“Yes,” Hades agreed grimly, “I agree that your educated guess is probably correct. However, I don’t think this was a spur of the moment assault.”
I tipped my head. “No?”
“No,” Hades murmured, leaning back in his throne and frowning. “This has the feel of a…a land mine, so to speak. There is no way she could have known you would go to visit your father now,” Hades said slowly, “and the creatures that assaulted you there were clearly an underestimation of both your skill and your choice of companions.”
He frowned and stroked his beard thoughtfully.
I waited as he considered his words.
Finally, he sighed and said, “I believe this may have been a trap laid for you some time ago. In fact, I wonder how many of your encounters over the last couple of years were related in some way.” He shook his head and focused his attention on me. “Demeter has probably begun her hibernation now, or is at least preparing for it, so it was unlikely to have been a spur-of-the-moment assault. In fact, I was going to tell you today that it was time for you to go and speak with Ceres.”
I didn’t bother asking how he knew. I just collected Eos, Danae and Vulcan – just in case – and together we stepped to Demeter’s palace.
Or at least, we tried to. We reached the woods I remembered seeing on my previous visit, but now the trees – except for the evergreens – were barren of leaves and there was no sign of the enormous tree that had been Demeter’s palace.
Oh, and we were knee-deep in snow.
Well…Eos, Danae and I were. A small clear space had already melted around Vulcan, who hefted his long-handled hammer onto his shoulder and smiled. “I’ll just go first, shall I?”
“By all means,” Eos said, with a somehow sarcastic sweep of her arm.
“Please,” Danae added.
“Hold up a second,” I said, struggling forward through the snow to stand beside Vulcan, thankful – not for the first time – that our uniforms protected us from heat and cold. “This is really weird.”
“We’re where you lead us, aren’t we?” Eos asked.
Vulcan rumbled a thoughtful sound. “We are where Talia wished to go…but she’s right. Something is wrong.”
Eos slogged up on my right, struggling through the snow. “What’s up?”
“I was here once, many, many years ago,” Vulcan said. “Where is Demeter’s palace?”
“Up ahead somewhere, I’d imagine,” Danae said, coming up on the other side of Vulcan.
I shook my head. “It was right here last time.”
A mound of snow up ahead of us shuddered, shook itself, and stood up. And up, rising until a good ten feet of visibly muscular Yeti stood before us, covered head to toe in shaggy white hair. It shook itself again, shedding the rest of the snow that had covered it, stretched its enormous limbs – with a great creaking of huge muscles – and fixed a malevolent, yellow-eyed gaze on us.
“That’s bad,” Eos said, her helmet enfolding her head and lightning starting to crackle around her hands.
Vulcan lowered his hammer from his shoulder again and clasped it in both hands. “Aye. But not terribly bad. We can take it.”
A second Yeti rose up out of the snow nearby, yawning and stretching. Then a third, a fourth, and a fifth, arrayed in a large circle around us.
The Yetis lifted their heads and roared.
“Now it’s a problem,” Vulcan said as the rest of us armored up and shifted so that we were standing in a loose diamond formation.
“We’re outnumbered, and they’re bigger than we are,” Minerva observed, unfolding her spear and shield. I was very thankful that we’d delayed, since it had given her arm plenty of time to heal.
I unfolded my own shield, drawing Cerberus and shifting it into its spear form. “Watch out for each other, and we’ll be fine.”
“I shall take two,” Vulcan said with a dark grin.
“If I don’t get two first,” Jupiter replied. Then she gathered a huge ball of lightning between her hands and flung it just as the first Yeti lunged at her. It was blown backwards and I saw her chase after it before the one in front of me charged.
Then I was too busy to watch. The snow was making it hard to move quickly, so I settled for the same sort of tactic I would’ve used against a mounted rider. I lowered the blunt end of Cerberus to the ground, planted it against my boot, turned slightly and braced its shaft against the inward curve at the front of my shield.
The Yeti, quite a bit taller than me, had a lot less trouble moving through the snow and built up a fair head of steam by the time it reached me. Either it didn’t understand what Cerberus was – I didn’t know how intelligent they were – or didn’t consider it a threat. Whichever it was, the Yeti charged forward unheeding and impaled itself on my spear.
Its shaggy head leaned forward and it looked down in obvious surprise at the shaft of the spear disappearing into its chest. It leaned forward a little, groaning, and I gathered that my aim had been good – I’d pierced its heart.
Indeed, a moment later its knees buckled and it dropped to them. I lunged backwards, yanking Cerberus free and taking a jump back as it toppled forward face-first into the snow. From that position, I could see the red stain spreading on its back, but I shifted Cerberus to its sword form and decapitated the creature just to make sure.
I gave Cerberus a shake, shedding most of the blood on its blade and shaft, then shifted it to its rifle form and looked around.
Minerva was standing over her assailant, which lay on its back. As I watched, she drove her spear through its head.
I turned my head and saw Jupiter finishing off her scorched and charred opponent, so I swung Cerberus around and looked for Vulcan…and what I saw was so amazing that I had to stop and stare for a moment.
Vulcan stood on a bare, damp patch of ground between two of the Yetis. His hammer twirled and spun as if it weighed nothing, his muscles straining as he worked to control its movement. As it spun, it delivered glancing blows to both Yetis, keeping them from getting close enough to attack him.
I lifted Cerberus to my shoulder, slid the power level to 50%, switched it to full auto, and pulled the trigger. The barrel spat bolts of red-gold energy that thudded into one of the Yetis as I began to advance slowly. They knocked it back a little with each impact, forcing it to twist towards me and giving me more space to hit it.
Vulcan took advantage of the Yeti’s distraction to turn all of his attention to the other one, swinging his hammer around and bringing it down hard onto the thing’s skull with a wet crunch. Jupiter hit the one I was shooting with lightning a moment later, bolt after bolt lancing into it at almost the same pace as Cerberus’s automatic fire.
One of us hit something vital, and both Yetis collapsed backwards into the snow at the same time.
Silence fell – the sort of silence that only exists in snowy woods. A silence so deep it almost seemed to absorb sound.
“Well,” Vulcan said, “that was bracing.”
Jupiter thumped his shoulder with her fist. “You were a smashing success!”
Minerva groaned from beneath her helmet. “Jupiter, honestly.”
I turned away from them, scanning the woods around us with my helmet’s sensors. After a moment, I spotted what I was looking for and started walking. The others caught up with me quickly, and it was only a minute before we found Ceres.
She was sitting on a fallen tree, her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. She’d changed clothes since I’d last seen her, to reflect the season; her bodystocking was now pure white, as was the bodysuit she wore over it, though the overlapping leaves attached to it were all shades of withered brown. And, this time, she was wearing knee-high white leather boots.
If not for the leaves and her copper-colored hair, she would’ve blended right into the snow. Then I saw that the ivy – still green, if not quite as robust looking, was still woven through her hair and around her arms and legs.
She looked up in obvious surprise as we approached, and I saw that her cheeks were stained with tears. Her eyes – vibrant green, I noted – widened and she seemed to bound off the log. She hit me a moment later, her arms wrapping around me as she laughed and sobbed at the same time.
“You came! You survived!” She sniffled. “I was so afraid…that you wouldn’t come, or that the Yetis would…would…”
Vulcan’s strong hand came down on her shoulder gently. “Be easy, Ceres. They were no real challenge for us.”
She looked up. “Vulcan!” She released me and embraced him tightly. “Oh, it’s so good to see you!”
I blew out a breath and collapsed my shield and helmet, then folded Cerberus up into its storage form and holstered it. “Ceres, are you all right?”
She nodded, staying in Vulcan’s arms for the time being. It was probably warmest there anyway, and she really wasn’t dressed for the weather. Even less so than the rest of us, in my opinion.
“More importantly, is Demeter asleep?” Danae asked. “Are you free to speak?”
Ceres nodded again. “She’s so deeply asleep she didn’t even sense your arrival. I’m…we’re free of her, for the time being.”
I stepped up to her. “Ceres, how long have you been out here in the cold? What happened to Demeter’s palace?”
“It goes away during the winter,” she said, wiping her eyes with a white-gloved hand. “She started doing it five or six years ago…I don’t know where she winters now, but it’s not above ground, and I can’t get in. She leaves me outside all winter, and even though the seasons don’t affect me much…” She looked at me with what I thought was longing. “I want to talk, but…”
“She’s shivering,” Vulcan said bluntly. “We must get her indoors.”
“Ceres,” I said gently, “can you come with us? I’d like a friend of mine who’s a doctor to check you over. Just in case.” After our fight with the dragon, I had a horrible suspicion, and more than ever wanted Michel to look at her. I wondered if Zeus and Hades had already suspected the same thing, which is why they mentioned the idea.
Ceres nodded, biting her bottom lip. “She won’t notice I’m gone, not until March at least.”
I held out my hand to her. “Come on. I’ll take you where we’re going.”
“All right,” she whispered, releasing Vulcan and taking my hand. “Are you all coming?” she asked hopefully.
“Yeah,” Eos said firmly, “we’ve got your back.”
Ceres looked relieved. “Thank you…”
A moment later we were standing in Michel’s office. With five of us clustered in the entrance, it was a bit crowded, so we spread out a little as I drew Ceres over to the examining table. “Ceres, this is Michel, son of Hermes. He’s our doctor.”
“Hello,” Michel said with a smile. “You look half-frozen. Hop up on the table and we’ll have a look at you. Eos, would you get her a mug of something hot?”
“Cocoa?” Ceres asked hopefully, and for a moment she made me think of a lost child.
Melinoë appeared at my elbow, making everyone except me – including Ceres – jump slightly. She held out a large, steaming mug, from which emerged a scent so sweet that it should’ve been nauseating, but somehow wasn’t.
“Melinoë?” Ceres asked, bewildered.
“Hi, Ceres!” Mel said, proffering the mug. “Here, try this, it’s my home-made Hazelnog cocoa de leche. It’s even better than cocoa, I promise.”
I cringed a little inside, but didn’t protest. As far as I’ve been able to deduce, Mel’s “Hazelnog” is an unholy blend of hot chocolate, eggnog, Nutella, whipped cream and caramel sauce, usually liberally doctored with Amaretto. It’s like drinking hot, alcoholic cake batter, and might actually contain toxic levels of sugar…but was probably just the thing to perk Ceres up. It does warm you up.
Michel smiled. “Now then, let’s have a look here…” He drew down two thin monitors with cameras of some sort attached to them, pointed them at her, and pulled a stethoscope from one of his pockets.
As Michel worked – quietly and calmly asking her questions the whole time – Vulcan settled into one of the chairs at his desk. Danae and I stood guard at the door, and Eos claimed Michel’s desk chair (inevitably putting her booted feet up on it) while Ceres sipped slowly at her mug of sugary goodness and answered Michel’s questions. We all hung back, giving them what little privacy the office offered.
It worked, at least for me. I couldn’t hear what he was asking or what her answers were. That was fine with me…my questions could wait until we knew she was all right.
It didn’t take long. Michel smiled and patted her hand gently, then moved around to one of the monitors and beckoned to us. Vulcan shrugged and went to stand at the door with Eos as Danae and I went to see what Michel had found.
He was staring at an incredibly complex image of Ceres’s skull and brain on one side of the screen, and her whole body – showing her skeleton and muscles – on the other. “Do you see this?” he asked quietly, pointing to places on the screen.
I saw it. I didn’t want to see it, but I did. I put a hand over my mouth and tried not to retch. Beside me, Danae made a little choking sound.
All throughout Ceres’s body, the scan – whatever it was – revealed the root system that the ivy wrapped around her had set down. Tendrils of it were in her brain, wound around and through her muscles, and embedded in her bones.
“Gods,” Danae whispered.
I suddenly remembered – with absolute horror – the gesture Ceres had made a couple of times during my autumn visit. She’d looked like she was trying to brush the ivy out of her hair.
I shuddered and swallowed, a wave of nausea washing over me. “I think I’m going to be sick,” I whispered.
“Swallow it,” Michel murmured firmly. “Be strong for her. She obviously knows what’s been done to her – I got that much – but can’t seem to talk about it directly. Stay with her, I need to make a call.”
I took a deep breath to steady myself, then left Danae staring at the readouts and moved around in front of Ceres. “How’re you feeling?” I asked, probably inanely.
She gave me a sad little smile. She really did know, and was probably reading my expression. “Warm. It’s nice. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged uncomfortably. “I…I can’t say.”
I took her hand in mine and squeezed it. “I get that. It’s all right. It’s not your fault.”
She closed her eyes and a couple of tears escaped. “I…I want…to help you.”
“Shh,” I whispered. “Just relax.”
I heard footsteps behind me and was startled as Hermes and Apollo came up on either side of me. Hermes went around to Danae and looked at the display with obvious disgust, as Apollo smiled. “It is good to see you again, daughter.”
“Hello, Father,” Ceres said quietly.
I released her hand and stepped back. Danae joined me a moment later and we retreated to the doorway, where Zeus and Hades now stood as well.
“This is getting crowded,” Eos said.
“You can leave if you want,” Zeus replied dryly.
She snorted. “As if. What’s going on?” she asked me.
“She has…the ivy. Its roots have grown into her body…into her brain.” I shuddered and hugged myself.
A moment later, Eos wrapped her arms around me from behind. “Holy shit,” she murmured. “Is that how Demeter’s controlling her?”
“Most likely,” Zeus said quietly. “Come, let’s retire to Talia’s office and let the doctors do their work.”
“I will remain here,” Vulcan said quietly. “Just in case.”
I didn’t know what more he could possibly do to guard Ceres with two gods in the room…but then I realized that she was probably an old friend. From the way they’d greeted one another in Demeter’s woods, Ceres might be as old as he was. They might even have been contemporaries.
Zeus smiled. “Good lad,” he said. “We’ll be right next door.”
He gently ushered the rest of us – except for Hades, of course – out and over to my office. Hades followed him in, closing the door behind them.
“This,” Zeus said as soon as the door was closed, “is a disturbing development.”
“But what we expected, from what Talia told us,” Hades pointed out. “Disturbing, yes, but not a surprise.”
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“We wait,” Zeus said, “while you tell us about how you found her and brought her back.”
“Yes,” Hades agreed grimly, “I agree that your educated guess is probably correct. However, I don’t think this was a spur of the moment assault.”