Eos was waiting for me at the bottom of the steps up to Mom’s palace when I arrived, and reached out for my hand as I approached. I took hers, squeezed it, then started up the steps.
Danae – Lady Minerva, Avatar of Athena and my older half-sister – emerged from the palace and met us at the top of the stairs, smiling warmly. “Hello, little sister. Hi, Eos.”
Eos waved with her free hand.
I released Eos’s hand, gave Danae a very quick smile, then bowed formally. “Greetings Lady Minerva. We come on an errand from Hades and seek the wisdom and guidance of Athena. May we pass within?”
Danae blinked twice, then became very formal and serious. “On what matter do you seek Athena’s council, Lady Pluto?”
“On the death of Persephone and the disposition – and, hopefully, recovery of – her missing soul.”
Danae went totally still and some of the color drained out of her face. “One -” her voice cracked slightly. “One moment.” She closed her eyes, and I knew she’d be communicating telepathically with our mother. After only a few seconds, she opened her eyes again and nodded. “Lady Pluto, Lady Jupiter, come within. Athena will hear your questions and offer what guidance she can.”
“Thank you,” I replied formally, and we followed her inside.
As we walked down the long hall that led to Athena’s chambers, Danae murmured, “That was quite a shock, little sister. Hades seriously asked you to find out what happened to Persephone?”
I nodded. “Mel did, actually, but Hades gave me permission and encouraged me to pursue it. It’s not like I’m going to turn down a request like that.”
“Wow.” She looked over her shoulder at me and winked. “You really have been a good influence on him if he’s opened up that much.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I like to think so.”
Athena’s reception chambers – her throne room, if you will – looked a lot like those at the palaces of the rest of the gods I’d visited. A wide, airy room with one side open to the outdoors, ringed with columns and capped with a domed ceiling. The ceiling in Mother’s was painted – rather whimsically, I thought – to look like the shelves of a library.
Her throne was a lot less ostentatious than most, a simple and comfortable-looking tall-backed chair with soft cushions on it. Not for reclining or brooding in, but for receiving people in. Before it, rather than an altar like Hades’s, stood a big, shallow, bronze brazier with a low fire crackling in it.
On the top of the chair sat Bubo, her owl. Today he looked like a great horned owl; regal, majestic, and currently asleep. At least to judge by his closed eyes.
Athena swept around the brazier and came to us, embracing first me, then Eos, before taking us by the hands and drawing us towards her throne. “Minerva, bring chairs and refreshments for our guests. Talking is thirsty work, and I suspect we will be doing a great deal of it.”
She stopped at her throne, released our hands and looked at me closely. “Something has rattled you, daughter, and not merely your quest.”
I briefly thought about telling her about what Demeter had implied about Hades, but the idea made me a little nauseous. Fortunately, the day had provided me with plenty of things to put me off-kilter. “I had an…encounter with Nyx.”
Eos visibly shivered. “That one gives me the creeps.”
“Me too,” I agreed. “But she had interesting information for me.”
Athena narrowed her eyes and looked at me closely again. “Oh? Nyx rarely parts with any information without a cost.”
“She told me -” I began, hoping to dodge the unspoken question, but Mother held up her hand to stop me.
“Wait for Danae to return. I would have her involved in this matter, if you will accept her aid.”
“Gladly,” I said with a profound feeling of relief. I hadn’t even had to ask.
Danae returned in another minute trailed by three floating chairs, a small tray table, a pitcher of orange juice and four glasses. The chairs and table arranged themselves in a neat semi-circle in front of Athena’s throne, the pitcher filled the glasses, and we all sat down to accept our drinks.
“Now,” Athena said, “tell us everything. I suspect Eos needs to be brought up to speed as well.”
Eos nodded. “You know it.”
I told them everything I’d learned so far, leaving out only the details of the deal Nyx had made with me. I took my time, making sure I covered the fairly thin information I had.
When I finished, Athena sat back in her chair and sighed heavily. “I’m sorry to hear that Demeter is still using Ceres that way. I’d hoped that she would eventually come to accept our modern connection with our Avatars, especially since it was Persephone who inspired and helped develop it. I don’t know any other god who hasn’t embraced it and found it both useful and fulfilling, barring only Apollo, who has never taken an Avatar for his own reasons.” She smiled at Danae, who smiled back. Then she gave me an apologetic smile. “And Hades, of course.”
“He’s growing into it, slowly but surely,” I said, trying to reassure her.
She nodded silent thanks and sighed again. “I simply don’t understand Demeter. She is practically an outsider among us these days.”
“There’s barely even any circumstantial evidence pointing towards Demeter yet,” Danae said thoughtfully, “just your hunch, little sister. Which I’m not going to downplay; the way she greeted you was pretty suspicious. On the other hand, there’s also no other actual suspects yet.”
“Circe is unlikely in the extreme,” Athena said firmly. “Aside from Odysseus and the occasional visit from Hermes, nobody has seen her since she went into exile.”
“What did she do?” I asked.
Mother shook her head. “It’s a long story, and probably not relevant. More importantly, you should go and see the Gorgons, as they may well know where Persephone was going after visiting them. Make sure you have your helmets on before you go…they’ll protect you from the Gorgons’ gaze. And know that if you approach them cautiously and politely, they will bring you no violence.”
“What else can you tell us about them?” Eos asked.
Athena sighed softly. “Once upon a time, they numbered three…Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. Today, only two survive…while her sisters were immortal and benefited from that state, Medusa was mortal, and vulnerable to a mortal death. They are kin to many of the early monsters, including Echidna herself, and like her are half-woman, half-snake. Be wary of their gaze…though your helmets will protect you, all beings are vulnerable to it, even the gods. Beware as well their bite, for their fangs will pierce the toughest armor, and their poison is both painful and potentially lethal.”
She lapsed into silence, her expression distant. Eventually she returned her attention to us and smiled sadly. “Persephone had a decent, peaceful relationship with them. If you approach them with weapons sheathed and your cause quickly spoken, they should be peaceful enough.”
I rose and bowed deeply. “Thank you for your time and your wisdom, Athena.”
She rose as well, moving forward and hugging me. “When did I stop being ‘Mother’?” she asked teasingly.
I laughed softly and returned her hug. “When I had to be formal. Thanks, Mom.”
“You’re welcome, honey. Go now, be careful, and let me know what you find. Persephone was a friend of mine, and I too would like to know her fate.”
“Where do we find the Gorgons?” I asked.
“In the Libya,” she said, handing me a piece of paper. “Coordinates.”
I looked at the latitude and longitude notation on it, then handed it to Eos, who did the same before handing it to Danae. Then we activated our helmets, the metal unfolding from our hair bands to cover our heads.
“Ready, girls?” Danae asked.
“Ready!” Eos and I said together.
Danae gestured to me. “Your quest, your lead.”
I nodded, and Stepped to the coordinates we’d been given. A moment after I arrived, Eos and Danae appeared on either side of me.
We stood on a rock shelf before the opening of a cave in the side of a cliff, overlooking the sea. Above us, the cliff rose up another fifty feet or so, and below us it continued down into the ocean a good three hundred feet down.
“Good thing none of us are afraid of heights,” Eos said lightly. “Shall we?”
I nodded and started forward into the cave.
Inside it was unlit, the only source of light being the opening we’d come in through. Fortunately, our helmets provided excellent low-light vision, so I could still see clearly, if without much color definition. The floor of the cave sloped gently downward, curving gently to the left. Its ceiling was several feet above our heads, and here and there was accented with stalactites, though the floor was dry and worn smooth, as were the walls.
I expected bats or insects, but saw no sign of either.
About thirty yards into the tunnel, I thought I heard something and stopped, holding up my hand. The footsteps behind me stopped as well, and Eos’s voice whispered in my ear, “What is it?”
“Thought I heard something,” I murmured, letting my helmet pick up my words and transmit them to my companions. It was safer than trying to talk out loud here.
Eos didn’t reply, either giving me quiet so I could hear the sound if it came again, or listening for it herself.
The sound came again, a soft, rasping sound of movement from somewhere ahead of us down the tunnel.
“I heard it that time,” Danae said softly.
“Me too,” Eos agreed.
“Nothing for it,” I murmured, and started walking again.
The tunnel turned to the right up ahead, and as we rounded the corner it opened up into a large cavern. In the center of the big cave, a bonfire crackled and blazed, the smoke rising up and escaping through a hole in the ceiling, high above us. The cave was decorated with broken walls and columns, and appeared to have been built up into a little villa some long time in the past.
Here and there, shockingly life-like stone statues stood in various postures of attack, fear or retreat. Their faces had all been struck off at some point, leaving them bereft of identity.
The rasping sound came again, much closer and much louder, and from off to one side a raspy voice hissed, “Three Avatars. Why have they come, sister?”
“To provide us entertainment, sister,” a second, similar voice said from the other side of the room.
Eos and Danae moved up on either side of me, turning to face outwards, towards the voices.
“Mmm, defensive,” the second voice said.
“Let us see them…” the first voice said.
The shadows on either side of the room seemed to shift and move, and the Gorgons emerged. They slithered towards us slowly, their bodies swaying and undulating as their snake-like lower halves propelled them across the floor. Their upper bodies, decidedly female and very shapely, were lightly plated in form-fitting scale armor. Someone had a sense of humor.
Their heads…their faces were beautiful, but they had sharp, tusk-like fangs and glowing reddish-orange eyes. Their heads seemed to shift and move in unnatural ways, and I realized that their hair really was made up of living snakes.
“Not turning to stone. Protected. Come, sister,” the one to our right – the first one who spoke – said. “Play…or feast?”
“Play…” the one off to the left hissed, “then feast.” She smiled a gruesome smile, revealing teeth that were either naturally pointed or had been filed down to sharp points.
“We come in peace and greet you with respect,” I said as calmly as I could. “We’re not here to fight. We just want to talk.”
“We don’t talk,” the one to the right hissed. “We rip, and tear, and bite, and gnash and…”
“We get the picture,” I said dryly. “Please, be calm…”
Simultaneously, they lunged.
I bounded forward, pulling Cerberus from the back of my belt. In my helmet’s HUD, an overhead map of the room appeared and I saw the symbols representing my sister and my lover, a stylized owl head and the astrological symbol for Jupiter respectively, moving back and off to the sides. My own symbol – the astrological symbol for Pluto – was moving in time with me.
I loved my helmet.
I spun around in time to see Jupiter throw a low-powered lightning bolt at the Gorgon chasing her. She intentionally threw low, gouging a chunk of stone out of the floor and making the Gorgon rear back in surprise.
Across from them, Minerva had pulled out a rod similar to the one I held, which quickly expanded into a spear shaft. As it finished expanding, one end blazed to life as a leaf-shaped blade of pure energy came into being. She swung the spear in a tight circle, whacking the blunt end into the side of the Gorgon chasing her.
I gave Cerberus a shake, and it expanded into its spear form. My instinct was to go and help Jupiter…everything in me wanted to fight at her side. But she was a magnificent fighter, and Minerva – who didn’t see nearly as much action as Jupiter and I did – likely needed my help more.
“Pluto, go help Minerva,” Jupiter said in my ear, as if she was reading my thoughts. “This thing’s a punk compared to some of what we’ve dealt with.”
“Right,” I said. “Minerva, get it to turn its back to me.”
“Working on it,” Minerva replied, her voice tight as she poked and smacked her Gorgon with the blunt end of her spear. “I don’t want to hurt it too badly.”
Jupiter snorted derisively, and the cave lit up with her lightning again. I glanced over and saw her dancing around her Gorgon, wielding two short swords made of bolts of lightning.
Looking back, I saw Minerva jump back and to her left, her Gorgon following the movement swiftly. The Gorgon lunged, striking like a snake, and Minerva caught the attack on her spear, then jammed the blunt end into the creature’s stomach.
Being the Avatar of the Goddess of War, Minerva probably didn’t need my help all that much…but I ran forward, twirling Cerberus around as I jumped high, bringing my weapon’s staff down on the Gorgon’s head.
The Gorgon, realizing its mistake, weaved to the right as I descended. My blow missed her head, and instead slammed down onto her left shoulder, which made a loud popping sound. The Gorgon threw back her head and screamed.
Across the room, the other Gorgon yelled something I didn’t catch, and something slammed into my side under my left arm, knocking me off my feet. I landed hard, but my armor and uniform absorbed a lot of the impact. I rolled as I hit, coming smoothly up onto my feet in time to see Jupiter stab a bolt of lightning into her Gorgon’s back from behind.
The Gorgon reared back and practically howled as the electricity ripped through it, and a moment later the two creatures lay side-by-side on the floor, both panting and whimpering. One had an obviously dislocated shoulder, the other was twitching and spasming with the after-effects of Jupiter’s blow.
“See?” Jupiter said, giving her hands a shake to make her lightning swords disappear. “Easy-peasy.”
Minerva grunted and gently prodded the one with the dislocated shoulder, using the blunt end of her spear again. “Hey. Why did you attack us? We came in peace and said as much.”
“You’re Avatars,” she hissed. “We’re ‘monsters.'” She all but spat the word as us. “Come to try to kill us? We’ve done nothing!”
The three of us exchanged looks, then I collapsed and holstered Cerberus and crouched down. “If you promise not to attack us again, I’ll see what I can do about that shoulder. Honestly, we’re just here to ask you a few questions. About Persephone.”
The Gorgon’s eyes widened. “Persephone? She was our friend. She was a friend to all beings. You think we’d hurt her?”
“No!” I said quickly. “No, not at all. But as far as I’ve been able to learn, you were the last…the last people…to see her alive.”
That startled her into silence. After a moment, her still-twitching sister hissed, “Let’s hear them out, sister. They fought back without seriously hurting us, when they obviously could have overwhelmed us. Maybe even killed us.” She looked up at me. “Your word, Lady Pluto, that no more harm will come to us. In return, we give our word that we will be peaceful and answer your questions.”
Perhaps calling them ‘people’ had helped, even if I had hesitated. “You have my word,” I replied.
She looked warily at my companions. “I would have their promises as well.”
“You have my word,” Jupiter said seriously. “Offer us no violence, and we’ll cause you no harm.”
Minerva nodded. “We promise.”
The Gorgons exchanged a look, then nodded. “I am Stheno,” the first one said, speaking the first part of her name like a hiss. “This is my sister, Euryale. What do you wish to know about Persephone?”
“Hades has sent us to find out what happened to his wife -”
“Waited long enough,” Euryale muttered.
I nodded. “Be that as it may, he asked us to find out. So far, her trail ends after her visit with you.”
“We did not kill her,” Stheno said seriously. “As I said, we would never have harmed her. She was a friend to all living creatures…even most of Echidna’s children respected her. The only creatures I personally know of that didn’t were Scylla and Charybdis…at least until Scylla was killed and resurrected into her natural naiad form.”
“Lucky,” Euryale muttered.
Stheno nodded silent agreement. “Persephone was a good friend. She came to check on us from time to time, to make sure there was nothing that we needed.” She sighed. “We have…urges. Cravings. Most of the time we can control them, but sometimes…”
“Sometimes we need to hunt,” Euryale hissed. “To kill.”
“Animals, mostly,” Stheno said quickly. “But somehow, having Persephone visit quelled those urges for a long time.”
“We miss her,” Euryale said softly. It was the first thing I’d heard her say with no venom in her voice. She sounded genuinely sad.
“Do you know where she was going after she left you?” Minerva asked.
“It was a long time ago…” Stheno said, frowning in thought.
“She said something about going to visit Circe,” Euryale said softly. “Right before she left us.”
I traded a look with Minerva, who shrugged.
“Is that even possible?” I asked. “I thought she was living in total isolation.”
Stheno laughed. It was a horribly unpleasant sound that grated on my ears and sent shivers down my spine. Almost like nails on a chalkboard. “Anything is possible, Avatar,” she spat at me. “You of all people should know that.”
Jupiter started to take a step forward, but I put out an arm and she stopped.
Stheno sighed. “Yes, it is possible. You might ask Athena what the exact wording of the law forbidding visitors is. Sticking to the letter of a contract is important…abiding by the spirit of it is another thing altogether.”
“Rules lawyers,” Jupiter muttered.
“And you’ve never bent a rule for your own purposes, Lady Jupiter?” Stheno asked pointedly.
Jupiter shifted uncomfortably.
Stheno chuckled. “Yes, I thought as much. Avatars in particular are notorious for doing so. It is, after all, practically in the job description. Persephone was a compassionate woman…I have no trouble at all believing she’d find a way to get around any restriction preventing people from visiting Circe.”
I nodded slowly. “All right.” I bowed slightly. “Euryale, I apologize again for dislocating your shoulder. Can I -”
Before I could finish asking, Euryale shifted and stretched her arm, popping the joint back into place with an audible crack and without so much as a wince or grimace. She rotated her arm once, then gave me an unsettling, fang-filled grin.
“…Never mind. Thank you for your time. We won’t take up any more of it.”
Eos was waiting for me at the bottom of the steps up to Mom’s palace when I arrived, and reached out for my hand as I approached. I took hers, squeezed it, then started up the steps.