Daedalus was waiting for me when I entered his workshop, and nearly bowled me over in his excitement as he rushed over. He thrust Cerberus, still in its spear form, into my hands as he spoke. “I was able to extract a good sample of the blood on Cerberus’s blade, and you won’t believe what happened when I tried a tracking spell on it!”
I smiled, trying to hide my amusement. He was adorable when he got excited. “What happened?”
“I got a reaction!” he exclaimed. “Right here in the Underworld! Not far from here, in fact, probably in the Fields of Asphodel.”
He turned and hurried back to his kitchen table as I folded Cerberus up and put it away on the back of my belt. He returned carrying a small stone bowl, filled with clear water. Bobbing gently on the surface of the water was a glass microscope slide, with a spot of blood on it, carefully placed under a preserving sliver of glass to keep the water away from it. Atop that was an iron needle, held in place by a small blob of clear glue.
As I watched, Daedalus used a small bit of magic to activate the device. Having used similar setups in the past, I wasn’t surprised when the needle spun wildly for a moment, then settled down and pointed away to my left. The spell he’d cast made the iron in the blood resonate with the iron in the needle, resulting in it turning to point towards the person the blood came from, or the nearest blood relative of that person.
“See?” he said excitedly. “If there were no blood relatives down here, it would either fail or, if I put enough power into it, it would point straight up!”
I nodded and held my hands out for it. “May I?”
“Of course, of course! You’re going to go and find the person it’s pointing to?”
I nodded again. “I am. I have questions that need answering, and whoever this is pointing to is the best place for me to start.”
“Is there anything else I can do to help?” Daedalus asked.
I started to shake my head, then stopped as an idea came to me. It wasn’t an idea I liked, but…
“Do you have any Orichalcum bullets I could use in Cerberus?” I asked.
Daedalus’s eyes widened, then he frowned thoughtfully. “I have a small amount of Orichalcum that I use in various experiments. It would be enough to cast four or five small caliber bullets from, but it would take me a couple of days to do it. I do have a new type of high-velocity, armor-piercing, high-explosive anti-tank round that I’ve been developing for you. It should be almost as effective on everything short of Avatars and gods as an Orichalcum bullet.”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry about recasting the metal you have for experiments. I’m not sure we have the time, and even if we did I don’t think I’d want the responsibility of keeping them safe. Keep working on those new bullets though, just in case. They sound like they’d be useful against minotaurs and the like.” I lifted the little stone bowl in a sort of salute. “Much more importantly, thank you for this.”
“You are very welcome, Talia. Be safe!”
Once I was outside of his workshop, I looked down at the stone bowl in my hands. For a moment, I wondered what I was going to find at the end of this path…then I activated the compass’s magic, and watched the needle spin and orient itself.
The quickest way to do this would be a bit of triangulation, so I took note of what direction the needle was pointing in and Stepped to a spot far off to my right. I watched the needle spin and reorient itself…and Daedalus had been right, it was pointing to the Fields of Asphodel.
I Stepped to the ivy-covered stone wall that marked their border, and looked at the gates set into the wall. By tradition, the gates were kept closed at all times, only to be opened for Hades himself or one of the other gods when visiting. Practically speaking, the gates were now so overgrown with ivy that the wrought iron beneath was all but indistinguishable from the rest of the wall.
I made myself intangible long enough to pass through the gates, then consulted the home-made compass again and began walking.
The Fields of Asphodel are where the majority of souls who arrive in the Underworld go. It’s where everyone who led largely unremarkable lives went – not evil enough for Tartarus or the Fields of Punishment, not good enough for Elysium or the Isles of the Blessed. Regular, everyday people.
Or at least they were before the Judeo-Christian religions became dominant. Today, perhaps a few hundred souls arrived every day as opposed to the thousands that had once entered. We had a standing deal with Yaweh (who handled Judaism, Christianity and Islam, though the last with growing reluctance) and Odin to adopt any followers of their respective religions who had lapsed too far to enter Heaven and Hell, or Valhalla and Hel, and generally took in atheists (which was always fun) and agnostics (who often found the whole thing fascinating).
The Fields of Asphodel themselves were pleasant enough, but rather bland. Broad, grassy plains, spotted with a variety of trees from around the world and lots of equally nondescript souls drifting aimlessly about. Most of the souls who resided there were content to remain as indistinguishable from one another in death as they had been in life, simply drifting through their eternal rest without giving it much thought.
There were plenty of opportunities for them to do things, mind you. Souls could petition to go through a cycle of reincarnation to take another stab at life, or they could enter into service in any of the gods just to have something to do. I think it says something kind of sad about human nature that inertia is the rule rather than the exception in Asphodel.
Things were, of course, very different in Tartarus and the Fields of Punishment, and in Elysium and the Isles of the Blessed. But that probably goes without saying.
I made my way through the trees and the throngs of spirits, occasionally Skipping one way or the other to make sure I was still headed in the right direction. After almost twenty minutes of searching (not really that long, if you consider the numbers…), I found what I was seeking.
Sitting against a tree was one of the multitude of nondescript souls, the needle of the compass pointing straight to it. The soul looked up as I approached and began to take on definition, developing distinctive features as it – she, rather – remembered herself. She had a thin, delicate-looking face with dark hair and eyebrows, and was very pretty.
I crouched down in front of her and set aside the makeshift compass. “Hello. My name is Talia. What’s your name?”
“Anna,” she replied slowly. Her voice had a soft, faintly echoey quality to it that the more substantial, self-defined souls I usually rubbed elbows with didn’t have. “Annalise Nikolau.”
“Hello, Anna,” I said warmly. “I was hoping you could help me with something.”
“Me?” She seemed to take on more definition and some solidity as she thought about it. “What can someone like me do to help an Avatar?”
I always wondered how souls could recognize us. Someday, I’d take the time to find out. But not today. “Do you know anyone named Gregor?”
She sat up, solidifying completely. Her voice also lost its insubstantial quality. “Gregor? I had a son named Gregor.”
Ah ha! The plot thickens. “Tanned skin, dark hair and eyes?”
“Somewhat like you,” she nodded. “What did he do this time?”
I blinked in surprise. “Pardon?”
She rubbed her face and sighed. “I was never able to give him everything he should’ve had. It was so hard finding work after I was diagnosed with a delusional disorder…”
“I think,” I said, “you’d better start at the beginning. If you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind,” Anna said. “It’s nice to have someone to talk to, actually. Before Gregor was born, I was a classics teacher in Perth, Australia. I’d always had an affinity for Greek and Roman mythology, so that’s what I studied in college and taught afterwards.” She smiled gently. “The students always seemed to love my classes.”
Her eyes took on a dreamy, faraway look. “But then the platypus came to me and made love to me…” she trailed off on a wistful sigh.
Uh oh. “The…platypus?” Alarms were going off in the back of my mind.
She nodded, still lost in that dreamy expression. “Oh yes. It was one evening when I was at home grading papers. The whole room lit up, and I turned around to see a shower of golden light behind me, and the most gorgeous platypus waddled out of it. He did the most amazing mating dance, and there was simply nothing I could do to resist him…I just had to let him have me…”
She sounded like she was about to launch into a detailed description of the event, so I held up a hand to stop her. I really didn’t want to hear it. “I get it,” I said. I knew the story well, even if the details were different…this had Zeus written all over it.
Her eyes refocused on me and she blushed. “Sorry. Anyway, Gregor was born nine months later. There was always something a little different about him, and I knew that he was special.”
“But you told someone about your encounter with the…platypus.”
She nodded. “The doctors wanted to know who the father was, because they were having a hard time determining Gregor’s blood type. So I told them.”
“Which is when you were diagnosed as delusional?” I asked, putting every last ounce of sympathy into the question that I could, even as I tried not to start laughing. Honestly, it was a terrible thing, and I felt bad for her…but the details were so absurd, it was hard not to laugh at it.
She sighed and nodded. “But I wasn’t. I knew it was Zeus. He came to me the way he came to Leda as a swan, and to Europa as a bull. Gregor was his gift to me.”
“But you lost your job,” I said.
“Yes,” she sighed again. “And it was impossible to find another teaching job. I got odd jobs here and there, and sometimes worked as a waitress, but I was hardly ever able to make ends meet. It was all I could do to provide for Gregor.”
“What was he like?” I asked.
“Angry,” she said sadly. “Angry about everything. He never had any friends, everything made him sullen, and there seemed to be nothing I could do to curb his attitude. He started stealing things when he was ten, and was hanging with a gang by the time he was fourteen. I died when he was only seventeen…I was shot by a would-be robber at the diner I was working for at the time. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about him after that.”
At least I had a name and some idea of who he was and why he was that way. He was a demigod, like me…and from the sounds of it, one who’d gotten lost in the shuffle. Zeus really could be an enormous tool sometimes.
“Thank you very much for your time, Anna,” I said.
She reached out and caught my hand. “Lady Pluto,” she said softly, “what did he do?”
I sighed a little. “Are you sure – ”
She cut me off. “Please, just tell me. What kind of trouble is he in?”
“He killed a son of Hermes,” I said grimly, “and tried to kill Zeus’s Avatar.”
Anna put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, Gregor. You’re going to stop him from doing it again?”
“Please, try not to hurt him too badly. Even if he’s done terrible things, he’s still my son, and I was never able to do right by him.”
“I’ll try, Anna,” I said firmly. “I promise.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, and slumped back against the tree again.
I scooped up the makeshift compass and dumped out the water before putting it away in one of the pouches on my belt in case I needed it again. Then I turned and headed back towards the gates. As I went, I pulled out my cell phone and pressed the auto dial for Danae.
“Hi, little sis,” she said in my ear. “What’s the good word?”
“Our shooter’s name is Gregor Nikolau,” I said. “Last known location was in Perth. Could you see if you can find out where he lives? But don’t approach him yet! It sounds like he’s got quite a chip on his shoulder, and I want to see if I can get a little more information on him before we approach him.”
“Surveillance is my middle name,” Danae said. “Consider it done. I’ll lay eyes on the target while you fill in the blanks, then we’ll bring his sorry ass in.”
“Yes we will. Thanks, big sis.”
“Any time, kiddo. You’re pretty good at this, you know.”
“I’ve had good teachers,” I said. “I’ll call you back soon. Call me if you find him.”
“Will do.” She hung up.
I took a deep breath as I glided through the gates, and tried to figure out exactly what to do next. I still had the option of going to visit Hera myself, though it’d probably be wiser to wait and hear from Hades. And now I had a bad feeling that I was going to need to talk to Zeus –
All of my attention was suddenly caught up in a profound and irresistible urge to return to Hades’s throne room. I was being summoned, with all urgency, and there was only one thing to be done.