Six shots fired, and I didn’t hear her reloading, but that little gun couldn’t hold too many more rounds. I could teleport away, but that wouldn’t accomplish anything. If I Stepped away even long enough to grab my shield, Juno would probably disappear to try again another time. Or, worse, might just go next door to finish what she’d started by killing Eos. She was here, and had been impossible to find. If not for Nyx bringing her here – gods knew what her motivations were – we still wouldn’t have the faintest idea of where she’d gone. It was, as the saying goes, now or never.
“Leave off, Juno!” I called around the edge of my desk. “Put down the gun and let’s talk about this! It can’t end well otherwise.”
“I will not!” she shouted back, sounding more insane now. “And the only person this won’t end well for is you!”
“There’s the clichés again,” I muttered, shifting Cerberus into its rifle form. At full power, its energy blasts might penetrate her armor.
“I am the daughter of Hera and Zeus!” she shouted. “The original Avatars were full-blooded gods! You weak little half-blood demigods don’t hold a candle to my original brothers and sisters! You are an insult to -“
What had I thought about not mouthing off to someone holding a gun on me? Maybe Eos had the right of it. Time to interrupt her. “Would you please just shut up?” I shouted, cutting her off by leaning around the side of my desk and shooting her in the stomach.
As I’d feared, her armor – and maybe even her body, since she was an actual god – absorbed the brunt of the blast. Her dress was scorched, but there wasn’t even a hole in it, and while she’d doubled over for a moment, it didn’t last long and I had to duck back to avoid the two shots that came in response.
Eight shots fired. I heard the gun and her helmet clatter to the floor and the rasp of swords being drawn. “Come out and face me like the Avatar you think you are, then!”
I breathed a little sigh of relief. At least she wasn’t going to be shooting at me anymore. That evened the odds a little. But just a little, I realized as I rose and limped out from behind my desk, transforming Cerberus into its sword form. Its energy blasts weren’t going to get the job done against this opponent. With four or five shots I might hurt her, but she’d be across the room with her swords in me before I fired the third.
“Please don’t make me do this, Juno,” I said softly. “We’re both Avatars. We’re supposed to be like family.”
“You are no family of mine! You are nothing!” She brandished her short swords and lunged towards me.
I was well trained, and my reflexes were fast, even with the painkillers in my system. I managed to parry the first half-dozen thrusts without much trouble. But my balance was way off because of my left leg, and she managed to slide one of her swords through my defenses to graze my right side, leaving a burning line and a trickle of blood there where the probably-enchanted blade had parted cloth.
I hopped back, keeping most of my weight on my right leg, and started to circle to the right. “Juno, please…it doesn’t have to be like this.”
“You’ll pay for ruining my plans!” she hissed.
Good grief. Was she reading these clichés off a list or something? Obviously, she’d never read the ‘Evil Overlord’ list. “Juno, what did you think you were going to accomplish?”
“Zeus would lose his current favorite daughter and would need to replace her,” Juno explained, her eyes wild as we circled one another slowly. “Mother would convince him to have another son or daughter with her, and finally there would be another Avatar worthy of the title!”
Yep, she was gone. Clean off the deep end. I needed to end this fast. Somehow.
She attacked again as we came full circle, with my back to the desk. I had nowhere to retreat to, so I went on the defensive again. Cerberus was a blur as it met her swords in turn, deflecting them as I looked for an opening to attack her in return.
Then she kicked me. Her right foot lashed out and connected solidly with the bandaged part of my left thigh.
The burst of pain that came was devastating, dropping me to one knee and making me cry out. She kicked again, catching me across the left side of my head and sending me sprawling across the floor.
“Ow,” I groaned. I still had Cerberus in my hand as I pushed myself up a little, dizzy and struggling to focus my eyes.
Juno approached slowly, grinning like a blood-crazed predator. “I’m going to kill you right there, then take your head out to Hades and throw it at his feet. Or maybe…oh yes, even better…I’m going to take it next door and throw it on Eos’s bed before I kill her too!”
Off to my left, Melinoë reappeared behind the desk. “Talia!” She threw something to me with her right hand, holding up a small, familiar revolver in her left hand at the same time.
Gregor’s revolver, with its single Orichalcum bullet left.
I began transforming Cerberus with my right hand as my left hand came up and made the catch, almost automatically. I slapped open the charging handle on the side of the rifle and slid the little bullet in. Cerberus changed shape, slimming down and lengthening a bit to accommodate the it as I slid the breach closed again.
I lifted the rifle to my shoulder and leaned back against the wall, leveling Cerberus’s barrel at Juno’s chest. “Stop right there, Juno. Just…stop. You know what two of these bullets did to Eos. I’m a much better shot than Gregor is, and Cerberus is a much, much more powerful gun. I really don’t want to kill you, because I don’t think it’ll solve anything, but I will pull this trigger if you take one more step. So please…just…stop.”
She froze and narrowed her eyes, and I could see her trying to gauge what kind of shape I was in. Would I be able to shoot straight after being kicked in the head, and after losing so much blood the day before? I was losing more now, come to think of it…I could see the bandage around my left thigh starting to turn red over the wound. Her kick had opened it up again.
There was a soft rush of sound and three people strode into the room, appearing out of thin air. Hera was in the lead, followed closely by Hades and Zeus walking side-by side.
Hera walked up to Juno, putting herself between us, and I lowered Cerberus with a little groan, letting my head fall back against the wall. Thank the gods. Literally.
“I didn’t want to believe you’d come to this, daughter,” Hera said quietly. “But your recent actions, and questions asked by Hades and Athena made me wary. Then you somehow disappeared from my sight altogether – “
“It was hard, but not impossible,” Juno cut her off, sounding proud and drawing herself up a little. “I am the daughter of two gods, after all. And after all those millennia of quietly taking Zeus’s insults to your honor, what was I supposed to do, Mother? He needed to pay for his faithlessness!”
Zeus winced visibly.
“Not like this, daughter,” Hera said quietly. “Never like this. Your father and I have reached an understanding about such things.” She looked at her husband. “Even if he does still stray more often than I’d like.” She sighed in exasperation. “Honestly, Zeus…a platypus?”
Zeus looked at the floor, and said nothing. Beside him, Hades met my eyes before rolling his to indicate his mixed amusement and frustration with his brother.
Hera turned her glowering gaze back to Juno. “How did you do it, Juno? How did you vanish from my sight, and trespass into Hades’s domain unseen?”
Juno lifted her chin and glared back. “Why should I tell you?”
Even Hera was shocked into silence by that, her mouth falling open for a moment. Then her expression darkened and she snapped, “Because if you don’t tell me, I’ll give you to Hades for judgement and punishment.”
Hades nodded a little. “I believe I can find something suitable to match the variety and severity of her crimes.” His voice was chilling in its flat emotionlessness. Even in our earliest days together, I’d never heard him speak with such awful finality.
I thought of Prometheus, having his liver torn from his body and eaten by an eagle every day, for having stolen fire from the gods to give it to humanity. And Sisyphus, forced to roll a huge boulder up a hill every day, only to have it slip and roll back down as he neared the top, as punishment for his deceitfulness and arrogance.
Juno’s eyes widened and she paled visibly. “Mother…” She trailed off, her own protest unvoiced, halted by the anger and betrayal on Hera’s face.
“Why should I not, daughter?” Hera asked, the cold fury in her voice making all of us – except Hades and Zeus – take an involuntary step back from her. “You have become a murderer, and now you withhold information from me? You are not the child I raised. Now, answer the question! How did you do this?”
“It was Nyx,” I said, still trying to catch my breath. I could feel myself starting to shake a little, and prayed they’d get on with it already.
“Nyx?” Hades asked, shocked.
“Only in part,” Nyx’s silky contralto purred from behind him. She glided out of his shadow…literally, rising up out of the floor behind him where his shadow lay on it, and drifted forward to stand between him and Zeus. And though she was dwarfed by them, they seemed…diminished somehow. She was older and, in many ways, more powerful than they were, and it showed. It didn’t help that they both sidled away from her slightly, giving her room. “I enabled her access to this domain. Though I was not responsible for hiding her from your sight,” she added, nodding to Hera.
“Why?” Zeus asked. “The damage she could have done…”
Nyx gestured dismissively. “Young Pluto was in no danger of permanent harm. I have remained in close proximity, but I was confident that she and Melinoë were quite capable of handling this threat.” She eyed me thoughtfully. “Though perhaps I underestimated the severity of Pluto’s lingering injury.”
“Just a bit,” I agreed, resisting the urge to give my head a little shake to try and clear some of the fuzz from it. It’d just make the pain worse.
Nyx smiled gently. “My apologies, child.” She looked at Juno, then at Zeus. “I had my reasons, Zeus. Reasons I cannot share with you.”
He frowned thunderously. Seriously, I actually heard a faint rumble as his eyebrows drew down into a dangerous line. “Cannot, or will not?”
“Cannot,” Nyx said flatly. Then her eyes returned to Juno and she smiled. “This one now owes me a tremendous debt, however. She thought she would be in a good position to pay it off once her work was finished.” She looked at Hera. “Her own words, not mine. I believe she may have meant to overthrow you, as well. Perhaps you should give her to me,” Nyx almost purred the words, her attention returning to Juno, her gaze almost greedy in its intensity, “so she may pay off her debt to me.”
“No,” Hera said flatly. “While I have little doubt you could take her here and now, with or without my permission, I will not consent to it.”
Nyx nodded, and her expression flickered from disappointed to gleeful, her pout turning quickly into a wide smile. “Then I transfer the debt she owes me to Talia Redowl.”
I actually felt the onus of Juno’s owed debt settle onto me like a mantle, bringing with it comprehension and understanding. It gave me profound power over Juno, the ability to make her do pretty much anything I wanted her to do, one time. I flinched and shuddered, my eyes widening as I stared at Nyx. “Wh-what?”
Hades turned on Nyx. “What have you done?”
Nyx beamed up at him. “Shifted the balance of power.” She looked at me. “The question is, what will young Pluto do with such leverage? Hm?”
I could tell Juno to die, and her heart would stop beating. That was the intensity and size of the power I had just been given over her. What was Nyx that she could have so much power over someone, just for having made a deal with them. I suddenly understood just why Eos and Danae had been afraid of her.
“Pluto…Talia…” Hera said, quietly and gently, “help me end this without more bloodshed.”
I glanced at Hades, who nodded slightly. Then I looked up at Juno. “Juno, drop your swords and surrender to Hera.” I felt the weight of the power Nyx had laid on me flow away, gasping in relief as it faded.
Juno’s hands opened convulsively, her short swords clattering on the marble floor. “No…” she whispered. “No, this is…it’s not…I haven’t…”
Hera reached forward and plucked the choker from around Juno’s neck. “Juno, my daughter, my Avatar…I take from you your title and position. I strip from you your powers and responsibilities.”
Juno stared at her in shock. “M-mother?”
Hera sighed. “Yes, I am your mother. And I should have seen the signs decades ago, at the very least. You are tired, daughter, and overwrought. It’s long past time for you to retire.” She reached out and took hold of Juno’s unresisting arm. “We’re going home. There is much you still need to tell me about this series of…events. Come along.”
And just like that, they were gone. Nyx gave me a warm smile and an approving nod as she glided back and silently vanished into the shadows again without a word.
Zeus and Hades stared at the spot where she’d been, then looked at one another with expressions of identical consternation and concern.
I popped the Orichalcum bullet out of Cerberus, lowered the gun into my lap, then laid it down beside me and gave Mel a thumb’s up. “Quick thinking, Mel!”
She sank into the remains of my desk chair and laid the empty little revolver on my desk. “I didn’t trust myself to do it. I was too scared.”
“That’s all right, daughter,” Hades said proudly. “You did very well to get the gun, while Zeus and I went to get Hera.” He knelt beside me. “You did very well as well, my Avatar.” He eased his arms behind my back and under my knees, and picked me up carefully. “Come, let’s get you back to the infirmary. You’re bleeding, and you look a little dazed.”
“She kicked me in the head,” I said, trying to make it sound like a joke. I think it just came out sounding tired and pained.
“Hard head,” Zeus said approvingly, moving to walk beside us. “Thank you for not killing her, Pluto. You had every right to do so, and had her dead to rights.”
“That didn’t make it the right thing to do,” I said, feeling unbelievably weary. “I try not to kill unless I have no other choice.” I held the little bullet out to him. “Someone should take custody of this.”
Zeus smiled gently. “Then a weapon like Cerberus is in the right hands.” He took the bullet from me and handed it to Melinoë, surprising both of us. “Keep this safe, in case she ever needs it.” He opened the infirmary door for us and stepped inside.
“Did I hear gunshots?” Michel asked, standing warily by his desk.
“You did,” Hades reported, “but no one was actually shot. Your patient, however, has suffered a relapse.”
“What the hell happened?” Michel asked, directing Hades to put me back on the bed I’d vacated barely a day and a half earlier.
“Juno came to say hi,” I said, reaching out and meeting Eos’s hand halfway.
“Your wound opened up again,” Michel said in frustration, quickly cutting away the bandages. “It seems to be closing already though…and why do you have blood on your side?”
“She kicked me. Beautiful kick,” I said, laying back and closing my eyes. “Then she kicked me in the head. After she grazed my side with her sword.”
“Then open your eyes back up,” Michel said firmly. “You might have a concussion.”
It felt like it took more effort than it really warranted to get my eyelids to open again.
“What were we talking about before we were interrupted, Hades?” Zeus asked as they moved to stand at the foot of the bed. “I agree. They’ve definitely earned some vacation time.” He smiled when he saw my fingers twined together with Eos’s. “Together, I’d say.”
“I’m glad you agree, brother,” Hades said with a nod.
“Just as soon as I say they’re well enough to go!” Michel said sharply, cleaning my wound. “Someone get me an icepack, please, and something to clean her side with.”
“Coming!” Mel’s voice said from the other side of the room.
I smiled in spite of my pain and weariness. I had the best friends in the whole world.