“Do you remember what happened yet?” I asked gently.
Michel, still holding tightly to one of my hands, nodded a little. “Yeah. I was just about to start cleaning and stitching up his injury - it looked like a knife wound of some sort in his lower abdomen - when he bounced up off the bed, shoved me around against the wall, and started shooting.” He released my hand and moved to stand in front of the wall. “I think I was right about here.”
I looked at the blood sprayed on the wall. There was nowhere else he could’ve been. “That fits. I think there’s a - “
I was cut off and nudged forward slightly - and experienced a moment of disorientation - as one of the police officers who’d just arrived walked through me.
“It looks like there’s a bullet hole in the wall over here,” the officer said. “You said three shots were fired?”
“That’s what it sounded like,” one of the nurses said from behind me.
The officer nodded. “Looks like he missed once.” Then he walked through me again on his way back. “Somebody get me some tweezers and an evidence bag!”
I gritted my teeth and held my ground, shuddering a little as he passed through me. “Gods, I hate that,” I muttered. “Funny thing is, I was about to say something similar.”
“Nothing feels particularly funny to me right now,” Michel said quietly, looking back into the main room as they spread as sheet over his body.
“I get that,” I said quietly.
He looked at me, then smiled faintly. “I guess you would. What was it like for you? You know, when Heracles whacked you.”
“It hurt like hell. I imagine it scared the bejesus out of the rest of you.”
“A little warning would’ve been nice,” he agreed. “I wish I’d had a chance to say good-bye. I really liked a lot of the people I work with…worked with…here. What’re we going to do now?”
“I’m going to have a look at the bullet that missed you.” I turned back towards the wall.
“That’s violating a crime scene, you know,” Michel said.
I smiled faintly. “I know. They’re going to be very confused when they can’t find it, but I have a bad feeling about this whole situation. I think this is going to be something I have to sort out, not the mortal police.” I glanced over my shoulder at them. “Sorry, guys.” My attention returned to the small hole in the wall. “The question is, how do I get it out? Let me try something…”
Being intangible to mortals sets me slightly out of phase with the rest of the world, which is also partly how I’m able to interact with ghosts outside of the Underworld. It has other benefits too, like being able to walk through walls.
Don’t ask me why I don’t just fall through the ground. Magic works the way magic works.
If two shots from a small-caliber gun had been able to so easily kill Michel, there must have been something unusual about the ammunition. So I reached into the wall where the hole was and felt around a little.
In spite of half expecting it, I was still a bit startled when I actually felt the bullet’s very solid mass against my otherwise intangible hand. I curled my fingers around it and carefully wiggled it back out of the hole, until a deformed metal slug dropped into my hand. It was made of a strange metal that seemed to have a faintly golden sheen to it.
Michel looked over my shoulder at it. “That’s not a normal bullet. What is it?”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure.” I pocketed the squashed bullet and turned to Michel. “I’m going to take it to Daedalus, or maybe Hephaestus, to identify it. But first…” I held out my hand to him.
He took it sadly. “Thanks, Talia. For being here for me. Hey, I know it’s asking a lot, but…could you take me to see my dad first?”
“Sure. It’s not asking a lot at all. Anyway, I doubt Hermes would forgive me if I didn’t.” I gave his hand a squeeze. “Close your eyes, and I’ll take us there?”
“Do ghosts get dizzy?” he asked. That was Michel, endlessly curious, even in the face of the worst moment of his life.
I swallowed past a lump in my throat and shrugged. “Dunno. Do you really want to find out?”
“Not really.” He closed his eyes.
I don’t know how he knew we were coming, but Hermes was waiting for us when we appeared on the steps of his palace. He came down to us and sighed. “I’d hoped the rumor was wrong.”
I released Michel’s hand, took several steps away from the unhappy reunion, and tried very hard not to listen to any of it. Sadly, the souls of the deceased only have mass and solidity in the Underworld, so even in Hermes’s palace on Olympus, Michel had no substance. There were no hugs, no handshakes, no reassuring touches…right now, I was the only person there who could touch Michel.
So I closed my eyes and tuned everything out until I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder, and turned to see Hermes smiling sadly at me, his slate-grey eyes full of tears. “Thank you for bringing him to see me, Lady Pluto. And thank you for taking care of him personally.”
I shook my head and wiped away my own tears. “I could do no less, sir, not for such a good friend.”
Michel sighed softly from beside me. “All I ever wanted was to be a doctor.”
Something clicked in the back of my mind, like a light switch being flipped on. Hermes must’ve seen something on my face, because he gave me a curious look as I held out my hand to Michel. “Come on, my friend. One more stop to make.”
Michel took my hand. “All right.”
My next Step took us into Hades’s main hall, almost all the way back to the double doors, well past the altar I’d woken up on five years earlier. Hades was, as he often was, sitting in his throne at the other end of the hall. Brooding (also not an unusual state of affairs), with his elbow on the arm of his throne, and his chin propped on his fist. As we arrived, he lifted his head slightly, and I clearly felt him meet my eyes from across the length of the hall.
<<Is there some reason you have chosen to bother me with this soul, Lady Pluto?>>
I flushed nervously and shifted uncomfortably. Hades rarely chose to speak to me telepathically, and his tone and manner both indicated very clearly that he wasn’t in a mood to be disturbed.
<<Apologies, My Lord,>> I replied politely. <<May I approach and speak with you? I have a favor to ask of you.>>
I felt his surprise from across the room. His chin rose from his fist, and his arm dropped to the chair. <<You may approach.>>
“Stay here,” I whispered to Michel. “I’ll be right back.”
“No problem,” Michel said, evidently having picked up on Hades’s bad mood.
I Skipped forward to the altar and walked the rest of the way to Hades’s throne, going down on one knee as I reached him and bowing my head. “My Lord.”
“Rise, Talia,” he said softly, his tone considerably gentler than it had been a moment earlier. He’d used my proper name, too, something that still happened only rarely, so what I’d said must’ve touched something in him.
When I rose, he tipped his head to one side slightly. “In five years, you have never asked me for anything, so I know that this must be important to you. Speak your mind.”
“My Lord,” I began slowly, “you know the errand I was on - “
“Indeed,” Hades cut me off gently, looking past me to where Michel stood. “It is a terrible tragedy when any promising being dies so young…doubly so when it is a demigod, whose life should have been measured in centuries, not mere years.”
I bowed my head slightly. “Agreed. But I have an idea.”
Hades’s dark eyes returned to me, and I thought I saw one corner of his lips curl up slightly. “So I gathered. Will I get to learn what that idea is?”
I looked up, a little startled. In five years, I’d seen very few hints of the wry humor Hades had demonstrated - however briefly - when I took up my post. And suddenly, here it was. I cleared my throat. “Michel always wanted to be a doctor, and we Avatars always feel guilty about disturbing Apollo or Hermes when we’ve been injured enough to need a bit of medical attention - “
“And here is a ready-made medic,” Hades finished the thought for me. “One whose potential was never reached, and now only can be here.” He rubbed his chin, looking down the length of the hall. “Bring him to me.”
I nodded and Skipped back to where Michel stood. “Hades wants to speak to you,” I said softly, holding out my hand.
Michel blanched for a moment, then laughed quietly at himself and took my hand. “What am I worried about? I’m already dead, and I led a good life. Let’s go.”
I Skipped back to the altar with Michel and led him the last few steps to Hades’s throne. Then I nudged him forward gently when he hesitated.
Following my example, Michel went down on one knee for a moment, then rose. “Lord Hades, it’s an honor to meet you.”
Hades looked at Michel, his expression a mixture of doubt and curiosity. “Is it?”
“Yes, sir!” Michel said, surprised. “You have one of the most crucial jobs in the metaphysical cosmology, and while it doesn’t have a direct influence on medicine and science…well, you manage everything that comes after everything, for everybody.”
Hades’s lips twitched slightly. “You are undoubtedly a scholar. And though my management of the afterlife no longer affects everyone, I do still account for a large majority of the world.” He considered Michel carefully, and I knew what was happening. Without any outward sign, Hades was judging Michel’s soul.
Evidently, he was satisfied with what he found, for he sat back in his throne and nodded slightly. “Answer one question for me, Michel, son of Hermes.”
“Souls, all souls, must have a purpose in the Underworld, or they will eventually lose focus and drift to their eternal rest, no matter what. Tell me, son of Hermes…what is your purpose?”
Michel blinked in surprised. “Sir? I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“A fair response,” Hades nodded, “for it is an unusual question. Let me phrase it differently, then. What do you want more than anything else?”
“To be a doctor,” Michel responded without hesitation. “To heal people, to help people. That’s all.”
Hades smiled faintly and nodded again. “A very good answer.” He turned his attention to me. “I approve of your idea, Pluto. Take him to your office and explain your plan to him, while I make arrangements for a clinic.” He rose and walked past us. “I’ll see about having it placed beside your office. Hmm. I’ll have to talk to the other gods about having doors placed in their palaces as well…”
In a blink, he was gone, without even the soft pop that we Avatars leave behind when we Step somewhere.
“Huh?” Michel asked, bewildered.
I smiled at him. “Come and see my office. You can meet Melinoë, then we’ll sit down and I’ll explain.”
“The Melinoë? Muse of madness and nightmares?” he asked, fascinated. He’d always loved horror literature.
Ten minutes later Mel was handing him a mug of tea, before sitting down beside him across my desk from me. He cupped his hands around the mug and shook his head. “I didn’t think I’d be eating or drinking anything ever again. Do I still need to eat?”
“No,” I said with a smile, “but you’ll probably want to.”
“Eating and drinking are pleasures that the dead can indulge here without consequence,” Mel added cheerfully. “So enjoy!”
Michel gave her a shy smile - he was enchanted by her the moment he saw her - and sipped his tea. “So,” he said, returning his attention to me, “I’m going to be the personal physician to the Avatars.” He grinned. “That is so cool. Too bad I had to die to get here, but still…so cool. I’m sure my dad’ll be happy I’m not just going to disappear into the greater mass of the dead.”
“I’ll let him know,” Mel said, patting his arm. “I’m sure he’ll want to come and see you.”
He gave her another shy smile. “Thanks. Um…wow. I can’t believe I’m talking to the Muse of Madness.”
Mel smiled warmly. “I haven’t been called that since I worked with Lovecraft.”
“You really worked with him? I love his stories! What was he like?” Michel was almost babbling in his enthusiasm.
“He was sweet, in a strange sort of way. Very naïve and kind of timid, but so much easier to talk to than Poe,” Mel sighed. “Even if Poe did have those dreamy eyes…rather like yours, Michel.”
Michel swallowed and blushed. “Um…thank you…Melinoë.”
“Call me Mel,” she purred, leaning towards him a little and resting her hand on his arm again. Evidently, the attraction was mutual.
I cleared my throat.
Michel started a little and looked back at me, his cheeks flaming. “Sorry! Thank you so much, Talia, for everything.”
“Anything for a friend, you know that.” My friends and family mean the world to me.
“No, this is a big deal,” he insisted. “You’re giving me a chance to do something important for important people. This is a really special gift you’re giving me.”
I smiled, feeling my cheeks warm a bit. “Like I said, anything for a friend. Which reminds me…” I dug into one of the pouches on my belt and retrieved the squashed bullet, dropping it onto the desk with a soft clink. “Mel, do you recognize this metal?”
Mel dragged her attention away from Michel with obvious reluctance. After a moment, she frowned and leaned closer. “I think that’s Orichalcum. But I’ve only seen it once, and it was more than a thousand years ago. You should show it to Daedalus.”
I nodded and scooped up the bullet as I rose. “Just what I was thinking. Would you mind keeping Michel company while I’m gone?”
“Take all the time you need,” Mel said with just a little too much ingenuousness.
Michel blushed and tried to hide behind his tea cup, and I smothered a chuckle as I headed for the door.
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