The rest of the morning turned out to be utterly mundane, at least as far as my life went. Melinoë was able to help me dodge another meeting with Odysseus about Prometheus, though I was tempted to see him just to ask him some questions about his time with Circe. In the end, I decided it wouldn’t be helpful.
Hades had an errand for me to run, picking up a contract that covered the deal with Yahweh for expanding Purgatory and Limbo into Tartarus. A quick visit with Jesus was always good for cheering me up and helping me center myself, and I felt quite a bit more like my usual self when I returned with the paperwork for Hades to look over.
I spent an hour going over requisitions from the Fields of Punishment, none of which I wanted to think about beyond having to sign them. Let me tell you...the Inquisition had nothing on the staggering creativity of the minds involved in punishing the souls of the Damned.
Not that they didn’t deserve it, but still. Yikes.
Mel managed to clear my afternoon, and after careful consideration I decided what my next step was going to be. It was time to talk to a higher authority about some of the matters weighing on my mind.
I Stepped to Mount Olympus, and the palace of Zeus.
To my surprise, he was waiting for me at the top of the stairs up to his (impressively overblown and massively egocentric) reception hall. Eos was standing behind him and to one side, her hands clasped behind her. She gave me a wink as I paused at the bottom of the stairs.
“My Lord Zeus,” I began, “may I request several minutes of your time?”
He raised an eyebrow, then pouted and boomed obviously playful distress. “What have I done to earn such formality from my the love of my daughter’s life?”
Look...Zeus is a big guy. Literally. He and Hades were of a height - they were both pushing nine feet tall - but Zeus had the kind of muscle mass and bulk you’d expect from a professional weight lifter. Or a professional wrestler.
Yeah, definitely a professional wrestler.
In all other ways they were also opposites. Where Hades was swarthy and dark-haired, Zeus was fair-skinned and fair-haired. Hades had a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache, while Zeus usually sported a big bushy beard just for the heck of it. Most importantly, where Hades was quiet, somber and always thought before he spoke, Zeus was loud, boisterous, playful, and rarely gave his words much thought before they spilled out of his mouth.
Frankly, I don’t believe he did a lot of thinking in general. Like Eos, he struck me as the sort of person who did their best in the heat of the moment...then went back and made repairs afterwards, as needed.
Of course, much of the way Hades and Zeus presented themselves - in fact, the way all of the gods did - was a choice. They could, after all, change their shape and appearance with extraordinary facility. So maybe I was underestimating him. Maybe that was the point of his act.
Eos, after all, was a lot more intelligent than she usually let on. Like father, like daughter?
After Eos and I became a couple, Zeus went out of his way to make me feel welcome in his palace on Mt. Olympus. He’d taken on a sort of fatherly role in my life, which had felt a little weird at first, as my father was still alive on Earth. Which reminded me…I made a mental note to visit him as soon as possible.
At any rate, I’d gotten used to Zeus’s general aura of slightly dotty, child-like boisterousness over time and had relaxed around him. But today...
I took a deep breath and let it out. “I have a potentially unpleasant question to ask, sir.”
Zeus frowned...and let me tell you, those big eyebrows are made for frowning. His frowns are intimidating.
“I think I know what you want to ask,” he said more quietly (which meant that his voice wasn’t rattling my teeth anymore...it just made them vibrate a little). “You’d better come inside. Let’s sit down and talk.”
As we followed him inside, Eos gave me a concerned look and whispered, “Are you all right? You look pale.”
Since my mother was (effectively) Greek and my father Cherokee, that was really saying something. “I’m working up to asking a question I’ve been trying to dodge,” I whispered back. “It’s a really awful one for me to have to ask.”
“Something you can’t ask Hades?” Eos asked.
“Something she may be physically incapable of asking him,” Zeus rumbled.
Eos winced. “Sorry.”
He looked over his shoulder and smiled gently. “Eos, my dear child, I may be old but my hearing is undimmed. In spite of all those rock and roll concerts we attended in the Seventies and Eighties.”
Zeus settled into his throne - which appeared to be made of clouds at the moment - while Eos hurried out and returned with a couple of chairs. Once we were settled, Zeus folded his hand and leaned back. “All right, Talia...ask your question.”
I struggled with it. I needed to know the unvarnished truth about the relationship between Hades and Persephone, but I there was no way I could ask Hades himself about it. Who better to ask than his brother? I had to ask.
Actually doing so was another matter, for some reason. What came out when I opened my mouth to ask ended up being, “Was...Was what Mother and Circe told us about her attempting to overthrow Aphrodite really true?”
Crap. Why was I having so much trouble asking this question?
Eos gave me a confused look.
Zeus smiled, and it was a surprisingly understanding and gentle expression. “Not quite what you meant to ask, hm? But it’s an honest and useful question anyway, and it has some bearing on the one I think you want to ask. Yes, Circe really did try to usurp Aphrodite. Let me tell you, that was quite a shocker for all of us.”
He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Between us, and what I’m about to say cannot leave this room, Aphrodite isn’t the most...shall we say…conscientious of goddesses. It’s not uncommon for her to totally forget to do something that falls within the scope of her responsibilites, leaving her Avatar to pick up the slack. Or, worse, to be blamed for not getting it done themselves.
“It was shocking when Circe tried to oust Aphrodite, but not really surprising, if you know what I mean.” He sighed. “She’d simply had enough of bearing the brunt of Aphrodite’s mistakes, missteps and forgotten duties. She had even brought her concerns to me and Hera, but...”
When he trailed off, I finished the thought for him. “But the gods don’t interfere with one another or each other’s Avatars. Hades told me. Though he added that that rule could be bent in the case of a god or Avatar who had broken the laws of the gods.”
Zeus nodded. “Indeed. At the time, however, those laws did not include negligence or dereliction of duty. We corrected that not long after Circe’s attempt to overthrow Aphrodite.” He sighed. “And we probably could’ve overlooked the whole incident, if Circe hadn’t actually tried to kill her.”
Eos and I exchanged a look. We knew from other conversations we’d that the gods aren’t easy to kill, and that there aren’t many ways to do it.
Zeus nodded. “Oh yes, she tried. Almost succeeded, too. She used an enchanted dagger made of Orichalcum, one of the few metals that can cause lethal injuries to immortal beings. As you both found out not that long ago.”
Eos grunted and rubbed her stomach where she’d been shot. “Yeah. Hard to forget that.”
I shuddered a little.
“Yes,” Zeus said softly. “Aphrodite called for aid. When a god calls for aid, it’s a very serious matter, and it was Hades, Hera and I who responded, with Poseidon arriving only moments after us. We arrived to find Circe standing over Aphrodite, who was struggling to get away from her after being stabbed a dozen times.
“Circe didn’t try to deny it,” he went on sadly. “She just ran. Heracles, Juno and Persephone brought her back two days later, and that was the end of it. It took Apollo and Hermes weeks to nurse Aphrodite back to health. Today...well, today we have other rules in place to hopefully keep something like that again. Your collars, for example, unconsciously reinforce your loyalty to us.”
Eos made a thoughtful little noise. “I think I mentioned that back when we met, didn’t I, Talia?”
I nodded slowly. “I believe you did.”
“Loyalty to your patron god or goddess is hard-wired into Avatars now,” Zeus said. “I didn’t like the idea very much, but Persephone was right...it was important to prevent something like that from happening again. Done the way Circe was going about it, an Avatar overthrowing their god could do enormous damage to the functioning order of the world.
“Which is why,” he said, turning towards me, “you’re having such a hard time asking if Hades has been lying to you about his relationship with Persephone.”
Eos gave me a questioning look. I nodded, feeling a little nauseous as I did so.
Zeus smiled gently. “Consider the question spoken by me. You didn’t ask it.”
The nausea vanished instantly and I breathed a little sigh of relief.
He sighed. “I don’t like that. I don’t like it at all. But I understand the necessity of it.”
“Then why can I mouth off to you and make fun of you?” Eos asked him.
He smiled. “Because we both know you don’t mean anything by it. Talia was genuinely afraid that Hades has been lying to her or misleading her. I imagine you’ve felt out of sorts since the idea occurred to you,” he said to me.
I nodded. “Yeah, on and off. Whenever the thought crossed my mind, basically.” I looked at Eos. “This doesn’t bother you at all?”
She shrugged. “I am who I am. Sounds to me I’ve just got a limiter on me to keep me from cracking under the strain sometimes. That doesn’t change the essential me, any more than it changes the essential you.” She nudged me with her elbow. “You were still thinking those thoughts, weren’t you?”
I nodded. “But...”
Zeus leaned forward and patted my hand gently. “Be at ease, Talia. Let me assuage both fears at once: Were the situation serious enough, you could overcome the limitations placed on you, for that is how Persephone and Athena designed it. And it was Persephone herself who came to me and asked me to find a way to have her made Hades’s Avatar. They loved one another as deeply and profoundly as any lovers I’ve ever met. One couldn’t but see them together and know it.”
I blew out a long breath. “I was afraid that maybe Persephone’s disappearance...her death...was because of something Hades said or did. Or that she hadn’t really wanted to be his Avatar.” Zeus was right. Now that I wasn’t worried about it anymore, I could speak the concern effortlessly.
“Who put that idea in your head, child?” he asked gently.
“Ceres...” I trailed off, then shook my head. “Probably Demeter, actually. She seemed to be using Ceres like a puppet, and against her will.”
Zeus grunted. “We may need to do something about that. Tell me exactly what happened when you tried to have an audience with Demeter.”
I took a moment to organize my thoughts. “I went there by myself after speaking with Thanatos...Melinoë had suggested that it might be easier for me to gain an audience with Demeter if I went in person, rather than her contacting Ceres to make an appointment...”
I told them about my meeting with Ceres and how her eye color had changed from brown to green and back again, and how her demeanor had changed radically along with them. I repeated word for word what she had said to me, and how she’d asked me to come back during the winter, when she’d be able to talk freely.
Eos’s expression darkened with anger as I spoke, and I understood why. I felt the same anger...that a sister Avatar could be so abused was infuriating.
Zeus looked uneasy as I trailed off, sitting back in his cloudy throne and steepling his fingers in front of his mouth. Finally, he said, “She told you she’d be able to speak freely during the winter, while Demeter slept?”
I nodded. “Those were her words.”
He frowned. “Very well. Talia, I can see that this quest means a great deal to you. Will you tell me why?”
I thought about it for a minute before replying. “I think it’s partly Melinoë’s interest in having an answer finally. I love her like a little sister, and I’d do anything for her. Partly it’s my own curiosity; I’ve wanted to know since I became Hades’s Avatar, but as long as he was closed-lipped about it...I figured that he either knew and didn’t want to tell me, or didn’t want to know.”
Zeus smiled faintly. “And now that he’s agreed that it should be investigated, your curiosity has been unbound, hm?”
I felt a little embarrassed. “Something like that.”
“Still and always a daughter of Athena,” he said with obvious approval. “Well, daughter of Athena and Avatar of Hades...I will speak to my brother, and should he approve of my plan, will you agree to delay your investigation until the deepest part of winter? It’s a scant two months away.”
I nodded. “If Hades agrees, I’ll wait.”
“I agree,” Hades’s quiet baritone spoke from the shadows behind Zeus’s throne, and a moment later he emerged from them. “As usual, brother, you were correct.” He gave me an unhappy look. “Have I given you reason to mistrust me, Talia?”
“Don’t blame her, brother,” Zeus said easily. “I’m sure you remember Demeter’s skill at bending hearts and minds to her will. The goddess of fertility is almost as good at planting and nurturing thoughts as flora.”
Hades nodded. “Indeed. She tried it on me once, and even I had difficulty resisting it. Persephone had to call Hypnos to completely remove it.”
To my astonishment, Hades moved to stand in front of me and then knelt down so that he was - roughly - at eye level with me. He peered into my eyes, and I felt like he was seeing straight into my head. After a long moment, he sighed and nodded. “The signs of it are there.”
He brushed his fingers across my forehead, then touched the oval bit of obsidian on my collar that contained his sigil...and my worries about his relationship with Persephone vanished completely.
No...that wasn’t right. They were still there, but I now saw them for what they were. Implanted thoughts, and clearly not mine.
“What did she do to me?” I asked.
“She planted a thought,” Hades growled, rising, his face dark with anger. “She has interfered with my Avatar...”
Zeus rose quickly and laid a hand on Hades’s shoulder. “You’ve one of the coolest, calmest heads I know, Hades. Don’t lose that now. Be calm...I believe Talia knows what to do next.”
“You think I should speak with Ceres,” I said with certainty.
“I would say that she knows something,” Zeus said thoughtfully, “but as long as Demeter is...is listening to her, for lack of a better word, she can’t speak it. She might not even be able to think it, if what I fear has come to pass. But since Demeter has seen fit to interfere with another god’s Avatar, I suggest we return the favor.”
We all gave him blank looks. Even Hades, which was unusual.
Zeus smiled, but it was a rather grim expression. “Talia, I suggest you convince Ceres to let Michel examine her. I expect it’s been a long time since she had a proper physical, don’t you?”
Comprehension dawned on Hades’s face, followed by a look of quiet horror. “You don’t think Demeter would...”
Zeus nodded. “I do. Talia, will you?”
“I urge you to do so as well,” Hades said.
I smiled lopsidedly. “If the two of you are agreeing on a plan of action, who am I to disagree?”
Hades smiled. “That’s my Avatar.”
“And my girlfriend,” Eos said quietly, taking my hand. “You didn’t seem quite yourself yesterday. I guess now we know why.”
I shuddered a little, my grip tight on Eos’s hand. “Yeah.”
Hades smiled. “Eos, if Zeus has no tasks for you, why don’t you take Talia home and help her unwind. Resume your normal duties tomorrow.”
Zeus smiled. “You know full well most of my Avatar’s work these days is aiding yours. Go on, the both of you. Relax. Get this out of your systems.”
“And in two months,” Hades said darkly, “we’ll find out what Ceres wants to tell you.”
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