Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Free Featured Fiction: "Twilight of the Gods" Chapters One & Two

As expected, the submissions for Free Featured Fiction are coming in a bit more slowly than for the "Know Your Hunt to Read Authors." Totally fine; a lot of folks still get a bit nervous about giving their fiction away for free.

Fortunately, I've lost just about all such hangups I once had. To wit: I was originally going to release Twilight of the Gods under a pen name. However, when we started this feature, I figured why not just come clean and serialize it in "Free Featured Fiction," for all of our readers to enjoy.

So without any further delay, here are the first two chapters of Twilight of the Gods. Enjoy!

Twilight of the Gods
D.J. Gelner
Chapter One

   To any mere mortal, the church bells from the foot of the mountain would have seemed little more than a whisper beckoning from civilization amidst the sharp, cutting breeze atop the peak.
   “Will you shut up!?” Zeus snarled. He unsheathed a cackling, white hot bolt of focused electricity and launched it at the village at the bottom of the gods’ sanctuary.
   Thunder scarred the otherwise idyllic Greek Sunday. It was followed by a driving rainstorm that sent villagers ducking for cover, though much to Zeus’s chagrin, many sought refuge in the large church in the center of town.
   The erstwhile leader of the gods curled his lip into a scowl. A long, cool metal rod came to rest on his shoulder; the king of the gods shivered.
   “Good morning, brother.”
   Zeus turned, his snarl deepened, “Damn you, Poseidon! I should banish you to the underworld to converse with that dreadful bore Hades for a few millenia—I told you not to startle me with that wretched trident of yours!”
   Poseidon shrugged, “Perhaps I should visit Hades. After all, ’tis better than sitting here, underfed, bored out of my skull waiting for those villagers to finally awaken from this spate of delusional madness and worship us once more.”
   Zeus shook his head. His gaze turned to the church, candlelight peeking out through stained glass as organ notes and songs danced through the sharp Olympian air. 
   “Worshiping a carpenter who had the misfortune to be crucified by those ridiculous Romans.”
   Poseidon nodded, “The very same Romans who called us what they pleased, no matter what we thought. At least they kept our stomachs full with ample sacrifice—I don’t know the last time my lips danced with the flavors roasted goat or braised cattle,” he licked his lips, “just thinking about makes my,” another low boom of thunder filled the sky, “stomach rumble.”
   Zeus frowned, “Where did we go so wrong, brother? Did not we once rule all as far as the eye can see from on high? Did not we used to have our pick of human females, even if bedding them required cunning and deceit?”
   Poseidon smiled whistfully, “Days long past. Come now, mighty brother, your thoughts turn dark as the midnight sea. Was it not I who once held similar reputation amongst us for pissy disposition?”
   Zeus ignored his brother, hand stroking his chin, “It used to be that with a snap of the fingers,” he did so for effect, “I could set two nations of thousands off to war with one another—”
   “Not to mention that both sides would sacrifice all manner of beast and wine to garner our favor. Oh, the feasts we had!”
   “Again with the food?”
   Poseidon poked his brother’s stomach with the trident, “Perhaps fair Zeus hasn’t noticed that slack on belt has increased as of late.”
   Zeus collected the end of the rope that held his toga together; it did seem to be a bit much. Not to mention that the fabric of his garment hung slack over his diminishing frame.
   “Though good Apollo always seemed to get the most lavish gifts and finest food and drink these mortals had to offer, we used to do pretty well for ourselves,” Poseidon clasped his brother’s bony shoulder.
   Zeus nodded, “Save for those who dared to mock us, like conniving Odysseus, who dared set off from Troy without so much as sacrificing a rat in your honor.”
   Poseidon grinned, “Yes, but I showed the King of Ithaca, did I not?”
   “In what world is seven years of forced sexual slavery in the service of a beautiful nymph some terrible punishment?”
   Poseidon furrowed his brow, “Then, pray tell, dear brother, what would you have had me do? Splinter his boat to pieces? Spear him with my trident?”
   “Perhaps!” Zeus thundered. Another low rumble from the sky punctuated his dark proclamation as he turned away from Poseidon, “We have coddled these humans for far too long. Thousands of years now, each one spent ‘wishing’ and ‘hoping’ that they’ll finally come to their senses and return to proper worship.
   “But now, they scatter far from Olympus, away from watchful eyes of the Pantheon. They worship other gods, wrathful gods, as well as idols both material and divine.
   “And we let them do so! So busy were we squabbling with one another that they slipped away when the shepherds weren’t looking, under the cover of night. All we have to show for it are garments far too large, that once swelled with a limitless power now become utterly impotent.”
   “Don’t forget empty mouths!” Poseidon wagged a finger at his brother.
   Zeus flung a thunderbolt at the grinning sea god, “Rumbling stomach is reminder enough—I need not further prompt to recall as much.”
   He took several angry steps toward Poseidon, who raised his trident over his head, ready to fling it at his brother with all of the might his weary frame could muster.
   As Zeus reached back to scorch his brother with another electric projectile, both men stopped in their tracks.
   A silver arrow split the distance between the two gods and lodged itself into the face of the crag. The brothers looked at each other, and then toward the source of the commotion.
   “Bicker, bicker, father and uncle,” a beautiful young goddess threaded another silver arrow into the bow, “but recall that such inaction was the source of our current predicament, as you have wisely divined.”
   Zeus forced a chuckle, “My dear Artemis, don’t you have a forest to protect, or maybe a family of chipmunks to save?”
   Poseidon couldn’t stifle several guffaws.
   Artemis released the bowstring and sent another silver projectile flying toward her father.
   This time, it missed his groin by mere inches.
   Zeus allowed himself a gulp.
   “Sadly not. There’s only so much I can do as stewardess of the trees and creatures of the earth. These humans increase their willful and complete destruction of the planet’s bountiful gifts by the day. In a number of years, we won’t even be able to recognize it as a place fit for life.”
   Zeus waved his daughter away, “Well then, you best be getting along and doing your part, then. Ta ta!”
   Artemis strung another arrow onto her bow.
   Zeus’s face dropped. He flung himself against the rock wall, arms spread out wide.
   Artemis shook her head, “Pathetic. Just pathetic. What happened to the father of my youth? The one who would end disputes amongst us with threat of powerful lightning bolt only to back words of fair-minded tongue? Now you cast damning weapon about willy-nilly, at your brother, no less! In days long past, I would expect such behavior from him, but never from you!”
   Poseidon snorted.
   “And why?” Artemis continued, “Because he has the wisdom to point out what is readily apparent to most of us, that we have become obsolete in the eyes of the humans below.”
   Zeus stroked his wildly-stubbled chin. Had he once enjoyed such power? Such dominion over god and man alike?
   Perhaps more importantly, where had it all gone wrong?
   He took a tentative step toward his daughter, her eyes still steeled and focused, bow ready to be extended and threaded based on his next utterance.
   “Perhaps…perhaps you’re right, young Artemis. My constitution grows weaker by the day. For too long mind has failed to check tongue in complaint over lack of worship by the humans below without taking cause to purpose, to action.”
   Artemis’s lips curled into a smirk.
   “But daughter, I ask you, what can we do? How do we break these humans of their ridiculous superstitions, their false worship at the feet of carpenters and shepherds?”
   Artemis’s eyes narrowed, the huntress within her emerging to stalk her prey.
   “I have an idea…”

Chapter Two
   The Pantheon atop Mount Olympus sat nearly ruined in the muted light of the overcast sky. Once-impressive pillars lay broken, cleaved in half by the erosion of the elements. Tall weeds sprouted from the cracks in the weathered, blemished marble.
   The gods that manned their usual stations despite their harrowing surroundings made the haunting scene all the more pathetic. Formerly well-defined stomach muscles on males and females alike were either hidden by massive layers of fat, or sunken into hollow ribcages. Once lustrous hair had gone ragged, disheveled, and straggly, and covered pale, ashen skin.
   It was the first time the twelve gods of Olympus had been called to order in years. Many of them had to be wrenched away from their usual pastime of watching the mortals squabble over some dreadful war or another, yet when called, they still honored the pact that they had all taken after defeating the Titans ages ago.
   Old friends and relatives made small talk about the past thousand-or-so years with all of the joy of describing recent dental work.
   Only one overweight, disheveled figure howled with glee at every piece of information, as if each tidbit was the funniest joke he had ever heard. He stumbled about with a chalice in his hand, spilling its contents all over the dingy marble floor.
   A thunderbolt cracked and sizzled across the sky, and caused even the drunkard to come to a stop, albeit a swaying one.
   “That’s enough, Dionysus!” Zeus growled. “This meeting of the Olympian Pantheon is officially called to order.”
   A round of mock cheers went up from the assembled deities, which caused Poseidon to chuckle.
Zeus silenced his brother and the rest with a sharp stare before continuing, “It has come to my attention that perhaps the mortals, those wondrous humans who once worshiped us and served as our playthings—”
   Zeus purposely didn’t look toward Hera upon mentioning this fact; he had received enough earfuls about his dalliances with human women through the years to last him fifty eternities.
   “—have now turned their activities during their brief lives to suit shorter attention spans. Gone are the sacrifices, the glorious games in our honor, the prayers uttered by trembling lips afraid to offend us with even the slightest deviation from dogma.”
   A thin woman with gaunt, high cheekbones twirled a raggedy curl in her finger, “Speak for yourself, Zeus—some of us are still desired by the mortals,” she turned her flawless nose upward, even as she strained to hide yellowed teeth.
   Zeus shook his head, “My dear Aphrodite, I don’t doubt that for a moment! But I fear such is born more out of lust than honor, base urges than respect.”
   Hera again glared at her husband.
   Zeus ignored her once more. He meandered around the room until he reached Artemis and wrapped a thin arm around her slender shoulder, “While we sit here and bicker amongst one another, humans continue to worship other gods, false gods, gods who can do nothing to improve their plight as we once could.”
   “So what are we supposed to do about it?” A beautiful, but stern, woman dressed in armor asked. “I rather enjoy all of their petty squabbles about black goo and invisible lines drawn on maps.”
   Zeus nodded, “Yes! Yes, exactly, my dear daughter Athena! These are the types of things that we used to be able to arrange ourselves, do you not recall? We used to drive these mortals to end one another with little or no provocation. They used to fight in our honor! And now, all of that—gone! Lost to time. All of us considered anachronisms, or worse, never to have existed.”
   He looked around the room, slowly making sure to catch every god or goddess’s eye in turn with a stern, measured glare.
   A thin, spindly fellow with a silver bow matching Artemis’s tilted his head, “And so what are we to do to recapture said former glory? To elevate ourselves once again into the hearts and minds of these mortals, and to enjoy the lifestyle we once did?”
   Zeus raised a finger. He shook his daughter’s shoulders, even as she bit her lip with annoyance, “Ah, dear Apollo, what indeed? Your twin sister,” he shook Artemis again, “has come up with a wonderful plot, equal parts cunning and guile. Humans will have no choice but to submit to our rule once more, the glory of Olympus fully restored!”
   He nodded at Artemis. The huntress cleared her throat, “We’re going to make them believe.”
   “Oh, is that all? Is that it? Make them believe? I’m sure they’ll be lining up, roasting suckling pigs alive in no time,” a younger, lean god rolled his eyes.
   “Pay heed, Hermes,” Zeus shot the herald daggers.
   Artemis steeled her resolve, “Think about it—when we were in charge, when they lived in fear of upsetting father, or uncle, or any of us, what was the common thread? What goaded them to action?”
   “Myths?” Hermes asked.
   “Legends?” Apollo followed.
   “Priests?” Hera wondered.
   “No, no, and no. Those all were merely methods of delivering the same message:” a slow, sly grin crept across Artemis’s face, “that failure to mind the gods had consequences.”
   The elder gods exchanged vacant glances.
   “Fail to sacrifice a goat in honor of dear uncle Poseidon before setting to sea? Waves will crash down upon you, scuttling your ship to splinters! Pestilence ravaging your village? If you do not pray to brother Apollo, good luck healing your sick.
   “At one time, we gave mortals reason to fear the gods!” She deftly moved over to the drunkard teetering on his perch next to her and caressed his arm, “But as good Dionysus can attest, we have grown soft. We worry not about them, but have squabbled with one another to the point where we want nothing to do with one another, content to swig wine crafted from common weeds and watch human exploits all day.
   “I ask you, gods of Olympus, is this the lifestyle you once sought?! Watching mortals send one another to Hades, mind half-askance with liquor, weighing yourself down so with vile drink that no god or human wishes to share your bed?”
   Grumbles resonated from around the Pantheon, with the exception of Dionysus, who nodded profusely before punctuating the statement with a loud belch.
   Artemis steeled her resolve, “Of course not!”
   “But pray tell, dear young Artemis,” a paunchy female deity asked, “how exactly do we remove ourselves from rut deeply carved into road?”
   Artemis grinned, “Ah, dear Demeter raises a good point. Even the humans at the foot of this very mountain continue to mock us, worshipping their hollow god in increasingly empty churches. All sense of piety, of yielding to higher powers has been bred out of them by increased use of science and reason.”
   Artemis’s lips curved upward into a smirk, “Which is precisely why we will use those very same weapons against them.”
   This started an uproar among the Pantheon, “Science? And reason?!” Hermes spat the words out, “Pray tell, young Artemis, why should we begin to use these…these distasteful concepts when they’ve done nothing but turn us into such a sad lot?”
   Artemis’s eyes grew fiery and bothered, “I said use them, not practice them! Such words bring similar distaste to my lips as yours, noble Hermes. They are cold words, distant words, mortal words, used to describe phenomena of which they cannot explain, to attempt to break them into palatable words to be delivered to the masses.
   “No, we shall not stoop to the mere mortal trick of cloaking our actions in such claptrap. What I propose is that we use our  powers to let humans know that we still exist! That we indeed remain relevant!”
   She shuffled over toward Poseidon, “Imagine dear uncle, unleashing all of the fury of the seven seas and the quaking earth to decimate entire seaboards! Such a series of cataclysms will cause even the most hardened human to pause and take note that there must be a higher power at work!”
   Most of the deities looked at each other in bemused wonderment.
   Poseidon stroked his thin beard in contemplation, “My child, it might just work,” he beamed. He raised the trident to the sky, trying in vain to find sunlight through the thick ceiling of clouds that dampened the sky.
   A solitary, thin ray of sunlight poked through the cover. Then another. Within short order, the once-great god willed more of the shafts of light onto the trident, which now glowed with hot, gold energy in the light of the day.
   Even Apollo was impressed. The younger god leapt to his feet, his thin frame still more than capable of controlling the heavens, funneling more energy into his uncle’s implement of destruction.
   Artemis rubbed her hands together slowly, “Yes…yes, uncle! Now, go with father, reign death and destruction on all of the lands near the sea, split the earth in twain until they pay us heed once more!”
   Zeus looked at his daughter and sighed. It was not a sign of resignation, but rather one of pride in the kind of strong goddess she had become, even absent all of the adulation and gifts that they had once craved. He nodded as a smirk crept over his own countenance for what seemed like the first time in centuries.
   “Very well. Fair Artemis, take charge in my stead while I am gone,” Zeus’s proclamation caused surprisingly muted grumbles among the other deities.
   For her part, Artemis did well to conceal her smirk.
   Zeus sighed, “We shall return bearing gifts and sacrifices, no doubt. Come, my dear brother, let us unleash the fury of the gods on this pathetic little planet.”
   Half-hearted cheers born more of weakness than indifference echoed around the ruined pillars and columns of the mountaintop, and echoed through the vast emptiness, a mere whisper on the winds to accompany the two most powerful beings on earth down the mountainside.

COMING SOON: Chapter Three

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