Hera surveyed the mortals to her right, dressed in leather and bronze armour, their swords and spears wavering. The soldiers began to shuffle backwards, wide eyes fixed on the beings who had miraculously appeared on the sand in front of them. The Queen of Olympus turned her head to the left and smiled viciously at the mortals she had long sought. Victory was almost at hand. She appraised their companions; there was the undead creature, as well as a centaur and a satyr. An old woman stared unflinchingly back at her and Hera moved on to the rogue nymph who pointed the war spear of Ares at the Oympians. Finally, she addressed the god that stood alongside the rabble of troublemakers.
“Dionysus,” she sneered, “I’d heard that you were involved in this disgusting horror story.”
“Great to see you, too, Hera. Are you still souring milk in your spare time?”
“Flippancy, again. You never take anything seriously, do you? Look at the spear held by the whore-nymph next to you. Look at that helmet. Do you not recognise that they are your brother’s?”
“Half-brother. And I never really saw eye-to-eye with Ares; he was very intense.”
“He’s dead, Dionysus. Killed by those mortals. As was your father, Zeus, and your uncle, Poseidon.” Hera stepped towards the young God of Wine, fire burning in her eyes. “They killed them and ate your family members. How can you bear the presence of these mortals, let alone stand by them and protect them.”
Dionysus smiled back at Hera, knowing it would infuriate her further. “Hey, you know what they say, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. And I’d choose these guys every time. They have shown more compassion and friendship in a few hours than I’ve ever seen from gods.”
Hera put a hand to her breast in shock. Dionysus knew it was merely an affectation. Eris, watching from one side, rolled her eyes at Artemis who folded her arms in impatience.
“And you can’t deny, Hera,” continued Dionysus, “that Zeus had just a few flaws. Leda, Ganymede, Leto… my mother.”
Hera lifted clawed hands in fury, ready to strike down the insolent crew before her but Athena quickly stepped forward and gripped the Queen’s arm. “Wait, Hera, we are here to learn more of the fate of Zeus, not just to exact deadly vengeance.”
Hera glared at the Goddess of Wisdom, her fists and jaw clenched tight. But she dropped her arms to her sides and strode away from the Sun Barge crew. Athena reviewed them with fascination. “They’re so… pathetic. I almost feel sorry for them. But how on holy Olympus did these weak mortals kill our father?” She pointed at Philippus. “You, explain.”
Philippus stared at Athena. He saw the beautiful armoured Olympian goddess but also the multi-faceted deity that encompassed wisdom, craft, warfare and victory. He pushed his way past Nadina and knelt before the goddess. I can’t believe I’m doing this, he thought. His mouth was bone dry and he had to cough and swallow before he could speak. “Most wise Athena, we didn’t intend any harm. We were ship-wrecked upon an island and were starving. We were visited by a giant swan…”
Hera ground her teeth in frustration. She didn’t need investigation or considered thought, she needed to seize the initiative and so a distraction was required. She looked at the Olympians who were engrossed in the mortal’s story but there was another option. The soldiers the other side of the gods were clearly nervous. And there, what was that secret whispering?
A soldier in the front line bent his head and murmured to his young leader: “We should go, leave the gods to their business.”
Hera ascended into the air, fabric and hair billowing about her, and lifted the soldier by an invisible hand. The man gasped, dropped his spear and tried to tear at the grip around his throat.
“Such insolence!” barked Hera. “You do not leave the presence of gods without permission! Today is a day when mortals shall re-learn their place!”
The plan worked, all attention now on Hera and the levitated soldier. Her eye caught movement below and she realised that the young leader had retrieved the dropped spear and held it cocked and ready to throw into Hera’s body. “Put Patroclus down, my lady, or I will send you back to Olympus with a shaft of wood and bronze piercing your fine robe and possibly your pale flesh.”
There was a collective gasp from almost everyone on the beach. Eris beamed with joy.
Hera scowled at the soldier with the spear. “You wouldn’t dare strike the Queen of Olympus.”
“You dishonour my captain and threaten his life. He would do the same for me.” He flexed his shoulder and pulled his arm back a little further. “Release him.”
Athena, hiding her annoyance behind an expressionless face, wafted into the air and hovered close enough to whisper into Hera’s ear. “You said that the gods could be killed in animal form. It occurs to me that humans are, when you get down to the basic details, just another animal. Perhaps now is not the time to test your theory. That soldier does look very determined and far more of a proficient killer than the scrawny castaways that still managed to despatch three of our number.”
With a flick of her finger Hera released the man and he fell to the sand, gasping. His commander planted the spear in the ground and nodded his thanks before attending to his comrade.
“We have heard enough!” exclaimed Artemis to her fellow Olympians, bringing everyone’s attention back to crew of the Sun Barge. “These two mortals killed our beloved father and must pay the price.” She stepped towards Philippus, still kneeling in the sand, eyes tracking the goddess’s arms as they raised into the air. A shadow moved swiftly to his right and he found himself dragged backwards behind Dionysus who stood defiantly before the Goddess of the Hunt. Artemis stared at the young god in contempt. “You can’t stop me, boy.” Before Dionysus could respond she leapt forward and swung her right leg around in a rapid wide arc. Her heel connected with the Wine God’s jaw and he fell to the sand, dazed.
Satisfied that he was no longer an obstacle, Artemis turned back to the remaining crew and found herself face to armoured face with Nadina, spear ready. “Go back to your mountain, goddess.”
Artemis smiled, which worried the watching Olympians because this was not normal behaviour. “I admire your bravery and your martial skills, little sister, but you are no match for me.” The fast-moving huntress dropped her right shoulder and punched hard into the nymph’s left ribs before Nadina even thought to thrust her spear forward. She fell to her knees, winded and stunned. “And you were the murderer of my uncle, so you too must die.” In a fluid, practised movement the goddess retrieved a slender hunting knife from the side of her quiver of arrows and made to slice into the nymph’s neck.
The knife hit a small buckler shield that had appeared from nowhere. Her eyes followed the shield up the wiry mortal arm to look into the face of a grimly determined Micon. She slashed her knife at his throat but connected with nothing but air. Twice surprised, the goddess feinted right with the knife and punched out with her left hand. Again, she missed her target.
“Just go away! I don’t want to fight you!” gasped Micon. But the goddess merely frowned and lunged forward, her knife sure to disembowel the annoying pest. Her arm stung. The mortal wasn’t on the end of her knife and blood was flowing from her right bicep. Micon wore an almost glazed expression, tuned into every movement the Olympian considered making, his sword and shield pointing at her, ready to block and strike.
Artemis stared at her arm as drops of blood began to splatter on to the sand. A mortal had injured her. Her mouth was dry and her heart was racing. It wasn’t possible. She slowly backed away shaking her head.
Perfect, thought Hera. “Slay them all!” she cried, “cast their souls into the darkest pits of Tartarus!”
“WAIT!” commanded Athena, her voice thundering across the beach and causing the assembled humans to flinch. “There is something happening here that I find very… unsettling. Gods have been killed and we have just seen Artemis bested by a mere mortal.”
“A mortal who has consumed the flesh of my family,” snapped Hera. “He is no longer just a weak human, but a corrupted vessel surrounding sacred power. They are not natural and must be destroyed.”
“That may be the case, but my concern is that Artemis bleeds and your kin are dead.” Athena looked Hera in the eye. “How?”
Hera gave the tiniest shake of her head. “I don’t know.”
“This is the heart of the matter, Hera. More important than revenge, we need to understand whether we are no longer immortal.”
Atropos stared down into the shallow silver dish with a smile. The liquid it contained shimmered with the images of gods and mortals in confrontation. “This is it, sisters, we come to the pivotal point. See how wise Athena comes to confront the unpalatable truth.”
“I thought that Hera and Artemis were going to mess it all up,” said Clotho, “even though we have allotted the threads and know that what will be will be.” She glanced up from the dish, aware that the third sister wasn’t paying attention. “What are you doing, Lachesis?”
“Oh, just wondering what Chroma is up to. She always liked beaches.”
“Is that her thread you have there?” asked Atropos with a frown.
Lachesis, dropped the thread with a start and looked guilty. “Um. Well, I think after all this is over we should visit her and make sure she’s alright.”
“Hmm.” Atropos turned back to the view of the gods on the sand. Athena was calling to Apollo.
Lachesis retreived Chroma’s thread and pushed it behind her, alongside those of her three older sisters, not noticing that it had snagged on the mass of threads surrounding them.
“Apollo! What are you doing?” Athena had spotted the tall, perfect figure away from the main cluster of Olympians and she needed his skills. But he seemed preoccupied, not even noticing that his sister had been injured.
Apollo stroked his hand along the hull of the Sun Barge. There was no doubt about it, even with the crazed organic addition that wound throughout the vessel, this was the ship that he had once ridden in with Ra. The Egyptian God of the Sun had invited his Greek counterpart for a cruise through the heavens, presumably in an attempt to impress and intimidate the young upstart. It had worked and Apollo had always been on the lookout for something similar; as much as he loved his golden chariot pulled by a flock of giant swans, it was an absolute ball-ache to set up and get airborne and lacked the effortless grace of the Sun Barge.
He turned to the mortals cowering from Hera and Athena. “Where did you get this?”
Athena strode over to him. “Apollo, this is not the time for messing about with boats.”
“Athena, this belongs to Ra.”
The goddess shrugged. “So?”
“Seeing this, now, got me thinking. And something has occurred to me.”
“I’ve not seen Ra in a very long time. Where is he? Where are any of the Gods of Egypt? What happened to them?”
Athena opened her mouth to reply but the truth hit home. They’d always been aware of other deities in far-off lands and even had a few cultural exchanges. But now she thought about it she hadn’t heard from Thoth or Isis for decades, possibly centuries.
Athena had been baffled and concerned. Now she was worried.
“Apollo, have you heard any unusual prophecies from your Oracle at Delphi?”
“They’re all unusual, Athena, that’s the point. They’re cryptic and tend to be beyond the comprehension of the mortals that receive them. I’m not sure what I enjoy the most: working out the prophecies myself or watching stupid humans try to do it.”
“So you know all of the prophecies?”
Apollo looked down at his feet and shuffled uncomfortably. “There was one that didn’t seem to make any sense. It said that ‘the future of the greatest relied on just one thread’. And I think it made an oblique reference to Pandora. I was going to go back and give it another go but never got around to it. You know how things are, always something that needs doing. I had to get Hephaestus to look at the harnesses for my swans because they were-”
“Shut up, Apollo.”
He clamped his lips closed.
“Threads,” said Athena, frowning. “Future. Hmm. And Pandora, the deceitful gift.”
“I couldn’t quite bring it all together but the theory I was working on related to promises and consequences. And something to do with The Fates.”
Athena’s eyes sparkled. “Of course. How useful it is that you are the God of Prophecy.”