Anyone who tells you that dying by violence is quick and doesn’t hurt has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Mind you, it didn’t hurt for long. I suspect so much damage was done to my brain when Heracles’s war club became intimately acquainted with my skull that I wasn’t conscious for more than a second or two after. Still, you’d think they could’ve found a nicer way to go about it.
Like a high-powered sniper round to the head. Or maybe some sort of quick-acting poison.
Instead, I woke up with an absolutely epic headache, and my first thought – beyond ‘oh god it hurts’ – was that I was going to have words with Mother about this. Angry words, if she’d really agreed to this plan.
Assuming I ever saw her again. Which was probably a safe assumption…given enough time.
Waking up was nearly as shocking as being struck dead. I sat bolt upright, sucking in a huge lungful of air and letting out the most piercing scream I’d ever uttered. Such an epic headache merited a equally epic scream. It came out half pain and half shocked, offended anger.
Once I’d gotten that out of my system, I gingerly touched the side of my head, and was pleased beyond words to find it both whole and not covered in blood. The pain from the blow was fading so quickly that I wasn’t sure if it had been real, or some sort of echo from my central nervous system.
Curiosity and concern followed hard on the heels of relief, and I dropped my hand to touch my chest over my heart…which, thankfully, turned out to be beating steadily, if a bit too quickly. No surprise there, really.
But my fingers had brushed metal as they’d slid down from my head to my chest. I checked my neck, and felt a thin, supple, form-fitting band of cool metal there, with what felt like a smooth, oval stone at the hollow of my throat.
I needed a mirror.
Another quick check showed me that I was no longer wearing the clothes I’d gone to graduation in. Instead, I was wrapped in a floor-length black silk robe, and my feet were bare. I suppose that made sense, since my graduation clothes had probably been…messy. Giving myself a little shake, I tried to get my mind in order, reminding myself that I should really take a look at my surroundings now that I was certain I was still alive.
(Or maybe alive again. That was an unsettling thought.)
I was sitting on an ornately carved stone altar in the center of an enormous room – or cavern – about the size of an old gladiatorial stadium. There were appropriately huge square columns at regular intervals, each with four torches on it, lighting up the chamber well enough for me to see all but the darkest corners. Glancing up, I discovered that the ceiling – far above me – was rough-hewn natural stone, complete with stalactites here and there. Lowering my eyes again, I found that I was facing – down the length of the room – a pair of intricately decorated metal doors that looked wide enough and tall enough to drive a truck through.
I took another deep breath, and was pretty proud of myself for not screaming this one back out, either in anger or fear. Instead, I took one more deep breath to calm myself, and swung my legs over the side of the altar, turning slowly.
“It’s about time you woke up,” a dark, bass voice said from off to my right. It startled me into turning the rest of the way, curling my legs back under me for balance on the altar.
A huge man sat on an equally huge throne at the opposite end of the hall from the doors, not far from the altar where I sat. His complexion was a darker olive than mine; his hair black as a raven’s wings, short and in tight curls. He had a thick beard, neatly trimmed into an imperial goatee and mustache, and his eyes were so dark that in the torchlight I was unable to tell what color they were.
He wore dark clothes of a cloth I didn’t recognize beneath a breastplate, pauldrons, bracers and greaves made of what looked like silver-trimmed obsidian, and a two-handed sword rested against the back of his throne. From the way he slouched there, his chin resting on one hand, I guessed he was a little better than seven feet tall.
Of course, with the gods, all physical attributes were variable.
It was about then that I remembered my manners and quickly slid off the altar to dip a respectful bow. “Greetings, Lord Hades.”
“Greetings, Talia Redowl,” he replied, his brows drawing into a small frown. “I would that we could have met under less stressful circumstances for you, if at all. No matter how well you performed during your graduation trials – and I acknowledge that you performed extremely well – I did not desire this.”
I wasn’t at all sure how to respond to that, so I shifted uneasily from foot to foot. My feet were bare, and the stone floor was chilly.
He shifted, leaning forward into the torchlight and steepling his fingers beneath his chin. I got a better look at his face and decided that he was rather handsome, actually…he reminded me of Armand Assante when he was in his early 40s.
“You have been forced on me, Talia Redowl, as surely as this situation has been forced on you.” He pursed his lips, then sat back, dropping his hands to the arms of his throne. “Are you experiencing any lingering pain or discomfort? Such pain can be normal in the wake of being restored to life. As normal as anything can be, under the circumstances.”
I shook my head quickly. “No, sir. None.”
He nodded. “Good.”
“Are…” I swallowed. “Are there any other side effects I should know about?”
He smiled then. It was a small, faint smile, but it touched his eyes, softening his dark demeanor. “There are some. You’ll learn about most of them on the job. Most importantly, it grants you a different sort of immortality than most Avatars. While still vulnerable to injury, no mortal weapon will ever be able to kill you, and your body will regenerate more completely and even faster than your fellows.”
He paused for a minute and his smile vanished as if it had never been. “I would advise against testing the limits of your regeneration. Thanatos was present at Hiroshima, and while he recovered in a matter of hours, he’s never been quite the same.”
I shivered a little. “I’ll keep that in mind, sir.” I hesitated a moment, then asked in a voice that came out far more timidly than I’d wanted, “Am…am I dead?”
“No,” Hades said firmly. “You were. Now you are not.”
“What…” I swallowed and realized I was shaking a little. I made a valiant effort to try to stop. “What am I, then?”
“Mine,” he said simply, then gestured for me to come forward. “Come closer, girl. If all you’re going to do is cower by the altar, we’re never going to accomplish anything useful.”
I tried to work out whether there’d been either humor or jest in the comment, and decided there hadn’t. “I’m already your Avatar then?” I asked as I approached him, arching my toes up away from the cold floor.
“The moment Heracles struck you,” Hades confirmed, then frowned. “I really must have a word with him about that. Surely there must have been a less traumatic way to accomplish the deed. It took hours to undo the damage he did.” He huffed out an annoyed sound and rose slowly from his throne. “But he’s always been a bit of a brute. I don’t know what I expected. Come closer, girl, I’m not going to bite you.”
I did, practically stepping into his shadow. He towered over me, a good foot taller than me, and frowned down at me. He had impressive eyebrows, and an equally impressive frown. It was as if his features, each taken separately, were capable of being intimidating on their own.
He stared at me.
I felt naked before that gaze, as if he wasn’t looking at me as much as he was looking into me. Judging me. I felt myself quiver like a prey animal, and sucked in a little breath. There was no way I was going to let myself be intimidated like this!
I straightened a little and met his gaze, looked into his eyes, which I could now see where a storm cloud grey.
After a long moment, he nodded slightly. “Good. Girl, you should know that if I leveled that gaze on anyone other than a god or an Avatar, they’d’ve been on their knees with fear. And even some Avatars wouldn’t be able to stand it.” He smiled a little, but it didn’t touch his eyes this time. “You’re every bit as strong as your mother said you were.”
He walked around me slowly, and I could feel his eyes on me the whole time. Examining me. For a moment, I wondered if he was going to look at my teeth, too. When he came full circle, standing in front of me again, he folded his arms and looked at me thoughtfully. “You and I must reach an understanding.”
“All right,” I said uneasily.
With a little grunt, he stepped back to his throne and settled into it again, resting his elbow on its arm and his chin on one big fist. “Girl, I did not want another Avatar. I presume you’ve heard the story of what happened to my…to my last one.”
I nodded. “As much as has been recorded. The details are somewhat fluid.”
“As I intended,” Hades said flatly. “Truthfully, her death nearly destroyed me, and had permanent repercussions on our daughter. I had no intention of ever filling the position again, letting the other members of my staff take up the slack.” He took a deep breath and released it in a frustrated sound. “They have, however, become somewhat overwhelmed by their own tasks in recent centuries. The world has grown, and its population has grown with it. Loathe as I am to admit that I need assistance, I need yours. There is, frankly, an enormous backlog of work for you to do.”
He paused, evidently waiting for a reply. I couldn’t think of one, and after a minute he nodded slightly. “I owed Athena, your mother, a favor for a task she took care of on my behalf some centuries ago. It was a rather large favor, and I expected to return it by doing the same for her at some point in the future. Imagine my surprise when she came to me and insisted I take you as my Avatar.”
“What!?” I asked incredulously, then put a hand over my mouth for a moment. “I apologize for interrupting you, sir.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “That is the first understanding we must reach. Girl, I expect you to interrupt me. Call me out if you feel I’m behaving like a churl or am about to do something stupid. You are my representative to the mortal world, among other things, and for that you must know my mind…your collar will take care of that, when necessary.
But you are also a daughter of Athena, and one ignores her wisdom at their peril. If she felt I was best served having you as my Avatar, then I intend to heed her wisdom…and yours. When you feel it appropriate to offer it to me.”
“I…I don’t know when that would be…” I stammered. When does one offer a god advice?
“I don’t expect you will, until it’s time to do so,” Hades said with just a hint of humor in his eyes. “As I said, you are a daughter of Athena. When you have wisdom to dispense, I trust that you will. If you don’t think I’m listening to you, feel free to grab me by the ear and make me.”
“If I can reach it,” I muttered under my breath.
He smiled slightly. “Indeed.”
I winced inwardly. Oops.
“Which brings us back to my original point,” he said. “I did not want you here. Frankly, I still don’t want you here. It may be some time before I truly come to value either your input…or your presence. Please try not to take it personally.”
He sounded sincere, and I thought I understood. His wife – his beloved wife, according to some stories – had been his Avatar. Who else could fill the position in all of the ways she must have. Certainly not me. And yet, Mother felt this was where I needed to be.
As Hades had said, one ignored the wisdom of Athena at their own peril.
“It might help,” I said in as carefully neutral a tone as I could muster, “if you stopped calling me ‘girl.’ You can use my name, if you don’t want to use my new title yet.”
He blinked a few times, then leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees. “Young lady, that is a surprisingly insightful comment for one so young. You are undeniably your mother’s daughter.” He thumped his fist on his knee. “You’d think two millennia would be sufficient time to shed pain!”
“It depends on the pain,” I said quietly. “Some pain never goes away completely. So I’m given to understand, anyway.”
Hades nodded. “You are quite correct, Talia, on both counts. Some pain never goes away, and you won’t be able to do your job properly if I don’t give you the respect you deserve as my Avatar.”
“I’ve hardly had a chance to even start to earn your respect yet, sir.”
He waved me to silence. “That’s not entirely true. I’ve watched you through the last two years of your training. You may not have done anything for me directly yet, but if I hadn’t come to respect your skills – mind and body alike – I would never have agreed to take you as my Avatar. Debt or no debt.”
I felt I understood what he was getting at, and simply nodded by way of response. Then I waited, shifting to stand at an easy parade ground rest, clasping my hands behind me. I was finally getting my mental footing again…some of my confidence had returned at last. I guess dying and being resurrected really had rattled me.
Wouldn’t it rattle anyone?
He must’ve noticed my returning confidence and ease because he gave me an approving nod. “Your rooms are down that hall,” he pointed off to his right. “The door on the right side of the hall leads to your living suite. You’ll find everything you need there, and I’ve assigned two Unseen Servants to keep it tidy and well supplied for you.”
Unseen Servants were invisible spirits, created through the use of Necromancy. The thought of being served by them gave me a little shiver, but I figured I’d better get used to that sort of thing quickly. Especially since I was going to have Hecate as a colleague from now on.
“Across the hall, ” Hades continued, “is Pluto’s office…your office. It has, I must note, been some time since anyone has been in it to do more than leave information about things which must be done. I’m working on getting someone to help you tidy up and organize the office…take some time for yourself now. You’ll find the uniform of your new office in your suite.”
I waited a long moment in case there was anything else he wanted to say, then bowed politely. “By your leave then, sir?”
He gestured dismissively. “Go on, Talia. Make yourself at home, but try not to take too long about it. Your assistant should be here shortly, and you have a great deal to do.”
I bowed again and turned, walking away in the direction he’d indicated. I could feel his eyes on me until I reached the entrance to the hallway.
It wasn’t a long hallway, just deep enough for the doors on either side and an ancient-looking urn sitting on a waist-high pedestal. The urn was so old that any decorations that might’ve been painted on it had long since worn off, and it was capped with a stone stopper and sealed with wax.
There was something very wrong about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. Just looking at it made me shiver.
The doors on either side of me had neat little placards on them. ‘Office’ to my left, and ‘Private’ to my right. I turned right, and the door opened before I could even touch the knob. Convenient, that.
My suite, as Hades had called it, was quite a difference from the cold stone hall where he evidently held court. The foyer had a rack on the left wall which looked like it was designed to hold a spear, shield, helmet and cloaks. Very practical.
Beyond that…calling it a sitting room just didn’t do it justice. The main room was somewhere between what I envisioned the harem rooms of Arabian legends must’ve looked like, and a very cozy living room. In the center of the room was a huge, shallow stone bowl, big enough that even Hades could’ve laid down in it. A fire had been lit in it, crackling cheerily and sending its smoke…up and away somewhere. The smoke literally vanished a couple of feet above the big brazier.
It was surrounded by a circular sofa broken up into four sections. There was a dining room set off to one side with seating for eight, a full kitchen in one corner partitioned off with a combination of room dividers (covered in warm, pleasant abstract art) and a breakfast bar with stools. The opposite corner of the room, also partitioned off, was lined with empty bookcases, and had a small table, a reading lamp, and a comfortable looking chair.
Hades certainly seemed to know my tastes, at least. I couldn’t decide if that made me uncomfortable or not. I supposed there was no reason why it should.
Another room opened off of the living area, which turned out to be a bedroom. A huge four-poster bed was centered along one wall, opposite two doors with a stand-up bureau between them. One of the doors opened into a walk-in closet – already full of a variety of clothing I would have chosen, for all occasions – while the other opened into an impressive looking en-suite bathroom.The bathroom had both a free-standing shower, and a bathtub which looked large enough for three people.
I immediately shed my robe and climbed into the shower, turning it up as hot as I could stand.