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Chapter 25

As Apollo gently carried Ceres up to the big double doors at the top of the wide, rough stone stairs, I realized that something about the enormous tree-palace had changed since the last time I saw it. Even though it was definitely winter in Demeter’s realm, not all of the leaves had fallen. Instead, many had turned black and clung to the limbs instead of dropping.

Other limbs were completely bare, and had withered, growing thin and twisted. The ivy that wove its way around the trunk had grown thick and thorny, and a dark, moss-like growth had spread over the edges of the stairs and up the base of the trunk.

I shivered. Something was very wrong here.

Apollo walked up the stairs carefully, avoiding the unpleasant looking moss and thorn-laden vines. He and Ceres spoke quietly together for a moment – too quietly for the rest of us us to hear – then Apollo bent so that Ceres could reach the door. She brushed her fingers over the door, then pressed her palm flat against it and seemed to push.

Nothing happened.

Ceres made a frustrated noise. “It won’t open! She’s barred the doors against even me.”

Zeus grunted. “It won’t be easy opening those doors. Perhaps we can -”

With a growl, Hades strode up the stairs, and death walked with him. I felt the cold power radiating off of him, colder even than the chill air around us that we barely felt. His cold was not a physical one.

The thorny vines and moss growing up the stairs and onto the trunk of the tree blackened and withered as he passed.

“Hades,” Zeus said, starting up the stairs after him.

“No, brother,” Hades growled. “Demeter always wanted death to be part of her domain…and in truth, death can never truly be barred from the domain of nature, whether she likes it or not.”

Apollo quickly backed away as Hades reached the top of the stairs and strode boldly to the doors, his boots thudding heavily on the stone stairs. Hades stretched out his right hand as he reached the doors, and pressed it against them, in much the same way Ceres had. The solid-looking wooden doors groaned heavily, the iron bars holding them together shrieked in protest…

And then the iron rusted, and the wood rotted. The doors shuddered, buckled, and collapsed into decaying splinters.

Suddenly I understood why Hecate’s antics never seemed to bother Hades at all.

“Holy crap,” Eos whispered. “I thought my dad was powerful…”

“It’s a different kind of power,” I murmured back, “but no less huge.”

“Obviously,” Eos whispered in an awed voice.

Hades stood in the open doorway for a moment, his shoulders rising and falling as he reined in his anger. I could feel his emotions roiling in the back of my mind, and realized for the first time just how much he had attenuated the connection between us to preserve my privacy and his.

I shivered a little.

He turned to face us. “Come, let us go in.”

Zeus nodded and walked the rest of the way up the stairs. “Yes. Come along, everyone.”

We all followed.

I let go of Eos’s hand as we climbed the steps and hurried to catch up with Hades, almost having to break into a jog to do so he was taking such long strides. I caught up with him in the entry hall, which I dismissed for the moment. “Sir?”

He paused and looked down at me in surprise, almost growling. “What is it, Pluto?” His anger rolled off him, almost a tangible force that very nearly pushed me back a step. But I didn’t move.

I lowered my voice so that hopefully he’d be the only one to hear me. “Sir, I don’t think you should rush into this. I can feel how agitated you are.”

Hades narrowed his eyes and his brows drew down in a frown nearly as thunderous-looking as Zeus when he’s in a mood. I could almost hear the words that were about to emerge from his mouth, as if they were already in my mind. Angry words about not needing the advice of a stripling demigod.

I didn’t flinch. I deactivated my helmet, straightened my shoulders, and met his eyes calmly and firmly. I concentrated on maintaining my self-control, on breathing slowly and steadily, on not reacting to his anger and turmoil.

On being calm.

The room around us was silent.

After a long moment the dark emotions roiling off of him into my mind eased and calmed. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. He lifted his hands and rested them gently on my shoulders, and when his eyes opened again they were calm and…not collected, but at least they were no longer dark with fury. The turmoil was still there, but it was gone from my mind, and back under control.

“You are quite right, Talia,” He said calmly. “Quite right indeed. Thank you very much.”

So, the bond between god and Avatar did go both ways. Perhaps there were other, practical uses for it beyond giving us knowledge and using us as mouthpieces.

I relaxed a little. Immediate crisis passed.

The entry hall – now that I had a moment to look at it without being afraid that my boss was going to just start blasting his way through walls – continued the giant tree motif. The floor and walls looked like they’d been carved straight into the huge old tree we’d seen outside, displaying the bands of thousands of rings in the visible cross-section of wood. Many more than I could hope to count. If this was a real tree, it was immesurably old.

Maybe even the ‘first’ tree? I suspected it was more of a metaphysical representation of all trees, considering the variety of leaves growing on its limbs.

The hall was lit by a diffuse – but surprisingly penetrating – glow shed by a variety of bio-luminescent plants and mosses growing on the walls and ceiling. There were no decorations, nor any indication of which way to go, except for three tunnels opening off of the room at regular intervals.

Zeus turned as Apollo carried Ceres in. “Ceres, can you guide us to Demeter’s throne room from here?”

Ceres nodded. “Yes, sir. As long as she hasn’t scrambled the halls.”

“That’s a charming thought,” Danae muttered as she stopped beside me. “Nice job with Hades there, little sister.”

I gave her a wan smile. “Someone had to do something. I suspected I might be the only person he’d listen to in that state.”

“Not a bad thought,” Eos said, coming up on my other side and taking my hand again. “I was a little worried he was about to do to you what he did to that door.”

I shook my head firmly. “He wouldn’t have, even if he’d been completely out of his mind with anger. He just needed help centering himself under the circumstances.”

Ceres suddenly pointed down the right-hand corridor. “She’s moved things around, but I can still sense her throne. It’s down that way.”

Zeus nodded firmly and took the lead. “Come on then. Ceres, please let us know which way to go.”

“Yes, sir.”

We made our way deeper into Demeter’s palace, following Ceres’ instructions…turn left here, turn right here. The place was like a maze, most likely because she wanted to keep us out.

Which was not going to work out well for her in the long run. Hades was fuming, and Zeus was growing annoyed with the rather obvious delaying tactic. Hades had already demonstrated the extent of his power once – though I was still trying to suss that one out – and Zeus wasn’t somebody to toy with like this under the best of circumstances. If they both got fed up, bad things might start to happen.

Heck, if one of them got fed up, the other was likely to follow their lead at this point. I could tell through our bond that Hades wasn’t nearly as calm as he appeared to be on the surface. It wouldn’t take much to make him boil over again.

Fortunately, before either of them could snap, Ceres spoke up. “This door on the right, I think this is her throne room.”

We all clustered around the wide wooden door for a moment before Zeus rather incongruously decided to knock. Three sharp raps.

Hera put a hand over her face. Poseidon gave Zeus a look of utter disbelief, and Apollo looked like he wanted to shove his father aside and burn the door to ash. He might have, if he weren’t still cradling Ceres in his arms.

Hades stared at Zeus. “Really?”

Zeus shrugged. “Last chance to be polite. Figured I should take it.”

An unfamiliar woman’s voice said, very clearly, “Go away!”

Eos and I exchanged astonished looks.

“Seriously?” She whispered.

I shrugged.

“Sister,” Hera said, not-so-gently nudging Zeus and Hades out of the way so she could step up to the door, “we know what you did to Ceres and have freed her from the torture you put her through. We also know that you have Persephone trapped in there. Open the door, and let’s talk.”

“You don’t get to talk to me, you treacherous old crone,” Demeter’s voice spat from the door. That was nasty insult to hurl at the goddess of marriage…but conspicuously not of motherhood. From the way the air seemed to thin and the half step back the other elder gods took, it hit a nerve. “I heard through the grapevine what happened with your daughter. Have you imprisoned her, as well as stripping her of her power? Is that what you intend for -”

“That is enough!” Hera barked, her voice snapping like a whip. The force of her anger actually caused one of the door’s planks to crack with a sharp pop. She took a deep breath and let it out. “Demeter, you have brought this on yourself. Open the door, or we will open it by force.”

“Open it by force, and I will kill Persephone,” Demeter replied smugly.

I had already begun to question Demeter’s sanity enough that I believed she might, which made me shiver.

Hades, to my shock, actually laughed. It was a bitter sound, but a laugh none the less. “No you won’t,” he scoffed. “Even if you could bear the thought, that’s the most toothless threat I’ve ever heard. If you did kill her, where do you think she would go?!

He was right, of course. Demeter had undoubtedly kept Persephone alive, if trapped, because to do otherwise would have allowed her soul to return to Hades…which was where she’d want to be anyway.

With a growl that shook the air around him, Hades stepped forward and the door – and several inches of the wooden walls and floor around it – decayed. Unlike the front door, it happened so suddenly that the affected wood blackened and crumbled so quickly that it seemed like one moment they were solid, and the next moment Hades was striding angrily through the cloud of fine dust that been wood an instant earlier.

“Oh hell,” Zeus muttered, hurrying after his brother. The rest of us followed as quickly as possible.

Demeter’s throne room rather reminded me of Hades’. It was a huge hall, carved – like the rest of her palace that we’d seen so far – out of the natural wood of the giant tree. There were columns at regular intervals leading from the door Hades had just opened with extreme prejudice all the way to the carved wood throne at the far end of the room.

Demeter was there at her throne, just rising from it as we hurried into the room behind Hades. But at that moment, I had no attention to spare for her. My eyes were instead riveted on what stood in the center of the huge chamber: A giant cluster of crystals, ranging in size from small ones about two feet tall around the base of the cluster, to a single huge hexagonal crystal – at least ten feet tall – that came to a sharp point at the top.

Persephone – I assumed it was her, at least – was held motionless within the cluster of crystals like an insect fossilized in amber. She appeared to have been trapped in the middle of turning to run, caught in an awkward pose with one leg back, arms out a bit, her long, golden-brown hair swirling about her head. She was wearing an outfit similar to the one I’d seen Juno in: a sleeveless, floor-length Greek dress in white, slit to the hip on one side. She wore a bronze breastplate over it, with matching bracers on her wrists, a belt of finely woven gold rope around her waist, and a circlet of golden ivy leaves in her hair.

Hades was beside the crystal with his hands pressed against it before the rest of us made it all the way into the room. “Persephone…”

The anguish in his voice and thoughts almost drove me to my knees. But I saw Demeter approaching out of the corner of my eyes, and…I did what might have been the single dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

I took a quick step and Skipped the intervening distance, placing myself between her and the crystal as I drew Cerberus and shifted it into its spear form. I pointed the blade at her and snapped, “Not another step!”

The completely rational part of my mind – currently crammed all the way in the back with no say in my actions whatsoever – noted that I was probably about to die and hoped that Hades would see fit to let Eos visit my soul, wherever it ended up.

The rest of my brain was busy wondering if Cerberus’ blade was sharp enough to penetrate a god’s skin, and if not did I have any ammunition on me that might hurt her enough to slow her down.

Jupiter appeared on my right, holding an almost blindingly bright bolt of lightning. That didn’t surprise me.

But I was shocked to notice Minerva and Vulcan appear on my left, brandishing their weapons.

“Demeter,” Vulcan said steadily, “please stand down. Do not make us hurt you.”

“More importantly,” Hera’s voice said behind me, “do not make Zeus, Poseidon and I act against you. Pluto, your actions in defense of your patron are noble, but foolhardy. Stand aside, and let us deal with this.”

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Hera standing directly behind me, flanked by Zeus and Poseidon. Behind them, Hades still stood with his hands against the crystal prison, while Athena and Hermes appeared to be examining it.

Apollo approached, still carrying Ceres, who said in a very gentle voice, “Please, Mistress. You’ve done enough harm for long enough. Please, let this go. Let Persephone go. There is much in nature that you have -”

Demeter made a slashing gesture with her hand, and something slammed against an invisible shield a few inches in front of Apollo.

He glared at her. “Did you think I would be so foolish as to approach unprotected, Auntie?”

Demeter made a disgusted noise in her throat, and the rational part of my brain finally began to register her appearance. She looked…old. Withered and aged in a way that none of the other gods looked, her shoulders stooped as if by a heavy weight. Her hair was shades of gray, slightly wavy, lank, and unwashed. She wore a gown of green, brown and gold that must once have been beautiful and rich, but was now faded, threadbare, and tattered at the wrists and floor.

Her eyes passed over me, glaring briefly. She ignored Jupiter and Minerva, paused for a moment on Vulcan, then focused past us. Yeah, it was probably wisest to get out of the way.

“Your defense of Hades and support of one another does you all credit, but you should move now, children,” Hera said softly.

We did. Jupiter and I went right, Minerva and Vulcan went left, clearing the way post-haste.

Hades took center stage, then, having left the crystal. He stopped where I’d been a moment earlier, Zeus on his right, Hera and Poseidon on his left.

“Demeter,” he said in a quiet, dangerously angry voice, “you and I have always had differing views, but once we were two sides of the same coin. We worked together to create balance -”

“Until you stole my daughter from me!” Demeter shrieked. Wind rose up around her, tugging at her gown and making her hair fly wildly.

“Hades didn’t steal your daughter, sister,” Zeus said in a weary tone. “They love one another as truly and deeply as any couple I’ve ever seen.”

“Love,” Demeter said dismissively, disgusted. “What does the God of Death know of love? Death cannot know love. Love is life and growth -”

“I know enough to know that love isn’t what this is really about,” Hades interrupted her softly. “This is about control. Possession. Fear. Fear of being left alone.” He clenched his fists and fixed his eyes on Demeter. “Death is a part of life. Death defines life. But it’s something that you don’t control, that you can’t control, and that nobody can avoid. And it can leave a void in its wake that takes time to fill again.

“Even gods can die,” Hades continued, inexorable and unstoppable now that he’d begun, “and when they do they come to me, and they stay with me. My presence, my reality, was perfectly acceptable to you from a distance. Keeping populations in check, ending suffering, clearing the way for new life to replace the old.” He pointed an accusing finger at her. “But when I got close to someone you cherished, that you couldn’t stand to be parted from…that’s when it became too much, too real.” He lowered his hand and took a breath, his fury radiating off of him so strongly that it almost staggered me. “Perhaps it’s time for me to show you what death truly means…”

The withering cold radiating off of him expanded, and I almost felt drawn forward by it. As his Avatar, that aura was as much a part of me now as it was of him…and I had done everything I could to blind myself to that. I had even ‘saved’ those closest to me who had been touched by death from feeling its full embrace. But, as Hades had implied, he – and by extension I – played a critical, vital part in the continued growth of life.

I almost stepped forward to join him in his confrontation. The only thing that kept me from doing so was Eos taking firm hold of my arm and pulling me back as she retreated from Hades’ aura. Mother and Hermes were still examining the crystal prison, but Apollo had retreated from Hades’ aura as well, and was passing Ceres into Vulcan’s arms.

The other elder gods remained steadfast. But were they being supportive, or trying to figure out how to stop what was about to happen?

And suddenly, something in my head clicked into place. Pieces came together and formed a whole, and something that hadn’t made sense suddenly did. I knew what Demeter had done.

I pulled my arm from Eos’ grasp and – in one smooth, practiced motion – swung around, shifted Cerberus into its rifle form and pulled a magazine of armor piercing rounds from a pouch on my belt. I slapped the magazine home, worked the bolt, lifted the rifle to my shoulder, and fired.

Persephone’s crystal prison shattered.