Olympus was empty.
It was but a shadow of itself. An echo of faded grandeur, doomed to be forgotten by those who had once looked to it for inspiration. Or so it seemed in this moment.
Hera stood alone in the grand amphitheater, save for the ever-watchful Argus. The Queen of the Gods cast her mind across the myriad of possibilities, seeking a way forward through the chaos that was now inevitable. Her eyes strayed to the empty benches. Who had been the last among the gods to leave? The first? Those were the ones to take note of. The ones who might be swayed to her cause, or who might stand against her.
Allies and enemies. As it had always been, so it seemed would always be.
Ra’s voice pierced the silence. Hera turned to see the lord of the Egyptian Pantheon descending the steps of the amphitheater, followed closely by a golden, winged god. “I see it has not gone as well as you hoped,” Ra continued.
“No. They are as short-sighted as ever. We freed ourselves from the chains of fate, only to repeat the same mistakes.” Hera looked past Ra, to meet the steady gaze of his companion. “You are Horus. Son of Osiris. Your fame precedes you.”
“As does yours, Queen of Olympus,” Horus replied. “Word of your wisdom has reached far and wide.” He took in the empty amphitheater. “Sadly, it seems to be unappreciated.”
“Not by all, I hope,” Hera said, and then cursed herself silently. Ra would not have brought Horus, save that he was potential ally. She could not risk seeming weak. “Forgive me – circumstances are not as I hoped they might be for a first meeting.”
“You are not alone in that,” Horus said. He fell silent.
Hera looked at Ra. “Osiris is gone,” he explained. Hera felt a flicker of sympathy for the young god. She too knew the loss of a loved one.
Horus’ wings snapped out, stretching to their utmost, before folding again. “Betrayed by Set,” he said, beak snapping in anger. “My treacherous uncle sees opportunity in chaos. He would crack the world, if it served his ends.”
“And what would you do with the world, son of Osiris?” Hera asked.
“I would ensure that it persisted. That the sun rose without fail, and that mortals lived without fear. Though I am a warrior born, I long for the day war is but a memory.”
“As do I,” Hera said.
“As do we all,” Ra added. “That is why I acquiesced, when Horus asked me to bring him here. He too seeks allies, though for a different conflict.”
“Not so different, I think,” Horus said. “It is the same battle, whatever the field.” He looked out over the amphitheater. “Order against chaos. My uncle thrives in chaos – it is his element. He will seek to take advantage of the current upheaval. As the gods squabble amongst themselves, Set will grow stronger.”
“He is not alone in that,” Hera said. “There are others who will find the opportunity in disorder. They will seek to expand their spheres, whatever the cost.” She shook her head.
“Even if it means this new war claims us all.”
Horus nodded in agreement with her words. Set would be forging an army – or at the very least, an alliance of equals. Horus knew that he must do the same, if he had any hope of thwarting his uncle’s ambitions. He had one ally, at least, in Ra. But he needed more.
He glanced at the lord of the Egyptian Pantheon, and took some comfort from that. Ra was mighty indeed, and had witnessed Set’s confession for himself. Had seen him cast down the bloodied crown of Osiris, as if it were but a trinket.
As if it did not matter at all.
Horus’ grip tightened on his spear’s haft, as he fought against the by-now familiar surge of anger. He had lost control, in that moment, and nearly his life. Set had defeated him with ease, leaving him humiliated. But determined. Defeat had brought with it a lesson – to defeat Set required cunning. Strategy. Allies.
“Why did you come here, son of Isis?”
Hera’s words snapped him from his reverie. “Allies,” he said. “As Ra said. I require – I need allies.” He looked around. “But I see none here.”
He felt Hera bristle at that. She was easily insulted, this queen. Proud, but tempered by pragmatism. Even so, his words had stung her. But before he could attempt to mitigate his statement, someone new spoke.
“Then you are not looking close enough, oh lord of the black lands.” The words slithered down from above. There was a great rasping, like the sound of many shields scraping against one another. “You see only the ashes of defeat, rather than the spark of victory. How disappointing.”
Horus turned, seeking the intruder, as Hera, her eyes sparking with divine light, brandished her sceptre. “Who dares come unannounced to Olympus?” she commanded. “Identify yourself!” At her words, her guardian slammed his great fists together.
“Identify myself?” the voice hissed. “Do you not know me, Queen of Olympus? You invited me here, and here I am. I watched and listened, as you waxed eloquent to our kith and kin. And now I am done listening.” Again, the rasping sound. And something else, like the flapping of wings.
Horus peered upwards. His keen gaze picked out a massive serpentine shape, coiled about the uppermost reaches of the pillars above. Even as he spotted the shape, its coils loosened their grip and it plummeted towards the trio of gods.
“Look out,” Horus cried, letting his wings carry him backwards. Hera and Ra both dove aside as the thing fell towards them. A great rush of wind filled the amphitheater, nearly bowling them all over. Horus fought to stay aloft as the wind ripped at him, and readied his spear. He spied the others preparing themselves as well. Whatever this creature was, it would not find them easy prey, at least.
The shape did not strike the floor, but instead hovered in place, held aloft by the beating of great feathered wings. Four of them, in fact, attached to a sinuous, scaled form. A snakelike visage, branded by a plume of feathers, swung towards Horus. Its golden headdress clattering. Horus felt an atavistic chill. God or no, falcons and serpents had a bloody history. He raised his spear warily.
“Stay your spear, little falcon. I do not desire your blood this day,” the newcomer hissed in amusement. It paused.
“Tomorrow, perhaps.. but not today.”
“Kukulkan,” Hera said, flatly. “What are you doing here, old serpent?”
“I was invited,” Kukulkan said. “Remember?” The plumed serpent undulated through the air towards the Queen of the Gods, jaws slightly agape.
“I did not see you among the others.” She waved Argus back, as her guardian tensed. She wanted to know why Kukulkan was here. The Serpent of the Nine Winds was enigmatic – few could claim his good favour, and none seemed to know what he wanted. She had never included him in her calculations for that very reason. There were easier gods to bargain with.
“Because I did not wish to be seen.” Kukulkan slithered around her, his scaled not touching the floor, his gaze cool and calculated. “not by you, or anyone.”
“Why did you not leave with the rest?”
“I was curious. And my curiosity was rewarded.” He reared up over her, and Argus gave a rumble of warning. Kukulkan ignored the warrior. “Such an intriguing gathering, this.. a meeting of pantheons.”
“Yes. though I’d hoped our numbers would be greater.”
Kukulkan gave a rattling, hissing laugh. “No doubt. And whose fault is that, then?”
Hera frowned. “Did you come here to simply mock me?”
“Not just for that, no.” He turned towards Horus. “My condolences on the demise of your father.” He paused. “Who rules his stead?”
“What business is that of yours?” Horus said.
Again, the hissing laugh. The cold gaze turned back to Hera. “A kingdom without a king, and a queen without a kingdom. Strange bedfellows, indeed.”
“Speak plainly.” The air rippled with heat as Ra spoke. Kukulkan glanced at him, and then back at Hera.
“They will not follow you.” He paused. “either of you.”
She stared at him. “What?”
“Neither of you will be the one to bring about this golden age you both desire.”
Before Hera could reply, laughter filled the amphitheater. For a moment, she feared treachery. But Kukulkan swayed back, head turning, eyes narrowed. Whoever this was, they had surprised him as well.
The shadows swelled and split, revealing a lean shape. “Set,” Horus spat.
Set applauded mockingly. “Well said, old serpent. Well said indeed.” He looked at Hera. “Nothing pierces so sharp as the truth, eh?”
Argus took a step towards the other god, but Hera restrained him. “Leave,” she said. “Olympus is mine and you are not welcome here, traitor.” She glanced at Horus, and he gave her a terse nod of thanks.
“And what of me, oh queen?” a sepulchral voice intoned. “Am I not of Olympus, as much as you?”
Argus snarled, and Hera turned. An ebon-winged shape crouched atop a nearby pillar, scythe in hand. “Thanatos,” she said. “What do you want here, death-bringer?”
“Merely to fulfill my function,” Thanatos said, mockingly. “Death is abroad in the mortal lands. God wars against god. Sides are drawn and a thousand conflicts bloom anew.” He brandished his scythe. “For instance, Bellona rides to war, seeking to overcome old rivals.” he leaned towards her. “Such as your son.”
“Ares,” Hera said, softly. She shook her head. Her son could fight his own battles – indeed, he would likely relish such a conflict. “And this please you both, no doubt.”
“Of course,” Set said. “We have found a commonality of spirit, the Hand of Death and I.” He leveled his bladed staff. “This world stands upon the brink of a new age. The old ways are done and dust. And you will join them, nephew. As will you, Ra – and you as well, oh queen of nothing.” His red gaze slid towards the Plumed Serpent. “You are free to leave, old one. I bear you no enmity.”
“I am humbled by such magnanimity, oh lord of the red land.” Kukulkan reared, multi-coloured scales clattering like the panoply of war. “But I am afraid I must decline your offer. I stand alongside these, against you. The sun must rise, and Kukulkan will see that it does so.” Hera, somewhat surprised, said nothing. Perhaps the old serpent had not come to cause mischief at all.
Set stared at Kukulkan for a moment. Then he gave a brief nod. “You would count yourself among my foes? Very well. One or a hundred, it matters not to us.”
“Bold words,” Hera said, her anger swelling. “Is that why you’re here?” She glared up at Thanatos. “To declare war on your queen?”
Thanatos inclined his head, in mocking respect. “War is but the preamble of death, my lady,” he said. “Immortality a perversion of the natural order. For too long, the gods have flouted the ancient laws that bind all souls.”
“Never fear, Thanatos.. a war among them will soon set that to rights,” a high, girlish voice piped. Thanatos swept aside his wing, revealing a slim, brightly-hued goddess hovering behind him, out of sight just now.
Hera’s eyes widened. “Discordia,” she said. “You as well?”
“Of course,” Discordia said. “Where else would I be?”
Hera stared at the goddess of strife, wondering if Bellona’s actions – the dissolution of her council – had been caused not by her own failure, or their obstinacy, but by the guiding hand of the being before her. It wouldn’t be the first time Discordia – or Eris, as she had once called herself – had set god against god for her own amusement.
As if reading her thoughts, Discordia smiled. She gestured and orbs of unruly magic swirled about her. “I desire to see volleys of arrows, the clashing of blades, strikes of lightning and the surging of death.” Her smile became savage.
“Let us be about it, shall we?”