a soldier,” he replied with a nod. “I fought for Kos – my kingdom – in several military campaigns. My father trained me to be a warrior and a tactician from a young age.”
“Seems strange to me – seeking out conflict,” she replied as she slid her damp cloth lower. “If I could bar the doors forever and never see another assassin, I would do so. I only fight because I am given no other choice.”
“Yet, you are a great warrior,” Leandros insisted. “You defeated me soundly – forced me to flee. That has…never happened to me before.”
“Then, I am glad that I could teach you a little humility, hero,” she chuckled.
“Is there nothing that you enjoy about combat?” he asked, pressing the issue as she began to wash one of his arms. “The exhilaration, the rush of adrenaline, the sheer feats of athleticism? You are…impressive,” he added, not sure how else to phrase it.
“Impressive?” she asked, blinking back at him as she paused with his forearm resting in her furry palm. “In what way?”
He hadn’t expected her to ask him to elaborate, and he felt his cheeks begin to warm.
“Where I’m from, women rarely participate in war or athletics,” he explained. “They’re not like you – they’re expected to be small…soft.”
“I have never been either of those things,” she replied.
Leandros chanced a closer look at her when she turned her eyes back to his torso. Her thighs were almost as girthy as the support pillars that held up the damned roof – and they had to be if a creature of her size and weight was going to move with the agility that she displayed. He had thought of her as a great, lumbering beast, but she had been remarkably graceful on those long legs during their duel. They were dimpled with muscle, even a few veins visible beneath her thin covering of black fur. Her hips were wider than his shoulders, tapering into a powerfully muscled core, a bulging six-pack clearly defined even as she bent double to lean over him. The same was true of her arms – her biceps as large as his head, her anatomy clearly visible. It was as though her shiny, smooth coat had been poured over her skin like black oil. Her chest was covered by the bronze plates, and he chastised himself for staring, averting his eyes.
When she made it to his waist, she began to take off his skirt, but he reached down to ease her giant hand away.
“I’ll take care of that.”
“Yes,” she said, turning her attention back to her bucket hurriedly. “I should…fetch more meat. I will leave you for a little while.”
She tried to pull away, but Leandros kept hold of her wrist, Asteria seeming surprised by his strength. It was thick enough that he couldn’t close his fingers around it, her fur as soft as the silk cloaks in the armory.
“Thank you,” he said, meeting her gaze. “I appreciate it.”
She nodded, and he released her, the giant creature leaving the monopteros. She strode across the grass on those long legs, then vanished through one of the doorways to the cavern, leaving him alone. He allowed himself to exhale, then sat up with some difficulty, the bruised muscles in his belly burning with the effort. The bucket was within reach, so he continued his bath, noting that there were some crushed flowers floating in the water. That must be where the pleasant floral smell was coming from.
While he had no fresh garments, it was still relieving to be clean again, and he was fully clothed by the time Asteria returned. She was carrying a couple of fresh rabbits by their back legs, the animals dwarfed by her giant hand, and she set about preparing one with practiced skill.
“We will need supplies for the journey if we are to make good time,” she explained, her back to him as she used a knife to skin her catch. “Water is easy to come by, but hunting and preparing food will slow us down.”
“Do you really think we can beat Olysseus to the gate?” Leandros asked, wincing as he rose to a sitting position on the furs. “Even with his headstart?”
“I know this place better than he ever could,” she replied, setting the meat to cure on the rack. “Judging by where I first encountered you, you took a very circuitous route to get here. What will you do with him if you encounter him again?”
“Probably drive a sword through his heart,” Leandros grumbled. “Even before he decided to leave me for dead, he was unsavory. I don’t know if he was always that way, or if being trapped down here for so long drove him mad. He’ll do anything to survive.”
“He stabbed me in the shoulder with a spear, so you will hear no objections from me,” she replied.
“What do you plan to do when you make it out of here?” Leandros asked. “Minos will surely try to stop you.”
“He can try,” she muttered, setting about butchering another rabbit.
“You’re a powerful warrior, I’ve seen as much for myself, but I don’t know if you can fight an entire army. Minos has many soldiers at his disposal – legions of guards.”
“What about the two of us together?” she asked, turning her head to glance at him. “Could we fight our way through to safety?”
“I don’t know if I want to start a war with Minos.”
“By helping me, you are defying him. Leaving this labyrinth without my head is an act of war.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he sighed. “My trireme should still be docked in the bay. Its crew are loyal to Kos, not to Crete, assuming that they haven’t sailed home by the time we get there.”
“If we reach your boat, can you take me away from this island?”
“Yes. I could take you back to Kos, though I cannot promise that there is anywhere you can go where you won’t be persecuted. Most will see you as a monster.”
“Anywhere is better than here,” she said, stoking the campfire with a branch.
They sat in silence for a while as Asteria prepared the meat, then she spoke up.
“I would like to see my mother again. Did you meet her in the palace?”
“Yes, I met her,” he replied. Asteria paused her work, turning to give him her undivided attention.
“Is she well? Has Minos been mistreating her?”
“She seemed distant,” Leandros said, unsure of how else to describe the behavior that he had witnessed. “Even for a newcomer, it was obvious that she had little love for Minos. Her mind always seemed to be elsewhere, beyond the horizon.”
“I wonder if she still thinks of me,” Asteria said, letting her heavy head sink despondently. “The memory of her pleading with Minos not to seal me away is burned into my memory like a brand. She raised me until the labyrinth was completed and I was taken from her. She was a good mother – a loving mother. It must have hurt her terribly.”
“You will see her again,” Leandros insisted, his confident tone seeming to reassure her.
CHAPTER 4: MUTUAL CURIOSITY
“Are you ready?” Asteria asked.
“I’m ready to try,” Leandros replied, taking her furry hand. She lifted him to his feet with little difficulty, Leandros wincing as he put weight on his injured leg. He took a shaky step away from his bed with Asteria supporting him, then another, and another. After a few more tentative paces, he let go of her hand.
“You heal remarkably quickly,” she mused. “Do you feel strong enough to set out?”
“I think so,” he replied, testing the limb. “We cannot delay too much longer.”
“Good. I have prepared all the supplies that we should need.”
She turned to her pile of belongings, producing a large satchel for herself and returning the one that he had brought with him. It was laden with preserved meat wrapped in cloth now, and a full waterskin. There was a clatter as she retrieved his helmet and cuirass, but he waved her away when she offered them to him.
“They’re too dented,” he explained. “I’d need a smith’s hammer to-”
Asteria turned the bronze cuirass over so that it was facing away from her, then balled her fist, punching the dent out. She did the same with the helmet, then offered them to him again.
“Alright,” he muttered, taking them from her outstretched hands. He donned his armor, then she returned his kopis, Leandros sliding the flared blade into a scabbard on his belt. “Do you have a spear for me? Maybe a shield? Mine were…damaged.”
“Take whatever you need from my collection,” she replied, gesturing to the salvaged equipment that filled her monopteros. “I will no longer be needing it.”
He selected a spear that had similar reach and balance as his own, then picked up a bronze shield, sliding his arm into the leather straps. After slinging a cape over his shoulders, he was ready to go. His leg was still sore – his thigh burned with each flex of the injured muscle, and it was a little unsteady when he put his weight on it, but he couldn’t spend another day lying on his back. He would push through it.
“Do you have everything that you need?” Leandros asked.
“I think so,” she replied, hefting her heavy satchel. She was laden with little pouches that hung from the many leather straps and decorative threads that covered her body, her massive axe resting in a makeshift holster made from loops of rope that was strung across her broad back. “Oh, one more thing,” she added as she turned to pluck something from a nail that was hammered into one of the marble pillars. “Here – I think you dropped this.”
It was the lantern that Olysseus had given him, its eternal flame still smoldering. He thanked her, then attached it to his belt. The pair set off, leaving the brightly-lit monopteros behind them as they walked across the grass, approaching a shadowy opening on the far side of the cavern. As they stepped over the threshold, Asteria stopped suddenly, her eyes wide.
“What is it?” Leandros asked, glancing up at her.
“Hold on a moment. I think I forgot something.”
She turned and ran back to the domed structure, rummaging inside it for a couple of minutes as though frantically searching for something. When she reappeared, she was closing a pouch on her belt, hurrying back over to join him.
“What had you forgotten?” Leandros asked, but she dodged the question.
“Nothing important. Come on.”
Leandros carried his lantern high, its glow illuminating the stone walls as they traipsed through the tunnels. Asteria didn’t even need to use her map – she knew this area like the back of her hand. How many times must she have walked these halls to have memorized every twist and turn – every dead end? The sound of hooves on stone echoed down the tunnel, her heavy, bovine breathing filling the air. Even though he now knew that she was not someone to be feared, it still brought back memories of encountering her in the dark passage, the aftertaste of that fear lingering like a bitter wine on his tongue.
“I can’t imagine spending my life down here,” he muttered, glancing around at the damp walls. “Do you even have any memories of what life was like on the surface?”
“They are vague,” she replied. “I was very young when I was taken away, but some images still stick with me. Blue skies, an ocean that had no end, the feeling of the breeze in my hair.”
They came to a junction, Asteria pausing before gesturing down the left path.
“This way. We have been walking for some time. There is a room down this tunnel where we might rest for a while.”
She led him through more winding passageways until they eventually came upon one of the facsimiles of a villa that he had come across during his travels. The bare stone gave way to tiled floors and ornate pillars, the roof above their heads taking on an arched quality. Braziers lit by Promethean flame burned to cast their wavering glow on the walls, the two companions stepping through into an expansive room that resembled the main hall of a palace. Despite the impressive scale and opulence of the edifice, it remained strangely empty, devoid of any furnishings that might give it purpose. The walls were lined with marble statues situated between the pillars, as finely sculpted as any that one might expect to find in a temple.
“What are these places?” Leandros asked, craning his neck as he gazed up at a burning brazier that hung from the ceiling on chains. “They look like palaces, but there’s nothing inside them. I wondered if perhaps Daedalus had intended for you to live in them, but there isn’t so much as a chair in sight.”
“Purely to break up the monotony, I assume,” she replied as she made her way over to a raised podium in the center of the cavernous room. It had no discernible purpose, but it was about the right height for her to sit on. Leandros followed her, perching on one of the steps that led up to it.
“Did it work?” he asked, reaching for his satchel. He pulled it open and fished for one of the little parcels of smoked rabbit meat, unwrapping it, then biting into one of the strips. It was good – better than the dried fish rations that he had been given on his way inside. Asteria had seasoned it well.
“Well, I have not completely lost my mind,” she chuckled. “There was an allure to exploring, for a while. I somehow managed to convince myself that there might be some way out, that around the next bend – or in the next cavern – I might find an exit that Daedalus had not accounted for. We often overestimate ourselves when we are young. I thought that I could outsmart the cleverest man in Crete.”
“We can still outsmart him,” Leandros replied, chewing off another strip of meat. “His labyrinth might be watertight, but he can’t control every variable. He never accounted for a would-be assassin helping you escape.”
“You are certainly a variable,” she chuckled, setting her own satchel down on the polished stone. She retrieved a long strip of dried meat, taking generous bites with those ivory teeth, Leandros watching her curiously as she chewed. Just seeing her cow-like face move was surreal. Maybe it was because he had grown more used to her unconventional appearance over the last few days, or perhaps it was because her more human features were jumping out at him, but she didn’t look anywhere near as frightening as he had first assumed. He considered asking her whether she ate grass too, but thought better of it.
“Why do you stare?” she asked, pausing her meal to glance down at him. “Am I so monstrous?”
“What? No,” he stammered. “What gave you that idea?”
“Earlier, you said that women were supposed to be small and soft,” she replied as she bit off another piece of rabbit. “I am none of those things.”
“I meant it as a compliment,” he explained, one of her bovine ears flicking. “I’ve never met anyone who could keep pace with me like you can – man or woman. I’ve never been bested in single combat. At least, not since sparring as a child.”
“Most of the people that I have met in my life have fled in terror at the sight of me,” she added, her lips curling into a sarcastic smile. This was the first time that he had really paid any attention to them. They were closer to those of a cow than a person, thick and dark, shining as they reflected the light from the braziers above them. “I have been called abomination, beast, monster. You disagree?”
“The people who told me that you were a monster hadn’t seen your face in fifteen years,” he replied. “They were also very invested in convincing me to murder you, so I would take their opinions on beauty with a grain of salt.”
“Who said anything of beauty?” she asked, turning back to her meal.
“Look at these statues,” he began, gesturing to the nearest one with a piece of meat in hand. “Have you ever taken the time to admire them?”
“Of course,” she replied. “Many times, I have found myself gazing upon statues and effigies. I know their cold flesh as intimately as my own. They were my only reference for what other people were supposed to look like for a long while.”
“Do you know how much painstaking work goes into sculpting these – how much artistry?” he continued. “Every inch of them was pored over by a sculptor, every crease and dimple an artistic decision made in reverence of the human form. They attempt to reproduce the work of the Gods, to create an earthly representation of what they see as perfection. You have more in common with these statues than not.”
“I don’t see it,” she replied, her eyes playing over the marble figures.
“I am sure that there are sculptors out there who would give a fortune to have you model for them,” he added. “Truly – I don’t know if it’s due to the harsh life that you have lived down here, or maybe a consequence of your ancestry, but you would be the envy of any athlete on the surface. I’ve never seen anyone as strong as you.”
That seemed to perk her up a little, and she reached for her waterskin, washing down her meal with a long draw. She was messy – not accustomed to attending banquets with kings – spilling some of the water down her chin.
“I suspect that you are flattering me,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her furry hand. “Not to worry – I have already decided not to crush your skull.”
“I strived my whole life to be strong,” Leandros said, admiring one of the muscular statues. “I was trained by the best instructors that my father could afford, I fought until my hands were covered in blisters, I dedicated my life to the art of warfare. And here you are,” he said, glancing up at her. “No training, no fancy instructors, not even a desire to fight – yet more of a warrior than I have become.”
“It was not by choice,” she replied, taking another drink from her waterskin. “Minos has forced me to do what I must to survive.”
“They say that the best rulers are those who never desired to rule,” he added. “Maybe the same is true of warriors.”
“Why did your father want you to fight?” she asked, supporting herself with her hands as she leaned back a little on the pedestal. It was impossible to ignore the way that the flickering fire from the brazier above their heads reflected off her shiny fur, picking out the contours of her chiseled midriff, but she seemed completely unaware of how she looked to his eyes. “Did he not fear for your safety?”
“My father is a master tactician,” Leandros replied, tearing his gaze away from her impressive figure. “He is the ruler of Kos, and has led his nation to victory in several military campaigns. In his youth, he was a renowned swordsman, undefeated on the battlefield. One day, he will die, and I will have to rule Kos in his stead. If I am to continue his legacy, I must become knowledgeable in both war and politics. I must become a great warrior.”
“Do you enjoy war and killing?” she asked, the rope-like locks of her long hair falling over her shoulders as she cocked her head at him.
“I don’t know if I’d put it that way,” he replied, fishing for another piece of rabbit inside his satchel. “I love the skill and athleticism of a fight. I love outmaneuvering an enemy – the thrill of victory. I do not love the consequences of war. Honor and glory mean respect, renown. If I am loved by my people and feared by my enemies, I will make a better king.”
“I think you would make a better king than Minos,” Asteria replied, her tail draping over the edge of the pedestal. “I have not even known you for a week, yet I can see that you are more compassionate than he is. Showing me respect rather than killing me in my sleep took great courage. You did not stand to benefit in any way, but you knew that it was the right thing to do.”
“I must seem foolish to you,” he continued with a sigh. “You’ve spent your life trying to avoid conflict, but I seek it out for sport.”
“Less foolish – now that I know you have your reasons,” she replied. “Your father sounds like a great man, and you will have to take his place on the throne one day. Even with the blood of a God coursing through your veins, that is no easy prospect.”
“I won’t pretend that there isn’t a little vanity involved,” he conceded. “With each generation, my family’s blood is diluted a little more. I suppose I’m trying to prove to myself that I can measure up to my father – that I’m not just a lesser version of him.”
“Maybe that is for the best,” she replied. “I am of the opinion that the Gods should keep to their damned mountain and stop bothering the rest of us.”
“You certainly got a rougher deal than I did,” he said, glancing up at her. “You are far stronger than I am, but your attributes have been treated more as a curse than a gift.”
“Sometimes, I wonder what my life would have been like if my mother had not…if I had been sired by Minos instead. I would look like everyone else, and I would live on the surface, enjoying every luxury afforded to a princess. Then, I consider that I would have to call Minos my father, and that makes me glad of my heritage. I would rather be born of an animal than a monster.”
“Are you planning to kill him when we reach the surface?” Leandros asked.
“I don’t know,” she admitted with a shrug. “I have often thought of it, but now that the opportunity is within reach, I am not sure what I want. I don’t know if my mother still harbors any affection for him.”
“They’ve had no children,” Leandros said. “Seems unlikely.”
“What about you?” she asked. “Will helping me mean war between Kos and Crete?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Helping assassinate a foreign king isn’t the most diplomatically expedient thing to do, but he lied to me, and he has been proven a tyrant. He is a danger to his people, and perhaps he would have become a danger to mine later. He is the one who set this chain of events into motion.”
“We should keep moving,” Asteria said, rising to her feet. Her heavy hooves clopped against the stone floor, the sound echoing throughout the cavernous room. “How is your leg?” she added, extending a hand to him. He hesitated, then took it, Asteria hauling him to his feet.
“It feels better the more I use it,” he said, his companion nodding her horned head.
“This way,” she continued, setting off towards one of the dark doorways.
“This looks like as good a place as any to stop for the night,” Asteria said, stepping into one of the caverns.
Leandros followed behind her, another expanse of grass extending before him. This one formed an enclosed glade beneath the domed ceiling, the mirrored shafts at its apex letting the orange-tinted light of the setting sun spill inside, which cast its glow on the canopy below. The trees were dense enough here to provide shade – not that sunlight was ever in such abundance that one would need it – densely clustered in the center of the chamber. There were shrubs and patches of wildflowers, too, as though someone had cut off a little piece of a forest and had transplanted it underground. He could hear the trickle of water – there must be a stream or two feeding into the room.
Asteria strode across the grass on her long legs, heading into the shade beneath the trees. If it wasn’t for the lack of a breeze, Leandros could almost have convinced himself that they were outside. He could barely see the uneven rock walls through the dense trunks and branches. There was a little clearing at the center of the room, and beside it was a flowing stream that fed into a large pond. There were a few water weeds floating on its surface, a splash disturbing the tranquility as what must have been a frog leapt inside at their approach.
Asteria set down her satchel and began to unpack a tightly-rolled animal pelt, laying it out on the ground like a blanket. The environment inside the labyrinth was humid, making the stone walls and the grass perpetually wet. Leandros had his cloak, which he shrugged off, using it in much the same way. The wool would insulate him from the damp, though it wasn’t especially cold here. Maybe the warmth from the day’s sunlight still lingered. Even so, his guide was already searching for dry wood to make a campfire. When she had collected enough, she dug a pit in the soil using her hoof, then dropped the sticks inside. Rather than use the lantern’s Promethean flame, she drew two pieces of flint from one of her pouches. Starting fires that could not be quenched was probably not something that she did often.
Leandros sat on his cloak beside the fire, reaching into his sack in search of more of the dried rabbit meat. Asteria set off towards the pond on the other side of the little clearing, maybe twenty paces away from their camp, probably intending to refill her waterskin.
He heard the clatter of metal, looking up from the licking flames to see that she was shedding her belt. She stripped off the bands of leather, the bronze rings that were attached to them jangling, the shields that protected her thighs soon following. For as much makeshift armor as she was wearing, it came off remarkably quickly, leaving her with only her loincloth and the decorative string that she had wrapped and knotted around herself. There was a thud as the bronze plates that made up her chest piece fell to the grass, then came the salvaged shields strapped to her upper arms, the chain links on her torso and shoulders following suit. As sparse as her clothing and armor had been, a lot of it seemed to be joined together, as though she was struggling to improvise clothes that would fit her massive frame with whatever she had available. It wasn’t as though any sacrifices or warriors would be wearing garments in her size.
His face began to warm as he saw her slide off the tattered fabric of her loincloth, letting it fall at her hoofed feet. She wasn’t completely nude, but there was no longer anything preserving her modesty. There were still colorful strings wrapped around her limbs, her horns, and her face to form a kind of uneven mesh that reminded him of a torn fishing net. Many of the leather straps that were fastened tightly around her thighs and biceps were still present, the way that they pressed little indents into her flesh drawing his gaze. Maybe it didn’t matter if the twine and belts got wet?
She was facing away from him as she walked towards the edge of the pond, the tangle of her long, ropy hair falling down her back. Her dark fur had a reflective quality, shining like onyx as it caught the fading sunlight that filtered through the leaves above, the glow from the fire joining it to pick out every contour of her unfamiliar body. He caught glimpses of the muscles in her powerful shoulders shifting beneath her silky hide, the indent of her spine running down to the base of her long, dangling tail. The two dimples above her rump looked as though they had been placed there purposefully by the hand of some master sculptor, Leandros allowing his eyes to wander ever lower.
With each step that she took, the round cheeks of her rump rolled. They looked toned, tight, as though they might be as firm as those of the statues that he had heaped such praises upon back in the hall. Still, there was an alluring softness to her, the impact of her hooves on the ground sending a subtle quiver rolling through her rear. Her exaggerated stature really did make her look like a larger-than-life statue that had stepped off its pedestal, somehow imbued with life. That was the only comparison that he could draw, having seen such towering effigies in some of the cities and temples that he had visited. It was enough to make Aphrodite herself burn with envy.
There was a grace to her movements, but he could sense that barely-contained strength lurking just beneath the surface, ready to burst forth at any moment. It reminded him of what he had observed during their brief bout – how she seemed to have mastered her more bestial traits, like someone breaking a wild horse.
There was a splash as Asteria stepped into the pond, slowly walking deeper, the water level rising to her wide hips. When she was immersed up to her waist, she turned to look back at him, covering her chest with one arm. She saw the blend of surprise and curiosity etched onto his face, then seemed to falter, putting her back to him again.
“F-forgive me,” she stammered, her long tail waving back and forth in the water behind her. “I am not accustomed to having company. Modesty did not even cross my mind.”
“No, it’s…alright,” he muttered as he averted his gaze. “You have nothing to apologize for – I’m the one intruding on your home.”
He tried to keep his eyes focused on the fire, but it was like asking the sun not to rise, and they inevitably wandered back over to Asteria. She was bathing, her back still facing him, the beginnings of her pert rear only just visible above the pond. She dipped her cupped hands into the water, spreading it across her dark fur, following the curves and contours of her body. They traced the flare of her broad hips, moving below the surface and across her chest, out of view from his perspective. She sank a little lower, submerging herself completely, the locks of her long hair spreading out above her as they floated on the water. When she reemerged, she threw her mane back, the wet strands slapping against her shoulders.
When she began to turn around, he hastily averted his gaze again, hoping that his peeking wasn’t too obvious. He heard her displace the water as she waded back to the bank, followed by the sound of her massive hooves on the grass, Leandros fighting the desire to look. By the time he sensed her approaching, she was fully clothed again – at least as clothed as she ever got. He felt both a rush of relief and a pang of disappointment.
Her onyx fur was still soaked through, making her glisten in the firelight, the damp leather straps and decorative strings seeming to cling to her all the more tightly. She hadn’t donned her shields yet, tossing them in a heap beside her pelts, then sitting down beside him. It looked as though she intended to dry herself by the fire.
Droplets of water clung to her thin coat, shining like little beads of glass as they caught the wavering glow. Leandros watched as they slowly slid down the channels that her toned muscles carved into her stomach, like raindrops following the contours of a leaf.
“You mentioned your father but not your mother,” she said, seemingly oblivious to the effect that she was having on him. Her voice snapped him out of his stupor, and he glanced up at her, seeing those brown eyes peering back at him. They were more hazel in the firelight, her lashes long and thick. “What was she like?”
“She died when I was very young,” he replied.
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“It’s alright,” he added with a shrug. “It’s hard to miss someone that you never knew. She was beloved by my father, and he always told me that she was a caring person.”
“And, your wife?” Asteria prompted. It was a clumsy segue, but she had a tendency to be direct, and she hadn’t exactly had a lot of opportunities to practice her social graces.
“I don’t have one,” he replied.
“I haven’t exactly had the time to settle down yet,” he explained, reaching for a nearby branch. He stoked the fire, prodding the glowing coals, a few embers rising towards the canopy above them. “Besides, it’s common for rulers to marry for political purposes – to cement alliances or to prevent wars.”
“My mother’s marriage was a political one,” Asteria said, narrowing her eyes as she stared into the flames. “Her hand was promised to Minos as a way to placate him, and she had no say in the matter. She was taken from her home and forced to live under the roof of a man that she barely knew.”
“Not all marriages are that way,” Leandros added. “Most people get to choose who they marry – they do it out of love, not obligation. It’s one of the prices the wealthy and powerful must pay, and one of the few cruelties that aren’t visited upon peasants and farmers.”
“Corinna often spoke of her husband,” Asteria continued, turning a little so that more of her massive body was facing the fire. She reached up to grip one of her dreadlocks, wringing it like a washcloth. “He died some years prior to her being sent into the labyrinth, but he made her so happy. Sometimes, her stories would make me feel lonely, but I never complained. I could see how much reliving those memories raised her spirits.”
“What happened between Minos and your mother?” Leandros asked. “If the king isn’t your father, then who is? How did you come to be? If you still aren’t comfortable telling me…”
“No,” she said with a shake of her head, her blend of human and bovine features lit by the orange glow of the flames. “That was before you agreed to help me. If you mean to risk your life for mine, then you deserve to know everything.”
Leandros shifted his weight, getting comfortable on the grass as he waited for her to elaborate further, sensing that this was going to be a long story. He had spent days with Asteria by this point, but he still had no true idea of what she was or how she had been conceived.
“There is a Cretan custom that goes back generations – long before Minos ever took the throne,” she began. Her deep, resonating voice was somehow soothing, as though he could feel it in his bones. “Every year, the finest bull from among all the herds of Crete was selected as a sacrifice to Poseidon. The bull is the symbol of Crete – a sacred animal. The ceremony ensured that the island remained prosperous, and that it would be spared from storms that might ravage the land. One year, the most beautiful bull that Minos had ever beheld was born to one of the royal herds. As it grew, it only became more handsome, until Minos could no longer bear to part with it. By the time of the ceremony, he had made his decision, and substituted a lesser animal for the sacrifice.”
“Am I to assume that Poseidon wasn’t very happy with that offering?” Leandros asked.
“He was furious,” Asteria confirmed with a nod. “Minos forsook tradition and tried to keep the bull for himself, denying the God his tribute. Instead of visiting a great storm upon the island, Poseidon recognized that the fault lay with Minos alone. He cursed the king’s young bride – my mother – to fall hopelessly in love with the very same bull. You can probably guess what happened next, knowing that I was the result.”
“Pasiphae…mated with the bull?” Leandros asked in disbelief.
“She was cursed – she wasn’t in her right mind,” Asteria added. “The king only learned what had happened when my mother gave birth to me. Humiliated, Minos destroyed the prize bull, then tried to do the same to me. Pasiphae rightly argued that the fault lay with him, and that if nothing else, the life of her child should be spared. She threatened to reveal what had happened and to end his family’s alliance with hers in the process. He could not refuse her, and he could not kill her, so he commissioned the building of the labyrinth. For five years, Daedalus and his workers toiled, until my prison was complete.”
“So, that’s why Minos is so terrified of the truth being revealed,” Leandros mused as he mulled over the information. “Not only would it humiliate him before all of Crete, but it could end his reign by destroying his alliance with Pasiphae’s family. The stories of a rampaging beast destroying Crete were just that – stories.”
“He cannot let me go free,” she continued, her ivory teeth flashing as her lips pulled back in a snarl. “That is why he has been trying to murder me. This prophecy that you mentioned must have frightened him, and he now acts out of panic.”
“Minos cannot bury you so easily,” Leandros added. “We will give him no choice but to confront his misdeeds.”
“Hearing it from your lips reassures me,” she said, reaching down to place a giant hand on his shoulder. She lingered there for a moment, then released him, rising to her feet. “We should rest if we are to make good time tomorrow.”
She strode over to her furs, then lowered herself down, rolling over so that her back was facing the fire. Leandros couldn’t help but take the opportunity to admire the way that the flames made her shine, her wide hip rising into the air, sloping into a narrow waist like the neck of an hourglass. The way that she had looked at him when she had bathed him beneath the monopteros – her clumsy inquiries about his marital status – she was as curious about him as he was about her. Had modesty truly slipped her mind, or was there more to her visit to the pond?
Her only companion since being imprisoned beneath the palace had been her teacher – an old woman. Asteria had never met a man as an adult – not until the recent assassination attempts – and the only representation of the opposite gender that she had seen until then were the statues scattered throughout the empty halls. Curiosity was natural, expected, but was her interest anything more than that?
Leandros couldn’t deny that she had fascinated him ever since their first face-to-face meeting. Her strange, unconventional beauty was oddly alluring, and her raw physical prowess had overwhelmed him. Gods, every woman that he’d ever laid with had been a fragile thing – small, soft, and meek. Making love to them had been an exercise in restraint and self-control, his hero’s blood imbuing him with the power to break bone if he let passion overtake him for even a moment. It was not relieving, relaxing, or any of the things that his friends and marching companions had described.
Still, Asteria was naive. She might be able to put him in the ground if she was so inclined, but she knew nothing of what went on beyond the walls of her tunnels, and he didn’t want to take advantage of that. He would let her be curious, but he would not push things any further than that.
Leandros was roused by sunlight filtering through the trees above him. For a moment, he forgot where he was, his groggy mind gradually remembering that he was still in the labyrinth. He sat up, the smell of cooking food reaching his nose. Asteria was crouched over the still-burning campfire a short distance away, the sound of bubbling stew reaching his ears as she tended to a pot. He hadn’t even noticed that she had brought cooking supplies with her, but what would be burdensome to him was scarcely a concern for someone of her stature.
“You are awake,” she mused, greeting him with a smile whose warmth rivaled that of the flames. “I made you more stew. You liked it, did you not?”
“The same that you fed me while I was healing? Yes,” he replied with a nod as he climbed to his feet. “You know how to make good use of the ingredients you have at hand. Was that also Corinna’s doing?”
“Indeed,” Asteria chuckled, tilting the cooking pot as she poured some of its steaming contents into a clay bowl. “I wish that you could have seen the look on her face when I finally mastered one of her recipes.”
He reached out to take the bowl from her hands, Asteria noticing that he was still limping a little.
“How is your leg?” she asked.
“It feels a little stronger every day,” he replied, sitting down by the fireside with his meal. It was made from the smoked rabbit they had brought with them, but she had added vegetables and herbs to the mix, reconstituting the meat into a thick broth that was far more appealing. He took a sip, feeling its warmth flood his belly, Asteria looking on with an eager smile.
“Forgive me, but watching someone else enjoy a meal I cooked is a pleasure that I have not enjoyed in many years.”
“You can stare all you want as long as you keep feeding me,” he replied, and they chuckled in unison.
She pulled out her giant map, laying the faded parchment out on her furs, drinking directly from her cooking pot as she examined the maze of passageways and rooms.
“Do you know where we are?” Leandros asked, and she nodded in reply. “How long do you think we have to go until we reach the gate? Can we still head off Olysseus?”
“If he is taking the route that I think he is, we should be edging ahead of him soon,” she replied as she traced one of the passages with her finger. “There are many potential detours, so I cannot be certain, but we are both heading in essentially the same direction. I estimate two more days.”
“He’s been living in these tunnels for a good two months, so he told me,” Leandros added as he took another generous gulp from his bowl. “We would be fools to underestimate him.”
“Still, I doubt that there is any reason to rush,” she continued as she began to roll up her map. “As excited as I am to escape this place, I am enjoying traveling with you.”
“I can say the same,” Leandros replied, Asteria giving him another warm smile.
CHAPTER 5: GOLD AND GLORY
They made their way down one of the stone passages, Asteria’s hooves echoing off the rock floor, Leandros following along behind her. She was almost large enough to fill some of the passages, as though Daedalus hadn’t entirely accounted for how large she might one day grow.
“So,” she began, pausing at a junction. She pulled her map from its pouch on her belt with a rustle, checking it as she tried to put on a casual tone. “Do you feel any different about me after learning of my parentage?”
“No,” Leandros replied with a shrug. “Why should I?”
“I’m born of…congress between a human and an animal,” she added, turning to glance down at him. He could see the uncomfortable expression on her face, lit by the glow of his lamp. It was clearly a question she didn’t want to ask, but one that had been eating away at her until it could no longer go unanswered. “Does that not disgust you as it does others?”
“Pasiphae was cursed,” he began. “It wasn’t her choice, and it wasn’t even her fault. Minos is the one who offended Poseidon, and Poseidon is the one who cursed her as a way to punish him. She didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t even her choice to marry Minos, based on what you’ve told me. She’s a victim of circumstance, and so are you. You didn’t ask to be born, and you haven’t done anything wrong, either. Why should I judge you or your mother for what others did?”
“Okay,” she replied, giving him a relieved smile. “I feel foolish for asking now. You have already proven yourself open-minded.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” he added. He reached out to give her a reassuring pat, but withdrew his hand when he realized that her toned rump and thighs were all that he could reach. “Thank you for telling me, by the way. I know it wasn’t easy.”
“I haven’t known you for very long, but I feel that I can trust you.”
She spun around as the sound of something clattering against stone echoed from further down the tunnel. It sounded like a pebble bouncing along the floor.
“What was that?” she hissed, one of her hands reaching over her shoulder for her axe.
“Olysseus!” Leandros whispered, gripping the haft of his kopis. “When I first encountered you in the tunnels, he threw a stone to lure you away!”
“Damn it,” she added, peering down the dark tunnel intently. “He must have found his way more quickly than I anticipated. Our paths have crossed.”
“He’s wily, crafty,” Leandros said as he slowly drew his blade from its scabbard. He turned, putting his back to his companion, raising his lamp aloft in an attempt to cast its orange light further. “He could come at us from an angle.”
“I know – I have been hunting the wretch for weeks,” Asteria growled. “He drove a spear into my shoulder, then vanished into the tunnels. I’ve been finding his hidden stashes of food and weapons all over the labyrinth.”
“He won’t let us leave,” Leandros added, raising his shield. “He knows that if we reach the gate before he does, he’ll be trapped down here forever. Survival means stopping us.”
“How can a mortal man hope to prevail against a beast and a demigod?” she asked with a skeptical huff.
“Olysseus won’t fight us head-on – he is not so foolish. Be cautious, and don’t underestimate him. The last time I let him out of my sight, he almost bled me dry.”
He could sense the tension that was radiating from Asteria, her powerful muscles tensing, the fur that ran down her spine bristling like an angry cat. She was resisting the urge to just charge down that tunnel, being accustomed to overwhelming her foes with brute strength and martial prowess – something that Leandros could understand all too well. It had taken him time and practice to quell the overconfidence that came from his own heritage.
“Keep going, but be careful,” he insisted. She nodded, leading him deeper down the tunnel.
They passed by more side passages and junctions, Leandros trying to cover her back as they went, Asteria clutching her massive axe in her hands. There was another clatter – Olysseus tossing more pebbles in a bid to lead them astray, but they steered clear of those tunnels.
“There is a larger cavern down this path,” Asteria whispered.
“He won’t engage us in the tunnels,” Leandros replied. “It might be a trap.”
The glow from Leandros’ lantern was soon overwhelmed by the sunlight that was bleeding down the passageway ahead of them, the pair emerging into another of the massive hollows. It was another garden, a field of grass and shrubs extending before them, dotted with a few fruiting trees. A stream trickled into the cavern through another nearby passage, winding off out of view, perhaps feeding into a pond. At the center of it all were the marble pillars of a small shrine that was sitting atop a raised hill, the light from the mirrored shafts above making it glow brightly. It was little more than a few pillars and a sloped roof, just large enough for a statue of Zeus about the size of Asteria to fit inside its alcove.
The two companions spread out as they entered the room, their eyes scanning the unfamiliar terrain, Leandros raising his shield protectively. He brandished his kopis, its ornate blade glinting in the sunlight, Asteria’s heavy footfalls shaking the ground as she flanked him.
“I smell him,” Asteria growled. “He was here – recently.”
“This has to be a trap,” Leandros added, taking a few tentative steps forward. There was a lot of open space in this room, but there were also plenty of places to hide. A nearby patch of trees was dense enough to conceal a person. There were the many shadowy entrances that ringed the room, along with the temple on the hill, which would make an excellent vantage point for a javelin thrower or an archer.
“Stay close to me,” Asteria said, stalking in the direction of the temple. “I will protect you.”
The glint of bronze caught Leandros’ eye, and he raised his shield just in time, something impacting it with the force of a hammer. It was an arrow – the whistling projectile embedding itself in the soil nearby as it was deflected. He lifted his gaze to the temple, seeing Olysseus reaching into his quiver. He had been hiding behind the structure up on the hill, waiting for them to arrive. Another arrow came sailing towards him, Leandros batting it aside.
“He’s on the hill!” he yelled.
Asteria bellowed a war cry, then began to charge, rapidly picking up speed. She was fast despite her size, her heavy footfalls churning up the turf. Olysseus was quick on the draw, sending another arrow sailing towards them, this one striking true. It plunged into Asteria’s chest just above her protective plating, burying itself deep in her flesh. She grunted in pain, but it didn’t slow her down. Her hide was so thick and her muscles were so dense that it scarcely seemed to bother her. Olysseus must know that – he had stuck her with a spear, after all. Perhaps the bow had been intended for Leandros instead.
Leandros chased after her, but Asteria was far faster than he was, covering the distance between her and the temple at breakneck speed. She mounted the grassy slope, snorting like a bull as she neared the base of the temple, swinging her axe at Olyssesus. He dodged out of the blade’s path, the weapon’s head smashing into the marble, dust and fragments of pulverized stone filling the air as she practically severed one of the support pillars.
As slippery as ever, Olysseus slid down the far side of the hill, making for a nearby patch of forest at a sprint. Asteria bellowed her anger and frustration, giving chase, barreling down the incline. Leandros had only just reached the temple, skidding to a halt as he took in his surroundings. One of the streams drew his attention, his eyes narrowing. Someone had dammed it with rocks, diverting its flow, the water carving a new path across the grass before disappearing from view beyond the trees. Why?
“Asteria!” he yelled, watching as she shouldered one of the trees aside as though it was no sturdier than a sapling. “Wait!”
He set off after her, his sandals skidding on the wet grass, following the trail of destruction that she had wrought through the underbrush. He heard another bellow of anger, the sound spurring him forward. When he emerged on the other side of the trees, he dug his feet in, stopping himself dead.
Asteria was ankle-deep in the ground, sinking into the grass as though she had stepped into quicksand. The diverted stream – Olysseus must have saturated the soil, turning what had looked like a normal field of grass and flowers into a muddy bog. Asteria was far too heavy to cross it, his bovine companion letting out another resonating bellow of anger as she fought to free herself, only succeeding in getting herself more stuck. One of her legs sank up to the knee, one of her hands plunging into the damp earth as she struggled to lift herself out, but it was hopeless.
Olysseus was standing on the other side, where the ground was still solid, a spear raised above his shoulder. He lunged, driving its point towards her, plunging its sharp head into her upper arm. Asteria tried to bat him away, but she was off-kilter, unable to gain any purchase in the mud. Every time she moved to defend herself, she disturbed the wet ground, sinking a little deeper. This was his plan – he intended to get her stuck, then whittle her down like he was hunting a wild boar.
“Olysseus!” Leandros yelled, hammering his kopis against his shield in a challenge.
The man stepped away from his captive, starting to circle the mire, seeming to know exactly where it was safe to step. Leandros was not so sure, remaining in place with his shield raised, tracking his foe.
“Well, if it isn’t the hero of Kos!” Olysseus chimed as he spun his spear in his hand. “I was certain that the beast would have made you its supper when I left you for dead in that tunnel, but you seem to have made a new friend! I’m a little offended that you chose this senseless animal over me.”
“Have you no honor?” Leandros replied, testing the firmness of the ground with his sandal. “I trusted you, and you stabbed me in the back!”
“I believe it was the leg!” Olysseus shouted back. “Fuck your honor! All you had to do was stab that thing in the throat, and we could have walked out of here as rich men. We would have been heroes, but that wasn’t enough for you, was it? No, the great Leandros deserves a victory worthy of his name! Even if nobody but you and I even saw it. If only your brain was as big and as shiny as all those muscles.”
“You really think you’re going to just kill us both and walk out of here?” Leandros asked. “I’ve broken sieges single-handed – I’ve slain men who could have snapped your spine with their bare hands in single combat. I am not afraid of you.”
“I’ve already bested one of you,” Olysseus said with a shrug. “The way I see it, you’re no different from that beast over there,” he added with a nod to Asteria. “You’re both senseless animals that do whatever occurs to you in the moment. You’re not afraid of me – because you’re a fool. Come, Leandros of Kos. Come show me what an honorable death looks like.”
Leandros resisted the urge to charge across the soupy ground, matching Olysseus’ movements as his opponent continued to circle around to his left, avoiding the mud.
Olysseus lunged suddenly, sending his spear sailing towards Leandros like a javelin. Leandros lifted his shield without a moment to spare, feeling the thud as the spearhead scored its bronze surface. When he lowered it, Olysseus was racing towards him, ducking low as he drew his curved dagger. He stepped in, aiming for Leandros’ thigh, but the warrior intercepted the blade with his shield. There was another clang of metal on metal, Leandros throwing his opponent back.
Olysseus stumbled, but he was nimble on his feet, his wiry frame making him deceptively agile. Leandros swung his kopis, the flared blade scything through the air, but Olysseus leapt out of its reach such that its tip barely brushed his tunic. He stepped in again, gripping Leandros by his wrist, using his momentum to send him toppling forward. Olysseus caught his ankle with his foot, tripping him, Leandros rolling on the grass. Olysseus was on him before he had time to recover, driving that dagger towards his chest, only a swift parry from his sword preventing the blade from finding its mark. He rolled to his feet, taking up a defensive posture, the assassin starting to circle him as he passed the knife between his hands.
“You might be strong, but you’re slow and heavy,” Olysseus hissed. “I got the better of you once before, and I can do it again.”
“You don’t have the element of surprise this time.”
“Oh no?” Olysseus scoffed. “I’ve probably killed more men than you have, but nobody writes epics about cutthroats. There’s no honor in my way of fighting, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective!”
He punctuated that last word with another strike, going for Leandros’ thigh, the warrior deflecting it with his shield. The warrior followed through, driving the pointed end of his kopis towards his assailant’s throat, but Olysseus stepped out of its path. His right arm now extended, Leandros could do nothing as the assassin darted in, driving the blade up beneath his limb. He was aiming for the artery, but Leandros jerked away just in time to save himself, the knife impaling his bicep instead. The tip of the blade broke the skin as it emerged on the other side, red blood spraying, Leandros’ yell of pain and surprise echoing through the cavern.
Olysseus dashed away, his blade stained crimson, the kopis falling from Leandros’ hand as the warrior drew his arm back reflexively. The limb was all but useless now, Leandros clutching it to his chest as he brought up his shield with the left, trying to steady himself.
“Leandros!” Asteria bellowed, watching helplessly from the mire. She fought to free herself again, employing all of her brute strength with a roar of frustration, but she only succeeded in sinking a few inches deeper.
“First you, then her,” Olysseus sneered. “When I tell Minos that you tried to lead that thing out of here, he’ll probably give me my own palace as a reward for stopping you.”
He darted in again, harrying Leandros with a series of quick strikes, his blade flashing. Leandros deflected them, the blows forcing him back. He hesitated as he felt soft ground beneath his heel, realizing that Olysseus was driving him towards the bog. With a growl, he pushed back, shouldering into the assassin with his shield raised. His strength was enough to lift the man off his feet, tossing him a few paces, sending him rolling across the grass. Olysseus struggled upright, winded, backing off a little as Leandros advanced on him. He had to press the attack – Olysseus would kill him by a thousand cuts if he let him dictate the pace of their fight.
Leandros charged, his shield whistling through the air as he used it as a bludgeon, Olysseus dodging and weaving. He was so slippery, somehow always just out of reach, Leandros forcing him back towards the shattered trees behind them. Olysseus ducked suddenly, scooping his hand along the ground as he darted beneath another swing of the shield, tossing a handful of loose dirt into Leandros’ face.
Leandros stumbled backwards, his hands darting to his eyes, his vision obscured. The momentary surprise and pain gave Olysseus just the opening he needed. The assassin stepped past him, twirling his dagger in his hand so that the blade was facing downward, then plunged it into Leandros’ back. It punctured his cloak, his cuirass, his leather armor, and the linen beneath, searing pain burning through him as it bit into his right shoulder.
He spun to swipe blindly at Olysseus with his shield, forcing him away. The blade hadn’t hit anything vital, the many layers of clothing preventing it from sinking too deep, but Leandros was slowly being whittled down. He managed to clear the dirt from his eyes, seeing his opponent squaring up for another attack, the bloodied blade dancing deftly between his fingers.
“See, this is the problem with being a demigod,” he said as he reached for the lantern that was attached to his belt. “You think that everyone else is beneath you. It doesn’t even occur to you that someone might not fight you on your terms.”
He raised the burning lantern, then threw it, Leandros spinning around as he raised his cloak protectively. It impacted, breaking apart, the burning oil contained inside it coating the woolen fabric. Promethean flame leapt to his garment, igniting in a brilliant explosion of fire, quickly spreading as the material burned. Leandros whirled on the spot, fighting reflexive panic as the heat scolded him through nothing more than its proximity, tearing off the burning cloak. He managed to get it off just in time, the heat burning all of the hair off his forearms, but Olysseus didn’t give him time to get his bearings. He drove his blade towards Leandros’ neck, planting a palm behind its pommel to ensure that it would plunge as deep as possible, its bronze blade glinting in the light of the burning cloak.
Leandros reached up with his shield arm, gripping the knife in his hand, stopping it an inch from his throat. Blood seeped from his clenched fist, but he held fast, Olysseus baring his teeth in a snarl as he dug his feet into the grass. He quickly realized what was happening, releasing his dagger, but it was too late. Leandros raised his foot, kicking his opponent in the sternum with the strength of a mule. The air was driven from Olysseus’ lungs, and he was lifted off the ground, thrown back towards the mire like a doll.
He landed with a splash, his eyes wide as he began to try to dig his way out of the mud, carving away handfuls of wet soil in a desperate bid to reach safety. Asteria reached out with a guttural bellow, her massive hand closing around one of his wrists. Olysseus let out a scream of terror as she dragged him towards her, digging a furrow in the wet earth that quickly filled in with dirty water. His cry was silenced as she placed her other hand on his shoulder, forcing him deep beneath the surface, her long arm sinking to the elbow. When she withdrew her mud-caked hand, there was no more Olysseus.
Leandros fell to a knee, his injured arm still clutched to his blood-smeared cuirass, taking a moment to catch his breath. He let his shield fall, then hurried to Asteria’s aid. She raised a hand to stop him, and he hesitated, glancing down at the ground beneath his sandals.
“It is not deep enough to drown me,” she explained. “I feel stone beneath my hooves. Fetch a branch – a rope – anything that I can hold onto.”
He nodded, then looked around, noting that she had dropped her satchel during her chase through the trees. After fetching it, he tested the firmness of the ground to gauge how close he could get to her, then tossed the heavy end. It landed in the mud with a splat, Asteria gripping onto the strap with both hands. Usually, feats of strength were of no concern to him, but his injured arm could prove problematic.
He gripped the other end of the strap with his good arm, his bicep bulging as he began to drag her, his feet digging into the ground. She did her best to push herself in his direction, half-wading and half-swimming through the thick muck. Between the two of them, she was able to get close enough to dry land to find purchase, clawing at the turf as she dragged herself out. She lay on her belly for a few moments, breathing hard, then rolled onto her back. Her fur was caked in mud from her hooves to her waist.
“Are you…alright?” Leandros panted.
“Me?” she stammered, stumbling to her feet. “What about you? You’re bleeding!”
“Yeah, he stuck me pretty good,” Leandros grunted. “Nothing vital – I don’t think.”
His stomach lurched as she swept him off his feet, hoisting him into her arms as though he weighed no more than a child. She began to walk him back through the trees, heading in the direction of the temple on the hill.
“It’s my arm that’s hurt, not my legs,” he grunted. She ignored his protest, striding up the incline and gently lying him down on the grass beside the white marble, the warm sunlight hitting his face.
“You saved me – now let me tend to you,” she said in the gentlest tone that she could manage with that powerful voice.
“You did a pretty good job of saving yourself,” he chuckled weakly, the adrenaline that had been keeping him going starting to wear off. “Olysseus deserved it, that bastard.”
She eased off his cuirass, then his leather armor, Leandros wincing as she exposed his blood-soaked linen shirt. His right bicep was still bleeding, each beat of his heart sending fresh blood seeping down his arm, and he could barely lie down with the gash on his back. Asteria pulled off his shirt, then balled it up, easing it beneath his head to serve as a pillow.
“I will fetch my satchel,” she said, rising to her feet again. “I have healing supplies – I can patch you up again.”
She returned shortly, laying the bag down beside him on the grass, rummaging inside it for bandages and twine. This time, he was conscious for the sewing, gritting his teeth against the pain as she threaded the thin needle through his flesh. Despite the size of her fingers, she was remarkably dexterous, and she was quick enough that she didn’t prolong his discomfort unduly. When that was done, she washed the blood away as best she could with water from her waterskin, then produced a corked bottle of vinegar, soaking the linen bandages before applying them to the wounds. They stung, but he reminded himself that the pain meant they were doing their job.
When she was finished, she went to wash her blood-soaked hands and refill her waterskin in the stream, then returned to his side. His bicep was wrapped in bandages, as was his torso – the relatively small puncture wound on his back nonetheless requiring that the bandages be wrapped all the way around his chest. His hands had been scalded by the burning cloak, but not so badly that they were incapacitated, another bandage covering the cut on his palm. Asteria soaked more cloth in cool water, then wrapped it around them, helping to soothe his blisters.
“I think you have spent as much time on your back as on your feet since we met,” she joked.
“You do have a tendency of attracting danger,” he replied with a weak chuckle. He tried to rise, but she placed a hand on his chest, forcing him back down. “What?” he protested. “I’m not that injured, and I can still walk.”
“You will not heal if you do not rest,” she insisted. “You will tear out all of my stitches.”
“We cannot wile away a whole day lying around,” he protested. “Once Daedalus runs out of patience, there will be nobody stationed at the gate to hear the bell ring.”
“And you won’t make it to the gate if you bleed to death before you even arrive,” she replied sternly, crossing her arms. “Stay still – sleep. I must go wash all of this caked mud off my legs…”
There was no arguing with her, so he lay back down, watching as she walked off towards the trees. Without his adrenaline to keep him alert, fatigue began to gnaw at him, and he eventually surrendered to it.
When Leandros next opened his eyes, soft, pale moonlight was filtering in through the mirrored shafts above the temple. He exhaled, his breath misting, and he realized that he was shivering. It was cold in these tunnels without his wool cloak, and the absence of sunlight had sapped all of the warmth away. He was still shirtless, droplets of dew settling on his skin.
As he began to shuffle around, searching for his discarded clothes, he roused Asteria. She was wrapped in her furs maybe a foot away, rolling over to face him, blinking her dark eyes groggily.
“Sorry,” he whispered, wincing as his movements made his wounds ache. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You are cold,” she replied, lifting the pelt that she was using as a blanket in invitation. It was too shadowy for him to see inside, but the plating of her chest piece was lying on the grass nearby, and he hadn’t seen her wear anything else. “Come.”
He opened his mouth to protest, then quickly closed it again, having learned by now that resisting her was futile. Instead, he shuffled across the grass and into her waiting arms, Asteria pulling him into the warm cocoon of her furs. He put his back to her, doing his best to respect her modesty in spite of their newfound proximity. She wrapped the pelt around him protectively, Leandros feeling the soft, silky fur against his bare skin as it encompassed him. No – that wasn’t just the pelts, it was her. He could feel what might be deer or wolf pelt, but Asteria’s massive torso was pressed up against his bare back, her coat just as silky and warm. There was something squashing against his shoulders, two yielding, pillowy objects that were as large and as heavy as her satchel. Leandros kept his eyes aimed forward, knowing what it was but refusing to acknowledge that fact. Asteria draped one of her long arms around him, pulling him tight against her muscular torso, the hot breath that she exhaled from her bovine snout blowing his hair. He considered pulling away – maybe changing his position so that his shoulders were no longer sinking into the warm, generous cushion of her bosom, but she had him trapped. He could feel them shifting as her chest rose and fell softly.
“Stop fussing,” she murmured. “Freezing to death might be preferable to being close to me, but I need you alive if I’m going to make it to the surface.”
“You know that’s not true,” he replied.
“I know,” she conceded, her tone softening. “Are you comfortable?”
“Yeah,” he replied, his answer non-committal. He didn’t want to bring attention to how he was practically sinking into her chest. She might never have gotten this close to another person before, and she had already demonstrated how a life of solitude had left her with little concern for modesty. Then again, maybe she was doing it on purpose – he had no way of knowing.
“I’ve…never been this close to someone before,” she said, confirming his suspicions. The way that her powerful voice resonated through him when he was this close to her made him feel like his whole body was vibrating. “Not even Corinna.”
“Did she never get cold?” he asked.
“We grew close, but never that close,” she replied. “Am I too close?” she added hesitantly.
“No, it’s fine,” he replied as he tried to calm his racing heart. “You’re right – I need the warmth.”
“Your skin is wet,” she muttered, running a finger across an unbandaged part of his chest. “It feels…slippery.”
“You’ve felt skin before,” he said, a shiver that wasn’t altogether unpleasant trailing up his spine as her inquisitive hand roamed down to his belly. Her digits were covered in fur, so large that they were closer in girth to his wrist than his fingers. He opened his mouth to warn her away as she neared his belt, but she withdrew before it became necessary.
“Not recently, and not alive,” she replied. Of course – the only times she would have touched another person other than him since the death of Corinna would have been when she was stripping the corpses of failed assassins of their belongings. “Do you…mind?”
“I don’t mind,” he replied, his confidence seeming to surprise her. It was as though she expected him to ward her away at the earliest opportunity. She had joked that he should be offended by her presence, and although it had been said in jest, she obviously still believed it on some level. After being told that she was a monster her whole life, the idea that he might find her personable – even attractive – was hard for her to accept. He felt her lift her arm beneath the pelt that was serving as their blanket, her fingers finding his hair, another pleasant shiver surprising him as she touched his scalp.
“It’s curly,” she chuckled.
Leandros joined her in her quiet laughter, the absurdity of their situation tickling him along with her fingers. She relented, returning her arm beneath the blanket and draping it around his waist. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind if he took the same liberties with her? He gripped her furry wrist, lifting her hand until it was positioned in front of his face, wincing a little as the motion tweaked his injured bicep. Holding her wrist, he placed his free hand flat against hers, comparing their sizes. It was like the difference between a man and a child – his fingers barely spanning her palm. Her coat was so smooth and shiny, clinging to her body such that it could almost be mistaken for some kind of skin-tight garment. Her hand was otherwise normal, with five digits, and fingernails where one would expect them to be. She slowly closed her fist over his hand, encompassing it easily, Leandros tilting his head upward to see her peering down from above.
“Not small and dainty like women are supposed to be,” she mused.
“Small, dainty women can’t do what you do,” he replied. Her shiny lips curled into a smile, and she released him, returning the arm to its original position. She hesitated for a moment, then he felt her push her cow-like nose into his hair, exhaling into it.
“Thank you…for saving my life,” she muttered as she held him close. “I was blinded by anger – all I could think about was catching him. He led me straight into his trap. If you had not been there to help, he would have stuck me with that spear until I eventually succumbed.”
“He could have been preparing that mire long before I even crossed his path,” Leandros replied. “It was perfectly positioned – he even used the trees as cover. There’s no need to dwell on that now, though. We’re alive – he’s not. The final word was ours.”
“But I do dwell on it,” she insisted, Leandros feeling her tense up. “Watching him stab you, burn you – I thought I was going to have to watch you die. I was powerless to help, and all because I gave chase without thought. You told me that you had fought in many battles,” she added, raising her nose from his curly hair. “Does it get any easier?”
“Does what get easier?” he asked, lifting his head to glance up at her.
“Killing, barely escaping death, seeing those you care about hurt.”
“Not really,” he replied with a shrug.
“Then, why do you do it?” she pressed.
“It’s what I’m good at – it’s what my father did,” he explained. “It’s what I have to do if I’m ever going to fulfill my responsibilities.”
“If you could stop, would you?” she asked.
She didn’t seem satisfied with his answer, but she didn’t press the issue any further. After a few minutes of silence, he began to miss the sound of her voice, so he spoke up again.
“I should be thanking you for patching me up each time my foolishness gets me stabbed or sliced open.”
“You fought bravely,” she insisted.
“And I lost every time,” he chuckled. “I’ve lost every fight I’ve gotten myself into since I entered this labyrinth. So much for the great hero Leandros, right?”
“You defeated Olysseus.”
“I just kicked him into your reach – you’re the one who drowned him.”
“Well,” she sighed, Leandros feeling her warm breath on his hair again as she leaned in a little closer. “If you had won all those fights, I would be lying dead beneath my monopteros.”
“That’s one fight I don’t regret losing,” he replied. He turned his head up to meet her gaze, her thick, shiny lips parting subtly as they stared at one another for a few lingering moments. He felt as though he should say something more – do something more – but the opportunity passed them by. Instead, they settled in to sleep, Leandros finding that he didn’t altogether dislike the feeling of being held in her arms.
The next morning, he was roused by Asteria pulling back the furs as she climbed out of their makeshift bed, bright sunlight filtering through the shafts in the cavern ceiling. He rose to a sitting position, turning his head as he searched for her. She was sitting on the grass a short distance away, her back to him as she donned her chest piece. They had been so close the night before, and he wasn’t sure what that meant – if anything.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, noticing that he was awake. She turned her bovine head to glance over her shoulder, the long ropes of her braided hair swinging.
“Sore, but better than I did yesterday,” he replied as he flexed his right arm experimentally.
“You do heal quickly,” she mused, rising to her feet to tower over him. “Would you like some breakfast, or would you rather press on?”
“We have time for breakfast,” he replied eagerly, Asteria snorting through her nose in something that resembled laughter.
“Alright – I will fetch some water for the stew.”
Before long, they had a crackling campfire going, fed by some branches and sticks from the little patch of forest near the bottom of the hill. The cooking pot was bubbling, Asteria stirring its simmering contents with a wooden spoon, sprinkling in a few more dried herbs from her satchel every now and then.
“How long do you think it will take us to reach the gate after that little diversion?” Leandros asked, leaning closer to examine the map that she had laid out on the furs.
“One more night,” she replied, pausing to bring her spoon to her lips. She reached into her bag again, producing another handful of finely-diced herbs and sprinkling them into the pot. “We should arrive there tomorrow. Prepare yourself for the fight to come,” she added as she turned to glance at him. “From the moment that gate opens, they will try to stop us.”
“We just have to make it to my trireme,” he replied. “I have a pretty good idea of how to get back to the palace from the gate, then how to get back to the bay where my ship is moored. We’ll have to fight anyone who gets in our way.”
“Are you well enough to fight?” she asked, gesturing to his bandaged arm and torso with her dripping spoon.
“I won’t have much of a choice,” he said, holding out his bowl. Asteria filled it from the pot, Leandros taking a draw. “Tastes just as good as ever.”
“I would like to find my mother before we leave,” she continued, the flames reflecting in her dark eyes as she stared into the fire pensively. “Perhaps I can convince her to come with me.”
“I won’t stop you, but we should be quick about it,” he replied. “Even between the two of us, we can’t defeat the entire palace guard and however many soldiers Minos has garrisoned nearby. The longer we linger, the more time they’ll have to coordinate a response. Better we’re gone before they realize what’s happening.”
“I understand,” she replied, taking a drink from her pot.
When they were finished eating, they continued on into the tunnels, leaving the cavern behind them. Leandros skirted around the mire where Olysseus had met his end on their way out, searching for any signs of the body, but seeing none. He would be interred there for the rest of time, buried beneath the mud. The idea of him struggling against Asteria’s relentless strength as his lungs filled with filthy water wasn’t a pretty one, but he had more than earned his grisly end.
Leandros held his lantern aloft to light their way as they navigated the winding passages of naked stone, its light reflecting off the damp walls, the cold creeping in now that the sunlight was far behind them. Asteria would pause occasionally to check her map, her ability to keep track of their location in this maze never ceasing to impress him.
CHAPTER 6: BY THE HORNS
The next noteworthy chamber they came across was another of the empty palaces, the strangely hollow rooms eventually leading them to a larger hall that was lined with more of the ornate pillars that seemed to have been so popular with the labyrinth’s creators. It was lit by burning braziers that hung from the ceiling on chains, a large pedestal in the center of the room playing host to a bonfire that smoldered inside a huge bronze bowl.
“We should rest here for the night,” Asteria said, walking closer to examine the burning bowl. “It will be warmer than the tunnels.”
“Is it already night?” Leandros asked, turning on the spot as he examined their surroundings. “How can you even tell without sunlight?”
“Instinct, I suppose,” she replied as she shrugged off her satchel. She pulled out her furs and lay them on the tiled floor beside the stone pedestal, patting them flat. “I have lived here almost my whole life, and I have adapted to the conditions.”
“I suppose I am rather tired,” Leandros conceded as he set his belongings down beside hers to form a little camp. He took off his armor gingerly, wincing as it made his wounds ache. Asteria noticed that he was having trouble, stepping closer to help lift his cuirass over his head.
They soon settled in to share some of the dried rabbit meat, as there was no wood for a fire, and neither one of them was especially keen to climb the pedestal. The bowl radiated warmth, however, the hot metal doing an even better job than a campfire would have. It was a stark contrast to the cold tunnels.
“Come,” Asteria said, patting her furs. “The floor is cold, and you have no cloak.”
She was right, so he took a seat beside her, ripping off a piece of dried rabbit with his teeth.
“Never knowing when someone might emerge from the shadows and try to murder you is nerve-wracking, but knowing that a fight is coming is almost as bad,” Asteria sighed as she stared at the mosaic patterns on the floor. “How do you deal with it – knowing that a battle is imminent? How do you sleep knowing that you might die tomorrow?”
“You try not to think about it,” he replied over a mouthful of meat.
“How can you be so aloof?” she added, snorting in frustration. “Aren’t you afraid to die?”
“I am, but it doesn’t mean that I have to dwell on it.” He shuffled a little closer to her, drawing nearer to the warmth of the bowl behind them. “In the campaigns that I fought in, everyone would try to distract themselves the night before a battle. They talked, they made merry, they did whatever they had to do to keep their minds off what was about to happen.”
“I fear that I do not have much to talk about,” she grumbled, leaning back against the smooth stone of the pedestal. “It may surprise you to learn this, but my life was not very exciting until people started trying to kill me,” she added sarcastically. “I explored, I mapped, I ate, I slept.”
“You are remarkably sane for someone in your position,” Leandros chuckled. “Olysseus was down here for two months, and I suspect that it may have driven him mad. Then again, perhaps he was that way before he came in,” he added as he took a draw from his waterskin.
“Can we talk about something…personal?” she asked hesitantly.
“Of course,” Leandros replied, furrowing his brow as he corked the container and set it down beside him. “What’s wrong?”
“What do you think of me?” she asked, keeping her eyes fixed on the ground. She was being remarkably meek for someone who had almost beaten him to death in a duel.
“I think you’re strong,” he replied, crossing his arms as he glanced up at her. “I think you’re an accomplished fighter – you beat me. I think that you show a lot of kindness for someone who has been treated so poorly.”
“Thank you,” she continued, her ears flicking in a way that came off as bashful to him. “But, I meant more…the way that I look.”
“I don’t think you’re a terrifying monster, if that’s what you mean,” he insisted. “We’ve been over this before. Remember the statues?”
“I’m not good at this,” she sighed, grinding her teeth in frustration. “How could I be with no practice? You were watching me when I bathed in the pond – I wanted you to see me,” she added hurriedly as he began to apologize. “Last night, when we lay together beneath the furs, I thought that being close to me might entice you. There was a moment there when…when I felt like we connected, but it passed…”
She rose to her feet suddenly, shaking her head in annoyance as she began to pace in front of him, her tangle of long hair bobbing with the motion. Her heavy hooves clopped against the tiles, the sound echoing loudly through the hollow hall.
“I’m just a big, clumsy beast,” she growled. “Corinna said that she had to seduce her husband. Something about…wiles, making someone want you, I don’t remember.” She halted abruptly, then spun on the spot to face him. She seemed angry, and he might have been intimidated if he hadn’t known that her anger was directed solely at herself. “So, I’m just going to do what I always do and be blunt. Do you not find me attractive? If so, tell me, and we shall speak no more of it.”
“Asteria,” he began, struggling to find the right words. “You’ve been living down here for your entire adult life – you haven’t so much as spoken to a man since you were a child. I didn’t know if you were trying to seduce me or whether you simply had no concern for modesty or personal space. After all, why would you? Who was here to teach you such boundaries? I thought that maybe you were just curious about me, and I didn’t want to infer attraction where there might be none. After all, I’m quite literally the first man you’ve ever met who wasn’t trying to stab you.”
“Then…you do like me?” she asked as her eyes widened. “I wasn’t doing it all wrong?”
“Of course I like you,” he added, gesturing to her as though it should be the most obvious thing in the world. “I just didn’t want to take advantage of your naivety. We’ve only known each other for a few days.”
“Bold of you to think that you could take advantage of me,” she said in that low, resonating tone. She took a step towards him, her cloven hoof shaking the stone floor. She loomed over him, planting her feet to either side of him, then crouched to bring herself down into range. Her ten-foot frame bent double, her bovine nose coming to hover an inch or two above his head, her snorting breath blowing his curls. Her presence was overwhelming, her toned muscles rippling beneath her dark fur as she reached down to lift his chin, forcing him to look her in the eyes. All of her uncertainty had melted away now, and she was as confident as when she had first strode out from beneath the monopteros to meet his challenge on the grass. “Do you think that you could force me to do anything against my will? If you are to do anything to me – with me – it is because I allow it. It is because I want it.”
“What exactly do you want?” he asked, his heart beating faster and faster as he processed what she was saying. Not since the fear that had stricken him during their first encounter in the tunnel had he felt so out of his depth, but that quickening pulse was not born of fear this time.
She answered him by leaning closer, the large, puffy lips that he had caught himself admiring parting subtly as they neared. They shone in the firelight, her dark skin reflecting its glow. Asteria was so much larger than he was, her head monolithic in comparison to his own, her skull alone probably weighing as much as his torso. He saw flashes of her sharp canines, her horns sweeping up and away from him, her dreadlocks and braids surrounding him as they framed her elongated face. He got a closer look at the colorful string that she used as decoration now, looping and knotting around her snout and across her flat forehead, hanging off her horns.
Leandros felt her cup his head in her large hand, holding him in place, the other gripping the edge of the stone pedestal behind him to help support her weight. Those pillowy lips met his, Asteria pulling him into a kiss. They were smooth and warm, soft enough that he practically sank into them, so hopelessly mismatched that he stood little chance of reciprocating. He reached up to run a hand across the thin, silky fur of her cheek, turning his head as he struggled to lock lips with her. Her pace was gentle, exploratory, her scent reminiscent of the flower petals that she had put in his water the day she had attempted to bathe him. Her clumsiness was endearing, resulting perhaps from both inexperience and their sheer difference in physiology.
Something warm and wet probed his mouth, Leandros realizing that it was her tongue. Just its barest tip was already of comparable size to his own, the powerful, muscular organ pushing a little deeper as it began to explore him. He did his best to meet it, but it only grew larger as she slid more of its slick, muscular length past her lips. It was impossibly strong, coiling and stroking with alarming dexterity, sapping a little more of his strength each time it lapped at his palate or bulged his inner cheeks. Her embrace was just as overwhelming as her presence, and not for the first time, he found himself surrendering to Asteria’s will.
When she sensed that it was becoming too much, she pulled back, her tongue lagging behind her as it withdrew. It was long and wide like that of a cow, glistening with her saliva as it coiled back between her shining lips. She gazed down at him with those doe eyes, nostrils flaring as she breathed heavily, the rapid rise and fall of her chest making the bronze plates that covered it glint in the firelight.
“I have never kissed anyone before,” she sighed, her long lashes fluttering at the very thought. “Did I do it right?”
“No,” he replied, fighting through his daze. “Keep practicing.”
She smiled, then drew in for another kiss, practically lifting him off the furs as she pulled him close. Her embrace was less tentative this time, her confidence growing, that long tongue invading his mouth with renewed vigor. He was so conscious of its heat, glistening inches of her organ pushing so deep that she could taste the back of his throat, his tongue sliding against hers impotently. She licked the lining of his cheek, a shudder of unexpected pleasure passing through him, little spots of light dancing before his vision as he began to run out of breath. She slid her tongue along the roof of his mouth on her way out, a thick strand of their shared saliva joining their lips as she rose away from him. He wasn’t sure whether she was blushing under all that fur, but her eyes were lidding with desire, her agile tongue darting out to wet her cushiony lips.
They paused there for a moment, only the sound of their labored breathing breaking the silence, then she began to hurriedly strip off her scant clothes. Asteria gripped the mass of straps and twine that held up her chest piece, lifting it up and over her head, the breasts that Leandros had felt pressing against his back the night before dropping into view as she removed their support. On Asteria’s massive frame, they were modest, just large enough to fill her hands comfortably. For someone of his stature, however, they were large enough that he found himself able to do little other than stare at them slack-jawed.
Two flawless, pert breasts that would have filled a man’s helmet twice over spilled free, bouncing gently as she struggled to get the garment past the long tangle of her hair. Despite their immense weight, they were firm and shapely, yet another feature that could easily have been sculpted by the careful chisel of a master artisan. Her shiny, black fur transitioned to a pair of pink nipples, her flesh quivering as she tossed her chest piece aside with a loud clatter.
He was waiting for her as she returned, her stature putting her chest at head height to him in this position, his hands reaching out. Resisting the powerful urge to just delve them into her hanging breasts, he placed his palm against her belly, feeling the muscles beneath flex and tense as he gradually slid lower. His comparisons to statues were becoming even more apt – she was so firm that it was almost like smooth stone felt through a thin layer of fur, like pebbles at the bottom of a river that had been worn down by the flow of the water. She was alive, though – her warm body shifting and reacting to his touch. Her fur was slightly damp, possibly from sweat or the humidity in the tunnels, making his hand glide across her sculpted midriff. His fingers dipped into the channels that they carved into her flat belly, trailing down to her navel, Asteria’s eyes following his hand.
“Perhaps you weren’t just flattering me,” she sighed.
Her labored breathing faltered as he reached for her breasts, trying to cup them but quickly finding that they were far too large. When he tried to lift them, they just sagged over his hands, flesh as soft as freshly-churned butter spilling between his fingers. There was so much supple fat that he had to delve deep to find the firmer tissue that gave them their sumptuous shape, a shiver passing through her massive body as he buried his digits up to the knuckle. She leaned forward, bringing her chest a little closer, both hands resting on the lip of the pedestal behind him to help support her weight in her crouched posture.
Her eyes rolled back as he kneaded, rolling her silk-soft flesh between his fingers, taking cruel handfuls that made her legs quiver. She had never been touched in this way before – she had never felt the warmth of a man, and she had likely never had covetous eyes on her naked form. He delighted in every appreciative flinch, drinking in the way that her massive, chiseled body jerked and her wide hips rolled instinctively. Her lashes fluttered, Asteria biting her lower lip, chewing on it lasciviously as he took his fill of her inhumanly perfect bosom. Even with two hands, he could scarcely cup one of them.
She let out a sharp gasp as he caught one of her firm, erect nipples between his fingers, giving it a gentle squeeze. It was almost as large as his pinky, swollen with desire, her long spine arching when he so much as brushed it. He lifted himself a little closer, guiding one of her breasts towards his mouth with both hands, her wobbling flesh slipping from his grasp. He caught it between his lips, drawing it into his mouth, starting to circle it with his tongue. Asteria exhaled a warm breath into his hair as she doubled over, her low, husky moan making his heart leap. She leaned her forearm on the pedestal, bringing herself closer to ensure that he could reach her in a silent demand for more.
Leandros mouthed and sucked, massaging her yielding fat all the while, admiring the way that it sprang back to that immaculate teardrop shape whenever he relented. He realized that he was using more strength than he usually would have – enough to bruise a mortal woman – but Asteria only pushed out her chest in encouragement.
A low, trembling growl escaped her as he pinched her nipple between his lip and his teeth, lashing it with his tongue, its size giving him so much surface area to work with. Another shudder wracked her, and he felt one of her hands reach behind his head, pressing him into her breast with an almost desperate fervor. Like pushing his face into a feather pillow, her soft flesh spilled around his head, fur that rivaled the finest silk gliding against his warm cheeks. She quickly realized that he couldn’t breathe, releasing him, Leandros letting her swollen bud slide out of his mouth.
“S-sorry,” she stammered.
“Don’t apologize,” he chuckled, reaching for the other breast. She pursed her lips in anticipation as he lifted it from below, bringing it to his mouth in his cupped hands as though he was drinking water from a stream. Gods, even in his strong arms, its weight was palpable. He lapped and nursed indulgently, running his fingers through her inviting fur, almost as slick and as smooth as wet skin. He could feel his member straining against his clothes now, as though begging to be released.
After a little more of his teasing, Asteria pulled out of his reach, her shaking hands coming down to his shirt. She wasted no time tearing it off him, ripping it open to expose the bronzed skin of his torso and the bandages that trailed across his chest, her eyes blazing with lust. Her trembling was not out of fear or uncertainty, but excitement.
He expected her to touch him – to run her hands across his muscular frame – but she lowered her head instead. The hanging braids of her hair tickled his ribs as her thick lips planted a kiss on his belly, that impossibly long bovine tongue slithering past them to press flat against his stomach. She slowly dragged it up, leaving a trail of warm saliva from his navel to his neck, tasting the salt on his skin. She snorted hot air into his nape, her lips brushing his ear as she whispered to him.
“I have wanted to do that ever since you took off your shirt beneath the monopteros. I don’t know what compels me, but the sight of you makes my thoughts…hazy.”
She kissed him again, that meaty tongue wetting his red cheek for a moment before she located his mouth, filling him with warmth as it slipped inside. He drew on it this time, pursing his lips around it, their embrace growing more wanton each time. The thick, slimy organ coiled inside his mouth, swirling around his tongue like a snake constricting its prey. He had never been kissed like this before – a mortal had only an inch or two compared to Asteria’s nine or ten. It was a completely different sensation, overwhelming him, his heart fluttering as he melted into her arms. Like his brain was sitting on a potter’s wheel, each lap and stroke sent his head spinning, the gentle moans and sighs of desire that accompanied her ravenous attentions making his member swell.
As inexperienced as she was, there was nothing virginal about Asteria. She knew what she wanted, and she had the confidence to seek it out, even if her methods were as yet unrefined. There was something wonderful about that, like the beauty of an uncut gemstone, raw and natural.
She pulled back, their lips parting with a wet smack that seemed impossibly loud in the silence of the hall, her head seeming to fly away from him as she rose up. They were both breathing heavily, the excitement in the air palpable, covetous eyes wandering across heaving bodies. He was still lying beneath her on the pelts as Asteria crouched over him, her hands leaning on the edge of the pedestal behind him, his gaze wandering down her sculpted core to the tattered loincloth that hung between her powerful thighs.
Leandros lifted himself to a sitting position, grimacing as he felt a stab of pain in his arm, but he was far too busy to pay it any mind now. Asteria was crouched low enough that her waist was almost level with his head, and he reached out to grip her loincloth in his hand, guiding her closer. She shuffled a little nearer, her head hanging as she peered down at him, seeming confused.
“What are you…”
“Just trust me,” he said, leaning closer to plant a kiss on her belly. Her iron muscles tensed beneath his lips, Asteria sucking in her stomach reflexively as he tickled her. The texture of her fur was so smooth that it was barely perceptible, the taste of salt pricking his tongue as he began to roam, tracing the contours of her abs with its tip. He moved lower, hearing Asteria’s breathing hasten as he neared her belt line, mouthing gently as he went. The impulse to taste her was overpowering, as though the only way that he could express his desire and his admiration for her was through covering her with kisses.
A beautiful shiver rolled through her body as he ran one of his hands up her inner thigh, gliding on her exquisite fur, moving from her knee to her loincloth. She was so touchable – her coat impossibly slick and smooth, almost like wet skin. He could see the way that her firm muscles created dimples when they flexed, yet there was a layer of soft fat that was just deep enough that he could feel it bulge between his fingers when he grabbed it in earnest. He brought his lips to the sensitive area, crawling them up her leg, his tongue escaping to tease her.
Her thighs were as large as his torso, so girthy that his hands would scarcely meet if he were to wrap his arms around them. Everything about her scale and mass was overwhelming, yet she was so receptive, rock-hard muscles powerful enough to crush a man’s head twitching and quivering at the slightest glance of his fingers. Unable to resist, he rubbed his cheek against her thigh, hearing a lustful growl from somewhere high above him.
Only now did he reach out and lift her loincloth, slowly unwrapping the strip of fabric like he was opening a gift, his heart pumping a little faster with each layer that he removed. Finally, he saw a glimpse of black fur beneath it, the garment falling away to expose her loins. They were larger than those of a normal woman, scaled up to match her exaggerated stature, her puffy lips already shining with her arousal. The black fur gave way to a neat sliver of glistening pink that immediately drew his eye, a solitary strand of her excitement drooping from her rosy folds, his mouth watering at the very sight of it. He reached out, Asteria shivering as he parted those cushiony lips with two fingers, gently spreading her open to reveal her vulva. It reminded him of a blooming rose, her delicate petals slick and ready for him, seeming to sparkle as they reflected the wavering firelight. She wasn’t quite nude, he realized. There were still a couple of leather belts wrapped tightly around her hips, the decorative string that she loved to adorn herself with hanging around her waist, some bronze chain links still attached to it.
Unable to hold back any longer, he dragged a solitary finger between her labia, feeling his skin slide effortlessly against her damp flesh, her feverish heat surprising him. The tip of his digit brushed something swollen and firm, Asteria loosing another bestial snort. She doubled over again, one of her cloven hooves slamming against the stone floor as she steadied herself.
There was no need to ask whether she was ready for him – she was dripping, a glob of her juices sliding down her thigh. His intent was obvious enough, and she gripped the sculpted edge of the pedestal tightly, bringing her hips closer to his face. Rather than sate her urges immediately, he decided to toy with her a little more, watching her legs shake as he left a sucking kiss on her inner thigh. He was so close to her loins that he could feel the heat that they radiated on his flushed cheeks, but he skirted their limits, licking and pecking as he went.
“D-do you always use your mouth like this?” she stammered, her husky voice dripping with lust to the point that she almost sounded drunk on it.
“Not always,” he replied, pausing for a moment to glance up at her. “Something about you just makes me feel like…I can’t help myself.”
When her tension had grown to the point that her legs looked ready to give out, he relented, shuffling a little closer to her on the furs. Her loins were large enough that he could reach out and cup them in both hands, her lips just as soft and as pillowy as her breasts, a fresh bead of her anticipation leaking from her opening at his merest touch. Spreading her wide with his thumbs, he pushed his face between her trembling thighs, her burning flesh greeting his tongue.
“Gods,” Asteria grunted, leaning over the pedestal behind him. “You don’t have to-”
She let out a groan that shook his bones as he began to lap slowly, her honeyed juices leaking down his chin in fat, dangling strands. He explored her folds with his tongue, their texture reminding him of pleated silk, his nose brushing her swollen clitoris as he roamed higher. She almost fell over when he dragged the flat of his organ across its shiny surface, pursing his lips around it, drawing it out from beneath its hood of skin. It was as large as the tip of his finger, pulsing against his tongue in time with the rapid beating of her heart.
He could feel her resisting the urge to grind her loins against his face in search of more stimulation as he sucked and licked, swirling his tongue around her needy protrusion. Her hips were wider than the span of his shoulders – she could probably have knocked him back to the floor with an overly enthusiastic thrust. As he returned to her vulva, he lay one hand against her thigh, feeling his fingers sink into her delicate fat. Beneath it, taut muscle rose to greet him, the juxtaposition between the two contrasting textures only encouraging him. The other rose to her loins, Leandros tracing a circle around her entrance with his fingertip, watching it twitch in response.
Lubricated by her slippery fluids, he gently eased it inside her, butterflies swarming in his belly as he felt her muscles bear down on him through the barrier of her butter-soft flesh. They constricted around his finger in a powerful throb, rippling along his digit, his head swimming at the prospect of taking things further. He reminded himself to be patient, starting to push deeper, trying to ignore the needy ache in his rigid member.
Her spine arched as he moved his finger inside her, her powerful grip making it a challenge, even in spite of the copious fluids that coated her narrow walls. He hadn’t expected her to feel like this, judging by her immense size. She was no less toned and developed down here, tight enough that it was actually a little intimidating. Asteria pushed down on his hand suddenly, trying to force him deeper, strings of her juices leaking into his palm.
“Corinna told me that it would feel good,” she moaned, another tremor wracking her. “She didn’t tell me that it would be like this…”
“Am I going too fast for you?” Leandros asked, pausing his mouthing for a moment to glance up at her.
“No,” she muttered, reaching a hand down to push his face back between her legs. “I want more.”
He was all too happy to oblige, resuming his doting licking, painting her warm vulva with his tongue. She was intoxicating, the scent of flower petals accompanied by something more carnal filling his lungs with each breath, driving every thought other than pleasing her from his mind. He slipped another finger inside her, feeling her tight insides stretch around it, her muscular reaches fighting against him all the while. There was such suction when he tried to pull back, her loins clinging to him like a second skin, almost as though her body couldn’t bear the thought of being left empty again.
Asteria began to lose herself in the pleasure, rolling her hips, Leandros gripping her thigh in an attempt to prevent himself from being pushed away. He felt her place her hand behind his head once more, keeping him close, practically fucking his face with the extra leverage.
After a few moments, he patted her thigh, and she relented. She allowed him to pull away, his lips still joined to hers by a sagging web of her fluids, her chest heaving as she gazed down at him with unfocused eyes.
“Sorry,” she said, pausing to swallow. “Am I being too rough? This is still new to me.”
“Don’t apologize,” he chuckled, wiping some of the fluid from his mouth with the back of his hand. “I like it.”
“You do?” she asked, her dangling hair swaying as she tilted her head curiously.
“I’ve never been with anyone who could overpower me before,” he replied, shuffling back a little so that he could lean against the cool stone of the pedestal for a moment. “When you have the blood of a God flowing through your veins – even as little as mine – a mortal cannot hope to match your strength. What can a woman do but lie there and take whatever you give her? Making love has always been…frustrating for me,” he added with a frown. “It’s an exercise in restraint. But, with you,” he continued as he glanced up at her appreciatively. “I could scarcely hurt you if I tried.”
“I could hurt you,” she replied. “I have hurt you…”
“I trust you,” he added, Asteria blinking her eyes at him. “Please, don’t feel like you have to hold back and treat me like I’m made of glass. I know what that feels like. I may be the only man you’ll ever meet who can handle you.”
Her confused expression morphed into a smile, and she brought herself lower, dropping to her knees on the furs. She straddled him, a droplet of her excitement falling to his belly, her furry hands cradling his face as she drew in for another kiss. It was even more wanton than the last, Leandros giving himself over to her completely, offering no resistance as her bovine tongue filled his mouth. She broke away, gazing down at him with an almost predatory look in her brown eyes.
“You have such confidence,” she crooned, beginning to crawl lower. She planted a wet kiss on his neck, then his chest, gradually descending towards his belt. “Are you not afraid that it might be misplaced? You have a tendency to overestimate yourself, I’ve found…”
“I’m looking forward to finding out.”
She began to slide off his skirt, careful to avoid the bandaged wound on his thigh, tossing the garment aside to join her chest piece on the tiled floor beside the furs. Eyeing the bulge beneath his loincloth, she began to unwrap it, his member soon bouncing free of its confines. She watched it throb and twitch, biting her lip, her eyes lingering on it.
“It isn’t like the statues,” she finally said, glancing up at him. She reached out, brushing her fingers against his shaft, her soft fur tickling him. Her hand was large enough that she could encompass him in her fist entirely, Leandros holding back a grunt as she squeezed gently, seeming to marvel at its firmness. Being relatively well-endowed, it was a little intimidating to see his member vanish completely.
She gripped it instead between her thumb and forefinger so that she could maneuver it more easily, Leandros shivering as he felt her warm breath on his glans, those luscious lips hovering an inch above it. The promise alone was enough to make him flex in her grasp.
“What are you doing?” he asked, leaning back against the stone as he watched her.
“Only what you did for me,” she replied, her long hair falling over his hips as she planted a kiss on his tip. He watched his member sink into her puffy lips, smooth and slick with her saliva, reflecting the firelight from the bowl behind him. She hadn’t even taken him into her mouth yet, but his head was wrapped in her pursed lips regardless, their warm flesh encompassing him. She drew back, smiling at his reaction, confident that she was on the right track.
“Anything I should know?”
“Just watch the teeth,” he replied, eyeing her sharp incisors as she grinned at him.
“Oh, not to worry,” she cooed as she began to stroke his shaft gently. “Rumors of me eating peasants have been somewhat exaggerated.”
Her pillowy lips returned to his glans, this time sliding a little further, Leandros exhaling a sigh as he felt the heat of her mouth welcome him. Once she was about midway down his shaft, he felt something hot and wet glance his skin, realizing that it was her tongue. He had already been introduced to its incredible size and dexterity during her clumsy, greedy kisses, a kind of excitement that almost bordered on apprehension creeping over him as he imagined what she might be able to do with it.
Asteria kissed the base of his member, taking the whole thing into her mouth, her size and her bovine snout making easy work of what would have been a feat for a human woman. Her grip remained loose for a few moments, then she sucked, Leandros’ eyes widening as the silken lining of her inner cheeks suddenly pressed around his entire length. She pursed her lips tightly, nursing at his cock, Leandros reaching up to rest a hand on her head. The fur between her horns was softer and a little longer than that on the rest of her body – more like her hair.
She had never been with a man before, but he had just spent the last ten minutes with his face buried between her thighs, so she had an example to follow. He watched, enraptured, as she slid her massive head back up his shaft, keeping her lips tightly locked to it. The feeling of her cheeks gliding against his skin on a layer of her warm saliva was incomparable, the flat of her tongue cushioning him from below. When she reached his tip, she gave him an exploratory lick, Leandros seeing stars as her slimy muscle dragged across his sensitive flesh. Encouraged by his reaction, she began to lap, keeping her lips sealed around his glans as she mapped it with the tip of her powerful organ. She coiled and stroked, sneaking beneath his foreskin, tickling the tender underside of his head. Those beautiful brown eyes remained locked to his the whole while, gauging how he responded, watching him intently.
Asteria withdrew, letting her puffy, slippery lower lip catch on his glans as he slid out of her mouth. His length was left glistening with her stringy saliva, bubbles of it clinging to his skin.
“I was worried that I would do something wrong, but you seem to be enjoying yourself,” she chuckled as she stroked him to keep him wanting. The drool made her fingers slippery, the unexpected sensation of her wet fur eliciting a gasp from him.
She extended her tongue, Leandros’ breath catching in his throat as he watched inches of wet, glistening flesh slowly slide past her dark lips. She smiled as his eyes followed it, wanting him to see it in its entirety – wanting him to contemplate what she might do with it. Only when nine or ten inches were exposed did it finally stop, its tip curling upwards, Asteria forming an effortless spiral. It was a darker color on top, tapering into a lighter pink on its underside, a few blue veins visible.
He sucked in a sharp gasp as she brought its winding tip to his glans, swirling the wet muscle around it, coiling the meaty organ like a snake as she lowered her head into his lap. Her soft lips followed, and he was once again surrounded by the damp silk of her cheeks, her tongue painting his shaft as she held him in her mouth. His cock throbbed and flexed, pushing back against her tongue, bumping against the ribbed texture of her palate. Once again, she hilted him, his eyes rolling back into his head as that agile muscle slithered out to wet his balls. Her relentless sucking and licking had him thrusting off the pelts, taking handfuls of the soft fur, fat ropes of her drool escaping her lips to matt his pubic hair.
There was no danger of choking her – her snout was too long for him to reach her throat – so she let him push as deep as he pleased. It was such a liberating feeling, not having to worry about her discomfort, his cock sliding along the smooth cushion of her tongue. Her warm breath washed across his belly all the while, her nostrils flaring, her long braids draping themselves over his stomach and thighs.
Unable to help himself, he reached down to grip her furry face, holding her in place as he began to thrust in earnest. Asteria seemed surprised for a moment, then her wide eyes narrowed, a sly smile curling his lips as Leandros plunged his aching member between them. She allowed him to set the pace, teasing him with gentle licks and doting flurries, her deft organ dancing up and down his length. It hadn’t taken long for her to learn where he was most sensitive – which areas got her the strongest reactions.
Asteria began to move with him, pushing down to drive him deeper, her fat lips kissing his base with an audible smack. He could hear her sucking, too, a lurid gulping and squelching sound that set his heart racing even faster. Their coupling was wet, bawdy, all pretense of restraint now long-forgotten.
“Gods,” he groaned, accidentally hitting the back of his head on the pedestal as her long tongue snaked out to cradle his stones. “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?”
She merely chuckled as he reached back to rub his head, the sound resonating through him, making her mouth vibrate around his erection. As she glazed his member with her warm slaver, he realized that the back of her tongue had a different texture than the front. It was rougher, as though he could feel the taste buds, enhancing his pleasure when he ground against it. It was positioned perfectly to stimulate the underside of his glans when he pushed deeper. The sensation was intoxicating, goading him on, Asteria all too happy to oblige.
His pleasure was mounting now, becoming more urgent, wracking waves washing over him like a tide lapping at the shore with each suck and stroke. He reached out to grip her upswept horns in his hands, using them both as leverage, and to better guide her movements. Asteria’s eyes widened in surprise, her long lashes fluttering, but she soon understood what he was trying to do. Taking the bull by its horns was a common saying in Crete, but he doubted whether this had been the intent.
Her rhythmic lapping encouraged him, the flat of her hot, slippery tongue gliding up his shaft as though goading him deeper. Her lips cushioned each thrust, Leandros pulling her onto his shaft with her horns, Asteria batting her lashes at him provocatively.
She began to twist her head, alternating her sucking, her powerful organ caressing every inch of his member as it spiraled lovingly around it. The length of slimy muscle wrapped around his shaft tightly, gripping it like a fist and starting to pump, milking him relentlessly.
How presumptuous he had been to imagine that he was in control of the situation – that Asteria would be some doe-eyed virgin hanging on his every word. Just like during their fight, she had once again overpowered him, and he was rapidly reaching his limit. The throbs and swells of pleasure came harder and faster, each one more intense than the last, a sweet ache permeating him to the core as his climax neared inexorably.
Finally, the last of his resistance melted away, Leandros gritting his teeth as he shot a thick rope of his seed into her waiting mouth. It splashed against her tongue, the next gelatinous wad hitting the roof of her mouth, Asteria slowing along with his thrusting as he held onto her horns for dear life. She began to nurse again, her gentle suction easing more of it out of him, another stab of ecstasy dizzying him as she swallowed around his length. Her tongue burned through the haze of his pleasure like a hot knife as he felt it slide up his shaft, the sensation of her smooth flesh stroking his sensitive glans making him buck. She held him between her soft lips as what could only have been moments dragged on for what seemed to his addled mind like minutes. His thoughts were drowned by his euphoria, every glance of her tongue and every affectionate suck amplified a thousandfold.
Only when she felt the last spurt of his emission hit her tongue did she draw back, keeping her lips wrapped tightly around his shaft, giving him one last teasing lick as she let his member slide free. It was joined to her by a drooping rope of pearly fluid, Asteria breaking it as she licked her furry chin clean. Leandros fell back to the furs, his chest heaving as he caught his breath, his muscles burning like he had just marched all day and all night.
Asteria sat down at the bottom of the pelts with a thud, watching him with a satisfied smile on her face.
“This isn’t so complicated,” she said, reaching up to straighten one of the string decorations on her left horn as she admired his muscular frame.
“You think you have me wrapped around your finger because you finished me off once, is that it?” he chuckled. His post-coital bliss was still draped over him like a warm, heavy blanket, dulling his usually sharp tongue.
Asteria crawled closer, reaching down to run her fingers across his belly, even the lightest touch making him shiver.
“I think you’re worried that I will be better at this than you are,” she said, giving him a smirk as he propped himself up on his elbows.
“Sounds like a good problem to have,” he sighed, his eyes following her furry digits as she drew shapes on his stomach. His erection was starting to fade now, Asteria pouting at it.
“Will it come back?” she asked, her disappointment making him laugh. “I’m not done yet.”
“Yes, it will come back. Just give me a few minutes to recover.”
She lay down beside him on the furs, stretching her massive body out next to his. There was no need to avert his eyes now – he could admire her impressive figure in all its glory, the way that her dark fur shimmered in the firelight picking out the chiseled contours of her muscles. She was no less interested in him, her hands trailing across his chest, roaming down his injured arm.
“How is it?” she asked.
“I won’t even remember it was there in a few days,” he replied, exhaling a contented sigh.
“I am glad…that we could be together,” she began. “This was one of the things that I thought I might never get to experience. Corinna spoke so fondly of her husband – her face lit up like the sun at the thought of him, and I think she spent more time reminiscing about the past than existing in the present in her final days. To want to know what that feels like but to have no way of making it a reality was unbearable.”
“We’re getting out of here,” he replied adamantly. “Tell me – what else are you going to do when you’re up there?”
She smiled, then rolled onto her back, staring at the hanging braziers above them pensively.
“I want…to see the ocean,” she replied. “I want to swim in it. I want to see clouds – I want to feel the wind in my hair again. I can scarcely remember what that felt like.”
“What about food?” he asked.
“Oh, the food!” she sighed. “I have vague memories of the feasts that Minos would throw when I was a child. I was never permitted to attend them, of course, but my mother would bring the leftovers to my chamber. It is strange – I remember the foods that I loved, but my memories of their taste are hazy. All that I can recall is how they made me feel.”
“When we get back to Kos, you can eat whatever you desire,” Leandros added. “Wild boar roasted over an open flame, honey cakes, the finest wines – whatever your heart yearns for.”
“And, your family won’t mind sharing the banquet hall with a monster?” she chuckled.
“If they have a problem with you, they’ll have to answer to me.”
“That is, if we can fight our way out of the palace,” she added.
“We’ll make it,” he replied, trying to reassure her.
She leaned in to kiss him again, practically rolling on top of him, the now familiar taste of her bovine tongue filling his mouth. Their embrace was more placating this time, more driven by affection than lust, but the feeling of her pillowy lips pressing against his filled him with desire for her nonetheless. His hand wandered up her long snout, stroking her furry cheek, her ample breasts settling on his belly due to her height. They spilled over him like melting candle wax, wobbling gently with her every subtle motion, their weight pressing down on his renewed erection. He felt his growing member pushing into one of them, its surface soft and yielding, easily as large and as heavy as her waterskin.
“Are you growing impatient?” he panted, Asteria breaking away from their kiss for a moment to let him catch his breath.
“I told you that I wanted more,” she whispered as she brought her lips to the nape of his neck, her sharp teeth pinching his skin. She slid lower, her tongue sneaking out to taste his sweat, Asteria alternating between lingering kisses and teasing bites as she neared his hips.
He groaned as she slipped his pulsing cock into her mouth again, picking up right where she had left off, nursing at his still-tender manhood until he was back at full mast again. She traced a bulging vein with the tip of her snaking organ, drawing shapes on his skin like she was trying to write her name, the intense suction making him lift his ass off the furs. A few wracking licks had him throbbing against her tongue, her eyes glazing over as she hilted him, seeming just as enamored as he was.
“S-slow down,” he stammered, his spine arching as she circled his glans with her damp muscle. “If you finish me off again, we’ll never make it to the main course.”
She rose away from him, making no attempt to contain the fat ropes of bubbling saliva that joined her lips to his shaft, her dark eyes rising to meet his as she peered up at him eagerly.
He took a moment to recover his faculties – she was getting too damned good with that agile tongue of hers – then rose to his feet. Even when she was kneeling on the floor, Asteria’s face was almost level with his. She cocked her horned head as he took her hands, guiding her down onto the furs, switching places with her. Asteria leaned back against the stone pedestal, propping herself up, halfway between a sitting and a lounging position. It was almost impossible for Leandros to tear his eyes away from her chest, the way that her perfect breasts bounced and quivered with her every motion making his mouth water.
Her eyes followed him as he knelt between her legs, splaying her thighs with his hands, feeling her iron muscles tense beneath his fingers. The sight of her swollen, dripping loins greeted him once more, the fur around the neat little sliver of her rosy vulva veritably soaked in her excitement. It lit a fire in his belly, like he had swallowed Promethean flame, a sudden surge of desire compelling him forward.
Asteria snorted like a bull as he plunged his face between her legs again, priming her with his tongue, wrapping his arms around her thighs for leverage as she draped her legs over his shoulders. They were so thick and so packed with muscle that he could scarcely get his hands halfway around them, like he was trying to lift two massive barrels of grain over his shoulders. Her wide hips shifted and rolled as he dragged his tongue between her labia, playing it across her sensitive folds, sucking her firm clitoris into his mouth. Asteria reached down to rest a hand on his head, her fingers delving into his curly hair, holding him close. Her other hand rose to her chest, Leandros watching as she filled it with wobbling fat, her breast deforming in her grasp as she kneaded like she was shaping a ball of wet clay.
Only when his need became too great did he pull back, her taste lingering on his lips as he paused to admire her body in motion, the way that she writhed on the furs making the taut muscles in her powerful core flex beneath her shining hide. Gods, he could have mapped every inch of her heaving body with his tongue.
He gripped her hips, having to spread his arms wide, then used them as leverage to pull himself closer to her. Reaching down to grip his stiff member in his hand, he angled it lower, pressing his shaft against her vulva. Her flesh was fever-hot and soaked in her syrupy anticipation, Asteria flinching when she felt his cock throb against her bud, propping herself up a little higher as she gazed down longingly between her splayed legs. Leandros had to restrain himself for a moment, reminding himself that she had never been with a man before. He should take things slow – make sure that she was comfortable rather than giving in to his urges and ravishing her.
He lay a hand on her belly, delighting in the way that her abdominal muscles firmed up in response, sliding his member lower with the other. Asteria moaned as he dragged his glans between her silken lips, coating it with her fluids before he reached her opening. Memories of how her loins had wrung his fingers with their powerful contractions surfaced in his mind, making him hesitate for a moment, that narrow ring of muscle encircling his tip as he pushed deeper. His pace was slow, but that did little to diminish the intensity of the sensation, the pair gasping in unison as his member parted Asteria’s clenching walls. Leandros doubled over, leaning his weight on his trembling partner – inconsequential to someone of her size. He wasn’t even halfway inside her yet, and already what felt like a glove of hot, soaking-wet silk had gripped him fiercely. There was no longer any barrier between them – he could feel every subtle clench of her muscles, from tiny flutters and tremors like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, to clenches strong enough to rob him of his breath.
He hilted her with one final thrust, the two lovers lurching as they were joined. Like a sword sliding into its sheath, she was so tight that she almost seemed made to fit him, her seizing reaches conforming to his every contour as they bore down on him.
“Are you…alright?” he panted, tearing his eyes away from her loins to glance up at her.
“Mmm,” she moaned, her hair bouncing as she nodded her head in reply. “I have used my fingers before,” she added, averting her eyes as though embarrassed by the admission.
“Tell me if it becomes too much,” he added, his member beating inside her like a second heart as he resisted the urge to start moving.
“Always so optimistic,” she purred, her expression turning sly again.
He gripped her furry hips in his hands, pulling out of her, grimacing as her flesh clung to him. The suction was almost as impressive as that of her mouth, her muscles twitching, rippling from his base to his tip in teasing waves as his skin dragged against her slippery passage. He could feel its texture with such excruciating clarity, every wrinkle and imperfection raking across his glans, flesh even softer and wetter than her inner cheeks surrounding him on all sides. Even with his skin glazed in her slippery fluids, he had to fight her for every inch on his way out.
Leandros paused to compose himself, only his head still trapped in her grip, then pushed back inside her. Pleasure ribboned up through his body, like tickling fingers dancing up his spine, his every nerve alight with wonderful sensation. With her opulent fur beneath his fingers and her innermost muscles coiled lovingly around his shaft, he could have been forgiven for thinking that he had died and gone to the Elysian fields.
Asteria was similarly affected, her long lashes batting with each throb of his member, her jaw slack as her labored breathing joined the crackling of the nearby flames. As he found a lazy rhythm and began to move, she pushed back, rolling her hips in a bid to take him deeper.
He found a steady pace, holding onto her wide hips as she pushed back against him. While he started off slowly, gently, her reactions encouraged him to put more of his strength into each thrust. Asteria was massive, far stronger than he was, and he stood no chance of hurting her. She seemed to appreciate it, arching her back off the furs, each impact sending a beautiful ripple through the soft parts of her oversized body. Those firm breasts bounced in rhythm, the fat of her thighs and her rump wobbling as his hips slapped against them.
“Harder,” she growled, her ivory teeth flashing as she bit her lower lip.
He was more than happy to oblige, throwing his weight into her in a way that might have bruised a mortal woman, watching her intently to make sure that she wasn’t biting off more than she could chew. Her eyes closed, her large head rocking in time with his tempo, almost like she was dancing to some silent tune.
Her toned stomach flexed with each thrust, her chiseled muscles rising from beneath her hide to catch the firelight, becoming more defined. There was a subtle misting of sweat coating her black fur now, each droplet glittering when she moved, like a tiny field of stars. Her breasts bounced, so heavy, yet impossibly pert. The sight fanned the flames of his passion, and he renewed his efforts, her eyes snapping open as he reached beneath her thighs. He heaved, his muscles burning, ignoring the sting in his injured bicep as he raised her legs. They were almost too heavy for him to lift, but he got them above his shoulders, her hoofed feet bobbing in the air as he moved. Her expression of surprise turned to a sordid smile – she seemed impressed. She was almost bent double now, her knees nearing her chest, this new position changing the angle of penetration.
They reacted as one – Leandros gritting his teeth as Asteria snorted – his member grinding against the roof of her tunnel. He was pressing her against the pedestal now, or at least, that was how it looked from where he was kneeling. In reality, he doubted whether he could have moved her heavy frame, even with all the strength of a demigod.
He felt Asteria’s hot breath on his face and glanced up to see her fat lips coming towards him, their new position bringing her close enough to reach him. He leaned forward to meet her, her tongue sliding into his mouth as she stole a hasty, breathless kiss. She poured her need for him into every desperate lick and stroke, her previous finesse forgotten, her hunger palpable. She sucked in a gasp when she broke away, clenching down on him as his member grazed her reaches.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” she sighed, taking another ragged breath as he bottomed out. “I can feel your heart beating inside me…”
Her honeyed words encouraged him to go harder and faster, and he wrapped his arms around her thighs for leverage, Asteria whispering a quiet moan into his ear as she let the backs of her knees rest on his shoulders. It was a lot of weight, but this was what he had wanted for so long – someone who could endure him even at his most uninhibited.
The rhythmic sounds of his hips slapping against her thighs filled the hall, the relative silence making it seem all the louder in comparison, Asteria’s lustful snorting joining it. When he glanced down between her legs, he could see her rosy flesh gripping him on his way out of her, clinging to his shaft with a strength that dizzied him. Her sopping walls were akin to the most luxurious silk – something so soft and wonderful that it could only have been woven by the hands of a God, her muscles teasing him with gentle caresses and wracking squeezes from just beyond their thin barrier. They rippled up his shaft, at once firm and yielding, her hot flesh sealing around his length so tightly that she could almost hold him in place.
Leandros faltered as Asteria reached behind his head, guiding him closer, pushing him down towards her chest. She plunged his face between her bouncing breasts, smooth fur that was slick with her sweat brushing against his burning cheeks. The scent of flower petals and exertion filled his nose, his partner giving him little choice but to fill his lungs with her enticing scent. It was like having his head thrust between two feather pillows, her flesh wobbling each time their bodies crashed together. He might have tried to wrap his arms around her, but even her waist was too girthy at its narrowest point, so he plunged his hands into her bosom instead.
Asteria exhaled a comely growl, her warm breath washing over him as she plunged her snout into his hair, laying a heavy hand on his lower back as she held him close to her writhing body. Her sense of smell was so much greater than his own. What must he smell like to her sensitive nose?
Leandros filled his hands with her delicate fat, burying his fingers up to the knuckle, feeling her body respond to his greedy kneading. Her insides rippled and flexed, her muscles tensing, the sound of her husky voice wavering as she moaned. He nuzzled and squeezed, rolling her supple flesh between his fingers, its texture like fresh-baked dough. Asteria had a body that a man could become lost in – a labyrinth in its own right, and one that he felt no urgency to escape.
He lifted his head from her boundless cleavage – just enough that he could maneuver one of her swollen nipples into his mouth. He felt her entire body quiver as he sucked it between his lips, chewing it softly, playing his tongue over it. One of her large hands delved into his hair, keeping him close, her rump rising from the furs in a particularly strong thrust that lifted his knees off the floor. Realizing that she might throw him off her if she kept it up, she closed her thighs around him, sinking his hips deep into their cushiony layer of fat. She crossed her legs behind him, pulling him into her with renewed force, Leandros’ groan of surprise and pleasure muffled by her bosom.
Asteria was setting the pace now, her strength once again surpassing his own. He had to lift his head from her breasts, placing his hands on her toned core to support himself, his panting partner curling her ten-foot frame to force him deeper. It was awkward, and she didn’t have much leverage, but she was making it work through brute strength and sheer force of will. After a few more wracking thrusts that very nearly made him lose his balance, he patted her stomach to get her attention, and she slowed to let him catch his breath.
“Let me try something,” he panted, slowly easing her thighs apart. She was reluctant, but she complied, wincing as he struggled to pull out of her. It was a challenge, but he eventually managed to escape her fierce grip, leaving his shaft glistening with her fluids. “On your hands and knees,” he added.
“What?” Asteria panted.
“Get on your hands and knees,” he repeated. “Trust me – you’ll like it.”
Her heavy frame shifted, and she rolled over onto her belly, then rose to all fours. It was a sight to behold, some of the bronze chain links that hung from the strings and straps around her waist clattering against her thighs as she raised her rear, presenting herself to him. With hips wider than his shoulders, she had a rump to match, sculpted by the toned muscles that he so admired. He could see the way that her brawn dimpled her round cheeks, making them springy and firm. They were so large that it was more like standing behind a horse than a person. Her bovine tail flicked through the air impatiently, drawing Leandros’ eye to her spine, where he followed the perfect indent that her muscles cut into her back. Her shoulders were just as developed as the rest of her, firm tissue shifting beneath her shining hide as she turned her head, peering back at him to see what he was doing.
“Like this?” she asked, prompting him to continue.
Her voice jolted him out of his stupor, and he shuffled closer, quickly learning that he was too short to reach her while on his knees. He rose to his feet, putting himself at a more convenient height, then lay a hand on her rump. Just like her thighs, there was an enticing layer of fat that invited his fingers to sink deeper, muscle as hard as wrought iron greeting him with a powerful flex when he dug deep enough. Gods, he could have bounced his fucking helmet off her ass.
A shiver of anticipation rolled through her as he reached down to part her cheeks, exposing her rosy vulva, strands of her juices already seeping down her inner thighs. Wasting no time, he thrust back into her, leaning his hands on the small of her back. He couldn’t quite reach her hips comfortably in this position, but something else caught his attention.
“Hey!” Asteria yelped, her spine forming a beautiful curve as he gripped the base of her tail.
“Sorry – did that hurt?” he asked.
“N-no,” she mumbled, batting her eyes at him as she glanced over her shoulder.
“Want me to let go?”
Leandros began to move again, admiring the way that her butt quivered with each thrust, his hips sinking into its soft meat. In this position, he could get even deeper, Asteria turning her snout to the ceiling as she let out a moan of desire. He soon found a steady pace again, her insides narrowing whenever he applied any tension to her tail, the corded muscles that detailed her back shifting in the firelight. He gripped one of the leather belts that she was still wearing in his free hand, letting him guide her movements a little more easily.
“Oh, this feels even better,” she sighed as she lifted herself up onto the pedestal. She lay her elbows on its polished surface, turning her head on its side so that she could rest it in her arms, lifting her upper body a little higher than her hips. “Go a little slower – I want to enjoy this…”
He couldn’t refuse her, easing off his furious rutting until he found a more leisurely tempo, riding the waves of pleasure that came with each passionate thrust. He kept hold of her tail with one hand, weighing one of her cheeks with the other, watching it spring back when he let go.
He could sense that she was getting closer, Asteria pushing back to meet him, encouraging him to use more of his strength. With her ample rear cushioning him and a tight grip on one of her belts, he could push into her with enough force that it made her massive frame rock against the pedestal, her breasts swinging as they hung beneath her. The sound of his hips clapping against her cheeks rose above the sound of their labored breathing, Asteria’s already shiny fur glistening with sweat, his movements punctuated by her comely growls and bestial snorts.
Their measured pace didn’t last for more than a couple of minutes, Asteria bracing her hands on the edge of the stone pedestal as she began to move faster, pushing out her rump to meet him. They were slamming together almost hard enough to drive the breath from his lungs, Leandros having to grip her more tightly to save from being knocked off his feet. She glanced over her shoulder, the rope-like strands of her long hair falling down her back, her hungry eyes peering back at him.
“Harder,” she growled, more of a demand than a request.
“Any harder and I might fall over,” he grunted, her lashes fluttering as he slammed into her again.
Asteria pulled away from him suddenly, a jolt of pleasure rocking him as her iron grip on his member was broken, her opulent flesh gliding up its pulsing length. His glans remained joined to her swollen lips by a wobbling strand of her fluids for a moment, then it broke to fall to the furs beneath them. She rose to her feet, then turned to face him, towering over him as the burning bowl silhouetted her. Her fur was soaked with exertion, droplets of it following the contours of her abs as they seeped down her toned belly, her inner thighs and her puffy lips wet with her excitement. Her breasts swayed with the rise and fall of her chest, each breath that she took leaving her nose in a snort, her eyes locked onto him. She was glorious, and a little intimidating, but he welcomed that blend of excitement and apprehension. Asteria was the only person who could inspire those wonderful feelings in him.
Before he could ask her what she intended to do, she placed her hands on his shoulders, applying just a little of her strength to lower him to the pelts. She lay him on his back, her heavy hooves clapping against the stone as she placed them to either side of his hips, a strand of her liquid lust dripping to his belly as she crouched over him. With one large hand splayed across his chest as though he needed to be held down, she reached for his member with the other, guiding it towards her flushed lips as she lowered her ten-foot frame towards him.
“Somehow, you keep putting me on my back,” he mused as she pressed his glans against her burning vulva. He failed to hold back a groan as she slipped him inside her, his sensitive anatomy once again returning to the hot, slick embrace of her silken insides. He felt the impact travel through his body as she dropped, her thighs parting wide to allow her to get low enough to hilt him, her deepest reaches greeting him with another teasing clench. It was enough to daze him, Leandros staring up at her vacantly as the pleasure rocked him.
“I like you on your back,” she huffed, wetting her dark lips with her tongue.
“I never thought that I would have to say this, but please be careful,” he stammered as the pair settled into their new position. “You are very heavy…”
“You said that you might be the only man alive who could handle me,” she replied as she gazed down at him, her expression that of someone who was moments away from biting into a succulent cut of meat.
“That doesn’t mean I’m impervious,” he chuckled nervously.
“Don’t worry,” she crooned, cupping his face in her hands. She bent double, leaning over to kiss him, the touch of her soft lips and the roving of her long tongue sapping his anxiety away. His eyes closed of their own accord as her organ glanced the roof of his mouth, tingling pleasure washing over him with each doting stroke, Asteria pouring her affection into their embrace. When she broke away, she lingered there for a moment, smiling expectantly as she watched him catch his breath. “I won’t hurt you.”
She didn’t give him time to reply, Leandros’ fists gripping the furs beneath him as she rolled her wide hips, this new position giving her complete control over their coupling. She sat back a little, the springy flesh of her rump spilling over his thighs, keeping a hand on his chest as she began to bounce on his shaft. She lifted herself, then dropped, forcing his throbbing manhood so deep that he could feel it bottoming out. Her tight passage squeezed and shifted, her muscles kneading him, wet flesh stroking him from base to tip with each thrust.
Leandros lifted a hand to her muscular midriff, that powerful core shifting and flexing as she moved, putting on a mesmerizing show that left him almost as breathless as her kisses. He could feel her brawn moving beneath her wet hide, her damp fur clinging to her chiseled physique so tightly that he could even make out veins beneath it. He ran his palm across her flexing muscles, watching them tighten at his touch, the motions of her hips reminding him of a priestess dancing in the throes of her trance.
As befitted her athletic build, she exerted such perfect control over her movements. She swung her wide hips, making lazy circles and teasing figures of eight, her narrow tunnel swirling around his shaft with just as much finesse as her tongue had. Leandros couldn’t focus on anything else, his very thoughts tied to her rhythm, every fresh twist or shimmy hypnotizing him. She pushed back and forth as she kept him buried in the tight embrace of her depths, riding him into the pelts, sometimes lifting herself off him before letting herself fall again. The sensations were delightfully intense – varied enough that he couldn’t guess what was coming next, ensuring that he could never grow comfortable.
Asteria was lost in her fugue, the hot breath that left her nose with each bestial snort visible now as condensation, like she was blowing little clouds of mist. The bronze bowl burned behind her, framing her gyrating figure, the way that the flames wavered drawing his attention to her features as they caught its glow. The flawless teardrop outline of her heavy breasts bouncing against her chest, shimmering rivulets of sweat flowing between the bulges of her sculpted abs, the way that her thighs dimpled each time a tremor of ecstasy rocked her – it was like peering into a dream. How could such beauty and strength have been born of a curse? Had Poseidon’s intent been to give Pasiphae a daughter who would be so desired that any children Minos sired would pale in comparison?
Her pace grew faster and more desperate, droplets of her exertion raining from her heaving body as she moved atop him, her need palpable. She was so close – he could feel her grip on him growing tighter, her ragged breaths punctuated by little sighs and grunts that betrayed her mounting pleasure. Leandros’ hips were numb from her relentless rutting, his muscles burning, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
She was wringing another climax out of him, every wracking thrust bringing with it a fresh flurry of sensation, that all too familiar ache returning. He wanted so badly to lift himself off the floor and join her in her dance, but she was too heavy, her weight pinning him to the pelts. Just like when they had fought beside the monopteros, she was overpowering him with her brute strength, more of a force of nature akin to the inexorable tide or the roaring wind than a woman of flesh and blood. It was something that he welcomed – an experience that Asteria alone was able to provide.
“I-I am nearly there,” she growled, her voice faltering. “Leandros…I cannot…”
“Let it come,” he panted, scarcely able to formulate a coherent reply as her greedy lovemaking robbed him of his breath. “Don’t fight it, Asteria.”
She redoubled her efforts, Leandros clawing at her firm thighs as she fucked him onto the floor, Asteria shifting her weight atop him in search of the most pleasurable angle. His tender glans was driven into her burning, clenching passage, the maddening folds and wrinkles of her slippery flesh scouring him. There was no reprieve – Asteria’s stamina was far in excess of his own, her raw physicality giving him little choice but to lie there beneath her and simply wallow in the surges of ecstasy that she was subjecting him to. He felt as though he was floating on the surface of an ocean, rising and falling on the waves, at the mercy of the tide. Release had always been something that Leandros had sought out, something that he had to build towards, but Asteria had him fighting to stave it off. He had to hold on just a little longer, just enough to-
Asteria’s moans rose in volume and pitch, his giant partner sitting upright as she arched her spine, pointing her bovine nose at the ceiling. All of her finesse and poise evaporated, replaced with base instinct, her hips grinding against him with all the need and urgency of a rutting beast. Her animal heritage was on full display, wild and unashamed.
Her entire body stiffened, her muscles tensing as the first pulse of her orgasm tore through her, Asteria opening her mouth in a silent cry. She began to move again, resuming her frantic pace, each fresh wave of her climax making her shiver and buck. Her whole body was in motion, her sweat-soaked fur accentuating her flexing abs and bouncing breasts, the long mop of her hair falling over her face as she hung her head. He could feel her climaxing, her already narrow insides closing around his cock in rhythmic, fluttering contractions. It was more than he could stand, and the last of his resistance melted away.
Leandros tried to arch his back as he joined her in her ecstasy, but he was pinned beneath her weight, the frustration only adding to the intensity of the sensation. Asteria let out a low, lurid groan as he erupted inside her, her loins wringing him of his seed with their ruthless stroking. After teetering on the edge for so long, the relief was almost as wonderful as the pleasure. She wrung another hot rope of his emission from him, shuddering when she felt his warmth well up within her, her ceaseless grinding driving them both higher and higher.
All he could do was reach out and sink his fingers into the meat of her hips, their bodies moving together, the lines where one ended and the other began becoming blurred. Asteria came down to kiss him again, clumsy and ravenous, gasping into his open mouth as another stab of ecstasy teased her. He did his best to meet her embrace, their tongues intertwining, their writhing forms glued together by their shared sweat. In the firelight, everything was wavering shadow, Leandros catching scant glimpses of Asteria’s shining lips and her dark eyes as her long braids fell about his head like a curtain. Again and again, she drove another throb of his climax from him, prolonging his rapture until his balls ached with the effort.
Finally, she began to come down from her high, her thrusting growing more measured as she rode out the last lingering pangs of her orgasm. The bliss that followed sent her toppling to the furs beside him, Asteria dragging him into her arms, planting his face between her breasts as she exhaled a satisfied sigh into his curly hair. They separated with a shudder, her thighs releasing their iron grip on him, one last pulse of pleasure disturbing his peace as he slid out of her. He had been plugging a sordid blend of their juices, the pearly concoction leaking out to pool on her thigh, standing out starkly against her dark fur.
They lay there together for a few minutes, wallowing in a contented heap, slowly recovering their faculties. Leandros felt like he was awakening after a night of drunken revelry, warmth and satisfaction radiating through him. Wherever his hands roamed, they found wet fur and pillowy flesh, the sound of her heavy breathing like the sweetest music to his ears.
“Now I know why Corinna’s husband made her so happy,” Asteria purred, planting her soft lips against his forehead affectionately. “I imagined that I would try this once, if only to see what it felt like. Now, I fear that I cannot live without it – without you.”
“I can’t go back to mortals after this,” he chuckled. “I expected to be the one guiding you, but you snatched the reins right out of my hands.”
“Have you ever been more glad to have not stabbed someone?” she giggled, the usually girlish sound coming out deep and husky from the towering creature. “Can you go again soon?”
“Again?” he asked, his eyes widening as he peered up at her. “You’ll turn my bones to dust at this rate. Should we not rest? We’ll reach the gate tomorrow – who knows what trials we might face?”
Asteria shook her head adamantly.
“This is my first time, but it may also be my last. By the Gods, I shall have my fill of you before we march on that gate tomorrow, even if it leaves us both sore and poorly rested. I shall take you in every way, until I am certain that there is nothing more to learn. Show me everything…”
She pulled him closer, silencing his objections with another deep, dizzying kiss.
CHAPTER 7: THE CRETAN BULL
“Look,” Leandros said, pausing to examine the stone wall of the tunnel. He raised his lantern, illuminating a faded chalk marking. “It’s one of the marks that I left on my way inside. Gods, it’s almost been washed away by the damp already – I can barely make it out.”
“It means that we are on the right track,” Asteria replied, her hooves echoing down the passage as she walked along beside him.
“We’re not far off,” he continued, casting his wavering flame down the tunnel ahead of them. “We don’t know how the king’s guards might react when I ring the bell, so be ready for anything. Once those logs are removed from the doors, there will be nothing standing in our way.”
“Should we give them a chance to surrender?” Asteria asked.
“I’m hoping they’ll flee at the sight of you,” he replied with a chuckle. “If they’re braver than they looked, and they’re willing to die for Minos, we might have a difficult fight ahead of us.”
“I am ready,” she replied, reaching down to tighten one of the leather straps that attached a salvaged shield to her thigh. “If they had not sent a dozen men to kill me, I might not even know how to swing an axe. There is irony in that.”
“They created the monster that they were so afraid of,” he said with a grin.
Guided by the chalk, they made their way back to the entrance, Leandros turning a corner to find himself standing in the long hallway through which he had first entered the labyrinth. He was struck with a blend of relief and apprehension. For so many days, he had feared that he might never leave this place, but he had imagined that his return would be met with fanfare rather than a fight. Getting back here had been the easy part. The real struggle was about to begin.
He led Asteria down the passage, the sound of their footsteps breaking the eerie silence. Were they too late? Had Daedalus given up on him and called off the guards by now?
Finally, the light of his lantern was cast on a pair of giant wooden doors, their bronze plating shining in its glow. Silently praying to any deity who might listen, Leandros took a knee, searching the stone floor for the rope that connected to the bell on the other side of the gate. He exhaled a sigh of relief as he found it, taking it in his hand.
“Be ready,” he warned, turning his head to glance back at Asteria. She reached over her shoulder to draw her massive axe from its rope holster, hefting it in her hands, then nodded to him. It was time.
Leandros pulled the rope taut, hearing the faint, almost inaudible sound of a bell ringing on the other side of the doors. He waited for a few tense moments, trying to listen for any indication that there were people moving around on the other side, but there was nothing. Just when he was beginning to despair, there was a creak from the heavy hinges, the fifteen-foot doors slowly starting to open.
“Let me go first,” Leandros whispered. “I can fit through the gap.”
Light spilled into the passage through the widening opening, Asteria stepping out of its path, pressing up against the wall to avoid being seen. Leandros glimpsed a helmeted man on the other side – he was poking his head through the gap. His eyes widened when he saw Leandros, and he turned to shout something to someone who was out of view.
“It’s him! Fetch Daedalus! Inform the king!”
They began to pull the doors open wider, Leandros seeing the two massive logs that sealed them shut lying on the floor nearby. When the aperture was wide enough, he stepped through, half a dozen palace guards greeting him with cheers. They crowded around him to pat him on the back and shoulders, celebrating what they thought was his victory.
“Did you do it?” one of them asked excitedly. “Did you bring its head?”
They froze in place as the sound of hooves on stone echoed down the tunnel, Asteria stepping into the light, illuminated by the glow of the torches. Leandros slowly raised his shield as a few of the men began to take faltering steps backwards, some of them reaching for the swords on their belts. She opened her mouth and roared – a terrifying sound that would strike fear into the bravest of men, Leandros watching them practically jump out of their sandals. Two of them dropped their shields and raced off up the passageway, but the other four took up defensive postures, brandishing swords and spears as they took refuge behind their shields.
“It’s going to be a fight, then,” Leandros mused as he gripped the haft of his doru. “Your loyalty is misplaced.”
Asteria stepped forward, her battle axe at the ready as she came to a stop behind him, towering over him. The men backed up a little further, but they didn’t flee, their frightened eyes darting between Leandros and his monstrous companion.
One of them finally drummed up enough courage to strike, stepping in to thrust his spear towards Leandros. He swept the weapon aside with his shield, then drove the bronze tip of his doru into the man’s throat, crimson blood flowing down his cuirass as he was sent gurgling to the floor. These men were not assassins or towering beasts – they were just soldiers, and they stood little chance against a seasoned warrior.
Now that the first blow had been struck, the remaining three guards rushed in, the blades and spears that they brandished flashing in the torchlight. Leandros impaled another on his bloody spear, a kopis slamming against his shield as he warded off a second. The third soldier circled around to his left, intending to take advantage of the opening, but Asteria lunged forward to intercept him.
She grunted with the effort as her axe cut through the air with a whistle, its blade catching her opponent in the stomach, cleaving through his armor as though it wasn’t even there. He was bisected, the two halves of his body tossed across the wide passageway, impacting the far wall before slumping to the stone floor in a grisly heap. She turned her furious eyes on the last man standing, letting out a bone-shaking bellow as she lifted her hoof, kicking him away from Leandros with the force of an angry stallion. Like he had been hit with a battering ram, he crumpled, his unconscious body rolling across the floor.
Leandros slid his now limp adversary off the end of his spear, then paused to gawk at the carnage that surrounded him, his eyes wide. How close had he come to being cut in half or smashed by a hoof?
“It’s nice to be reminded that I picked the right side,” he muttered, setting off down the passage at a brisk jog. Asteria followed behind him, easily matching pace with her long, loping strides. “Those two guards ran ahead of us, which means that they’re probably alerting the rest of the palace right now,” he panted. “We won’t have the element of surprise for much longer.”
“Let them come,” Asteria growled. “They cannot leverage their numbers in these halls.”
“You might have no love of fighting, but anyone who stands between you and freedom is a fool.”
She paused suddenly, turning to glance at the ostentatious archway and the two open doors, the darkness gaping beyond them.
“I am finally out,” she muttered, as though scarcely able to believe it. “I was confined to that prison for almost my entire life, and now, I am seeing it from the outside…”
“And you’ll never have to see it again,” Leandros added. “Come on – we have to keep moving. We can celebrate when we’re safely offshore.”
She nodded, following after him. Leandros had some idea of where Daedalus had led him on his way down, and he eventually arrived at one of the flights of stone steps that would take them to the palace above, starting to mount them. He paused to look back at Asteria, seeing that she was having some trouble with the human-sized steps. Her hooves were too large for them, but she braced herself against the walls, clambering up them a few at a time. After another couple of corridors and a flight of steps later, they emerged into one of the deeper levels of the palace, naked stone transitioning to tiles and more ornate decorations. There were side doors now that led to storage areas and rooms where food could be preserved at lower temperatures, their surroundings still lit by torches that were mounted to the walls at intervals. These were no longer Promethean flames – just normal fire. The concept almost seemed novel to Leandros now.
“I can smell fresh air!” Asteria declared, taking a deep breath. “So many memories are flooding back to me!”
“We can’t be far from the surface now,” Leandros said, waving her on as he led her down the hallway. Unlike the wide passages below, these were narrower, large enough that maybe four men could stand shoulder to shoulder. Asteria had to lower her head to avoid having her horns scrape along the ceiling, only able to fit at all due to the palace’s lavish architecture.
As they turned another corner, Leandros skidded to a halt, Asteria almost running into him from behind. Ahead of them, at the end of the corridor, was the final flight of stairs that led up to the ground floor. A group of soldiers were thundering down the steps, their armor and weapons clattering, taking up a tight formation as they reached the floor. They were clad in shining bronze cuirasses, their helmets adorned with ornate crests, the same flowing cloaks of red silk that Leandros had seen in the armory hanging from their shoulders. Their weapons were of the same quality – adorned with the decorative flair that he had so admired on the kopis that he had brought with him. They blocked the passage, their bronze shields interlocking to form an impenetrable wall embossed with the Minoan bull, their spears jutting from behind it. These men were not as skittish or as ill-prepared as the guards that he and Asteria had slain at the gate – they were here to fight.
Asteria moved up beside him, the two of them just about able to stand side by side, exhaling an angry snort as she brandished her axe.
“No way around them,” Leandros said, mirroring their posture as he raised his shield. “We’ll have to go through. I count fifteen.”
“Have you ever fought against such odds before?” Asteria asked as she eyed them warily.
“There’s a first time for everything,” he replied.
“If you are joking about what happened last night, we shall have words. Assuming that we survive this…”
Their commander yelled an order – a guttural chant that was echoed by his men, the formation taking a thundering step forward as one. They held the line, bronze shields and spear tips glinting in the torchlight.
Leandros broke into a sprint, covering the distance between them quickly, ignoring the lingering pain in his bicep as he raised his doru over his shoulder. He leapt at the last moment, sailing through the air, plunging the spear down towards the nearest soldier. The man lifted his shield, but too late, the sharp point glancing off it and sinking deep into his collar. Leandros landed on him, forcing him back with his weight, knocking the men behind him off-balance. As his target vomited blood from beneath his helmet, Leandros let go of the haft, his blade singing as he drew it with practiced speed. The man to his right had his throat slit before he could even react to what was happening, Leandros readying his next blow as the formation dissolved into a disorganized melee.
He deflected a spear, then parried a blade, the two swords sparking as they met. He kicked one of his opponents, the man blocking the blow with his shield, but Leandros’ strength far exceeded that of any mortal. The soldier was sent tumbling backwards, prevented from falling by the proximity of his comrades, but the opening allowed Leandros to drive his blade into the man’s chest. It cut through his cuirass like butter – Minos had good smiths in his employ, he had to admit.
There was no room to maneuver in the hallway – not with a dozen remaining men crowding it, Leandros warding off another spear jab with his shield as the guards began to surround him. He spun on the spot, grunting with the effort as he parried a sword, lunging forward to ring the man’s helmet with his shield.
A sound like the beating of a drum resounded, accompanied by a bellowing war cry, Leandros glancing up to see Asteria charging down the hallway. Her hooves hit the tiled floor like hammers, cracking them in places, her breath leaving her nose in a snort as she lowered her horned head. Like a rolling boulder, she plowed into the crowd of guards, the sound of clattering armor and yells of alarm filling the air. She had the size and strength of a prize bull, tossing the men to the ground like scattered children’s toys, one of their unfortunate number finding himself impaled on one of her curved horns.
She raised him off the floor, his blood staining her ivory, then sent him smashing into the leftmost wall with a violent swing of her head. Half of the guards were now picking themselves up, readying their weapons as they staggered to their feet, the shouting of their commander drowned out by Asteria’s bellowing challenge. One of the men came at her, thrusting his spear towards her belly, but she caught it with one hand. She yanked it, pulling the soldier closer, slamming a hoof the size of an anvil down on his chest. He was driven to the ground, his cuirass crumpling beneath her weight, his cry silenced as his rib cage followed suit.
With his left flank now clear, Leandros could more easily engage his opponents, driving them back with a flurry of blows. One of the men thrust a spear towards him, its tip sliding over his shoulder and narrowly missing his head as he jerked out of its path. He brought up his kopis, cleaving through the haft, the wood splintering. Leandros gave its wielder no time to react, his next swing decapitating him, his severed head bouncing off the shield of the man beside him.
Behind him, Asteria loosed another bestial roar, one of the soldiers lifting his shield as she raised her axe over her head. She brought it down with the strength of an ox, its blade cleaving through his shield, splitting it in two before biting into his shoulder. It didn’t come to a stop until it reached his waist, Asteria kicking his partially bisected body away, leaving a smear of crimson on the tiles.
Another of the guards swung his sword at her leg – it was all that he could reach – the blade glancing off the shield that was strapped to her thigh and biting into her hide. It wasn’t a deep wound, just another scar for her collection, but it drew blood. Asteria paused for a moment, then snorted, taking off his arm with an upward swing of her axe.
Leandros drove one of his assailants against the wall, burying his blade in the man’s chest. There were only half a dozen of them left standing now, the remaining guards grouping up as they began to back away towards the stairs. He followed after them, stooping to pick up a discarded spear as he went, launching it like a javelin. It impaled one of the men, sending him toppling to the ground, his companions leaving him behind.
Asteria’s thudding footsteps filled the hall as she advanced beside Leandros, her nostrils flaring angrily, her tail flicking back and forth behind her.
“Who do you fear more?” she bellowed, some of the guards sharing surprised glances. They hadn’t expected her to be able to speak. “Me, or Minos?”
Half of their number threw their weapons down and turned tail, ascending the steps at a run, the three remaining soldiers faltering.
“Come back here, you cowards!” their commander shouted after them. “Minos will toss you into the labyrinth for this!”
Asteria barreled towards them, swiping one of them aside with the flat of her axe head, swatting him like a fly. His body slammed into the wall, broken tiles showering him as he slumped to the floor. With another roar, she took off the commander’s head, Leandros darting in to drive his kopis into the last man’s heart.
He shook his sword to dislodge some of the blood that clung to its ornate blade, then adjusted his shield, looking up at Asteria. Her dark fur was splattered with blood that was not her own, a droplet of it falling from her horn, her chest rising and falling with her labored breathing. She turned her furious eyes on him, then her expression softened.
“We must find my mother,” she said, stepping over the broken bodies as she made for the stairs. “When Minos learns of our escape, I cannot say what he might do to her.”
Leandros nodded, jogging after her.
The torchlight faded away as they rose higher, replaced with a point of brighter, more natural light that flooded in from the top of the staircase. They emerged onto the ground floor, finding no more guards waiting for them, Asteria raising a hand to cover her eyes as they were exposed to the sun’s glare. They were standing in one of the covered walkways near the central courtyard of the palace. It was open to the air, the roof above their heads held aloft by rows of pillars adorned with ornate carvings, the ocean breeze blowing between them to rustle Asteria’s long hair.
She lowered her hand, blinking as her vision adjusted, turning her head in the direction of the open courtyard. Leandros watched as she walked over to the nearest pillar, her pace slow and tentative, almost as though she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. With one hand resting against the carved stone, she poked her head out from beneath the shadow of the roof, her eyes wide. She took another step, lifting her nose to the heavens, her braids blowing in the wind.
He joined her, glancing up at the drifting clouds, a flock of passing gulls framed against the brilliant azure backdrop. He knew that they could only spare a few scant moments to appreciate the view, but he didn’t want to spoil this for her. She hadn’t seen the sky for fifteen years.
“I have dreamed of this moment,” she muttered, transfixed by the sight. “I could never be sure whether my memories had faded with time – if I could even remember what the sky truly looked like. Now that I’m seeing it…I am left speechless. I feel as though I may fall up into the heavens and be swallowed if I let go of this pillar,” she added with a nervous chuckle. “It’s so…big…”
“Are you alright?” he asked, concerned by her sudden change in demeanor.
“How should one react when they see their most earnest wishes realized?” she replied, turning her head to glance down at him. One side of her face was soaked with blood from the guard who she had impaled on her horn, yet her eyes were wide with almost child-like wonder. “What can I say other than thank you?”
They were interrupted by the sound of yelling, the pair turning to see more guards pouring into the courtyard from an adjacent walkway, their armor shining beneath the midday sun. There were easily as many as they had just faced below ground.
“I know where the throne room is,” Leandros said, readying his shield as the wall of bronze raced towards them. “It was well-defended when I arrived, and if Minos is anywhere, it will probably be there.”
“He will keep my mother close,” Asteria replied, hefting her axe. “You can go to your boat, Leandros, if that is your wish. I will not ask you to die for me.”
“Are you kidding?” he replied. “I’m not leaving Crete without you. We go together, or we don’t go at all.”
She smiled at him, then lowered her horned head, her war cry shaking the pillars as she lurched into a charge. Her massive frame crashed into the guards, scattering half a dozen of them across the dusty ground, toppling some of them into the decorative shrubs and flowers. Like a war God given form, she waded through the waist-high field of bronze, her teeth bared in a snarl as she swung her axe. Leandros took advantage of the chaos, skirting the edge of the formation, picking off stragglers with his sword. They were so transfixed by the giant, bellowing monster that they scarcely seemed to notice him, the extra space giving him lots of room to maneuver.
He pulled another distracted soldier from the pack, kicking his feet out from under him and driving his kopis into his chest, blood seeping into the dusty earth. More of them were splitting their attention now, trying to head him off, the courtyard turning into a battlefield.
Another of the guards fell before his blade, slumping to the ground as his lifeblood spilled from the gash in his belly, Leandros searching for Asteria in the melee. She wasn’t hard to find – towering above her assailants, sending their broken bodies flying with each powerful swing of her weapon. A dozen of them had formed a circle around her now, their shields raised defensively, their spears reaching out to prod and poke. Whenever she blocked or parried one of them, there was another waiting to stab her from behind, Asteria spinning on the spot in a bid to ward them off. She yanked one of the men from the formation and crushed him underfoot, but two more stabbed her with their spears from another angle, a bestial cry of pain filling the courtyard. When she turned to face her attackers, another spear found its mark, sinking into her calf. She was slowly being whittled down.
Leandros began to make his way towards her, fighting as he went, cutting a swathe through the soldiers who stood between them. One of the guards moved to intercept him, slamming his sword into Leandros’ shield, but the warrior pushed back to knock him off-balance. He lost his footing, falling to the ground, Leandros barely pausing as he dispatched him with a downward thrust from his blade.
Another came at him from the left, yelling a challenge that was answered with a quick flurry of strikes, Leandros overwhelming the man with his strength. He was wielding a wooden shield, which splintered apart as the demigod rained down strikes from his sword, carving through it like he was chopping firewood. His blade bit into flesh, blood splattering his bronze armor.
As he cut through the thigh of another would-be hero, sending him toppling to the ground in a spreading pool of his own blood, he heard a scream. He glanced up to see Asteria toss one of the spearmen through the air like a doll, sending him sailing over Leandros’ head to land in a heap somewhere behind him. She was bleeding in a dozen places now – nothing deep enough to be fatal, but it was only a matter of time until they weakened her. Her hide might be as thick as leather, and her muscles might be as hard as stone, but even she wasn’t invincible.
He finally fought his way to the ring of soldiers that surrounded her, driving his blade into the back of the closest man. The circle broke, the nearby guards turning to face this new threat, metal ringing as they crossed swords with him. The distraction gave Asteria the opening that she needed to break free, and she shouldered into the men opposite Leandros, throwing her immense weight around.
When their numbers began to thin, the survivors broke ranks, fleeing into the surrounding palace. Leandros drove his sword into the chest of a dying guard to speed his passing, then stepped back, glancing around at the carnage they had created. There must have been near twenty men lying dead in the courtyard.
“Are you hurt?” he demanded, watching as Asteria paced on the dirt. “You’re bleeding.”
“It’s nothing,” she replied, shaking her head as though that might somehow dispel the pain. “Come – we must find the throne room before Minos has a chance to escape.”
They killed a few more guards on their way to the throne room, eventually arriving at the marble steps that led to its massive, ornate doorway. It was being blocked by another line of soldiers, forming a shield wall in front of the entrance, standing between the white marble pillars and ornate statues. Asteria and Leandros engaged in a short standoff with them, then one of the men broke ranks, letting out a yell as he leapt down the steps towards them. Asteria simply waited for him to come within reach, then drove him into the ground like a peg with her axe, leaving a bloody heap in her wake. The rest of the guards exchanged glances, then began to throw down their weapons, their swords and shields clattering down the stone steps.
They parted to let Leandros and Asteria pass as the pair ascended the stairs, stepping into the throne room, their footsteps echoing off the tiled floor. Illuminated by the burning braziers was the throne of gleaming white marble, and sitting atop it was Minos. He looked exactly as Leandros remembered him – clad in robes of the finest silk, his beard and fingers adorned with golden jewelry, a gem-encrusted diadem perched atop his head. There was no warmth in his expression this time, however. His face was etched with fear and anger, his eyes peering out from beneath a heavy brow, darting between his two foes.
Sitting beside him was Pasiphae, now rising from her lesser throne to stare at Asteria, clutching a handful of her flowing gown. She looked like she had seen a ghost – as though she couldn’t believe that her estranged daughter was standing before her. Asking whether she recognized her was a moot point – the bull’s head gave that away – but her daughter had left her as little more than a child. Now, she was almost tall enough to catch the hanging braziers on her horns. That she was soaked with blood and carrying an axe that could have felled a tree in a single swing was probably doing her no favors.
“A-Asteria?” she asked, taking a hesitant step towards the edge of the raised pedestal upon which their thrones sat. “Is it really you?”
“Mother!” Asteria replied, a blend of joy and exertion leaving her breathless. She began to stride closer but stopped as Minos rose from his seat, the sound of his sword sliding from its sheath casting the audience chamber into silence.
“How dare you betray me, Leandros!” he bellowed as he pointed the blade at him. “You swore on your honor that you would bring me that creature’s head! Instead, you free it and bring it to my throne room? Did your time in the labyrinth drive you mad? I offered you gold and glory both, yet you throw these gifts back in my face? Why?”
“I have learned the truth, Minos!” Leandros replied. “I know that it was your blasphemy that created Asteria. I know that you sealed her away beneath the palace – an innocent child – solely to protect your position from the consequences of your mistakes. You tore her from her mother’s arms rather than take responsibility for your actions.”
“Leandros has more honor than you ever will!” Asteria barked, turning her furious gaze on the king. “I am alive only because he refused to kill me in my sleep. He had the perfect opportunity to strike – to claim all the riches and rewards that you had promised him – but he chose to stay his hand. It is not only my mother and I who have been wronged,” she added, her nostrils flaring as she gripped the haft of her axe tightly in her shaking fists. “How many innocent people did you throw into that pit as sacrifices? Did you really think that it would make amends for your rebuttal of Poseidon? How many people have starved to death terrified and alone because of you?”
“I am the king!” he shouted back, his eyes wide with a fury that bordered on madness. “I will not have my decisions questioned by the spawn of a beast of the field and a foreign traitor! Everything that I have done, I did to protect Crete! The oracle foresaw this monster destroying the island!”
“I am not going to raze cities and salt the fields!” Asteria added, spreading her arms in exasperation. “What prophecy is this? I wasn’t even trying to escape before you started sending assassins into the labyrinth to murder me!”
“You lied,” Pasiphae said quietly. It was more of a realization than an accusation. “You lied to everyone – you lied to me.”
“What are you talking about?” Minos asked as he turned his head to stare at her.
“You knew that I would make good on my threats if you harmed Asteria without good cause, so you invented the only scenario wherein I would sanction her murder. The dreams, the visions…you told me that she was going to destroy the island and slaughter its people – that she had become a twisted monster in her time locked away in that maze. You never saw Asteria destroying Crete in your dreams, and that wasn’t what the oracle told you either, was it? You saw her destroying you.” Pasiphae took a step closer to him, pointing an accusing finger, her words dripping with venom. “The oracle prophesied that if Asteria escaped her confinement, she would end your reign. It was all a lie. You tried to trick me into letting you kill my daughter!”
She lunged at him, but he caught her by the wrist, throwing her to the floor.
“Don’t touch her!” Asteria roared, the king once again turning his blade on them.
“Leave this island,” Minos said, reaching up to straighten his diadem. “I will order my men to allow you safe passage to your trireme, then you will leave, and you will speak nothing of what transpired here. If I learn that you have breathed a word of it to anyone, I will run my sword through this adulteress, and her blood will be on your hands.”
Asteria snorted angrily, taking a step forward, but Minos brought the tip of his sword down close to Pasiphae’s face. She was lying at the foot of her throne, her flowing gown spilling over the edge of the pedestal, propping herself up with one hand as her frightened eyes tracked the blade.
“One more step, and I’ll take off her head!” he snapped.
Asteria paused, frozen by indecision, her eyes brimming with tears of frustration.
“Leandros,” she pleaded, not knowing where else to turn.
He tried to gauge the distance between them and the king, but it was too great. Even he couldn’t have reached Minos before the mad king would have time to slay his wife, and he had no spear – no bow. They had come this far, but they were now faced with an impossible choice. Could he swear himself to secrecy after everything that he had seen? Could Asteria leave the island knowing that her mother would forever be held hostage by this tyrant? He shook his head solemnly – out of ideas.
“I cannot leave you here with him,” Asteria lamented, her voice starting to crack as the last of her composure crumbled. “I would have been killed as an infant if not for you. They would have tossed me bawling from the cliffs if you had not risked your life and your position to protect me from that fate. You were the only person who ever treated me as the child that I was.”
“It’s alright, Asteria,” she replied as Minos’ bronze blade poised above her head. Her voice was soft, but her eyes were now filled with determination. “I always promised myself that I would protect you, no matter the cost. If this is the only way, then so be it.”
“You have been a hostage all your life!” Asteria protested. “I cannot let it continue!”
“Listen to your beloved mother,” Minos spat, lowering his blade. Pasiphae climbed to her feet unsteadily, gripping the armrest of her throne to support herself. “Leave this island, and always remember that her life depends on your silence. Both of you.” He took a step closer to the edge of the pedestal, brandishing his sword again. “My armies could crush Kos if I so desired. I could raze your city to the ground and-”
Pasiphae suddenly lunged at Minos from behind, reaching for an ornate knife with a jewel-encrusted handle that jutted from a scabbard on his belt. He realized what was happening – but too late, Pasiphae driving it into his neck as he tried to wheel around with his sword. She buried it to the hilt in his jugular, dark blood jetting from the wound, his sword falling from his hand to clatter to the floor as he reached up in an attempt to remove it. He tossed the bloody dagger aside, then struggled to stem the flow, taking a faltering step off the pedestal as his eyes bulged from his head. After staggering along for a few more moments, he fell, making no attempt to catch himself as his face slammed into the tiles – dead before he hit the ground.
Pasiphae leapt over her husband’s body, rushing across the room and into her daughter’s outstretched arms. Asteria lifted her mother off the floor, squeezing her tightly in a hug, tears of relief and joy staining their cheeks.
“Can you ever forgive me, Asteria?” Pasiphae sobbed as she pushed her face into her daughter’s chest. “Minos made me believe that you would destroy the island and all its people. I should never have believed him – I should never have consented to his plot. I have been a terrible mother to you. I should have fled the island in the dead of night and never looked back the same day that you came into this world.”
“Nonsense,” Asteria replied, her voice wavering as though she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. “For twenty years, you have protected me. Every day that you spent sitting on that throne, you were keeping me safe.”
“I hate to interrupt, but there will be an army standing between us and my ship if we delay much longer,” Leandros said as he sheathed his sword. “We need to hurry.”
“Thank you for sparing my daughter,” Pasiphae said, wiping away her tears as Asteria set her back down on the floor. “If what she said is true, you forsook your promise to the king and forfeited all of his rewards to help her. I would give you a hundred times what Minos promised, if only it was within my power to do so.”
“I will settle for seeing you both safely on my trireme,” he replied, turning to the door.
Asteria took her mother’s hand, guiding her down the marble steps, Pasiphae’s eyes widening as she saw what remained of the guard who had been crushed. They made their way through the palace’s opulent halls, meeting no more resistance, soon exiting through the main gate. They stepped beyond the palace walls, Leandros feeling dry grass beneath his feet, the wind that blew in from the ocean buffeting him. Asteria paused, then turned, captivated by the view.
The palace was situated atop one of the higher points on the island, perched near jagged cliffs that looked out over the sea. Her hair whipping in the wind, Asteria peered out over the endless expanse of blue, the water shimmering as the midday sun beat down on its surface. For fifteen years, she had never been without a roof over her head – without a wall in reach. Now, she was seeing the sky meet the ocean, staring out at the horizon. She was transfixed for a moment, lost in the azure void, but a tug from her mother’s hand snapped her back to the present.
They continued on down the dirt path, Leandros feeling a wave of relief as he saw the white sails of his ship in the distance. It was still moored in the lock where he had left it, the massive trireme no larger than a toy from this distance, surrounded by some two dozen other ships of all shapes and sizes. A stone quay was built up around the cove, enclosing the docks in fortifications, storehouses and other structures rising around it. Crete was a center of trade, and ships from all over Greece made berth there to flog their wares. It was a bit of a march, but he could see no armies standing between them and their freedom.
When the trio were a good three hundred feet from the palace, there came a cry from behind them, Leandros turning his head to see more bronze-clad soldiers come pouring out of the gates like a swarm of angry ants. They were brandishing weapons, gesturing to the fugitives, some of them hanging back as they began to knock arrows.
“Pick up the pace!” Leandros barked, starting to run. Asteria swept her mother off her feet, carrying her like a baby as she picked up speed, rapidly outpacing him with her loping strides. She flew across the grass, her heavy hooves barely seeming to touch the ground, free to run flat-out for perhaps the first time in her adult life. Leandros had no chance of keeping up with her, but his athleticism allowed him to gain some distance on their pursuers all the same.
He leapt over rocks and weaved around the sparse shrubs, the downward slope of the hill both a blessing and a curse, a few stray arrows impacting the arid earth uncomfortably close to him. He could hear the thundering footfalls of some hundred men chasing after them – the sound of an army on the march was no novelty to him. He tossed aside the satchel that he had been carrying, along with his shield – it wouldn’t be of any use against so many foes. If they didn’t reach the trireme in time, no amount of Godly blood would change their fortunes.
Asteria reached the docks before him, stopping at the wooden gantry that led from the quay to the deck of the ship, a few frightened traders scattering at her approach. There was alarmed shouting from the crew, the men leaning over the edge of the ship with weapons at the ready, not knowing what to make of this monstrous newcomer. Leandros yelled and waved his arms, trying to get their attention, one of the crewmen noticing him and nudging the man beside him. Seeing their commander racing down the hill with a hundred men at his heels told them everything that they needed to know, and they rushed to prepare the ship for launch.
Asteria set her mother down on the gantry and ushered her up the gangplank, turning to face a trio of guards who were rushing towards her from further along the quay. She didn’t even bother drawing her axe, tossing one of them into the water with a swing of her arm, the other two scattering as she roared at them. Leandros soon reached her, having gained some distance on his pursuers, but they had mere minutes to get offshore. Rather than undo the knot that was securing the ship’s mooring line to a nearby stone pillar, he drew his sword, slicing through it with one clean cut.
“Get aboard, Asteria!” he shouted. “These men are loyal to Kos – they will protect you if I order it!”
The sailors reached out to help her mother aboard, Asteria climbing the gangplank behind her, the wood creaking and sagging under her weight. A crowd had formed now, clad in all manner of colorful clothes, the locals keeping a safe distance as they watched the strange scene play out. A few guards were present, too, identified by their bronze armor and red capes. They seemed hesitant, but the sight of the soldiers who were now pouring into the docks spurred a few of them to action, Leandros stopping to duel one of them at the base of the gantry. He dispatched the man with a swing of his sword, then ran up the plank, already shouting orders to his crew.
“Start rowing, you dogs! Get us offshore!”
Arrows were whistling through the air now, raining down on the ship’s deck, digging into the wooden planks and masts with dull thuds. Asteria took her mother in her arms again, putting her back to the shore, shielding her with her massive body. Some of the sailors fired back, loosing arrows into the massing soldiers, sending a few of them toppling to the ground.
The orders had made it below deck now, and the oars began to move, the trireme slowly starting to drift away from the dock as they plunged beneath the surf. Many above deck were taking cover from the barrage, hiding behind barrels and masts, others firing bows and throwing spears. Some of the braver Cretan soldiers were trying to make their way up the gangplank, crowding the gantry, but Asteria was there to greet them. She reached down to grip the near end of the plank, muscles bulging beneath her dark hide as she lifted it along with the half dozen men who were standing on it. They tumbled into the water below as she threw it off the ship, the plank landing in the ocean with a splash, a few of the soldiers swimming over to cling to it like shipwrecked sailors.
As the trireme gained distance from the quay, its painted bow turning towards the opening at the end of the lock that led out to the open sea, the hail of arrows began to fall short. They splashed into the water behind it, the sails catching a favorable wind, helping the ship gain speed. The Cretans had triremes of their own, but none that were ready to pursue, Leandros’ ship sailing out of the lock to leave the island behind. He walked to the stern of the trireme, watching the palace that was perched atop the island slowly fade into the distance, its white stonework gleaming like a beacon.
The chaos on the deck began to subside, the men observing the towering newcomer cautiously from a safe distance. She pulled a stray arrow from her shoulder with a grunt, then tossed it off the side of the ship, ignoring the gawking sailors as she knelt to comfort her mother. Leandros made his way over to join them, pausing to give one of his men a grateful pat on the back.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“No lasting damage,” Asteria replied, rising to her full height. She rolled her shoulders, cracking her neck.
“Your sailors have my thanks,” Pasiphae said, her long hair and her flowing gown blowing in the ocean breeze. “Were they not so brave and loyal, we might have met our ends on that quay.”
“They’re good men,” Leandros replied with a nod. “I’ll make sure that they’re rewarded when we get back to Kos.”
“Is that where we’re headed?” the queen asked.
“Leandros has assured me that we will be safe in Kos,” Asteria confirmed with a nod. “I only hope that we have not started a war,” she added, glancing back at the diminishing island warily.
“There will be no war,” Pasiphae replied adamantly. “Minos could never lay a finger on me because our marriage was the foundation of his political alliance with my family. When we reach Kos, I will send word to my people, and I will ensure that everyone in Crete knows the crimes of my late husband. When they learn that I have not been kidnapped, but have fled, there will be no cause for hostilities.”
“Will you return when things have died down?” Leandros asked. “You are still their queen, after all.”
“I have no desire to ever set foot in that palace again,” she spat. “Let them squabble over the line of succession – I will have no part in it. I want to be with my daughter,” she added, turning to take Asteria’s hands. “I have much to make amends for.”
“Oh! I have something for you,” Asteria stammered as she reached into one of the pouches on her belt. She produced a small toy that was dwarfed in her massive hands – a carving of a horse made from wood with little wheels attached to its legs. Pasiphae took it, clutching it against her chest, her eyes brimming with tears once more.
“You kept it?” she asked, glancing up at her daughter. “For all these years?”
“It was the only keepsake I had left to remind me of you,” Asteria replied.
“You should rest,” Leandros added, calling one of his sailors over. “There are cots below deck – I will have my men bring you whatever you need. The accommodations are a little more rustic than what you may be used to, but after such excitement, it would do you good to relax for a while.”
Pasiphae nodded, giving her daughter one last hug before the sailor guided her away, the toy horse still clutched in her hands.
“So, that was what you turned back for,” Leandros said as he watched the woman descend a flight of wooden steps that led beneath the deck. “Would have been a shame to keep that toy for fifteen years, only to forget it at the last moment.”
“It is all that I truly have left of my childhood,” she replied.
They walked to the stern, Asteria’s hooves hammering the deck, her long braids blowing in the wind as she watched Crete shrink behind them.
“It’s hard to believe that everything I ever knew was confined to that island,” she mused, staring wistfully at the jagged coastline. “It was my whole world, but from here, it seems so small and insignificant.”
“The world has opened its doors to you,” Leandros replied. “You can go wherever you please now.”
“I want to go back to Kos – with you,” she said, giving him a smile. “If I am to see the world, then I want you to be my guide.”
“I was hoping you might say that.”
“So,” she continued, leaning over the wooden balustrade as she peered down at the ship’s wake curiously. “Did you get what you wanted?”
“How do you mean?” he asked, turning to face her as he leaned back against the barrier.
“You entered the labyrinth seeking glory. You might not have returned with my severed head, but you freed me, you saved my mother, and you liberated Crete from a tyrant – whether they know it yet or not. Those are labors worthy of a hero, if you want my opinion.”
“I think you’re giving me too much credit,” he chuckled. “We did those things, together. I would never have made it out of that labyrinth alive without you, and I’m fairly certain that you killed more guards than I did.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she conceded, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Still, you are a hero to me, and I will make sure that everyone knows it.”
“We really need to get you cleaned up,” he sighed, eyeing the many small cuts and abrasions that she had earned during their escape. “Come below deck, and let me patch your wounds.”
“Soon,” she said, looking out over the ocean. “I want to enjoy this for a few minutes more. Stay with me?”
“Of course,” he replied, Asteria wrapping an arm around him as he pressed closer to her.
“Do you think that your father will accept me?” she asked, glancing at some of the nearby sailors hesitantly. They hadn’t taken their eyes off her since she had boarded, and who could blame them? Nobody had ever seen her like before.
“It might take him a while to get used to you, but I think you have something to offer him,” he said with a sly smile. “Technically, you’re a princess. Your mother is still the queen of Crete regardless of your parentage, and she hails from a powerful family, one that Minos was willing to risk his throne to maintain an alliance with. After recent events, perhaps they could use some new allies…”
“What are you saying?” she stammered, tearing her eyes away from the horizon to peer down at him. That he could still make her flustered despite her strength made his heart swell. As imposing as she was with her black fur and her curving horns, there was still a young woman under all that brawn, one with the same dreams and desires as any other.
“If I would ask anything of your mother in reward for my actions, it would not be gold or accolades, but your hand. Be my wife, Asteria. Rule Kos at my side as my queen. I feel as though the Gods made us for one another, and the circumstances could not be more favorable.”
“I…I…yes, of course!” Asteria blurted, her long tail flicking back and forth restlessly. “But, what if your father says no? What if your people do not accept me?”
“If my father wants an heir, then that is my condition,” he replied as he reached out to take her hands in his. “The prospect of a new alliance should help sway him, even if he has misgivings. As for the people – let them complain. They will either come to see you as I do, or they will not. It is of little consequence.”
“You only came to Crete to win their favor,” she chuckled. “Would you really throw that away just for me?”
“You are the only thing I have ever wanted more,” he said with a shrug.
She laughed, then wrapped him in her powerful arms, squeezing him tightly as she lifted him off his feet.
“Don’t tell mother yet,” she added, setting him back down on the deck. “She has had enough excitement for one day. I fear that she might not survive another shock.”
“I’ll let you break the news when you feel the time is right,” he said.
“I hope you don’t find me boring,” Asteria continued, her gaze returning to the sea. “I am sure that you have seen this view enough times to grow sick of it, but it is all new to me. It will likely be the same with many things that you consider mundane…”
“If anything, I think you might teach me to appreciate the mundane a little more,” he replied as they watched the island slowly vanish into the haze.