Ink Incurable (VIII/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

One by one the girl climbs the steps.

The orderlies behind her push her up. A crowd has gathered deep below.

That she is sick is clear. The crowd chants it: “Sick. Sick. Sick.”

They call her perverse. They call her degenerate. They chant of her sickness. But you do not need to trust the crowd.

The nurses have confirmed it. They were mercenary nurses, five to a drachma, and four of them hadn’t even bothered to look—

“All the signs of moral decay,” they’d said, and bobbed their heads—

But the fifth had taken her vitals, looked into her mouth, and listened to her heart, and she had agreed with the greatest vehemence of them all.

The girl is sick. That much is clear. The peak of Sarous’ ziggurat draws near.

“I wish I knew whether I were to offer a denial or a bribe,” says the girl.

Something small and black scuttles into the cracks of the stone of the steps and it is gone.

“It’s too late, innit?” says one orderly. “Now you’ve been properly diagnosed.”

“It can’t be too late! I haven’t done anything immoral!”

The orderlies behind her push her up.

Sulks the girl, “Yet.”

The leftmost orderly’s heard it all before. He’s heard it all, right down to that last “Yet.” He’s a ziggurat orderly. He knows his business, right down to the bloody nub. Yet somehow he’s kept a good heart through it all. Somehow he’s good enough to love her for being human even as he shoves her upwards towards her doom.

So he says, “You oughtn’t worry so much about what to say or what not to say, what you do or what you don’t do, you.”

“Eh?” says the girl.

“Well, what you say,” he says, “see, what you say? What you do? Those’d be symptoms, wouldn’t they? Just symptoms? Patient reporting? And a real doctor goes by signs.”

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Rhea: In the Golden Age that preceded the Titanomachy nothing happened that was not correct.

Such was the imprint of this time upon our world that even the richest, even the wisest, and even the greatest of us still look back with wistful sorrow and remember it. The world was in harmony. Morality dominated in every portion. And no man or woman could rightly say that the chains of Necessity upon them were a burden. The behaviors that those chains compelled were virtuous, honorable, and good; save from one.

In all the world only the titan Cronos was free.

He ruled nobly and justly, one must assume, except for that incident with Hestia, and one day Rhea approached him with Demeter in her arms.

She was tentative and hesitant.

“Lo,” said Rhea. “The Great Goddess.”

Cronos judged Demeter.

“She, like Hestia, is food,” Cronos said.

“Not every goddess is food,” Rhea said. “Demeter is a marvel of the world.”

“Is she?”

“She is the goddess of the harvest,” said Rhea. “Of the bounty of the earth. Of grain and green and growing things—“

Cronos had a wry look.

Rhea cleared her throat. “Observe her nose,” Rhea said.

“She has a nose,” allowed Cronos. He lifted Demeter from Rhea’s arms with great gentleness. He looked at her. “And she is the harvest. But she is also a princess.”

The Great Goddess wriggled, and offered, “Goo?”

“To put it another way,” Cronos said, “‘an asset to my throne.'”

He bit off Demeter’s nose. He swallowed it. Then he ate her head to stop her wailing. He bit the rest of her in half. He swallowed her. His stomach grew bloated on this flesh.

He ate Hera too. And Hades. And Poseidon. He ate them all when their presentation came.

Rhea’s life became a horror to her.

Once she had loved him. She no longer recognized in him the person that she’d loved. Once she had lain with him gladly, and found in the straining of their sex an emptiness to cultivate with child. Now she resented their union. She lay with him only because she was his wife. She resented his seed inside her womb.

The chains of Necessity bound her.

She could not do otherwise than serve him. She could rage against him. She could question him. She could hurt him in small, petty ways. But this was the Golden Age, the Age we wistfully speak of, when things were better, and she could not defy him.

To defy him would not have been correct.

In all the world only one creature was free, and it was not she.

Riffle watches from the crowd. From behind his left shoulder he hears a voice.

“Found you, sir,” the creature says.

Riffle glances sideways.

It’s Smith, this one. Looks like a webwork of cracks in the air. It had been a webwork of cracks in the air, once, before it evolved and joined his crew.

“The girl’s name is Ink Catherly,” Riffle says. “But everyone calls her the imago. Just another sign of moral degeneracy, the nurses’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.”

“Yes, sir.”

Pushed by the rightmost orderly, the girl takes another step upwards towards her doom.

Smith clears its— well, it clears its something, anyway. “Will you be coming back, sir?”

“I’m done with scaffolding,” Riffle says.

“Oh.”

“It just didn’t seem the same once she left,” Riffle says. “Seemed—off. Futile, somehow. If you follow.”

Smith scrapes one toe-like crack along the ground.

“It seemed to me like maybe she had something after all. Potential. She could save us all, Smith. She could be a legitimate God-damn savior, and me, me, pulling on her strings.”

Ink stumbles up another step.

“Looks like she’s going to get kilt, sir,” Smith reports.

“You always kill saviors,” Riffle says.

“Oh.”

“Wouldn’t be people, now, would we, if we didn’t kill our saviors? Just rats and cracks and worms and stuff, if we weren’t at least evolved enough for that.

“Will you be needing us labor, sir?”

“No,” Riffle says. “No, but thank you. You may tell the others. I don’t need you any more.”

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

The Island of the Centipede

Ink reaches the top step. She stumbles to a halt. In front of her there’s an altar with a blackened trench for blood. On the other side of it there’s Sarous, the doctor of the deeps.

Sarous looks to the orderlies. He says, “Condition?”

“Wounded hand,” says the rightmost orderly. “Bit of a bloody throat. Claims she’s going to kill whomever’s on the throne of the world and doesn’t quite get just how that’s morally depraved.”

“Hyperrachia,” says Sarous. “No doubt.”

Ink licks her lips. She looks up. She says, “What are you going to do to me?”

Sarous looks to her.

He says, “You understand, my dear, that to murder someone, much less God, cannot possibly be correct?”

This is a bit of a toughie.

Ink hesitates.

“That it is, perhaps, the definition of immorality?”

“Won’t make excuses,” says Ink.

She’s noticing just how dark the altar is.

She adds, “Will you?”

“You’re sick,” the doctor says.

  • Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history in this sixteen-part series:
    INK, UNLEECHED!

“The Lord of Misrule” – From the Journals of Ink Catherly (V/XVI)

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: When Riffle’s sword touched my neck, I saw a bit more of Cronos’ history. It was from earlier than before, again. The Titanomachy hadn’t happened yet. Zeus was free but the others were still engulleted.

It made me angry.

I scolded it.

I said, No, world! I do not need the history of Cronos right now. If anything, I need the history of Riffle!

This was actually a mistake on my part. I should have blamed myself because it is, after all, my very own power that gave me, perversely, this insight. But blaming oneself is very hard. I’m not sure it’s something people can do.

So I scolded, instead, the world.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

The Island of the Centipede

Cronos slouched on the throne of the world.

He was contemplating a sickle. It was a really big flint sickle and it was grey.

Zeus entered.

“Son,” said Cronos. O my love.

That was the weird thing about Cronos. When you’d hear him talk, the world would echo with that in the background: O my love.

Anyway.

“Son,” said Cronos.

“Dad.”

It was an awkward moment.

I thought I’d eaten you, but maybe it was a rock.

I had that thought once, on Floor 93-GA. It was the suckiest eating contest ever.

“You’ve been eating everybody,” said Zeus. “Poseidon and Hera and stuff.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I did not ask to rule a Golden Age,” Cronos said. “Rather I wished to dominate a freakish carnival of horrors. A masque of the imperfect. A world of people with the bones of their pain jutting out so that you can hardly talk to them without saying, ‘O my love, why are you broken?'”

Zeus said, “I understand.”

I don’t know much about Zeus. There’s a bias in the history—a sense of focus to it. Zeus is important, but it’s Cronos whom this history is about, down here in the crust of the world. So I don’t know much about Zeus or what was going on in his head, but I think that he was telling the truth.

He had that Martin sound, all serious and like it’s perfectly natural, of course, who wouldn’t prefer to rule a world wracked with sorrow and pain and full of monsters?

And Cronos smiled, like it was a joy to hear.

Zeus continued.

“I am going to cut your stomach open,” said Zeus, “and spill out my brothers and my sisters, and a rock.”

“And if I forbid it?”

“In this world,” said Zeus, “we bring forth children in sorrow.”

Cronos had trouble finding an answer to that one.

“It’s the rule,” Zeus explained.

This would appear to be one of the Man Laws, like in those Miller Lite commercials. You poke it, you own it. We bring forth children in sorrow. Entropy always increases. Don’t shoot food. Leave the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil alone. Castrating your father and taking over his throne is a punishable offense. Sharing is caring.

Stuff like that.

Not even Cronos can really argue with that kind of rule; but at the same time, he didn’t rise and hand Zeus the sickle.

Zeus waited.

“Who are you, my son?” Cronos asked.

“I’m the Lord of Misrule,” said Zeus. “I’m the answer to your prayers. I’m the one who’ll bring this whole world down around your ears.”

Cronos’ heart fluttered in his chest. It’s weird that he’d never taken it out—you’d think that he would have, since there’s nothing so dangerous as a heart. But he hadn’t.

“Show me,” he said, and his voice was desperate with hope.

Your authority has no foundation,” said Zeus, “for you have done a wicked thing.

It was electric. It cut through the air. But it didn’t impress Cronos.

“More,” Cronos said.

The dog that carries a serpent on his back is vile; the tiger that carries a dog, we call a saint.

Cronos mulled that one over for a while.

Then he shook his head.

He stood.

The sky gathered behind his shoulders and the stars burned bright with Uri’s fires and the world grew heavy as a woman carrying her child and he said, “You are not equal to this task.”

Dread was the nimbus of Cronos at that moment. The power of him held Zeus still. Cronos was Ge’s son in that moment, strong as the earth, unsurpassable, indestructible, horned and terrible, and free—as only one creature in all the world could be—to act accordant to his desires.

Ink’s hand hurts quite a bit more than her neck. The sword has cut her hand deeply. It is still, and thank Heaven for the pathetic muscles of the little rat, no more than skin-deep in her neck.

But it’s the blood that runs down her neck that scares her.

She finds herself wondering, “Is it possible to die?”

She will probably have a choice in the matter. She is the imago and she has been to Hell and back and it seems likely that she would have a choice. But it is also probable that something would be lost. If nothing else, her sense of her own humanity. At worst, the value of the sacrifice of her life, with which she is hoping to carry past any final obstacles that stand between Ink Catherly and God.

I think that I will describe the terror that was Cronos in that moment like this.

We are in ourselves the actual and the ideal. And the actual is all that moves, all that acts, all that speaks. We cannot really demonstrate that there is more: but there must be more, or we are in Hell.

Where is the fire of our intention?

Where does it move upon the earth?

It does not, and in that respect Earth is very much like Hell, and yet, and yet, and yet the difference is that we are here. Hell is to live without experiencing our life. Earth is life knowing our own presence. It is life, flush with our ideals.

But Cronos knew a thing that I did not know.

He wore it like a blaze.

It was the terror of the flesh, the power of the actual, the aura of the substance of him. That with his hands and with his fingers he could move, and Zeus could not stop him from moving; that that substance was raw, unconstrained by Zeus’ volition or the limits that Zeus would rather have put on it, and capable in its action of dragging Zeus’ ideals down.

Those dirty fingernails could break Zeus’ virtue. Those bloody hands could kill him. Those great arms and those great teeth could put a stop to the ideals of the lord of all the gods.

Flesh has that power.

It obliterated the thoughts of Zeus. It held him still.

But Zeus had trained for this.

He had spent years in empty meditation and practice and taught his flesh to act when his mind could not.

The world swam with the blinding rapture of Cronos and it drove away the thoughts of Zeus and the will of Zeus and the fire of him flickered and went dim beneath the wind of all that power, and the flesh of Zeus stepped forward and took the sickle in his hand and cut his father’s stomach open to bring his brothers and sisters into the world.

It seemed impossible to Zeus that it did not hurt Zeus; that the opening of the wound in his father’s stomach brought Zeus no pain, burnt none of Zeus’ nerves; that he could see and hear and smell the wound but he could not feel it.

It seemed a thing that should wound, instead, the all of world and sound.

Out fell the stone; and Hades and Poisedon; and Hera and Demeter and Hestia; and great snaky loops of titantestine too; and Cronos looked down at his stomach and Zeus could hardly see his face through the blindingness of the reality of that moment when he cut his father open at the throne of all the world.

Cronos staggered. The storm shifted at his back. It loomed upon the world and in that moment it seemed very possible that the world would end and there would only be Heaven and Hell forever after, amen—

Somehow, Cronos held it back.

Somehow, Cronos balanced himself and held aloft the burden of all pains while his innards snaked themselves back in.

The fingernails on his hand were cracked and dirty. His hair was wild. He reached for his son with hands soaked in everybody’s blood.

Cloud-shouldered Zeus, the son of Cronos, born in the fullness of Tyranny to bring justice to the world, seized five babies and a stone and fled.

  • Saturday:
    THE HISTORY OF THE SWORD

Ink Immeasurable (I/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

Previous histories of Ink Catherly:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

In the weary kingdoms beneath the world there is no sun and there is no moon. The rivers run chuckling and dark. The bugs thrive everywhere. In every direction they stick forth their legs. Some surfaces are barren and dry. Thick slime covers the rest.

Dharma moves.

From the worms there rises Minister Jof. From nothing, he becomes.

The passion of his birth torments him. He casts about for purpose. He sees the other worms. They are wrapped in shells of blindness and self-contemplation.

He smiles.

He conceives his purpose.

He shatters the shells around their minds. He awakens them. He affixes them with little tags on which he records the details of their lives and teaches them the language of the world.

“From this lofty height,” come his brass-bound words, “I will train you to have selves.”

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

The Island of the Centipede

“To enable your becoming,” says Minister Jof, “we must have measures.”

The worms look at him.

“We divide the substance of the world into the tellurean and the empyrean,” lectures Minister Jof. “Good rises. Dross descends. In this fashion we transform the bitterest truths into a pure and noble substance. One in three of you—“

Here he pauses. He contemplates.

He nods.

“One in three, I have decided this, shall be the dross. The rest may ascend further towards humanity. Now order yourselves on your present achievements, least to best.”

They seethe in the chaos of the nematodes.

“You hesitate,” says Jof. “And naturally so. You are prey to the limits of your purpose and your vision. Your minds are small and given to the weaker sentiments. That is why you must rely upon my judgment and disregard your own. That is why I am obligated by our natures to sever you into parts.”

His choice of words distresses them.

They writhe.

But severing us, they seem to say, will only make more of us to cull!

“Impudence!” roars Minister Jof.

He stomps his foot.

Salt sifts down from the ceiling.

The worms go still.

Into the room, drawn by the noise, there staggers a girl. She’s a teenager, really, covered in clods of dirt from where she shimmied through a thin crack into the crust of the earth. She’s carrying a backpack several years too young for her.

“Hello?” she says.

Minister Jof’s eyes fall on her.

“See?” he says.

It is his natural assumption that she has evolved, under his ministrations, from a worm and into human form.

“Hands,” he says. “Feet. A thinking brain—“

Here he hesitates. He coughs. He is unwilling to immediately extend this judgment to another being.

“—or at least one capable of mimicking the higher functions of our thoughts. Look, you, worms! Here is what I expect you to become!”

The worms turn. It is the strangest thing. They turn. They look at the girl. They do not look with their eyes as they have no eyes. They look at her with their grayish circle-marked heads.

Bloody hell, they seem to think. Bloody hell!

There goes the curve.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: In the darkness Cronos strove.

His task was back-breaking. Heavier than Atlas’ burden was the storm beneath the world. Yet Cronos strove, alone and helpless to do otherwise, while his father laughed and his son reigned over the world.

One day when it seemed to Cronos that his strength would finally give out, Demeter came down to join Cronos in the darkness. She made a sacred ritual of shushing, going, shh! and hush! though Zeus, of course, could choose to know.

She studied him for a while. Then, at her bidding, the roots of the plants came down through all the darkness and wove into the crust to lighten Cronos’ burden.

Later Poseidon chose to hold back the weight of the storm with all the pressure of the seas.

Hades, too, and Hestia, and Hera, and even Ophion. Ophion came to coil upon his chest and softly drip its venom in his eye, and Cronos smiled, and Cronos smiled, and he cried out through his cracked dry lips his joy: o my love.

One day as Cronos struggled Zeus spoke to him in dreams. Zeus said, “Why do you choose this destiny, o father?”

And Cronos said: “Dharma moves.”

“Hee,” laughed cloud-shouldered Zeus, king of all the gods.

Dharma moves.

“My name is Ink—” says the girl.

“I am Jof, Minister to the Evolution of the Worms,” interrupts Jof. “I am humble; ‘Your Eminence’ will suffice.”

The girl blinks at him.

‘Your Eminence’ will suffice, mimes one of the worms; or, perhaps, it just wriggles.

The girl laughs.

The room goes still.

Dross, thinks Minister Jof, with a sudden, overwhelming passion. Frivolous, unregenerate dross! Here is a worm that shall not see human form.

His foot lifts up. He stomps. It writhes.

“You see how it is,” he explains to the other worms, “for those too lazy or incompetent to strive.”

And to drive the point home, he leans down. He peers at its tag through his magnifying glass. He studies its performance number. “A 12—“

He pauses.

How very awkward it is,

That 12,

In the weary kingdoms far beneath the world.

  • Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history of Ink Catherly:
    INK UNTANNABLE!

Hades (III/III)

It is 1317 BCE.

Hades and Iasion stroll through the Underworld. Hades is munching on a pomegranate. It’s his favorite fruit.

“I have had command of this place for some years now,” says Hades, “and still it does not satisfy.”

“It’s all the suffering,” Iasion says. “I recommend a simple palliative: replace it all with sex.”

Hades raises an eyebrow.

Iasion snags an hors d’oeuvre from a passing waiter of the damned. It’s a cracker with a bit of smelly cheese. He bites into it. “Tastes like dust,” he says.

“Yes?”

“It should taste like orgasms,” Iasion says.

Hades stops walking. He chews for a moment. He swallows, uncomfortably. He signals the waiter. The waiter approaches. Hades carefully puts the remainder of his pomegranate on the plate.

Iasion looks a little nervous. “Or like grain. Grain’s okay. Grain’s the sex of the earth. Its crunchy goodness is like nature’s fertility!”

Hades looks at Iasion with a half-frown. Then he shrugs. He starts walking again.

“It’s the same,” Hades says. “Dust, sex, even chocolate. That’s the point.”

“Give me some chocolate,” Iasion says boldly. “And some sex. And some dust. I will test your theory!”

Hades’ walk is somber.

“I’m not flirting with you,” Iasion clarifies.

“Good,” says Hades.

“It’s not that you’re not hot, or anything. It’s just that I don’t think about you that way. And I mostly like girls.”

“It’s true,” Hades says, firmly, “that everything tastes like dust. And that all the colors are gray. And that everywhere there is suffering. But I do not wish to become Hades the King of Sex.”

“It’s a good title,” Iasion says. “Sex and death? You’d be the most popular god ever. They’d be so busy pouring libations to you that people’d hardly have any time to drink.”

“I want there to be hope.”

Iasion sighs.

Hades looks around. “This is the land of what’s left. It’s the land of sorrow. It’s the land of nothing.”

“In that respect,” says Iaision, “you’ve done really well. I mean, look! Walls! Waiters! Residents! Look yonder: Ephialtes and Otus suffer in chains. There! In the Elysian fields, the maid Ananke portions out destinies to the blest. Compared to Zeus’ world, perhaps, this is no paradise; but for a world of nothing and grown of nothing, it is masterful in its decor. The air is full of music, though it does not satisfy—”

“‘Muzak,’ I call it,” says Hades.

“—and the sweet if sterile scent of empty air!”

“I wish there to be hope.”

Their footsteps echo for a while in the empty halls.

“Death is grim, my lord.” Iasion looks apologetic. “It’s because of the endings.”

“This is my plan,” Hades says. He looks at Iasion. “I will travel up to Earth in my chariot. There, I will seize Persephone.”

“Persephone?” Iasion asks. He looks uncomfortable.

“Does that bother you?”

Iasion hedges. “I heard she’s going to blow up one day, boom, just like a volcano.”

Hades runs his finger along the top of a picture frame. The picture shows a gray square. Its frame is clean. There is no dust.

“I will interrupt her destiny,” says Hades. “I will seize her and carry her down into the Underworld. She will make death, not life, into a mystery.”

“What if she turns me into a mint?” Iasion frets.

“Make ready my chariot,” says Hades.

The rest of the story is well-known. Hades finds Persephone in the field. He seizes her. He carries her off. It is 1317 BCE, so this is pretty typical as weddings go.

“Who are you?” Persephone asks, after a few minutes on the road.

“Hades.”

She thinks about this. He’s Zeus’ brother, and pretty important, but on the other hand, he lives in the Underworld.

“I don’t want to live without sunlight,” Persephone points out.

“None save Zeus may choose the circumstances of their lives.”

“That’s true,” Persephone admits. She bites her lip. She’s not even one tenth as strong as Hades, so her options are limited to marriage and destroying the world. “I guess.”

Right now, with shock setting in and the chariot bouncing along the road, Persephone is having a hard time even figuring out how upset she is.

Hades’ chariot charges towards the spring of the nymph Cyane.

Suddenly, in Persephone’s heart, there is a bit of hope.

Like a waterfall without a cliff, the naiad Cyane rises. She has not one hundredth of Hades’ strength, but still she rises.

She spreads her arms to bar Hades’ way.

“No!” Cyane says. It is a demand.

Persephone’s gratitude is as deep as the world, and she realizes in that moment that she is very upset with things indeed.

Hades’ voice is certain. It is unyielding. It is the wind from the mountains and the cruelty of the sea.

“It is necessary,” says Hades, “that there be hope.”

“No!” repeats Cyane. This time she is chiding him.

“So I have taken hope,” says Hades.

“Go no further!” Cyane says, and suddenly her voice is cracked and angry and full of fear and sorrow. “This maiden must be asked, not taken.”

Persephone takes strength from it.

“If I do not like you,” Persephone tells Hades, in a soft dark lucid voice, “I will unmake you, your world, and everything you have.”

Hades smites the spring. The world cracks open. Cyane falls back. The chariot gallops down into the Underworld and they are gone.

“Oh,” says Cyane. “Oh. Persephone.”

She is crying now.

Her tears are tears of futility, for she does not understand what good it is that she has done.

Tantalus (I/IV)

The sky is grey.

Hades seizes Persephone. He takes her to the depths of the Underworld. She cries out to her mother, Demeter. Demeter cannot save her. She visits a dead oracle. She asks him for his words.

“It is a time of myths, ” the oracle says. “The children of Echidna, mother of monsters, wander this world. The gods rule in Olympus. And you are here.”

“How may I be free?” she asks.

“Drink the blood of a man with the secret of the gods,” the oracle answers.

Persephone laughs bitterly.

“Later this year,” the oracle says, “someone will learn that secret. He will rig three gods to explode. He will blow the top off of Mount Sipylus. His line will change the world. It is his blood that you need.”

Persephone returns to her black throne and waits.

It is 1315 years before the common era.

The sea is grey.

Tantalus and Pandareus stand in the courtyard of Zeus’ temple at Crete. “It’s all grey,” Pandareus says. “This is a grey land.”

“Whistle,” Tantalus says.

Pandareus shrugs and whistles. A dog runs up. It’s a shining clockwork dog, made entirely of gold and jewels. Its black sapphire eyes sparkle in the light. Its black sapphire nose is wet. It wriggles its tail and barks happily at Tantalus and Pandareus. Pandareus can’t help but laugh. “What is it?” he asks.

“Hephaestus made it,” Tantalus says. “Its name is Brotos. I figure, if we can steal it, we can figure out the secret of the gods.”

“It must be hard to steal,” Pandareus says.

Tantalus looks at the sky. “There’s a cyclone coming,” he says. “Try picking it up.”

Pandareus scoops the dog up. It wriggles in his arms. He looks up. “It’s coming closer,” he says.

“Quick,” Tantalus says. “Let’s get out of here.”

The cyclone looms closer. The two rush out of the temple and head for their boat. The dog wriggles more and jumps out of Pandareus’ arms. It runs back towards the storm.

“Fudge,” Pandareus swears, and charges after the dog. Tantalus follows. The cyclone stoops. Just as Pandareus’ arms wrap around the dog, it whirls all three upwards into the sky.

“This won’t do,” Tantalus says. He makes a ruthless decision. He struggles through the storm. He has a long wicked knife in one hand. He plunges it into Pandareus’ stomach. He takes the dog. It licks his face. He shoves Pandareus hard. His friend bursts through the cyclone’s edge and falls, broken and wounded, to the earth below.

Tantalus smiles down at the dog. “We have rather a queer adventure ahead of us, Brotos,” he says. “You’ll have to be very quiet.”

The dog wags its tail, almost as if it understands. Tantalus stows the dog in a large sack and fills the rest of the sack with straw.

“Nothing further to be done,” he says. He curls up in the cyclone. He goes to sleep. For six long hours, he dreams. Then a jarring shock wakes him. He rises to his feet, swings the sack over his shoulder, and looks around. The cyclone has deposited Tantalus in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty. He sees lovely patches of greensward in all directions, and banks of gorgeous flowers, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage. A little way off, he sees the banquet table of the gods.

“As I suspected,” he says. “I shall have nectar and ambrosia today.”

He goes before the gods and bows low. Zeus turns to him and rumbles, “Be welcome here, Tantalus; for I have not seen you in some time.”

“You send an unusual chariot.”

Zeus shrugs. Then his eyes narrow. “My son,” he says, “My golden dog, that guarded the temple at Crete—do you know what has happened to it?”

Tantalus’ sack wriggles and barks.

“Stolen,” Tantalus says gravely.

Zeus regards the sack. He raises a white eyebrow.

“It is Pandareus,” Tantalus adds, “of Merops’ family. I witnessed the theft with my own eyes. It’s a tragedy when a good man goes bad like that.”

“Such men earn the wrath of the gods,” Zeus says lightly. “But come, what of the dog then?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Tantalus says. The sack barks.

Hera nudges Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, who sidles up beside Zeus’s throne. “The dog,” she whispers. “It’s in the sack. I’ll cut it open. Then justice will demand that we smite him.”

Zeus raises a hand, forestalling her. He looks down at his son Tantalus. Tantalus gives him a cocksure grin.

“It would be wrong,” Zeus says finally, “to trouble the person or property of my son while he attends our feasts. No. As long as he does not act against the gods, he is sacrosanct.”

Tantalus leers at Nemesis. “You shouldn’t look so offended,” he says. “It makes your eyes bulge out like twin moons!”

Nemesis glares at him.

“It’s cute,” Tantalus assures her. “Like an angry child pouting over stolen candy.”

Nemesis looks to Zeus. “How many of these insults must I bear?”

Zeus meditates on this. “Fifteen,” he says.

“Hey!” Tantalus and Nemesis say together. Nemesis thinks for a moment, and then gestures to Tantalus, yielding the floor.

“How come a vengeance-obsessed tramp like her gets to override your promise of protection?”

“It is her special power,” Zeus says. “If the provocation is sufficient, she need not abide by the rules of the world.”

“Fifteen is an awful lot,” Nemesis says.

“He’s not very good at insulting people,” Zeus says.

“Ha!” Tantalus says. He glares at Nemesis. “Your nose is too long. Your eyes are too bright. Your hair is too short. Your feet are too big. Your clothes have no taste. I wouldn’t kiss you even if you were the only girl in the world. Your knees are knobbly. Your teeth are crooked. You smell funny. And everyone sleeps under your mother.”

“Thirteen,” says Nemesis coldly.

“Twelve,” Zeus corrects.

Nemesis looks at him.

“Your mother is Night,” Zeus says. “Everyone does sleep under her.”

Tantalus frowns. “Oh,” he says, mildly deflated. “I guess I’ll save two for later.”

“Oh, take three,” Nemesis says casually.

“I wouldn’t dream of insulting such a charming and wonderful goddess,” Tantalus says, and wanders off to mingle.

“If it helps,” Zeus says, after a moment, “I think you look hot.”

“Gee. Thanks, Dad.”

Tantalus finds a god suspended on a pole.

“Good day,” says Anakopto.

“Did you speak?” Tantalus asks, looking up.

“Certainly,” Anakopto says. “How do you do?”

“I’m pretty well,” Tantalus says. “You’re a god on a pole. Are you Priapus?”

“No,” Anakopto says. “I’m the god of scarecrows. They put me up on this pole to keep birds and such away from the gods’ feast.”

“That’s too bad,” Tantalus says. “It’s much more fun down here.”

“The pole is stuck up my back,” Anakopto explains. “So I can’t get down. But if you lift me off the pole, I’ll cut you in for a share of the coolest plan ever.”

Tantalus snags a glass of nectar from a passing waiter. “Well,” he says, swirling the nectar around and then gulping it down, “it can’t hurt, can it?” He reaches up with both arms and lifts Anakopto off the pole.

“Thank you,” Anakopto says. “We’ll need to find the other two. Then I’ll explain.”

Anakopto looks around. “There he is!” he says, and waves.

“Who?” Tantalus says.

“Over there. Kyrievo. The tin-plated god. Hephaestus forged him, you know.”

“He’s not moving.”

“Oh.” Anakopto laughs. “Silly me. I’d told him to stop.” He leads Tantalus over to Kyrievo and snaps his fingers. Instantly, Kyrievo snaps to life. He smiles at Tantalus, whose heart beats faster.

“I didn’t know you could have a metal god,” Tantalus admits.

“He didn’t start metal,” Anakopto says airily. “But Aphrodite doesn’t like him much. So now and again, she chops off one of his bits. Hephaestus replaces them, for politeness’ sake, and now he’s pretty much all tin. And, oh, there’s Arpazo. Hiding from the crowd as usual.”

Tantalus waves Arpazo over. The god, dressed in a lion skin, slouches closer.

“I’ve decided,” Anakopto declares airily, “to bring this fine mortal king in on our plans.”

“Recruiting was supposed to be my job,” Arpazo says sulkily, “but since I’m too afraid to challenge you, I suppose it will have to stand.”

“What is this plan?” Tantalus asks.

“The gods used to be more powerful and terrible than they are,” Anakopto says. “But the Titanomachy changed all of that.”

“Oh?”

Anakopto nods. “The end of human sacrifice,” he says, “was the beginning of time; and with time, entropy; and with entropy, the decay of power.”

“You wish people sacrificed to you?” Tantalus asks.

“No.” Anakopto shakes his head firmly. “I am a scarecrow god. Stuffed with straw! If I filled myself with power, I’m quite sure I’d slosh. I might even explode! No. Our target is Demeter. Should she taste of the richest meat, she may become the Great Goddess again. Hades has stolen her daughter Persephone, and her mind is clouded by sorrow; now is our chance to strike! But we need a human to feed her.”

“I see,” Tantalus says.

“Not you,” Kyrievo interrupts, hastily. “You’re under Zeus’ protection. That’s solid! But if you help us out, then we could help you out.”

“You’ve stolen my heart,” Tantalus says, to the tin-plated god. “So I can’t help but assist you.”

Arpazo pouts. “You’ve stolen his heart?”

“You can’t very well steal his courage,” Anakopto says. “Then he wouldn’t stand against the gods.”

“I wanted to steal something,” Arpazo says.

“Then,” says Tantalus, “you must steal the schedule book for the gods. I’ll write in a feast at my own home, and we’ll make the sacrifice to Demeter there.”

“It’s frightening to play tricks on the gods!” Arpazo says. “Can’t I steal a little of your courage?”

In the sack, Brotos begins barking furiously. Gods around them turn to look. Arpazo flushes.

“All right, all right,” Arpazo says. He lowers himself to the ground, and the lion skin settles around him. “I’ll go! Don’t make a fuss.” He slinks off.

“You have a dog in a sack,” Kyrievo says.

“Yes,” Tantalus says.

Some distance away, at the base of Zeus’ throne, Nemesis spins to face her king. “He just admitted it,” she says. “I heard him admit that there’s a dog in that sack.”

“Sacking a dog is not a crime,” Zeus points out. “Although it’s deucedly odd.”

“I’ll keep listening,” Nemesis says. She steeples her fingers. “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your dog, too.”

Arpazo slinks back to rejoin the others. He has the schedule book of the gods in his mouth. He spits it at Tantalus’ feet. Tantalus writes in a new appointment.

“Remember,” Kyrievo says, “that the gods need good entertainment. You can’t just give her somebody’s head on a platter and call it a meal.”

“Paphlagonia is rich,” Tantalus says. “We’ll make a feast to remember.”

Hearing this, Nemesis turns to Zeus. She hesitates a long moment. “It seems unfortunate,” she says. “I wonder if there are any circumstances under which you would let me punish this man.”

“I am loath to do so,” Zeus says. “He is my son. If he should transgress too far, then I cannot protect him. But it is my nature to show him a certain consideration.”

Nemesis thinks for a long moment. “There are three gods,” she says, “who intend to feed Demeter human flesh. I assume I may punish them as I like?”

Zeus grins. “I hope you’re not thinking of shodding Tantalus in iron and using him to beat them with.”

“Wow,” Nemesis admits. “You’re better at this than I am. But no.”

“Nor dropping him repeatedly on their heads from a great height?”

“I’ll be good,” Nemesis agrees.

“Then proceed.”

A few days later, the party breaks up. Anakopto, Kyrievo, Arpazo, and Tantalus proceed towards Tantalus’ kingdom. After a bit, Tantalus lets Brotos out of the sack, and the small golden dog frolicks all around them.

“What do you learn from the dog?” Anakopto asks.

“I’m not sure,” Tantalus says. “Perhaps I am learning how to change the nature of gods.”

“An admirable wisdom,” says Anakopto, “although one I already possess.”

He points his finger at Kyrievo. “Stop.”

Kyrievo, caught midstride, falls over.

“It’s like he’s rusting,” Anakopto says, cheerfully. Kyrievo glares at Anakopto. After a moment, Anakopto shrugs, and Kyrievo struggles to his feet.

“I crushed a beetle,” Kyrievo says.

“Was it a magic beetle?”

“It could have granted Tantalus three wishes, and made his house prosper forever.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Anakopto agrees.

“Do I have many such beetles in my kingdom?” Tantalus asks.

“They’re elusive,” Anakopto says.

Tantalus looks at Brotos. “If you see one,” he says, “fetch it for me.” Brotos wags its tail, almost as if it understands.

They reach Tantalus’ castle. He shows the gods their guest quarters. He takes them to meet his son, Pelops, and his daughter, Niobe. Then he flips a coin.

“Pelops,” he says, “I am going to cook you and feed you to Demeter.”

“That’s horrible and perverted, Dad.”

“Pelops!” Tantalus says. “I’m ashamed of you. It’s rude to refuse your guests anything.”

Pelops eyes Tantalus. “And it’s ruder to feed them people stew.”

“Granted,” Tantalus admits. “Still, into the pot with you.”

Pelops sulks. He walks with the others down to the kitchen and gets in the stew pots. “I hate you,” he says. “You’re ruining my life.”

Tantalus turns on the fires.

“I could remove his mind,” Anakopto says. “And keep it in my hands. Then he might be restored.”

“I could remove his heart,” Kyrievo adds.

“And I his courage,” says Arpazo.

“If you took his courage,” Tantalus points out, “he probably wouldn’t sit in that pot while I cook him, even if it is his father’s orders.”

“That’s true,” Arpazo says unhappily. But Kyrievo and Anakopto remove Pelops’ mind and heart, after which he sits calmly in the building stew.

“It pains me to do this, son,” Tantalus admits. Then he turns, and gathers Brotos in his arms, and goes to prepare his house for the feast of the gods.

A woman skulks out from between two pillars. She wears a mask.

“Who are you?” he says.

“You may call me Galatea,” she says, “the good witch of Pontus and Lydia.”

The sweet tones of her voice rouse his admiration, and he smiles to her. “Then speak your message, good witch.”

“Four have earned the gods’ wrath,” she says, “and all four known to you, for these are Anakopto, Arpazo, Kyrievo, and Pandareus.”

“Yes,” he says, inclining his head. “The gods who plan a wicked feast, and the thief who stole the gods’ golden dog.”

Brotos barks. Tantalus can hear the sound of gritting teeth under the mask.

“Yes,” says the masked woman. “The gods who plan a wicked feast, and the thief Pandareus who stole the gods’ golden dog.”

“But surely,” Tantalus says, “the gods have ample instruments of vengeance. There are the kindly ones, and Nemesis, and the thunderbolt.”

“The kindly ones have their own calling,” says the woman, “and the thunderbolt is for Zeus’ use alone. As for Nemesis, . . . perhaps she is in disfavor.”

“Aha,” says Tantalus. He takes a few steps closer to the woman. He’s got a bit of a swagger. “She’s earned it, you know. She’s too dumb to see my good qualities.”

“Hm,” says the woman. She touches a graceful, delicate hand to his chin. “I can’t imagine how that could be true.”

Tantalus grins crookedly at her.

“Still,” she says, “It is now for you to carry out their punishment.”

“Me?”

The woman nods. She reaches out to a nearby pedestal, and a golden cap forms on it. “You may borrow this cap,” she says. “It summons winged monkeys. I also give you a prophecy: that Pandareus shall come to this feast, and when he runs from here, the thief shall fall under the shadow of mount Sipylus.”

“Winged monkeys?”

“They will do you three services of your choice.”

“Ah,” Tantalus says dubiously.

“If you cannot find a use for winged monkeys,” the woman says, “you aren’t much of a king.”

“Hm,” Tantalus says, and accepts the cap. He turns it over in his hands, looking at it, and then looks up at the woman. “If I do this,” he says, “it is acting against the gods; and that would break my protection.”

“Do this task,” the woman promises, “and you shall suffer no retribution for acts against the gods.”

“But—”

She touches his lips. “Shh. An you succeed, we shall see one another again.” With that, the woman stepped back into the pillars and vanishes.

“Witches are strange,” Tantalus says. Brotos barks. “Yet . . .”

Tantalus takes Brotos back to his lab. As his son slowly dissolves into Pelops stew in the kitchens below, Tantalus carves into the dog. When it sits in pieces around him, the golden throat still on occasion groaning, whining, and wailing, Tantalus stares into its heart.

“Ah,” he says. “This is the secret of the gods.”

He walks to the kitchen. He pours four glasses of wine. He takes out a long wicked knife. He cuts his hand. Blood drips into the wine. He stirs Pelops and adds some onions to his son. Then he gathers the wine on a tray and takes it in search of the gods. He finds them with Niobe. Arpazo is bragging about his enormous accomplishments. Kyrievo polishes his shirt. Anakopto is staring out the window, lost in thought. Niobe looks at him with wide eyes.

“Dad!” she exclaims. She hugs him. She leans up. She whispers in his ear, “Thanks. I hate these guys.”

“You won’t stay?” he asks. “Have some wine?”

There’s a flash of panic in her eyes. Then she counts the glasses and smiles. “I couldn’t, Dad. Besides, gods bore me to tears.”

Arpazo looks up, stricken. Kyrievo looks shocked. Niobe dives through the door and is gone.

“Hm?” Anakopto asks, turning.

“You could have told her to stop,” Arpazo says. “You never use that power when it’s a good time.”

“It’s mostly for crows,” Anakopto says.

“Wine?” Tantalus offers. They drink. They talk. Then Tantalus puts the golden cap on his head and summons winged monkeys. The winged monkeys snatch the gods and fly them away to a cave on Mount Sipylus. Then they seal the entrance.

“This sucks,” Arpazo says.

“I feel an explosive power rising in me,” Anakopto says. “Perhaps we can break free.” He points at the stone sealing the entrance. “Stop!”

“Helpful,” Kyrievo says. “That’s really helpful.”

At Tantalus’ castle, the gods begin to arrive.

“Nice cap,” Hermes says to Tantalus. He’s also wearing a golden cap, but his has wings.

“Mine summons winged monkeys,” Tantalus says.

Hermes laughs genially. “I can fly and turn invisible,” he says. “Plus, I’m the patron of thieves.”

“Okay,” Tantalus admits. “Yours is better.”

Hermes tweaks Tantalus’ nose and then takes his seat. Tantalus continues greeting guests.

“Great Goddess,” he says to Demeter. “Cybele.”

Demeter, clad in mourning gear, looks at him blankly. Then she shrugs and shuffles to her seat.

“Dad!” he says.

Zeus pats Tantalus on the shoulder. “Nice place,” he says. “Good kingdom.”

Upstairs, Brotos tries to bark. He can’t. He’s disassembled.

“Thanks, Dad,” Tantalus says.

“It better be a good feast, though,” Zeus says. “I mean, I could be having ambrosia and nectar right now.”

“You’ll find it very surprising,” Tantalus assures him.

Zeus and Hera go to their seats. “What did he mean by that?” Zeus wonders.

“Smells like Pelops,” Hera says, sniffing the air.

“How awkward,” Zeus says.

“We’re not going to eat your grandchild.”

“Well, no.” Zeus thinks. “We could pretend to eat. To be polite. But actually feed it to Cerberus under the table.”

“No,” Hera says, firmly.

Tantalus brings out plates of fruit and bread and nuts. The gods begin their feast. The food is not so good as it might be, but not so bad as it might be, either. Then Tantalus rises to announce the main course.

“Here it comes,” Zeus says, sadly. “Still, when he brings his son out, we’ll break the news to him gently.”

The pots of stew come out to the table. Zeus clears his throat.

The doors of the room burst open. Pandareus stands behind them. He stares grimly at Tantalus. His stomach is scarred. His left arm is broken. He shouts. “You stole my dog!”

“He does that,” Nemesis confides.

“And stabbed me!”

“Friend,” Tantalus says, “This is hardly the time.”

Pandareus advances. He has a sword in his hand. “I’ll end you, you bastard!” He leaps onto the table. His foot knocks over a pot of Pelops, and stew spills over Demeter’s plate. He blurs in a lunge, and Tantalus tumbles backwards to avoid his sword.

“He wasn’t as fast as the wind,” notes Eurus.

“Or the thunderbolt,” Zeus confides.

“But still, pretty fast,” Eurus agrees.

“Oh, yes. He’s a hero of some sort.”

“At least there’s entertainment.”

Tantalus screams as the sword blurs at him again and again. He’s not armed. He didn’t expect to need weapons at a feast of the gods. Pandareus’ blade sticks clean through Tantalus’ stone chair, which explodes. Tantalus scrambles backwards, thinking frantically. “You were supposed to run!”

“Run?” Pandareus pauses to sneer. “You pathetic milksop of a king, I’d have to be a rabbit to be afraid of you.”

“He does have a point, Daddy,” Niobe comments. “He’s better than you are.”

Tantalus grasps at the golden cap. “I summon the winged monkeys!”

“See?” Hermes says. “Pretty good cap. Still, not as good as mine.”

The air above the banquet hall fills with a storm of winged monkeys. They swirl around. Pandareus slashes at them, once, twice, thrice, and six monkeys fall. There are hundreds more.

“He’s heroic,” Zeus notes again. “Do you think they’ll tell stories about this?”

“The winged monkeys don’t seem very popular with the poets,” Echidna answers.

“Hm,” Zeus rumbles. “I suppose they do lack a certain dignity.”

“Now, the Nemean Lion,” Echidna says. “There’s a monster.”

Pandareus raises his sword high above his head, and his sword energy flings the winged monkeys in all directions. Hermes picks one out of his fruit plate, shakes it off unhappily, and tosses it back into the storm. Absently, Demeter picks a few bites of Pelops meat from the mess on her plate and chews on them.

Tantalus crawls over to the king of the winged monkeys. “Fetch me Arpazo,” he says. The winged monkeys stream out of the room. Pandareus stands ready to resume the attack. A few minutes pass. Then the monkeys return. They drop off Arpazo and leave.

“What’s this?” Pandareus says. He stares at Arpazo, who leans close to the ground, lion skin draped over him. “Is this the Nemean Lion?”

Echidna sighs.

Tantalus points at Pandareus. “Steal his courage, Arpazo, and I’ll let you go free!”

Arpazo considers. Then he looks at Pandareus. He beckons. Pandareus carefully slinks closer to him. Arpazo whispers a secret in Pandareus’ ear. Pandareus’ eyes widen. He bolts from the room.

“I’m free!” Arpazo says.

“I summon the winged monkeys!”

“What?” Arpazo asks.

The winged monkeys hesitantly flutter back into the room.

“For my third service,” Tantalus says, “I ask you to return Arpazo to the cave.”

They whisk him away.

“Now,” Tantalus says, “back to the feast.” Then he looks solicitous. “Demeter,” he says. “Cybele. You do not seem well.”

Zeus stands, shocked. “She has eaten of Pelops.”

“And my blood as well; for I’ve added it to the stew.”

Zeus scowls. “What foul deed is this?”

“It’s a secret I’ve learned,” Tantalus says, “from your golden dog.”

Nemesis rises. “He admits to stealing it!”

“Now, Nemesis,” he says. “Remember: I may not be punished for any act save those directly against the gods.”

Nemesis’ eyes narrow. “And the deeds of the night do not qualify?”

Tantalus shrugs. “I also may not be punished for acting directly against the gods. Some idiotic deity sent a promise to this effect; and, I assure you, I have thoroughly punished Arpazo, Anakopto, Kyrievo, and Pandareus. I’ve rigged the three gods to explode.”

“Is this true?” Zeus asks, pained. “Someone has promised him this?”

Tantalus leers at Nemesis. “So now you’re just an ineffectual piece of trash.”

“Fifteen,” Nemesis says.

Tantalus hesitates. He counts. He counts on his fingers. He counts twice. “Twelve, before,” he says. “And that one. Thirteen.”

“‘She’s too dumb to see my good qualities,'” quotes Nemesis.

“You heard that?” Tantalus runs his hand through his hair. “Well, fourteen, then.”

“‘Some idiotic deity,'” quotes Nemesis.

Zeus raises an eyebrow at Nemesis. “Have you been putting on a mask and telling people you’re a good witch again?”

Nemesis blushes and looks down. “It makes them summon monkeys.”

Tantalus backs away. “Father,” he says, “you really shouldn’t let her break the rules, just because it’s her special power.”

Nemesis looks up. “Run.”

Tantalus runs. He runs for hours. He falls under the shadow of Mount Sipylus.

“What happens now?” Zeus asks.

Nemesis listens. There’s a roar. “That’s an explosion,” she says. “Unstable gods. The top of the mountain is flying off. It’s going to land on him, if you so will it, and drive him down into the Underworld and death.”

Zeus nods.

“And that,” she says, “is the sound of winged monkeys, disturbed by the explosion, flying out of the mountain.”

Niobe stares out the window at the topless mountain. “It’s really more of a butte.”

The mountain drives Tantalus into the darkness of the Underworld. In time, Persephone comes for him.

“You fed mother human flesh,” she says.

“Yes.”

“Do you know what that does?”

“No,” he says.

“You fed her your blood,” Persephone says. “Do you know what that does?”

“It made her mine.”

“You could feed me your blood,” Persephone says, “and free me from this place.”

“I have no blood,” Tantalus says. “I am dead.”

“Then I shall go,” Persephone says, “and sit upon my throne, and I shall dream of home.”