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Chapter 26

Two things happened then. One surprised me, the other I’d anticipated.

The thing that surprised me was both Demeter and Hades crying out “No!” in one loud, equally anguished disharmony. It was probably the first time they’d seen eye to eye on anything in two thousand years, but they were reacting in the same way for precisely opposite reasons. Which…well, let’s just say it fit their pattern of behavior and move on.

The other thing that happened was – at least to me – predictable. Persephone, freed from her prison, vanished before the crystal had finished shattering and materialized between Hades and Demeter. She turned and held out her hands to stop them from advancing on one another.

“Halt!” she said in such a firm, commanding tone, that both of them froze in place automatically.

I glanced around, and was gratified to see my Mother’s approving smile and nod to me. I’d gotten it right.

“You’re alive,” Hades whispered.

Persephone gave him a look that was affectionately pitying, as if to say that he hadn’t understood anything and she wasn’t surprised. “Of course I’m alive, dear heart. We’ll talk shortly, right now I need to have words with my mother.”

“Persephone, you don’t understand -” Demeter began.

Persephone turned, eyes blazing with anger, and interrupted her. “Shut. Up. You forfeited any right you had to speak to me or try to explain your actions when you imprisoned me, unable to move, speak, or even open my eyes again for almost two thousand years!

“My love -” Hades began.

Persephone rounded on him and held up one finger. “I’m not mad at you, husband, but I am profoundly disappointed. You and I are going to have words about your tendency to sulk and brood instead of taking action. Now back off.”

Hades wisely kept his mouth shut. He simply nodded and actually stepped back slightly.

“So,” Demeter said in an oily tone, “you finally acknowledge that Hades is -”

Persephone turned back to her mother, eyes dangerously narrowed. “Hades is a good man, with a loving heart and enough sense to shut up let his wife fight her own battles.”

“Unless she asks for help,” Hades said quietly, a small smile on his lips.

A matching smile flickered across Persephone’s face. “Unless I ask for help.” She put her hands on her hips and stared at Demeter. “But you never knew when to let go. Hades is right, Mother. It was always about control with you.”

“Yet you bound yourself to him as his Avatar -”

Once again, Persephone interrupted Demeter. “He never tried to control me, Mother. Not even when I voluntarily gave him license to do so. But you could never accept that I had grown up and had a new focus for my life.”

“You abandoned me!” Demeter all but wailed. “You left me to do everything on my own -”

“Mother,” Persephone said wearily, “I found my own good work that needed doing, and there was no task I left that you hadn’t already been doing yourself, or that could have asked your own Avatar to help with. If you had just accepted that I had my own life to lead -”

“Not the life I planned for you!” Demeter cried.

I shifted uncomfortably. I’d read threads on Internet forums about parents who behaved like this. If I remembered correctly, it was referred to as ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder.’

Oh, the irony.

“Believe it or not, Mother, it’s perfectly normal for children to lead their own lives,” Persephone said, obviously already tired of this conversation. “We talked about this more than a dozen times before I finagled my way into being Hades’ Avatar, and probably a dozen more after. You can’t live my life for me or make me live anything other than the life I choose for myself.”

Finagled? How had she learned that word?

“I taught her,” a soft voice whispered in my ear, sending a shiver down my spine.

I almost whipped around before my mother’s quiet voice murmured, “Hello, Nyx. I’m surprised to see you here.”

“There is darkness everywhere, little one,” Nyx purred quietly. “Even behind closed eyelids. Now hush, I don’t want to miss this.”

Zeus cleared his throat. “I do hate to interrupt this family reunion -”

“You broke into my home -” Demeter said over him.

“This is a private matter -” Persephone said at the same time, rounding on Zeus.

SILENCE!” Zeus thundered, and both of them fell silent. He waited a long moment, then nodded. “Thank you. Now, then -”

“I know you feel this is a private matter, Persephone,” Hera said, running roughshod over her husband, “but the side-effects of Demeter’s abandonment of her duties and the harm done to Ceres -”

“Don’t start pretending now that my daughter’s plight played a significant part in bringing us here, catalyst though it may have been,” Apollo said as he carefully passed Ceres into Vulcan’s arms, then approached the others. “We all know what this is really -”

“The damage to the environment has long been a problem I’ve endeavored to bring to your attention,” Poseidon was saying, “for Demeter’s domain borders closely on -”

“This is between me and my mother,” Persephone said, “and the grievance is entirely mine and my husband’s…”

Then the gods all spoke at once, trying – by sheer dint of volume and forcefulness – to take the moral high ground.

Zeus: “Be silent! Everyone, we must -”

Hades: “We all care about the harm done to Ceres and should have noticed -”

Apollo: “Yes, so much so that even I didn’t consider -”

Hera: “Just think of what this environmental damage has done to the poor birds -”

Demeter: “Get out, get out!”

Persephone: “Mother, you can’t -”

“By all the gods in every pantheon,” I heard myself say loudly enough to be heard over the din, “listen to yourselves! You sound like a bunch of squabbling children.”

Everyone rounded on me, and I found myself on the receiving end of an array of looks from bewilderment (Zeus), to anger (Demeter), to amused approval (Persephone). I shrugged. “Well, you do. You can’t even finish your sentences, you’re all so eager to defend your poor choices, inaction and hatred of one another.”

“You go, girl,” Eos whispered encouragingly.

I pointed at Zeus, “You said yourself a little while ago that you hadn’t ever taken proper responsibility for management of your pantheon.”

I turned my finger on Hera, “Your own daughter went mad and you never noticed, but you’re worrying about birds in this situation, when the whole world is in danger? Where are your priorities?”

I swiveled towards Apollo next, “Yes, you should’ve checked up on your daughter, but there should have been a better system for regularly checking up on all of the Avatars, especially after what happened with Circe.”

Astonishing myself, I aimed my finger at Demeter next. “And you, the way you abused your Avatar is unforgivable. And what you did to your own daughter is worthy of the kind of punishments written about in the ancient myths. But the way the Avatar system is set up invites abuse, as evidenced again by Circe’s attempt on Aphrodite’s life.”

I rounded on Hades, almost said something but decided it wasn’t worth it, shook my head and bypassed Persephone – there was nothing to say there – and continued my turn. I spotted Mother picking through the shards of crystal, making a few of them disappear into her robes before rising with one roughly the length and shape of a dagger. She saw me watching, gave me a thumbs-up, and gestured for me to continue.

So I did. My eyes settled on Hermes for a moment – who was carefully sidling towards Danae and Vulcan, probably in case a quick exit was needed for we ‘lesser beings’ if the gods came to blows – before moving on Poseidon. “You…” I hesitated, then shrugged. “I have nothing. You weren’t even involved until today.” I thought about what I’d just said, then added, “Scratch that, I do have something…you weren’t even involved until today, and that’s part of the problem. You could have cared, you could have spoken up or intervened, but you weren’t directly involved so you did nothing.”

Poseidon was smiling faintly. “Hades, I like this girl. She has spirit.”

Hades nodded. “She does, and she’s correct. On all counts.” He sighed. “Clearly, we cannot – should not – be trusted with such a profound level of control over our Avatars. We stepped back from controlling the lives of mortals, for a similar reason – everything we did had repercussions we hadn’t foreseen.”

Apollo cleared his throat.

“Fine,” Hades said, “some of us foresaw them, however dimly. At the very least, it is time for us to once again reassess the Avatar system.”

“There’s value to it,” I said quickly, releasing Eos’s hand and going to stand beside Hades. “A lot of value. But…” I wasn’t sure how to say what was in my mind.

Hades did it for me, resting a hand on my shoulder. “If we can’t trust our Avatars, we don’t deserve them. I, for one, will share my power with and trust mine without reservation.”

Persephone beamed at him.

Zeus looked over at Eos and smiled. “As will I.”

“This is all very well and good, and undoubtedly a conversation we must have and changes that must be made,” Hera said dryly, “but what are we to do with our wayward sister?” She pointed to Demeter, whose expression quickly changed from disgust and anger to uncertainty.

“I don’t -” Demeter began, only to be cut off by Hera.

“I would advise silence, sister,” Hera said coldly. “We know all too well what you did to poor Ceres. And while we are all undeniably responsible for doing nothing to curb the effects of your failure to do your job, that doesn’t change the fact that we are well aware of them.”

Poseidon growled. “None more than I, and I have been working to try and counter the worst impacts of our sister’s gross negligence. Fortunately, some mortals have rallied to my efforts as well, but it is a struggle that we are not winning. Demeter has demonstrated an unwillingness to do her job…even at his worst, when we first thought Persephone dead, Hades never abandoned his work.”

“Thank you,” Hades said dryly.

Mother appeared in my peripheral vision on the edge of Demeter’s low dais. She had her hands clasped carefully behind her back and appeared quite harmless. I was suspicious, especially considering the chunk of crystal I’d seen her select, but if anybody knew what they were doing, she did. She saw me watching and winked.

“It is even worse,” Ceres said quietly, nudging Vulcan and having him carry her closer, “than any of you realize. Since she bears a portion of Gaia’s power and responsibility, more than just nature has suffered.”

Zeus frowned, then nodded. “I see. Humanity has been affected by Demeter’s negligence as well. And the other gods of nature?”

Ceres sighed. “I worked with as many of them as I could, but the restrictions she placed on me…there was little I could do, and it takes all of them working together to…” She trailed off.

“Yes,” Hades said quietly. “Just as the other gods responsible for their own versions of the afterlife and I work together to some extent, so to must the deities of nature.”

“And Demeter left a hole in their ranks,” Zeus said. “For how long now, Ceres?”

“Not -” Demeter began.

“I asked Ceres,” Zeus said coldly. And when he speaks in anger, even other gods tremble.

In my peripheral vision, Mother shifted a hair closer to Demeter, her eyes moving over the assemblage, calculating.

“More than fifteen hundred years,” Ceres said quietly.

“She was stubbornly sticking to routine at first,” Nyx said, gliding up to stand on my other side. Even under the circumstances, it was rather amusing to see the other gods – even Zeus and Hera – shy away from her slightly. “But Persephone’s equally stubborn unwillingness to communicate with her in any way eroded what remained of her sanity.”

A few of the gods looked at Persephone, who shrugged. “I was supposed to have pleasant conversations with the person holding me captive? That was most assuredly not going to happen.”

There were a few murmurs of firm agreement.

“What part did you play in all of this, Auntie?” Zeus asked.

Nyx gave him a sweet smile. “Such a darling boy. Your charm has saved your life more times than you know.” She glided forward and draped an arm around Persephone’s shoulders. “My part was merely keeping Persephone company. I maintained her sanity by talking to her, sharing news of the world with her, and teaching her about the changing times.”

Persephone looked completely at ease in close proximity to Nyx, which surprised me a little. All of the other gods – Hades included – tended to treat her like a bomb that was about to explode. “And I am profoundly thankful for it, Nyx.”

“I will consider the debt paid, dear girl,” Nyx purred, “if Demeter is removed from power, and the balance of nature restored.”

Persephone nodded, then looked expectantly at Zeus.

Mother sidled towards Demeter slowly, and I saw the briefest glint of light off the dagger-like piece of crystal concealed in her hands by her pose.

Zeus, in turn, looked first to Hera, then to Poseidon, and finally to Hades. All three of them nodded. “Very well,” Zeus said, “we are in agreement. Demeter’s power and responsibilities shall be stripped from her and given to one better suited to the burden.”

Demeter shrieked and tried to flee, but had nowhere to go with so many other gods in the room. She cowered by her throne, sinking to her knees.

Zeus looked back to Persephone. “Will you take her place?”

She shook her head. “Not I, Zeus. I have a place waiting for me, with my husband and daughter.”

“Who, then?” Zeus asked.

Persephone smiled gently. “Ceres. Who else?”

Ceres blinked and looked around. “Me?”

“Yes, Ceres, you,” Persephone said gently, detaching herself from Nyx and walking over to Ceres and Vulcan. She took Ceres hands in hers and squeezed them gently, looking sad. “I can sense what my mother did to you.” She looked at Apollo. “Will she ever recover?”

Apollo hesitated a moment, then sighed and shook his head. “No, not completely. At best, she’ll be able to take care of herself, but she’ll never walk unaided again.”

Persephone nodded and looked at Ceres again. “Taking up the mantle of godhood will restore you…” She looked at Zeus. “Unless I’m mistaken.”

“You are correct,” Zeus said with a nod.

“Not only that,” Persephone said, “but you have done your best to stay in contact with the other gods of nature…they know you, and they’re undoubtedly aware of how hard you’ve struggled to minimize the damage done by Demeter’s negligence. You care. A good foundation on which to build your godhood.”

“And what of Demeter?” Hera asked. “Shall we imprison her, as you were imprisoned?” She asked Persephone.

Persephone turned to look at her mother and frowned. “Leave her her immortality and cast her out into the world. Let her survive however she may, living among the mortals on the world she neglected. I will keep an eye on her, to make sure she comes to no harm and does no mischief.”

Demeter looked up at her, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“You are still my mother,” Persephone said softly, “and I still love you. Perhaps, in time, something new can blossom from the dead branches of our relationship.”

Hades nodded and murmured, “As it should be. From life, death; from death, life.”

Persephone gave him a stern look.

“Shutting up now,” Hades said.

“Ceres,” Zeus said in a serious tone, “will you take up the mantle of godhood, and accept the responsibilities of the Goddess of the harvest, agriculture, fertility and sacred law, and as the Goddess of nature, as passed to Demeter by Gaia?”

Ceres took a deep breath and nodded. “I will.”

Off to the side, I saw my mother relax and make the shard of crystal vanish into her robes. She saw me watching and smiled a relieved little smile. I didn’t know if whatever she’d had planned as a contingency would’ve worked, and apparently neither did she.

“Vulcan, set Ceres down beside Demeter, if you please,” Hera said.

Vulcan carried Ceres over and set her down gently, helping her into a somewhat comfortable kneeling position. To everyone’s surprise, Demeter reached out and steadied her. They exchanged a look, but said nothing to one another. After a moment, Demeter looked up at Zeus and said, “Well? What’re you waiting for? I must be punished for my crimes, as is only appropriate.”

Perhaps the part of her that was meant to protect and enforce sacred law was still in there after all. Too little, too late.

Persephone stepped back to stand beside Hades, and Nyx glided over to stand on her other side and murmur something in her ear. After a moment, I felt Eos’s fingers twine with mine, and looked over to see her beside me. I smiled at her, and she smiled back.

Zeus nodded. “Hera, Poseidon, Hades, if you will assist?”

Hades strode forward to stand beside his siblings again, and

What happened then is something I don’t remember clearly. I don’t think my partly-mortal brain has a frame of reference to put it into.

All I remember are colors that I have no names for, and sounds that were simultaneously too quiet to be heard and loud enough to shake the universe. Through my bond with Hades – and possibly through my own senses and whatever it was they were doing – I felt emotions that ranged an intense spectrum from shattering sorrow to euphoric joy the likes of which I couldn’t completely comprehend. There was a feeling of profound pressure, and a weird sense of vertigo, as if the entire world had tipped and was trying to shake me off. I sensed a passage of time, as deep and fathomless as the breadth of the universe and as short and fleeting as the passage of a single millisecond.

I talked to Eos, Danae and Vulcan about it afterwards, and they all have similar incomprehensible sense-impressions scrambling their memories of whatever happened, though I suspect that Vulcan understood a bit more of it than the rest of us. He is, after all, something of a god in his own right, being the child of two gods instead of a god and a mortal.

When I asked Mother about it, she just smiled and changed the subject. But that’s hardly unusual.

When the jumble of sensory input passed, Ceres stood where she’d knelt a moment – or an eternity – earlier. She now glowed with a subtle green-gold aura that faded as Eos both held me steady and leaned on me to keep her own balance.

Demeter, in turn, still knelt at the foot of her old throne, looking older than ever and diminished in some way I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“It is done,” Ceres said. “If Persephone will agree to help me see to Demeter’s fate and organize things until I can find an Avatar of my own, I would be most grateful.” She smiled gently at Persephone. “I shan’t keep you from your family more than is absolutely necessary.”

Persephone smiled back. “I would be very glad to help.”