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The other deities were already gathering in the Great Hall of Olympus when Hera and Artemis strode in, both with faces like Zeus’ thunderclouds. Hera would have preferred to address the gods in the throne room where she could stand next to Zeus’ empty seat, forcing home the point that she was a victim, that she had news to tell them but most of all that she was in charge. No matter, she could handle things from here instead. What was critical was that she took control immediately. She headed for the raised dais at the end of the hall in order to command the proceedings. Her stomach lurched when she saw Athena and Apollo already climbing the steps ahead of her. Athena turned and raised her eyebrows at Hera while Apollo folded his arms and smirked.
Seize the initiative, she told herself. She needed to quieten the hubbub and get everyone hanging on her every word.
“Silence!” shouted Artemis from her side, also climbing the steps to the dais.
The hall fell silent as Hera turned to face the assembled deities, faces looking up at her with a range of questioning, bemused and bored expressions. One or two looked actually angry which made her think that the fate of her relatives had already been leaked to a select few. At the back of the hall a shimmering black and gold whirlwind appeared and immediately dissipated to reveal Persephone, arrived from the Underworld on behalf of her husband, Hades. Hera took a breath and opened her mouth.
Athena got there first. “My friends, we have asked you here this morning to discover the truth about the disappearance of the Almighty Zeus, our Father. It seems that Hera has known more about his fate than she has divulged.” Some of the faces in the crowd glowered at Hera and she heard someone spit. Athena continued her opening statement. “What may come as a greater shock to you all is that Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, and Ares, God of War, are also missing.” The hubbub increased as the crowd muttered and exclaimed to one another.
Artemis continued the case for the prosecution. “This is another of Hera’s plots. She has dispatched Zeus and Poseidon and, knowing that Hades will not give up his kingdom of the dead, she will claim the throne of Olympus for herself!”
This provoked more than muttering from the gathered deities with some shouting out curses, pointing fingers and shaking fists. Hera caught sight of Eris off to one side, eyes shining with malicious glee, feeding off the unrest she had unleashed. Did she think that she could simply watch events unfold and clap her hands? Oh no, missy, you’re in the thick of this too, you’ll see. She scanned the rest of the gods, looking for allies and realised that two of her strongest advocates, Zeus and Ares, would never again speak on her behalf. She was left with her daughters Eileithyia, the Goddess of Childbirth, Hebe, the Goddess of Youth and potentially Eris although with allies like her who needed enemies? The commitment of Hebe was also questionable due to her marriage to Heracles, the demi-god being one of Zeus’ countless illegitimate offspring; Hera resented all of those annoying bastards and provoked hatred towards her in return.
That brought her to consider her enemies and they clearly outnumbered her supporters: Artemis and Apollo, Heracles, and Hephaestus, her own son. She had been disappointed and not a little disgusted when she realised he wasn’t a perfect specimen of godhood, his lame leg having no place on Olympus. The Metalsmith God had had his revenge but still had bitter feelings towards his mother. He glared at her now, leaning on his staff and listening to his wife, Aphrodite, whisper in his ear.
Athena raised her hands in an appeal for silence. “My friends,” she said, “please be calm. These are the accusations of Artemis and Apollo. We should hear what Hera has to say before judging her actions.”
Hera turned to look at Athena. So, she was being judged by all of the gods, was she? Fine. She bowed her head and clasped her hands. “There is no plot, at least none from me. If the bizarre events I have uncovered are anything but random acts then the plotter has targeted all of Olympus, but myself more than anyone. I am widowed. I have lost a husband, a brother and a cherished son.”
In the pause she left to add gravitas to her sombre words, her sister Hestia stepped forward. “Are you telling us that they are dead? Is this even possible?”
Hera nodded, eyes still cast downwards.
“And they are not now in the Elysium Fields of the Underworld?”
All eyes turned to Persephone who shook her head.
Hephaestus called out, “Tell us what happened and let us decide whether you deserve our pity.”
And so she did, starting with her exploration of Zeus’ island, the transformation of his pet nymph into a frog and the discovery of two unusual mortals. “I should have been as visible to mortals as air yet they saw me. At the time I could not understand how and decided to spy on them to see if they knew of the whereabouts of Zeus or Ares.” She looked out at the crowd who were hanging on every word. “I took the form of a dove to watch one of them and I believe a stone from his sling caught me a glancing blow to the head.” She touched her fingers to her temple. “I was hurt. Felled from my perch and knocked insensible. Eris,” she held her hand out to her daughter, “was assisting me in my investigations and found me, wounded. Come here, child, tell them what you saw.”
Eris swiftly recovered her shock at being dragged into the debate and smiled. “You said you flew into a tree, mother.”
“I was confused. One moment I was watching a smelly man practising his very poor sling shots and the next I was waking up with a badly bruised face. I am a Goddess of Olympus! How was I injured? Everything revolves around these mortals and yet they slip away every time, thanks to Zeus’ treacherous nymph… or the undead creature.”
“What undead creature?” asked Demeter, mother of Persephone.
“I have only had a fleeting glimpse of it but it seems to be some kind of living corpse. Eris has actually had a conversation with it, haven’t you, dear? She told me late last night all she knew and it confirmed what I had suspected but which seemed ludicrous and insane without further evidence. At last I was able to provide comfort to my concerned daughter as well as reveal the truth.”
“Which is what, exactly?” asked Artemis. Hera could tell that she had caught the Huntress off balance. It was time to deliver the knock-out blow.
“The mortals killed Zeus when he was in the form of a swan. They killed Ares when he was in the form of a boar. They killed Poseidon when he appeared to them as a monstrous squid. I myself was severely injured when I was a dove. This is how they are destroying Olympus.”
The deities were muttering again, scratching beards and shaking heads, appalled at such news. Persephone strode forward. “I said that the souls of our brothers were not in the Underworld, but that is not entirely true. In the last week or so, amongst the usual travellers to Hades, there came the souls of a swan, a boar and a squid.” She held out her hands and gave a half-shrug. “We had never seen anything like it. If they had any immortal presence it has bled away and they are now just confused creatures moping about the place. We’ve put the swan and boar in an area of Elysium to entertain the children. The squid seems to like it in the Styx so we’ve left it there.”
This led to more gesticulating and debate amongst the crowd. Hera let them carry on for a short while before she raised her hand and her voice.
“There’s one more thing you need to know. The mortals didn’t just kill my family. They ate them afterwards. They ate the gods of Olympus, stealing their lives and their power. That is how they saw me.”
That shut them up. Good. “My friends, it was my intention to gather you here this morning to explain all that we, Eris and I, had discovered. I have been most grievously dishonoured.” She turned to Artemis, Apollo and Athena. “I thank my friends here for sending out the invitations, so saving me a task at such a trying time.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Eris grin. Say what you like about the duplicitous little snake but she always appreciated a good argument, especially a skilful twist of the knife. “I have been dishonoured and Olympus has been attacked, deprived of its King. It is time to seek retribution and justice, to avenge our brothers. Join me today and we will find these accursed mortals and their unnatural assistants and we will make them pay.”
She was so pumped with passion that she almost didn’t hear the cheering.
Micon’s spear-tip wobbled in front of him as he tried to prepare for another battle. The last one had ended before he’d moved a muscle and he was worried that after the end of this one he might never move a muscle again. His mouth had gone dry, his bodily fluids apparently deserting his mouth in favour of the palms of his hands which was not helping with his grip on his spear. To his left, Philippus held his shield up and his bronze blade ready to strike. Dead ahead, closing the gap with every purposeful stride, was King Silichtypo and his two imposing soldiers, the boulder-sized Little Upastrapto and the truly mountainous Big Upastrapto.
There was a scuffling noise from behind and before they could react the cloaked beggar they’d seen resting in the shade had tottered past them and faced the approaching soldiers. The beggar spread his arms out wide, a gnarled staff in one hand and a short knobbly stick in the other. Philippus glanced at Micon who shrugged. Whoever this was, they weren’t going to argue with whatever the beggar planned; at the very least it would buy them a few more seconds.
“Out of the way, beggar!” commanded the king as the three armoured men paused their advance. The beggar didn’t budge. “Move him,” said Silichtypo.
Before Big Upastrapto had taken a single step, the staff and the stick held in the beggar’s hands drifted wider towards the walls of the buildings either side of the street, the skeletal arms sliding further out of the folds of the cloak until they were completely free of the cloth. The cloak flapped down around the still form of the beggar while the arms and their wooden weapons began to circle towards the soldiers. Big Upastrapto had paused in his mission to move the beggar and was now staring at the staff and bony arm that wobbled through the air towards him. His mouth gaped open, his eyes bewitched.
“What sorcery is this?” whispered the king, nervously.
With a sudden burst of action the two arms whipped their weapons around and struck the two Upastraptos across their respective temples. The soldiers staggered backwards, as much in confusion and fear as actual injury.
“Oooh, yeah! ‘Ave a bitta that, ya hairy tossers!”
Xanthius began what Micon thought looked like some kind of bizarre chicken strut, zigzagging towards the wary soldiers.
“Kill it!” shrieked the king.
The strident command jerked the soldiers back into action, Big Upastrapto lunging forward and skewering the cocky undead beggar through the ribs.
Xanthius leered at the soldier. “That ain’t very polite, now izzit?” The grinning skull canted to one side and then slammed forward, teeth clamped around Upastrapto’s nose.
A terrified shriek came from the bitten soldier.
Little Upastrapto swung his sword into the side of the beggar, hacking at Xanthius until he collapsed into a pile of bones wrapped in a cloak. Big Upastrapto grabbed the skull with both hands and pulled it off his bleeding nose.
“You taste like a rancid whelk, mate,” said Xanthius, trying to bite the soldier’s thumbs.
With a roar of fear, disgust and anger, Big Upastrapto hurled the head over a nearby wall. The sailor’s levitating arms still held the staff and stick and were swinging wildly in front of the king. His soldiers beat at the rogue limbs until they too dropped to the floor with a clatter. The king glared at the offensive bones as he carefully stepped around them and then switched his attention back to Micon and Philippus who had been rooted to the spot while Xanthius brought them precious moments. But now they had to face angry, fired-up soldiers and they were unlikely to last as long as their zombie crew-mate.
Footsteps behind them were followed by Dionysus giving a cheery greeting. “You’re still alive, then. ”
“Thanks to Xanthius,” said Micon.
“Although he did go to pieces in the end,” added Philippus.
“Ah, he’ll be alright,” said Dionysus taking up position between the two sailors. The king and his lieutenants had paused again as they assessed the newcomer. Although he was youthful and tall he didn’t appear to be armed so they recommenced their cautious approach.
“What were you doing that was so important anyway?” asked Philippus.
“Sorting out reinforcements,” said the god.
“And I must say that it is rather good to be out of that box.” A full-size Amykos stepped out of the building, followed by Sastrios. Once again King Silichtypo and his bodyguards stopped. They were now outnumbered five to three. Outnumbered by two scruffy, injured sailors, a rather attractive young man, a muscular centaur and a hairy satyr possessing the biggest erection they had ever seen. Nothing in their wildest dreams could have prepared the king and his men for the sight before them and they slowly backed away. They flinched as they passed Xanthius’s arms dragging themselves across the ground in a quest for shoulder blades.
“Our skeletal friend seems to be in some difficulty,” said Amykos. “Go and help him, Sastrios.”
The satyr edged forward and collected the bones and rags in a heaped armful.
“They threw his head over that wall,” said Micon.
Sastrios rolled his eyes and dumped the majority of Xanthius into Micon’s arms. “Alright, I’ll go and find him. Can someone give me a boost?”
Amykos bent down next to the wall, the satyr placed a hoof into his cupped hands and was tossed over the tall stone surround. All of this had allowed King Silichtypo to recover his wits and call for his own reinforcements.
“Guards! Guards! Help! The prisoners are escaping!”
Dionysus glanced over his shoulder as a group of soldiers appeared from around the corner, barely six paces behind them. “Run!” he shouted, pushing Micon and Philippus forward. Amykos sized up the situation and charged at the king and his two companions, swinging the staff that Xanthius had dropped. The soldiers dived out of his way as he galloped through their position with the god and the sailors hot on his hooves. Behind them were a dozen soldiers with arms cocked to throw their javelins into the escapees’ backs.
“What about Sastrios?” shouted Micon.
“He’ll be fine,” puffed Amykos, “he’s a tough little chap.”
A clattering noise and shouts of surprise and pain came from their rear and Philippus turned to see a javelin fall just short. Further back down the street soldiers were knocked off their feet as a small, stocky satyr barrelled through them, a grinning skull tucked under his arm.
They veered right at the end of the street and headed downhill, chased by the king’s soldiers. Philippus was struggling, still suffering from his injuries and not able to maintain the pace, causing them all to slow. Sastrios caught up with his comrades and glanced back at their pursuers. “We either need to run faster or slow them down.”
“Put Philippus on my back,” said Amykos. As they tried to shove the battered sailor onto the centaur, Xanthius reunited his various body parts. The soldiers were only thirty paces away and closing quickly.
“Dionysus,” said the satyr, thinking back to the previous morning, “can you give people hangovers as well as taking them away?”
“I’ve never tried,” said the god, frowning.
“Try now,” said Sastrios, pointing at the soldiers. They carried on running as Dionysus raised a hand at the onrushing troops. A stride faltered, a wince flickered on a face while another grimaced. The soldiers staggered to a halt, some bent over and breathing deeply, others with hands massaging foreheads. All thought of battle or capture replaced by incessant pounding in their brains. At the rear of the group the king put his hands on his knees and threw up with true royal flair, splashing the backs of his stooping lieutenants.
“Nice,” said the god of alcohol with a smirk. He turned away from the groaning warriors and jogged off to join the others back at the Sun Barge.