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Chapter 24

I’ve spent many hours – sometimes even days – waiting for something to happen. It goes with the business, as some would say, of tracking things down. For every minute of crazed, energetic, adrenaline-fueled violent excitement, there are a hundred minutes of patient investigation and surveillance. And in spite of Ceres’s assurance that Demeter wouldn’t miss her until at least March – a month and a half away – I was a little bit nervous.

We had, after all, effectively just kidnapped an Avatar. Granted, we’d brought her to a doctor and two gods whose portfolios included medicine and healing, and we’d done it for the very best of reasons…but still. If Demeter woke up and missed her, we’d be in quite a bit of trouble.

Well…I suppose having Zeus and Hades in the room with us mitigated at least some of that. Athena joined us after a few minutes to round out our sextet…three gods and three Avatars.

It still made for some of the longest hours of my life to date. Eos, Danae and I took turns telling our patrons about our experience in Demeter’s woods and our retrieval of Ceres. When we finished, Zeus, Hades and Athena spent a half an hour clustered together in one corner of the room, talking quietly amongst themselves.

Then…we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Mel brought in drinks and I was a little surprised when Zeus passed up the offer of several dangerously alcoholic drinks in favor of soda. He noticed my surprised look and winked, lifting his glass of cola as he smiled. “Hera has been on my case about drinking too much.”

Eos snorted into her drink.

And we waited.

We’d been there for almost eight hours when the door opened and Apollo entered quietly, closing the door behind him. He stopped and look at us, and I thought it was the first time I’d ever seen him without a smile on his face. His golden skin seemed pale, and his long hair had been pulled back into a loose pony tail.

Zeus rose. “How is she?”

“She’ll be…fine, in time,” Apollo said quietly. “For now, she’s sleeping.” He looked at me. “You did a good thing, Pluto, bringing Michel on as a doctor for the Avatars. He is superbly talented. It took all three of us to remove the ivy from Ceres’s body.”

“But she’s free of it?” I asked.

Apollo nodded. “Only her collar now binds her to Demeter, and it’s the older style, from before Persephone redesigned them,” he nodded to Hades, who stood beside my chair. “It was a fairly simple matter to isolate it and attenuate Demeter’s control over her.” He smiled mirthlessly. “One reason the redesign was so necessary at the time. And yet, we’ve come so far since that most of us never use those abilities anymore.”

Hades nodded a little. “Persephone showed us the way.” He rested a hand on my shoulder. “Even if it took some of us longer to find out way than others. Will Ceres be all right now?”

“Until Demeter comes for her,” Apollo said, then turned dark eyes on Zeus. “Tell me we’re going to do something about this, Father. She has abused the Avatar bond to an extent never seen before, and has violated my daughter’s free will, mind and body, beyond anything any of us ever did. Even at our most self-centered and petty, we never hurt our Avatars like this.”

I almost said something about Aphrodite and Circe, but decided not to. It wasn’t the time.

Zeus folded his arms and frowned thunderously. “Unfortunately, Demeter is – by our own laws – free to do with her Avatar as she pleases. We can have a word with her about such treatment, but we are not free to act beyond that.”

As he was speaking, the door opened and Michel wheeled a groggy-looking Ceres in in a wheelchair, followed by Hermes. “What if I gave you cause to do so?” Ceres asked.

Apollo turned. “Daughter, you should be resting!”

“I am,” she gestured to the chair weakly. “They wouldn’t even let me try to stand up by myself yet.”

It looked like she was having trouble coordinating her own body. Come to think of it, she might’ve been, after what had been done to her. I shuddered, and Eos squeezed my hand tightly.

Apollo looked like he was going to protest, but Hermes came forward and touched his arm. “You need to hear what she has to say. You all do,” he added, looking around at the rest of us. “In fact, you might want to get Hera and Poseidon here too.”

Zeus’s eyes widened slightly, but he nodded and glanced over at Melinoë. She already had her cell phone out and was dialing.

A minute later, Hera appeared beside her husband, looked around at us, then focused her attention on Ceres. “Can someone fill me in quickly?”

Zeus murmured something in her ear and she nodded. “I see. Very well, I can wait.”

Mel resumed dialing. The next call took longer for some reason, but Poseidon – looking rather grumpy – arrived in short order. He tapped the end of his trident on the floor, his curly, blue-green beard bristling. “Now that I’m here, let’s get a quick summary.”

“Demeter wired Ceres up with super-ivy that was controlling her above and beyond her Avatar collar. Apollo, Hermes and Michel just spent eight hours removing it. Ceres is about to tell us why the gods have cause to censure Demeter,” Eos said. “That’s the short version. I left some things out.”

Hera smiled faintly and nodded to her. “The soul of brevity, as always. Thank you, dear.” She returned her attention to Ceres. “Speak, child.”

Ceres looked around at us, then turned her eyes on Hades. She took a deep breath and said in a shaky voice, “Demeter has Persephone sealed in a crystal trap in her audience chamber. She put the crystal there about fifteen hundred years ago, and it was still there when I did a sweep of the palace right after Demeter went to bed in December.”

The room was literally so silent you could’ve heard a pin drop. I know this for a fact because Melinoë, in her usual way, pulled one out of her hair and dropped it to see. I heard the little ‘tink’ sound as it hit the marble floor clearly.

There was a soft popping and creaking sound from close to me, and it took me a moment to realize that it was Hades, clenching and unclenching his fists. His eyebrows were drawn down in a ferocious scowl, his skin darkened with a flush of rage the likes of which I’d never seen before.

Then the light fixtures along the walls flickered and dimmed, the whole room reacting to his anger. In spite of the dimming light, shadows lengthened and grew sinister as the anger of the Underworld’s master grew.

“We must go cautiously now,” Hera said, holding out a hand to stop him from moving. “We don’t know that Demeter -”

“I was there,” Ceres said softly. “When Demeter captured her. She used the crystal trap – I don’t know what it is – to sever Persephone’s connection to the world and the flow of time.”

Hera opened her mouth, then closed it again.

Hades was breathing heavily now, and I could feel his anger as if it were my own. It radiated off of him like a tangible thing. In my own way, I shared it…Persephone had been a sister Avatar, my own predecessor, and by all accounts a kind and gentle person. Doing such a thing to her was unspeakable. For her own mother to have done it was…there are no words.

One of the lights on the wall – which appeared to be an old fashioned torch – suddenly burst with a pop and went out completely. There was a soft creaking sound that I suddenly realized was the walls and floor groaning under the pressure of Hades’ anger.

“I am going to…to…” Hades flexed his hands again, growled, and started towards the door.

Athena moved quickly across the room and placed a hand against Hades’s chest. “If I may borrow a bit of wisdom from my Chinese colleagues…’If you go seeking revenge, dig two graves.’”

Before she could add more, Hades growled, “I have no shortages of graves here, Athena, and I will fill them all if need be, to bring Persephone home.”

“Calm yourself,” Athena continued, as if he hadn’t interrupted her, “and we will decide – together – how to proceed. I trust we all agree that action must be taken.”

She didn’t look around as she said it, but everyone – gods and Avatars alike – nodded and murmured their agreement.

Ceres was crying, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. “I’m so, so sorry, Hades. I loved Persephone like a sister. All of the Avatars did. I kept trying to find ways to come and tell you, but Demeter bound me and…” She made a weak flailing gesture with both hands, then covered her face and sobbed quietly.

Hades calmed visibly, his expression melting from rage to sorrow. The smothering pressure in the room faded as the lights and shadows returned to normal.

He carefully moved Athena aside and strode across the room, sinking to one knee in front of Ceres’s wheelchair. “Dear girl,” he said softly, taking her hands gently and pulling them from her face. “It is we who should apologize to you.” He looked around, focusing on his fellow gods as he did. “We should have looked in on Demeter, forced her to speak to us, before now.”

“It is no longer our way,” Zeus said quietly, “to interfere in one another’s affairs. A long time ago, we caused many problems by doing so.” He lowered his eyes. “Perhaps we should learn to make exceptions so as to avoid making problems by not doing so.”

Hera gave him a flat look. “Do come down off your throne, husband mine, and open your eyes. You might’ve stopped interfering in the matters of the other gods, but the rest of us never really did. True, we all eased back, but just ask Athena how well the gods stay out of one another’s business.”

Mom made a little noise in the back of her throat. “She’s not wrong,” she said carefully. “Though I’d prefer to say the gods have learned to work together – as you and Hades have, Zeus – rather than meddling. We’ve even learned to work peacefully with the gods of other pantheons.”

I quietly interjected, “Like the deals Hades has worked out with Yaweh to help with management of our respective afterlives…” I fell silent as Mother gave me her patented ‘You’re not helping’ look.

“Demeter is,” Mother continued, “the exception to the rule. And it’s the rule – our agreement not to meddle – that has kept us from learning the unfortunate truth of this matter sooner.” She pursed her lips. “It’s a shame that it took two thousand years to reach this point.”

Poseidon cleared his throat. “Perhaps, as immortals, we simply mature more slowly than mortals.” He gave Zeus a long, dry look. “Much more slowly.”

All of us turned to look at Ceres, who was sitting in her wheelchair, her hands still cupped in Hades’s much larger ones. “Please,” Ceres said softly, “please help me…”

Zeus straightened. “Of course we will, child. Don’t be foolish. You shouldn’t even have had to ask.” He frowned. “It’s long past time I started taking responsibility for the management of this pantheon again.”

“Again?” Hera asked, one corner of her lips curling up into a small smile.

Zeus cleared his throat and actually looked sheepish for a moment. “In general?”

“More like ‘finally’ husband,” Hera shook her head. “Still, it’s the correct sentiment. Come, shall we see to our wayward sister?”

“Indeed,” Zeus said.

“Is it just me,” Eos said in a tight voice, glaring at her father, “or is it pretty screwed up when the real issue here isn’t ‘Hey, we were wrong for not checking on things,’ but rather that you,” she gestured in an arc with one hand, taking in all of the gods present, “created yet another system where you could treat ‘lesser’ beings as disposable tools to literally do with as you please.”

I thought she looked a little nauseous as she finished, and wondered just how hard that had been for her.

Zeus rocked back on his heels a bit and looked startled. Hera, Athena and Hades all looked thoughtful. Poseidon gave her a disgusted look, and I thought Apollo and Hermes both looked uneasy.

After a moment, Zeus cleared his throat. “We will discuss this later, daughter. Poseidon, Hades, we will need your aid to do this thing. Athena, Apollo, Hermes, will you and the Avatars join us as well please?”

Poseidon nodded gruffly, but a small smile appeared in his beard. “You said please, so this must be a serious situation. Yes, certainly. This is long overdue. Demeter has many responsibilities to the world – and my oceans – that she has long let fall to the wayside.”

Hades rose, also nodding. “Of course. We’ll need Ceres to show us the way into Demeter’s palace once we locate it…”

Michel looked like he was going to protest, but Ceres quickly said, “Of course, sir. I’ll be very glad to. If someone can just…” she gestured to herself and her chair.

“I’ll take her,” Apollo said quietly, and took the handles on the back of her chair.

Michel sighed and stepped back. “Yes, sir. Just…try to bring her back here quickly. She needs a lot of rest to recover, and we need to work out a physical therapy regimen to help her regain her strength…”

Hermes laid a hand on his son’s shoulder and gently pulled him back, murmuring, “She’ll be fine for a bit. I’ll keep an eye on her too.”

Michel looked sheepish. “Sorry.”

Ceres gave Michel a warm smile. “I’ll be back soon, doctor, I promise.”

“I’ll see to it personally,” Apollo reassured Michel, grim-faced and serious. “My daughter and I also have a score to settle with Demeter on this matter.”

“Thank you,” Michel said meekly.

Hera suddenly grabbed Zeus’s arm. “Husband…do I correctly understand your purpose in this trip?”

Everyone froze and stared at them. After a moment, Hades’ eyes widened. “Brother…”

Zeus held up a hand. “No. Say nothing yet. What you are both thinking may not be necessary. But the fact that it may be is why I asked Poseidon and the others to join us.”

I thought Hera looked pale, and Hades looked grim…which, admittedly, wasn’t all that unusual for him. After a moment, Poseidon grunted and nodded, but said nothing, and Mother’s eyes widened in comprehension.

“Oh,” was all Athena had to say. I’d never seen her speechless before.

A shiver of apprehension ran through me from head to toe. What was about to happen?

Zeus turned to face all of us. “It is time for all of us -”

Hera made a disgusted noise. “Enough, husband. This group needs no speeches, nor will they be particularly awed by your grandiose gestures. Let’s just go.”

Eos moved closer to me and took my hand. I squeezed it and made a mental note to talk to her about what she’d said once this was over. I didn’t disagree with her, but I rather got the impression that finally admitting the truth of it had hurt her deeply.

Zeus cleared his throat. “Ah…yes. Sorry. Right then. Pluto, if you would be so kind as to give Hades the reference point…”

“Of course,” I said, and pictured in my mind – as clearly as I could, with as much detail as I could remember – the clearing we’d arrived at when we went to rescue Ceres. I envisioned all of the different types of trees, the snow-covered ground, even the Yeti we’d killed when they assaulted us.

Hades nodded. “I have it. Thank you, Talia.” He turned to Zeus. “Perhaps it would be best for you to take us there, brother. Demeter long ago banned me from her domain, and I sincerely doubt that I can travel there or bring anyone with me if I could.”

Their eyes met, and Zeus nodded. “Of course. No doubt it will take someone of my power to get you there. Is everyone ready?”

I thought Hera made a disgusted noise, and Apollo was starting to look almost as tightly wound as Hades.

The only sound that broke the silence was Eos, Danae and I activating our helmets. Just in case.

I expected…I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this. Rather than the pop of forcefully relocated air or the effortless ease of a major deity stepping from one plane to the next what happened was…nothing, but with extra rumbling.

“She’s barred us all from her realm,” Zeus muttered thunderously. “She’s awake and she knows we’re coming.” He wore an expression of concentration under his golden laurel and the air felt…greasy and charged as he forced his will against the very walls of another god’s domain.

Off to one side, I heard a frustrated snort from Apollo and saw his knuckles whiten on the handles of Ceres’ wheelchair.

Zeus frowned and cast Hades a look that expressed what his divine pride wouldn’t let him give voice to: that he needed help. Looking a bit surprised, Hades placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder and lent the strength of the very realm we stood in to help. Whatever they were doing, it was clearly requiring a lot of force. Once again, the walls and floor seemed to groan quietly.

“Enough,” Apollo said, before taking his hands from the wheelchair and making a gesture like the flicking of reigns.

There was a blinding burst of light, and without even the faintest hint of movement we were suddenly in Demeter’s realm, in the center of a scorched patch of dead grass and wilted flowers. Instead of the handles of Ceres’ wheelchair, Apollo now held the reigns of a fiery golden chariot. Two horses…or, rather, horse shaped blobs of blazing solar ejecta…stood calmly, pawing idly at the sun-blasted ground. Ceres herself was now sitting, wide-eyed, on a low bench in the front of the chariot.

Zeus was…well…thunderstruck. He stared at the lesser god in incomprehension. Hera, Poseidon and Athena were watching Apollo with similar expressions, and even Hades looked non-plussed.

“You don’t have the power to force your way in here,” Zeus said. “How did -?”

Apollo gestured at the sliver of light visible through the clouds in the western sky. “Not everything is power and brute force, Father. Where that goes…” and again, he indicated the cloud-shrouded disk of the sun sinking toward the horizon, “this goes,” and he patted his chariot. “By definition, I am invited. Now, can we get this over with?” He stepped down from the chariot and carefully lifted his daughter in his arms. “If you’re feeling put out and you want to flex, pull Demeter’s great sulking castle up out of the ground and go kick in her door.”

Everyone was silent for a long moment.

Family though they all were, and even some of them friends, there was still an Order of Things…things that simply Were Not Done. One of them was showing up the King of Olympus from what amounted to the divine cheap seats. That was a good way to get yourself smote.

Then, to my astonishment, Hades actually smiled, however grimly. “Well, little brother?” he asked, gesturing to the empty ground ahead, “Shall we old folks go and find a door to kick in?”

Nobody ever gives any thought to the fact that Zeus was the last of the elder gods to be birthed…and one gets the feeling that it isn’t the sort of thing that’s wise to bring up in his company. By including himself – along with Zeus and the other elder gods – as the target of Apollo’s fiery comment, Hades deftly spread out the inherent insult and made it easier to countenance. Perhaps that was Persephone’s influence showing through.

To his credit, possibly for the first time in recorded history, Zeus genuinely swallowed his pride. His expression shifted from astonishment to mirth with only the briefest flash of anger.

“Yes, I suppose we shall…” he said with a hint of a chuckle. Though his voice held a slight edge that suggested there would be a long discussion to come. “Brothers, wife…if you would be so kind as to assist?”

They nodded and stepped forward, forming a line with Hades on Zeus’s left, Hera and Poseidon on his right.

There was a sudden sense of tremendous pressure in the clearing…that’s the only way I can explain what I felt. It was as if something had turned its attention on the immediate area in such a profound way that I could actually feel it pressing on me. Not from any direction in particular…but from all directions, like I was standing in a bubble that was slowly compressing on me.

Vulcan grunted and Danae nodded a little, and after a moment Eos gasped softly. I felt like my knees were about to give out…until Mother’s hand came to rest on my shoulder, and the sensation vanished. She rested her other hand on Eos’s shoulder, while Hermes moved to stand between Vulcan and Danae and took their arms gently.

“What -?” I started to ask.

“Shh,” Mother whispered. “Let them concentrate.”

Oh. Oh wow. Right. Gods. Yikes. How had Circe ever thought she’d be able to challenge Aphrodite? Of course, Aphrodite wasn’t as powerful as Zeus, Hera, Hades or Poseidon individually, let alone all of them together, but still. And all they were doing was concentrating their power to locate something hidden from them. And yet, she’d almost pulled it off…

Because as Apollo, in his wisdom, had demonstrated only a few moments earlier, cunning and guile can out-match raw power.

I forcefully cleared my mind of clutter, setting these things aside to ponder at a later time.

There was a sudden rumble from the ground ahead of us. With the sound of cracking stone and shifting soil, the massive tree I remembered seeing as Demeter’s palace broke through and shot upward. In moments, it stood there as if it had never been hidden, and even the ground around it appeared undisturbed.

“Take me to the doors,” Ceres said quietly, “and I’ll open them.”

Apollo nodded and started forward.

“Come,” Zeus said quietly. “Let us see what awaits us within.”