After checking in with Melinoë - both to confirm to her satisfaction that her father hadn’t turned me into a pile of ashes for daring to ask about Persephone, and to see what she’d found in her mother’s old records, which turned out to match what Hades had remembered - my first stop was all the way at the outer edges of the Underworld, at the point where mortal souls arrived and paid for their passage across the river Styx. It was the workplace of Charon, the Ferryman, who guided souls on the beginning of their journey to judgment and whatever reward or punishment awaited them.
Charon was an interesting person. Like Thanatos, he reminded me powerfully of Christopher Lee...though in Charon's case, it was as much physical as vocal, and Charon reminded me of Lee in his middle years - vigorous, powerful, a little intimidating, but also gentle and obviously a kind soul. Since they were brothers, the resemblance made sense.
But where Thanatos was totally absorbed in his work - I'd never seen any indication that he even thought about life beyond his (incredibly vital) job - Charon had other interests and liked to indulge them. Specifically, he was a numismatist.
Remember the old folk tale about needing to give the Ferryman a coin to gain passage across the Styx? Yeah, that's why.
I'd done a favor for Charon as one of my first tasks in getting the Underworld's bureaucracy back under control, and we'd been good friends ever since. You see, as the modern world moved away from coinage to paper and digital currency, Charon had grown a bit...bored. As much as he respected the importance of his work and had no intention of stepping away from it, he found it considerably less interesting and fulfilling without the constant influx of new types of coins.
See? People are the same wherever you go, mortal or immortal. Job satisfaction is critical.
So I'd come up with a plan to provide him with a steady source of interesting coins, and Daedalus had worked out the details and mechanics. It had taken a couple of years to get the equipment sorted out, properly enchanted, and working, and there had been one incident during testing which had resulted in me taking a couple of hundred coins of various sizes and denominations to the face and chest. Now an arriving soul would walk down the tunnel towards the river Styx, and pause at a row of vending machines (seriously) to trade whatever currency they had on them for a random and endless selection of rare coins from every time period from the first minted currency to modern times, and from every nation around the world that had ever used money.
Needless to say, this solution had made Charon very happy indeed.
I carefully made my way past the line of souls waiting for the vending machines and down towards the dock. The souls themselves always looked half-asleep to me...at this point in their journey, they were barely aware of themselves and were just going through the motions. It was only natural; most of them hadn't even realized they were dead yet.
I found Charon down at the dock, dressed in black robes and smiling warmly as he collected a coin from the soul of an elderly woman and helped her down into his boat, looked up as I approached. "Talia," he waved. "It's always a pleasure to see you, child. What brings you to me today?"
I gestured to the souls. "Do you have a few minutes?"
"For you? Always. They're in no hurry, believe me." He lifted one hand and murmured, "Rest, children."
The souls stopped moving, their heads drooped and their eyes closed. One actually started snoring.
"That's a little creepy," I said as I approached him.
He smiled. "Isn't it? I hardly ever get to do it. I can see from your expression that something is bothering you. Tell me your woes, my dear."
I looked up at him. "Mel has asked me to find out what really happened to Persephone, and Hades has given me permission to pursue the investigation."
He frowned a little. "Oh my. Yes, I can see why that might cause you some consternation. You were, I take it, hoping I might know something about your predecessor's activities on what was apparently the last day of her life."
"Well, I'm assuming that her soul never passed this way..."
"Indeed," he shook his head sadly. "All of us in the Underworld - including Hecate and Nyx, mind you - were extremely fond of Persephone. She was one of the kindest, gentlest and most loving people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting." He laid a long finger along side his nose and winked. "And that's pretty much everybody." He sighed. "But no, she never passed this way. Believe me when I say that if she had, I would have made sure she was immediately brought to Hades."
I hesitated a moment, then asked. "Were they really very close?"
Charon uttered a short bark of laughter. "Close? Inseparable. Love at first sight - something you should know a bit about, dear - does happen, and for them it was immediate and powerful. Some of us suspected Cupid’s hand in the matter, but he swore up and down that he had nothing to do with it. From the moment she became his Avatar until her disappearance, they were closer than skin. It was Persephone who helped develop the collar you wear, and the psychic bond between patron god and Avatar. I recall how uncomfortable Hades was with the idea, and how shockingly happy he was after she pushed him into doing it."
I smiled. "You make it sound like they were meant for each other."
He laid a hand on my shoulder. "Do the Fates not weave all of our destinies? Yes, they were meant for one another. Never doubt it...they were as happy together as any couple I've ever seen."
I nodded. "Thank you. I just needed..." I trailed off, then gestured helplessly, not sure how to finish the thought.
"You needed outside confirmation of what Hades and Melinoë have hinted at." He sighed. "That damnable lie-filled story Demeter spread about Hades having kidnapped Persephone. It's been a shadow on their lives. Talia, dear, I wish I could give you some useful piece of information, but I can't, except to tell you that whatever happened to Persephone, her soul never passed this way. You should speak with Thanatos, as he briefly put his work on hold to scour the world looking for any sign of Persephone's soul."
"I'll do that next. Thank you, Charon."
Of course, finding Thanatos was not as easy as finding Charon. As the literal personification of Death, Thanatos was, simply, everywhere and nowhere. All at once.
Fortunately, I knew how to reach him.
I Stepped out into the mortal world, emerging at one of the largest and busiest crossroads in the entire world: Times Square. I watched the pedestrians veer around me without ever actually being aware of my presence, looked up at the enormous glowing signs and listened to the overwhelming noise of the place. I took it all in, letting my senses embrace the totality of humanity, and whispered, "Thanatos?"
"Yes, Lady Pluto?"
He was standing right beside me, a clipboard in one thin, aged hand, his face hidden as always inside his voluminous cowl. His wings gave a small flip and and folded against his back.
"I'm sorry to take you from your work, Thanatos," I said formally. With this one, formality and respect were always the best course to follow "If you have something pressing, we can do this later. My questions aren't urgent."
He consulted his clipboard for a moment, then his cowl lifted and gave me the impression he was looking at me. "I have...the time."
I looked at him incredulously. "Did you...just make a joke?"
His cowl lowered slightly in a nod. "Even I have a sense of humor. How may I aid you in your quest, Lady Pluto?"
I wondered for a moment if he was omniscient. "You know what Melinoë has asked me to do?"
I didn’t bother asking how. "What can you tell me of your search to find Persephone's soul?"
"Very little." He sighed deeply. "I set aside my work for two entire days to search. I found...nothing. It was as if...she had never existed. I was quite distressed. In my long life it is the only time...I have failed."
I could see why that would be unsettling. "What does it mean that you couldn't find her soul?"
His cowl turned slowly from side to side as he shook his head. "I know not. Long have I pondered it. All I can figure is...either someone found a way to keep her soul hidden from me…or it was snuffed out of existence altogether."
I shivered a little. That hadn't even occurred to me, and it was a fantastically disturbing notion. The idea that a soul could be unmade was...unnatural. It was wrong on a level so fundamental that I had trouble imagining it.
Thanatos nodded slowly. "You find that idea...as distressing as I."
"Yes I do," I replied fervently. "That's the most disturbing idea I've ever heard."
"I needed to bring it up...since you will be searching for her. Know that your search may be both futile...and dangerous."
"For now, I’m just trying to find a place to start. But when I do, I won't go alone."
"Good." He bowed slightly, spread his wings wide, and vanished.
Not really much for small talk, that one.
I reached up and touched the button on my hair-band, behind my right ear, thinking of Mel as I did so. A moment later her voice spoke in my ear. "Melinoë’s House of Madness, Mel speaking. How may I disturb your dreams?"
I smiled a little. "Did you get anywhere with Ceres?"
She sighed gustily. "No. She didn't actually hang up on me, but she was very curt." I could almost hear her pouting. "It was pretty rude."
"Is that normal?"
"Who knows? Ceres has been on the job for more than fifteen hundred years, and only a few people have actually seen her in person in that time. Reclusive, remember?"
I nodded, then remembered that she couldn't actually see me. "Right. Okay...what would you suggest?"
"Get in her face," Mel said in such a blunt tone that it startled me a little. "Just show up and ask for an audience. By long tradition, none of the gods will refuse one of the Avatars an audience if they ask."
That was true. Even Hephaestus made time for me when I showed up and asked nicely.
All right, then. Nyx or Demeter?
No contest there. "Okay, that's what I'll do. It'll be interesting, at any rate."
"Groovy. Let me know how it goes. Need anything else?"
"Not at the moment, Mel. Thanks for trying, though."
"Anything for you, Talia. You know that. Talk to you later! I have a lunch date with a hunky doctor."
Hunky? I don't think I'd ever heard my old friend Michel referred to that way before. "Say hi for me."
"Will do!" There was a soft click as the call disconnected.
I frowned to myself, looking absently around Times Square. Not the most auspicious place to begin a trip to the domain of the goddess of nature and fertility from. Perhaps the Amazon rainforest? No, too cliché. I Stepped to a pretty spot I knew in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, miles away from the nearest town, and spent a few minutes soaking in the beauty of a bright autumn morning and the accompanying New England foliage in all its brilliant colors.
Then I closed my eyes, concentrated on the idea of Demeter, and Stepped.
When I opened my eyes again I was still standing in a woodland glade, but definitely not the same one I’d been in a moment earlier. Pale sunlight streamed in between the leaves overhead, and before me stood the most enormous, massive tree I'd ever seen. It made ancient Redwoods look tiny, and I had a feeling that Yggdrasil would look something like this if it could be comprehended in its entirety.
Its leaves were of no single type. At a glance I saw maple, oak and birch leaves overlapping with palm fronds, pine needles, and woven through with strands of ivy. Like the Berkshires I'd just come from, it was in full autumn display, all of the leaves that would change color showing in reds, oranges and yellows that were almost overwhelming in their intensity.
For all its beauty, something felt...off...about Demeter's palace. I couldn't quite put my finger on it at first, until I realized what I was seeing.
The ends of the branches were already bare of leaves, and the branches themselves seemed slightly withered somehow. There was a faint scent of mold and decay in the air, like a bed of leaves that had gone too many seasons without being cleared away. Indeed, the ground was matted with dead leaves of every description, and nothing seemed to be growing up between them.
Maybe it was just that I'd arrived during autumn. But somehow, I didn't think so.
Wide, curving, stone stairs led up to the base of the tree and an enormous pair of double doors set into its trunk and carved to look like part of it. As I took a step towards the first stair, one of the doors swung open and a woman emerged to hurry down towards me. She was so unusual to see that it took me a moment to absorb her appearance.
She looked to be about my height, and was dressed in a pale green bodystocking under a darker green bodysuit that appeared to be made of overlapping leaves, their colors the same autumnal display as those in the trees above us. There was a garland of ivy leaves woven into her copper-colored hair, and strands of ivy curled down her arms and legs. She was barefoot, but the stone stairs didn't seem to bother her in the slightest.
As she came to a stop a few feet away from me, I saw the green metal choker around her neck, with a stylized laurel leaf hanging from it and Demeter's sigil carved into the leaf. Her bright brown eyes were narrowed and her features pinched in obvious annoyance. She planted her feet (I was going to have to watch out for nature-related puns here, I could see it coming) and glared at me. "What do you want here, emissary of death? Is it not enough that you reap a harvest of humans? Must you come for the plants as well?"
I blinked a few times, and it took every ounce of self-control I had not to make an entirely inappropriate Batman-related joke.
Instead, I extended my hand and said very politely, "We haven't been introduced. I am Pluto, Avatar of Hades and daughter of Athena."
I caught the woman totally flat-footed. She stared at me blankly for a moment, then replied uncertainly, "I already know who you are..." After a moment she shook my hand tentatively. "I just...I'm sorry, I'm being terribly rude, aren't I."
To my astonishment, she shook her head slightly and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, they weren't brown anymore...instead, they were a brilliant green that went very well with her hair and outfit. Her handshake became firm and warm before she released my hand. "I am Ceres, daughter of Apollo and Avatar of Demeter. It's very nice to make your acquaintance, Pluto."
"Please," I said slowly, trying to cover my confusion, "call me Talia. I...was hoping to have an audience with Demeter."
Her eyes widened slightly. "Who you represent is unlikely to gain you entrance, no matter what business you -" Her posture shifted slightly and her eye color flickered from green to brown. "You have no business here, child of death -"
She broke off again, reached up and visibly tried to brush the ivy out of her hair...or at least, that's what it looked like she was doing. When she opened her eyes again, they were back to being green. "I'm sorry about that. With all due respect, Lady Pluto, Demeter sees nobody. Least likely of all an emissary of Hades, no matter the reason."
Okay, something was very, very wrong here. "Are you..." I wanted to ask her if she was all right, if she needed help, but a warning look in her eyes held me back. "Are you quite sure I couldn't impose on her time for just a couple of minutes? It's about Persephone, and -"
Ceres's eyes flashed colors again, and I saw her knees buckle. Startled, I lurched forward and caught her before she could collapse, steadying her as she regained her footing. "Ceres..."
"Shh," she murmured. "She's withdrawn from me for now, but that won't last long. She really won't see you, Talia. She sees nobody, not for any reason. Not even me."
She interrupted me quickly and held up a hand for me to be quiet. "You seek answers about the death of her daughter?"
"I wish there was something I could tell you," she said softly. "Persephone was Demeter's only child, and she's never had another, nor has she ever truly recovered from Persephone's death. I do all I can in her service, but..." She gestured around her. "Surely you sense it. The slow decay."
I nodded again, horrified. "Ceres, is she -"
She put a finger to my lips. "There's no time right now. Come again later, in winter. She sleeps then, and we can speak freely."
"I...all right. Can you give me anything to go on? Anything at all?"
"If I were you," she said carefully, "I would speak with the Gorgons. They're the most likely to know where Persephone went after she visited them. I can say no more, I'm sorry."
She pulled away from me, turned, and hurried back up the stairs. Halfway up she stiffened and turned, and I thought - from a distance it was hard to tell - that her eyes were brown again. "Begone child of Athena, Avatar of Death. You have no business here. Before you bother others, perhaps you should look to your own Master for an explanation."
I blinked in surprise and almost started to ask what she meant, but Ceres’s face looked stricken and unhappy. So I bowed politely, turned, and hurriedly Stepped away.
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