No matter how comfortable I’d gotten in the suite I shared with Melinoë – and that was extremely comfortable – Stepping to Athena’s palace always felt like coming home.
Apparently, word of Michel’s death had travelled ahead of me…or maybe Mother’s intelligence network really was just that good, because Danae was hurrying down the steps towards me even as I appeared at the bottom. Before I had a chance to orient myself, I was caught up in her embrace and found myself returning it tightly.
“Talia, I heard, I’m so sorry…” She hugged me tighter.
“It gets better,” I said breathlessly, then told her about the plan to install Michel as our private physician.
She nodded as I finished. “That’s actually a really good idea. I mean…I’m sorry he died, of course, but I’m glad he’s going to get to fulfill his dream after all. And I’m glad we’ll be able to stop bugging Apollo and Hermes with every little scrape, bump, and broken bone.”
I just nodded.
She rested her hands on my shoulders. “So, if you didn’t come here to be comforted, something about how he died must’ve brought you here.”
“I’ve just come from Hephaestus’s forge. He identified one of the bullets fired at Michel as being made of Orichalcum.”
Danae froze in place, eyes widening in surprise.
“I take it you haven’t heard of any mortals capable of making it right now,” I said. “Hephaestus isn’t aware of any.”
Danae shook her head. “I haven’t heard of any.” She took a breath and straightened. “Lady Pluto, I imagine you’ll want an audience with Athena.”
“If she can spare me a few minutes, Lady Minerva,” I replied with a small smile.
Danae huffed a little laugh and nudged me with her elbow as we started up the steps together. “As if she’d ever turn you away.”
As we entered the main hall, Mother turned from where she was standing by her throne. She’d evidently been talking to her owl companion, Bubo, who was sitting on his perch beside her throne. Today, he looked like an eagle owl…very regal and a little intimidating.
Mother met us halfway to her throne with a smile and a hug for me, kissing my cheek before stepping back and becoming more formal. “Welcome, Lady Pluto. I understand you’ve brought me quite the puzzle today.”
“That is correct, my Lady,” I said, curtseying politely.
“Very formal and correct,” she teased gently, “but I do so prefer it when you call me Mother.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Mother.” I held out the squashed bullet to her. “Two of these were used to kill Michel. I retrieved this third one from the wall behind where he was standing. Daedalus identified it is Orichalcum, Hephaestus confirmed the identification and informed me that he believed there were no mortals capable of making it right now.”
Mother smiled. “Is that what he said?”
I hid a smile and dropped my eyes for a moment. “Actually, he commented on the poor quality of its manufacture. Very politely and respectfully, considering how hard it evidently is to make, but still…”
She laughed softly. “No doubt.” She took it from me, held it up and looked at it thoughtfully. “I can confirm one thing, at least…I too know of no one in the mortal world capable of making Orichalcum, however badly. And clearly, it’s not so badly made as to be ineffective.”
She lowered it again and frowned. “This is a problem. Orichalcum is one of the few substances in existence which can completely neutralize the benefits of and bring death to those gifted with true Immortality. If someone out there is making it and using it against immortals, we must know.” She turned and handed the bullet to Danae. “Minerva, please take this back to Hephaestus and have him melt it down. Perhaps from its component elements, he can find a clue as to where it was made. From there, look into the matter…but quietly, and with caution! Bring me whatever you find.”
Danae bowed. “Yes, Mother.” She turned and gave me a quick hug. “See you later, squirt.” Then she was gone with a soft pop of in-rushing air.
“Is your information network really that good?” I asked curiously.
Mother’s smile was a secretive, conspiratorial one. “You have no idea, my little owlet. You might say that I’m the patron goddess of the Internet and conspiracy theorists.” She winked. “Sit and have tea with me while we wait, if you have a few – “
My cell phone rang.
Honestly, I hardly remember the thing exists most of the time. Hades communicates with me telepathically rather than use one – when he communicates with me remotely – which meant that when it rang, it was probably one of two things: Eos just wanting to hang out, or Eos needing an extra pair of hands with something violent.
I’m a little disappointed that nobody ever calls just to talk. Not that I ever object to spending my free time with Eos. Or to committing acts of violence against monsters with her. Each was fun in its own way.
I pulled the phone out and checked the screen. Yup, it was Eos. I held it up so Mother could see the screen, then answered it when she made a little ‘go ahead’ gesture. “Hi Eos. What’s up? I’m with Mother at the moment.”
“Is it important?” Eos’s voice asked through the little speaker.
“Not immediately,” I said carefully.
“Good. I hate to interrupt any time you get to spend with your mom, but I need your help ASAP.” She sounded a little breathless, like she was running.
I smiled a bit. “What is it this time?”
“We’ve got a zombie outbreak in New Orleans. Can you meet me at the Saint Louis Cemetery #1 in a few minutes?”
I blinked. “Zombies?” I asked incredulously. “In New Orleans? The day before Halloween? Come on, you’re pulling my leg.”
Mother looked amused.
“Nope,” Eos said, still sounding breathless. “Would-be necromancer got his hands on a couple of actual, honest-to-darkness spells for raising the dead, and went to town with them. Literally.”
“Infectious?” I asked, growing alarmed.
“No, thank all the gods. This isn’t like the outbreak in Jakarta last year. That was a chemical spill, remember?”
“Sorry,” I said dryly, “I have trouble keeping my zombie apocalypses straight.”
“They have been very popular lately,” Mother agreed, still smiling.
“Hi Mrs. Talia’s Mom!” Eos called over the phone. Another of her irreverent running jokes, which I found charming in spite of myself. Good grief, I was besotted.
“Hello, Jupiter,” Mother said. “Hang up now, Pluto will be right there.”
“Thank you!” The phone beeped twice to indicate the end of the call.
I gave Mom a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks. Call if Danae finds anything.”
“As soon as I hear from her. Now go!”
I went, Stepping back to my office to get ammunition for Cerberus.
Michel and Mel were still sitting in front of my desk, though they’d moved closer together. Mel was apparently in the middle of regaling him with a story about the time she spent playing muse for H.P. Lovecraft, and Michel looked utterly entranced by her.
I didn’t bother them, just went to the ammunition locker and opened it. Inside was a huge variety of ammo magazines and specialty rounds, all color-coded for my convenience. I grabbed five big magazines of consecrated silver buckshot shells…silver bullets are fanciful; if you want to get anything done, silver buckshot is the way to go.
All five magazines went into my belt pouches. I pulled Cerberus from the back of my belt and unfolded it into its spear form, unfurled my shield, activated my helmet, and Stepped to the Saint Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans.
My timing was excellent. I appeared at the entrance just as Eos rounded a corner and came pelting towards me at a sprint.
“GUN!” she shouted.
I twirled Cerberus around, transforming it into its rifle form as it went, and pulled out one of the magazines of silver buckshot shells. I slapped it into the receiver on the bottom of my rifle, and Cerberus thickened and grew slightly to accommodate the 12 gauge shotgun shells.
Eos Skipped the rest of the way to me, appearing not far from me and shedding her momentum by skidding to a halt beside me. “Gods, but I hate zombies. They’re so disgusting!”
“You’re using lightning,” I observed. “Aren’t you just burning them to a crisp?”
“Yeah, but they have a tendency to burst and leave stains on things.” She made a disgusted sound.
Everything was quiet.
“Um…so why the cemetery?” I asked. “And where are they?”
“They’re coming here next,” Eos said, catching her breath. “The cheeky bastard who’s raising them has been visiting every cemetery in town, picking up cannon fodder as he goes and heading in this direction. So far, the folks in town are collectively so drunk and stoned – Halloween’s almost as big a party down here as Mardi Gras – that they think it’s some kind of wild street show.”
“Mortals,” I huffed.
We waited. I glanced at her. “I thought this was a rush situation.”
“It was…several blocks back. I guess they’re not much for high-speed chases. So, how’s Michel taking it?”
I sighed a little. “Pretty well, considering. We’re setting him up as private doctor to the Avatars.”
“That is a really cool idea,” she enthused. “I like it. Any idea how he died?”
“He was shot twice in the heart with bullets made of Orichalcum.”
She blinked, all of her excitement and enthusiasm draining away in an instant. “Bullshit.”
I shook my head. “No bullshit. Hephaestus confirmed it, and Minerva’s looking into it for Mother.”
“Holy shit,” she breathed.
A human – or rather, something that had once been a human – finally shambled around the corner Eos had come from. It stopped for a moment, turned slowly, then started plodding towards us. Another followed it, then two more…
Eos hummed a few bars from Thriller. Nothing throws off her equilibrium for long.
“Well,” I said with a sigh, “at least they’re not runners like the ones in Jakarta last year.”
“Not all undead are created equal,” Eos said philosophically. “The real problem with these is that there’s -“
I’d already counted eight…ten…fifteen…I gave up at thirty zombies, and they kept coming, shambling along behind their point man. Er…point zombie.
“ – one whole hell of a lot of them,” Eos said.
I nodded. “How’d you hear about this, anyway?”
“Ah, well…” She smiled and shrugged. “I’d been planning on bringing you here after lunch. To, you know, celebrate. I came anyway, thinking you might need a few drinks after collecting Michel.”
She winked at me, then nodded to the slowly approaching zombies. “Shall we?”
I nodded. “Let’s.” I checked Cerberus’s ammo counter – 12 – and started walking with her towards the zombies. “If I’d known there were so many, I’d’ve brought more ammo.”
“How much did you bring?”
“Five magazines. Not nearly enough for this lot. Guess we’ll find out how well Cerberus’s energy blasts will work against this type of zombie.”
“Yes we will,” Eos agreed. She balled her hands into fists and electricity started to spark and crackle around them. “Ready?” A bolt of living lightning formed in each of her hands, ready to be thrown.
I lifted Cerberus and braced it against my shoulder. “Ready!”
The next few minutes were made up of the sort of violent chaos that only video game fans and adrenaline junkies can really appreciate. To some extent, Eos and I fit both bills.
She popped the lead zombie with one of her lightning bolts. Literally. The thing burst like a gooey sack when struck, leaving smears of ichor on the street.
“Ew! You weren’t kidding!” I said. “They’re not just dead, they’re disgusting. You’re paying my dry cleaning bill for this one.”
With that, I started pumping consecrated silver buckshot into the crowd of zombies as it approached. For once, popular culture got it right: the best way to stop a zombie – pretty much any type of zombie, in fact – is to sever the head from the body, or destroy the brain outright. Without the brain to coordinate the central nervous system, you don’t have a zombie anymore.
A talented necromancer could turn the remains into an animated skeleton, but it’s usually a lot more trouble than it’s worth.
Digression aside, I was taking advantage of the nature of necromantic zombies and bypassing the headshot rule by using consecrated silver. Blessed silver acts on this type of zombie pretty much the same way Eos’s lightning bolts did.
Within moments, the street was growing slick with sticky blackish goo as we slowly whittled away at the shambling horde approaching us. The good news was that each of my shots took out two or three zombies. The better news was that unless this necromancer had ridiculous amounts of power as his disposal, it wouldn’t be long before we exhausted his supply of animated corpses. No matter how skilled a necromancer you are, you can only control so many undead at one time.
This young man didn’t seem to have a whole lot of power at his command…either that, or Eos had jumped on things so quickly that he hadn’t had a chance to build up too much of a horde yet. My helmet’s HUD gave me a count of just under two hundred zombies as we went to work, and that number started to fall.
I blasted two more as they approached, and Eos began throwing bolts of lightning with both hands, taking out a zombie with each throw. We worked steadily on the approaching masses of the undead, but were pretty quickly surrounded anyway. No matter how good you are, being outnumbered so dramatically always presents difficulties.
We turned and went back to back, shoulders pressing against one another. I glanced over my shoulder as Eos began gathering larger bolts of lightning with both hands and taking out three or four at a time. “Can you do that lightning storm thing you did in Siberia?”
“In a residential area? It’s not a great idea. I might hurt somebody by accident.”
“Well, then,” I said, ejecting my second empty magazine and popping in the third. “We’d better pick up the pace.”
Standing back to back, we blasted zombie after zombie, whittling away at the shambling horde. Whenever they got too close, Eos would combine two of her lightning bolts into a spear-sized one and swing it around us, leaving smoking, decapitated corpses falling back into their companions. Between the two of us, they never actually got close enough to threaten us.
In a little under five minutes, we’d thinned the surrounding mass of zombies enough that during a brief pause we heard someone calling for them to stop and make way. I was ejecting my last magazine as the undead parted, and was a little relieved by the reprieve. While I was pretty sure Cerberus’s energy blasts would work on them, and knew that its bladed forms would, I wasn’t really keen on having more zombie stains on my uniform.
From the directions the zombies had come, the remains of the horde parted to reveal a shocked looking man in Goth clothing.
Well…Gothic clothing, anyway. I shouldn’t judge.
He was about my height, slim and pale, with long, greasy-looking black hair and sunken eyes. He wore an old maroon velvet frock coat over black trousers and a black silk shirt, and carried a long black wooden staff topped with a milky white crystal in his right hand. After a moment, I recognized it as a reproduction of Saruman’s staff from the Lord of the Rings movies.
He banged the end of it on the ground angrily. “You can’t do that!” he said petulantly.
Eos and I looked at one another, then back at him.
“Really?” Eos said.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” I added, “we just did.”
It’s very hard to take a whiny villain seriously.
“Who are you, anyway?” he asked. “You look like rejects from a Greek renaissance faire.”
Eos bowed. “Lady Jupiter, at your service. This is my colleague, Lady Pluto. We swat bugs like you for a living.”
He clenched his hand around the reproduction staff and glared. “How dare you…”
I sighed. “Jupiter.”
“Sorry,” Eos said unrepentantly. “Didn’t mean to insult any bugs.”
I sighed again and reminded myself that diplomacy should always be my first resort. “Young man,” I said, “you’re playing with powers you can’t possibly understand – “
“But I do!” he cut me off, drawing himself up to his full height and thrusting the staff out like it was supposed to intimidate us. “I will call up a horde of undead like the world has never seen!”
“The likes of which the world has never seen,” I corrected, unable to help myself. “You might want to work on your grammar.”
“The Eleventh Dynasty of Egypt,” Eos said helpfully, “during the days of the Middle Kingdom, bore witness to a necromancer who called up almost ten thousand zombies at one time. It was just outside of Thebes, I believe. I think that’s the most undead any one man has ever raised up at one time. You’ve got a goal to reach now!”
“Stop mocking me!” he shouted.
“Stop acting like a ponce,” Eos replied mildly.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked, trying to sound gentle and reasonable, hoping to get us back on the diplomacy track.
“All my life,” he said in a low, angry voice, “I’ve been mocked, made fun of, ridiculed! Well now it’s time for the pathetic losers of this world to – “
Eos interrupted him by zapping him with a small jolt of electricity. He screamed and fell to the ground, twitching and spasming.
“I was tired of listening to that twaddle a hundred years ago, Pluto,” she said. “It hasn’t gotten any better with age. And honestly, why do so many of these would-be megalomaniacs think that talking is a free action?”
It was easy for me to forget that Eos was about two hundred years my elder. Behaviorally, it usually seemed like I was older. I wondered what that said about me. I sighed. “All right. So who do we give him to?”
“He’s styled himself as a necromancer, and actually did a halfway decent job with these zombies,” Eos said. “Wanna give him to Hecate?”
I shivered. I’d spoken with Hecate precisely once during my five years as Hades’ Avatar, and had hoped it wouldn’t happen again any time soon. “I suppose so. Necromancers are her domain, after all.”
“No one will take me!” he croaked, struggling to his feet as he shook off the effects of Eos’s weak TASER-shot. “Your fancy magic can’t stop – “
Eos threw another small spark at him. Hopefully enough to knock him out this time. He was, after all, every bit as annoying as she’d said.
Instead, to my surprise, he raised a hand and a disk of dark, oily-looking energy sprang up in front of it. The little jolt of lightning spread out over its surface and was dispersed enough that it never reached him.
“As I was saying,” he started again, looking smug, “your fancy magic can’t stop – “
Eos hit him again, with a strong bolt of lightning this time, then twice more in quick succession when he managed to stop that one. The third bolt of lightning shattered his shield and crackled up his arm, spinning him around and leaving him tottering and jerking unsteadily, trying to balance himself with his staff.
“Stop that!” he shouted.
In spite of myself, that made me snicker. Really, there’s nothing sillier than a would-be villain who thinks the world will stop turning just because he said so.
“Zombies!” he shouted, “get them!”
I glanced around. There were maybe a dozen zombies left, and one of the ones I counted was already missing both arms.
Eos rolled her eyes. “You want them?”
“Let’s just split them,” I said. “It’ll be over faster.”
She nodded and started throwing lightning again. I transformed Cerberus into its sword form and Skipped to the nearest zombie, slicing the top half of its head off. It dropped like a sack of rotted meat (which it was, come to think of it), and moved on to the next one.
Eos and I finished at the same time, almost colliding as we took out the last one together. She flashed me a quick grin, then we both Skipped back over to stand in front of our would-be necromancer.
“So,” I said, “are you going to surrender and come quietly, or do we need to rough you up some more?”
“Let’s just rough him up,” Eos growled. “Hecate won’t mind if we soften him up for her.” She can really be very intimidating when she wants to be, and this was one of her better growls, but this nut was too far gone to crack.
“You can’t stop me!” he ranted. “Nobody can stop me! I am the Necromancer, and I have dominion over all things! Even death itself!”
I winced. “Oh, you really shouldn’t have said that while we’re around.”
Eos took a few steps back, and when I glanced at her I saw she’d gone pale. She’d only seen what was about to happen once before, and it was rather unsettling, even for me. “It’s been real, man,” she said.
He blinked, surprised. “What? Are you surrendering?”
I shook my head. “Getting out of the way.”
There was a soft rustling sound, like dried leaves blowing over the ground, and a shadow loomed up behind him. It quickly took form, becoming a familiar tall, gaunt figure in a heavy cloak. His face was hidden beneath his heavy cowl, and the evening shadows seemed to gather around him like lovers.
“I…beg your pardon…” Thanatos’s raspy, whispery voice drifted out from inside the cowl. “I don’t think…I heard that right…”
The young man whipped around, laughing maniacally, oblivious to his danger. “I said, fool, that I have dominion over death!”
Thanatos sighed. The sound made Eos back up another step, and sent a little shiver down my spine. It wasn’t a natural sound. It was like…stale air escaping from a crypt that’s been closed up tight for a long, long time. “Foolish. Ignorant.”
Eos squeaked and turned away as Thanatos reached out and plunged a skeletal hand into the young man’s chest. It wasn’t a wound, there was no blood or physical damage…his hand simply entered. When he pulled his hand back out, a shadowy, insubstantial echo of the young man came with it, looking impossibly surprised.
“No mortal has dominion…over me,” Thanatos said softly. “Especially not necromancers. Come.”
Thanatos melted back into the ground, taking the young man’s soul with him. The now-empty body simply fell forward onto its face, very dead.