It had been centuries since Athena had last seen Zeus. While seeing the rest of the Olympians had been a reminder of the unchanging nature of the divine, there had still been subtle differences. Their clothing styles had evolved. Their hairstyles had adapted. They all had looked like a mish-mash of the ancient Greek styles they were famous for and the seventeenth century, with a few of their own mutations that had happened over their centuries in exile in Tartarus, but that had been enough to make them seem different.
Zeus had none of that. He looked almost exactly like he’d stood of that throne where Phidias had captured his likeness in marble. His hair was long and curled and circled his face along with a beard that reached almost to his bare chest, wearing only an achiton off his shoulders and around his waist. The only difference was that in Phidias’ sculpture, he looked calm and regal.
Here and now, his face was contorted with fury.
“Artemis!” he bellowed when he saw them, stalking up to the pillar where they rested. “Get down here this instant!”
Just like that. A father scolding a disobedient child. Artemis’ face darkened, and Athena put a hand on her arm. “Careful,” Athena murmured.
Artemis gave her a curt nod to show she understood. “You missed some things in your sleep, oh King of Olympus.” Her voice was loud and clear, but pitched carefully with a twist of Air and Aether to make sure it did not carry farther than Zeus’s and Athena’s ears. “I need not leap because you say so. If you wish to speak, come up here and join me as an equal.”
The twist was likely the only thing that kept Zeus from lashing out in that instant. His face darkened like a thundercloud, and his eyes hardened. He muttered something that sounded a lot like “perfidious bitch,” but propelled himself up to the top of the column on a gust of air. “This is nonsense,” he growled as he landed, his voice full of animalistic fury. “You cannot be elevated by a council that was formed by my brother without me.”
“I can and I was,” Artemis said, her voice unyielding. No hint of deference touched her voice, and if not for Athena’s hand on Artemis’s arm she would have believed the archer to be every bit as calm as she sounded. It was only the slight tremble of her elbow that gave lie to her confidence, too subtle to be seen.
“Preposterous. It was only an act of desperation that elevated Hera without Hades, and even then-”
“You speak to me of desperation?” Artemis said, her voice low with fury. It was only then that Athena began to suspect that the tremble she’d felt wasn’t born of fear, but of rage. Zeus’s eyes widened and he rocked back. Athena wondered how long it had been since someone other than his brothers or his wife had the audacity to interrupt him. It was nice to see him off balance. “You dare? Olympus was beset on all sides with foes both from without and within. Moloch had laid siege to the Rest with an army of Godslayers and monsters. Your brother was trying to sell us to him to further his own selfish ends.
“The desperation that lead to your wife’s elevation was Hades’ absence and your own need to placate a woman whose marital bed you’d defiled time and time again. There was no threat. There was no army at the gates. There was no monster sitting on our council – or rather, we did not know there was a monster sitting on the council, holding the veto. Yet there were three. A man who would betray us to our greatest foe. A woman who would use a crisis to exact her revenge. And you, a coward who wanted us to hide away.”
Zeus did not explode in the silence that followed. His face darkened like gathering thunderheads, and Athena had to fight an urge to step back, to be out of the blast radius of that storm when it unleashed. “You forget yourself, archer,” he said, the words hissing between his lips like escaping steam.
“You forget what I know. What we all know now. You knew the cycle was coming to an end. You knew the Eschaton would be found. You knew Ishtar had the right of it all along, and instead of giving us centuries to prepare for what was to come, you hid us away in Tartarus so we might simply fade away. You led us to believe Ishtar was a madwoman who would doom us all.”
“She will!” Zeus bellowed, the storm finally breaking. “She thought she could prevent the cycle. The Eschaton will destroy this world. I was warned of this by Athena’s own oracle-” Athena didn’t know how to feel about the fact that Zeus was finally acknowledging her presence with a gesture, and decided that this was a case where discretion was, indeed, the better part of valor, “-and I had it confirmed by a Curator. There is no saving this world. I set up the Rest to be a last refuge. There were enough of us where humanity could have been reborn there, from the loins of the gods.”
“Of course your plan would stem from loins,” Artemis spat the words. “Have you ever ever taken an action that wasn’t guided by your cock? For millennia the only thing that prevented our entire Pantheon from being led towards whatever hole you wanted to shove your member into was Hades and then Hera.”
Zeus began to gather threads of Flame and Earth around himself. “You go too far,” he said, each word heavy with spite.
“I do not go far enough,” Artemis countered, shifting her stance slightly. “There is worse I could say about you. But the most important of them is simply that you were wrong. The Eschaton does not seek to end the world. He is creating Gates that will take humanity from this world to another. He will fill his destiny and ‘end’ our world, but he will do so without bloodshed, without chaos.”
The threads Zeus had gathered stopped there, and his eyes narrowed. “What?”
“He is ending Humanity’s reign on Earth, as the cycle demands he does, but he is doing so in a way that spares the species. There will be no more civilizations built by human hands on this world, yet humanity will endure.”
“If a single thing goes wrong, the Sun will consume the world.” Zeus said.
“Yes.” The word was blunt and simple. Artemis had never been one to spare words when they weren’t needed – this argument was the most Athena had heard her speak in a single conversation in centuries. “But the bulk of humanity will not be here to see it. Even if the worst happens, even if we cannot spare Earth, we will endure, and enough animals will be brought where extinction will be minimal.”
Zeus looked less than pleased. “The others know of this?”
Artemis nodded. “I knew you’d object. I made sure that if you did so publically, you’ll be known for what you are.”
Zeus’s face darkened. “Humanity forgot us. In the Rest, they would have known who they owed their lives to. Who they owed their world to.”
“And they still will,” Athena said, speaking for the first time. Artemis looked ready to launch into another tirade, one that would be satisfying to watch, but at this point Athena judged appealing to Zeus’s ego to be the wiser course. “Ryan – the Eschaton – spoke publicly before a union of the world’s nations that exists. He warned them of what was coming. He did so flanked by gods, myself among them. When we go to this new world, Humanity will come fully aware of why they were spared. Of who spared them. Gods. You think that won’t ignite a new wave of worship?”
For the first time since he’d screamed Artemis’s name, Zeus looked thoughtful. Artemis didn’t looked pleased with the change and direction, but she knew how to take an opportunity when it presented itself. “Of course, any gods that stand against us will be remembered poorly by humanity. Their names will be spoken in the same tones Humanity used to reserve for its great foes. Enki. Moloch. Bast. Kali. They’ve added their names to that list already, as will any who join them. Will you have the name Zeus be spoken in such company? Or will you cast aside the fact that it was not your plan that saved the world, and instead make sure your name is counted among those who shepherded humanity into this new era?”
Zeus stared at them both, his eyes hard, and he stroked his beard in thought. Artemis glanced at Athena, and in that glance Athena saw gratitude, and realized she’d played perfectly into Artemis’s plan. Artemis had styled herself a protector of virginity, eons ago, owing to her own disinterest in carnal pleasures. That had put her firmly opposed to Zeus, and Zeus never would have believed an offer for glory if it had come from Artemis. By being the one to offer it, Athena had allowed Zeus to actually consider it. Of course, Artemis couldn’t have predicted what Athena would do to mollify Zeus – only trusted that Athena would offer something to mollify Zeus
“You play a dangerous game, Archer,” Zeus growled.
“The game became dangerous in spite of my efforts,” Artemis said, the fire in her own voice dying down. “But the game still favors us. Which side of the board are you on?”
Zeus sighed. “Hera will be furious I allowed you to keep your seat.”
“She did kill you,” Athena said.
“Oh, yes. It’s been a few centuries since she last did that.” Zeus shrugged, and looked almost sheepish. He’d gone so quickly from raging fury to the abashed husband, Athena was worried her neck would snap from whiplash. But that was how Athena remembered him. Constantly mercurial in his moods. “Her timing is usually better than this.”
“She’s killed you before?” Artemis asked.
“It’s part of how we handle things.” Zeus shook his head. “Fine. We’ll go with this plan, Artemis. For now. But I will be watching carefully.”
Artemis didn’t slump with relief, but Athena could see how badly she wanted to.
“Now. Make amends for your tone by telling me what all I missed before I resurrected.”
Athena bristled at his tone, but Artemis had used the fire she needed. For now, mollifying Zeus seemed to be where Artemis wanted to go, and Athena did not seek to undermine her. Instead, Athena helped by filling in gaps in Artemis’ story, and trying to figure out when her friend had become so adept at manipulating her fellow Olympians.
At least her timing couldn’t have been better.