I stood at the end of the short hallway that led from our offices and suite, and looked out into Hades’s reception hall.
The Lord of the Underworld was sitting in his oversized throne, brooding. Again. His right elbow was propped on the arm of his throne, and his chin rested on his closed fist. As usual.
It was impossible to tell what sort of mood he was in. He was exceedingly good at hiding behind stony expressions. There was a slim chance that I’d intentionally minimized my interactions with him because of it; I found him intimidating.
To Hades, I often seemed to be little more than a tool. I respected him tremendously, and admired him for doing the hard work he did without a word of complaint. But I had quickly stopped expecting to have with him anything resembling the relationship Danae had with our Mother, for example, or the one Eos had with Zeus.
And yet…just a couple of hours ago, he’d diverted Zeus’s growing anger from me. He’d as much as said that he was content with my work, and had flat out said that he was ‘getting used to me.’
“Are you going to lurk there at the edge of my vision all day?” Hades’s voice drifted over to me, “or are you going to come and talk to me.
Busted. Add to that the sense of humor he was demonstrating, and perhaps I was part of the problem. Maybe I’d been the one doing the avoiding, not him. Oops.
I approached him, moving to stand in front of his throne, and went down on one knee. I lowered my head politely and said, “My Lord, may I ask for the wisdom of your greater experience and your aid in questioning a soul? No one knows more about the nature of people – mortal or immortal – than the Lord of the Underworld – “
“Do stand up, Talia,” Hades said softly, amusement in his voice. “I should have said this long before now, and I really don’t know why I didn’t: I don’t want you to bow to me. I want you to look me in the eye and talk to me. You don’t need to flatter me, either.”
I looked up and found him smiling gently. “Besides,” he continued, “I suspect Athena and Aphrodite both understand people better than I do.” He touched my shoulder lightly. “Rise, child, and I will listen and give you what advice and aid I have to give.”
I rose slowly, deciding I’d definitely misjudged him. Such was life…we make mistakes, we learn, and we move on. “Thank you, My Lord.”
“Now, explain to me your quandary.” He sat back in his throne, steepling his fingers in front of him.
I considered where to start, and decided to dive right in. “The man who shot Jupiter said that he was there specifically for her…that getting to kill me too would’ve been a bonus, but not his original goal.”
Hades nodded slowly. “That sounds like there were personal motivations behind the attack.”
“Yes, My Lord. Therefore, figuring out the shooter’s motivation will help us figure out what’s going on, and why.”
“You don’t need to call me ‘my lord’ all the time, Talia,” he said gently. “I’d like it if we could be more at ease with one another. That said, your line of thought is reasonable. However, I sense a ‘but.’”
I smiled a little. “But…how did he know where Eos would be? He didn’t sound like he was from New Orleans – “
“Mmm,” Hades murmured, “the Cajun accent is an extremely distinctive one.”
I continued, “So he had to have had someone on-site…or to have set Eos up to be lured there.”
“The young necromancer that Thanatos…shall we say, collected?”
“Collected works,” I agreed. “He said that he’d been given access to greater magics by someone. It’s too much of a coincidence to not be related.”
Hades nodded. “Indeed. Thanatos,” he said, addressing the air above my head, “bring me the soul of Cassius Tremane.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said softly.
Hades smiled a little. “I suppose ‘sir’ is a step in the right direction.”
Thanatos rose up out of the floor beside me without any warning, making me jump a little. He was dragging the soul of the young would-be necromancer with him, and Cassius looked decidedly the worse for wear.
Not physically. Physically, his soul looked pretty much the same as it had at the time of his death. But he was obviously terrified out of his mind, wide-eyed and mid-scream, clawing frantically at Thanatos’s arm to no avail. Thanatos released him as they solidified, causing him to drop to his knees with a grunt. He saw me first and crawled towards me, grabbing one of my boots and clinging to it for dear life. “Please don’t let him take me again!” he pleaded. “I’m sorry for what I did, I’m so sorry!”
I shivered a little, wondering just what Thanatos had done to frighten him so badly. Then I decided that I really didn’t want to know, and looked to Hades questioningly.
Hades nodded a little and spoke in his deep, quiet voice. “We need you answer a few questions for us, young man. Stand up and give a good accounting of yourself.” It was sternly but gently worded, but it was a command from a god, and Hades hadn’t held back his power over the dead. Even I felt the edge of his words tug at me.
Cassius responded helplessly, rising to his feet and pulling himself together. “Y-yes, sir…” He trailed off as he saw who he was talking to and put two and two together. “Oh my god, you’re Hades. You’re actually, really Hades.”
“Quite,” Hades said dryly. “Answer Lady Pluto’s questions honestly and to the best of your ability, and we’ll send you somewhere other than with Thanatos.”
“Y-yes, sir,” Cassius stammered again, looking at me. “What do you want to know?”
I examined him for a moment, and decided that I wasn’t going to hold the zombie thing against him just then. It would be easier to get answers out of him if he felt I was sympathetic towards him. You catch more flies with honey, as the old saying goes. “Cassius, you said that someone gave you the power to do what you did. Can you tell me who it was?”
He nodded jerkily. “A guy came to me about a week ago and offered me money and power if I raised a bunch of zombies for him in New Orleans on a specific day. Today. Or was it yesterday? I don’t even know what time it is here, or how long I’ve been here…”
I could hear him starting to panic, so I laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Technically it was yesterday, but time doesn’t really have a lot of meaning here. Take a deep breath…go slowly, take your time. You said this guy came to see you about a week ago…what was his name?”
“He…he said his name was Gregor,” Cassius said slowly, taking deep breaths as I’d recommended. “And there was a woman with him, but she wore a mask the whole time she was there and never said anything to me. She gave me the creeps.”
“A mask?” I asked.
“Yeah, like a China doll mask, you know? Porcelain skin, red lips, painted eyes and cheeks…”
I nodded. I’d seen them before, and could understand why he’d find it creepy. “But she didn’t talk to you?”
“Not to me,” he agreed. “She whispered in Gregor’s ear a few times. I got the impression that she was in charge.”
“All right. Did Gregor give you a last name?” I asked.
“No, and I didn’t want to ask,” Cassius said. “He was…he always looked pissed off, you know? Like he was looking for an excuse to lash out. Any excuse. But he wasn’t from New Orleans.”
“Are you sure? Can you describe him for me?”
Cassius nodded. “I’m sure. He had a weird accident, like…Australian, but not as thick as in the movies. And he looked kinda Greek, like you. Dark hair, tanned skin, dark eyes. Oh, and he had a big nose. You know…thick and wide, kinda, like it had been broken or something.”
“That’s very good,” I said warmly. “Thank you, Cassius. And he wasn’t in charge?”
“No,” Cassius shook his head. “Any time we discussed our deal, he always had to pause to okay stuff with the masked woman.”
“Can you describe her at all?” I asked.
“She was tall,” Cassius said, obviously thinking hard. “But that’s about all I can tell you. She was wearing like…red monk’s robes, with a cowl, big sleeves, and that mask. Seriously, I never even saw her hands and feet.”
“Then how do you know it was a she?” Hades asked.
“The robes were really shapely,” Cassius said, making a gesture over his chest to suggest breasts, “and I could kinda hear her voice when she was whispering. Definitely a girl.”
Hm. “So they offered you power and money to raise the zombies?” I asked.
“On a specific day and time, yeah.” Cassius sighed. “For doing that, they promised me a million dollars and the power I needed to raise zombies again and again. Gregor gave me the spell and a few others on a bunch of old scrolls, and the woman did something that gave me the power to cast them. I felt when it happened. It was like being plugged into an electric outlet.” He gave me a dirty look. “They didn’t say anything about a couple of Greek myth Sailor Moon knock-offs showing up to ruin everything.”
Hades cleared his throat. “Thank you, Cassius Tremane, for your honesty and openness. Thanatos, please take the boy to Hecate. I’m sure she can find some use for him.”
Thanatos bowed. “As you wish…”
Without another word, Thanatos drifted forward, took Cassius’s arm, and the two of them began to melt down into the floor again. Cassius screamed and struggled to get away as they vanished.
I shivered a little.
“What do you make of that?” Hades asked.
For a moment, my eyes stayed fixed on the floor where Thanatos and Cassius had just vanished. Then I looked up at Hades. “When I was talking to Eos, I asked if she could think of any enemies she’d made who might want to kill her. She said she couldn’t think of any, then mentioned never having gotten along well with Juno. Earlier, Hera commented to Mother that it had been a long time since Juno had been friendly with any of the other Avatars.” I trailed off, then shrugged a little. “It’s all circumstantial and coincidental.”
“When you have two events that seem even tangentially related,” Hades said thoughtfully, “the odds are very good that they are. Coincidence does occur, but not often. Continue.”
I took a deep breath and let it out, finally asking the question I didn’t want to ask. “Could an Avatar be behind this?”
Hades smiled a thin, grim smile. “It seems rather unlikely, don’t you think?”
I sensed that he was playing devil’s advocate and rolled with it. “Yes, sir. Eos keeps telling me how the Avatars are practically like a family. And the other Avatars I’ve met and worked with have all been very helpful and mostly friendly.”
“I sense another ‘but’ coming,” he said, the little smile still on his lips.
“But it sounds like someone of greater power is pushing our shooter’s buttons, assuming this Gregor person is the man who shot Michel and Eos,” I said. “Someone who doesn’t think anything of throwing around a million dollars or giving away old spell scrolls.”
“That would seem to indicate that whoever they are, they have a great deal of resources available to them,” Hades agreed. “That doesn’t necessarily mean an Avatar, though. There are plenty of beings out there – both mortal and immortal – who would fit that bill.”
“I know,” I said reluctantly.
“Your instincts tell you otherwise,” he observed, looking at me closely. He pursed his lips. “So do mine.” To my surprise, he rose and walked to me, laying his hands on my shoulders. “I believe I’ll go and see Hera. It’s been some time since I’ve called on my sister socially. I think a short talk with her would do me good.”
I smiled. “Thank you, sir!”
Then he surprised me even more as he squeezed my shoulders and smiled a little. “I don’t believe I’ve been a particularly good patron these past few years,” he said quietly. “I’ve never been the most…gregarious of people. The myths record my dissatisfaction at being given responsibility for the Underworld, but the truth is that I asked Zeus for it. I felt well-suited to the solitude that it would inevitably bring, and for the most part I have been.”
He trailed off into silence and looked down at me thoughtfully. Finally, he said, “Persephone would have been very upset with me for the way I’ve treated you. This has not been an ideal situation for either of us…it isn’t what you wanted, and it isn’t what I wanted. The last five years have been a stressful trial for you, and I’ve compounded that stress by keeping the distance between us.”
“Sir – “ I started to say.
“But I look around and see how much more smoothly the Underworld is running today than it was five years ago,” he continued. “My Melinoë is more herself than she has been since her mother died, and comes to talk to me on a regular basis now, something she didn’t do before your arrival. And I couldn’t be bothered to even take the time to compliment you on the work you’ve been doing. I can be such an ungrateful churl.”
He met my eyes and smiled a slow, genuine smile. “Talia Redowl, I am tremendously impressed by your work ethic, and by the quality of your work on my behalf. You have my thanks for bringing things in the Underworld back under some semblance of control, and my eternal gratitude for bringing my daughter back to me. You have my complete confidence in your actions as you go forward as my Avatar, and I hope you’ll come to me more often…even just to socialize for a few minutes.”
Yep. Completely misjudged him. A half an hour earlier I’d be worried that Hades would forever be distant and unapproachable, and here he was praising me warmly and thanking me. But then, perhaps it was also a matter of timing…maybe it had taken Eos getting shot to make him realize how he’d come to appreciate me. Whatever the cause, his praise was an unexpected relief, and it took me a long moment to stammer out, “Th-thank you, sir!”
He nodded, his eyes sparkling with good humor. He understood why I was speechless. Finally, he stepped back and nodded. “I’ll go have a little talk with my sister and her Avatar. You, I believe, have a line on a murderer who needs catching. Be careful when you go. And do us all a favor…when you catch him, just take him straight to Zeus and let my brother do as he will with the man. It’ll help calm him down faster.”
“Good. Where are you off to next?”
“To see Daedalus,” I said, my equilibrium returning. “I need to get Cerberus back from him, and see if he was able to get a blood sample from it that I can use. We’ll know soon enough if it belongs to this Gregor person or not, and if it is it’ll lead me straight to him.”
“Don’t go alone,” Hades said quickly. “Take another Avatar with you, if you can.”
“I’ll ask Minerva to accompany me,” I said. “I’m sure she’ll be willing to lend a hand. She likes Eos too.”
“Excellent. Contact me when you have news.”
“Yes, sir!” I replied, heartened by his praise and confidence in me, and confident that he had my back. I felt better than I had since I’d woken up on his altar. I’d had choices made for me that I hadn’t liked, and had tried to make the best of it because there had been no going back. But now…
Now I had friends here, truly understood the importance of the work, and had finally reached an understanding with Hades that I had never even allowed myself to hope for. I hadn’t chosen this life, but I was – as Mother had known – well suited to it. There was a bounce in my step that hadn’t been there before as I left.
Apparently, he could tell the difference too, because I saw him smile as I turned and Stepped out of his audience chamber.