Edition 19: Trial By Fire by Richard Zwicker
When a god shows up at your door, you can’t exactly turn him away. Phokus is recruited by none other than the big guy himself, and sent on a merry little chase. All in the name of a little warmth. SY
A knock at the door roused me from frigid dreams. This being Athens, it was likely a thief ready to slit my throat, so I was disinclined to answer. On the other hand, it could be a disguised god who’d reward my inhospitality by turning me into a chew bone for Cerberus. So, I roused myself out of bed and threw on a lion skin over the leopard and bear skins I already wore. I looked like a walking food chain, but cold beats style in my home.
I opened the door, and a blast of wind cold-cocked me. When my vision cleared, I saw a slouching, bearded old man. The rags he wore were so tattered I wouldn’t have used them to wipe my chariot, if I had a chariot.
“Can you spare some food for a stranger?” he asked, his voice a mix of sand and icicles. If this guy wasn’t Zeus, I was the Cock, the Dog, and the Fox.
“Of course, old man,” I said. I led him inside, cautioning him against the ice on the floor. I gave him a plate of figs and some wine. I didn’t have much of the latter, so I hoped he’d replenish the cups. When that didn’t happen, I worked on the conversation.
“Not the best night to be out,” I said. “Or in.”
“Yes,” the old man said. “Life is hard.”
“Hard as Medusa’s ex-boyfriends.”
“But a hard life builds character.”
Here I was, talking character with the god who could fill the cast of a satyr play all by himself. Could my life get any crazier?
“And it is about character that I’ve come to see you tonight,” he continued. Before my eyes, he grew straighter and taller, his rags now a dazzling robe.
“You’re not surprised,” he said, disappointed.
I smiled wistfully. “One must always be on guard.”
“Exactly. That’s why you, Phokus, are the man for me. As chief god, my mind has to be in many places at once. I can’t keep track of every little thing.” He leaned forward. “Someone has stolen fire from me. I must get it back before it falls into the hands of humans.”
I’d heard of this thing the gods called fire. It was warm and flickering and warm and light…and warm. “No offense, but it’s COLD here. Is letting us have fire such a bad idea?”
“Not at the expense of your character. Winter will pass and spring will bring warmth. But if you lose your character, it could be gone forever.”
Clearly, we had different concerns. “What would you like me to do?”
“Find who stole my fire and I’ll be forever in your debt.”
I had several problems with this. First, it didn’t make sense that Zeus, with all his powers, would get some human to do his dirty work. Second, I felt far more sympathy for someone stealing fire than for the god that put us all in the deep freeze because he thought we whined too much. But I had no choice. Life was about appeasing the gods. I shook Zeus’s hand.
“You got any leads?” I asked.
“As a matter of fact, yes. Before the fire was stolen, I hid it in the enormous fennel plant on the outskirts of Athens.”
I scratched my head. “If you were afraid of humans stealing fire, why did you hide it on Earth?”
His face screwed up. “Mount Olympus has more thieves than Earth.”
The next night I filled my assistant, Alastor, in on the deal. He wasn’t enthusiastic about working for the big god, but he was up for anything that got him closer to a heat source. He just had one question.
“Why are we doing this at night?” His knees shook as we approached the fennel plant. In the dark, it looked like a wispy, upright, many-fingered hand signaling us to stop.
“Fires are easiest seen at night.”
The only evidence that fire had been hidden in the plant was the fact it had not keeled over in the cold.
“Look at this,” Alastor said, pointing to an enormous set of footprints.
“We’re dealing with a titan,” I said. “How many of them do we know?”
“Most of them are imprisoned inside Mt. Tartarus, so we can cross them off our list.”
“Right. That leaves Atlas, Prometheus, and Epimetheus. Atlas is busy holding up the heavens.”
Alastor chuckled. “Someone with a worse job than me.”
“I’m sure the Augean stables could use another person to man the shovels.”
“Just kidding, boss. You’re the greatest.”
“The word in the marketplace is Prometheus recently tricked Zeus into eating glistening fat hidden in bull’s bones, so I’d figure him to lay low. That leaves Epimetheus.” Unfortunately, I had no idea where he might be.
We stood like two stones when, without warning, we were looking into the face of a beautiful woman.
“Perhaps I can help,” she said.
I’ve lived long enough to know darkness can make an Aphrodite out of Agathe the street cleaner. However, there was no mistaking the beauty of this woman, who gave off her own glow. Of course, Alastor noticed.
“Gee, you really are built. You could have been made by Hephaestus.”
He said that to every woman under fifty, regardless of their architectural attainment.
“I was made by Hephaestus,” she replied.
This kind of talk turned Alastor on, but I was suspicious. I noticed she favored her right hand, which looked raw. “Who are you?”
She smiled like a glistening mountain stream. “Pandora.”
I recognized the name of Epimetheus’s main squeeze, though I never understood what a stunner like Pandora saw in an afterthought like him. He was a Titan, but size wasn’t everything. Perhaps it had to do with her misguided name, which meant “all-giving.” What kind of parents name their daughter that?
“You said something about helping us.”
“Forget about Epimetheus. He was with me the night fire was stolen. You want Prometheus. I don’t know where he’s at, but Atlas does.”
“How do we know you’re not just protecting Epimetheus?” I asked.
She sized me up and sniffed. “He doesn’t need protecting.”
“Maybe you do though.” I pointed to her hand.
“Sometimes I like it rough.”
I had other questions, such as how did she know we were going to be at the fennel plant? But she’d said her piece, and that was it. There was no reason to believe her, except she was connected, and her actions must have had at least the tacit approval of the gods. Plus, everyone knew where Atlas was.
I thanked her, and motioned for Alastor to do the same. Star struck, he just shook her injured hand. She yelped and leapt back, a jar dropping from her cloak. When the top popped off, a sea of emotions deluged us—none of them good. Mixed feelings are standard for me, but this was as if Dionysus had propped my mouth open and poured down the contents of his spirits arsenal. I felt fear, greed, envy, selfishness, irritation, loneliness, regret—you name it, it roiled my senses.
When I said, “What the hell was in that jar?” it sounded like the heehaws of a crazed donkey. I couldn’t even see Alastor, but I had no trouble making out Pandora, who stood wild-eyed. As if fighting a whirlwind, I pulled myself toward the fallen receptacle. I thought I recognized one last emotion inside, hope, but that’s what I always see in the bottom of strong drink. I forced the stopper back into the jar, and then collapsed.
By the time I’d come to, Pandora was gone. I heard a groan and saw Alastor sprawled several body lengths behind me. I struggled to my feet, brushed myself off, and turned to Alastor. “Let’s call it a night.”
“Whatever that was, I’m never drinking it again,” Alastor said the next morning, caressing his forehead as we met in the public square. In addition to his headache, Alastor had come down with a dingbuster of a cold. I spent much of the day dodging his explosive sneezes.
Atlas was holed up on the western edge of Gaia, way out of our neighborhood. I tried praying to Zeus for some magic transportation, but when that didn’t work, Alastor suggested we sacrifice something.
“That’s not a bad idea, but what am I going to sacrifice? Your dog?”
His face darkened. “No way. I heard Zeus liked cows.”
“Yeah, he likes them alive.” Neither of us had the stomach to kill anything so it was a stroke of luck when we stumbled upon some road-kill. If I were the chief god, I doubt I’d be impressed with a dead weasel, especially one dumb enough to get laid out by a slow-moving Greek chariot, but we rolled with it. We piled a circle of rocks around the body, I pled our case, and the next thing I knew, we stood in a deserted plain; very plain, and very deserted.
Alastor looked around and snuffled, “I’ve never been in Gaia before.”
“Gaia is the Earth. You’ve never been anywhere else.”
“Oh. So which way do we go?”
I noted the location of the sun in the east. I pointed west.
As we walked, Alastor asked, “And what is Atlas holding up?”
“Uranus,” I said reluctantly.
Alastor started laughing. “He certainly has a long reach.”
“Uranus is the sky. Whatever you do, don’t let Atlas talk you into holding his burden or you’ll be doing it for the rest of your life.”
“I’ll give him a wide berth.”
We walked for hours. It was character building, but a few more steps and I’d have to apply for godhood. In the distance we saw a tall, hunchbacked man facing the shore. We could have picked his pocket if Alastor hadn’t let loose another nasal thunderclap. The Earth shook ominously, and I thought, that was some sneeze, until I realized we’d scared the bezeus out of Atlas.
“Who are you?” he snarled, repositioning Uranus.
“Sorry,” I said. “We’re looking for Prometheus. Pandora sent us.”
Atlas’s eyes softened. “She sends me too, that minx. But what’s your interest in my brother?”
“He stole something belonging to Zeus. If you help us, maybe Zeus will show his gratitude by lightening your load.” I could only hope that carrying Uranus had scrambled Atlas’ four humors because there was no way Zeus would forget that he’d joined the wrong side in the Olympian–Titan war.
“Hmm,” Atlas said. “I vaguely…” Another Alastor sneeze interrupted him. “Get that walking illness away from me. This job is bad enough when you’re healthy. With this weather, it’s a miracle I haven’t caught my death, and I’m immortal.”
I told Alastor to back off. Atlas continued. “I might know something. If you could just hold my burden for a moment…”
I scoffed. “Sorry, Atlas, but we weren’t born yesterday. If we were, Zeus wouldn’t have hired us two days ago.”
“Then there’s nothing I can do for you.”
We were at a standoff, and as Atlas had been standing here forever, I wasn’t optimistic about outlasting him. Other than taking the sky off his hands, which was off the table, what could we offer him? The point became moot as I felt another tremor, followed by a sneeze that made Alastor’s sound like one of Echo’s whispered forget-me-nots. It came from Atlas. The next thing I knew we were all lying prostrate on the ground. I could move just enough to see the bony legs of Alastor under the weight of Uranus.
“What happened?” I gasped.
“I told your friend to stay away from me,” Atlas said.
“You’ve got to pick up Uranus.”
“Why should I?”
“You don’t think Zeus is going to let the sky stay fallen, do you? He’ll probably be so mad, he’ll lump a few more worlds on you.”
A low crash of thunder sounded, and then a bolt of thunder whisked past Atlas’s left ear. He sighed, leaned over, and picked up the sky, replacing it on his back. As the world righted itself, I rushed to Alastor.
“Are you all right?”
“What hit me?” he asked, shaking the cobwebs out of his head.
I’d had it with Uranus jokes, so I just said, “The weight of the world.”
Not wanting to antagonize Zeus further, Atlas told us what we wanted to know. On the run and well aware of Atlas’s geographical expertise, Prometheus asked his brother about a place to hide. Atlas suggested Scythia. I groaned at the distance and higher elevation. I again prayed to Zeus, telling him we had nothing to sacrifice except body heat. Perhaps he was caught up on his minimum daily requirement of weasels, because the next thing we knew, we were whisked to a forbidding mountainous region. The air was crisp as bleached bones, and an icy blanket of snow offered no warmth.
It was not a howling wind that assaulted our ears, but the tortured moans of Prometheus. The Titan was chained to a boulder while a large bird pecked at his midsection. Alastor’s face turned an unhealthy shade of green, while my heart fell.
“How did you find me?” Prometheus gasped.
“Atlas drew us a map,” I said. “How long have you been here?”
“Days, weeks, who’s counting?” he gasped. “I was minding my own business, when suddenly I was target practice for an eagle.”
He was lying about minding his own business, but that didn’t matter. Eagles were Zeus’s birds. We’d been played. Zeus got us involved just to throw the dice and see what came up. This time it was Alastor’s lunch. Something inside me snapped.
“We’ve been working for the wrong side.” My body shook.
Alastor wiped his face and grunted, “Don’t do it, boss.”
But I did. I charged at the eagle, who hissed and sunk its curved beak into my swiping hands. Alastor hesitated, then staggered to my aid. Between the two of us, we convinced the bird to fly off in search of more docile prey. We then rustled up some rocks to smash the chains. Prometheus gingerly rolled away from the boulder. My eyes fell on the gaping, bloody hole in his midsection. “You might want to see a healer about that.”
He followed my gaze. “This? Not to worry. I heal myself, much to the delight of that eagle. I’d reward you, but I’m low on gifts right now. Unless you want a go at my liver.” Alastor retched again.
“We’ll pass on that,” I said. “There is something you could give us, to humanity, however: fire. Maybe that was your intention all along?” Prometheus had a reputation for favoring mankind, having made us, after all.
“Oh dear.” His over-sized head sagged. “I hate to admit it, but I stole fire to impress Pandora.”
“Didn’t work too well though. Burnt the underworld out of her hand.” I silently cursed all the gods while he continued. “However, now that you mention it, it’s a good idea. I’m going to make sure that fire catches on like…something that really catches on. We’ll see what the god of thunder thighs has to say about that.”
He dashed off, leaving us alone like two gnarled trees poking out of a sea of ice.
Alastor glared at me. “What are we going to do now—I mean before Zeus turns us into artichokes.”
There was nothing to do but swallow my pride and face the sky. “Oh Mighty Zeus, we found your thief. When we discovered this was just a game, we set him free. Do you really want to rule over a cowed, frightened people? We can never match you in strength or wisdom. We can only pursue our tiny dreams, in a way that’s respectful toward the gods. If you agree with any of this, please, give us a sign.”
Moments later, the chain we’d smashed came alive, and like a snake, encircled and bound us to the rock, snapping shut with a sickening clank. We stared at it, mouths agape.
“Do you have any other signs?” Alastor asked.
A few seconds later, the tall, bearded man in the dazzling robe reappeared in front of us.
“There’s a fine line between showing character and showing me up,” Zeus said in full stentorian mode. “Think about that as you make your way home.”
“That’s it?” I asked, disgusted. We’d banged shoulders with three gods and a well-connected woman. All of them used us. Had Zeus sent us on this fool’s errand just for entertainment? It didn’t make sense. He could have stopped us if he didn’t want Prometheus freed. Then I thought about his concern of being shown up and the necessity of believers.
“You changed your mind about freezing us to death, and about punishing Prometheus, but you didn’t want to look weak,” I said.
Zeus stared at me like one of his statues. “Phokus, you’re the man for me.” Then he disappeared.
A few hours later, he sent Herakles, who strolled up to our boulder and bent the loops of the chain with his bare hands. To make sure we appreciated the gesture, he bent them back into their original shape a couple of times. We didn’t protest. This was a case of a Greek bearing a gift we couldn’t refuse.
Unfortunately, Herakles lacked the locomotion of his old man, and we had to hoof it back to Athens. At times Herakles carried us both. It took about a month. By the time we got back, it was warmer, and when winter returned, thanks to Prometheus, we had an active fireplace. As I warmed my hands by the fire, my anger toward the gods cooled, for this was a turning point. Zeus had been forced to trust us with this power that could build and destroy and perhaps someday replace the need for gods altogether.
Richard Zwicker is an English teacher living with his wife in Vermont, USA. His short stories have appeared in Penumbra, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, Perihelion Science Fiction Magazine, and other semi-pro markets. Besides reading and writing, his hobbies include playing the piano, jogging, and fighting the good fight against middle age. Though he lived in Brazil for eight years, he is still a lousy soccer player.