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Chapter 1

“No one has to be taught to fear the dark,” Heracles told us on our first day of training. “It’s something everyone with mortal blood understands instinctively. You know that you can’t see well – or at all – in the dark. You have to rely on senses which are often considered secondary in day-to-day life; hearing, smell, touch. And these are the very senses that predators use to find us when we can’t see.”

“Today,” he’d said, “you will begin to learn that the darkness isn’t something to be afraid of. Respected, yes…but not feared. The dark isn’t evil, it’s just…dark. And into that darkness, in all its different forms, we – the children of the gods – can bring light.”

That had been five years ago, when we were tender, untried teens, barely past our fifteenth birthdays. Some of us had just been coming to terms with being being demigods, others – like me – had known all our lives. I’d lived with my mother – Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare (among other things) – since I was born, and had spent summers with my father, a Cherokee Medicine Man.

We’d spent the last five years learning about ourselves and the world. We’d learned to fight and how to survive in both the wild and urban settings; studied math, science, literature, philosophy and history. We didn’t go home at night…we lived together, studied together, worked together, living and breathing our educations.

Today we graduated. Today we would take up whatever roles and destinies we’d chosen for ourselves or had chosen for us. Some of us would return to the mortal world, others would join our divine parents in service to them.

Beside me, my best friend – Michel, son of Hermes – dug his elbow into my ribs. “Hey Talia, did you finally decide what you want to do?”

I glanced at him. His dark hair was still unruly even after he’d spent a half-hour trying to get it to lie flat that morning. I’d taken a shot at it myself once or twice…he was doomed. “Yeah. I’m going to go into my mother’s service. I want to try to work my way up to serve as Lady Minerva’s deputy.”

My older half-sister Danae had held the title of Lady Minerva, Athena’s Avatar, for almost three hundred years now. She’d recently lost her deputy (another of my older sisters, Kiesha) to marriage and motherhood. Filling the position of the Avatar’s deputy – a sort of glorified personal assistant – would put me in line to take up the role myself when Danae finally decided to retire.

Michel whistled softly. “You do know how to set your sights high, don’t you.”

I grinned for a moment. “I assume you still want to be a doctor.” No question there. He’d never excelled in the physical aspects of our training, but had constantly outperformed everyone – myself included, and I’d been at the top of the class – at the intellectual ones. Where I was smart, he was a genius. Literally…his intellect could be daunting at times.

He was also a charmer, like his father. He grinned the boyish grin that had snuck him so adroitly into the beds of most of the other girls – and a couple of the boys – in our class. “Of course I do! I’m sure it was what I was born to do.”

I sighed, a little jealous of that certainty. It must be nice to be so sure of your short term career goals. The only thing I felt certain of was that I was meant to be an Avatar, which was a long-term goal at best. I was hoping I could figure out the short term by serving in Mother’s staff.

Michel and I had discussed my quandary at such length that he immediately understood what was on my mind. He patted my arm gently. “Don’t worry, Talia. You’ll find your place.”

“Or it will find you,” a deeper voice said from behind us. Maida, daughter of Ares, leaned forward between us. Her broad, slightly blunted features were uncommonly thoughtful. “I’ve told you before Talia, that if you can’t find your place, it will find you. And probably put you into the ground. You must know your path. Being a demigoddess is no…no safe…” She frowned. “Michel, word?”

“Sinecure, I think is what you’re looking for,” he said dryly.

I didn’t think that was quite the word she’d been searching for, but close enough. She nodded. “Thank you. It is no sinecure. Even Michel here learned to fight well enough to survive a battle.”

Michel rolled his bright blue eyes and gave me a look that asked me not to rise to the implied criticism of his skills. I just smiled politely and turned to face front again, ignoring the deprecation. Maida was a magnificent warrior…but that was all she’d ever be. Not a deep thinker, that one. She was a few years older than most of us – our classes weren’t defined by age but by progress – and I’d consistently beaten her on the sparring mats just by keeping a step or two ahead of her tactics.

Of course, I’d seen her bench press an amount of weight equal to a compact car without showing any real strain. I couldn’t do that, and neither could anybody else in our class. I guess everything balances out…sort of.

Up on the stage, Heracles was now leaning over to talk with Mother. Bubo, her owl companion – who today had chosen to look like a little Scops owl so he could sit on her shoulder easily – was leaning back at a dangerous angle to avoid the large man’s now-serious countenance. Looking like a Scops owl didn’t help…the species’ slightly pop-eyed appearance, combined with Bubo’s attempts to clear the way for an evidently private conversation, combined to create a decidedly comical effect.

Zeus and Hermes, sitting on the other side of Athena, apparently agreed. They were watching the little owl with obvious amusement.

“What’s up?” Michel asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Maybe Mother has some task for Heracles. I hear he’s still their go-to guy for the really dangerous stuff. I can’t imagine why they’d be discussing it now, though.”

To my right, Penelope – daughter of Aphrodite – shook her long golden-blonde hair and then brushed it back from her shoulders. “It’s obviously not a conversation for our ears, nor for those of the other gods from the looks of it. We all have our secrets.”

Penelope (never Penny) didn’t have too many secrets of her own. Everybody knew that she’d charmed her way into every bed in our class, mine included, and was rumored to have been seen in the company of the Avatars of Zeus and Apollo. She seemed to love the rumors, encouraging them by refusing to confirm or deny them, always with a knowing little smirk.

I found her a bit grating, to be honest. She was so shallow, and hadn’t put much effort into any of our training, except illusion magic, for which she had a natural talent.

Behind us, Maida grunted. “This is why you were unprepared for our surprise combat exams, when the rest of us knew they were coming. Just because things are being kept for your ears doesn’t mean they are things you shouldn’t know.”

Sometimes, Maida surprises me. “Very true.” Before Maida and Penelope could start sniping at one another – a common occurrence – I turned to Penelope. “So what’re you going to do after graduation?”

“Become an actress, what else?” She gave her hair a practiced little flip. “I thought about becoming a muse, I have the talent for it. But why inspire someone else when I can create for myself?”

That was Penelope in a nutshell. Why do something for someone else that she could do for herself instead? I wondered if all of Aphrodite’s children were so egocentric.

Up on the stage, Heracles took his place behind the podium and cleared his throat. Silence fell. He smiled, his bearded face as open and engaging as ever.

Someone as friendly and cheerful as Heracles, and who had as much life experience as he did, was the perfect person to train us. We were all his foster children, and even the hardest of us had come to love him like a parent.

“Good morning!” He looked around at us proudly. “Welcome, as the saying goes, to the first day of the rest of your lives!”

Behind him, Zeus rolled his eyes, Hermes hid a snicker behind his hand, and Ares glowered. Of course, glowering was Ares’s default expression, so that probably didn’t mean much. Hera, sitting between Zeus and Ares, just sighed. Mother was glaring at Heracles’s back, which surprised me. She usually got along with him very well.

“You have all completed your training admirably,” Heracles said. “You have found your talents and skills, and demonstrated them – to greater and lesser degrees – to your classmates. You have earned educations that set you far ahead of most mortals your age; mathematics and science, literature, history, philosophy, domestic arts and,” he lifted one huge fist and shook it, “warfare!” He grinned. “How I wish such an education had been available to me when I was your age!”

“Before today,” he said, more subdued, “you were merely the children of the gods. Today, you are demigods in your own right! You have learned to harness and make the most of your innate abilities, and have come here today seeking your place in the world.”

He paused for a moment and looked around at us. “Some of you have requested specific career paths. Others have chosen to go into the service of your divine parents. We have listened to your wishes, considered your abilities, and gathered you here today to tell you what paths you will follow as you graduate into full adulthood.”

Heracles shifted back from the podium a little, straightening and pulling a sheet of paper from beneath his lion-skin cloak. “Today, we have a very special announcement to make as well, for one of you is going to become an Avatar.”

There was a long moment of silence, then very quiet chatter began to rise from our gathering. Michel nudged my shoulder and whispered, “Lady Mercury hasn’t said anything about retiring. Has Minerva?”

I shook my head and whispered back, “No, not at all.”

“Nor has Lord Mars,” Maida said quietly from behind us. “I wonder who’s stepping down.”

“You will all find out who in due time,” Heracles said over the whispering, and we all immediately fell silent again. “When we call your names, please stay in your seats, then come up to the stage to receive your diploma and formal assignments once we’ve finished. As always, the graduation order has been chosen at random to prevent any…incidents…like those that have occurred in the past.”

I’d heard rumors about the gods complaining that Zeus’s children – and there had been many, though there wasn’t one in our class – always going first. I suppose even gods are entitled to be petty at times.

“So,” Heracles said, brandishing his sheet of paper with a flourish, “without further ado, and in no particular order…Michel, son of Hermes!” he boomed cheerfully. “You have expressed a desire to go to the mortal world and become a physician. You’ve demonstrated a talent for medicine the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Hippocrates himself!”

Beside me, Michel blushed furiously, but smiled anyway. Heracles did have a way of exaggerating with gusto, but he wasn’t wrong. Michel had a natural aptitude for biology and physiology.

“To that end, a mortal identity has been established for you,” Heracles said. “Choose a school to attend, and go become the greatest doctor the world has ever seen!”

Up on the stage behind Heracles, Hermes lifted a triumphant fist and beamed at his son. Michel’s smile became a grin as huge as his father’s.

For some reason, I thought Mother looked troubled.

“Maida,” Heracles boomed, “daughter of Ares! You have expressed a desire to become a soldier in the mortal world. However, your father has an opening in his staff, serving as an assistant to Lady Mars. He would have you serve there, if you will consent to do so.”

“I will!” Maida all but shouted from behind us, making Ares smile a small but obviously proud smile.

Heracles looked down at his list, and his boisterous good humor melted away. He remained silent long enough that I could hear people shifting uneasily around me, and felt the tension start to pool in my own belly.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “And already, we come to the great announcement. It has been many, many years since the post of Lady Pluto, Avatar of Hades, has been filled.”

I glanced at Michel, who shot me back the same blank, confused expression I was giving him. There were no children of Hades amongst us that we were aware of, and it was extremely unusual for a god’s Avatar to be anyone other than one of their own children. In fact, the last time it had been done was with the last Lady Pluto herself, to end a conflict between Hades and Demeter.

“Didn’t Persephone die in the line of duty?” Penelope asked in a hushed voice.

“About two thousand years ago,” I whispered back, “according to the histories in Mother’s library.”

“The tales say she died valiantly,” Maida said stoutly, “at the hands of a gorgon, I think.”

“I heard it was a sphinx that went rogue,” someone nearby said, just loud enough to be heard.

“Doesn’t the Avatar of Hades have to be dead to perform their duties?” Someone else asked in a horrified voice.

“I heard that Persephone’s soul was lost,” Michel whispered to me, “and that Hades himself was unable to recover her after her death.”

Heracles cleared his throat to reclaim our attention, and we all fell silent again. “After great deliberation and debate, a new Lady Pluto has been chosen.”

The murmuring started again.

“But Hades and Persephone only had one daughter,” I whispered to Michel, “and she’s a muse, isn’t she?”

“Yeah,” he whispered back. “Her name is MelinoĆ«. She inspired some of my favorite – “

“Talia, daughter of Athena,” Heracles said slowly, raising his voice so he could be heard clearly over our murmurs, “you will report to Tartarus and take up the post of Lady Pluto, Avatar of Hades.”

Silence finally returned for good as every head turned to look at me…Heracles, graduating students, and gods alike. Michel, whose face was already close to mine, widened his eyes almost comically. Then a fresh burst of whispers broke out around me, only to be interrupted again as Heracles resumed his announcements.

Not that I heard a word he said after that. My head was spinning, and I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I wanted to serve the gods, the was no question about that, but I had asked to join my mother’s staff! I wanted – and had worked hard to earn the right – to serve with my brothers and sisters!

The idea of serving the Lord of the Underworld filled me with dread. I’d never met him personally, of course. None of us had. We had, in fact, only seen him at a distance a few times, and then briefly. He was extremely reclusive, only attending the annual meetings of the gods on Mount Olympus and never staying for the social gathering afterwards.

We’d met two of his attendants in the course of our studies: Thanatos, who sent the souls of the dead to Hermes to be lead to the Underworld; and Charon, who ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron. Neither had been what one would call easy company.

And the rumors about Hecate and Nyx were the stuff of nightmares.

Michel suddenly squeezed my arm and tugged gently. “Talia, come on, he’s done.”

I glanced around dazedly to see my classmates rising. Automatically, I did the same, smoothing my skirt. “Thanks, Michel,” I whispered.

“Are you okay?” he asked as we began filing towards the platform to receive our diplomas.

“No,” I whispered.

“This is so weird,” Penelope said from in front of me. She glanced over her shoulder at me, showing the first concern I’d ever seen her show for anyone other than herself. “How could they do this? It could’ve been me they chose!”

Did I really think she was showing concern for me? Never mind.

“Somehow,” Michel said dryly, “I sincerely doubt that.”

I hung back a little, intentionally making myself the last person to walk up onto the platform. My fellow students had split up after getting their diplomas and assignment papers, and were exchanging hugs and handshakes with their divine parents (and, in a few special cases, their mortal ones as well) as I approached Heracles.

Zeus, who had no children in the group that day, had moved to stand beside his son, with Mother behind them.

Heracles held out the rolled-up diploma and assignment papers, bound with a black ribbon. I didn’t take them right away, instead looking up at the two tall men.

“Is there a problem, child?” Zeus asked, sounding surprisingly gentle.

“I asked,” I said slowly, considering my words very, very carefully, “to serve in my mother’s staff. May I ask why my request was refused?”

“You will be serving your mother’s purposes by taking this post,” Zeus said.

I met her eyes, and she nodded ever so slightly. That had the effect of both making me feel slightly better and a lot more confused at the same time. I took a deep breath. “I’ve never protested anything since beginning my training – “

Zeus cut me off, still gentle, but very serious. “That is, in fact, one of the reasons you were chosen to fill such a prestigious and important position.”

He’d been so boisterous and jovial the two other times I’d spoken with him that his tone made quite an impact on me now. “Thank you, sir,” I said, as politely and respectfully as I could, “but I must protest. I’m ill equipped to handle the position, I’ve had no formal training for – “

“In point of fact,” Zeus cut me off again, “every one of you has had the basic training needed to become an Avatar. One of the most important reasons we put you all through this training is to ensure that there will always be skilled replacements available, should one of the current Avatars fall or wish to retire.”

I was left with my mouth hanging open a little, frantically trying to think of a way I could protest and put it off without insulting any of them. Rationally, I knew I was being given a tremendous honor, and they obviously had some very serious and important plan they were putting in motion, but I wasn’t sure I liked being a pawn in it. And I definitely didn’t like the idea of serving Hades.

“But…how can I fill the post of Avatar of Hades?” I asked, playing the most desperate card I could think of. “Doesn’t Pluto have to have died to perform many of the post’s duties?”

Heracles nodded. “Yes,” he lifted his big old war club, which had been leaning against the podium, and hefted it onto his shoulder. “Which is why I hope you can forgive me for this someday…”

Just before the huge, roughly hewn wooden club smashed into the side of my head, I saw Mother wink at me.

I did not find the gesture remotely comforting.