I paused as I closed the door to Daedalus’s workshop behind me and looked towards the Menagerie again. There was one more person I should stop and see while I was in the immediate area, but I wasn’t sure how welcome my visit would be. I went looking for him anyway – I had sort of become his de facto parole officer (there wasn’t really anybody else to fill the role).
About a year earlier, a young man named Gregor Nikolau had killed my friend Michel, son of Hermes, and had tried to kill Eos. For Michel, it had worked out surprisingly well; he was now the doctor (and emergency medical responder) for all of the Greco-Roman Avatars, and had steadily become an exception to more than a few of the rules that governed life and death, to the point that he was able to leave the Underworld and remain a physical entity for limited periods. Eos had recovered, and Hera’s Avatar – Juno – had been brought to justice for setting the whole mess in motion. She was currently serving an as-yet indeterminate sentence while Hades plotted a suitable punishment for her.
I almost pitied her. But not quite.
Gregor himself, it turned out, was a child of Zeus, making him Eos’s half-brother. Gregor’s mother, whose spirit now resided contentedly in the Fields of Asphodel, had been visited (while she was still alive, of course) and seduced by Zeus in the form of a platypus (simply having to say that out loud makes my life significantly more absurd) during a night of spectacularly drunken revels with Dionysus and his Avatar, Bacchus.
It’s every bit as crazy as it sounds. Trying to explain it to people gives me a headache.
At any rate, once Gregor was removed from Juno’s influence, got his head on straight, and made peace with his father, it was decided that his punishment for the extremely misguided murder of Michel (which had a happy ending, after all) and attempted murder of Eos would be to serve a minimum of ten years as a laborer at the Tartarus Menagerie. Whether or not his sentence would be extended depended on his overall behavior during that time.
More importantly, at least as far as I was concerned, Eos had asked me to keep an eye on him and check up on him whenever I could. Family was very important to her, a sentiment I understood and agreed with. So I went looking for him.
I found him in a pen at the base of the cliff face that made up the high security wings of the Menagerie, busily mucking out the wyvern pen. Wyverns, in case you don’t know, are fantastically unpleasant creatures; distantly related to Western dragons, they share a similar biology and physical appearance, but with only two legs instead of four…a wyvern’s wings are attached to its forelimbs like a bat, instead of being separate limbs altogether.
Instead of a breathing fire (or ice…or acid…), wyverns had a barbed tail like a scorpion’s loaded with a fairly lethal neurotoxin. A single sting was capable of killing a grown human male in a matter of minutes, and could even cripple or incapacitate creatures like centaurs and cyclopses. And, of course, they had a really, really bad attitude.
I spotted Gregor towards the back of the pen, vigorously shoveling a pile of something nasty into a large wheelbarrow. He was wearing a jumpsuit made of thick leather and rubber, heavy boots and gloves, and a full helmet with a rebreather, so I wasn’t entirely sure of how to get his attention. After a moment, I tried knocking on the transparent wall of the pen, and was promptly rewarded with a face full of frantically beating leather wings, a screeching fang-filled maw, and three or four sharp hits against the wall by a large curved stinger that left nasty greenish-yellow smears on the transparent material.
Danette hadn’t been kidding…the wyverns’ nerves really had been wound tightly by Daedalus’s experiments with Tesla’s earthquake machine. To my credit, I did not scream or even jump back. I’ll admit to flinching, but who wouldn’t when presented with a furiously angry wyvern less than five feet away?
It had the effect I’d been hoping for though. Gregor looked up from his task to see what the ruckus was, waved to me, dropped his shovel in the wheelbarrow and headed for the security door on the side of the enclosure.
I walked around to meet him, getting there about the same time he was hopping on one foot to pull off the jumpsuit. As he came out, running his hands through the messy black curls on his head and closing the airlock-style door firmly behind him, he was wearing a pair of cargo shorts and a t-shirt that had to have been a gift from Eos, as the text on his chest read ‘My big sister visited Mt. Olympus and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’.
“That shirt has Eos’s sense of humor written all over it,” I said dryly, offering my hand. “How are you, Gregor?”
“Greg will be fine,” he said quietly, shaking my hand lightly. “I’m trying out having a nickname. Daedalus kinda laid it on me, and…I like it. Yeah, she gave it to me when she came to see me a few weeks ago.” He thumbed over his shoulder at the pen. “Shoveling wyvern crap while wearing it seemed appropriate somehow.”
I chuckled. “Fair enough. How’re you two getting along?”
“Uneasily,” he replied. “What brings you? Checking up on the inmate again?” he added bitterly.
“Yes, and no.” I laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’m checking up on you, Greg. How are you? Really.”
He looked at me for a long moment, and I saw something of Zeus in his features. It was the jawline, I decided, which was strong and rather heroic-looking. And something about the nose and eyes. Finally, he shrugged and looked down. “I’m all right, I guess. It’s not exactly the life I was hoping for, but it’s better than a kick in the pants. Daedalus is a pretty good boss, and Dad and Eos come to visit every few weeks. For the most part they try to leave me alone and not push, but I get that they want to try to fix things with me.”
I tipped my head a little. “What do you want?”
“Family,” he said simply, then smiled a little. “Guess I got that, at least. And Daedalus took me to visit my mom’s…ghost, I guess. I’m glad to see she’s content.”
“Soul,” I corrected gently. “Ghosts remain on Earth. I spoke with her when we were trying to find you, you know. She sounded like a good person.”
“The best,” he agreed.
We were both silent for a moment, trying to find things to say.
“You know if you need anything,” I said, “you can contact me anytime. My office door is always open.”
“Yeah, but your secretary is creepy as hell.”
“Mel? She’s harmless. Don’t let her scare you off. Did you come by?”
“A couple of weeks ago, yeah,” he said softly. “I wanted to see if I could…I dunno…help out with something else. I want to be useful beyond cleaning out the pens. It doesn’t take that long now that I’ve got a routine, and I’m left with a lot of downtime.”
I smiled warmly. “I’m sure we can find other things to fill your time if you’re feeling at loose ends. Have you considered continuing your education?”
He blinked, evidently surprised by the idea. “I…I hadn’t. Is that an option?”
“I’ll have a word with Zeus about it.” The more I thought about it, the better an idea it seemed. “I think spending some time with other demigods would be good for you.”
For a moment, he looked uncertain. “You think so?”
“I’m pretty sure,” I said firmly. “You’re looking for family, and we’re a big – if slightly dysfunctional – one. We’ll talk it over. Okay?”
He nodded and gave me a tentative smile. The first real one I could remember seeing on his face. “Thanks, Talia. Uh…Pluto. Sorry.”
I shook my head. “Talia is fine, Greg. They raise all of us demigods to consider one another a sort of extended family, no matter who our parents are. It helps keep us from feeling isolated.” I looked around. “Which I imagine is an even bigger problem for you here.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Thank you.”
“Just do me a favor,” he said, a little bit of a smile tugging at his lips. “Next time you come to visit, don’t piss off a wyvern just to get my attention.”
I grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
There was a soft sound of air moving past us, and a piece of parchment fluttered gently down in front of my eyes. I plucked it out of the air almost instinctively and looked at it. A set of coordinates and a faintly glowing sigil that made my eyes ache a little to look at.
“Damn,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, Greg, I have to go. Duty calls.”
I sighed. “No, just…my least favorite part of the job. I’ll see you again soon.”
He nodded uneasily, possibly remembering just then that I was the Avatar of the God of Death as I turned on my heel and started to walk away. I reached up and touched the base of my golden hair band behind my right ear, causing my helmet to emerge and enfold my head. Since the sigil indicated a formal event, I tugged Cerberus from its sheath and expanded it into its spear form, called up the GPS function of my helmet, found the appropriate location, and Stepped there.
For me it’s an instantaneous trip with no noticeable sensation of movement aside from walking. To anyone else, it looks like I vanish with a little pop as the air rushes in to fill the place where I was, or appear with a soft whoosh as my arrival shoves air aside. I made myself invisible and intangible to mortals as I arrived, and found myself standing beside a dark-robed figure with a heavy cowl that completely hid his head. A pair of very large, very substantial looking black-feathered wings were folded against his back, and his hands were tucked into his sleeves.
“Thanatos,” I said softly. “Who is it?”
“A special collection,” he said softly, his voice reminding me very powerfully of Christopher Lee in his old age. “One that has earned the time and attention of important beings such as us.” He turned slightly, giving me the impression that he was looking at me, though I couldn’t see his face. “Apollo himself requested our presence.”
“Wow.” I looked at the small, modest house in front of us, then glanced around. “Crete?”
“Yes,” he murmured, “by the ocean. The man who lives here is a scholar, a poet, and one who still worships the gods of his ancestors even in this day and age.”
“He wrote exceptional sagas of our lives,” a rich tenor voice said, and Apollo stepped up beside me, his shoulder-length golden hair swaying a little. “Thank you for coming Pluto. This man gave his life in service to the gods, retelling our stories and helping to make sure the generations to come will not forget us.” He smiled, a rather sad expression I thought. “And he is a very distant descendant of one of my children. I wish to honor his life’s work by easing his passing to Elysium.”
Then he looked around, his brow furrowing. “Where is Hermes?”
As if on cue, Hermes arrived with a weird crackling sound, skidding to a halt on the gravel driveway, his brown hair mussed by the wind. “Sorry I’m late, always on the move, you know?” He flashed us all a quick, boyish smile in spite of the gravity of the moment.
Apollo rolled his eyes. “Always irreverent, you mean. Come, we’ve little time.” He strode towards the house, Thanatos following without a word.
“Hey there, kid,” Hermes said, smiling at me and offering me his arm.
I folded Cerberus and my helmet away – with Hermes there, I felt free to ease up on the formality a little – and tucked my hand into his elbow. “How are you, Hermes?”
“Not bad, not bad. Sad occasion, though. Don’t much like this part of my job, for all it’s important.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
Hermes was an extended member of the Underworld staff, one of several beings whose responsibility it was to help guide the souls of the dead to the Underworld. I myself helped with that task on special occasions, like this one.
As Hermes said, it wasn’t my favorite part of the job. But it was a very important one. Maybe even the most important.
We followed Apollo and Thanatos into the little house, moving straight through the door without opening it, like ghosts. Up a short flight of stairs, we found an old man sitting in a study, hunched over his desk and writing in an open journal.
Apollo sighed softly. “Soon,” he murmured. “Hermes?”
Hermes released my hand and moved forward to stand beside him. “I’m ready. It’ll be quick and painless, I promise.”
There was a soft rustling sound, like leaves blowing in the wind, and Hades himself stood beside me. He made an imposing figure in his heavy, silver-trimmed black armor and cloak, with his curly black hair and thick eyebrows that seemed to be in a perpetual frown. Fully two heads taller than me, he looked down at me and his neatly trimmed goatee and mustache curled slightly in a faint smile. “Pluto.”
“Sir,” I nodded politely, surprised. “I wasn’t expecting you here.”
He rested a hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently as Apollo and Hermes turned, their surprise visible on their faces. Hades was even more of a recluse than Hephaestus, who was famous for never leaving his forges…it was extremely unusual for him to be seen outside the Underworld.
“If this man is important enough to Apollo to attend his death in person, I felt I should honor him as well,” Hades said in his quiet baritone. “I’ve recently been reminded of the importance of family.” He squeezed my shoulder again.
Apollo blinked twice, then smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Uncle.” He gestured for Hades to come and stand with them, and in a moment the three gods stood together, watching and waiting.
Thanatos moved to stand beside me. With both Hades and Hermes in attendance, there was now very little indeed for us to do other than bear witness. That was often our job in this sort of situation though. Every life is precious, no life should pass unmarked, and times like this – when a soul is allowed to skip judgment and pass straight to Elysium – are very rare in this day and age. In a little over six years on the job, this was only the third time I’d seen it done.
After a few minutes, the old man sighed and laid down his pen, leaning heavily on the desk. Hades stepped forward and I felt the shift of energies as he aligned himself completely with the mortal realm.
“Eli Kalakos,” Hades said quietly.
The old man turned and looked up, and a beatific smile spread across his face. “Hades? It is Hades, isn’t it?”
To my surprise, my patron actually smiled. A gentle, genuine smile. The sort he reserved for Melinoë and nobody else. “Yes, Eli.”
“My goodness,” Eli said, rising slowly. “I am tremendously honored. Is it my time, then?”
Hades nodded. “It is. I have come to guide your soul to Elysium myself, with others to bear witness.” He gestured back towards us as he spoke, and we all made ourselves visible to him.
Eli’s eyes widened and he took a little step towards us. “Oh my goodness…Apollo and Hermes, surely. I am graced and blessed this day. And that must be Thanatos, but the young woman is unfamiliar to me.”
Apollo smiled. “The young lady is Pluto, Avatar of Hades. Ordinarily it would be her job to witness your passing, but you have done us a great honor in retelling our stories in your lovingly crafted words.”
Eli shook his head. “All I did was clarify some of the stories…translate a few others…”
Hades laid a gentle hand on Eli’s shoulder. “On the contrary. You are one of the few storytellers to see the truth in my story in particular…that Persephone and I loved one another deeply, and you let it show in your version of our tale. For that alone, I would thank you.”
“But more than that, you told our stories to the best of your ability,” Apollo said. “People love to read them, to read about us, and keeping our memories alive as exquisitely as you have is worthy of reward.”
Eli seemed to be weakening. “You’ll…you’ll pardon me if I sit down. I’m ashamed to do so in such heady company…”
Hermes was there at his side in a flash, gently taking Eli’s elbow and easing the old man back down into his chair. “Be easy, Eli,” Hermes said warmly. “You’re among friends, and friends don’t stand on ceremony.”
Eli smiled. “My goodness…friends…” He settled back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Such wonderful friends…to see an old man off on his last journey…” he whispered.
As Eli’s voice trailed off into silence, Hermes made a gesture across his face. The old man released a relaxed sigh…and didn’t draw another breath. Hermes closed his eyes, then made another series of gestures as Eli’s soul lifted away from his body. “I have him, at peace and ready for his rest and reward.”
Hades nodded. “I’ll travel with you, Hermes. Apollo, will you join us?”
“I will,” Apollo said quietly.
“Come, friends,” Hermes said happily, cradling Eli’s soul in his arms. “Let’s make sure he gets the best seat at the table tonight.”
And just like that, they were gone, and Thanatos and I were alone.
Thanatos’s cowl turned in my direction. “Be not sad, Talia,” he said in his melodious voice. “Eli Kalakos spent his days in the way that pleased him best, and lived a long and happy life. His life will be celebrated, as it should.”
I realized my vision had gone a little blurry and my cheeks were damp with tears. I quickly wiped them away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I’m not really sad, I’m happy for him. But it’s hard.”
His cowl bobbed slowly in a nod. “I understand,” he said softly. “You live hand-in-hand with death, and have even touched it, but you are still young and it pains you to see life end. In the fullness of time, you will come to see and celebrate death as another phase of life rather than its end.”
“Persephone did,” Thanatos replied. “You and she are alike in some ways…your love of life being one of them.”
“Truly.” One of his arms came up and a thin, pale hand emerged from the sleeve. It held a very old gold pocket watch, which flipped open with a flick of his thumb. “I must away. Time waits for no one…especially not for Death.” He closed the watch silently and it disappeared back into the sleeve along with the hand that held it. “Farewell for now, Pluto. We will speak again soon.”
“Goodbye, Thanatos,” I said quietly. I took one last look at Eli’s cooling body, reminded myself that his soul – the true essence of him – was even now being introduced to the delights that awaited him in Elysium, and Stepped back to my office.