The dog was rather large. Even, it was bigger than any three elephants, which made the second and third heads seem excessive. Kaiju at first thought its black fur was full of vines or roots, but they turned out to be dozens and dozens of snakes. It crouched in front of a vast arch in a black stone wall, and when it wagged its tail, the wind thereof was icy and wintry.
"Cerberus? " asked Eirlys.
"Yes, indeed," said the dog's middle head. "But I fear that I do not recognize you."
"I'm Eirlys — nobody in particular." "You are now someone in particular. A living human or even demigod visiting to the court of Hades guarantees a certain amount of well-deserved fame. Admittedly, swallowing a live frog the size of a small boulder would get you even more fame, faster, and more conveniently. If you had the frog, and the throat for it."
"I will stick with the visit, even at the cost of obscurity."
"Nonetheless, be welcome at the Palace of Hades and Persephone, where indeed a rich welcome is made to all, visitors or immigrants both," said Cerberus.
"We're visitors!" said Kaiju in a hurry.
"We have come on the command of Zeus himself, for to walk the ways of Tartarus," said Hermes.
"Or to ride an onocentaur on the ways of Tartarus, it looks like," said the dog.
Amphion grumbled, "Touring Tartarus is a bit more than I had planned on."
Cerberus' middle head peered and snuffled. "What are you going to do in Tartarus? People generally go there to rescue someone from an eternal and ironic torment, or sometimes to release one or another of the very dangerous creatures caged there. Neither of those ever ends well, by the way, " said Cerberus.
"Actually, we're just visiting someone. Kaiju, on the onocentaur, got cursed by one of the residents of Tartarus, and we're going to ask her to lift the curse."
Cerberus's heads peered at each other. "Hekate I suppose, or one of her lampades? There aren't many inmates of Tartaros whose curses, or selves, wander the sunlit and moonlit worlds."
"Echidna," said Eirlys.
"What has my somewhat-overdramatic mother done now?" asked Cerberus. Eirlys had forgotten the dog's ancestry.
"Inserted a dragon skeleton in my brain. It's giving me seizures," said Kaiju.
"That's a bit eccentric even for Mother," said Cerberus. "Why did she do it? For that matter, *how* did she do it?"
"We don't know either of those things," said Eirlys.
"Perhaps she will explain... I can't remember the last time she put some horrible curse on some mortal without a very obvious reason. It's not like her at all. Not that she never wants some mortal disposed of, but doing so is usually a chore for a youngster like the chimera or the hydra. Like, have you killed a monster lately, that might be one of my siblings — her children?," asked Cerberus.
"Not in reality. In games, perhaps," said Kaiju.
"Are you sure she worked the curse at all, then?"
"We got an oracle about it," said Eirlys, and explained somewhat.
"I don't sit on the High Court of Hades, and my lawyerly credentials are shady at best. But that oracle doesn't sound to me like certain proof that my dear mother is implicated in this matter."
"It's what we have to go on," said Eirlys.
"We can have more. I would be glad to guide you to her shadowy realm, and wag my tail while you ask her a few questions," said Cerberus.
"We accept with gratitude, " said Bastet.
"As long as you don't make any dog-versus-cat jokes," said Cerberus.
Cerberus led everyone through tunnels where lava had once boiled. Through a crack in a wall they saw a shining iridescent surface, like the carapace of an immense beetle. Bastet pressed her eye to the crack, leading Cerberus to askm "Did you want the full tour of Tartaros? Or the swift completion of your quest? I will gladly guide you, but the longer the skeleton is in Kaiju's brain, the more likely it is that she will need to fill out immigration paperwork for Hades. Also the paperwork is worse for mortals who actually die in Hades, much less Tartaros.
"Let's hasten to Echidna," everyone agreed. "And tour afterward, if there's time and interest," a few people allowed.
Seven assorted turns and eleven ridiculous paths later, and Cerberus howled a greeting. "Echidna, Mother dear, some gods and mortals are here to visit you!"
Echidna herself was a complex creature, with aspects of serpent, moon, coral reef, and elemental fantasy. Kaiju snapped a dozen photos of her; they didn't look like pictures of the same being.
"Kaiju! I never expected to see you here, or not for a long while indeed!" exclaimed Echidna.
"You know who I am?" asked Kaiju.
"Yes, of course I do. You are my latest project!," said Echidna.
"Why did you curse me, then?" asked Kaiju. "What did I ever do to you or yours?"
" Oh, you were more difficult than I expected, and a few vulgarities and imprecations may have spilled forth. If I have ever cursed you, I withdraw every curse, and replace each one with a blazing elliptical blessing." And indeed, the shapes of ghostly blazing shields were slightly visible around Kaiju.
"Kai? How do you feel?" asked Eirlys, noticing that her wife was still trembling.
"Not very different," said Kaiju.
"Have some tea and pastries, all of you!" said Echidna. She brought forth snacks and beverages on a copper tray.
The pastries were a carnivore's delight, spiced buttery meat in flaky dough. The tea was minty and sweet, and served in tiny glass cups.
Kaiju picked up her second pastry with her left hand, but a crampy spasm forced her to drop it immediately.
"Are you sure the curse is all gone?" asked Eirlys.
"Oh, yes," said Echidna.
"She's still having trouble moving her left side, it looks like to me," said Eirlys.
"Yes, of course, but that isn't any sort of curse," said Echidna.
"It's not functionally different. Does Kaiju still have a dragon skeleton in her brain?" asked Eirlys.
"Yes, of course, and much more than just the skeleton," said Echidna.
"So you *didn't* lift the curse," said Eirlys.
"Oh, you seem to think the dragon skeleton is somehow a curse," said Echidna.
"It causes seizures, it paralyzes, it's likely to kill her soon, so yes, it's a curse, mother," said Cerberus.
"I suppose it might have some minor side effects like that. But no, it's not a curse — not any more than your very life is a curse, Cerberus."
"I could make a strong case that it is, since I live in Hades and spend half my time in Tartarus."
"Kaiju is your new sister. Not yet hatched. The skeleton in her skull is an embryo in ovo. " And a most fearsome and doom-bringing sister she shall make for you, I should think!"
"Is 'fearsome' and 'doom-bringing' what you really want for my sister?" asked Cerberus.
'Fearsome' is a good look on anyone in our family, and doom our greatest legacy."
"What are you doing to me?" wailed Kaiju.
"Helping you live up to your glorious name," said Echidna.
"You .. put a skeleton in my brain because I like Godzilla movies too much?" said Kaiju, a bit hysterically.
"'Too much'? No such thing. A young dragon hatched in the boiling void of your Godzilla-fan imagination and sensibilities could be a most impressive beast indeed. Especially if you siphon some mystic power from your mother-in-law and wife. I turned your brain into a dragon's egg to see how good a dragon will hatch."
"How long do I have to live?" asked Kaiju.
"No idea. Usually the Olympians will send a hero to destroy you, but sometimes they wait forever or so before they get around to it, " said Echidna. "Also it depends partially on how many cities you destroy when you're dragonning around.
"They haven't killed me yet, and I'm nearly to my two thousandth birthday," said Cerberus. "I*did* get whomped by a hero, but that was just a dognapping, not an attempt to kill me or anything."
"I mean, before the egg in my head hatches," said Kaiju.
"My eggs incubate without hurry. You'll probably incubate for months or years," said Echidna.
"Why do you create monsters?," asked Eirlys.
"You're going to persuade me I'm inconsistent about it, or that you're an exception that I should ignore. I know you philosopher types," said Echidna.
"She might even be right about it," said Cerberus. "For that matter, why *do* you birth so many monsters, Mom?"
"When two primordeal horrors love each other very very much ... or each others' genitals anyhow, the monsters sort of come naturally at first. That's how I got started, like some naïve peasant girl getting seduced by the first sexy living volcano who comes along," said Echidna.
"Typhon?" asked Eirlys.
"Yes, Typhon. By the time I was gravid, Zeus and Pan and Hermes had already defeated Typhon and squished him under a mountain. So I decided I'd slither away from being Typhon's mate and ally, into some role with the Olympians, one less likely to get me fucking a thunderbolt."
"So I offered a few bespoke designer monsters — Ladon, the dragon who once guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides. Then, well, Cerberus, since the underworld needed guarding."
"So you created me to be Hades' dogsbody, " said Cerberus with a triple snarl. Kaiju gave the huge dog a nervous look." Oh, don't worry, we bicker about it whenever there's nothing else worth bickering about."
"I didn't know you'd be intelligent! The chimera and hydra weren't."
"Is that supposed to make it better? asked Cerberus.
"Am I going to come out intelligent?" asked Kaiju.
"I have not the slightest idea," said Echidna. "You might be a sentient dragon version of your human self, or an animal, or dead. If you can think of another option, that could happen too,"
"Mom, you're not being comforting to your daughter-to-be," said Cerberus.
" I'm not worried about her feelings, not until she hatches," said Echidna.
"So how are you going to get her to follow your wicked plan if you don't mind her feelings?"
"What's wicked about my plan?"
"Killing unwilling human, to start with. That's wicked. Then, who are you going to sell the dragon to?"
"I didn't *sell* you to Hades. You fell in love with him on your own," said Echidna.
"What is this plan you have for my wife?," asked Eirlys, her tail bristling.
"Just what you know. Turn her into a dragon egg, hatch, see how she comes out."
"So you're not going to send her off attacking Olympus or something?"
"I'm definitely not planning anything fatal for *me*", said Echidna.
"To be clear, getting Kaiju killed or mangled will be as fatal for you as this destroyer goddess can arrange," said Bastet.
"Fine, fine. No need to be pissy about it," said Echidna.
"Another topic on which we disagree," said Bastet.
"Lose as many children as I have, and you will stop being so fussy."
"Apropos of nothing in particular, *could* you de-egg Kaiju if you were so inclined?" asked Eirlys.
"Oh, this is about Egyptian burial rituals, where you want a whole unadulterated corpse?" asked Echidna. "I could take her head off and scoop the brain out if you wanted. You could do that too, and in a ritually correct way."
"Let's not do that," said Kaiju.
"No, this is about reversing the whole situation — the thing we call a curse but you don't."
"Un-laying an egg is harder than un-scrambling one," said Echidna. "I don't have the first idea how to go about it."
"So you've put my wife into mortal peril, because you were curious about what might happen, and to no further purpose," said Eirlys.
"Yes, exactly," said Echidna.
"How *could* you?"
"Gods usually do so. When Poseidon sinks a ship at sea, do you suppose he usually thinks how it will fit into some larger plan of his?"
"I've never met him."
"No, he does not," said Echidna. "The sea needs no planning. It is a wild realm, and is safe and prosperous for merchants and travellers, or it is not, and rarely is there a purpose. My own domain of monsters is no different."
"Except you chose Kaiju's head specifically."
"True, but I keep monsters more exciting than the sea. Which is the full extent of my plans," said Echidna.
"If you're looking for grand cosmic purposes in all things — Look to Zeus and Hera maybe, Hades and Persephone the Fates I guess, Athena. Mostly gods just keep their domains wobbling along," said Cerberus.
"So there's no purpose to anything? Bleak," said Kaiju.
"Rather, there a myriad little purposes, from a myriad gods. Your head-egg was purposeful, even if it wasn't a purpose for all peoples and times," said Cerberus.
"I don't think that's better," said Kaiju.
"Well. Become a supremely powerful dragon, conquer everything, and establish specificu niversal purposes for all things," said Cerberus. "The way the Olympians so notably didn't do."
"It sounds difficult," said Kaiju.
"I think the Olympians settled for some more modest goals. Keeping the universe as a place where joy, beauty, love, and those kinds of good things show up a lot. I forget the full list, or maybe there's not an official list," said Cerberus.
"So that's the purpose of the cosmos? occasional joy, love, beauty, and whatnot?" asked Kaiju.
"I think so. Hadesisn't the top spot for those things, so I don't see it *that much*, but we do make memorials to them."
"How do we get from that to my head exploding with a dragon?"
"It's not *my* purpose," said Echidna. "Well, except beauty. Beautiful monsters." "Here, look at this. Echidna produced a tablet of some normal mundane consumer electronics brand. She poked its surface, and showed a BBC-produced video clip of a cheetah bounding across the Serengeti, taking a young gazelle. "Now *that* is beautiful. Watch that cheetah run — it's practically flying."
Bastet chuckled. "I prefer a less strenuous approach myself — clever and subtle, not so much about pure speed, But, yes, she is a beauty, And I am glad to share a world with such creatures."
Echidna ruffled Kaiju's hair. "I'm sure you'll come out just as beautiful, in your own way."
"Still rather not."
"You'll get used to it," said Echidna.