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Chapter 1

My name is Talia Redowl, daughter of Athena, and I am the Avatar of Hades. My formal title is Lady Pluto. What does that mean, exactly?

Well, most of the time it means I do a lot of clerical work in the Underworld. Like most administrators, I handle the day-to-day operations of things; equipment and materiel requisitions, sorting out conflicts between the lesser powers of the Underworld, going through the reams of paperwork generated by all of the souls entering this particular afterlife, things like that.

Sounds dull, doesn’t it? It isn’t. Because the rest of the time…

“Pluto, it went down this way!”

I rounded the corner at a run, Cerberus – my shape-changing weapon of choice – cradled in my arms in its rifle form. I was only a few steps behind Jupiter – also known as Eos Leonidis, daughter of Zeus and my girlfriend – as her golden bracers flickered with electricity and she hurled a bolt of lightning at a fleeing shape further down the street.

See, I’m also technically in charge of handling all of the escaped or out-of-control monsters. The position of Avatar Pluto had gone un-filled for almost two millennia though (long story), and Zeus had long ago offered the services of his Avatar to handle those situations when possible.

I was thankful for the fact that he’d encouraged her to continue helping out, for as good of a fighter as I am…Eos was simply better at violence than I was. And enjoyed it more.

Okay, not much more. I enjoyed it too.

But she was about two hundred years my senior, had a lot more on-the-job experience, and was willing to share it with me. Assuming I could keep up.

Her lightning bolt struck the creature in the back, briefly illuminating its oversized, fleshy, bipedal form. Its skin hung in loose folds wherever it protruded from beneath the creature’s rough leather clothing, and the ground vibrated with every heavy footstep as the ten foot tall being ignored the lightning and kept running.

“Gods damned cyclopses,” Eos swore, not slowing. The short white toga-style mini-dress that made up part of her uniform kept giving me enticing glimpses of the white bodysuit beneath – and her – which was very distracting.

Fortunately, I’m not that easily distracted. I skidded to a halt and lifted Cerberus to my shoulder. In its rifle form, it had a tubular red metal body with a skeletonized triangular stock made by the shaft hinging in two places. The shaft hinged in two more places just before the stock to make an angled rifle grip, while the two halves of the weapon’s blade folded up on either side of the barrel to form the body of the gun (with their sharp edges facing up), exposing the muzzle and front sight.

With my free hand, I pulled a magazine from one of my belt pouches. This doesn’t sound like such a big deal…except that the magazine in question held specially made bullets that were longer than my hand, and at a glance there was no way it could have fit into or emerged from the small pouch on my belt.

Magic is so cool.

I slapped the magazine into the receiver on the bottom of Cerberus, which changed shape to accept it. Then the barrel shot out an extra two feet, and the muzzle expanded until Cerberus resembled an anti-tank rifle rather than an assault carbine.

Eos, bless her, is a very…direct fighter, applying her exceptional strength and durability to get in close, stay there, and deliver a tremendous beating. In contrast, and like all children of Athena, I fight with my mind as much as my muscles and weapons. My fighting style is all grace and tactics, and often attacking from a distance or closing for quick strikes before moving away again. In that, as in most things, we compliment one another very nicely indeed.

“Clear and brace!” I called to Eos.

A dozen steps out in front of me now, she vanished with an audible pop as she Skipped out of my line of fire. A moment later, I felt her hands press against my shoulders as I took up a shooting stance.

“Ready!” she replied cheerfully. “What’d Daedalus give you today?”

“High velocity, high explosive, armor piercing rounds,” I said, taking careful aim at the fleeing cyclops. “He covered all the bases.”

Her hands pressed more firmly against my back. “Sweet!”

My helmet, a gold Corinthian-style device which contained the magical equivalent of an ultra high-tech Heads-Up Display and computer system, informed me that the cyclops was within range, gave me wind and elevation information, and showed no civilians in the immediate area.

I tracked the cyclops for a moment, then pulled the trigger.

Cerberus boomed like a cannon as its muzzle absorbed most of the flash and the force of the blow-back and recoil pressed me against Eos’ hands. She absorbed the rest of the shock, and we didn’t move even a little. I remembered the first time I’d fired powerful rounds from the big rifle, and how I’d slid back almost five feet from the force of it.

My aim was true, and neither Cerberus nor the ammunition disappointed. The cyclops’s right knee exploded in a brief burst of fire and a spray of blood and bone. The cyclops roared in pain and slammed face-first to the pavement with such force that I thought we might’ve bounced off the ground slightly.

Eos squeezed my shoulders briefly, then Skipped away with a soft pop. She reappeared beside the fallen, howling form. A spear of lightning took shape in her hands and she jabbed the cyclops in the back with it. “You had your chance to come quietly, big boy. Now you pay the pipers.”

I Skipped over to stand across its body from her, cradling Cerberus in my arms. “You’re mixing your metaphors, Jupiter,” I said with a smile.

“Sorry, Pluto. You’re the scholar, not me.” She flashed me a brief grin and jabbed the cyclops again.

It whimpered and quieted down, rolling onto its back and clutching the remains of its right leg to slow the bleeding. “Not take back to Underworld! Hate Underworld!”

“If you come quietly,” I said gently, “We’ll get your leg healed and you can -”

When you look at a cyclops, you think ‘big, ugly, dumb.’ You don’t think ‘fast.’

We live and learn.

I honestly never saw the blow coming. It didn’t telegraph it at all. One moment I was talking, the next moment I was lying on my back on the floor inside the warehouse we’d been running past, with bits of brick and metal clattering around me, Cerberus still gripped in my left hand.

Avatars are a lot more durable than normal demigods, and demigods are already more durable than normal humans by a pretty wide margin. Even still, I would’ve been in a lot of pain if I hadn’t been wearing my uniform.

Like Eos’s, the base layers of my uniform are a high-necked, sleeveless bodysuit beneath a toga-style sleeveless mini-dress (though mine are black where hers are white). With it, I wear a golden-colored breastplate and belt, form-fitting pauldrons and bracers, and a pair of knee-high leather boots beneath matching greaves protecting my legs. And, of course, my helmet.

I also had a collapsable shield attached to the bracer on my left arm, but it was still folded up into a small disc at my wrist.

The metal our armor is made of looks like gold, but is made by Hephaestus, and is both stronger and lighter than the best steel available. The dress and bodysuit were woven by Arachne herself, and were almost as good as armor themselves. Together, they absorbed a lot of the impact when I crashed through the wall, and I only had a few scrapes and scratches to show for it.

I’d probably have bruises all over my back, legs and arms tomorrow, though. “Ow,” I grunted, rolling and rising to my knees.

Through the hole I’d made in the wall, I could see Eos dancing around the cyclops, which was struggling to rise on one leg, jabbing at it with her lightning formed into two short swords.

“Are you all right?” her voice asked anxiously in my ear.

My older sister – Danae, Lady Minerva, Avatar of Athena – had come up with the idea of adding short-range communicators to our helmets the year before. We’d already put them to good use, and the older Avatars frequently wondered how they’d ever gotten along without them.

“Fine,” I grunted. “Bastard caught me off guard.”

“That was pretty sloppy, love.”

“Who knew cyclopses were so fast?” I stood up, bounced on the balls of my feet a couple of times to loosen up again, then gripped Cerberus tightly. “I’m on my way out, let’s finish this.”

“I’m ready!”

I took a deep breath and Skipped back out into the street, already shifting Cerberus back to my shoulder. “Clear and brace!” I called to Eos again.

As before, she vanished as she Skipped away from the cyclops, and I felt her hands against my shoulders again a moment later.

“Do me a favor and put it down for good this time, okay?”

I sighed. “You know I don’t like killing unless I have no other choice.”

“I think it’s used up its chances, don’t you?” Eos asked wryly.

“Yeah,” I agreed, only a little reluctantly.

She wasn’t wrong. It had killed six mortals during the two days it had taken us to track it down, and while Daedalus had asked me to try to bring it back alive – the cyclops was an endangered species, after all – I had little sympathy for it to begin with. Cyclopses aren’t exactly friendly, social creatures to begin with, and this one was pretty vicious even by their standards.

My reluctance was largely philosophical. I work for the God of the Dead. I knew, better than most, the value of any life.

But a monster was a monster, cyclops, human or otherwise. I pulled the trigger.

As before, Eos braced me so that the rifle’s blowback and recoil wouldn’t knock me down, and the cyclops’s head exploded spectacularly. It stood there for a moment, swaying drunkenly, before toppling over backwards with another resounding crash.

“Cleanup on aisle seven!” Eos quipped.

I sighed. “Don’t you feel even a little bit sorry for it? I mean, it was limited to such a myopic view of the world.”

Eos moved to stand beside me, reaching up and touching the side of her helmet. She’d recently had it upgraded to match mine, so I watched curiously as it folded up onto a compact hairband. I rarely got to see it from the outside.

She gave me a dour look. “You did not just make that joke.”

I retracted my own helmet and gave her my very best innocent look. “What joke?”

She punched my arm lightly, then started forward to check the remains. “This is the part I hate.”

I ejected the magazine and collapsed Cerberus into a compact, foot-long cylinder before sliding it into its holster on the back of my belt, and the magazine back into its pouch. “I know. What do we do with this one? We can’t linger…it might be the middle of the night, and we might be in an industrial area, but my shots and all that howling will bring someone to see what the heck was going on.”

Eos glanced at me as I walked up beside her. “You want the shoulders or the feet?”

“Foot,” I corrected her. “I don’t think it’s going to matter. It’s going to be a mess at both ends.”

We stared down at the enormous corpse. Eos sighed.

“Look,” I said, “if we each take an end, we can Step it to the Underworld without even having to pick it up. Right?”

“Right,” she nodded. “I’ll take the head end.”

That’s my job. There’s undoubtedly a routine to it, but it’s never, ever boring.

Not even for a minute.