This, to put it mildly, was not a conversation I was looking forward to having. And yet, somehow it felt like every day of the last five years had been leading me to this moment. It had to come up eventually…it was the Great Mystery, after all.
I stood in the opening that led to Hades’ reception hall and tried to swallow the nervous lump in my throat. Perhaps, hopefully, the recent death of the poet who’d told the true story of Hades and Persephone’s love might have softened his mood enough to discuss her.
Hades was sitting in his throne, though now there was a small table beside it covered in scrolls, papers, and what I recognized as piles of my own handwritten notes. After a long moment he looked up from the paper he was holding and turned his head in my direction. “Well? Are you going to stand there all day?”
“I was giving it serious thought,” I said, forcing myself to take the steps that carried me to stand before him. I bowed politely. “There is a matter I’d like to speak with you about, sir, if I’m not disturbing you…”
He waved the piece of paper – one of my notes – idly and shook his head. “Not at all. I was just reviewing the notes that have been piling up from your meetings with Minos and Odysseus.” He put the one he was holding down and folded his hands together, looking at me. “What do you think of their petitions?”
I blinked. “Um…”
Hades, to my surprise, smiled a surprisingly gentle smile. “I have been entirely remiss to not ask for your opinion directly.” He gestured to the table. “You’ve been patiently listening to and taking notes on their petitions since you opened your door to them, and I’ve not looked at them except to burn the petitions about Prometheus every time one arrived.”
“Very poetic, sir.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them, and I froze, panic settling in the pit of my stomach.
Once again, he surprised me. He laughed. Quietly, very quietly, but he laughed. It had a rusty, unused quality to it, but at the same time it felt like an honest sound to me.
“Yes,” he agreed between quiet chuckles, “yes, very.” He sighed, suddenly serious again. “But not very fair of me, either. Prometheus has suffered so long for a ‘crime’ that was committed before humans had written language.” He shook his head a little. “Foolish pride to ignore all the good mankind has done with the gift he stole from us and gave to them, which we, the gods, should have given them in the first place.”
I stared at him, my mouth hanging open slightly.
“Pride and arrogance.” Hades shook his head a little. “Often I think that we gods – of all pantheons, mind you, not merely this one – possess both in quantities too large for our own good. I will speak with Zeus about this, and at the very least I think we should reduce the severity of the penalty laid on Prometheus. Assuming my brother agrees with me.”
My mouth opened a bit more, then snapped shut. I had absolutely no idea what to say. I’d never seen him in a mood like this before. Finally, I managed to stammer out, “Thank you, sir.”
Hades smiled very slightly. “I believe I am the one who should be thanking you. However, you haven’t told me what you think of their petitions yet.”
I cleared my throat and rattled my brain into a semblance of order. “Well, sir, I’ve already filtered out the petitions that I thought were just being filed for form’s sake. Quite a few of them were addressing punishments meted out to people who committed genuinely horrible crimes; murder, rape, various forms of abuse…” I shuddered a little, “…all of the above…”
“But in several instances, the ones that I forwarded to you with my notes, I agree that the punishments – and, more importantly, the souls themselves – should be reviewed,” I finished.
Hades considered that for a moment. “You think speaking with the souls themselves might be the most important part of reviewing their punishments?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “If they are truly repentant, then surely their punishments shouldn’t go on indefinitely. That defeats the purpose of their being punished, doesn’t it?”
Hades looked thoughtful, but didn’t say anything. I took that as an opportunity to continue. “I’m not saying the punished should be sent to Elysium or the Isles of the Blessed, but if they’re genuinely repentant they could be released into the Fields of Asphodel, or even be reincarnated, to give them an opportunity to redeem themselves. A chance to earn their entry into a better afterlife.”
I considered what I’d said, decided I’d done justice to the spirit of the work Minos and Odysseus were trying to do, and clasped my hands behind my back to await judgment.
Hades considered my words for several minutes, his eyes on me but not really seeing me. Finally, he refocused on me and nodded. “That was both well said, and well meant. I see your point, and I see the potential value in what my Judge of Souls and that rascal Odysseus are trying to do. I will speak with Zeus on this matter, and let you know what we decide.”
I smiled, relieved. At least my next meeting with Minos and Odysseus would be able to get off on a positive note. “Thank you very much, sir.”
“Once again, I feel it is I who should be thanking you, Talia,” he said, sitting back in his throne, “for both your work ethic and the spirit in which you are doing your job.” He frowned at me. “You had something you wanted to ask me, yes?”
I nodded, once again swallowing the nervous lump in my throat and hoping that his thoughtful, open mood would last beyond the question I was about to ask. “Yes, sir. Melinoë has asked me to look into the circumstances surrounding Persephone’s death, and I’m trying to figure out where to start my investigation. There are others I could ask, but…I hoped you might be willing to share what you know with me first. Especially if you happen to know what she was doing when she…disappeared.”
Hades stared at me, his expression blankly neutral.
My heart thudded in my chest.
Finally he steepled his fingers beneath his chin and sighed heavily. “I knew this day would come. I half expected it to arrive sooner.”
To my absolute astonishment he rubbed his face and eyes, then ran his hands through his short black hair. It was such a natural, human gesture, that it seemed profoundly out of place on him. Then a tear rolled down his left cheek, followed quickly by one on the right side. “Ah, Persephone,” he said softly, looking up at the ceiling, “I think you would not be very pleased with how I’ve avoided this.”
I stayed silent and motionless.
His eyes returned to me as he wiped the tears from his face. “In point of fact, Talia, I know very little. I do know what she planned to do that day, but I was never able to trace her disappearance beyond a certain point, and was unable to pursue the matter for very long.”
“So,” I said in a careful tone, “you did look into it?”
He smiled sadly. “Of course I did. Persephone was…she was the world to me.” His smile turned a bit bitter. “I have no tongue for poetry. Yes, I tried to learn what had happened to her. But as you are not an ordinary Avatar, I am not an ordinary god. In many ways, there are profound differences to me and the way my powers work as compared to most of the other gods. My presence in the Underworld is required for its continued smooth operation…without me here, everything would come unraveled in a matter of days. I cannot safely leave for more than a few hours at a time and still be able to maintain my control over things.
Likewise, my presence in the mortal world has unfortunate side-effects after only a few hours. The only god I know of who has comparable problems is Demeter, who took on many of the aspects and jobs of Gaia when our grandmother retired. Like me, Demeter cannot long leave her domain without the world descending into chaos. But where with her it is the environment which would suffer, with me it is the basic laws which govern life and death which would begin to break down.”
I’d never given my thought to why Hades remained in the Underworld so constantly, and only rarely visited anyplace else. I’d always taken everyones’ assertion that he was simply anti-social for granted. “So,” I said slowly, “If you left the Underworld and went to the mortal world…”
“The natural order of things would begin to break down,” he said softly. “Not all at once, but even after just a few hours, changes would be felt. After less than a day, people would cease to die. After two or three days, the dead would begin to return to life…” He smiled grimly. “I imagine these days it would be mistaken for a zombie apocalypse.”
“I…see. So you didn’t have much time to investigate, because you couldn’t leave here long enough to pursue any good leads, and had nobody like me to send in your place.”
“And the only leads I had quickly turned into dead ends, if you’ll pardon the pun,” he nodded. “To be sure, I could have sent Thanatos or Charon, but they have vital roles here as well. I could have chosen a soul to re-embody and act as my emissary, but that would – again – have disrupted the natural order of things.” He pursed his lips and shrugged. “As you know, part of the point of the gods having Avatars is to have someone who knows our minds, who understands and shares our purpose, but has the freedom – and time – to act when and where we cannot.”
I hadn’t known that, actually, but I nodded anyway. It made sense to me now that I was thinking about it. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that the gods themselves might have limitations that the Avatars were meant to circumvent. But then, nobody had ever taken the time to explain it to me before, and the question had simply never occurred to me to ask. Gods had Avatars and that’s the way it was, taken for granted and unquestioned.
“You intend to go through with this investigation?” Hades asked.
I nodded slowly. “Yes, sir. For Mel. And because…Persephone was a fellow Avatar. Her death shouldn’t remain a mystery.”
“Then though it cause me pain, I will tell you what I know of my Persephone’s death, because you are doing this for my daughter,” Hades said quietly. “It is little enough, but it may be of help to you.”
“Every bit of information will help, sir,” I said softly, respectful of his pain. “And I’ll do everything I can to learn the truth.”
A small smile appeared on Hades’s lips, though it didn’t touch his eyes. “Of that I have no doubt, Talia,” he said dryly. Then he sighed softly and sat back in his throne. “Unfortunately, as I said, there’s very little that I can tell you. I know that – on that day – Persephone intended to make her usual rounds in the Underworld, not unlike what you’re in the habit of doing. Visits with Charon, Thanatos, Minos, Hecate, Daedalus…even Nyx, I believe…just to make sure everything was running smoothly.
On that particular day,” he continued, his gaze lifting to look past me, his eyes distant, “she intended to visit the remaining Gorgons.” His eyes returned to mine, and I could see the old pain in them. “My Persephone was a bottomless well of compassion. She was convinced that certain types of monsters would never abide even the pleasant captivity of the Menagerie, and should thus be allowed to continue living in the mortal world, under supervision. The Gorgons were on that list. Even though they’d caused problems intermittently since the death of Medusa.”
That at least gave me places to start. Talking to my co-workers would be easy. Nyx…I would probably still avoid, unless I was desperate for information. The Gorgons, on the other hand, were another question altogether. I didn’t even know if they still lived out in the world, and if so where. I made a mental note to ask Mel. She probably knew, and if not, Daedalus might.
Hades drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne. “As I recall, she mentioned having a couple of other errands to run, but didn’t tell me what they were.” His eyes returned to me again. “It was after she left the Underworld that…that our connection was severed, and her badge of office returned to me.” He gestured as he said it, indicating the collar around my neck.
My hand automatically rose to touch it, as a little chill ran through me. “Is this…?”
He smiled faintly and shook his head. “No, Talia. I wouldn’t do that. That one is yours, and was never worn by anyone else.”
The relief I felt was profound. That just would’ve been too creepy. “Thank you, sir. Um…” I hesitated, not really wanting to ask the question that was on my mind.
Hades gestured. “Ask. You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t.”
“What about Demeter?”
His eyes darkened and his brows drew down. “What about her?”
“Could Persephone have gone to see her?” I asked.
He considered the question seriously for minute before answering. “It seems unlikely. They barely spoke after Persephone became my wife and Avatar. Demeter has a strong instinct for revenge.” He smiled grimly. “Mother Nature is not always friendly, and rarely forgiving.”
“No, sir,” I agreed. “But whether it was likely or not, could she have?”
Hades nodded slowly. “It’s possible. She always wanted to try to make peace with her mother and rebuild their relationship. I could see her visiting in an attempt to do so.”
“All right. What did you find out after…” I trailed off, unsure how to ask the question tactfully.
“After I felt her die?” he asked gently. “Very little. I left the Underworld long enough to visit the Gorgons, who were entirely unhelpful…they were too terrified to give me any useful information. Beyond that…Demeter never responded to my missives, and the other gods were reluctant to involve their Avatars. The violent death of an Avatar is a very unusual thing, and with the Greek and Roman cultures beginning to unravel, it was unusual for an Avatar to be away from home for long.”
I huffed out my annoyance. “Sounds like a typical bureaucracy. But you never asked Jupiter to look into it after Zeus began loaning her to you?”
“I felt it inappropriate to ask either Eos or her predecessor Jason to involve themselves in a personal matter.”
I looked up from my pad and raised an eyebrow. “Sir…an Avatar was apparently murdered. With all due respect, I’m a little surprised the other gods didn’t descend on the matter and get all hands involved in finding out what had happened!”
Hades smiled faintly. “The gods are not like mortals, Talia. The death of an Avatar by violence is unusual, but not unheard of, especially in those days, when there were more monsters in the world and less good ways to deal with them. Heavily enchanted and reinforced equipment like the weapons and armor you and Eos use are a relatively recent development. To be sure there was some…but…”
Hades sighed. “Frankly, in those days, the gods and Avatars weren’t as close as they are today. We were a petty and self-absorbed lot. The sad fact of the matter is none of us got along well enough two thousand years ago for any of the others to look into it on my behalf. Zeus, my own brother, told me that he’d thought it a private matter that wouldn’t touch any of the rest of them.” He made a disgusted sound. “The one good thing that’s come from the waning of our direct influence over the mortal world is it forced us to grow up and stop behaving like pouty teenagers.” He gave me a small, self-deprecating smile. “It doesn’t reflect very well on us, does it.”
I returned his smile gently. “Not really, sir. But it’s good to know that even gods can change for the better.”
“So it is,” he agreed. “Have you learned anything that will help your investigation?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir. You’ve given me places to start, and that’s all I was hoping for.”
“You’ll let me know what you find.” It wasn’t a question, nor was it a demand. He spoke the words quietly, and I thought I heard in them some hope that he would finally learn what had happened to his beloved wife.
“Of course, sir. Whatever I find.”
He nodded and slumped in his throne. “Go, then. Begin. But do not let your regular duties slide in pursuit of this old mystery.”
“I won’t, sir.”