This year things are going to be different. I know, old news, and everyone says that. But, I've already started to do something about my resolution: I'm turning my writing into something more than a handful of casual hours thrown against a blank page. I'm writing more- a lot more. I've already turned over some of my work to Literotica.com and the feedback has been amazing. Editors really do work wonders.
This was written as a contest submission and is itself a stand-alone story, but after I finished it ideas kept flowing long after the votes started trickling in. Now, I think it's going to be the start of my next novel. My second. My other works are also being revised, altered, modified...in short, I'm making my work better.
So here we go, chapter one.
Son Of War.
The tension in my arm was like nothing I'd ever felt before, and between you and me, that was saying something. I felt the very fibers of the bow straining as my eyes fought the icy wind. The golden hue of the arrowhead was only a blur near my fingertips. I concentrated and took one slow breath after the next. The clouds plumed from my mouth feebly, like a dying steam engine before being swept away into the void that clung to me. Oh, I could have used a rifle, or even a crossbow. Laser sights and digital tracking sensors were all the rage, but it just didn't feel the same. Besides, love was supposed to be personal.
Karen was typical enough among young mortals. She was bright, cared about her health, and was generally thoughtful of her fellow beings...but, she was also a believer. She didn't light candles or go to Sunday assembly for that other God, but she radiated the glow of belief nonetheless. We could all see it from our solace above the clouds: those little embers that every believer had among the ashes of the mortal worlds.
She didn't exactly believe in me, per se. Things would have been so much easier if she had. No; I had been reduced to an ornament on a gift shop card. A passing notion used to sell candy, or some other cheap token of affection. I suppose you could say she believed in me- if only because Karen believed in love. She wanted it so desperately she could taste it in the morning air. She could see it in the couples she passed on the streets, or on the inter-planetary shuttles. It was obvious in the quiet moments she stole from the street-side cafe windows while waiting for her bus. It was there when people held hands walking home together. I blinked away the frost from my eyes again, and kept searching. She needed a golden arrow more than anyone I had seen in a long, long time.
The damned wind started to turn harsh and I could feel a lump of ice forming in the meat of my thigh. A sheen of frost had formed along the arch of my foot, but after a quick flex, the feeling subsided. I heard a faint crack, and then a soft sound, like tinkling glass. My hair felt stiff and windswept and after the countless days, the only company I had apart from the chill wind was the sound the bow made as it creaked under the strain. My fingertips held the string taut, but I lost feeling in them long ago. When I thought about it, I couldn't honestly remember how long I'd been there waiting; days at least, weeks, maybe even longer. I blinked back the frost again.
I could see movement out in the mortal worlds. They churned like colonies of ants burrowing on a tide of shifting sand. It used to be teeming with light, pinpoints glowing like suns against the black, but now it was rare to see even one faint ember in every thousand pits of darkness. That was why finding a believer like Karen felt so priceless to me, and why finding a believer that wasn't already paired to someone else was so daunting. I looked constantly from world to world, searching through every tide of shifting bodies and faithless husks until I caught the faintest glimpse.
In a small corner of a hive-like planet called Nexus, I saw him. My heart almost stopped and I questioned my senses. Was he really there at all? I blamed my fatigue and boredom-but he was there, at least for a moment before he was swallowed up again by the masses. I turned a fraction on my heel and broke the ice off my fingertips. He moved like a bobber in a river being dragged down by an angry fish. I waited until he resurfaced, and when he did, I saw my shot. His heart was exposed and laid wide open to me: so I let the arrow fly. I screamed as my arms relaxed and the pent up force was released. The bolt streaked through the void of time and space, and as it crossed into the mortal thread it became more than any mere bolt. By the time it reached Nexus, it traveled faster than light and carried the weight of a megaton bomb. Shame that it hit Jack in the middle of the best dream he'd ever had.
It took me a few minutes to get the feeling back in my arms, and then nearly an hour to regain the strength I needed to stand up without falling off the edge of Olympus. The rocky outcrop I occupied was windswept and layered in ice, but after I got the blood pumping in my feet again, I was able to step as lively as ever. By the time I reached the braziers of the temples’ square, I was dry enough not to leave footprints from the melted ice.
Revelry was common among the palace square these days. Most of the Elders were so eager to celebrate anything that every solstice celebration lasted nearly to the next. The Winter solstice held on longer than the Fall, but it finally seemed to reach a fever pitch. Music and dance, laughter and joy: they reverberated off the walls while cups overflowed onto the marble stones underfoot. I found my wife in deep celebration with Ceres and Vestal. A servant spied me moving through the crowd and pursued me with a cup in her hand. When I reached for Psyche’s side, she stopped short and turned around, ready to apologize for the infraction. Then her eyes lit up, and she threw her hands around my shoulders. She also immediately recoiled as shivers ran down her body.
"By us all, you're freezing!" Psyche said, and handed me her cup. The servant scowled at me, and retreated into the crowd. I drained the cup and handed it back.
"I did not mean to interrupt for long, but it is done. Karen and Jack are to be united. My arrow struck true not but a moment ago."
To her credit, Phsyche did not laugh the way the others often did. She smiled sweetly at me, and I felt warmth begin to radiate out of my core. To everyone else, it seemed my ministrations into the mortal thread were an antiquated fantasy. It was something to be left behind the way a child might leave a crib toy at marriage. She hugged me again despite the chill that was evident through her gown when we parted. I bid her to return to the festival, and headed toward our home where I could lay my bow in its cradle.
As the sound of merriment dimmed behind me, I felt a sense of jubilation start to creep into my veins. Karen and Jack were just two of but a small handful of souls that I had been able to influence this year. And no matter what anyone else chose to think, the fact was that true mortal believers were getting fewer every season. The evidence was right above our eyes, if only they would look up from their drinks long enough to see it. In truth, we were dying just as much as the mortals’ belief in us was. However, the memory of the ambrosia on my lips helped drive the thought from my mind. After changing my clothes and ensuring my bow was as it should be, I heeded the call of the Elders and returned to the celebration.
The sky above the Pantheon was beautiful that night. Apollo and Diana were dancing in the center of the square upon my return and I took my place among the onlookers. Apollo stood a full head over the moon goddess, and their dance was an amazing spectacle of light and shadow that cast a brilliant spectrum of color into the heavens. I watched the beams of light spiral into the darkness and burst into gorgeous blooms. With my eyes upward, a goblet was thrust into my hands and nearly half of its contents splashed against my toes.
"This is no time to be somber, my boy, feast upon the bounty!" Bacchus laughed as he sidled up to me. His nose was as red as ever and a sheen of sweat made his face shine.
"Overjoyed, yes, my friend, and not a bit somber. Maybe just a bit sober is all," I said and raised the glass he handed to me to drink.
"Well, we can certainly fix that, can't we?"
Even as I sipped, my glass refilled. We toasted time and again until the dance of Apollo and Diana ended, and the crowd applauded. Psyche and I joined and parted like waves crashing on the beach, and I allowed myself to be swept around the crowd. At some point, I came to rest near my mother’s seat at the main dais and took my rest. I felt the rush of the festival in my veins, and the damn cup Bacchus touched just wouldn't drain. I tipped it over and watched it dribble out over the stones. I started to count off the seconds, but the steady stream just wouldn’t relent.
"It isn't wise to be so wasteful, Child" my mother said from beside me. How long she'd been there, or even watching over me was impossible to say.
"I am sorry to say I don't think I will ever be able to finish what my friend has set before me," I said and smiled. I handed her my goblet. She raised an eyebrow as she took a sip, then glanced down and watched it refill.
She handed it back to me and sighed. "I see you have your work cut out for you then."
I got the distinct impression she wasn't only talking about the cup. "You don't think I'm wasting my time, do you?"
She regarded me for a moment that was prolonged by the festival air. "If you regard a task worthwhile, even once, then it is never a waste of your time."
I smiled, and a moment later, I was ushered to the main floor to dance with my wife. We circled among the other couples and remained at each others side for the rest of the evening. I remember vague images of staggering home, of her skin pressed against mine in our bed, and then sweet nothingness.
It was dark when I awoke to the sound of Psyche’s gentle moan. I felt her stir in bed next to me. I whispered her name, but I already knew she was still fast asleep. I rolled over to face her and kissed her forehead softly. When she didn’t stir, I kissed her cheekbone, and then her pliant lips. Still no response. I caressed her, from shoulder to hip and back. I felt the line of her form under my fingertips a thousand times before, but she still evoked such a powerful response from me.
She stirred, and moaned so faintly I might have imagined it. My hand retraced the path, over and over again. I reached behind her to touch her spine, and then moved to feel the swell of her breasts. She rolled onto her back and I kissed her chin as she stretched, but she only fell deeper into her slumber. Less than half-covered by our sheets and bathed in moonlight, she looked like no finer goddess I had ever known. I rained soft kisses down on her: from cheeks to chin, neck to chest. I was languid with softness over her nipples until they stood tall with a purpose of their own. My hand traveled as light as a warm breeze over her legs and finally slipped between.
Behind her eyes, she was lost to the sensations of her body. She was being carried away by dragons, ravaged by maidens and princes alike. She mewled a sound of need that was joined only by her legs parting ever so slightly. I kissed my way down her chest, past her navel, and parted her lips with my tongue. Her sharp hiss of air was a sweet passion that inflamed me and drove me to work faster with short urgent strikes. My tongue jabbed at her; it poked, prodded, and then gently licked the sweetness away before attacking her again. Her hips twisted under me and her thighs opened fully. I drank from her for as long as I wanted and her soft cries were like music to my ears. As her body began to spasm, she startled awake only to feel a crashing wave of pleasure slam into her. She groaned, a deep and resonate sound that left her clawing at the bed. I kept my lips pressed against her until she kicked me away.
I crawled up beside her and kissed her eyelids, and then her tongue sought mine. When her heartbeat finally slowed, her hands began to explore my body. In the dim moonlight, she found my cock waiting for her touch. She coiled her hand around me and she kissed me deeply. She pushed against me, and then pulled on my cock in urgent waves. It served to inflame me even more. I groaned against her mouth but no matter how hard I pushed up to meet her hand, she maintained that same slow steady rhythm that I used on her. It felt like an eternity before she finally pulled back and leaned over me so that her hair blocked my view.
I felt her mouth on me, the heat of her tongue and the wetness on my cock. Her hand never stopped, it only pulled or pushed at her lips whenever she moved. I felt eternal, glorious, and so full of desire that I nearly screamed. Only after I began to thrust up at her over and over did she pause long enough to climb atop me. She ground her wetness against me and I tried to shift our bodies, but she wouldn’t have any of it. She kept her own pace, and pulled my face to her breasts to keep me distracted. But I wasn’t distracted! I felt her sliding up and down the length of me, and no matter how I struggled; she would not allow me in. I moaned and took her nipple between my lips, then pulled hard. She leaned forward to keep me from hurting her and in that moment, we aligned at last. I released her nipple and as she settled back down, we both groaned as I felt her warmth cover me completely. She wrapped her hands around my shoulders and I held tight to her hips as we rocked together. I kissed her neck and put my forehead against her collarbone. I felt her tense, and a second later I groaned as I felt my cock being squeezed inside her. I felt like everything that I was left me in that instant, and spilled into her. It was easily the most memorable night we shared in years.
When the light of dawn awoke me next, I heard a sound like water dribbling into a small brook. I opened a bleary eye to see that the goblet Bacchus had given me had been knocked over on my nightstand. The spilled wine snaked like a river across the floor. I turned it upright and rolled onto my back. I wanted to go back to sleep, but my eyes remained open and I stared up at the ceiling. Psyche turned and clung to me. My mind began to run in circles: first it lingered on the pleasure of the night before, but it drifted to the festival. Then my mind settled on the mortals, Karen and Jack.
I felt my brow furrow at the thought. My task was completed, so why did their union haunt me? It was done, and not even Jupiter himself could undo it. I willed myself to forget them and tried to concentrate on the beautiful woman at my side, but the thought of the mortals persisted. I groaned and slipped from the warmth of my bed and dressed.
The walk out to the outcrop was a lonely one. Not even the servants were awake yet among the Pantheon. People slumped in archways, some half-clothed and others bare. Pairs of limbs lay tangled where they slumbered. I moved out into the cold and instantly felt the wind bite at my skin. I looked out toward the worlds of mortals, but I really didn‘t know what I was expecting to see. I strained my eyes against the monuments they built. I looked into their ashes again. They thought their concrete giants kept them safe, but they were just ornate coffin lids. It took me a fair while to find them, but I finally did. Karen was right where I'd left her, helping those near her as best she could. I yawned and shifted my eyes toward Nexus. I rubbed the cold out of my arms as I squinted through the haze until I found Jack. My heart stopped; he was certainly not where I had intended him.
I turned and raced back to the Pantheon. After searching the square for Jupiter and discovering he wasn't among the throng, I made my way past the columns toward his home. I had just turned the corner at a full run when I found my path blocked. Two centurion soldiers flanked Pluto, who glanced over his shoulder to me at the sound of his soldiers’ snap to attention.
"What has happened, Sir?" I asked, holding my breath for news I didn't want to hear.
"It would appear, that we are all in good company this morning," he said coolly. I looked ahead of him and saw that my father's own centurions were standing just outside Jupiter’s counsel room. A lump formed in my throat and my mind raced. It only took a few moments before I saw my father take his leave. His men followed close behind while he issued hushed orders. Pluto filled the vacancy Mars left behind, and I was left alone with his soldiers.
I tried to sort my mind through what I had seen, and what I was going to say that could somehow stop what had been done; or rather, what was being done. But the time I needed to think clearly had already left me. Pluto swept from the King's hall as if Cerberus itself was at his back.
My feet felt leaden as I stepped inside Jupiter’s hall and at first, all I could smell was death and war, but it faded into ozone and fresh rain by the time I reached his sanctum. Jupiter stood facing an open space between two columns where I could see the worlds of men before him. His hands were clasped tightly behind his back and he didn't turn to face me when he spoke.
"It would appear that your father's warning so many years ago has been wasted, son of War. And, my brother has just been to seek my blessing for his preparations, which I gave readily."
"Preparations for what, sir, what has happened?" I asked, and felt my gaze fix on the pinpoints of light over his shoulder. There was so little of them left in the mortal coils.
"We have too few believers as it is to slay them without just cause. But there may be no other way, now."
"Kill him?” I gasped, and took a step forward. “But why? How could this have happened? I saw straight into his heart. I searched for what seemed like an eternity for an unclaimed believer to strike!"
He turned, and I saw twin storms brewing in his eyes. I felt a shudder of fear reach through me and take hold of my spine. "It was not your carelessness. It was not your desire to do right, or wrong. At the moment your arrow struck the man's heart, he was in the hold of Somnus. This mortal, this…‘Jack‘, is in thrall to whatever it was he saw in his mind at that moment."
My mouth felt so dry I feared my tongue would crack. "What did Somnus say it was, Sir?"
"Nothing, yet. Your aim, son of War, is astounding."
Jupiter‘s words were like a hammer blow against my heart. "What are you trying to say, Sir? That my arrow struck hard enough to harm my brethren?"
Jupiter shook his head and lightning flashed in his eyes. "I am saying that you struck through him. The shaft that pierced the mortal’s heart, passed first through the hand of Somnus. There is already a storm brewing among the stars. Somnus now slumbers and all attempts thus far to awaken him have been unsuccessful." Jupiter held his hand up high and a globe of light filled the room. "The mortals lives will be thrown into chaos. Dreams will become reality, reality a dream. Nightmares, untold..."
I watched as the globe filled with images of humanity throughout the ages. There were wars, battles on land, at sea, and in the air. There were clashes among stellar species, genocides, famine, and pestilence. I watched helpless as things began to turn even more horrific. Demons and creatures from the darkest corners of mortal minds, nightmares made real. Fear incarnate.
"What can be done?" My question was barely more than a whisper.
"We are prepared to reap the souls of a war that will make Troy look like a gentle breeze. You can start by praying that the few believers we have left are not crushed beneath this beast before we can put it down."
I remember feeling a crushing weight of anxiety, of blame, and I spoke without a thought of the consequence. "I can stop this!"
Jupiter stared at me coldly. The smell of ozone filled the room. "You, son of War? How."
"If I may be allowed, Sir." My eyes were frozen at the orb, watching the visions of what may be unfolding even now as the uncontrolled dream-state of Somnus spread across mortal worlds. "The hearts of Jack and Karen have been linked. The arrow, my arrow, has been drawn and as you have said it struck true, too true it would appear." I swallowed hard. "If I can reach Jack, and then show him the difference between his dreams and his one True Love, and then do the same with Karen by showing her the True Love of her dreams, maybe reality can be tempered against their dreams." I stumbled through my thoughts, not wanting to let go of Jupiter’s attention. "Focus on reviving Somnus, Sir, and by all that is good, battle down the phantoms if or when they should appear. If any part of Somnus has indeed been passed to Jack, he may well be the only one who can hold the line for us. Let me at least try to heal this rift before we lose even one more believer." I closed my eyes against the stinging light. "If nothing else, I may be able to buy you time enough to awaken Somnus before things can grow out of our control."
Jupiter stared at me. The seconds ticked like an eternity. I could feel the storms in his eyes weighing my words with a surgeon‘s care. "You have one day, and one night. If the mortals are not cleansed by that time, or if the chaos within him is set loose, he will have to be destroyed."
"I will not fail, Sir."
I don't remember walking home, but I do remember the centurions massing in every open space. Where only hours before there were drunken couplings, now there were cogs of my father’s machine. It had been millennia since the Trojan war, and the advancements in weaponry and tactics had progressed in ways I could never have dreamed. I felt so cold, numb, and sick that I staggered at times. I wanted nothing more than to drink from Bacchus' cup and never stop.
As I stepped upon the threshold of my home, Psyche was waiting. After watching the massing armies from our windows, she was quick to seek any answers I might have. I admit that I had a fleeting temptation before I spoke to her to repeal my plea to Jupiter: what was the worth of two mortals, anyway? I could let Jack be struck down and be done with it. Mortals were multiplying across the universe, in droves in some cases. Their species were amassing in greater numbers than ever before. What could really be lost from two small lives... But then again, I left Dido to his own devices. The gods took sides in that ‘mortal’ war. Even the words of my mother echoed in my thoughts. 'If you regard a task as worthwhile, even once, then it is never a waste of time.' I sighed, and then told Psyche everything as I knew it to be true.
"What will you do?" She asked.
"I don't know. I will go to Jack first; he is the most dangerous and I fear, the most difficult to convince."
"Then I will go to Karen. I'll see to it that no harm comes to her until you arrive."
I remember opening my mouth to speak, to ask her what she was talking about, but Psyche already turned toward the door. Her dressing gown dissolved in her wake in favor of a clean black business suit. The last thing I saw before she disappeared was the faintest trace of a white blouse as her hair pooled itself up in a style that left her neck exposed for my lips.
I tore my eyes from the doorway long enough to lift my bow and quiver from its cradle and then followed after her. War drums were churning up and down the streets as soldiers lined up before the storm gates. In every courtyard, orders were being shouted into the fray as marching feet receded into peoples darkest fantasies. Nightmares were becoming real, and I was already wasting borrowed time.
How Psyche knew where Karen was, I did not question. Jealousy, perhaps. Maybe even a deep intuition, but I dared not become distracted. I raced to the outcrop where Olympus hovered in the night sky and looked out toward Nexus. I waited until I could see the city where Jack lived and tried not to listen to the sounds of the Pantheon behind me. It took several long moments before I saw a glimpse of him, and before I lost sight of him again I leapt into the darkness. My wings burst from by back and grew during my descent until they were easily twice my height. With as strong a thrust as I could manage, I pushed myself toward the mortal worlds. Light shimmered around me for an instant, and I felt a rush of speed as I flew between gravitational vortexes, maneuvered between stellar shifts and came racing toward a pinprick of light that grew steadily into a massive solar system. Three suns danced in a swan song at the system’s core. I swerved from the light in time to see Nexus speed past. I ground to a halt and my wings kept me locked in place while I watched the world turn beneath me. I looked out toward the darkness of space and knew I could still turn back; I could still call Psyche home and help tend the wounded that I knew were already coming back to Olympus. This should have been the finest hour of a rising hero, not the frenzied reconciliation of a small god.
I saw Jack on the surface, one ember in a city of a million souls. That was why I stayed. One believer. Planet-wide there may have only been enough to count on one hand if I searched hard enough. Belief was what kept gods alive. Even one believer who fell to darkness would weaken everything we had left. I folded my wings flat on my back and descended like a falling star. When I touched the ground, I felt my robes fold in upon myself as my wings collapsed and disappeared. My thoughts reached out for Jack's, and I felt him respond almost instantly. I didn't wait; I just turned toward him and started running.
Mortals have always had the uncanny ability to see what they wanted to. Only rarely did any of them see what is really there. Children were of course the easiest to appear before because they haven't yet learned how to tune us out. They haven't been scripted into what their society wants them to believe, or been blinded by their own brand of magic: science. Logic replaced religion eons ago but it was just as ironclad as the most inflammatory of religious texts. Defy logic, and you defied a forward-thinking society. When I ran past people on the street, some saw me as a common jogger, others as a thief, and to children I appeared as I truly was, robed in the garb of Olympus carrying my bow, with a quiver strapped to my back.
To Jack, I looked like a courier. He paused halfway from his cab to the front door of his office building when he caught sight of me running up the sidewalk. I could already tell he was having a bad morning from the way the creature driving his cab told him to have a nice day. Jack recoiled from a long, thick tentacle that offered him his change.
The glow over the center of Jack’s chest radiated with a curious intensity that I could only assume was a leftover part of Somnus. My arrows rarely left mortals looking like contaminated radiation victims. The more pressing concern I had though, was why he was even standing here in the first place. He was ready to go to work instead of the shuttle-port looking to meet up with Karen.
I decided to play to his senses first. "Excuse me, sir?" I said, and jogged the last few paces.
He hesitated and I felt the clothes around my body morph in time with his perception of me. I went through a dozen different sets of clothes before he recoiled and ran straight into the lobby. I sighed, and then saw a three-headed zebra appear out of the ether and start to walk down the center of the street. It dawned on me that I might have made a poor choice in coming. I let Jack get a good head start before I followed him. I knew where he was going, where he sat, when he got his coffee, and...who he was having a meeting with this morning.
I smiled, despite myself, but I still needed a few minutes to think. I followed the morning crowd to the stairwell instead of the elevators and slipped between the brain-numbed masses. I climbed a half dozen steps with each stride and even made my way up thirty seven floors without bumping into anyone. While it would have been easier to just follow Jack right in, I didn’t want to spook him past the point of reason. By moving slower, it gave him time to relax into his routine.
I also realized I only had one real strategy to make Jack realize what True Love was, and that was to show him what True Love wasn't. For every thousand arrows in my quiver, only one was golden. The rest were steel. It was a testament to the rarity of True Love over raw lust. Jack had never experienced either one, at least not as far as I could tell. It was true that he felt True Love now because of my arrow, but he didn't know what it meant or who it was meant for. Again, I wasn't able to show him that. At least not without bringing Karen here and if the creature behind the wheel of his cab was any indication, Jack had no idea how his fears were manifesting or why. Showing Karen to him now without establishing some kind of hold on Jack’s mind could be disastrous. He and I needed to talk first, without giving him a chance to run away.
It was barely after nine in the morning by the time I reached his office floor. The usual morning stupor was controlling everyone and the walkways and cubicles were full of quiet chattering. Jack headed for the far end of the hall with a steaming mug in his hand. He set his briefcase on his desk, and looked over his shoulder at every loud noise. I shook my head, and let myself fade from mortal view. I kept my distance as he made his arrangements for the meeting, collected his notes, and placed a few calls. At nine thirty, I followed him and a small group of drones into one of the meeting rooms that flanked the hall and stood sentinel from the back corner.
I listened for the sound of the door closing, and then silently locked it with a thought. And since the conversation I needed to have with Jack was…confidential, I also lowered the shade on the small window. To further ensure we got the privacy I wanted, I erased the room from the minds of the mortals outside. Now to do it permanently would have required monumental concentration and skill that I simply did not possess. But to compel a few dozen mortals to look the other way for an hour or so: time enough for passion to overrule common sense? Well, that wasn’t very difficult at all. Under my influence, the room and the mortals within would simply not appear in anyone's thoughts for awhile.
Jack unknowingly did his part by staying focused on his presentation, and it did seem to calm his nerves quite a bit. There were distant echoes of things stirring all over the building, but they were just sleeping shadows now instead of turning into three-headed zebras that walked down the middle of the street. Jack showed confidence, was decisive, and commanded the attention of his audience: three men wearing similar dark blue suits like his own, and five women dressed equally ready for long, successful careers. I waited for him to really get into the heart of his presentation before I stopped time with the snap of my fingers. The second I did, I felt my clothes shift again. My casual exercise clothes morphed into black slacks and a wrinkled black button down shirt. With nothing else. I wiggled my bare toes against the thin carpet.
"Really, Jack?" I said, and straightened up off the wall. "Anything at all, and you make me look like a CEO with a bad hangover?" I set my bow aside and connected the loose buttons of my shirt.
"Oh my god, what the hell is going on?" he tripped over his feet and stumbled backward. His eyes were wide with shock as he stared at the men and women in front of him. I could sense the sleeping bits of shadows I felt earlier in the building start to wake up.
"Just relax..." I said, holding my hands up. "No one wants to hurt you. Believe it or not, I'm here to help."
"What…?" He pointed a shaking hand to his coworkers. "What did you do to them?"
"I just needed to talk to you, Jack. Just talk. It's about what happened last night while you were asleep…"
I stopped walking toward him because he stopped backing up. The wall kept him from disappearing, at least for now. If I pushed him too far too fast, his grip on reality might have erupted like a volcano. Stopping that roller coaster once it started would have been difficult at best.
"How do you know about that?" He asked softly. He started to sweat and I could almost hear the beating of his heart.
"Because it was my fault, Jack. It wasn't on purpose, and I know you're probably scared out of your mind about now...but I can help."
"What? No, I mean… how?"
"I've been in your shoes before. It was a long time ago, but I know the feeling. You feel something here in your chest, wrapped around your soul. Like a longing you can't explain. You feel it inside you with all of your heart. It's Love, Jack. You do believe in True Love, don't you?"
"What? Of course, but…” He blinked like he was trying to shake a bad dream out of his head. “A zebra was waiting at the bus terminal this morning. It was wearing a coat and tie! So I just took a cab, and then the driver turned into a...a...."
"Monster, yes. But he did have exact change, so he can't have been all bad."
His attention and frustrations rounded on me. "Wha…you think this is funny? I'm losing my damned mind, for what, so you can have a laugh?"
"Not at all.” I said softly. “It just proves that even in your nightmares you still have control of your principles. At least for now."
"What does that make you, then? My conscience?"
I laughed; I couldn‘t help it. "Conscience? No. But this might be where things can get a bit complicated. My name is Cupid, Jack."
Looking back on it, that was our turning point. Once he heard my name all he could think about were the cherubs, the paintings, and the holiday cards with the little hearts all over them. That little twist of history was one I would have loved to talk Saturn into letting me go back and change. Just mentioning St. Valentine’s name in the same breath as my own was enough to make me want to put an arrow into someone, and not the good kind. Granted, Jack handled it fairly well. At least if you considered that I was the one who stopped time and was armed with a bow.
A moment of silence hung in the air. "You don't look like Cupid."
"You dressed me this way, not me."
"My god, this isn't happening, this isn't happening..." He leaned against the wall and put his head in his hands.
"Jack, I do know how you feel. I've felt the longing you feel right now. But this-" I said waving my hand at the room, trying to encompass the whole building, even the whole planet, "won’t bring you peace. Karen is waiting for you, but not here."
He looked up at the sound of her name. "Who's ‘Karen‘?"
"She's the one, Jack. The One. True Love. Just now, with the mention of her name you felt it pull at your soul."
He suddenly looked uncomfortable. "But in my dream..." Jack flushed with embarrassment. It took me a second, but then I understood.
"Ah, I see. You were having one of the most powerful dreams you've ever had, and then I intervened." I sighed, "Jack, that wasn't love. And it certainly wasn't True Love."
He had shock written all over his face when he looked up at me again. He thought I was reading his mind somehow and he looked a smidgen more than scandalized. "How would you know?"
I smiled at him in a way I hoped wasn't lecherous, but knowing me, it might have been. "Because I know the difference between lust, love, and True Love." I reached back and snatched my bow before he could even blink and stepped along the side of his coworkers. I pulled a steel arrow from the quiver and drew back.
"What the hell are you doing?" He yelled and started to move, but to stop me or stand in the way, I wasn’t sure. The arrow went right through the first man. His dark hair was trimmed short, and his clean face had lines at the corners of his mouth. The faintest tan line was visible beneath his wedding band. The two women to his right, a short brunette with a full figure and a thin redhead with gold earrings each had arrows pass through their necks before sticking into a chair. I side-stepped a rather stunned-looking Jack and drew one arrow after another. The bolts crisscrossed between the men and women seated in front of him and when I was finished the shafts stuck out of a dozen chairs all around the room. One was at an odd angle in the far wall near the ceiling. He looked up at it, but I just shrugged my shoulders. “I’m a god, Jack, I never said I was perfect. “
I walked around to the back of the room and aligned Jack with the two women between him and me and fired one last arrow. It passed seamlessly through both of the women, one raven-haired and nearly twice Jack’s age, the other younger with snow-white blonde hair. Jack flinched as the arrow streaked toward him but the shaft just bounced off of the glow rising from his chest.
"See?” I said, lowering the bow. “True Love beats lust every time."
Jack looked at the arrow lying on the floor and he nudged it with his toe. Within seconds, the arrows started to fade, leaving no trace they had ever existed. "What did you just do?"
"I'll show you." I said, and then released time. "Ladies and gentlemen, I just need to borrow Jack here for a moment to talk about the Ablugotti account; please feel free to talk among yourselves for a few minutes."
The people looked from Jack to me and I felt a ripple in my clothing as it began to change again. My bow morphed in my hand and turned into a black briefcase before it reverted to its true form. I waved to Jack and he numbly walked to the back of the room next to where I was standing. "Now watch what happens, Jack." I said softly. "They have taken to my suggestion easily enough and in a moment, they won't even know we're standing here. Except maybe those two there." I pointed to the two women I shot last. They were watching Jack, and nothing else. He stared back at them, but he also watched the rest of the room. A single steel arrow could create enough passion in a mortal to melt an iceberg, but it could take hours or even days to manifest. Time was a luxury I didn’t have, and with the amount of arrows I’d used, I hoped the floor wouldn’t melt out from under us.
His coworkers were all talking mildly amongst themselves, but the conversations grew steadily more flirtatious. After five minutes, it bordered on intimate. After ten, two couples were openly kissing. The man with the wedding band was holding hands with the shorter brunette woman sitting next to him. The raven-haired and snow-white blonde were watching Jack closely, holding hands, and talking quietly to each other in whispers.
"So you put some kind of charm on them, or something?"
"‘Or something’ would be a better description. I was never very good at charms. Listen, Jack, I'm older now than I ever was and the kind of power my kind wields throughout the universe is even older than me. My talent is at finding and keeping True Love. A more subtle tool in my arsenal, is lust. It's a raw kind of surging love that focuses not on eternity, but on an eternal moment. It fractures our senses, mortal and godlike both. We enter into lust freely, but then we are overwhelmed by it until it drives out all rational thoughts-"
One of the kissing couples broke apart at that exact moment and illustrated my point perfectly. The man was stocky with a goatee, and the woman was a thin blonde with a pixie cut. She pushed the man back and then drove her mouth hard against his. She grabbed at his hands and mashed them against her chest. He groaned and nudged her head aside to kiss along the line of her neck while their hands both fought to unbutton her blouse.
"-it becomes an animal, primal and fierce. Words fail you, and consideration for anything but your base instincts are lost."
The second couple, an older man with grey highlights and the curly-haired redhead with gold earrings were pressing against each other roughly. She was grinding her leg between his, and riding his between hers. He gripped her hair tightly in one hand while his other pulled open her shirt. He kissed savagely at her exposed cleavage, trying to push her bra aside with his nose. The pixie-haired blonde had already pushed the man with the goatee off of his chair and straddled him on the floor half-hidden under the edge of the table. She rolled on top of him and his hands reached up under her skirt to pull her panties aside. She lifted herself up only long enough to open his zipper. Once he was fully in her hand, she sank down on top of him in one swift motion.
I pointed to the two women, the older raven-haired and the young snow-blonde. "Lust will also blind you to who you really are. It makes you want like nothing else can, leaving you to forget who you are at your core. If you ever do wake up, you'll wonder what happened to yourself, or how you ever let yourself get so carried away. It can also make you focus every part of your being on something, or someone, who is completely unattainable."
Jack's eyes lingered on the two women. They lightly touched each other's arms while they watched Jack. To their altered state, Jack was either a prized bull, or a matador; it was difficult to tell which. They caught him watching and smiled before kissing each other deeply. They were consumed by their lust; they all were.
The dark-haired man with the wedding band dropped to the floor and buried his face under the short brunette’s skirt. She held his hands tight to her bare breasts and gasped when his tongue found its mark. Her shirt lay open, and the last two buttons were torn off. Her bra was pushed up over her nipples, and she moaned in time to the arching of her hips as she thrust to meet him.
The curly redhead also dropped to the floor and knelt between the older man’s legs. Her head bobbed up and down over his lap. The sound of her mouth sucking up and down the length of his flesh was in perfect sync to the movement of the couple beside her under the table. He watched the pixie-cut blonde ride the man with the goatee and his mouth hung open. I nudged Jack and nodded toward them. Despite the redhead groaning and the obvious pleasure they were both getting from her oral skill, he wasn’t satisfied. Lust was in control now, and he watched the blonde with wanton need. He looked morbidly conflicted by his desire to orgasm, and the desire to crawl away from the mouth greedily sucking his cock to join the other couple. The redhead looked up at him and followed his stare to the couple on the floor beside her and she groaned even louder without ever letting him slip from her mouth.
The pixie-cut blonde and the man with the goatee were locked in their embrace and oblivious to what was happening in rest of the room. She rode him harder, and then softer, controlling their pace without letting him stop of even have a voice in their coupling. His pants were completely soaked with her excitement. With each of her orgasms, she would kiss him deeply and moan continuously until she recovered enough to start rocking her hips on top of him again.
When I looked at the two women watching Jack, they shifted positions. The older raven-haired woman stayed seated while the snow-blonde slipped off her chair to sit on the floor in front of her. The snow-blonde kept her back between the raven-haired woman's legs and together they opened their blouses and kissed deeply. Even through the silky textures of their bras, they both pinched and rubbed each other’s nipples. The way the snow-blonde woman on the floor had her knees drawn up; it was obvious how excited she was just by the sheen of moisture on her panties. The tiniest bulge at the top revealed her clitoris and the raven-haired woman's hands were inching down to touch it.
The entire scene left Jack open-mouthed and nearly panting. His arousal was near a deafening high. I watched his eyes drift from one couple to next, and back again. With each pass, he bore witness to every stage of raw lust: from want, to need, to demand, to uncaring decadence, to unforgivable desire. He wanted desperately to shed his own inhibitions and join them, but he felt a pang of something he couldn't quite explain. No matter how desperate I let the scene become, he didn't move from my side.
The full-figured brunette pushed the man with the wedding band back and turned around. She leaned forward over one of the chairs and pressed her nipples hard into the rough fabric. The dark-haired man who had been tasting her almost ripped open his pants in his effort to drive into her from behind. Her short rhythmic gasps were all the proof anyone needed of his determination. The grey-tinted man with the redhead had pulled her up from between his legs and turned her around to face the pixie-cut blonde on the floor. The redhead dropped her skirt and spread her legs before leaning back and settling over the man’s throbbing cock. She rode him slowly while they both watched the couple beneath the table. The two women watching Jack were kissing madly and the snow-blonde pulled the older woman to the floor on top of her. Their hands pawed at each others chests, and their mouths alternated between each others nipples while their fingers traced circles between their legs. They traded off, taking turns at bringing each other closer to orgasm before retreating for more of the same sweet torture. Through it all, the women watched Jack from the corners of their eyes, hoping for any sign that he would join them.
The sound and smell of sex was like a growing tide as the moans cascading off the walls turned more desperate. Air hissed through clenched teeth, and the panting breaths became a chorus of ragged gasps. The orgasms almost began by mutual consent. Once the short brunette started, the others all began to spasm. It was like one massive climax that reverberated through them all, or a shockwave that drove them all right to the edge of madness before relenting.
I waited for them to calm down a touch, and to let Jack to savor the moment before we said anything. "That was unbelievable," he whispered.
"That was lust. As pure as I can deliver it. Passion without thought: an eternity in a moment. And now you’ve felt enough of it to know it wasn't what is in your heart. And now, if you'll let me, I can show you what is."
"Is it something like this?" he asked a little louder. I wasn't sure if he was afraid, or longed for it to be.
"Lust is an eternity in a moment. True Love is a moment eternal."
"That makes no sense." He shook his head and turned his eyes to me for the first time since the tableau began. "What's the difference?"
"Let me show you."
He stared at me for a long moment and seemed to consider the weight of the room around him, and then he nodded. I felt myself sigh, and led him to the door. The writhing mass behind us was regaining its strength and it sounded like it was going to be even more powerful the second time. The office outside remained oblivious to the raw nature of the meeting Jack and I left behind, and I flexed the smallest amount of my will to ensure they remained that way until Jack's coworkers were able to control themselves again.
Traveling from Olympus to Nexus had been easy enough to do on my own, but traveling from Nexus to Callisius with a fragile being like Jack on my arm was a different matter altogether. Mortals could not survive Godspeed, and although I was sorely tempted to try it with Jack, I wasn’t sure how much of Somnus was inside him, or when the connection to the god would be lost. I still felt the weight of the cosmic clock hanging over my head, and I could only hope that Psyche was successful at keeping her vow. If anything happened to Karen before I could arrive, there simply wouldn't be enough time to correct it. Everything building up to that moment would be lost.
I was able to expedite our travel to the interplanetary shuttles, however. By imposing my will on the nearest taxi and convincing the vehicles ahead of us that we were an ambulance, we were also able to shave off a small measure of time. Throughout the trip, I saw positive signs that the world of dreams was under control, at least for the most part. I saw a heron manning a newspaper stand and a six-legged dog walking a man on a leash, but there were was nothing that appeared to reach the level of an atrocity. The sky remained clear, and there were no signs of centurions.
The first available craft that was ready to depart Nexus for Earth was going to be a shade surprised when they found themselves touching down at Callisius, but it couldn’t be helped. I covered the cost of our first-class tickets; it seemed like the least I could do. I had to stay close to him, but most of all I had to keep Jack focused on what lay ahead. If the innate power of the god of dreams were to get loose, or if Jack became frightened and lost control, well...I didn't want to think about it. He did seem to sense that something was on my mind as we left the ground towards the deepening black. He was much more observant than he let on.
"So who is Karen, anyway? What's she like?" he asked, then watched my face for any sign of deception. He mistook my anxiety over the looming dangers as a crack in some grand scheme at his expense. At least he was half-right.
"She is lovely, Jack. She comes from a long line of hardworking and caring mortals, like yourself. She's almost as tall as you are, with long brown hair that shimmers with a hint of gold in the summer sun. Her eyes are teal, and her laugh is one of the most full I have heard in a long, long time. And she believes."
The dreamy smile that had started to spread across his face faltered for a moment. "Believes?"
"Like you, she believes. In True Love. She also believes that there is a force in the universe that can draw people together. A bond that defies any rational explanation. From the moment you meet, you will feel it in here, Jack." I said and placed my hand over his heart for a moment. "That tension you feel now will melt away in her presence because you will know she believes."
He sighed and looked out at the stars. "I still can't believe this is happening."
"It's no different than the sun rising, or the seasons changing, or holding a door open for someone in need."
"You make it all sound so easy."
"Why wouldn‘t it be?"
"Because this just doesn‘t happen, that‘s why."
"Not as often as it used, to be sure, but it still happens more often that you think. If it helps, you're not alone."
We both drank a glass of water and the jump to lightspeed went smoothly. I saw traces of thoughts streak past our windows like fog as they searched for a vessel to latch onto. It would only take a single avatar to make themselves real, and Jack pulsed like a lighthouse beacon to their formless eyes. More than a few spiritual heads turned Jack’s way. I kept him busy with stories from my past, and then asked him for stories of his own. He threw in the occasional odd question about the other gods just to try to throw me off balance, but rather than be offended I found that I rather liked the game.
"So your father is..."
"The god of war. I’ve never asked him how he feels about the planet being named after him.”
"And your mother is Venus, not the planet, but the goddess of love."
"Right." I saw an ugly form twist like a serpent outside Jack's window and I felt a surge of fear race through me. The smoky form bled between the stars and coiled itself around the wing. A face twisted itself into shape and I saw it surge toward us. “Jack, have you ever wondered what a phoenix would look like if it was bred to ferry passengers between worlds? I always thought it would look something like this shuttle, only on fire.”
He looked at me strangely for a moment, and then shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose it would, why?”
Outside, the wings of the shuttle suddenly burst into flames and the coiled shape outside the window was ripped away like a tissue in a furnace. “No reason, really. Forget I mentioned it.” After a few seconds, the flames died out.
I let Jack talk for the rest of the trip, and the closer we got to Callisius, the more nervous he became. By the time we landed, he had gone past nervous chatter and fallen into a kind of terrified silence. "You have absolutely nothing to worry about, Jack," I said, and tried not to think about the army of centurions fighting off hordes of nightmarish monsters all across the universe. Or worse, the executioner’s axe that hovered above his head should I fail.
Once we landed, we feigned the same ignorance as the other passengers at our curious arrival destination. Once we slipped out of the terminal’s stranglehold, the air started to smell rich with excitement. Where Nexus was a hive of mortals living on top of each other like ants in a colony, Callisius was a planet of serenity. Small cities were few, and massive thousand-hectare farms were spread between commerce towns.
I could sense Psyche’s will easily enough through the clean air, and in a veiled sort of way, Karen as well. I hailed a taxi and ordered the driver to travel east, changing course as our route became clearer to me. The hours had ticked past slowly traveling from Nexus, but now that we were this close with Jack in hand, time had accelerated. We had easily stumbled to within a handful of hours to Jupiter's deadline.
When my sense could grow no stronger, I ordered the driver to stop. Jack and I emerged on the streets of a city large enough to be full and vibrant, and yet easily fit into one of the boroughs of any Nexus metropolis. Surrounding Jack’s office were structures that reached all the way to the sky and formed a kind of blanket that veiled the stars. Surrounding us here, nothing went higher than a few levels off the ground. There was a hospital up the street, a few stores on either side of us, and across from us tucked between a bookstore and a pharmacist was a small cafe. A collection of stone gargoyles along the edge of the roof blinked at me and shuffled their talons along their perches.
I smiled. "Let's get something to eat, shall we?"
Jack was beyond asking questions by that point, and was resigned to let me lead him wherever I wanted him to go. The bell that rang as we pushed open the door was like the laughter of sprites, and before my eyes could even adjust to the dim light within, I could smell the spilled ambrosia on Psyche’s skin from the night before. She stood behind the counter, smiling. Even the barista apron looked heavenly on her. "Jack, there's someone I'd like you to meet."
He turned to look at my wife and I saw his indomitable anticipation take a hard hit before I realized what kind of colossal mistake I had just made. "No, no, I'm sorry, Jack, this isn't your True Love- she's mine. This is my wife, Psyche." She reached out her hand, and he took it politely.
"I'm honored, Ma'am."
I turned him around by the shoulders to face the table behind the door and the woman sitting there looked up and smiled. "Jack, I'd like you to meet Karen."
There are moments in my ridiculously long life that I remember in fine detail, and those that seem to blur together. The look on their faces when they finally set eyes upon each other is firmly ensconced in the latter. They sat together; they had coffee; they talked about nothing and everything in a moment that seemed to stretch into an eternity. I drew back slowly until I was completely out of their way and joined Psyche by the counter.
"I was starting to worry about you," she murmured.
"It was difficult to focus at times, but they're together now and that's the important part."
"Do you think it will be enough?"
"I do. She will occupy his thoughts so completely, and his to hers so that nothing will be able to bleed through."
Even as the words left my mouth I saw a shadow falling outside the window. A massive centurion gryphon crashed into the street and the ground splashed like a river of molten tar. The beast thrashed against its liquid chains and I watched helpless as it was swallowed. The screaming animal’s rage as it slowly succumbed haunts me to this day. When the last feather had drown, and the road looked solid again, I glanced sideways at Psyche but her eyes remained fixed outside. On the sidewalk across the street, a horse slowly walked into view that had flaming orbs where its eyes should have been. It sweat blood, and sparks flickered from it’s hooves like flints. A breath later another dark horse appeared, and then another. The lights inside the cafe grew stronger against the darkening sky, but Jack and Karen didn't seem to notice.
"Why isn't it working?" Psyche whispered in my ear. I shook my head, trying to think. True Love conquers all, it always conquerors all. Nothing should be able to withstand it, no god or mortal, no demon in hell. I watched the street slowly fill with Nightmare steeds and I could feel the last grains of sand slipping through Jupiter's hands.
And like a bolt, the answer hit me. The kiss! They had to share True Love's kiss. I spun around to face them and raised my bow. A steel arrow was poised to strike through them both. It couldn't have pierced Jack before because it passed through a non-believer first, two of them in fact. But this wasn't some unenlightened coworker sitting next to Jack- it was his one True Love. If they wouldn't do it themselves, by Jupiter's hand, I was going to do it for them.
Psyche gasped as a steed stopped right outside the window where Jack and Karen sat. Its oil-black and glistening flank was less than three feet from their faces, separated by a clear pane of glass. The bow creaked under the strain in my palm and I felt the string pulling at my fingertips as it begged for release. One arrow and it would all be over, maybe two. They had found each other, love was blossoming right before me, but it wasn't fast enough to end the nightmares. I didn't want them to be in lust with one another, not like this. They didn’t deserve to be like animals on hedonistic display, but if it was that or death, at least they would be alive long enough that I would be able to beg their forgiveness afterward.
Thunder crackled overhead as if the sky itself were shattering. The Nightmare steeds all reared back, and thrashed at the air with their front hooves. They crushed the stone and the pavement as they came down, sparks flashing against the shadows. In the midst of that chaos, I felt Psyche’s hand gently touch my arm. I blinked and looked from the street to her hand, and then to Jack and Karen who were now holding hands with their foreheads together. I loosened the draw I held on my bow and watched as their lips met. I felt a shockwave pulse from where they sat and it rippled out like a boulder thrown into a pond. The force of their love shattered every steed outside into dust and before their ashes could even touch the ground they faded into nothingness.
I put the arrow away, and took hold of Psyche’s hand as the sky lightened. We stayed like that for a long moment, watching the love between Jack and Karen blossom. My wife and I smiled at each other as an understanding about what it was I do among the mortals was shared more clearly in that instance, than in any of the long conversations we‘d had before.
Jack and Karen were still close, talking softly and blissfully ignorant of the rest of the universe. Now he knew. Jack knew what a moment eternal was. It was having your mind and body connected in ways that mere skin and bone can never hold onto. The pleasures of the flesh come and go, and rest assured that they will go, but the moment of True Love will never break. It’s as old as the heavens, and can shine brighter than a thousand stars.
Psyche and I walked out into the street together, and I lifted her into my arms as I spread my wings. I carried her all the way back to Olympus in my arms, and I took my time so I could savor it. She even fell asleep for a few minutes toward the end of our journey with her head resting gently on my shoulder.
I passed countless worlds on the way back, and when looked out at the darkness, I saw embers glowing. Hundreds more now than I had seen in a long, long time. More believers were appearing everywhere around us, on worlds as far as galaxies away. Even as Olympus revealed itself once more before me, I could see the braziers of the Pantheon shining ever-bright.