I must've stayed in the shower for at least a half an hour, scrubbing my skin until it tingled and vigorously washing my hair. I wasn't sure why I felt dirty. I mean, I hadn't been dead long enough to be buried, and someone (I suspect one of the Unseen Servants) had cleaned me up after Heracles had...done his deed. Either that, or the process of resurrecting me had scoured me clean.
I had to have been covered in blood, after all, and the thought made me shudder a little. That, then, was why I felt the desperate need to shower. It was purely psychological.
As I washed - and washed, and washed - my hands kept returning to whatever was now around my neck. I was convinced it was a choker of some sort, but I couldn't tell what it was made of. And, disturbingly, I was unable to find the clasp that was keeping it where it was.
There were fluffy white towels waiting on the counter when I got out of the shower. I hadn't heard the door open, and figured that the Unseen Servants had delivered them. I unfolded one and used it to wipe the condensation from the mirror over the counter so I could get a good look at myself and - finally - at what was now around my neck.
As I wiped away the condensation, my eyes became visible in the mirror and I stopped to look at them. Still grey, still large, still...me. Something inside me unknotted and relaxed. No matter what had happened to me, I was still me.
The thing around my neck finally became visible as I wiped, and I leaned in to take a good look at it. It was indeed a choker, about an inch wide and made of a glossy gold material that shone like metal, but was supple, soft, and perfectly form-fitting. So much so that it moved with my neck, and I was unable to get my fingers between it and my skin at all. But it was so comfortable that I barely felt it there.
It had a single flat, oval stone set in the front...a piece of obsidian ringed in gold. The astrological symbol of Pluto seemed to float inside the stone, shimmering gold like the stone's trim.
The choker appeared to be one smooth, unbroken band, with no way to take it off. I remembered part of my conversation with Hades.
"What am I, then?"
Well, so it would seem. I'd seen Minerva wearing something like it, and had seen similar chokers on the other Avatars - both male and female - that I'd met. I'd figured it was some sort of fashion statement or badge of office, but evidently it was more than that. Hades had said - calling it a collar - that it would let me know his mind when I needed to. Did that mean it was, or would be, influencing my thoughts in some way? Perhaps subconsciously prompting me on the right way to behave and how to do my job?
I sighed. No point worrying about it now. Time would tell.
When I returned to my new bedroom after drying off, several more bookcases had appeared on the walls. Apparently, it was still being decorated and furnished, but at least whoever was doing so seemed to know my tastes. I love books, and wondered for a moment if I could have my collection brought from my old room in Mother's palace.
There were also now several items on the bed which hadn't been there before. A black silk toga-style dress with a matching undergarment of some sort folded beside it lay on the bed next to a sword, belt, and golden Corinthian-style helmet; Several matching pieces of armor were displayed on a stand to one side of the bed, with a pair of low-heeled, knee-high leather boots. Finally, a round, golden Trojan shield, about three feet in diameter with a stylized compass rose emblazoned on the front of it, leaned against the bed.
I stared at the assembled gear for a long moment before noticing that the Hoplite-style breastplate had the symbol of Pluto on the left breast, as did the belt's buckle, and the center of the shield. This, then, was my uniform.
I looked around, startled. That had been my Mother's voice, but where could it have come from? It had sounded clear, but a little tinny and soft.
"The helmet, my little owlet. Put on the helmet."
Yeah, that was definitely her. Nobody else had ever called me that.
I picked up the helmet, turned it over in my hands and looked into it. The inside of the faceplate was glowing faintly blue-white, and Mother's voice emerged from within it, dryly amused. "The helmet goes on your head, dear."
I smiled and put it on.
As soon as it was on - and it fit perfectly, more comfortably than any helmet I'd ever worn - the diffuse blue-white glow came into focus and formed a sort of heads-up display. It flowed away to either side and disappeared before I could get a good look at it.
"There," Mother's voice said in my ears. "I knew you'd figure it out eventually."
"Is that you, Mother?" I asked hopefully.
"Sorry, my little owlet, just a very clever recording," her voice said. "I wanted to leave you a message and a bit of information about the gifts I had made for you. You should have found a sword and shield with the helmet, yes?"
"Good. Hephaestus made them to my specifications, so you'll find them of the highest possible quality. The helmet, aside from providing you with as much information about what you're looking at as it can, will monitor the integrity of the rest of your armor and give you a great deal of information about your environment. It will also, on command, make you invisible, and can fold up into a hairband when you want to have it with you but not have it completely active."
"That's...that's very impressive." I was rather awed by the complexity and power of such gifts. But then, I was an Avatar now...I suppose I needed to be properly equipped for the work.
"Hephaestus is a very impressive artisan," Mother's voice said, "and he had the help of some very inventive people. The shield is much the same...durable, light, and can fold up into a bracelet so you never have to go without it. It's aerodynamically sound, so you can use it as a thrown weapon, but do so with care - it won't just return to you."
"And the sword?" I asked, curious.
"Tough enough and sharp enough to cut through solid stone. But it's not just a sword," she said, sounding pleased. "Its name is Cerberus. The only other thing I'll tell you about it is that there's more to it than meets the eye...I'll let you figure out the rest for yourself. It wouldn't be any fun if I told you all of the secrets of my gifts, would it?"
I smiled. "Of course not, Mother."
"You're a good girl," she said. "Hades promised to provide you with suitable armor, so make sure he does." I could almost see her hesitate, and heard it clearly in her voice. "I did this for a reason, my little owlet. I hope you'll understand someday and not hate me for what I've done."
"Mother? What do you mean?" There was no response. "Mother?"
Well, she'd said it was just a clever recording. Evidently I'd reached the limits of its abilities.
Rather than taking the helmet off, I ran my fingers over the sides around where my ears were and found a small, flat button on the right side. I pressed it, and grinned when - with a soft crackle of static - bits disappeared in what looked like some kind of electric discharge, while other bits folded back away from my face.
The end result was a golden hairband which started above my ears and ran around the back of my head.
To satisfy my curiosity, I reached up and felt behind my right ear. Part of the headband had adhered there - probably through magic - and was snuggled up against the back of my ear with a comfortable, obviously custom fit. Hephaestus was indeed a master of his craft. I felt the small, flat button, but didn't press it. It could wait.
Until I was dressed, at least. I put off examining the sword, shield and armor in favor of the dress and undergarments.
Correction, undergarment, singular. The undergarment in question was a bodysuit, with built-in support for my breasts. It was sleeveless, and had a high neck and full back, but no zipper. And I had been mistaken about the fabric being silk. It looked like silk, and sort of felt like silk...but it had an almost metallic sheen to it that I'd never seen before on any fabric.
Curiously, I tugged on the collar and it stretched impossibly wide. Wide enough for me to step into it. I was able to slide it effortlessly up over my hips and breasts, with plenty of give left for me to ease my arms through the arm holes. When it was up over my shoulders, it compressed around me, becoming perfectly form-fitting.
Maybe a little too form-fitting, I thought as I looked at my reflection in the full-length mirror that stood in the corner. It almost looked painted on. But it provided better and more comfortable support than any bra and panty set I'd ever worn. I needed to check my bureau and see if there were more of these for every day. I hoped there were.
Next, I slid into the toga-style dress. It complemented the bodysuit and was made of the same fabric, sleeveless and high-necked, though its skirt only fell to mid-thigh on me, a bit shorter than I was used to. I supposed it didn't matter much, thanks to what I was wearing beneath, but made a mental note to ask whoever was responsible for my wardrobe if they had a version of the bodysuit with shorts. Or better, a unitard or catsuit.
Then I sat down and slid my feet into the boots. They were supple, soft leather, and laced up to just above my knees. Like everything else, they were a perfect custom fit.
The breastplate went on next. It buckled under my left arm, which was a bit awkward...but then, armor was usually meant to be put on with someone else's assistance. I slid on and buckled the bracer for my right arm, but didn't find one for my left. Evidently, that was to be left bare for my shield, which made sense. Finally, plate greaves were buckled onto my boots, covering my shins.
Nothing for my thighs, which was pretty common in traditional Hoplite armor. I'd have to ask about that. If the armor was meant to be more than ceremonial, I’d feel more comfortable with a bit more coverage.
With my body armor seen to, I picked up the shield and examined it curiously. It had a pair of straps on its back, and was designed to fit over my left forearm, so I slid it on. The straps adjusted themselves automatically, and I quickly found another recessed button not far from where my hand rested inside it. When I pressed it, the shield separated into wedge-shaped segments which rotated counter-clockwise, gathering themselves up and sliding down into a disk about a half an inch thick and two inches in diameter that adhered to the wrist strap.
Hephaestus was really quite amazing. I couldn't wait to see what the sword did.
Cerberus, Mother had said it was named, after the three-headed dog that had once guarded the entrance to Tartarus. I supposed it was appropriate, since in a way I would be filling that same position, to some extent. Hades's attack dog.
Now, now, I chided myself gently, I'm quite a bit more than just that.
I buckled on the belt, then turned to look at myself in the mirror. I had to admit I looked very dramatic and pretty cool. The black and gold color scheme really worked very well for me.
After turning this way and that to admire my reflection, I finally picked up Cerberus.
It was a beautiful sword, shaped almost like a Roman Spatha, but a bit too long. It had a three foot long leaf-shaped red-colored blade with a bronze tip (which I was certain wasn't actually bronze); the guard was a half-dome oval made of smoothed obsidian, with its flat side meeting the blade, then curving gracefully down to a longer than normal two-handed grip. The grip itself was also slightly ovoid, ridged for comfortable finger placement, and was inlaid with a mixture of ivory, gold and ruby bands, ending in another piece of obsidian for the pommel.
I twirled the blade carefully, trying to get a feel for it. It was a lot lighter than it looked, and exquisitely balanced. I'd be able to handle it effortlessly with either one or two hands as needed.
Cerberus, hmm? And Mother's message had said there was 'more to it than meets the eye,' which was close to the tagline of a cartoon I'd enjoyed when I was younger, as well as its more recent incarnations. I examined the sword more closely, running my fingers over the hilt and guard carefully. My helmet changed shape, as did my shield. Why not my sword?
When I found the trick to it, its first transformation nearly startled me into dropping it. As I watched, the blade shortened to a foot long and the hilt extended, growing longer, and longer, until a spear lay in my hand where a sword had been. The shaft was six feet long, and when I tested it, it was still as light and perfectly balanced as its sword form.
"Wow..." I swung the spear around effortlessly, twirled it above my head and thrust it forward. This was a magnificent weapon in every respect, and by my guess it still had secrets to reveal to me.
That really ought to wait, though. I'd already kept Hades waiting longer than I should have. I collapsed Cerberus back into a sword and sheathed it, turned and left my bedroom...
...and faltered two steps through the doorway. Hades was standing near the brazier in the center of the room, looking around idly. He turned towards me, looked me over and nodded. "I see you found your uniform. It suits you well."
"Thank you," I said with a little bow. "I stopped to shower, and Mother left a message for me in the helmet, explaining about the armor and sword. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
He waved dismissively. "All in a good cause. I had Arachne weave the dress and bodysuit. The fabric is reserved for you and a few other Avatars, as supple as silk and as tough as steel. It won't prevent bruising, of course, but will protect you from most mortal weapons, including teeth and claws."
"Thank you," I said, and meant it. Then I smiled and ventured a bit of a joke. "I might have a word with her to see if she can make me an undergarment with shorts, or maybe leggings."
He considered that for a moment, looking me over, and made a thoughtful sound. "Yes, and to Hephaestus about getting protective plates for your thighs. An oversight, but one that can be remedied, in time. For now, your new assistant is waiting for you across the hall, and there's a mountain of work to be done."
Without another word, he turned and left. He actually had to duck slightly as he went through the doorway into the hall. It was, however, somewhat comforting to find that we were thinking along the same lines in terms of practical armor design.
Well, then. No time like the present. I was here to do a job, and I'd do it to the very best of my abilities.
Josh is a life-long native of Western Massachusetts. He spends his daylight hours disguised as a mild-mannered IT specialist, trying to get inanimate objects to talk to him and work the way he tells them to. He spends his nights trying to keep all of the animated characters in his imagination from saying too much…and work the way he tells them to.
For the past couple of decades, Josh has been creating worlds for his characters to inhabit, and dreaming up ways to push at the practical implications of a wide variety of Science Fiction and Fantasy tropes. He loves telling stories, entertaining his readers, and sparking fun debates about how to make the implausible plausible. He has a degree in Folklore & Mythology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst