Olympus was burning.
Mystic flames washed across shattered marble, painting everything the colour of blood. Amid a forest of broken pillars and benches, god battled god. The war raged through Olympus, tearing through the ancient gardens and fanes.
Hera swept out her sceptre, momentarily dispersing the smoke. “Argus! Strike now!” At her command, Argus wrenched a pillar from the floor and swung it at the darting shape of Discordia. The goddess of strife swooped beneath the blow and hurled an orb of unruly magic at the hulking warrior. The magics splashed across Argus’ face, momentarily blinding him. The pillar slipped from his fingers and he struck out blindly. Discordia’s laughter scraped across Hera’s nerves, as the goddess of strife danced across the rough tops of broken pillars, flames licking at her heels.
“You are the cause of all of this,” Hera snarled. It made sense. Why else would Bellona and the others have proven so resistant to her vision, unless someone had stoked their ambitions and resentment? And who else but the goddess of strife would be behind such a conniving scheme?
“I wish I could take credit, but like Set and Thanatos, I am guilty only of seeing opportunity in the chaos.” Discordia swooped past, trailing snarling streamers of magic. “Your dream was never going to be a reality, Hera. Gods do not bow to the weak.”
Hera shook her head. “Do not pretend that you know anything about me, Discordia – or should I call you Eris?”
“I know enough. For the fairest – do you remember that phrase? Does it still bring a pang to your conscience?” Discordia hovered just out of reach, her expression one of cruel mockery. She laughed. “How does it feel to know that you are so pathetic that a mere apple could bring you low?” She reached behind her and produced a single, golden apple. “Here, catch!” She tossed the apple towards Hera.
Argus snatched it from the air before Hera could stop him, and made to crush it. But he paused, as if listening to a voice only he could hear. Hera reached for him, knowing what came next and desperate to stop it. “Argus – I command you to drop the apple.” Argus spun, his fist nearly taking her head off. “Argus, heed me!” she cried, desperately. Her guardian roared wordlessly, and pressed his attack.
Argus’ great fists smashed through a wall. He tore pillars loose from their bases and hurled them in a blind rage. The chamber was beginning to collapse. Hera retreated before the maddened warrior, Discordia’s laughter ringing in her ears.
Horus ignored the crash of falling marble and the sounds of battle that echoed from all about him. “Come, uncle,” he called out, peering into the smoke. “Let us finish what we began in my father’s throne room.”
“There is no need for this, nephew,” Set replied. His voiced seemed to echo from all directions at once. “Flee, and I will spare you further humiliation.” He prowled through the shadows, vanishing and reappearing at random points. The air was full of smoke and the crackling flames cast long shadows. Set was in his element here, as were his allies.
“I have chosen my side, Set,” Horus said. “As you have chosen yours. I stand with the Queen of Olympus. Together, we might bring order to the chaos you have unleashed.”
Set laughed. “Unleashed? I merely took advantage of it. Nor am I the only one. As we speak, god battles god. It is our nature.”
“Yours, maybe.” Horus cocked his head, listening. He heard the hiss of sand. “I hold myself to higher standards.”
“You are a fool, nephew. You always have been. I blame Osiris. He indulged your flights of fancy.” Set sighed theatrically. “Now that he is indisposed, I suppose that I must take responsibility for your education. Starting now.”
It took Horus a moment to register the meaning of his words, and by then, it was almost too late. He spun as Set lunged from out of the smoke, attempting to skewer him. Instinctively, Horus lashed out his and his spear parted Set’s skull. Even as simulacrum of his uncle crumbled to sand, a second spawn darted towards him. Horus whirled, dispatching the second as easily as the first.
“Clever, uncle,” he said. “But I am familiar with your tricks now. Send one shadow or a hundred, I will defeat them all as easily as I did these two.”
There was no reply, only the hiss of the wind-blown sand. More spawn burst from the flames and smoke, hurtling towards Horus from all directions. Too many to face all at once. He needed to clear the field. With a snap of his powerful wings, Horus stirred the air about himself into gale-forced winds, shredding the closest spawn in the process. Those that remained were hurled away from him.
A cry of pain drew his attentions. He turned as a flare of solar energy pierced the smoke. Ra. With a single flap of his wings, he was aloft and swooping through the columns of Olympus, before the remaining spawn could recover.
Horus spied the sun god almost immediately. Ra was surrounded by Set’s spawn. The sand-simulacrums sprang at him from every direction, preventing the old god from concentrating his fierce light in any one place. A lesser being would have been overcome immediately. But Ra was as strong as he was ancient, and he swpt his sceptre about in a fiery arc, holding his attackers at bay. Light blazed from his flesh as he fought, growing brighter with every passing moment.
Several spawn went up like candles, but the rest pressed forward, dog-piling Ra. Horus folded his wings and fell towards the fray like a thunderbolt. But even as he did so, some instinct compelled to stretch his wings and bank away from the struggle. As he swooped away, there was a blinding flare of light and heat, followed by a thunderous detonation. Set’s spawns were reduced to motes of ash, save those on the periphery, which were seared into statues of superheated glass.
Ra knelt panting at the centre of a crater of melted marble, smoke rising from his lean frame. As he made to rise, Set – the true Set – leapt gracefully through the flames, his blade hissing down in a lethal arc.
Horus shot forward and knocked the blow aside, embedding the blade into the floor. He drove the ferrule of his spear into Set’s midsection and set his opponent crashing back, weaponless. “No, uncle,” Horus said, as he set himself between the two gods. “No more of our kin shall fall to your treachery.”
Set rolled to his feet and crouched, eyes blazing and crimson with fury. “Treachery? It was liberation!” He pounded the ground with his fists. “I did it for you, nephew – for all of us. Why can you not see that?” He shuddered in rage. “We are free of the old chains and you would bind us anew. I cannot allow it. I will not!”
Set howled and bounded to Horus with bestial speed, his form wreathed in a blood-red radiance. Weaponless, he leapt onto Horus, and they smashed against a pillar. Horus’ spear was trapped between them. Set leaned close, eyes blazing. Horus jerked forward, and their skulls connected with a crash. Set staggered back, and Horus slammed the haft of his spear into Set’s legs, sending him sprawling.
Horus shook his head, trying to clear it. He raised his spear over Set’s prone figure. “Now, uncle – you will pay for your crimes.”
Hovering above the fray, Thanatos watched the confrontation below. He considered the matter with cool pragmatism. He owned nothing to Set, save possibly the courtesy due a fellow traveller. Their goals were only tangentially aligned, after all. And a death was a death, in the end. One dead god was as pleasing as another.
Yet, the need for allies was still pressing. Thanatos knew himself well enough to know that he lacked Set’s guile and acumen, and inspired little in his fellow gods save fear and disgust. And Discordia was too erratic to server as a figurehead, much as she might disagree. In the coming war, Set would be invaluable in prolonging the conflict, if nothing else. Wars needed leaders. Charismatic ones.
Decision made, the Hand of Death acted with characteristic swiftness. He raised his black scythe and sent it hurtling downwards towards Horus. It struck, ripping the spear from the god’s grip and forestalling Set’s doom. Thanatos stretched out his hand, and caught the scythe as it returned to him. Horus looked up, eyes narrowed.
“Me,” Thanatos said. He flapped his wings and swooped towards Horus, scythe sweeping out. Horus narrowly avoided the blow, and leapt for his spear. Thanatos rose, Horus in pursuit. He laughed, pleased. If the little prince wanted to chase his own death, death was more than happy to oblige.
Thanatos veered and swooped between cracked columns and broken pillars, leading Horus on a chase through the gutted halls of Olympus. A flicker of unruly light caught his attention, and he spied Discordia dancing along the tops of the columns. She seemed engrossed in something occurring beneath her. Thanatos banked towards her.
She turned as he drew close and frowned. “Go away, reaper – this fight is mine. Get your own.”
“Harsh words for one who has brought you a new toy,” Thanatos said, indicating Horus. He swooped past Discordia and looked down to see the brutal shape of Argus barrelling after his fleeing queen. The gigantic warrior smashed aside anything and everything in his single-minded pursuit. Thanatos longed to claim Hera’s life, but restrained himself. “One soul at a time,” he murmured.
He heard a shout and turned to see Discordia’s magics bursting into the air around Horus. The goddess of strife laughed as she drove Horus down, into the smoke. Thanatos gave chase. Though the smoke made it difficult, he soon spotted his quarry. Horus flew ahead of him, unaware of his presence, driven to distraction by Discordia’s magics, even as Thanatos had intended. For several moments, he flew parallel to the unwary god, shadowing him. When he judged the moment right, he readied his scythe.
“No,” a voice hissed. “Not today, I think.”
Surprised, Thanatos looked up and saw Kukulkan undulating swiftly through the forest of broken pillars, swings stirring the smoky air into a whirlwind. Thanatos yelped in the consternation as the winds caught him up and sent him crashing helplessly to the ground below in a flurry of black feathers.
Hera turned as Thanatos crashed down nearby, his scythe skittering from his grip. A moment later, Kukulkan struck swift as Zeus’ lightning. His jaws gaped and a bolt of crackling turquoise energy speared out to strike the Hand of Death as he tried to rise. Thanatos slumped back against a fallen statue, his armour smoking.
Before Hera could speak, Argus found her. Her maddened guardian roared and charged towards her. Kukulkan dropped down between them, jaws agape. He spat something like a shimmering zephyr towards Argus, dazing him. “The apple, Hera,” the Plumed Serpent hissed. “While he’s distracted!”
Hera swung her sceptre and batted the pulped remains of the golden apple from Argus’ grip. The giant warrior slumped with a groan. “My thanks, old serpent,” Hera said in gratitude.
“We are allies now,” Kukulkan said, simply. “For better or worse.”
Hera frowned, but before she could ask him what he meant, she heard a harsh laugh. Set stepped out from behind a fallen column. He clapped his hands mockingly. Discordia hovered behind him, a scornful smile on her face.
“How noble. And yet it will avail you nothing. The end approaches and no god can stay its coming. Not even you, old serpent.” Set looked around. “How fitting that this matter end here.”
Hera followed his gaze, only now realising where they were – Zeus’ throne room. She felt a pang deep in her heart as she saw the dais and its empty throne. Her grip on her sceptre tightened as Set laughed.
“I shall make this place mine, I think,” he said. “A better sort of king is needed. And I will be that king.” Behind him, Thanatos rose to his feet, scythe in hand. With Argus still dazed from Discordia’s spell, she and Kukulkan were outnumbered.
“No, Usurper. You will not,” Horus called out, as he and Ra emerged from the smoke to Hera’s left. She felt a flash of relief as the two gods joined her. “But you were right when you said that things end here.” Horus raised his spear. “I will see to it personally.”
Set shook his head and gestured. Hera felt the air stir and her flesh prickled. Sand shifted up through the cracks in the floor, and from it rose a pair of Set’s spawn. But the number soon doubled, then doubled again. Set laughed. “You and what army, nephew?”
“What need has he of an army, when the Serpent of the Nine Winds stands at his side?” Kukulkan hissed, his scales flashing as his wings cut the air. “You would upset the balance of all things, Lord of the Red Lands. That must not be allowed.”
Set glared at him. “You are in no position to deny me anything, serpent!”
“I never said I was the one to do so.” Kukulkan glanced at Hera, and then upwards. Hera followed his gaze. Through the smoke, she saw that she thought was a falling star. Before she could ask him what it meant, Set snarled and extended his blade. His army of spawn surged forward, and she and her allies met them with wind, flame and steel.
As she fought, she glimpsed the star once more. It was closer now. Falling towards Olympus. Towards the open dome of the throne room itself. But as it drew closer, she realised that it wasn’t a star at all, but a man.
No. A god.
But a god unfamiliar to her, clad in the colours of the heavens, and glowing with an aura of power that was all but blinding. From within the roaring winds, that buffeted the throne room, she heard Kukulkan begin to laugh.
The god landed not with a crack of thunder, but with barely a whisper of sound. Even so, Hera felt it reverberate through her core. The army of spawn dissipated, snuffed by the silent force of his arrival. Fallen sand formed dunes against the walls and columns of the throne room. The newcomer stood upon the dais, beside Zeus’ throne. He studied it with a scholar’s eye, as if trying to puzzle out its purpose.
“Who-?” Set began. The newcomer silenced him with a gesture.
“Long have I been content to simply bear witness.” His voice was like the soft growl of distant thunder. He radiated a power greater than any she had ever felt. Even Zeus would have found himself humbled before such a being as this.
“From the heavens, I have witnessed the rise of new gods and return of ancient horrors. I have seen the beginning of a war which will rock the foundations of all creation.” He turned towards Hera and the others, in his eyes was a great sadness and great determination. “Unless I intervene.”
At these words, Set and his allies shared a look. The Usurper took a step towards the newcomer, blade raised as if to cast. Hera opened her mouth to cry out in warning. As if sensing Set’s intent, the newcomer turned. In that moment, his form seemed to split into three. Three gods raised their hands and there came a flash of energy, followed by a wave of force. The sound was like the impact of a comet.
Set’s blade hung in the air, mere inches from his hand. Hera turned, but slowly. Painfully. It was like being encased in amber. The others were similarly caught. The two copies of the newcomer faded as he approached the throne. Hera wanted to cry out – to demand that he stop. But she was caught fast in the moment. She and the others were helpless to do anything save bear witness to the being before them.
“You do not know me. But you will.” He swept a hand across the throne, as if to clear it of dust. “I have watched your senseless battles from afar for long enough.” Hera felt a flicker of shame, and took in the devastation that surrounded them. Perhaps Discordia had been right. And Kukulkan as well. She was not one whom the other gods would follow. Not unless she imposed her rule by force – something she was unwilling to do.
“I am done watching.” The newcomer sat. “I am Olorun.”
Time resumed to its proper course. Set’s blade clattered to the floor, as the Usurper stumbled to one knee in shock. Argus reared up, ready to attack, but Hera calmed him with a gesture. Now free to move, Discordia and Thanatos retreated, as Horus and the others moved to present a unified front alongside Hera. Whatever came next, they would be ready for it.
Olorun studied them with a gaze as serene and untroubled as the stars themselves. “I am your king,” he said, simply.
Hera stared at him. She looked at the others, but saw that they were as confused as she was, save Kukulkan, who bowed his great head in apparent obeisance. After a few moments, Ra followed suit. And then Horus. Soon, only Hera remained standing. She looked back at the newcomer.
Olorun’s eyes met hers. She saw an infinity of wisdom there. Compassion. Strength. All the things needed to guide them through the tribulations to come. All that she had sought, since Zeus’ fall. Since Ragnarök and the defeat of Jormungandr. But even so, she could not help being skeptical. Kings came and went.
Would this Olorun, magnificent as he was, be any different?
“Impressive,” she said. “But will it be enough?”
Olorun smiled. “We shall find out.”