We Stepped to the office of Michel, son of Hermes, our doctor-slash-emergency medic. Also our psychologist, from time to time. He’s a talented guy.
Michel’s office looked like a cross between a high-end doctor’s office and an E.R. triage area. There was a desk, examination table, cabinets, drawers and racks full of medications and tools, bookshelves loaded with medical texts (some extremely ancient, others very modern), and the usual collection of diplomas hanging on the wall. In the center of the room was an amazingly high-tech operating table that looked like something out of Star Trek, complete with thin screens hanging from the ceiling and machines that went ‘beep’ when turned on.
Which is about the extent of my knowledge of what they actually did. I know a lot of things, but I’m not a doctor.
At the far end of the room there were four alcoves which could be closed off with curtains. Each one had a bed, very modern monitoring equipment, and even a small flat-screen television on a ceiling-mounted swing arm.
That was where I headed with Eos as I arrived, Stepping straight into the room near the door. Michel looked up from his desk, then stood up in surprise as Minerva arrived behind me with a pop. I knew it was her because I heard the chain she was carrying clatter to the floor as she let go of it.
Michel was a good looking young man with black hair and dark skin that made his eyes - green with gold flecks - stand out shockingly. He was also, technically, dead. Hades and Zeus had circumvented quite a few rules to let him become our doctor.
“What happened?” he asked, coming around his desk and heading for Eos first as I set her down on one of the beds.
“A hydra,” I said. “A really nasty one. Eos trotted out a thunderstorm and the biggest bolt of lightning I’ve ever seen...I think she’s just exhausted. Danae has a dislocated arm.”
He glanced over his shoulder at Danae, nodded, then turned back to Eos and started checking her vitals. Fingers on her wrist, stethoscope to her chest. After a moment, he nodded again and relaxed slightly. “You’re not kidding, I think she’s just asleep. Let me get her hooked up and we’ll take a look at your arm,” he again nodded to Danae as he spoke.
A few minutes later, with Eos hooked up to monitoring equipment, Michel finished setting Danae’s arm and had discovered a broken bone in the process. “There we are. One pressure splint. It was a clean break, so it’ll be completely healed in a few days. You’re lucky Avatars heal so fast...a mortal would have their arm in a cast for six weeks or so.”
He went to one of the cabinets and returned with a sling, which he helped her put on. “And here you go.” He held up a small prescription bottle. “Painkillers. Two every six hours.” He opened it and tapped two white oval pills into her good hand. “Starting now.”
He put the bottle on the bed beside her and brought her a cup of water, with which she downed the pills.
We were all silent for a moment. Then Michel chuckled softly and beckoned us to follow him. Danae hopped off the bed she’d been sitting on and followed him while I drew the curtain around Eos’s bed.
“I’ll say this,” Michel said, still chuckling softly, “my life - afterlife? - hasn’t been boring.”
Danae and I sat down in chairs at his desk, while he went around and sat behind it. “So,” he said, “wanna tell me why there’s a huge pile of rusty chain on the floor of my office?”
Danae smiled tiredly. “I need to take it over to Hephaestus and have him take a look at it. If it really rusted through...” She trailed off, probably not knowing how to finish the thought yet.
“I need to go talk to Daedalus about that hydra,” I said, glancing back towards the alcove where Eos was sleeping. “Then I think I need to have a long talk with Hades about what he already knows and hasn’t told us.”
Michel gave us a confused look.
“It’s about Persephone’s death,” I explained. “Mel asked me to find out how she died, and it’s expanding rapidly.”
“Ah,” Michel said. “Yeah, Mel mentioned that. I didn’t think there’d be new violence involved in a two thousand year-old mystery.”
“Neither did we,” Danae said, then rose. “I’m off to see Hephaestus. Give me a hand with this, little sister?” She gestured to the loops of chain.
I smiled and rose. “Sure thing.” I helped her get the mass of chains up onto her uninjured shoulder, then she vanished with a soft pop.
“You’ll keep an eye on Eos?” I asked Michel.
“You know I will.” He smiled. “I’ll even try to keep her resting until she can bully her way out of my office under her own power. Which probably won’t be very long.”
I chuckled softly. “No, probably not. Thanks.”
Michel waved it off. “Anything for you, you know that.”
I left his office the mundane way - by the door, which opened into a short hallway off of Hades’s audience chamber. To the left was the door that led into the suite I shared with Melinoë, and frequently with Eos. To the right was the door to my office.
I pursed my lips. I wanted to find out what could cause a hydra to behave the way it had. I mean, I knew that they tended to be violent creatures, but what would make one rampage the way this one had. Not to mention, how had it grown so large, and how had it been spitting acid.
But even more than that, I wanted to learn more about Persephone’s last day. So far, I’d found out what she’d been doing right before she died and vanished...but how did we know for sure she was dead, and what errands had she been on before that?
<<You’re close enough for me to hear you brooding,>> Hades said in my mind. <<You might as well come and tell me what’s bothering you.>>
That settled it. I straightened my shoulders and strode down the hall and into the audience chamber.
Hades sat in his throne, his right elbow on the chair’s stone arm, his chin resting on his fist. He watched me approach, only his eyes moving.
I stopped in front of him and dropped to one knee in a formal bow, then rose again. His lips twitched slightly. “I’m not going to like this...I can always tell. You always get very formal before you bring me bad news or ask me unpleasant questions.”
“Sir...” I began, then hesitated and scrambled to reorganize my thoughts. How could I ask this delicately? It’s not like asking him if he killed her was either wise or proper. Did I really think he was a suspect? I didn’t think there was any way I could ask delicately, so I started to go straight for the jugular, then veered off at the last moment. “Sir, are you quite certain Persephone is dead?”
He went completely still. “Excuse me?” he asked quietly. His voice was so cold that the temperature in the room almost seemed to drop a few degrees.
I winced and shivered a little, wondering what would’ve happened if I’d asked him the question I was now genuinely afraid to. “Are you sure she’s actually dead? Do you know how she died?”
Hades stared at me for a moment, then sighed and sat back in his throne, relaxing slightly. “I honestly and truthfully do not know how she died...only that she did, and beyond all doubt. I knew she was dead the moment her collar - her badge of office - appeared on the altar there.” He pointed to the stone altar...the very one I’d woken up on just a few years ago after...
My mind veered away from what had been the single most unpleasant experience of my life to date. I still hadn’t spoken to Heracles since he clubbed me flat to make sure I met the ‘has died’ criteria for living in the Underworld.
The most important thing right now was that I was certain he believed that he hadn’t had anything to do with her death. But that left me with an equally unpleasant question: Was it possible that something he’d said or done had driven her to whatever end she’d met. There was no way I was going to ask that question right now, though.
Instead, I asked, “What was she working on the day she died? I know she visited the Gorgons, but she never made it to a planned visit with Circe. What did you have her working on?”
Hades considered the question for a moment before answering. “The last task I sent her on was a harmless one...to collect the soul of a particularly beloved poet of the day. No different than the event you attended recently.” He sighed. “But the soul wasn’t claimed by her. Thanatos did the job, the poet’s soul arrived by the normal route, and Persephone’s badge of office returned to me without her wearing it.
I personally went and spoke with the poet’s soul that very day,” he continued, “but he had never met her and knew nothing of her fate. Neither did Thanatos, who was supposed to have met her. Nor did any of her fellow Avatars or the other gods.” He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “I even spoke to Demeter, who said she knew nothing and was so furious with me she nearly struck me dead on the spot. She might have, if Zeus hadn’t been with me. I think it was one of the last times she spoke with any of the gods except through Ceres.”
Interesting; he hadn’t been surprised by my mention of Persephone visiting Circe. But then, I guess he probably knew, unless Persephone was in the habit of keeping secrets from him, which seemed unlikely. “Was she -”
He cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Demeter and I were never on good terms. She and I disagreed about almost everything. Personally, I think it’s because she hated seeing her carefully tended gardens die every winter.”
“Do you think she -”
“No,” he shook his head firmly. “She loved Persephone every bit as much as I did. She couldn’t have harmed her.”
This must’ve really been distracting him. He’d always tried very hard not to read my thoughts, feeling it to be a profound intrusion.
He looked up and smiled slightly. “I’m sorry, Talia. I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s all right,” I said quickly. “Under the circumstances, I don’t mind.”
“Tell me what about this situation made you ask such a question.”
I took a deep breath and let it out, considering my words carefully. “So far, I feel like the trail that Persephone left behind has been leaning me off on a tangent. The Gorgons, a missed visit to Circe when nobody knew she was doing so, and now the ‘coincidental’ escape of a hydra that was much more dangerous - in general - than hydras are usually capable of right when we were arriving to talk to the two people it ate...”
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Hades said flatly.
“Nor do I,” I agreed. “At least, not on that scale. It’s too convenient.”
He frowned. “I am as certain that Persephone died as I would be had I lost an arm.”
I sighed. “I have puzzle pieces that don’t seem to want to fit together in a meaningful way.”
Hades smiled faintly. “That sounds like something Persephone would’ve said. You remind me of her in many ways,” he said, resting his chin in his hand and gazing at me. No, not at me...through me. I got the impression it wasn’t me he was seeing.
Just as it was about to become uncomfortable, Danae appeared with a soft pop, and a moment later - to my surprise - Vulcan, Avatar of Hephaestus, appeared beside her. He was a stocky, dark-skinned and heavily muscled man wearing leather clothes designed to be protective in an environment with lots of sparks and fire.
They approached slowly, Vulcan looking a bit uneasy. He rarely left his father’s Forges, after all. When they reached me, Danae bowed politely. “Lord Hades, my apologies for intruding -”
Hades sat up and shook himself slightly. “Nonsense, Minerva. Your visit is no intrusion. You have my thanks for your help in this personal matter, and please pass my thanks to Athena as well for her aid.”
Danae curtseyed. “You’re very welcome, Lord Hades.”
His attention turned to the man standing beside her. “Vulcan, I am honored to have you visit my halls. It must be something very important indeed for your father to release you from your work. What news do you bring?”
Danae turned to me. “I took the hydra’s restraint chain that broke to Hephaestus. He was bewildered by something metallurgical, which is flat out disturbing.”
“Indeed,” Hades murmured. “What did he say about it?”
This time, Vulcan spoke, his voice a low bass rumble. “The chain didn’t rust through...it decayed from age. A chain which he made himself less than a hundred years ago.”
I blinked. “What?”
Vulcan nodded. “Hephaestus said that to his eyes, the links of the chain that were broken had aged thousands of years, maybe even tens of thousands of years, in a matter of seconds. This stressed the chain beyond its breaking point.”
“Which released the hydra,” Danae added.
“Intentionally,” I said softly.
Hades nodded slowly. “So it would seem.”
“Who could do something like that?” I asked.
“Realistically,” Vulcan said, “only one of the gods, or perhaps one of the old Titans. Chronos could have, for example.”
“No one has seen the personification of Time in millennia,” Hades said quietly. “I think the creation of the Julian calendar offended him for some reason.”
“Gaia could have done it,” Danae pointed out. “But it’s way outside her usual modus operandi.”
“Indeed,” Hades agreed. “She despises disruptions of the natural order of things.” He frowned a little. “It’s interesting though...Demeter took on much of Gaia’s portfolio when Gaia retired.”
Danae and I exchanged a pointed look.
“Ouranos might have been able to do such a thing,” Vulcan added. “Or so my father indicated. Though it would be extremely unlike him to take a hand in anything terrestrial.”
“Could a mortal spellcaster have done it?” I asked. I was versed in the various magical traditions, but wasn’t much of a spellcaster myself. When in doubt, ask.
“Yes,” Vulcan replied slowly, “and no. It is technically possible, but it would require an enormous source of energy and an equally enormous ritual. Such an act would have taken weeks to prepare and would have been very...very noisy, so to speak.” He smiled a little. “It would, if I may be allowed a poor analogy, be like a mortal creating a small nuclear reactor in their home. It could be done, but the mess would be extraordinarily hard to miss.” He gave Danae a questioning look as he finished.
“Nothing like that has shown up on our radar in about a century. It’s beyond both the skill and ability of any mortal spellcasters alive today,” Danae said with certainty. “Mother and I keep watch on them. No living mortal has that kind of power, or access to an artifact with that kind of power.”
“For good reason,” Hades said. “Temporal mechanics isn’t something even we gods tamper with lightly.”
There was, I thought to myself, carefully hiding the thought from Hades, one more god who could’ve done it. Hades himself had some measure of control over the flow of time in his aspect as a God of Death. But then, so did Thanatos and Charon. I supposed that I probably had a bit of ability in that direction myself because of my office, come to think of it.
Now wasn’t the time to mention it.
“My father,” Vulcan said politely, “has offered my services in this matter if you wish them.” He bowed to Hades. “It is both a matter of professional pride, and he asked me to convey his understanding of your pain. You have my sympathies as well.”
To his credit, Vulcan - who hated being away from his work almost as much as his father did - looked and sounded like he genuinely wanted to help. Then I realized that Vulcan, who was now probably the oldest living active Avatar, had likely known Persephone personally.
Hades smiled slightly. “Yes, I imagine he’s had his own problems over the millennia. Thank you, Vulcan. I’ll leave the matter of extra help in Pluto’s hands...she is in charge of this project.”
Vulcan looked at me questioningly. I saw Danae nod slightly and lift her broken arm a fraction of an inch. In other words, if things got rough again, she wasn’t going to be much help for a few days.
I smiled at Vulcan. “I would be very glad indeed to have your strong arm handy,” I said. “Especially now that it seems to be getting dangerous.”
Vulcan nodded. “Then I will return home and prepare. You will alert me when you need my assistance?”
“I will.” I clasped his arm warmly. “Thank you. Though it may be a bit before we move again. We have too many pieces to put together first.”
He smiled. “I’ll leave the mystery solving to quicker minds than mine. Call me when you need me.” He gave me a nod, then vanished with a pop of in-rushing air.
“A good man, Vulcan,” Hades said. “As honorable and true as his father. If he offers to stand by you, he will.”
“And with me nursing a broken arm, his strength and hammer will be most welcome,” Danae said, then sighed. “Speaking of which, if you’ll excuse me, I should be resting. Doctor’s orders.”
Hades chuckled softly. “I find the way you’re all a little intimidated by Michel highly amusing.”
“I’ll be in touch,” I said, giving her a lopsided hug as I tried to avoid her broken arm, “as soon as I’m ready to move again.”
“Sooner,” she said, kissing my cheek. “Let me know how Eos is.”
Then she was gone, and I was alone with Hades again. What did I do next?
“You can’t do anything more right now,” Hades said quietly, possibly reading my mind again. “Rest and refresh yourself. Tomorrow morning I may have other tasks for you to pursue...I appreciate your zeal in pursing this matter on my behalf, but the Underworld still needs to run. No matter how much you or I wish an answer to this problem. It’s waited this long...it may need to wait a bit longer. Especially as you’ve found unexpected danger in it.”
I smiled. “Yes, sir.” Then I remembered something and winced a little. “Oh...I need to get your permission for something...”
Hades tipped his head curiously. “My permission? Talia you know you have the freedom to pursue your work in any way you see fit.”
“In this matter, I thought it wiser to defer to you,” I said uneasily. “I’ve made a deal with Nyx...”
His lips twitched, and I swear he was trying not to smile. “Ah. I see. I expect she asked for an hour or two of your time in exchange for information.”
I blinked, surprised.
Now he did smile. “She made the same deal with Persephone several times. That one knows more secrets than Athena, and is chary about giving any of them away. Let me guess - she wants a couple of hours of your time, during which she will do with you as she will?”
“And she promised that the experience would leave you unharmed and essentially unchanged?”
I nodded again.
He made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a smothered chuckle. “I see no reason to deny her request, assuming the information she provided proved true and useful.”
“She told me about Circe.”
“Very useful then.” Hades nodded. “Though it’s something I myself could have told you, had I thought it relevant.”
“So...you don’t think it’s...a bad idea to let her…?” I asked, still feeling uneasy about it.
He smiled. “On the contrary, I think it’s an excellent idea. Fostering stronger relations between her and the rest of the important figures in the Underworld is important, and you should know her and how to managed dealings with her. Had I been thinking, I would have suggested you have contact with her before now. If nothing else, she will - no doubt - teach you not to be afraid of the dark.”
He winked at me.
I bowed politely, then headed for my suite, feeling even more uneasy than I had before.
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.