by: C.A. Shoultz1
Autumn must progress. Winter must appear. The world must have its cycle. The journeys of Pallas of the North…
The crimson leaves went swirling down the avenues of air. Each rolling wave of northern wind sent greater showers falling from the blackened, gnarling branches that reached up to the deep blue sky. Many leaves still clung to their branches, creating a canopy of red that shaded the dirt road on either side. Those leaves that had fallen were trod quickly underfoot, building up a muddy carpet over which the endless tramp of commerce had so often passed. The road wound through the fiery forest, a solitary symbol of man’s endeavors out amongst an endless wilderness. At length the forest road became straight, and somewhat broader, where it collided with a massive oak whose branches blazed bright orange. The road forked here, branching left and right.
At this crossroads Pallas of the North stood, leaning on her sword. Her cloak’s hue was similar to the crimson of the leaves, billowing to and fro, caught up in the gusts of the forest’s breeze. Her armor was pitch black, like the Northmen tribe of Karlsvåg, all boiled leather, padded wool and sturdy mail dyed as dark as the night. It stretched over her mighty form.
Pallas was enormous. She easily towered above all mortals she encountered. She wasn’t merely tall, but broad as well. Her shoulders swelled and her biceps surged inside her chainmail shirt. Below her stout torso her hips spread wide, sitting atop mighty legs. Yet she did not lack charm, for all her power. There was a femininity that cloaked her steely muscle. Her hair fell down her back in golden waves, her skin was dusky tan, and in her pleasant face her eyes burned like blue balefire. Strange, but not unlovely. She tapped her booted foot impatiently and leaned a little harder on her sword. The goddess she had come to meet was late.
I hope I can pull this off,” Pallas muttered to herself. It was a symptom of the countless lonely weeks she spent out in the wild, untamed lands. Propping up her sword against the enormous oak, she slipped the massive axe out from the holster at her rump and gave it a spin. “It’s going to get me in terrible trouble with Perun, at any rate. When he finds I’ve abetted Lord Veles….”
A tremor rose up Pallas’ spine. She glanced upon the crossroads just in time to see a figure step out of a corridor in space. The wind came howling round the figure, billowing a cloak that shifted from red to orange and gold like the forest canopy above their heads. Quickly holstering her axe and sheathing her sword as the figure approached, Pallas moved deliberately forward and stopped before the approaching woman and bowed low. Her own red cloak fluttered about her ankles. “My Lady Persephone.”
Slender, lovely hands slipped from the cloak and reached up for the fine fabric of the cloak’s hood, pulling it back and revealing a woman of tremendous beauty. Her hair was blazing red, and streaked with lines of golden blond. Her pupils were nearly white, so light they were, and as they fell upon the girl before her – for Pallas was not even twenty – they twinkled with delight. “Dear Pallas of the North, daughter of Eva and Martel, daughter of battle, daughter of war….hello.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, O bride of Hades. You are as beautiful as all the legends say.”
“And yet I am not hailed amongst the goddesses,” Persephone replied. “Aphrodite surely, but even Artemis and Hera are accounted more beautiful than me.”
“All goddesses are beautiful,” said Pallas, “but yours, I think, is a purer, more elegant look, because it has never been tainted with malice. Not like all the others – especially not like the Bloody Goddess.”
Those two words sent a shadow over Persephone’s face. “I hope she doesn’t know I’m here. That would ruin everything.”
Pallas stood. Persephone was near as tall as herself, though slenderer, still in the bloom of endless youth. Pallas smiled fiercely. “My Lady Persephone, it doesn’t matter if she knows unless she comes herself. That might prove a problem. Anything else she sends at us, I can deal with.”
“I shall be honored to have you as my protectress, O Pallas tall and broad and strong of arm. I speak, though, of the other Pallas’ ability to block our route. I am still not even sure which way we go.”
“As you know,” said Pallas, “all the normal entrances to the Underworld are guarded now. Taenarum, Avernus, Acheron, even the Ploutonion at Hierapolis is under watch.”
Persephone hissed beneath her breath. “I still cannot believe my mother would go to such lengths.”
“But,” said Pallas, holding up a finger, “there are paths beneath the earth which the Bloody Goddess doesn’t know, because they’re in the care of gods she has not met. I first heard the rumor of the gods in these lands last summer, and since you had contacted me asking for help, I sought them out.”
“So you have found a god who’ll help us?”
“Veles,” she replied. “Storm god, lord of serpents, master of the dead among the Slavs. His underworld, through all the strange geometry of nowhere places, can lead down to Hades’ domain. He has an entrance to this realm some hundred miles from here. He has agreed to let us use it.”
“However did you persuade him?”
“Ha!” Pallas clapped her hands together. “I beat him in a wrestling match. I extracted the promise from him when I had him pinned.”
“Couldn’t he have merely blasted you away?”
“Of course – but we had both sworn to make it fair. Body strength on body strength. Veles has great divine power, but in brawn?” Palla flexed her arms; even through her mail her biceps bulged. “I triumphed.”
Persephone laughed, a clear and lovely titter. “You are every bit the marvel all the stories say, O Pallas half-divine. So you will lead me to this gate?”
“I shall,” said Pallas, turning up the road. She made for the left fork. “Come on. We’ve a long journey ahead.”
They had to stop at noon for Pallas’ lunch, a deer she wrestled down and cooked. They halted again some hours later, so she could relieve herself. Persephone waited, bemused, until Pallas came from behind the tree. “You are more mortal than I’d expected,” she observed.
“No more or less than Achilles,” Pallas responded, still wiping her hands dry. She slipped her gloves back on. “Even Hercules needed to eat and sleep.”
“Oh, I understand,” she said, so white and otherworldly. “It’s not as though we gods and goddesses do not do these things. We simply do not feel the urgings as you do. They are luxuries, not necessities.”
“Well they are essential for mortals, and half-mortals, so I hope you will pardon me.”
“Of course,” Persephone said. “You are not the first mortal I have traveled with. Once….”
A rippling roar spread through the air above the trees. Birds rose from the branches, while rustles in the underbrush gave notice to the movement of the animals. Pallas grabbed her wrist. “Come on!” They hurried down the road and ran behind a tree.
“What is it?”
“Don’t know yet. Stay put.” Pallas’ axe came out, and she slowly moved around the tree again. She looked toward the hilltop before them. It was covered in autumn foliage, but its dark summit was bare, and Pallas’ blue eyes went wide as a strong shape emerged atop it. The outline was mannish, but she couldn’t be sure from such a distance. A roar emerged again, and was this time answered by another, further off behind her. The shape descended through the trees upon the hill and vanished.
“What was it?” Persephone asked.
“Unfortunately, I think it was an ispolin,” said Pallas. “And I think there are more of them.”
“One of a race of giants that once ruled these lands. They are almost extinct now; Lord Veles mentioned that their numbers these days were in the dozens. But they are powerful, enough that even one is dangerous.” Pallas gripped her axe the tighter. “The Bloody Goddess must have marshaled them to hunt us. This will make things more difficult.”
“Oh dear. I’m so sorry to have put you in such danger.”
“Difficult, but not impossible. I’ll do what I have to.” Pallas walked back toward the road. “Come on, my lady. From now on, though, I’ll need your help looking out. You are a god, you feel things I can’t. If you ever sense anything amiss, tell me at once.”
“Of course, of course,” said Persephone, sparing a worried glance back toward the distant hill. “Such horrible things….can my mother really have allied herself with this?”
“That’s not my business, my lady. My lady?” The goddess stood in place. “Persephone, come. We’re no safer here than down the road.”
“Right, right,” she said, shaking her head. When she was beside Pallas, she looked meaningfully at her. “Persephone….I like that. Just call me that from now on.”
“Fair enough, Persephone. Come.”
Long into the evening and the deep hours of the night they marched. The wind howled cold about them, scattering the leaves from off the trees. Deep in this wilderness the stars blazed down upon them, bright with light from distant suns. Pallas noticed that Persephone glowed, very faintly, and the white glimmer was visible amid the darkness of the trees. It was somewhat helpful, though Pallas saw better in darkness than most mortal men, and at any rate her hearing would have noted threats before her eyes.
“Thank you, again, for escorting me.”
“No trouble,” said Pallas. She chuckled and threw back her shoulders. “To be honest, you seemed so pathetic when you asked me, I was moved with pity. You hit my heart right where it was weakest.”
“Hmm,” Persephone intoned, folding slightly as if dimming and receding. “It’s terrible the lengths my mother will go to stop me from going to see my husband. Even to ally with her – the goddess dripping blood, the one whose name we were all warned not to speak.” Her cape billowed; though it was hard to see at night, the leaves upon the trees around her turned a deeper shade of red. “And what is worst of all is that she should be content by now. Hades has kept me half a year for centuries – millennia! Nearly since the dawn of time. That she’s still enraged enough by my parting to prevent me….Pallas, you are half-mortal, and you spend your time among them. Don’t most mortal women leave their families when they marry?”
“Oh, absolutely. It is only right and natural that a woman, when she becomes a wife, leave her mother and father and join with her husband in a new family. And when she births daughters, they will eventually leave in turn as well.”
“Exactly! My mother should be grateful she has gotten the time with me that she has. And it’s not as though I hate her,” Persephone’s pale eyes darted to and fro, “no, I love her, I do. But I love my husband also.”
“Is Lord Hades so fine a spouse?”
“He is very loving,” said Persephone, “to me and to those he must care for in his realm. So many think him grim and gloomy, but he has a tender side.”
“Heh, I once held a sword tip to his throat.”
“He’s told me of that. It very much enraged him; I had to be quite tender to calm him down.”
“Did he hit you?”
“No!” Persephone gaped at Pallas. “No, not ever. He has never been anything but kind and gentle with me.”
“He did abduct you, though.”
“Because I never would have come to him otherwise,” she said. “Hades is….awkward. Surely you have noticed it. He knows the dignity he deserves, but he so rarely gets it, which has warped his interactions with others. I swear to you, though, he is a kinder, gentler man than you think. Kinder than either of his brothers, that is certain.”
“Being kinder than Lord Zeus is not much of an accomplishment. But I believe you. Why else would you return to him each Autumn?”
“A good point,” said Persephone. She gazed above their heads into the sky. “Though I should likely return to him even if I hated him. It is my duty now.”
“In what respect?”
“You know the legend,” she replied. “How Hades abducted me. How I ate of the pomegranate. How I spend half a year with my mother and the other half with my husband. You also know that this causes the changing of the natural world.”
“The seasons, you mean,” said Pallas. “Yes.”
“When I was first born, I was merely a subordinate of Harvest, of food and plenty. My task, such as I had one, was to tinge the produce of my mother’s blessings with extra delight. It was a good enough job, I suppose. I felt I contributed, though only slightly. Now, though….”
They stopped beside a clearing in the woods. The grass, even in starlight, had turned yellow, and was clearly pale as colder weather approached. The trees were gold and orange all about the space. Persephone waved her hand in a long motion. In the light that suddenly emerged, the grass turned dull and brown. The leaves lost all their brilliance, turning brown and falling in a sudden shower from the branches. The wind blew, cold and northern. Pallas, for all her tolerance of frost, shivered.
“Now my going to and fro between Hades and my mother has altered my nature. It has granted me new power – and new responsibility.”
Persephone waved her other arm across the land. Now flowers blossomed on the branches, along with tender shoots of light green leaves. The grass sprouted anew. Sunlight danced and dazzled in the night. In a third wave of Persephone’s arm the grass and leaves were fine and green. The sunlight blazed; Pallas sweated in her armor.
“I am the seasons now. My coming is the blooming life of Spring. My staying is the radiant warmth of Summer. My going is the bright waning of Autumn. My absence is the bitter cold of Winter.”
With a final arm’s wave, the grass turned golden, and the leaves above were changed to orange and yellow, as before. The light winked out, and stars alone lit up the clearing once again.
“That is what I have tried, over and over, to tell my mother, but she does not understand – or she refuses to. Her focus on me is a kind of madness, I suppose, born of a love that’s festered into fury. She cannot, will not, see that I have my duty now. I must go down into the Underworld. Autumn must progress. Winter must appear. The world must have its cycle.”
And then Pallas’ eyebrows rose. “I think the Bloody Goddess, Athena, I think she knows that. I think that is why she helps Demeter. She wants your power.”
“I suppose that makes sense. If she could harness my abilities, and use them to Rome’s benefit, it would aid the Emperor’s conquest that much more.”
“I cannot let the Emperor get you, then,” said Pallas. “We must keep moving.”
“Do you need to sleep? You needed to eat and void your guts, surely you must sleep as well?”
“I have gone a day or so without sleeping,” Pallas said. “I’d rather nap in the daytime. There are things in this part of the world that move in darkness. I’d prefer to be on the lookout for them.”
Persephone drew her hood up. “Let us go on then.”
They marched all through the night. By morning’s reddish blaze they were winding their way through rolling hills, passing banks of gold and orange and scarlet trees amid the endless hills of yellowed grass. The air was chilly; Pallas’ breath fogged out from her lips. She stopped a moment, inhaled deeply, cherishing the smell of the open country.
Then she yawned. Persephone came beside her and gave her wrist a squeeze.
“Perhaps a nap now?”
“Not yet,” said Pallas. “Let’s go a bit farther.”
“To that mountain?” She pointed right in front of them, to where a rounded peak rose up above the smaller summits.
“Fair enough,” said Pallas.
They walked a bit in silence, enjoying the sounds of morning. “You are wonderful company, O Pallas,” Persephone remarked.
“But I don’t talk,” Pallas said. “Or at least not unless you talk first.”
“It’s very refreshing! You allow me room to speak. It is a luxury I do not always get.”
“Not with your husband?”
She glanced aside. “Sometimes.”
“Not with your mother?”
“Oh, never.” A sigh escaped her lips. “My mother still treats me like a child. But she’s the childish one! Just because I’m gone half the year – a thing we have established is not at all unusual – she withdraws her bounty from the world! It works out for everyone, but the reasons for it are so….immature!”
“I wish I could….” Persephone’s eyes abruptly flashed, but just as quickly cooled.
“Well, my mother is dead,” said Pallas with a flex of her great biceps. “And my father abandoned me to cruel fate because I was a woman. You’re lucky Demeter even cares about you at all.” Her hand crept back and touched the pointed pommel of her axe. “I won’t let her keep you from your husband.”
“I am truly grateful. Some day I’ll repay you for your kindness.”
The rest of the journey to the mountainside passed on in comfortable quiet. When they ascended to the foothills, the sun was higher in the deep blue sky, and morning’s chill had given way to pleasant moderation. They stopped inside a quiet grove, and Pallas stretched beneath a golden tree. In moments she was dozing, dreaming dreams of vultures, spears, and endless dying folk. The symbols often haunted all Pallas’ nights, though they did not prevent her full rest. Moreover, they seemed to speak, hint at things she did not understand. It made her dive the deeper into dreams, grasping for the meaning which she knew was there.
“-llas, Pallas, wake up!”
“Hrng,” burbled Pallas, sitting bolt upright. “What?”
“Pallas, do you hear? We must leave now!”
She noticed then the shaking. The earth was trembling. Persephone was tugging at her cloak. “What…”
From the trees burst giants, two of them. One of them was of conventional proportion, twice again as tall as Pallas, arms and legs as thick as tree trunks. His mighty head was dominated by one massive eye, yellow with a black slit like a cat’s. His skin was dusky, much like Pallas’; he wore animal skins over his torso and his groin.
The second giant was the true befuddlement. It had only one massive leg, and ambled like an off-tilt spider with some assistance from its mighty, oversized arms. Its head was largely human, covered mostly by a black and bushy beard. Its canine teeth were large, however, and it bared them now at Pallas. She, for her part, languidly rose to her feet.
“Thou left an easy trail, half-god,” rumbled the one-eyed ispolin.
“We stuck to the road,” said Pallas. “If you’d been smarter, perhaps you would have found us sooner.”
“Filthy skinsack!” snapped the one-legged ispolin. “Vile usurper!”
“I am not a Slav or a Bulgar, good giant,” said Pallas. “It was not I who drove you from your lands.”
“The Bloody Goddess has promised to restore them to us, if we do her bidding,” said the one-eye. “The goddess, give her to us now, and we shall let thee walk away.”
“Now why should I want to do that?” said Pallas, who with a flash of steel drew Omega, her mighty cross-shaped sword, from its scabbard. “I am an ally of men, after all. And…. ” her burning eyes moved up and down, “….you’re not so tough.”
“We shall eat thy flesh, and all thy ample muscles,” snarled the one-leg.
“Perhaps I’ll pay you the same courtesy,” said Pallas. “I’ve never tasted ispolin before.”
The one-leg yelled and launched himself forward.
“Hide, Persephone!” Pallas vaulted forward in a blur of black and red. Her sword was like the bright tip of a thunderbolt, and drove just as intensely deep into the chest of the one-leg. The giant howled and toppled backward, his charge broken by the power of Pallas’ countermove. The one-eye spread his arms apart, huge hands glinting with hidden strength. Pallas felt it in the prickle of her skin and she leapt high into the air just as he smashed his hands together.
There was a flash, and where Pallas had once-stood a fire blazed. The one-leg punched his fist against the ground and hurtled forward once again, headed for Persephone whose scarlet cloak was billowing as she ran, swiftly but not swift enough. Pallas landed right beside the one-eye and swung Omega in an arc of silver. She opened up the giant’s skin and the wound spurted a violet blood, staggering the one-eye and giving her the time to vanish in a blur of blinding speed. When she came beside the one-leg, she reached back with her left hand, drawing from its holster Psyche, her powerful double-edged axe. The front bit swung out and hooked its curve around the massive single ankle of the one-leg. Pallas dug her boots into the leaf-strewn earth, pivoted with all her might, and let the one-leg’s own momentum send him crashing to the ground.
The thunderous clap echoed and Pallas dodged away. The tree behind her blew apart in flames, and soon a blazing fire crackled where it once had stood. Pallas’ blue eyes glanced into the fire briefly. She then swung Omega at the one-leg and dashed back toward the flames. She sunk Omega deep into the blazing trunk, immersing its great blade in flame. Two hands on Psyche now, she charged the hapless one-leg, his great fist swinging. It managed to catch her; she hurtled sidelong, crashing up against a tree and sending crimson leaves showering down. This proved convenient; the rain of red disguised her so the one-leg’s next assault went wild. Bursting from the leaves, Pallas buried Psyche’s bit deep in his elbow joint, sending out a torrent of blood.
The one-eye was nearly upon her, but did not have sight for her. He was moving for Persephone. Pallas used all of her strength to drag the one-leg back onto the ground, then swept her left leg low as the one-eye came running past. He tripped and crashed with such an impact that the forest shook. The one-leg forced himself to stand in such a way as three-limbed creatures can. His axe-sawed arm was useless, gushing blood in such a volume that the wound was likely fatal. While he still could move, however, he was dangerous. Now his good arm and his leg sent him charging straight at Pallas, his bleeding arm swinging above his head like a flail.
Palla held her ground this time and she braced herself, cocking Psyche back behind her head. It was a curious axe; she had seen nothing like it in her wanderings. Moreover, Baldr of the Northmen gods had blessed its bits, conferring on them his invulnerability to all but mistletoe. The one-leg came at her in dusky, looming fury. She marked him with her eyes. His face was just a bit above her head thanks to his stoop. Her muscles worked in harmony, and as the one-leg came right at her she swung Psyche’s bit to meet his face.
His charge and her strength caved his whole skull in. The whole top of his head was chopped off, sending tongue and bits of brain raining about as he crashed dead behind her. The one-eye howled. “Butcher!”
“I’ve heard that before,” said Pallas. In a blur of black she was beside the burning tree. She pulled Omega from the flames; its blade was now white-hot. “Say, good ispolin, do you know the story of Ulysses and Polyphemus?”
The one-eye did not answer, but clapped his hands together yet again. Pallas moved swift aside to dodge the burst of flames, too fast for him to see, and far too late for him to notice as she reappeared in front of him.
“It goes something like this!”
The one-eye had no time to move before Omega’s blade was buried deep inside his eye. Blind and burned the one-eye staggered backward, falling as ruined bits of eye leaked from its socket. Pallas took advantage of his sightlessness and plunged her still-hot sword into his gut drawing a line that opened up his belly, and dragging all his guts to open air. When he slumped forward, Pallas straddled his thick neck. She drove Omega through it like a pin into a cushion. And then with a hack of Psyche, finally parted its head from its shoulders.
“Oof.” Pallas leaned against Omega and then, just as swiftly, she shot bolt upright. “Persephone!” she wailed. Sword and axe flew back into their sheaths, and Pallas hurried through the fiery trees. “Where are you, Persephone?”
Bouncing off a trunk, Pallas caromed through the forest until she burst into a clearing. Persephone sat by a gentle stream, one of her pale hands soaking in the water. A parent’s comfort bloomed in Pallas’ chest. She quickly crossed the distance, dropping to her knees beside the goddess. She was tired and dirty with a line of blood red as the leaves along her forehead.
Persephone wiped away the blood, the crimson fluid staining her lovely fingertips. “Are you alright?”
“I’ve been better. I’m just glad you’re safe.”
“There she is!” they heard from behind them.
Persephone and Pallas whirled around. Across the stream, a troop of armed men had emerged from the forest. They bore the bright steel plate and crimson togas of the Roman Legions, and their great size, almost as tall as Pallas, marked them as the special servants of the Emperor, the quarter-gods called Scions. They were mighty, strong and fast.
“Oh, for Tyr’s sake,” snarled Pallas. She unsheathed Psyche from its holster.
“Surrender the goddess, barbarian!” said the leader. “Or we’ll be forced to….”
In a blur of red and black Pallas was gone. The Scions drew their spathas, readying for an attack. One of them abruptly broke open, blood and guts erupting as Psyche smashed apart his armor.
“I really do hate Romans,” snarled Pallas, killing two more as she waded through their midst. Her blurring blows were instantly fatal. “I….” Two Scions lost their heads, “hate….” an arm came off, “Romans!”
The Scions that were left, four of them, put up a fight. They moved with blinding speed themselves, and Pallas dodged more than one lethal sword strike. But she killed one, and then another, and then a third. The last remaining was the leader. He howled in rage and charged, cloak billowing behind him. Pallas swept Psyche low and cut his feet off. When he was on the ground she straddled him. Yanking off his helmet, she smiled viciously. Her knee pressed him into the dirt, while her free hand held his neck tightly and pressed Psyche against his bald forehead. Persephone flinched away as Pallas scalped her hapless foe. He gave a scream as blood surged from the open wound, and Pallas tossed the useless chunk of head to the side.
At last the woods were quiet. Pallas rolled onto her back, her crimson cloak spread around her like a bloody aura, fitting for so great a butcher. “Now I really want that nap,” she whispered.
“Sleep,” Persephone said. “I’ll keep watch.” She drifted next to Pallas, sitting down; the grass grew bright and lively where she sat. Pale perfect fingers drifted out and stroked Pallas’ forehead. “Thank you, so much.” A wave of warmth and comfort passed through Pallas. Psyche clattered from her hand, and sleep consumed her.
Pallas slept til evening and then the two were on their way again. The journey lasted one day more, in which they met another ispolin and yet more Romans. Pallas slew them all. None of their enemies so much as laid a finger on Persephone, who for her part kept Pallas’ spirits up, her heart warm and at peace.
At last, as evening of the third day came, they took the slope that led toward their destination. The wind blew cool about them, billowing both women’s cloaks. Persephone breathed the chill autumn air. “I so look forward to seeing Hades again.”
“I look forward to the natural order continuing,” said Pallas. “Hades, I can take or leave. I’ll just trust your word that he’s a lovely husband.”
“He is. You should visit some time.”
“I have reservations about going to the Underworld.”
“You would not be trapped there, I promise. We’d protect you from the songs of death. What’s more, you’re half a god, so your passage to the Underworld would be smoother.”
“Maybe some day,” muttered Pallas. “Perhaps when the Emperor is dead, and the Bloody Goddess is dealt with.”
Persephone winced. “You know, Athena….she has been kind enough to me.”
“Only because it is convenient,” rumbled Pallas. “Do you know how many gods she’s slaughtered? How many pantheon’s are dead to sate her lust for power? Mark my word, the time will come when she turns on you, and all the other Olympian’s. Hopefully it won’t come to that.” Pallas’ strong hand tightened around Omega’s hilt.
Persephone shook her head. “You or her….killing gods. I do not approve.”
“It has to be done.”
“That is what she has said.”
Pallas huffed and turned aside.
“But please, visit. Soon. Or, if you cannot make it this autumn or this winter, come and find me in the spring.” Persephone smiled at her. “You have been so kind and sturdy to me. We’ve known each other only a few days, but I’d like to count you as a friend.”
This caused Pallas to smile. “I’d like that too. Friends it is.”
A warm breeze blew around them, lifting their twin spirits. Their steps grew slower, each woman reluctant to hasten the ending of their journey. Pallas stole a glance upon Persephone, marveling at how she could maintain composure in such dire circumstances. But then, all the goddesses she’d met seemed to possess that trait, that otherworldly calm and self-assurance. She supposed it came from having power over things, of being undying and supernaturally beautiful. She hid a wince as she reflected on her own lack of comportment.
At last they reached the hilltop, affording them some time to glance back at their route. If Pallas trained her more-than-mortal eyes, she thought she could make out their starting point, that crossroads where Persephone had met her. It was far away, buried somewhere in the haze of gold and crimson that made up the landscape’s multicolored foliage. But then she turned and said, “We’re here.”
The massive, blackened cave mouth yawned before them, echoing their words at even this large a distance. Persephone’s head moved to the side. “What now?”
“Now, we wait for Veles,” Pallas said. “He said he’d be here on the night of the third day. We’ve got a little while still, so don’t get too excited.”
“On the contrary, I should like my daughter to be glad to see me,” a voice from behind them spoke.
Psyche came out of its holster as Pallas whirled about. A tall and lovely woman stood upon the forest’s edge. Her whole aspect was shaded golden in the manner of ripe grain. She wore a toga’d dress, in Grecian style, and her hair was caught up with a loose bun that was crowned by a gold diadem. A bright red poppy was set in her hair. Warmth and love breathed out from her, but in her bright green eyes there was a hint of malice.
“Mother!” Persephone cried.
“Hello, my dearest daughter,” said Demeter. “The ispolini told me you’d be here.”
“Get back,” snarled Pallas, brandishing her axe.
“I have little to fear from you, half-god,” Demeter said. “And I have little respect for you, as well.”
“You wound me, my great-aunt.”
“Ha!” she barked. “Do not try to curry sympathy by evoking our familial ties. It matters not that you and Persephone are distant cousins. If you had any proper conception of how many gods and demigods and quarter-gods were sloshing about the world as a result of the dalliances of the Olympian’s, you would understand how little I care of our blood ties.”
“But she is my cousin,” said Persephone, “ and she is my friend as well. And she is doing what is right, mother.”
“Be quiet, Persephone,” said Demeter. “We have discussed this.”
“Yes, over and over. But you don’t listen mother! You actively refuse to understand.”
“We shall have plenty of time to hash things out when you are safe with me in Eleusis.”
“The only place she is going is the Underworld,” said Pallas. “If you want to deny her travel there, you’ll have to get through me.”
“Well then I shall, dear great-niece,” Demeter said a bit too sweetly. “Or, not just me.”
She twitched her hand. In an instant she was crowded on all sides by warriors, by Scions in their armor and by six burly ispolini.
“There is Pallas of the North,” Demeter said, gesturing. “Kill her.”
The mass of warriors went charging right at Pallas. Taken briefly off her guard, she quickly realigned and hurtled for the throng. She met a Scion and she carved him groin to jaw with Psyche, spattering his gore upon the yellow grass. No sooner had she killed him than an ispolin reached out to grab her in his massive hand. He chucked her like a stone back down the hill, hurling her in a great arc until she bounced and crashed upon the slope. The fighters dashed for her, leaving Persephone and her mother all alone.
“Pallas!” cried Persephone. She hurried toward the slope.
“Ah, now,” said Demeter, stepping in front of her. “No need for you to see such ugliness, my dearest daughter. All the unpleasant elements of your life are at an end, now that you will not be going to the Underworld any more.”
“I need to go, mother!” cried Persephone. “The world has grown to depend on me. Even you, in your grief, play a part in the grand scheme of things. The world needs its seasons!”
“Then it will have them,” said Demeter. “Oh, my dearest, do you think I shall not create Fall and Winter with you beside me? I understand how essential the four seasons have become. Rest assured, men will have their blooming, their flourishing, their gathering, and their withering times.”
“You say that, but I know it isn’t true. You are too generous, mother. Without anything to spur you otherwise, the world will be an endless Spring, and men will starve surrounded by beautiful flowers.”
“I am the Harvest, daughter. Men will not starve.”
“You have starved them before in your grief, how can they trust you? How can I trust you?”
Down the hill the fight grew dire. Pallas dodged a Scion’s blow and cut his head off, but another’s spear pierced her chainmail at her hip, drawing blood and causing terrible pain. Snarling, Pallas lashed out with a free hand, grabbed the Scion by the neck and kneed him with such power that his spine burst out his back. She yanked the spear from out her hip and flung it like a javelin toward an ispolin, piercing its one eye. She ran in next and leapt up so she might cut its throat open with Omega. Another ispolin flicked out its hand and lightning flashed about her, sizzling her bones and making her hair frizzle from the static. But she absorbed the blow and dashed toward the giant, jumping up its chest and driving her sword’s blade deep in its mouth. A Scion yanked her backward by her cape, his spatha sword swinging right for her head. She barely dodged it, but the tip managed to catch her neck, drawing one long line of blood. Pallas spat from frustration and hurtled toward him.
“This debate is academic,” said Demeter up the hill. “I am here because great Athena has allied with me, and together we have decided that you will go no more into the Underworld.”
“Why? Because my husband does not bow in Athena’s presence? Why should he, who is brother of Zeus? Athena grows too bold for her station.” Persephone thought on Pallas’ words. “How much can we trust a god who murders other deities?”
“She is our kin, dear daughter. We have nothing to fear from her.”
“Not yet,” Persephone said and then instantly took pause. Her ears, which could hear leaves as they emerged from their bud, and hear the snowflakes as the clouds above created them, now took in only silence from the slope. Her eyes went wide. “Pallas!” She raced for the incline.
“Ah!” said Demeter, catching her advance. “No need to see such a grotesque mess. It is finished. You are safe now.”
“No! No!” she cried, tears leaking from her eyes. “How could you?”
“She was Athena’s enemy, my daughter. She was going to die sooner or later, why not now? Your husband, and your jailer, should deal well enough with her soul.”
“No!” Persephone shoved but could not break Demeter’s grip. She turned and gazed deeply into her mother’s eyes, her innocent face twisted in rage. “What has happened to you, mother? Why don’t you listen to anything I say? I’m your daughter! If you really loved me, you would care enough about what I think to listen to me!”
“I do love you, daughter,” said Demeter. “But you must realize that I have lived since the beginning of the world. There is much you do not understand, and in time you will, under my constant care.” She waved a pretty hand into the darkened violet sky. “Now that you are safe, you must not….Ahhhh!”
Demeter flinched with her whole body, bending forward in a twist of pain. Persephone looked upon her mother with incredulous eyes. Her golden hand was pierced right through the middle by a seax – a Northman’s knife. Golden blood was leaking from the wound.
“How?” whispered Demeter.
Demeter was pulled backward by her hair. Yanked down, she toppled to the grassy clearing floor. Above her stood Pallas of the North, bloody, rattled, breathing heavy, but alive. She grinned with manic hatred at Demeter. “I guess you thought all that would be enough. Is that what Athena told you?” She stomped down on Demeter’s neck with her black boot. “She was wrong!”
Gasping, gagging, hacking hard for breath Demeter rolled onto her side. Pallas leapt on top of her and started pummeling the goddess’ face with fists that could crack mountains. Persephone gasped in horror as her mother’s nose was broken. Demeter raised an arm, perhaps to summon divine power. Pallas’ reaction was immediate, her axe Psyche lashed out and Persephone screamed as her gold-colored hand was severed at the wrist.
“Pallas, please,” Persephone pleaded. “She is my mother.”
“She’s a hag,” snarled Pallas, “and she tried to have me killed.” She scraped Omega hard across Demeter’s cheek, spilling golden blood onto the grass.
“Do what you will, you ugly blood-drenched savage,” said Demeter. “I am immortal. I shall heal whatever damage is done.”
“Good point,” said Pallas. She reached into her boot and drew another dagger forth. Its blade was transparent, sculpted perhaps out of glass or crystal. “So then you know what this is.”
Demeter’s mouth dropped open. “Where did you get that?”
“It’s a long story,” said Pallas. “But you know what it does I’m sure.
“Pallas, please don’t kill my mother,” said Persephone. “Please, please don’t kill my mother.”
“Why not? Turnabout’s fair play. And then there would be no one stopping you from seeing Hades any time you wished. I saw the way you flinched and dodged every time you mentioned her. She’s oppressing you, Persephone. I can set you free.” Pallas put the glass blade’s edge against Demeter’s throat. Wisps of greenish mist came ghosting round it.
“Yes, yes, she does oppress me, but I still love her! And she is the Harvest, Pallas! Killing her would be disastrous!”
“There are lots of gods and goddesses who govern fertility and crops. Losing one won’t hurt.”
“How are you any better than Athena if you just kill whoever displeases you?”
“Maybe I don’t care about being better than Athena,” Pallas snarled and rapped her knuckles on Demeter’s head.
“I do not believe that is true, O Pallas.”
“Nor do I.”
The goddess and the demigoddess turned toward the cavern’s open mouth. From it strode two men, their size and presence marking them as gods. One of them was burly, wearing a fur robe onto which his deep brown beard descended like a mountain waterfall. Upon his head a diadem of iron sat, into which were set two bull’s horns that swept back and out. His thick arms were entwined with living snakes, whose heads rose up and whose tongues flicked out. His steps carried the distant rumble of thunder, and when he blinked his bright eyes, lightning flashed.
The other was far more aristocratic. Even in the starlight Pallas saw his skin was pale gray, and he wore a tunic colored like charcoal. A cap sat on his head, while in his hands he carried a finely-shaped bident. His eyes were bloody red, his hair and neatly trimmed beard were a deep set black. When Persephone saw him she gave a great cry of joy and ran his way. “Dearest!”
“Hello, my darling,” Hades said before they embraced and shared a tender kiss. Then he glanced beyond her. “And hello to you as well, Pallas, daughter of battle.”
“Lord Hades,” Pallas nodded. “And to you Lord Veles,” motioning to the bearded man. “It is good to see you again. When did you two meet?”
“On my way up to the surface,” Veles said. “Hades stopped me at a bend inside the Earth. He had somehow gotten wind of our designs.”
“There are no secrets to one who deals in death,” said Hades. “All I had to do was ask some of the men you killed, O Pallas.”
“Well it’s good to see you both,” said Pallas. “You’re just in time to watch me kill Demeter.”
“Brother! Say something!” Demeter cried.
“Pallas, I would advise against such actions,” Hades said. “You have seen the terrible consequences of Athena’s bloodlust. Why visit those upon yourself?”
“I’m in a foul mood,” said Pallas, pressing her clear blade against Demeter’s neck. “And if I let her go now she’ll be nothing but a threat to me going forward. She’s horrible, and she does nothing but cause trouble. Why not rid ourselves of her?”
“Because she is important, Pallas,” Veles said. “You mentioned as we arrived that there were many gods and goddesses of the harvest in this world. I am one myself. But just because I exist does not make Demeter any less vital. Nor does Demeter’s existence diminish my own necessity. The world is intricately shaped, Pallas, parts and pieces locking into place with greatest care. The Bloody Goddess has upset so much of that balance already. Would you be her helper in her quest?”
Pallas hissed. For the barest instant she prepared her muscles for the awful deed.
“Pallas, if you love me, you will not kill my mother,” Persephone quietly said.
Then Pallas sighed and slumped, feeling very old despite her nineteen years. “Fine,” she muttered. Standing up, she put the sword back in her boot. She glared down at Demeter.
“We should be going now,” Hades said.
“Wait,” said Persephone, stepping away from him. “Pallas.” The two young women came together, wrapping each other in a tight embrace. “How can I ever repay you for what you’ve done for me?”
“Don’t forget me,” said Pallas, “and don’t die. That’s a start.”
“I shall do neither.” Persephone smiled. “I meant it when I said you should come visit me.”
“Perhaps some day,” said Pallas. “I’ll find you.”
“Or I’ll find you.” Her hug grew tighter. That same beautiful warmth, the hazy sun of summer, blossomed all through Pallas, draining her of her pain and care. Pallas’ eyes stung, though she avoided crying. “Thank you, so much, my dear friend.”
Pallas drew away from the embrace. “You’d better get going.”
“I suppose I had.” She raised her hand. “My blessings be upon you, Pallas of the North. May you have safe travels, and good fortune, everywhere you go.” She turned next, and went back to Hades.
“Lord Hades,” said Pallas, “I suppose you think I am not so crass now?”
“Oh, you still are,” said Hades. “It is useful to have such brutishness in my service, however. Safe passage, daughter of battle.” With that, the couple turned, and, hands clasped in each others’, they went into the darkness of the cave.
Pallas watched them vanish in the shadows, eyes following until they were wholly out of sight. Then she sighed, and she bowed. “Lord Veles.”
“Are you going to just leave Demeter pinned there?”
“Ha,” barked Pallas. She returned to the goddess’ prone form. “Of course not, that would mean leaving my sword.” She drew Omega from Demeter’s chest. The goddess came shakily to her feet. Her nose was already mended, her severed hand nearly regrown.
“My grief is real,” Demeter said. She glared at Pallas. “I should….Ah!”
Pallas grabbed her hair and forced her to her knees. “You’re lucky you’re not dead, you vile bitch,” she snarled. “The only reason you’re alive is because your daughter begged me to spare you, and I love her very much.” The fingers of her free hand waggled. She slapped Demeter’s mouth to force it open. “Now, clearly, you can recover from anything short of death, so nothing I’ve done will leave a mark. So I shall take this,” Demeter screeched as Pallas ripped a front tooth out, “as a souvenir, a memento of the time I laid you low.” At last her grip was loosened. “Now leave.”
“You filthy barbarian!” hissed Demeter as she stood. “As my daughter blessed you, now I curse you! Some day you will meet a cruel end, full of blood and agony! And I swear I shall be there to see it! I shall laugh, Pallas, butcher and tyrant, when you die. The earth will bloom where your blood waters it!”
“You should leave, my dear Demeter,” Veles said, “before you make any more foolish decisions.” He flexed his fingers. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed above.
With one final grimace Demeter turned upon her heel, and vanished. Pallas sheathed Omega. “Thanks for the assist, my lord.”
“Say nothing of it,” Veles said. “I can’t blame you for dealing roughly with her. I saw through all the nearby serpents’ eyes what transpired. I would be enraged as well.”
“Oof,” huffed Pallas, sagging where she stood. “I just wish I could have come out of it cleaner. I’ll need new….everything.” She looked down at herself. Her mail was gapped, her cloak was ripped, her leather armor pierced in many places. Even her pack was missing a strap.
“Let me see if the cosmos are aligned correctly….there.” Veles snapped his fingers. Instantly Pallas’ gear and armor were brand new. She even saw a shine on her black boots. “I cannot always do that, but the time and place were proper.”
Pallas bowed. “My thanks, Lord Veles.”
“Will you be camping tonight?”
“I think I shall get out of the mountains first. There are bound to be more ispolini around, and they won’t take kindly to all the kin of theirs I’ve killed. The lowlands will be safer for me, so I’ll get there first, and sleep at dawn.”
“Then safe travels, O Pallas,” Veles said. “My blessings be upon you.” There was a mighty hissing, and his form dissolved into a host of serpents. They soon collapsed and scattered, slithering away in all directions.
“Two blessings and one curse,” said Pallas to herself. She took Psyche out and twirled it. “Not a bad balance, all told.” Returning the axe to its holster, she drew her cloak about her; it was cold. Pulling her hood over her blond hair, she began to walk back down the slope.
“Pallas’ adventures will continue. She has many more short stories, and more than a few novels, left before her tale is done.” – C.A. Shoultz
- Header image taken by the talented photographer, Ben Robson Hull. [↩]