Death Unsacred

1. Ms. Dorothy Adams

It is December 10, 2012, and Ms. Dorothy Adams is lost in a magical land.

On the ground at her feet is the vegetable boy. He could be dying, she thinks. He could be dead.

There are at least ten and perhaps fifteen of the tiger-things closing in on her position. She does not recognize them. They are no earthly beast. Their claws and fangs testify regardless to a tangible and certain prowess.

She holds a makeshift club—a stripped-down fallen branch—in her hands.

“This is the measure of a life,” she thinks: “What you’ll risk it for.”

2. The Spry Old Man

Her story properly begins with the rendition. She was in the process of returning home from Europe to her parents’ Virginia estate when an irregularity in her documentation incited the agents on the scene to draw her aside. In security she languished, for a short period of time, before the Agency came to speak to her; and when they found her intransigent in her unwillingness to profess false crimes—as one could only expect from a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces—they handcuffed her and placed her on an outgoing flight.

Her guard, an old man in the Agency’s dark uniform, was so spry he could barely sit still in his seat. He was alive with a fierce and radiant energy; he was smiling, he laughed when the pilot made intercom jokes, and when his partner came back into the cabin to bring them their meals, he came very close to cheering.

From time to time during the flight, he would pat her shoulder and smile to her—an intimacy that she, naturally, rebuffed.

“You’re so lucky,” he said.

She gave him a frosty look.

“You’ll see!” he assured her.

The plane shook a little in the wind and there was the soft pitter-pat of weather on the hull.

“They told me that in certain places in the world,” said Ms. Adams, “it was legitimate, no, standard practice to employ torture. So I expect that is my situation; and I would not call it lucky; but I will not break.”

“Oh, there’s torture,” said the spry old man. “There’s plenty of torture in the world. There’s all kinds of horror. But not where you’re going.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Then I don’t see the point,” she said.

The elimination of potential difficulties,” he said, and his smile was so brilliant that in any other circumstance Ms. Adams would have smiled back; but as things were, and expecting as she did rendition not to a magical land but to Syria or Guantanamo, his smile struck her as evidence of intense sociopathic bent.

She turned her eyes away towards the window. She frowned.

“It’s hailing fucking marshmallows,” she said.

“Language, young lady,” he said, “Language!”

She was forty-five.

3. Thrown

At a certain point in time and space, in response to an unknown signal, the spry old man seized her from her seat. She did not struggle, not at first, because he had a gun and the circumstances were poor; but when he began to force her towards the door, and with the plane still in flight, she fought for her very life.

“Quiet!” he said, and struck her on the head. Her vision went white. Her ears rang. Then she could hear the opening of the door; and while she desperately tried to remember how her arms and legs worked, he released her from her restraints and flung her from the plane.

“Cheerio!” he cried, and “Godspeed!”

She fell.

Ms. Dorothy Adams, Private First Class, passed through a layer of clouds, the soft springy substance of them parting only reluctantly as she hit. She disturbed a flock of stairstep birds in flight, her fall broken awkwardly and embarrassingly by first one then the other as she caromed through the sky. Then there was nothing beneath her but a spreading green land, and she said, “I shall, at least, have a story to tell in Heaven.”

Then, with a grace in tragedy and a grim resolve to—if at all possible—survive the impact that would follow, she closed her eyes, made her body limp, and thought of distant lands.

4. Waking

It was the sun that woke her: the rising sun, over the hills. She mumbled and she whined, for a moment not Ms. Dorothy Adams but the small child she had once been, tossing in her bed at the Virginia estate, resenting fiercely such early awakenings. Then the cold realization of her situation struck. She was at once on her feet and staring about.

“I am unbruised,” she thought, and a dizzying wave of confusion passed over her. “I am in a forest and I am still dressed in my clothes from three days ago and I am unbruised.”

In the distance she could hear bird calls, so many bird calls, and an occasional, terrible throaty roar.

To her credit, Ms. Dorothy Adams wasted no time on her confusion. She was a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces. Her first priority was not to understand but to survive. She tuned her senses to their fullest and their most alert. She seized a fallen branch from the ground and stripped it of its twigs and bark. She placed her back against a tree.

Slowly, because of the low priority and reliability of this sensory data, she came to realize that from the branches of the trees around her hung not nuts or flowers but roast turkey; saving, of course, for those from which hung clumps of potatoes or bowls of stuffing, and where the birds had cracked them open, she saw that the potatoes were mashed and buttered inside their skin.

“Gracious me,” she swore, her gutter mouth forsaking her. “It’s a proper feast!”

5. The Vegetable Boy

This magical scene would no doubt have ended with a fine repast or a psychotic break, save that a certain other event intervened; that being that the vegetable boy, fleeing the pursuit of a pack of Kazimajars, burst at that very moment into the clearing.

He was handsome, for a vegetable boy: his hair was green, his skin a fine nut-color, and his eyes as warm as the spry old man’s were bright. He wore fine purple raiment with a white silk undershirt. He was tired, panting, his clothing torn and the leaves in his hair half-wilted; but nevertheless he had some energy left to him.

Ms. Adams had been, during her native country’s unfortunately prolonged excursion in Iraq, reckoned the second-best sword in all the Middle East; though, of course, her skill with the gun was far more relevant. Thus she did not hesitate in considering herself the vegetable boy’s superior in personal combat, and, reasoning that he should have information of value to her, she confronted him. With a lithe step and a fierce demeanor she stepped out and brought her makeshift club to his throat; or so, at least, she had intended.

“Foul!” cried the vegetable boy, stepping back; and from the back of his hand grew a great long thorn, which he brought across to parry her club. “Treachery!”

As she did not know how much time there was to waste, Ms. Adams wasted none; she disengaged her weapon and attempted to strike him on the head. In this she would have succeeded, save that the thorn was amazingly swift in motion. Each blow she attempted he parried or reversed, and as she fenced with her opponent she realized that here was a boy, albeit a boy apparently made principally of vegetable matter, who could easily have ranked as one of the top five swords in the Middle East. After three more exchanges, she found herself admiring him, not so much for his skill but for his style; and after a passata-sotto lunge had failed her, forcing her into an awkward, stumbling retreat while the thorn stabbed about her face, the innate courtesy of her birth overcame her dedication and she exclaimed, “Such a waste that you should be an enemy!”

“The same,” he said, and stepped back a moment to salute. “For I had scarcely expected to encounter a princess of such beauty and such skill in this Kazimajar-infested region, much less find myself wood-to-wood with her.”

“I am not a princess,” she said.

“Then what are you?” asked the vegetable boy.

“Ms. Dorothy Adams,” she said, “Private First Class of the United States Armed Forces.”

“Well,” he said. “It seems to me that a Private First Class is much the same as a princess, only perhaps a bit fiercer; so you must pardon my misunderstanding.”

“What are you?” she said. “What am I doing here? Where is this place?”

“I am the hope of the vegetable tribe,” he said. “When I am ready to plant myself, I will tame this region, and make it habitable for my kind. As for what you are doing here, I cannot say; and as for this place, well, it is the Peapod Forest of Gillikin, as its unusual green color should indicate.”

Then she is staggered; then she says, “I have taken rather a journey—”

But the vegetable boy’s hand goes to his side; he clutches at a tear in his clothing, where his flesh has started of a sudden to leak a dark purple ichor.

“Oh, dear,” he said. He smiled at her. “I guess those beasts back there were more accurate than I’d thought.”

“Beasts?”

“It’s all the activity,” he said. He stares at his hand, which is purple. “I’m sorry. I’m going to pass out now, and here I’ve hardly just met you.”

And she could hear the beasts that hunted him approach.

6. The Tiger-Things

They are everywhere: the hunting Kazimajars, great cats of a sort but with patches of serpent-scale and bear-fur and the voices of men.

“He is our prey,” whines one of them.

“Tasty, tasty vegetable boy.”

And Ms. Adams, with the stern strength accordant to a woman of the United States Armed Forces, denies them. She stands over his fallen body and says, “Find something else.”

Some of them are circling around behind her. She can hear them.

“A turkey. Or mashed potatoes,” Ms. Adams says.

“He’s tastier,” whispers one of the beasts.

She has no time; the position is rapidly becoming untenable. She steps forward and whirls her club and cracks that beast upon its face. It reels back, stunned and whimpering: “You hit me!” it declares.

“I’ll beat all of you to a pulp,” she says. “I’ll show you what it is to fight a woman of Virginia!”

She clubs another sideways. It staggers into a tree. Spinning to drive back another, she unleashes a war cry: an unearthly yell, terrifying, the cry of a goddess come down to make war among men. And there is fear in them, and the will of the pack is breaking, and the Kazimajars are scattering, but there is one, the largest of them, the savage beast named Groth, who does not succumb to fear. He remains where the others have fled. He leaps upon her; she is borne down to the ground under his weight; his teeth bite out her throat, his claws score her sides. Her arms are numb and she cannot feel the club in her hand and she is only thinking, “I must throw him off and drive him back before I die.”

And as a last act to give credit to her name, a moment of heroism to prove that even in these troubled lands the life of a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—was not without account, she woke her arm to life and placed the club under his neck and thrust it upwards; and gagging, wretching, in great misery, the Kazimajar staggered away.

She lay there, soft and quiet, waiting to die.

But in this magical land of childhood, there is no heroism; there is no accounting; there is no virtue to such deeds. Death is unsacred here, and she realizes, when the moon rises and the blood that flows from her and the vegetable boy fades to a trickle, that there is not even any pain.

A tide of hopeless rises in her.

She tastes a sick horror in the back of her throat: for these are the lands of childhood.

Then she sets the matter aside and sits up slowly and turns her thoughts to the south, where if there is an airport it most likely resides; for it is not meet for a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—of the United States Armed Forces to surrender easily to those who find death unsacred.

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.”