(Five years later)
“Before we begin,” I said, “I really have to thank you for being willing to wait until my backlog was under control to bring this to my attention.”
Minos bowed politely. “Of course, Lady Pluto. Nobody knows better than your fellow Underworld staff members how overloaded you’ve been.”
Minos was a slightly overweight, balding man in traditional Greek robes of white and blue. He was part of the quartet of beings who were responsible for bringing souls to their final rest. In his case, he was the Judge of Souls, determining where they should spend their eternity, and if petitioners should be given the opportunity to be reincarnated.
The other three were Hermes, Charon and Thanatos. Thanatos collected the souls of the dead and sent them to Hermes, who brought them to Minos for judgement. Once judged, the souls would continue on to Charon, who ferried them across the rivers Styx or Acheron, taking them to either the Fields of Punishment, or the Fields of Asphodel. Very distinguished souls would continue on to Elysium, and sometimes – very rarely – to the Isles of the Blessed.
If you’d been a very bad person in life, Minos would instead bring your soul before Hades himself for judgement and punishment, most of which occurred in Tartarus, which encompassed all of the other realms of the dead.
Be good. Trust me, you do not want Hades deciding your fate. Just look at Prometheus and Sisyphus. Hades is both imaginative and merciless when it comes to punishments. It’s a terrifying combination.
Today was a doubly big day for me. It was both the fifth anniversary of my assumption of the office of Avatar to Hades, and it was the first day I’d actively entertained new petitions from the denizens of the Underworld. Part of my job was to hear these petitions, deal with the ones I could, and bring the rest to Hades’s attention if appropriate.
That’s me. Monster hunter and ombudsman extraordinaire.
Which was how I’d ended up with Minos and Odysseus sitting across my desk from me. I folded my hands on my desk and smiled. “So, what can I do for you gentlemen?”
Odysseus – a large, ruggedly handsome man who still wore the leather and bronze armor he must’ve worn in life – leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees. “We have a petition we would very much like to have brought before Hades, Lady Pluto,” he said politely. “For some time now, we have been distressed that souls in torment are never released, even if they express genuine repentance. They are not even offered a chance to be reincarnated, to be given a chance to prove that they are prepared to be better people.”
“Once souls have been judged,” Minos interjected, “they have no advocate to bring word to Hades – or even to me! – that they wish to repent of their ill deeds. In some cases, there are souls being punished for deeds that have actually become irrelevant with time!”
“Just look at poor Prometheus,” Odysseus said, so earnestly that I began to understand why he’d been such a natural leader of men in life. It would be easy to follow such a charismatic and caring man. “He’s been having his liver pecked out by eagles every day for tens of thousands of years, just for having given fire to mankind!”
“How is that fitting punishment, considering how much mankind’s development has given the gods in return?” Minos asked, clasping his hands in front of him. “Many of these cases should be re-evaluated. At the very least, someone should speak to those being punished to learn if they’re ready to take responsibility for their misdeeds and repent.”
Odysseus produced a scroll and held it out. “This is a writeup of our thoughts on the subject, and some suggestions as to how it could be managed going forward.”
I took the scroll from him, but didn’t unroll it. It felt like holding a lit stick of dynamite. I looked back and forth between them, at the earnest, hopeful looks on their faces, and sighed. “Gentlemen, you know I have no authority to change the way things work here. All I can do is bring your concerns and ideas to Hades for his consideration.”
“That’s all we ask!” Odysseus said quickly.
I nodded. “Very well. You have my word that what you’ve said today will reach his ears, as will this.” I held up the scroll, then placed it on my desk.
They both rose and bowed politely, speaking words of thanks before departing.
Melinoë came to stand beside me and shook her head. “I don’t know how father will feel about this.” She picked up the scroll and read it curiously.
I looked up at her and wondered – not for the first time – if I would’ve made it through the last five years without her. Apparently, we had been a positive influence on each other after working together for so long. She was still enthusiastic, still frequently spoke without thinking about it (usually resulting in delightful amounts of confusion or disquiet in her listeners), and was still not quite right…but her eyes showed how much she’d changed. They were no longer solid black, but now showed normal whites around dramatically enlarged pupils and thin rings of bright purple irises.
She gave me an amused look. “Would you like me to deliver this to father for you?”
“Please! Are you sure you don’t want to join us for lunch, Mel?” I was meeting Eos for lunch at one of the many pubs in England that was called the Rose & Crown. We’d found this one two years earlier up in Yorkshire, while dealing with a pack of werewolves. They’d been harassing the local farmers, who gladly recommended the pub when we asked for a good place to eat afterwards. We made a point of meeting there for lunch or dinner at least once a month since.
Yorkshire pub cooking is not to be missed out on.
Mel smiled warmly. “Thank you, but no. I know I make Lady Jupiter uncomfortable, and that’s all right.” She touched my shoulder gently. “Not all of your friends have to be friends with one another. Besides, the Rose & Crown is a special place for you two. I won’t intrude on that.”
I knew better than to argue with her when she’d made up her mind on a subject. “In that case, yes, please bring that to Hades for me.”
She curtseyed. “Of course, my Lady.”
I shook my head slightly, amused. “All right. Do I have any other appointments this morning?”
Without even consulting the day-planner that was tucked under her arm, she shook her head. “No more appointments today at all, Talia.” She smiled. “Your entire afternoon is free.”
“That’s a first.” I slid back my chair and rose, stretching. “In that case, I’m going to lunch!”
I collected Cerberus from where it hung on the wall behind my desk, and folded it up from its spear form into a foot-long cylinder, a form that I’d discovered by accident about two years earlier. I clipped it to a special holder I’d had made, attached to the back of my belt, and gave myself a shake.
As I did, I concentrated on what I wanted to be wearing. My armor and dress flowed into a neat outfit of black trousers, black pumps, a red silk blouse and a black velvet bolero jacket. I didn’t need to dress like that, and rarely did…but whenever I was meeting Eos, I got a kick out of overdressing a little to counterpoint her eternal biker/Slayer outfits. Based on her reactions, it amused her too.
I Stepped to the Rose & Crown and went inside, glancing around. An arm rose out of the lunchtime crowd from over by the windows and waved to me. I made my way in that direction, weaving through the tightly packed little tables and greeting the locals I recognized.
Eos had somehow managed to get a little booth beside the windows, and already had two half-pints of a local pale ale I liked on the table. I slid in across from her and grinned at the old Transformers t-shirt she was wearing. “You’re doing 80s cartoons now?”
She shrugged and smiled lopsidedly. “I’m running out of comic book material. I may have to start reusing them at this rate.” She looked me up and down quickly. “You look like you’re going to some sort of business meeting. I like you in skirts and stockings better.”
I looked her over in return. In addition to the Transformers t-shirt, she was wearing her usual faded blue jeans, motorcycle boots, and her leather coat was hanging on the booth’s coat peg. “Are you going from here to a motorcycle rally?” I asked teasingly.
“Hell’s Angels?” Eos shot back with a grin, then lifted her glass. “To your continued good health, Pluto. Happy Death-day.”
I smiled and lifted my glass in return. “To yours, Jupiter, and thank you.” The Death-day joke was another old friend now, one she’d started using on the first anniversary of my becoming Hades’s Avatar.
We clinked glasses and drank a bit. “What’s for lunch today?” I asked. We usually just got the house special, which had yet to disappoint.
“Beef stew in fresh bread bowls. Yum!” Eos sat back and shook her head. “Hard to believe it’s only been five years since you came onboard. I feel like I’ve known you forever.”
I smiled and turned my glass slowly on its coaster. “That’s quite a compliment.”
“You’re welcome,” she winked. “I see you’re wearing the pin I gave you last year.”
The pin was both a serious present and a bit of a joke. It was a joke because of what it was…a key-shaped brooch about two inches long, made of blue metal, with a heart-shaped top that held a small garnet sphere in place. I had joked a couple of years ago that we were rather like the Senshi from Sailor Moon, and this reference to the character Sailor Pluto had been the result.
It was a serious gift for two reasons: first, because its length was studded with tiny gemstones, all of which were real, and the detail and quality of the workmanship was exquisite. Second, and more meaningfully, because Eos hadn’t had the faintest clue what I’d been talking about when I’d made the joke, and had gone to the trouble of finding out.
“Of course I am.” I returned her smile. “You gave it to me.”
Wonder of wonders, Eos actually blushed a little, looked down at her glass, then changed the subject. “How’re things Down Below?”
I sipped my drink. “I just heard a petition from Odysseus and Minos about revisiting punishments after a period of time.”
“Oooh…I bet Hades is going to love that suggestion.”
“Being second-guessed?” I grimaced. “Not likely.”
“Kinda stubborn about that sort of thing, is he?”
I shrugged and didn’t try to answer. There was no way I could without sounding disloyal, and Hades had earned both my respect and loyalty several times over. And, of course, disloyalty didn’t come easily to Avatars anyway, because of our collars.
Eos might like occasionally finding amusing ways around the restriction to tease her father, but she knew I didn’t. She was, however, not above gently teasing me about it from time to time. Now she just smiled and nodded, my absence of response being an answer in and of itself. “Yeah, didn’t think so.”
“I let Mel deliver it for me,” I said.
I smiled lopsidedly. “How’re things in Olympus?”
“Your mother sends her greetings and wishes you many happy returns of the day.” She sipped her drink. “She asked me to let you know, as if she hadn’t already, that she’s very proud of you. Dad was in the room at the time and added that he’s proud of you too.”
I blinked and felt my cheeks warm a little. “Zeus said that?”
Eos grinned. “Dad’s not one to award accolades lightly. If he says it, he means it.”
“Well, you’ve done a real bang-up job over the last five years,” she said. “And you’ve been more than willing to work closely with the other Avatars, which some of us sometimes aren’t.”
“Well…you’re all like family to me now,” I said, not sure what else to say.
Eos nodded. “Of course we are! Avatars are supposed to stick together.” She held out her fist.
I bumped mine against hers. “Yes we are.”
“Lunch, ladies!” The barkeep, an older, white-haired gentleman, weaved his way over to the table and set our meals in front of us. “Always good to see you both. Special occasion today?”
“Five years at my job,” I said with a smile.
“Well, congratulations. These days, that’s kind of an accomplishment, I guess.” He tipped an imaginary hat to us and headed back to the bar.
Eos watched him go. “Sometimes I wonder if I’d’ve been able to hold down a mortal job if I had to. I doubt it. I might’ve made a good mechanic, maybe.”
“I probably would’ve ended up as a librarian or something,” I agreed. “Definitely nothing this interesting.”
We looked at one another and started giggling. Then we were busy with our meals for several minutes. As usual, the food was excellent and well worth paying attention to. Say what you want to about five-star gourmet restaurants…for my money, nothing beats home-made food at a cozy little pub in the middle of nowhere.
We were picking at slices of pie in the wake of the excellent lunch before we really spoke again. I was looking out the window at the rolling hills of the Dales outside when Eos said, “This place really was a find, wasn’t it?”
I nodded. “Definitely.”
After a long moment, she asked, “Do you ever regret it?”
I tipped my head, a little confused. “Finding this place?”
She smiled and shook her head. “Sorry, non-sequitur. Do you regret being Lady Pluto?”
I forked up the last bite of my pie and chewed slowly to give myself a minute to think about the question seriously. I mean, I’d already given it a lot of thought over the last few years. The job was my destiny, chosen for me by my own mother and bartered for with some effort if what I’d heard was true. If she felt it was that important for me to be where I was, that was good enough for me.
But did I have regrets? “No,” I said finally. “I had doubts at first, but I really do love the work I’m doing – even if some of it is rather sad at times – and I love most of the people I’m working with. I can’t imagine my life without either you or Mel in it.”
Eos huffed a little laugh. “That one still weirds me out, but she’s definitely gotten better since she started working with you. You’re a good influence on people, you know.”
I felt my cheeks warm a little again. “Thank you.”
There was a soft rush of air, and a note rustled down onto the table in front of me. It was written in Greek on ancient-looking parchment.
Eos leaned forward a little as I picked it up. “Something from the office?”
“I’m…not sure. It just says to meet someone out back.”
Eos rose. “Let’s go then.”
I smiled at how she simply assumed that she was coming with me. “You don’t have to…”
She held up a hand. “Talia, I’m here, and I’m your friend. Don’t think for an instant you’re going out there to meet a mystery note-dropper without backup.”
I smiled a bit more, warmed by her words, and put enough money on the table to cover our lunch (with a healthy tip). As I rose, Eos shrugged into her coat.
“You’re being silly,” I said.
“Just in case,” she replied, giving me a look that told me there was no arguing with her.
I didn’t really want to anyway.
Outside, we made our way around the side of the stone building to the back. What we found there caused me to stop so abruptly that Eos actually bumped into me.
A…man…stood behind the pub, waiting with genuinely eternal patience. He was almost seven feet tall, wore black robes, and his face was completely hidden within the shadows of a deep cowl. Most strikingly, he had enormous black-feathered wings folded neatly behind him.
I bowed deeply. “Greetings, Thanatos. To what do we owe the honor of your visit?”
Thanatos glided forward – I mean that literally, it didn’t actually look like he was walking – and held out a surprisingly mundane-looking clipboard. I took it from him and looked at it. It was a list of names, times, and locations. Better than half of them – from the top of the page down – were neatly crossed out.
The dead and about-to-die.
My breath caught in my throat and my heart dropped into my belly as I reached the first un-marked name on the list. My friend Michel, son of Hermes.
I looked up at Thanatos. “Does it have to be?”
I felt Eos lean over my shoulder to look, a little gasp escaping her. She’d met him three years ago and they’d gotten along well.
Thanatos nodded very slowly, then gestured to me, one skeletal hand appearing from within the folds of his robes. “I thought,” he said in voice that echoed hollowly from inside his cowl and sounded rusty from long disuse, “that as his friend, you might wish to…collect him personally.”
“When?” I asked, feeling a bit faint. Eos’s hand on my elbow steadied me.
“Now,” Thanatos rasped quietly.
I looked back down at the clipboard, memorized the address, then handed it back to him. When I looked at Eos, her heart was in her eyes, sympathy and sadness on her face. “Go,” she said softly. “Michel will never need you more than right now.”
I could tell how badly she wanted to help me, or even take the weight from my shoulders altogether. But this was one job that she could never help me with, and the reason why I’d had to die – however briefly – to fill the post. Only the dead could collect the dead.
I gave her arm a quick squeeze, then Stepped across the ocean and most of a country into a Los Angeles county hospital. My need to be there for Michel had influenced my Step, resulting in my arriving squarely in the middle of what was going on.
I found myself in the main E.R. corridor, and had arrived just in time to witness the time of death. Two doctors and two nurses were kneeling on the blood-stained tiles trying to resuscitate my friend. I knew in an instant what they were fighting to keep from admitting…that it was hopeless.
Michel had two bullet holes in his chest over his heart, and lay pale and motionless in a spreading pool of blood. Also, his soul was standing off to one side, insubstantial to all but me, looking utterly bewildered.
I had, out of habit, made myself invisible and insubstantial to mortals on arrival – another marvelous power of my armor – so I walked through them to get to him. “Hello old friend,” I said softly.
He blinked and looked from his body to me, then smiled widely. “Hey, Talia.” Understanding sank in, appearing on his face. “Aw, hell. I guess this means there’s no hope, huh?”
I shook my head, taking one of his hands in both of mine. “I’m sorry. Thanatos let me come in his place, but it’s time to go.”
Michel folded his other hand over mine, fixing his eyes on my face so he didn’t have to look at what was going on in the background. “That was nice of him. I’m really glad you’re here for me. It’s a relief to see a friendly face right now.”
He shook his head. “It’s all a blur to me…”
A police officer rushed up. “What’ve we got?” He asked the doctors.
“Multiple GSW on one of our own damn doctors,” one of the nurses said flatly. “Hell, he started less than six months ago.”
“Any chance?” the officer asked.
The lead doctor sat back on his heels and shook his head. “No. Call it.”
“Time of death,” the other nurse said in a choked voice, “05:37.”
“They kept going for too long,” Michel said quietly. “Should’ve called it five minutes ago.”
“Who fired the shots?” The officer asked, looking around.
“One of the patients,” the first nurse said, rising slowly. “Dr. Nichols was examining him when he pulled out a little gun and just started shooting. I didn’t see where he went after that.”
“We were over there,” Michel said, pointing to a curtained-off examining area with a single bed and tipped over equipment.
I frowned a little. “Let’s go take a look,” I said on impulse. “You’re a demigod…a simple gun shouldn’t have been able to do this to you. We need to know what happened.”
“Thanks, Talia,” Michel whispered.
I squeezed his hand again, then we went to look together.