Mel was rummaging in one of the filing cabinets as I walked into our office later that morning. She looked over as I came through the door and smiled. “I was right.”
I went straight to her and gave her a warm hug. “Yes, you were. Thank you.”
She returned my hug and held on tightly for a moment, then looked up at me. “This job hasn’t gotten any easier for you, has it. I don’t mean the monster-wrangling, I mean the soul-collecting.” It wasn’t a question, and I was reminded – not for the first time – of just how perceptive Hades’ daughter really was.
I sighed and walked over to my big marble desk, pausing behind it to finger the bullet holes Juno had put in the wall behind it. They remained a sobering reminder of my own fundamental` mortality and frailty. Yes, being a demigod made me stronger and more durable than a normal human, and being an Avatar increased those abilities dramatically, and made me functionally immortal, in that I wouldn’t age and healed very quickly. But I could still die.
I dropped into my new desk chair – I was still breaking it in, so it wasn’t yet as comfortable as my old one had been – and looked at Mel. “I honestly don’t know how your mother did this job on her own.”
Mel smiled gently and put away the file folder she was holding. “She had Father. And was a god in her own right.”
“As are you,” I pointed out.
She nodded. “Mmhm. My perspective on death is rather different than yours, I think.”
I huffed out a little laugh. “I would be very worried if it wasn’t.”
She giggled. “Good point.” Then she went back to rummaging through the drawer. “Anyway, I knew I couldn’t help you much, my perspective is too different…so I called the person who could.”
I smiled. She knew me so well. “Thank you, Mel.”
“You’re welcome, Talia.” She came over to the desk and put down two file folders. “Two for you today, but neither is particularly time-sensitive.” She tapped the first folder, with a green stripe on it and the word ‘Icky’ written in Mel’s elegant hand, which gave me a hint as to how she’d had it filed.
“What’s the green stripe mean?” I asked curiously as I opened the file. “Oh, ew.”
“That the monster is slimy,” Mel said with a smile, then wandered back over to the filing cabinets.
I sighed and flipped through pages. Yuck. At least it was in Malta. Maybe I could get Eos to come with me, and we could get a bite to eat afterwards. Or at least take a shower together.
I looked up, startled. I’d never heard Mel sound so uncertain before. “What’s up?”
She was standing by the filing cabinets, one arm crossed behind her, the other holding it in place. She rocked back and forth on her heels a little, nibbling her lower lip, eyes on the floor. “Well…I was wondering…”
I rose and walked around the desk to her, resting my hands gently on her shoulders. “What is it, Mel? You know you can talk to me about anything.”
She smiled up at me, some of the shyness immediately disappearing. “I know. It’s just…it’s…”
I returned her smile. “Ask. If it’s something I can help with, I will. Anything at all.” That was probably a dangerous promise to make, but she was a very close friend. Practically a sister.
An instant later, my ribs creaked as she hugged me tightly. “Thank you. It’s just, something Nyx said has been bothering me.”
Nyx. The personification of night, one of the four Primordial children of Chaos. The last time I’d encountered her had been right before Juno had arrived to try and kill me, and that had been almost a year ago. Unless Mel had seen her since. “Was this when she visited us here?”
Mel nodded. “Mmhm.”
So Mel had been stewing this for a while. Or, like death, she had a different perspective on time than I did. “What is it?”
“She referred to my mother in the present tense.”
I cast back in my memories, trying to recall exactly what Nyx had said at the time. As a child of Athena, one my gifts is exceptional memory and the ability to make quick and accurate use of it.
Yes, Mel was right. Nyx had distinctly used the present tense when speaking about Persephone. Has, not had. Owe, not owed. Mel had started to question her, but Nyx had dismissed it with a comment about time having very little meaning to her.
At the time, I’d had pressing matters which had quickly pushed everything else out of my mind. I’d also been on painkillers, which had muddled my mind enough for me to have been rather stressed by the idea of playing any kind of word games with the ancient entity. Even now, I started to sweat a little at the thought.
“You’re right,” I said, “she did.”
“Why?” Mel made a frustrated little sound and began pacing back and forth. “She’s always spoken very precisely, using words very carefully. I don’t believe that she’d speak about Mother in the present tense unintentionally.”
That made sense to me. Words have a power all their own, especially to the gods and other elder beings of the universe. The more power you had at your disposal, the more careful you had to be about unintended consequences. As a result, powerful beings tend to use words with the same kind of caution that I use a gun.
“I think you’re probably right,” I said.
Mel looked up at me hopefully. “Will you look into it for me?”
I shifted mental gears. “Why she was using the present tense?”
“What happened to my mother,” Mel clarified for me.
“It’s been bothering me for such a long time,” Mel went on quickly, “but it’s not something I could ever talk to Father about.”
Understatement of the century, there. Trying to talk to Hades about Persephone was probably defined as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
“Will you try to find out what really happened to her?” Mel pleaded. “Please, Talia.”
I smiled and rested my hands on her shoulders. “Of course I will, Mel. Don’t be silly. I’m not really sure where to start, since it happened so long ago.” I turned and walked back to my desk, sat down, and very carefully said. “Maybe we could start with what you remember?”
“You want to know what I know about my mother’s death,” she said in a quiet, uncommonly serious voice.
“If you don’t mind sharing it with me,” I said carefully.
“I don’t mind sharing anything with you, Talia.” She sat down across my desk from me and folded her hands in her lap. All of the dreamy, floatiness had gone out of her manner, and she seemed to be completely and utterly there in a way she’d never been before. I suddenly found myself desperately missing her weirdness and wanting it back. It was better by far than the quiet melancholy that was now radiating off of her in an almost tangible wave.
She smiled faintly. “If only you could see your face. Don’t worry, Talia, I’m not going to break again. Not when I have good friends like you, Eos and Michel. I’m not as alone as I was back then.”
I looked at her curiously. “Hades -”
“Wasn’t in any condition to help me,” she interrupted gently. “Nobody was back then. I didn’t have any friends like you and the others. I was still coming into my full abilities, and most of my contemporaries were uncomfortable around me.”
“Indeed,” her smile faded. “Mother’s death…I don’t really know much more than Father told you, actually. I was drowning in my own weirdness at the time, and her death hit me so hard that…well, honestly, I don’t remember much about the first century or two after that. I think I probably caused a lot of nightmares without meaning to. I might even have caused a few monsters to come into being by accident.”
I winced. “Ouch.”
Her smile returned, just a little. “Indeed.”
I tipped my head slightly. Sometimes, looking at her from a literally different angle helped me figure her out. “It doesn’t seem to bother you as much as I’d expected.”
She shrugged a little. “I’ve had two thousand years to make my peace with it. And let’s face it…I’m not quite right to begin with.”
I gave her a quick, warm smile. “True enough. All right, let’s come at it from a different angle then. Can you think of anyone who had – or has, I guess – a grudge against Hades that would’ve been powerful enough to drive them to murder an Avatar?”
“An Avatar who was also a goddess. No easy task in and of itself,” Mel said thoughtfully, then smiled. “Honestly?” To my surprise, she laughed delightedly, her weirdness back at full strength. “Let’s face it, pretty much everybody who’s afraid of death or has tried to overcome it has a grudge against Father, whether they realize it or not. Also, if you’re going to go in that direction, you’ll end up investigating every two-bit would-be necromancer who’s ever lived.”
I thought briefly of Cassius Tremane, whose soul was now in Hecate’s possession, doing who knew what. I didn’t ask. I didn’t really want to know. “Yeah, that’s probably a fruitless path.”
Mel nodded. “That said, the truth of the matter is that most people who have a grudge against Hades don’t live long enough to do anything about it. You sort of have to rule out all of the mortals who’ve held anything against him. The ones who do live long enough,” she added thoughtfully, “are immortals and very, very dangerous beings. Or mortals who’ve been using magic to extend their lives unnaturally.”
I grimaced a little. I’d known that starting to investigate a two thousand year-old cold case would be tough, but I’d hoped there would at least be a jumping off point. “Come on, there has to be someone who really hates Hades enough to have done this, and who was around back then and still around today.”
“Demeter,” Mel said bluntly.
Simultaneously, a chill ran down my spine, and it occurred to me that while I frequently heard her refer to Hades as ‘father’ and had heard her call Zeus ‘grandfather’ (the look on his face had been priceless), for all the times she’d mentioned Demeter, Mel had never once called her ‘grandmother’. That should’ve told me something. Had Demeter simply rejected the girl out of hand because she was Hades’ daughter as well as Persephone’s? That was worth looking into.
I shook my head. “I know she’s hated Hades since before Persephone became his Avatar…” I trailed off. “Come to think of it, I don’t know precisely how that came about.”
“Hera brokered a treaty between them, and Persephone’s service as Father’s Avatar was part of the deal,” Mel said.
“Mmhm. From what I understand, Demeter got it into her head that death was completely unnatural, and that the Underworld in general and Father’s work specifically was a heinous affront to the natural world.” Mel rolled her eyes. “That’s mad, of course. Death is part of mortality, as surely as birth. Without those two defining moments, mortality isn’t.”
I waited a moment, then realized she’d finished her sentence. “Isn’t what?”
“Ah.” Of course. “Good point. So she…”
“I don’t know the specifics, but I guess there was a huge move on Demeter’s part to undo the natural cycle of mortality. She claimed that as the goddess of fertility and growth, the birth-death cycle fell into her portfolio and tried to claim dominion over it. It was nonsense, of course, and somehow she ended up infuriated at Hades about it. It’s not like the Fates answer to Hades. Or anybody. Even the gods are subject to the whim of the Fates at times.”
“Anyway,” she drawled the word, rolling her head a little, “the story goes that there was a big dust-up, and when everything settled, she withdrew fertility from all of the plants and creatures and demanded that Hades give her dominion over death before she would return the world to normal. All of the plants withered, no new babies were born, and so on. I’ve heard it was a huge mess.”
“I thought that happened when Hades -”
“Kidnapped my mother?” Mel sounded amused. “Come on, Talia, you know better than that. That’s just a story, and one Demeter herself probably spread after the fact to try and make her sound like the victim.” She made a face. “Too bad it stuck.”
“No kidding. So…”
“What happened next?”
“Oh!” She smiled. “Well, Hera stepped in and negotiated some sort of something or other. Like I said, I don’t know the exact details. It was before my time, and nobody has ever wanted to talk to me about it. I think Father did something in retaliation for what Demeter did, and then Poseidon got involved somehow, and it was starting to escalate out of control when Hera broke it up. Mother helped, and during the process she and Father fell in love. I think it was Mother who worked in the detail that she act as the peace-bringer for the whole thing and be Father’s Avatar. It was probably the only way Demeter would ever let them be together.”
“It doesn’t sound like you like her very much. Demeter, that is,” I added, to make sure she was clear who I meant.
“Mm. I don’t. She’s never wanted to have anything to do with me.” She huffed a little sound. “Not very nice to ignore your only grandchild that way.”
“No, it isn’t,” I agreed. “Perhaps I should try to talk to her.”
“Not a bad idea,” Mel admitted reluctantly. “If she’ll talk to you, she probably knows more about what went on back then than anybody else. Even Father. But she hasn’t been seen outside of her domain in centuries, if not longer, and I can’t remember the last time I heard about someone seeing her. You might start by talking to Charon and Thanatos about it. They were both there when it happened. Nyx too.” She hugged herself. “If she’ll talk to you.”
Another chill ran down my spine. One encounter with Nyx was sufficient, unless I really, really needed information from her. She was less a goddess than elemental night concentrated into a human form and granted sentience. She was there at the birth of the universe, and was one of the fundamental powers of creation. Thanatos and Hypnos were her children, and even they were uneasy around her.
Zeus was afraid of her. That should tell you something.
“Nyx was involved?” I asked. “From what I know of her, she doesn’t seem inclined to get involved in much of anything unless it amuses or benefits her somehow.”
“Oh yes,” Mel said. “She once told me she’d found the whole thing quite droll and came down on Hades’ side just to see what Demeter would do when confronted with her.”
“Charming,” I sighed. “Well, I guess I’d better at least try to have a word with Demeter about it.”
“Good luck with that. I’ll try to make you an appointment…but it might be easier if you just sought her out in her palace.” She gestured aimlessly. “I mean, you’re Pluto, Avatar of Hades. If she’ll talk to anybody, it’ll be an Avatar seeking her out respectfully.”
“Or, more likely, because I replaced her daughter and am subordinate to Hades, she won’t want to have anything to do with me,” I pointed out. Reasonably, I thought. “Besides, murdering her own daughter doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing a goddess would do.”
Mel gave me a long, decidedly droll look. If she wore glasses, she would’ve been peering over the tops of them at me. I half expected a pair to just appear on her face. “Really? Have you brushed up on your Greek myths lately? It took the spread of the Judeo-Christian religions and the slow retreat and – some say – demise of belief in the Greco-Roman pantheon to really force the gods to start working together…but it didn’t start until about a thousand years ago. Before that, their behavior was more like a bunch of self-absorbed, cliquish school kids on some cheesy sitcom.”
I thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Okay, you’ve got a point there.”
She beamed. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome.” I sighed. “Talk about a cold case.”
“Start the way I suggested,” Mel said gently. “Talk to Thanatos and Charon, even Minos might know something useful. Maybe try Hecate…if anybody’s tried to summon Mom or is using necromantic magic to bind her soul, Hecate would know about it. If you’re feeling really brave, talk to Nyx. But be very, very careful if you do. Meanwhile, I’ll talk to Ceres and see if she can get you an audience with Demeter.”
I gave her a long look. “You’ve been giving this quite a bit of thought, haven’t you.”
“Demeter’s Avatar is Ceres, right?”
Mel nodded again.
I ran through my memories of meeting the other Avatars. There were the semi-regular gatherings of the gods to deal with any issues that required a group decision, and frequently the Avatars went in place of their patrons. The gods encouraged us to be friendly with one another, and many of us made arrangements to meet up once in a while; it’s pretty hard to find a social group when your peers are gods and demigods. I hadn’t had time to go to any of the gatherings just yet, but I’d worked with more than a few of them professionally for various reasons.
All in all, I’d gotten to know most of them at least in passing, and was friendly with most of them. But I couldn’t put a face with the name Ceres. “I don’t think I’ve met her.”
“She hardly ever leaves Demeter’s palace,” Mel said. “On a scale of Zeus to Hephaestus, Demeter and Ceres are even more reclusive than Father.”
I didn’t think she was being entirely fair to Hephaestus and Vulcan. They weren’t so much reclusive as insanely busy and the original workaholics. But I got the picture. “All right. Thank you, Mel. Let’s get started.”
“Talia,” she said softly, making me look over at her again.
For a moment, she looked so sad that I thought she was going to cry. Then a sunny smile broke out on her face. “However it turns out – whatever you find – thank you for looking into this. For taking the time to find out what happened to my mother.”
I smiled. “You’re welcome. I hope I can find some sort of answer. Do me a favor, look into Persephone’s records and see if she had a task list for…for the day she died.”
Mel nibbled on her bottom lip and nodded. “I will. You think there might be a clue there?”
“I think if I can retrace her last steps, I stand to learn something useful.”
She nodded and rose. “I’ll look right now.”
I rose with her and steeled myself. “I think I’m going to start by having a word with Hades.” Geneva Conventions be damned.