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Chapter 11

We made our way back out of the cave. Standing together on the ledge, I looked at Minerva. “Danae, I think we need to have a word with Mom before doing anything else.”

“No kidding,” Jupiter said. “I find it tough to believe that Persephone could’ve been visiting Circe without Athena knowing about it. I thought she knew everything.”

“Nobody knows everything,” Minerva said. “But Mother is quite a bit more knowledgeable than most. I find it tough to believe too.”

“If Persephone was going to see Circe, we need to know why Circe was imprisoned in the first place.” I frowned. “That might be relevant…and might explain why Persephone vanished. Come on, back to Athena’s palace.”

Jupiter caught my shoulder and turned me towards her, bending and gently feeling my side with her fingers. “You took a nasty-looking tail strike there. Are you all right?”

“Fine,” I smiled. “My armor absorbed most of the impact.”

“No pain or stiffness?”

I smiled a bit more. “Eos, I’m fine. Really.”

After a moment she stopped checking and straightened. “Okay. Sorry…the way you tumbled across the cave freaked me out a little.”

“More or less freaked out than when that cyclops knocked me through the wall of a building?”

“I need to start hanging out with you two more,” Danae said dryly. “It sounds like you’re having all the fun.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Fun. Come on, let’s go.”

A few minutes later we were sitting down with Athena again. She shook her head, obviously bewildered by the news we’d brought her. “So they said that Persephone was going to see Circe? I honestly never knew.”

Danae nodded. “They really did. If I hadn’t been there to hear it, I’d have had doubts. But that’s what they said, and they were telling the truth as they knew it.”

“You said before that the story of what Circe did was a long one,” I said. “I think we might need to know now.”

Athena nodded. “I think you might be right. Very well…a history lesson, then.” She sat back in her chair, rested her elbows on its arms and clasped her hands in front of her. “As you already know, the first generation of Avatars were gods in their own right, usually the children of two gods. There were a few exceptions, like the original Mars and Mercury. And the original Jupiter, who was an aide, not an Avatar.

They chose to ally themselves with us when their own pantheon was faltering,” she continued, “and in doing so revived their flagging strength and tied the Greek and Roman religions very closely together. A few of those original Avatars are still around. You know Vulcan well, and have met Juno.”

Eos made a disgusted little noise and I grunted.

“Successive generations of Avatars took their titles – the name of their posting, if you will – from the god who’d held it originally. Most of them.” Athena pursed her lips. “A few didn’t, like Demeter’s Avatar Ceres, who kept her own name at Demeter’s insistence. Be that as it may, a very long time ago, the original Venus, Aphrodite’s Avatar, chose to retire and become mortal – for love.” Athena smiled. “It was very sweet, and Aphrodite was fairly amused by the situation.

Venus’s replacement,” she went on, “was a young goddess named Circe.”

Eos shifted beside me and I glanced at her. She shook her head slightly and I returned my attention to Athena.

“Circe,” Athena was saying, “was already known as a talented young sorceress. She was a daughter of Hecate and had learned her art at her mother’s feet…though without the darker elements that Hecate favors. Thank goodness. As her last act on Aphrodite’s behalf, Venus personally chose Circe to be her successor. Sometimes I wonder if that act was premeditated – if she had some inkling of what was going to happen.”

“What happened?” Danae asked softly.

I was a little surprised. As Athena’s Avatar, I had assumed my older sister would already at least know the basics of this story.

Danae must’ve noticed my surprise, because she smiled. “I don’t know everything Mother knows, little sister.”

“Nor would she know this piece of history,” Athena said seriously. “It hasn’t been spoken of since long before Danae was born.” She sighed. “After a few hundred years as Aphrodite’s Avatar, Circe grew dissatisfied with her work and her lot in life; I learned much of this, incidentally, while helping Zeus and Hera interrogate Circe after the fact. Be that as it may, she gathered her power and tried to usurp Aphrodite, intending to take her position altogether.”

“Is that even possible?” Eos asked.

“Technically, it is,” Athena confirmed with a nod, “though highly unlikely. It is, if I may be blunt for a moment, one of the reasons why most modern Avatars are demigods instead of full-blooded gods in their own right. Between Circe’s divinity and skill with sorcery, she had nearly as much power as Aphrodite did, and quite a bit more skill at using it. It was a very near thing…if not for the quick intervention of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and Hades, Circe might have succeeded. Instead, she was forced to flee”

Athena paused for a moment, then shook her head and laughed a little. “It was the first time since the formation of the pantheon that Zeus and Hera had acted in accord with one another. I think Hades and Poseidon were involved as much to keep the peace between them as to assist Aphrodite.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

Athena sighed a little. “It was actually Persephone – then just recently become Lady Pluto – Heracles and Juno who were responsible for apprehending Circe after she fled from her battle with Aphrodite. She was quickly judged guilty of attempting to usurp Aphrodite’s power…but since such a thing had never happened before, we were reluctant to apply any punishment that couldn’t be undone later. It was Hades and Persephone who came up with the idea of exiling her and imprisoning her on an island.”

They hoped, I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that Circe would have nothing to do with her time except consider what she’d done and eventually repent of the deed. Be that as it may, it was Persephone and Heracles who delivered her to the island of Aeaea, and Juno who raised the original magical protections that kept Circe imprisoned and the island isolated.”

“That gives Circe a rather obvious motive for hating Persephone,” Danae said.

“And Heracles and Juno,” Eos added. “And both of them are alive and…I hesitate to use the word ‘well’ relative to Juno. Not to mention Zeus, Hera, Poseidon and Hades.”

Athena made a thoughtful noise. “Indeed. Though I think she accepted both the judgment and that all involved were only doing what they had to. It does, however, make me wonder about the defenses Juno set up. They did, after all, fail enough for Odysseus and his crew to find their way to the island – not to mention the other unfortunates who ended up becoming Circe’s pets over the centuries. After Odysseus’s encounter with her, Hera and I personally raised new protective magics around the island, and Hermes now checks them at least once a decade to make sure they remain strong.”

She sighed. “Frankly, it bothers me that we now have two sources telling us that Persephone was visiting Circe. I have no idea why she would, nor did I know that she was. I am rather surprised by the notion.”

“I think we’re going to have to go and visit Circe,” I said, “assuming that can be arranged.”

“Of course it can,” Athena said immediately. “I think you’re right to do so. But be incredibly careful when dealing with her. She is every inch as duplicitous and wily as she is seductive, and now she’s a suspect in the murder of an Avatar as well. That is no small thing.”

“We’ll be careful,” Eos said.

“Mother, may I continue to accompany them?” Danae asked.

Athena nodded. “I urge you to do so, my Avatar. Help them determine the truth of this puzzle.” She rose from her throne. “Remain here for a few minutes. I must go and see Hera – she holds the key to reaching Aeaea’s shores without disrupting the magics surrounding it.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Eos mumbled. “The last thing we want is Circe out and about.”

As Athena walked away, I leaned over and whispered in Eos’s ear, “I’m not entirely sure we want in to visit.”

Eos smiled lopsidedly and shrugged, as if to say, ‘Not much choice, really.’

I had to agree.

With special amulets hung around our necks, we Stepped to the shores of Aeaea. It was a beautiful island hidden away in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, protected from the eyes of mortal men and women. Which was kind of a shame…it was just shy of my own personal mental image of paradise on Earth (the tiny strip of an island in the South Pacific that Eos and I had taken our little vacation on after dealing with Juno).

We stood on the beach and looked up a gently sloping hill towards a dense strip of grass that quickly changed to equally dense woods. To our right was a cliff-like pile of boulders that barely qualified as a hill, atop which stood the remains of an ancient shrine.

“Nothing for it but to do it,” Eos said cheerfully and started walking up the sand towards the grass and trees. Up ahead I saw what Eos had probably spotted the instant we’d arrived: a narrow but well-worn path that led into the trees.

I met Danae’s eyes for a moment, then shrugged and followed Eos. “It’s not a huge island. Circe’s palace can’t be far.”

“Why do all of these people have ‘palaces’?” Eos asked grumpily from up ahead. “Just once I’d like to go visit someone who lives in a bungalow. Or maybe just has a hammock strung between two trees. You know?”

Danae laughed behind me. “We move in heady circles. The sort of folks we deal with rarely live modestly.”

“They have an image to maintain, after all,” I added.

“A profound insight for one so young,” a sensual woman’s voice purred from the woods off to our right.

A lion stepped out onto the path in front of us. Eos took a step back and a long blade of lightning crackled to life in her right hand.

I heard a growl from behind us and turned to see a grizzly bear ambling up the path behind us. Danae turned and whipped out her spear, the blade blazing to yellow-gold life at its tip.

A faint breeze brushed my right arm and rippled the fabric of my toga-style dress. “Stop!” I cried to them. “Wait, don’t do anything!”

My companions froze in their tracks, not looking away from the animals confronting them.

“How did you ever get to be so wise, child?” the woman’s voice asked, this time from off to our left. “Where your friends would attack, you wait to see what happens. And yet, at the same time, not so wise…for you remain unarmed.”

“They’re just animals…” I said calmly. “It wouldn’t take much effort for us to overpower them without hurting them.”

“True,” the woman’s voice purred from overhead. I glanced up and saw nothing but trees. “And yet…”

Something unseen grasped my right wrist and pulled my arm up behind me, pulling me into a wristlock and binding up my arm. Or rather, tried to. I’d half expected something of the sort and was waiting for it. I turned with the movement, twisting my wrist out of the invisible grasp and lashed out with my right foot…

But nothing was there. I turned and frowned, sweeping my arm through open air where something had just been.

“Pluto, what is it?” Eos asked.

“I…I don’t know…” I said, feeling suddenly uneasy. “I thought something was there.”

The voice laughed, this time coming from off to our right again. “Pluto, is it? So, Hades took another Avatar at last, did he?”

“Come out and let us see you, Circe,” I called. “We’re just here to talk.”

“You know who I am, but I don’t know who you are,” she replied cheerfully. “At least introduce your friends first, Lady Pluto.”

I straightened and looked at the path ahead, past Jupiter in her ready-stance and the lion still staring her down. “Circe, I am Pluto, Avatar of Hades. My companions are Jupiter, Avatar of Zeus, and Minerva, Avatar of Athena. We’ve come to speak with you on behalf of Hades.” I said it as politely and formally as I could, hoping to remind her of the obligations of a proper host.

There was a long moment of silence before one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen appeared behind the lion. She was dressed in a wrap made of some translucent sea-green fabric that shimmered like silk and gave glimpses of her body beneath, without ever actually being immodest. It was belted with a simple gold girdle set with a stone almost the same color as the dress.

Dress and stone both matched the pale green of her eyes, set into a heart-shaped face and beneath a long fall of golden-brown curls that ended at her waist. Her features were nearly perfect, and she looked – at first glance – like an innocent teenager who’d been dressed up by someone to be put on display.

Then I noticed the wicked gleam in her eyes and the slight curve of her lips into a decidedly naughty smile.

She licked her lips slowly. “Well, well, well…it has been many, many years indeed since I had such lofty and important visitors, sent on behalf of someone so very important. And so delectable! Why, I’m not sure which of you to sample first…”

Eos straightened and lowered her crackling blade of lightning. “We have come on an errand, Circe. As Pluto indicated, we wish only to speak with you, and then go.”

“What if I don’t want you to go?” Circe asked, pouting and moving forward to stand beside the lion. “Only men ever visit me, and men are such a worthless waste of space, good only for…pets.” She absently stroked the lion’s back and it leaned against her lightly. Then her pout turned into a smirk. “I see the two of you,” she nodded to Jupiter, then to me, “have already figured that out. Would you be interested in making it a threesome? Your friend is welcome to join us, of course…I’ve been very lonely…”

Eos growled softly and shifted to grip her lightning sword in both hands.

I stepped forward and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Circe, we’re here to ask you questions about Persephone.”

Circe…froze. Literally, stopped moving as all color drained out of her. Within moments, the woman standing in front of us was an exquisitely carved statue of ice. Just before the last color drained from it, its lips moved, and Circe’s voice emerged. “Come ahead. My palace isn’t far now. I will speak with you.”

Then the statue collapsed, chunks of ice bouncing away across the ground as the lion and bear turned and wandered off into the woods.