Without a destination in mind, my Step took me back to my office. It was empty, and it took me a moment to remember that Mel was out to lunch with Michel. I walked around my desk and sat down, shivering uncontrollably and feeling profoundly afraid for Ceres, suddenly relieved that Hades and I had worked out our personal issues and learned to get along well.
Hadn’t we? He trusted me enough to ask me look into Persephone’s death for him, something that had caused him so much pain that he’d put off the investigation for two millennia. What had Ceres - or, probably, Demeter - meant? Did she think that Hades himself was responsible for Persephone’s death?
The thought made me a little bit nauseous. I thought I knew Hades as well as anybody could. He was a good man at heart, if a bit cold and forbidding. But he had a difficult job, one that would make even the warmest of beings distant after a while.
He wasn’t a murderer.
But the traditional story about them indicated that Persephone hadn’t wanted to be in the Underworld...
As if thinking about him had summoned him - or maybe he'd been lurking in wait, since I had long suspected he liked to do just that so he could make dramatic entrances - my office door opened and he entered, frowning. "Talia?"
I lifted a hand in greeting, still feeling a bit disoriented.
"Talia, what ails you, child?" In an instant he was across the room and standing beside me without taking a single step. His hand - which was not cold and clammy but as warm and alive as anyone I'd ever met - rested on my forehead for a moment. He frowned more deeply and crouched down beside my chair to look me in the eyes. "What has happened?"
"I went to see Demeter," I said, finally finding my voice and trying to bury my uneasy doubts about him. "I met Ceres. She's...what has Demeter done to her?"
Hades sighed, rose from his crouch and sat lightly on the edge of my desk. "Zeus, Hera and I have long known that Demeter uses Ceres more like a puppet than as an Avatar. I assume you were denied an audience."
"Yes. But I got to talk to the real Ceres for a moment. She's...she's so..." I tried to find the words and couldn't.
Hades nodded. "I know. But there's nothing we can do. The gods are sworn not to interfere with one another, especially not with one another's Avatars, unless invited to do so. As Zeus and I have agreed to do with you and Eos. The only time we may is if the god has done something to violate the Rule of Law by which we all live now. You understand?"
I nodded unhappily. "I do. It's just so..."
"Demeter's treatment of Ceres and her isolation is a throwback to the way we all behaved before the spread of the Abrahamic religions." He frowned a little. "Before my Persephone showed us a better way. Did you know that it was Persephone who redesigned these?" He reached out and touched my black metal collar.
"Charon told me."
Hades nodded. "Before she did, they were one way communication only. Our Avatars received our thoughts, were slaves to our will. Persephone showed us - showed me - how much more effective an Avatar could be who shared their thoughts with us in return, and were given more than a small measure of ability to act of their own volition." He pursed his lips. "It's why I never had an Avatar before her. I couldn't stand the thought of doing that to anyone. Zeus never took one prior to that either, incidentally...Heracles and Perseus were his helpers, but never his Avatars."
I had absolutely no idea how to respond.
"You feel sorry for Ceres?"
"That," I agreed, "and a little afraid. The way Demeter was using her...I'm afraid she's going to be punished for having spoken with me at all. It was like she was resisting Demeter's control to talk to me."
He seemed willing to accept that as the source of my disquiet.
"She may have been, and she may well be punished for it." Hades sighed again. "But there is nothing we can do about that. Unless Demeter steps so far out of line that we are forced to step in. Believe me when I say that Zeus and Hera watch her closely - of all the gods, Demeter is the only one who hasn't grown to accept the reality of the changing world."
"Isn't that odd?"
"Very! And more than a bit ironic." He huffed a little sound that might've been a short laugh. "Enough of that for now. Have you learned anything so far?"
I shook my head. "Nothing of any substance. Though after my…encounter with Ceres, Demeter feels like my prime suspect."
He snorted derisively. "Demeter? Kill her own daughter? That I cannot see. Demeter and I may not see eye to eye on much of anything...but our love for Persephone was one thing we agreed we held in common." He sighed. "Not that she ever forgave me for it."
"Sir...if I might ask, what drove the original wedge between you? I've heard the story about Demeter deciding that death was unnatural, but...that just doesn't make any sense to me."
"Nor does it to me," he agreed. "To the best of my knowledge, however, it is the truth of her...disagreement with me."
Our conversation had mostly restored my equilibrium - given me a bit of time to digest what I'd seen and experienced - and now I pursed my lips. "I guess I'm going to have to go and talk to those Gorgons next." At least, that was my next move if I didn’t want to start questioning my freaking boss.
Hades looked at me closely, frowning slightly. "You're still thinking that Demeter is the most likely suspect?"
I shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't have any others at the moment. But I'm not going to chase shadows when I have an obvious lead right in front of me." That was a lie. I had a lead literally right in front of me...it just didn’t feel right to me.
"I understand. Just be very careful." He rose from the edge of my desk and headed for the door. "Don't go alone, at least."
"I didn't plan on it," I said with a smile.
Before doing anything else, I was going to call Eos and bring her into this little project. Maybe Danae - Lady Minerva - too, if our mother would allow her to get involved.
As Hades closed my office door behind him, I thought I saw a dark form standing in the shadows in the corner by the door. As I watched, the shadows seemed to coalesce, growing thicker and darker, billowing out unnaturally from the corner to shroud the person there.
No, not person. Being. This creature had never been a 'person' in the traditional sense.
Oh sweet Zeus...
Nyx - I knew it was her, for it could be no other - glided forward out of the corner, her enshrouding cloak of shadows snuffing out the lights on the walls as she advanced. As with the last time I’d seen her, the shadows surrounding her seemed to be alive with faint stars and barely visible nebulae. The whole thing was translucent, and I caught glimpses of pale skin beneath as she moved, giving me the impression that she was naked beneath.
I suspected clothing wasn't something that had ever occurred to her, let alone concerned her.
"Lady Pluto," she said, "you declined to seek me out on this matter, so I have instead come to you."
I shivered and didn't move. Her voice, a breathy whisper that came from directly behind me - though she was still halfway across the room from me - seemed to caress my ears like a lover. It made me shiver again.
"My apologies, um..."
"Nyx," she breathed, stopping in the center of the room, "will be perfectly acceptable. It is, after all, what I am."
Not 'who' I am...'What' I am. Her shadowy cloak seemed to have filled most of the room, staying just shy of my desk. It concealed her in darkness, while leaving me just enough light to see by.
I started over. "My apologies, Nyx. I haven't been following a particular plan of action...I've just been chasing ancient leads."
She inclined her head, and her hair - as black as the shadows surrounding her and moving more like thick smoke than actual hair - glided around her head in a cloud-like halo. "I understand," she said graciously. "Which is why I came. I believe I have information that may be of use to you."
I sat up a little. "Oh?"
"Yes," she purred, drawing the last letter out into a sibilant hiss that sounded unnervingly satisfied. "And since I no longer owe your Office a favor, I would request a boon in exchange for that information."
"What would that be?" I asked warily.
"Nothing that will harm you or any other being, living or dead. Neither will it impede your ability to perform your function." She smiled, briefly showing teeth that seemed blazingly white and even in the shadows that surrounded her. "A small thing."
I was suddenly quite certain that I was way out of my depth in this conversation.
“All right,” I said, still feeling like I needed to be impossibly careful, “what is it you would ask of me?”
“One hour of your time, to do as I will with you,” Nyx said. “You have my word that no harm will come to you, and at the end of the hour it will be as if nothing had occurred. Except, of course, that you will remember a profoundly enjoyable experience. At least, as much of it as your mind is capable of processing.”
I stared at her and floundered mentally. “What?”
She smiled. “Please take no offense, but you are neither intellectually nor psychologically equipped to understand. Humor me. As I said, you have my word that no harm will come to you, nor will you be changed in any way by the experience.”
A little voice in the back of my mind screamed at me to politely reject the offer. But - as much for Hades as for Mel - I wanted to solve this mystery if I could. Also, let’s face it, I was profoundly curious about what she was offering. I was, after all, a daughter of Athena - learning new things was a passion of mine.
I licked my lips nervously and replied very carefully. “Allow me to offer a counter proposal: I’ll hear what you have to say. If it turns out to be useful to my investigation, I’ll agree to your deal.”
She pouted, then sighed. “That’s not unreasonable. You have no experience in dealing with me, after all. You know little enough about me.” She smiled. “Persephone was the same way when she began. Very well, I accept your terms...but you will be mine for two hours instead of one.”
I shivered a little again. “As long as Hades agrees.” That might give me an escape route.
Nyx bowed slightly. “Of course, Lady Pluto. Here, then, is what I know: Persephone and I were friends - or perhaps I should say she was as close to a friend as I have ever had. I kept a loose watch over her when she was working, for many of the creatures she dealt with operated within my domain. There were only a few times when I could not see what she was doing: When she was visiting Demeter, when she was visiting Circe, and when she was in...shall we say, private consultation with Hades.”
She smirked, then the expression faded into something that could have been sadness. “I believe you would be wise to pursue the first two as potential leads. On the day Pluto’s collar returned to Hades, the day Persephone died, I was watching her visit to the Gorgons with curiosity. They are such unusual creatures, after all. After she left them, and not long before her collar appeared on Hades’s altar, she vanished from my sight.”
“Circe? The Circe?”
“There is no other,” Nyx said with a smile. “Circe is a very singular being.”
I thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, Nyx. Your information may indeed be very valuable. I will look into it.”
She licked her lips. “I hope your investigation pans out. It has been so long since I sampled a living being...”
Before I could muster a reply, her cloak of shadows swirled around her and seemed to withdraw into her. The lights on the wall flared brightly - or maybe just came back on - and dazzled my eyes. I blinked quickly...but she was already gone.
I flopped back in my chair and blew out a long breath. What had I just agreed to?
Assuming her blindness in the third instance mentioned had been a politeness to Hades, Nyx had only been unable to see Persephone when she visited Demeter...and Circe. That was interesting. So far, nobody else had mentioned Circe. I wondered what the story was there.
Circe was an interesting case. Her part in Homer’s Odyssey - the story that made her famous - is generally underplayed, and no explanation was given as to why she lived in a forest on an island.
It’s her prison. To the best of my knowledge, Circe’s imprisonment fell outside the boundaries of all of the gods and Avatars. What her crime really was, I didn’t know. Who could I go to for more information?
Silly question. Mom.
I touched the headband stud behind my ear and thought of Eos. A moment later she answered. “Hey there sexy thing. What can I do to you?”
I rolled my eyes. “Feel like helping me with a puzzle?”
“Will there be violence? Great, awesome, violent violence?”
I could tell she was teasing me, but I wasn’t in the mood for it. Not after my encounter with Nyx. “Mel asked me to find out what happened to Persephone, and Hades okayed the investigation.”
“Shit, sorry. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have been so -”
I cut her off, smiling in spite of my mood. “I rely on you to cheer me up with your occasionally bombastic joie de vivre. Don’t ever change.”
“Thanks, but I really ought to tone it down anyway. I mean, what if you’d had me on speakerphone or something?”
I giggled. “You mean like if Hades had been in the room?”
“I would have died of embarrassment on the spot,” Eos said fervently.
“I would have made sure to intercept your soul on its way in so I could keep you all for myself,” I purred. Just talking to her, joking with her, had restored my equilibrium again. She was so good for me.
“I like the sound of that. Where should I meet you?”
“Athena’s palace. I have questions, and I want to see if she’ll loan us Minerva’s services.”
Eos whistled softly. “That sounds like you’re expecting trouble. Lots of it.”
“At the very least, we’ll be visiting the Gorgons. After that, who knows. You may get your violent violence after all.”
“Fair enough. I’ll be there in five.”
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