FOUR AGAINST OLYMPUS- by Matt Hlinak
It was the Age of Heroes, when tools of bronze carved city-states from the wilderness, and words of wisdom were not written down—they were sung. Herakles sat uneasily upon his throne in Abdera. While other tyrants adorned themselves in silk and gold, the son of Zeus wore only the pelt of the Nemean lion, the beast he had slain with his bare hands. As he struggled to keep his attention on the supplications of his subjects, he found himself half-wishing Hera would afflict him with another fit of madness so that he might seek out one last adventure. He scratched his gray beard. Though he and his fellow heroes had slain most of the monsters dwelling just beyond the boundaries of civilization, Herakles knew a few chthonic horrors still drew breath. What a terrible thing it will be, he thought, when the last monster dies. For that will mean the death of heroes as well.
Medea had run out of tears. Her husband, King Aegeus of Athens, had driven her away, but this was not why she wept. The only injury Aegeus’s rejection caused her was the knowledge that the son she bore him would never claim the throne that was rightfully his. Instead she had to watch the undeserved glory heaped upon Theseus, the son of a slattern who had spread her legs for Medea’s husband and Poseidon on the same night, giving the boy two fathers, one royal and the other divine.
No, Medea cared little for old King Aegeus, but his abandonment reminded her of the great king-without-a-crown who had been her first husband and the only man she had ever loved. Jason of the Argo had been handsome, strong and clever. He inspired the mightiest heroes of the age to join him in his quest for the Golden Fleece. How could a young girl, even a sorceress with god’s-blood in her veins, resist such a man?
And so she had sailed on the Argo, and more than any hero’s sword, it was her magic that gave Jason his victory. How those days had thrilled her! She took part in battles that would never be forgotten against strange creatures from the dawn of time. Each night, she made love to Jason to the rocking of the waves beneath them. His seed took root inside her, and she bore two strong sons fated to rule the world.
But with the Golden Fleece in hand, Jason abandoned the wife who had ensured his name would be known for thousands of years. Medea was not some peasant girl to be cast aside when it suited the great lord. Her rage sounded louder than the warhorns of Ares, the crashing waves of Poseidon, the thunder of Zeus. When the last embers of her fury finally cooled, their sons were dead, as was Jason’s new bride and her father. Jason had given up everything for a crown, and Medea ensured it would never be his.
And now this withered fool Aegeus and his mewling boy Theseus tore open these old wounds. Medea grieved for the sons she had killed to spite Jason and the love she had once held for him. A cruel wind blew upon the embers of her fury, and a new flame arose.
From high atop Mount Olympus, Hera saw the anger of Medea and the boredom of Herakles, and she smiled. At long last, the brutish son of Hera’s philandering husband would be brought low. He, who as a baby killed the serpents she loosed in his cradle, had defeated every foe she placed in his path. But now the goddess devised a plan to pit Herakles against a foe not even he could defeat—his father. And so she set in motion the Uprising of the Heroes.
The deaths of her sons haunted Medea’s dreams. She could not shake the sight of their lifeless eyes staring up at her. Sweat streamed down her spine as she awoke. Though her eyes could not penetrate the darkness, she knew she was not alone.
“Hail to the Queen of Heaven,” she said.
“Thank you, child,” answered Hera. The goddess appeared then, glimmering like the dawn’s light reflected upon a pond.
“How may I serve you?”
“By serving yourself. There are two names on the lips of every mortal, two names bathed in glory that will never be forgotten. Two names whose very utterance is a wound upon your heart.”
“Jason and Theseus,” said Medea.
“How would you like vengeance?”
Medea shook her head. “Whatever obstacle I put in their path will only add to their glory. The gods favor them.”
Hera’s laugh sounded like the chiming of a thousand sliver bells.
Medea blushed. “Of course Mighty Hera is the greatest of all the Olympians.”
“Not quite, child.” Hera spoke with a tenderness that made Medea, mother to a grown man, feel a child all the same. “There is one greater than me.”
“Yes, my husband is greater even than these heroes who vex you so. And he will be the means by which you gain your revenge.”
Hera then told Medea how to pit her enemies against the strongest being in the universe.
“Why Herakles?” asked Medea. “I bear him no grudge.”
“But I do,” answered Hera. “He is the greatest mortal who ever lived, greater even than Perseus.” Hera paused to spit upon the floor at this mention of another of her husband’s bastards, one whose death years before had not lessened her hatred. “More importantly, my plan requires a man with the blood of Zeus in his veins. Herakles must be sacrificed if you want your revenge.”
Medea sat in silence for a moment. Herakles had sailed with her on the Argo. Afterwards, he had sheltered her when she fled Jason’s wrath, even protecting her from the Thebans who would have burned her as a witch. How could she repay his kindness with such treachery?
Hera smiled and placed her hand upon Medea’s. The touch of the goddess filled Medea with a surge of joy even greater than that she had found in Jason’s arms.
“Jason used you when it suited him and then cast you aside. For this you hate him, as do I, the goddess of marriage. And Aegeus pushed aside the son his wife bore him for that bastard Theseus. This too wounds me.
“Herakles has done you no harm, this is true. But do not think him innocent. He tosses women aside with even less care than Jason. A hundred women have borne his children. Just like his father, he casts his seed into the wind with little care where it lands. Herakles deserves to be punished, and in so doing, you will have your revenge against Jason and Theseus.”
“You are as wise as you are beautiful, Great Hera.” Medea bowed, and the goddess dissolved into the night.
In his dream, Herakles faced a foe more powerful than ever before. An enormous shadow loomed before him, obscuring this greatest of challenges. Herakles grinned, charging into the darkness with his club held high. There was a great clap of thunder, and he awoke upon his throne.
His vizier bowed, obviously having waited for the aged hero to awake from his nap, as did the line of supplicants before him. To have fallen asleep in public would have embarrassed a lesser man, but not Herakles. He scanned the weak mortals prostrate before him until his eyes fell upon one more like himself.
“Medea,” he roared. “It is good to see such an old friend—and such a beautiful one.”
It was true that she was beautiful. Though nearly as old as he, Medea looked just as she had when they sailed together on the Argo. Herakles had lain with hundreds of women, but never this one, for he who feared no man or monster knew to hold sorcery at arm’s length.
“Mighty Herakles seems to have confused his throne with his bed.”
The hero laughed. “There is nothing more tedious than listening to the droning of these little flies,” he said as if his courtiers were deaf. “Winning a crown is like seducing a woman; the best part is the conquest, and the worst part is the aftermath.”
Medea smiled. “Why not climb down from your throne and seek adventure?”
“I have sailed with the Argonauts, journeyed to Hades and back, and held the sky on my shoulders. What adventure could interest me?”
“You could do what no man has ever done: climb Mount Olympus.”
Herakles shook his head. “Would you have my father cast me from the sky like Bellerophon? No mortal may reach the summit of Olympus.”
“But you are no mere mortal. As you said yourself, it was your father who cast Bellerophon from the sky. And Zeus did so because Bellerophon tried to cheat his way to the summit by flying on the back of Pegasus. I am proposing you climb.”
Herakles stroked his gray beard. The stories said that Bellerophon had been brought low by hubris, for daring to tread in the gods’ realm. But perhaps Medea spoke truly. Would Zeus truly strike down his own son for attempting one last Labor?
“Better to die by my father’s thunderbolt than to waste away on this damned throne.” He stood and tossed his crown into the throng. “Let some other man wear this thing. I am off to become a god.”
“Not so fast, Mighty Herakles,” Medea warned. “I have foreseen that you will indeed join your father atop Olympus, but you cannot succeed alone.”
Herakles stiffened. “I need no help.”
“In my dream, two others aid you in your quest. Do not tempt the Kindly Ones.”
Even the world’s strongest man shuddered at the mention of the Erinyes, the vengeful goddesses of fate. “Who are these two?”
“The only mortals of this age worthy to stand beside you.”
Herakles set off on his quest. Every other king in the Hellenes would have ridden a horse or chariot with a retinue of guardsmen. Herakles was more than a king. He walked alone on thick legs, dressed only in lionskin, swinging his great club carelessly before him. He had slung his bow across his chest and strapped a quiver full of arrows dipped in Hydra-blood to his back. A smile stretched across his face.
He journeyed for weeks, engaging in many adventures, none of which register anywhere near the top of the list of great deeds performed by the son of Zeus. Only a few days of walking lay between him and Athens, where young Theseus held the crown. As he trekked through the wilds of Boetia, Herakles heard a splashing sound. He wondered if he had not chanced upon a great serpent like Python. He tightened his grip upon his club and crept through the wood.
He came upon a shimmering pool of water. A form emerged from beneath the surface. For a moment, disappointment overcame the hero as he realized it was no monster. But then his blood stirred; it was a woman.
He looked upon her naked, sun-goldened skin as she swam through the water, black hair trailing behind her. The lean, strong body was that of a woman, no mere girl. Herakles had possessed many women, but none as beautiful as this. He strode out from behind the trees to the water’s edge.
The woman dove underwater at the sound of his approach. Herakles laughed. Unless he had stumbled upon a Nereid, this lovely creature would soon have to come up for air. The sunlight reflecting off the water hid her from his sight, but it was only a matter of time before she drew a breath. When she did, she would be his.
He was half right.
The woman broke through the surface of the water at the edge of the pool by Herakles’ feet. She thrust a spear toward his belly. The impenetrable pelt of the Nemean lion turned away the tip. The hero laughed.
The two had sailed together on the Argo. Atalanta was the world’s greatest hunter and swiftest runner. She had dedicated herself to the goddess Artemis and, to Herakles’ long disappointment, taken a vow of celibacy. But perhaps she had reconsidered that vow, he thought as he leaned forward.
Atalanta lowered the spear a few inches. The speartip aimed for a bit of flesh uncovered by lionskin.
Herakles scowled. “Put some clothes before one of us gets impaled on the other’s spear.”
“You seem to be one spear short, Mighty Herakles.”
A grin stretched across his face. “It is under my loincloth, Lovely Atalanta.”
“Ugh,” she answered with a shake of her head. “I see you have not changed.”
“Nor have you, virgin.”
“True enough,” answered Atalanta. “So now that we understand each other, turn around while I put on my toga.”
The two heroes walked side by side to the walls of Athens. Atalanta had not felt this good since she had visited the Oracle at Delphi a year before. The Oracle had told her that she would be tricked into marriage, thus breaking her vow to Artemis. Worse still, she and this husband-she-did-not-want would somehow incur the wrath of Zeus.
She had just about resigned herself to her fate when Herakles stumbled upon her while bathing. He told her of his quest to climb Mount Olympus, and hope dawned. If Atalanta reached the summit of Olympus, she would become a goddess, immune to trickery and even the curses of Zeus. And so she joined her fellow Argonaut in his final quest.
“Such a beautiful smile,” Herakles said. “I am glad you enjoy my company so.”
Atalanta shook her head, but could not shake the smile. “I merely tolerate your company, as I did on the Argo. This smile is for my fate.”
“And what fate is that?”
“Whatever I choose.”
Though scarcely able to grow a beard, young Theseus had accomplished more than nearly ever man who had ever lived. He had found the six entrances to the Underworld, slain the Minotaur and won the crown of Athens. His only rivals, living or dead, were Perseus and Herakles, the former long ago having crossed the River Styx. The latter stood before him now, beside a woman of more years than Theseus, but also of more beauty than any girl he had ever seen.
Herakles shook his head. “This is Atalanta, the world’s greatest hunter. She has pledged herself—and her virginity—to Artemis.”
Theseus straightened up on his throne, embarrassed to have let his lust show so clearly. “Of course, Swift Atalanta, the maiden who sailed on the Argo. I should have known that no less a woman would accompany Mighty Herakles.”
Theseus then listened as the two told of their plans to scale Mount Olympus. Such a quest! he thought. The young king leapt from his throne and blurted out his acceptance before they even finished asking him to join them. Even heroes have heroes, and Theseus admired Herakles beyond measure. Nothing could have appealed to Theseus more than accompanying the son of Zeus to the summit of Olympus.
The greatest man in Thebes did not sit on its throne. Thanks to the vengeance of Medea, the woman who had once been his wife, Jason slept on the ship for which he was famous as it bobbed in the harbor. He spent most of his days drinking undiluted wine like a barbarian. The city that was to have been his dowry had slipped from his grasp when Medea’s wedding gift turned Princess Creusa to a pile of ashes. It was hard not to hate the witch he had once loved, for she had also killed their two sons, but Jason knew it had been his betrayal that ignited her rage. Were he ever to see Medea again, he would kill her, though it would give him no pleasure.
Familiar voices roused him from these black thoughts. He took a long drink of sweet red wine. Coming down the dock came Herakles and Atalanta, two heroes who had once sailed with him on this very ship. Beside them stood a handsome, young man decked out in purple robes over a glistening bronze breastplate. Jason ran a hand through his thinning hair.
“Hello, old friend,” shouted Herakles. “The time has come for you to return a favor.”
Jason took another long drink. “I am afraid I am not much good to you—or anyone else, for that matter. Now leave me be. I have drinking to do.”
As he brought the wine back to his lips, Atalanta’s spear flew threw the air and shattered his wine jar before lodging into the deck of the Argo.
“It appears you are all out of wine, my old captain,” she said.
Jason wiped the wine from his beard and picked bits of pottery from his toga. “You should have saved the wine and hit me instead.”
“Enough of this,” Herakles said with a grimace. “If you will not act like a hero, at least act like a man.”
“Is this really him?” asked the purple-robed youth.
There was once a time when Jason would have tossed the whelp into the sea. Instead he said, “I am really him, or at least I used to be. And who are you?”
The young man puffed out his chest. “I am Theseus, King of Athens, slayer of the Minotaur and—“
Jason cut him off. Though he had of course heard of Theseus, the captain of the Argo was not easily impressed. “What do you want of me?”
“When you needed us,” Atalanta said, “we followed you.”
“Now we need you to follow us,” said Herakles. “Do you deny your debt?”
Jason stood and pulled Atalanta’s spear from the deck. The sight of his old comrades should have brought him some joy, but he wanted only to be left alone. Yet he was the man who had won the Golden Fleece, even if it had brought him nothing but pain. And he did indeed owe these two a debt.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Let us go then. What better way to end this life than to go chasing after my fellow fools?”
Atalanta felt uneasy as she led the group up the Sacred Way, the long staircase carved into the rock of Mount Parnassus. The Oracle of Delphi had delivered bad news on her last visit, and Atalanta feared what she might hear this time. But even heroes as bold as the four who now climbed these steps would not dare an undertaking of this magnitude without first consulting the Oracle.
The line of wisdom-seekers stretched halfway down the mountain, but all stepped aside at the sight of the legendary heroes. The other consultants brought goats or chickens with them to sacrifice to Apollo once they reached the summit. Herakles carried a live bull across his shoulders as easily as other men carried sacks of grain.
The four had drawn lots to see who would ask the question. Atalanta had won—or perhaps lost—so it was she who would enter the temple. She feared that the Oracle would once again tell her that she was to be duped into marriage and then punished by Zeus. Why cannot the gods let me choose my own life? she wondered. When they reached the summit, Herakles set the bull down as gently as he would a baby. He had wrestled the wildness out of the beast, so it followed the huntress like a duckling after its mother.
In the middle of the temple stood a marble altar. Behind the altar, a hole carved in the floor held the Oracle, a young priestess reclining in a bronze chair hanging from the floor by chains. Beneath her spanned a mist-filled chasm. Strange odors spilled out of the hole. Atalanta strode up to the altar and beckoned the bull to follow. She then drew her knife and opened the beast’s throat over the marble.
“Ask your question, Swift Atalanta.” The Oracle’s voice echoed through the chasm.
“What will happen if the four of us try to climb Mount Olympus?’
“The son of Zeus shall sit upon the throne.
“And three shall stand beside the new god-king.”
Atalanta bowed her head. This was as good an answer as they could expect to receive. The four would scale Olympus.
As Atalanta and her comrades walked back down the steps, Medea emerged from the shadows and looked down upon the young woman in the bronze chair.
The Oracle shook her head at the witch. “Never have I uttered falser words.”
Medea laughed and tossed a bag full of silver coins into the hole. “A good falsehood is worth a thousand truths.”
Hermes and Zeus looked down upon the four heroes gathered at the base of Mount Olympus.
“This is most curious,” said the king of the gods. “What brings the best of humanity to our doorstep?”
“I shall find out, Father,” answered Hermes. Before these words had even reached Zeus’ ear, Hermes stood before the heroes.
Three of the mortals bowed when they recognized the messenger of the gods. Herakles only nodded and said, “Greetings, my brother.”
Hermes smiled at the impudence of this being of flesh. “Greetings to you, Herakles. Our father wishes to know what brings you here.”
Despite his gray beard, Herakles looked like a mischievous boy as he answered, “We have come to pay my father a visit.”
Hermes’ face darkened. “Not even you would be so bold.”
“Indeed I am. We will stroll up this little hill to experience the view from the top.”
Hermes felt the urge to strike down this mortal, even if they did share a father. But he dared not tempt Zeus’ wrath, for all knew Herakles to be the Thunder-God’s favorite. And not even the gods were safe from the fury of the Erinyes, who loathed kin-slayers above all else. The other three heroes shifted uneasily. Though Theseus was the son of Poseidon, Hermes could smite Jason and Atalanta without any repercussions. Hermes considered doing just that before deciding to leave humanity its heroes.
“I cannot allow you to do such a thing,” said Hermes. “Mortals, even exceptional ones like yourselves, may not tread in the realm of the gods.”
“And why not?” asked Herakles, his fingers tightening around his club.
Such hubris! Hermes readied himself to wipe this mortal from the earth, Zeus’ wrath be damned. “Because I will not allow it.”
The two sons of Zeus glared at one another for a moment before Atalanta stepped between them. “Please, Great Hermes, we have no wish to fight. Perhaps we can settle this with a more peaceful contest.”
“Contest?” asked Hermes. His eyes settled upon the long-legged beauty before him. No mortal could compare to this one. His loins stirred. “What kind of contest?”
Atalanta’s smile shone like the chariot of Helios. “I was hoping the Great Hermes might humor me with a footrace.”
The messenger of the gods nearly fell over with laughter. He knew this woman to be the swiftest human on earth, but the idea that she could outrun him was beyond foolishness. When his laughter finally subsided, he said, “You may have your footrace, mortal. If you win”—laughter overcame him once more for a few moments before he regained control—“I shall not bar your path. And if I win, you four will return home and forget all about this nonsense.”
Atalanta agreed. Then she walked one hundred paces, dragging her spear behind her as she walked. The tip of the spear traced a long line in the dirt. She explained that the line marked off their lanes and that they were not to cross it. Hermes then covered the hundred paces in half-a-heartbeat to stand beside her at the starting line.
“Before we race, Great Hermes, may I beg a concession? Since you have those winged sandals, I thought it would be a fairer contest if you would grant me a head-start of, say, ten paces.”
Hermes laughed again. “You may have ninety-nine paces, mortal. I will still cover one-hundred in less time than it takes you to run one.”
“Oh no, Great Hermes, I do not wish to be greedy. Ten paces will suffice.”
Atalanta walked ten paces ahead of Hermes. Then she slipped off her toga. The jaws of the mortal men dropped at the sight of her naked flesh. Even the messenger of the gods found himself unable to take his eyes from her taught, muscular body stretched into a starting pose. She pressed her hands to the ground and thrust her backside into the air. Hermes’ lust boiled over.
Then that flawless body began to run, and Hermes darted after her.
Before the god knew what was happening, he found himself astride the beautiful mortal. He pulled his toga aside to free his member. Just as Hermes was about to deflower Atalanta, the thick arms of Herakles yanked him off of her. Fuming, the god rose to send his half-brother to the Underworld.
“You lost, Great Hermes.” Atalanta rose to her feet to don her toga. “You crossed the line between our lanes.”
Hermes’ face reddened. These mortals had outwitted him! Black clouds gathered overhead, and thunder roared down the mountain. The anger of Zeus was plain.
“I do not like those clouds,” Jason said as he trudged up the mountainside.
“It is clear that my father means to test us,” answered Herakles. “And Lovely Atalanta has shown us to be up to the task.”
Uneasiness burdened Jason’s heart. The gods had tested him many times, and he had passed all but the last of those tests. It had been the last test that made all the difference. Yet in all his tests, he had never confronted a god directly. Jason could not help but agree with Herakles. The huntress had just outwitted Hermes! This band was indeed fated for something truly extraordinary.
“But surely the gods will not fall for another trick,” said Theseus.
Jason smiled. “Do not be so sure. The gods may be cleverer than us, but they are also prouder. And pride can make even the cleverest a fool.”
“What makes you so sure?” asked Theseus.
“Because I have been that fool.”
Lightning flashed as Zeus fumed at the heroes climbing his mountain. He sent Artemis to do what Hermes had not. The goddess of the hunt scampered like a mountain lion down the rockface. She found the heroes resting on a ledge halfway to the summit.
Upon seeing the goddess to whom she had devoted her life, Atalanta prostrated herself upon the rock. Jason and Theseus bowed, while arrogant Herakles strutted forward.
“So now my sister has come to talk us out of our folly.”
“Folly it is, Herakles. What is worse, you have corrupted my Atalanta.”
“Please, Great Artemis,” Atalanta said, her face still pressed to the ground, “do not think me corrupt. I wish only to serve you.”
“And serve you well she has, Great Artemis,” Jason said. “Atalanta just bested Hermes. Your glory shines all the more brightly with such a mortal as a servant.”
Artemis smiled, for the captain of the Argo spoke truly. Hermes’ shame was her pride. “Even so,” the goddess said, “I cannot allow you to climb any higher.”
“Of course, Great Artemis,” answered Jason. “But perhaps you will indulge me. I am jealous of my beautiful comrade who defeated a god. Will you grant me the same chance?”
The goddess smiled. “You wish to challenge me to a contest?”
“Yes, Great Artemis. If you win, we shall return home. If I win, you will let us pass.”
Still smiling, Artemis asked, “What contest do you propose?”
“Oh, it matters not,” Jason said with a wave of his hand. “If Atalanta can beat Hermes in a footrace, I am sure I could best you in any number of contests.”
Atalanta gasped. Jason’s words were like spit in Artemis’ eye. “I accept your challenge,” said the goddess with a snarl. “Now choose your contest.”
As Jason’s lips curled up, Artemis realized she had walked into his trap. “Let us see who can piss the farthest.”
Atalanta gasped. To speak so crudely before the Great Artemis! She rose to her feet.
Fear filled the heart of the huntress. There was no good outcome here for her. Jason would likely win; not only was he a man, but he had spent many hours pissing off the back of the Argo, out-pissing the greatest heroes of the age. And if he won, how could Atalanta live without the favor of Artemis?
But if Jason did not win, their quest would end. Atalanta would be left to her fate: a marriage she did not want and the fickle justice of Zeus. And her broken vow would still mean betraying Artemis. She half-hoped Zeus would blast them all off the mountain then and there.
Herakles guffawed as a great golden stream arced down the mountainside. “More beautiful than the rainbows of Iris.”
Hera hid her smile behind her hand as Zeus seethed beside her. The impudence of these four amused her. Leave it to Jason to think of the one thing a mortal man could do better than a goddess. A man’s obsession with his own member finally got him somewhere.
Zeus was not nearly so amused. The black clouds thickened and spread until they covered every inch of sky. The air roiled with electricity.
“My son will learn the limits of my indulgence,” roared the king of the gods. “If these mortals will not be persuaded to stop this foolishness, we will try a different approach.
“Ares, send them home.”
Theseus could scarcely contain his excitement. Though a storm surged above him, and his muscles ached from climbing the increasingly-steep mountain, his companions had twice bested the gods. Even as the youngest of the group, the King of Athens was already a greater hero than Atalanta or Jason. Soon it would be his chance to test himself against an Olympian. Then his deeds would surpass even those of Perseus, leaving Herakles the only man in history who whose greatness would rival his own. And by the end of this quest, perhaps not even the son of Zeus would outshine Theseus.
“Who do you think will challenge us next?” he asked.
Jason massaged his temples. “I went too far. Atalanta outwitted Hermes, but she did not insult him. The Olympians’ vengeance will be great for what I did.”
Theseus laid a hand on the Argonaut’s shoulder. “Worry not. The Oracle said we would succeed.”
Jason stopped walking.
“What?” Theseus asked.
“Listen to a man who has lived long,” Jason said. “Trust nothing but your own hands. Even that sword of bronze at your hip may shatter. Do not even trust me, for we are strangers, and I would not mind if we all died right now. But trust least of all a few lines of poetry spouted by a priestess in a pit.”
“Stop scaring the boy,” said Herakles, and the band moved on.
Theseus was so shaken by Jason’s words that he did not realize the King of Athens had just been called a boy.
The heroes pulled themselves up onto a ledge, where Ares awaited them. The war-god stood in gleaming bronze armor. He would not be tricked as his siblings had, for the only contest he cared for was war, and none could best him at it. Zeus’ thunderbolts whizzed passed him. In his fury, the king of the gods loosed lightning on the world without a thought as to where it would land.
Ares cocked his head as Theseus came towards him, shedding his breastplate and greaves as he walked. The young king tossed aside his helmet and loosened his sword-belt. The mortal stood completely unarmed before the god of war.
“Great Ares,” called out Theseus, “I challenge you to a contest.”
“I do not play games, mortal.”
“Nor do I, Lord of Battle. Will you fight me?”
Ares clenched his fists. He saw through this mortal’s trick. The young man hoped to goad Ares into shedding his arms and armor, thus opening himself up to treachery. Perhaps Herakles would try to shoot the god with one of his poisoned arrows. Ares shook his head.
“I accept your challenge, but war is never a fair fight. I will not give up my arms just because you have given up yours.”
“So be it.”
Ares drew his sword, a great blade forged by Hephaestes himself from the very iron used to imprison the Titans in Tartaros. Theseus lifted his hand in a salute.
Ares returned the gesture, by raising his sword above his helmeted head. Then the god advanced on the hero.
With lightning crashing around them, Ares thrust with his sword, and Theseus circled out of the way. Ares thrust again, and again Theseus leapt aside. On his third thrust, Ares nearly gutted his foe, but Theseus danced away at the last minute.
Thunder boomed as if in echo of the god’s frustration. “You challenge me to a fight, and then you do nothing but run. Coward!”
The young king’s face reddened at the insult. Good, thought Ares, let his pride bring him to me. For no man could stand more than a moment against the god of war. Theseus clenched and unclenched his fists.
“It is not my fault you are so slow. Perhaps Hermes can lend you his sandals so you can catch me.”
The god growled, and Theseus dashed away. Ares raised his sword high above his head and charged after him. As he did, an errant thunderbolt grazed the tip of the sword and blasted the god of war off the mountain.
Poseidon answered the summons of Zeus. As god of the sea and earthquakes, Poseidon preferred his own domain to the high altitudes ruled by his brother. But this matter involved his beloved son, and so he made his way atop Mount Olympus.
“Brother,” came Zeus’ greeting, “something must be done about these sons of ours. They threaten to invade our realm.”
Poseidon pursed his lips as the king of the gods told him of the four impudent mortals who had nearly reached the summit of Mount Olympus.
“What would you have me do?” asked Poseidon.
“Send them to Hades.”
Poseidon glanced down to where the four heroes scaled the rock-face. He raised his trident and hurled it into their midst. A great earthquake opened a chasm beneath the mortals’ feet, and down they fell. But Poseidon could not bring himself to harm his son. He raised a ledge that caught Theseus after a fall of twenty feet. The other three fell much farther.
Theseus lay stunned upon the rock ledge. After clearing his head, he peered over the edge. His companions had disappeared into the utter blackness of the deepest pit he had ever seen. He had no doubt it led to Hades.
His already cracked and bloodied fingers took hold of the rock wall, and he began to climb out of the hole. Though weary from climbing nearly to the top of Mount Olympus, Theseus pushed on. He was no ordinary man. In fact, the chasm that had swallowed Herakles left Theseus the most powerful man on earth.
He pulled himself out of the fissure and rested on a narrow plateau of rock. He glanced up to the cloud-covered pinnacle of Olympus. So close. For a moment he considered going on alone, conquering the mountain by himself. But then he shook his head. The Oracle had said the four heroes would succeed together. And Poseidon’s earthquake had shown him the gods were through playing games. Theseus would need help.
Herakles, Atalanta and Jason fell for nine days. As they neared the bottom, Herakles reached out for his companions and drew them to him. He knew that without god’s-blood in their veins, the impact would kill them. So he clutched them to his chest as his back crashed into the bed of bones that made up the floor of Hades.
Stunned but unhurt, the three heroes staggered to their feet in the middle of a great crater. They wiped the bone-dust from their faces and climbed out. Dogs barked in the distance, and Herakles sighed.
“Cerberus,” whispered Atalanta, and sure enough, the giant, three-headed hellhound bounded toward them.
Jason drew his sword. Herakles placed a hand on his friend’s arm. “I have bested this little pup once before, but today we have no time to play fetch.”
“What choice do we have?” asked Jason as the snarling beast drew near.
“We wish to take Olympus,” Herakles said, raising his club above his head. “But there is no one in Hades who can help us do that.”
“So?” asked Atalanta.
“Our allies dwell lower.” Herakles swung his club down with all his might, opening a great rift in the ground below them.
The being in all of Earth who most hated Zeus smiled at the haggard-looking youth who nearly collapsed through the doors of the inn. Prometheus drained his wine and rose to greet the man the other patrons mistook for a passing beggar.
“Hail, King of Athens.”
Theseus’ fevered eyes settled on the Titan. “Mighty Prometheus, I have wandered many days without food or sleep in search of you.”
The inn’s patrons gawked at these two ordinary-looking beings who proclaimed one another King and Titan. Prometheus paid them no mind. “And why is that, Son of Poseidon?”
“Herakles needs your help.”
Prometheus’ hand fell to his liver, upon which a giant vulture had feasted for centuries until Herakles had broken his chains. This had been the justice meted out by Zeus for the crime of sharing the secret of fire.
“He shall have it,” answered the Titan.
After another nine-day fall, Herakles, Atalanta and Jason reached Tartaros, a boulder-strewn wasteland filled with flame-belching firepits. It was to this deepest hell that Zeus sent his greatest foes, the Titans. Zeus had overthrown his father Kronos, just as Kronos had overthrown his father Ouranos. Now Herakles sought to do the same.
Atalanta felt uneasy. Hades was bad enough, but no being had ever escaped from Tartaros. It had taken them a total of eighteen days to fall here. How would they ever climb back out?
“Worry not,” Herakles said. “Here we shall find friends.”
“Like them?” asked Jason, jerking his thumb toward the most frightening sight Atalanta had ever seen.
Three storm-giants emerged from the shadows of the Underworld’s permanent twilight—the Hekatonkheires. Though Atalanta did not have time to count, the horrors were said to each have fifty heads and one hundred arms. They lumbered forward on thick legs, with their myriad appendages sprouting from their torsos and giving them the look of strange plants.
“Stand behind me,” said Herakles as he unslung his bow. He pulled from his quiver an arrow that was said to have been dipped in the venomous blood of Hydra. Atalanta crept behind the son of Zeus and hoped this was true.
The great hero loosed an arrow. The first Hekatonkheire, who was called Briareus the Vigorous, raised his many arms to shield his many faces. The arrow sank into one of the giant’s meaty palms. Briareus lurched forward a couple of steps before toppling over. The ground shook as if Poseidon had brought another earthquake to bear upon them.
The two other Hekatonkheires did not wait for Herakles to shoot a second arrow. They scooped up boulders in each of their hands and unleashed a volley of certain death upon the heroes. Though Atalanta did not doubt Herakles’ strength, she was unwilling to trust it against two hundred sailing slabs of stone. She plucked an arrow from Herakles’ quiver and darted toward the giants.
The world’s fastest mortal sprinted underneath the hurtling stones as they crashed against Herakles’ chest. As she neared the second Hekatonkheire, Gyges the Big-Limbed, he brought his great fists down to squash her. As she dashed aside to avoid a killing blow, she lashed out with the arrow. Its poisoned tip traced a red line across the giant’s skull-sized knuckle. She zigged and zagged around the crashing blows until she stood directly between Gyges’ column-like legs, the one place his fists could not reach.
Gyges raised one of his boat-sized feet to squash her when the Hydra’s blood took effect, and the second Hekatonkheire came crashing down. Just as he hit the ground with another booming earthquake, his brother Cottus the Furious, the last of the Hekatonkheires, lobbed another volley of boulders directly at Atalanta. Though winded from her last dash, she found the strength to sprint away just as Gyges’ body disappeared under a mountain of rocks.
Clutching the poisoned arrow in her fist, the huntress focused all of her remaining energy into one last mad scramble toward Cottus. Just as she neared the giant, a great hand swatted her away. The air rushed from her lungs as she sailed through the air and crashed against the crater-wall of a firepit. When her breath finally returned to her, Atalanta became aware that half the bones in her body had broken.
She looked out across the battlefield to where Herakles and Jason lay buried under tons of rock. She doubted whether even the son of Zeus could survive such an onslaught. Cottus clearly thought the same thing, as he stomped toward Atalanta’s shattered body with a snaggle-toothed leer on all fifty of his faces.
Theseus and Prometheus sat in the inn, waiting for Zeus’ rage to cool.
“All of this rain is good,” Prometheus said of the storms blanketing all of Creation, “but we must have a little sunshine as well.”
When the clouds at last parted, and a rainbow arced through the sky, Prometheus said, “It is time to pay my cousin a visit.”
Theseus nodded and followed after the Titan.
“Whom do we seek, Wise Prometheus?”
“Her.” The Titan pointed toward the rainbow overhead.
When they at last reached the end of the rainbow, they found a golden-winged woman of startling beauty, shimmering with every color imaginable. Here stood Iris, the rainbow goddess who delivered messages from atop Olympus to mortals below. Her rainbow could bridge any two places and could thus free his companions from the Underworld. But convincing her to help would be no easy thing, for she was loyal to Zeus, and what was more, no being could tell a lie in her presence without falling into a deep sleep. Her eyes narrowed at their approach.
“My master would not be pleased to see us speaking with one another, Fire-Stealer. No one has done more to draw his wrath than you.”
Prometheus waved his hand in the air as if to swat Iris’ concerns away. “That may be so, my sweet cousin, but Zeus has been too busy farting thunder these past few days to worry about me.”
Iris cracked a smile. “Why have you sought me out?”
Theseus looked upon the smiling face of his benefactor, wondering how Prometheus would answer her without letting a falsehood slip from his lips. The clever Titan responded with a question of his own.
“When did you last see your father?”
Iris scowled. Her father Thaumus had once ruled the seas, but he now dwelled in Tartaros with the other Titans who had opposed Zeus in his war against Kronos.
“Not since the Titanomachy, of course.”
“Of course,” said Prometheus. “It has been ages since Zeus overthrew his father. Do you not miss yours?” “What kind of question is that?”
“It is the kind of a question one who had not seen his own father in just as long would ask.”
Prometheus did not fall asleep then, which meant he spoke the truth. Theseus thought of his own mortal father Aegeus. Because Theseus had forgotten to change his black sail to a white one after slaying the Minotaur, the king believed his son dead. In his grief, Aegeus cast himself into the sea that now bears his name. Theseus knew what it meant to miss one’s father.
“What does it matter?” Iris asked.
“It is only this, my sweet cousin. I miss my father as much as you no doubt miss yours. But unlike you, I lack the ability to visit mine. Has it ever occurred to you to drop a rainbow into Tartaros and call upon your sire?”
“That would not make Zeus happy.”
“No, it would not,” Prometheus said. “But is the happiness of Zeus all that matters in this world?”
“And I suppose you would like to join me in this journey.”
“Indeed I would, for it would warm my heart to lay eyes upon my father, if only once more.”
Iris then considered Theseus for the first time. “And why does this mortal accompany you?”
Prometheus smiled. “As you know, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for humans. He is on one of those quests the best of their race is always pursuing, and I thought I would help him. He needs to go to the Underworld, and I would like to see my father.”
Theseus bit his lip to keep from smiling. Prometheus’ answer had neither deceived nor enlightened Iris.
The rainbow goddess shrugged. “Let us be quick about it then.”
Jason gasped for breath beneath Herakles and a mountain’s worth of rock. The son of Zeus had shielded him from the blow, but it still left them buried. Jason had seen Atalanta dart off and hoped she fared better than he did.
Herakles had not stirred since receiving the onslaught of stone. Jason wondered if this was perhaps too much for even the world’s strongest man to bear. But then Jason felt the muscles on Herakles’ back tighten. With a great grunt, the hero pushed up against the boulders, and they rolled off.
The two staggered to their feet in a cloud of dust. When it settled at last, Jason saw one of the Hekatonkheires, Cottus, looming over Atalanta, who lay prone against the sloop of a seething firepit. One hundred giant hands reached for the huntress.
Herakles took up a boulder and pressed it above his head. With a heave, the boulder flew through the air and crashed against Cottus’ back. Though thrown by the strongest man in the world, the boulder did little more than knock Cottus off balance. But that was enough.
The top-heavy giant stumbled forward and tripped over the rim of the firepit, pitching headlong into a burning lake. The last of the Hekatonkheires disappeared into a hissing cloud of smoke.
The two heroes crossed the field to where Atalanta sprawled out over the rocks. Her limbs bent in odd angles, and her breaths came as shudders.
Jason shook his head. “She is going to die.”
“Do not give up hope,” Herakles answered. “We have just earned the favor of some powerful friends. Rest, Atalanta, and we will return with help.”
Jason was not so sure. He followed his friend into the haze of the Underworld. Having dispatched the jailers, the two soon found themselves standing before the jail, a great wall stretching beyond the limits of sight to either side as well as upward. An iron gate so large the Hekatonkheires could have passed through it barred their path.
“This prison is strong enough to hold the Titans,” Jason said. “How can we possibly break in?”
“Easily,” Herakles answered as he took hold of the iron bars. “As you say, this prison is strong enough to hold the Titans, and I can feel the powerful enchantments Hephaestes weaved into the iron. There is no way anyone could break out of here. But the enchantments only work one way, for what kind of fool would want to break into Hell?”
Jason smiled. “I know a few such fools.”
With that, Herakles pried the bars apart. The Titans, gray-haired and wild-looking gods from the dawn of Creation, spilled out of the dungeon that had held them for so long.
Kronos, the former ruler of Heaven, Hell and Earth addressed Herakles. “You, who are the fruit of my loins, have earned our eternal gratitude. How can we repay such a debt?”
“One of our company is near death, Grandfather. Could you please return her to life so that we might complete our quest?”
Out of the assembled Titans stepped Iapetus, the father of Prometheus, leaning on a long, bronze-tipped spear.
“Before the usurpation,” the Titan said, “I was god of mortality. I can breathe life back into your friend.”
“Surely this is not all you ask of us,” said Kronos with a gleam in his wild eye.
Prometheus smiled as he hurtled through the planes of existence on a beam of radiant light. Never had there been a more foolhardy quest than the one these mortals attempted. Yet there was a chance, an infinitesimally small one, but a chance nonetheless that the Titan would take his vengeance on the arrogant son of Kronos, the one who had inflicted unimaginable agony upon Prometheus and imprisoned his father. However these events played themselves out, Zeus would struggle and he would suffer, and for that, Prometheus was glad.
It was a strange thing when the glittering rainbow pierced the grim depths of Tartaros. Shock fell over Iris’ face as she saw the Titans standing free before the mangled gates of their eternal prison. Before she could act, Prometheus came from behind and took hold of the goddess.
“Move quickly, my kinfolk. We do not have much time.”
A smile broke over the face of Iapetus as he led the Titans forward. “You have done well, my son.”
Prometheus blinked back a tear. Then he felt Iris sag in his arms as Thaumus stepped from the shadows. “Father,” she whispered, and one more being joined the Heroes’ cause.
There is no worse thing for an immortal than to be forgotten. Well, thought Ouranos, that is not entirely true. It is worse to be castrated by one’s own son and then forgotten. And so the gelded god crept out of the shadows to take his revenge.
Hera sucked in her breath as Herakles stepped off the end of the rainbow onto the pinnacle of Olympus. Beside him stood Atalanta, Jason and Theseus, the greatest heroes of the age. Behind him stood an army of Titans led by Kronos, who once sat upon the throne Herakles now sought. She had expected the mortal to at last meet his match. It had never occurred to her that the son of Zeus might overthrow his father, just as Zeus had overthrown Kronos and Kronos had overthrown Ouranos.
If Zeus fell like his father and grandfather before him, the queen of the gods would spend her days in the pits of Tartaros. What had she done?
The Uprising of the Heroes raged for days. Kronos and his Titans unleashed millennia of frustration upon the upstart Olympians. The younger gods fought back with the desperation of those who know the cost of defeat.
The Olympians struck first, and Kronos had been unable to protect his mortal allies against vengeful deities. Hermes split open Atalanta’s head with his winged staff. Artemis loosed an arrow into the heart of Jason. Just as Ares swung his sword at the head of Theseus, Poseidon deflected the blow with his trident. Even with the reign of the Olympians in peril, the sea god came to the defense of his son. But it was all for naught, as the mortal witch Medea snuck up behind Theseus and slid a dagger between the young hero’s ribs. With a howl of grief, Poseidon ran her through. But Poseidon had little time to wallow in his grief, for Iris flashed a rainbow into his face, and the sea-god tumbled blindly down the slope of Mount Olympus.
Kronos watched with some pride as the last mortal on the field, his grandson Herakles, held his own against gods. The gray-bearded warrior stood shoulder to shoulder with the Titans as they turned back the charge of the Olympians. In the first Titanomachy, Zeus had prevailed with the help of the Hekatonkheires, who now lay dead thanks to Herakles and his companions. The scales tipped back in the Titans’ favor.
As Kronos swung his sickle, and Herakles, his club, the two knocked the Olympians aside until they came upon the one they sought. Zeus stood between his father and his son with his fellow gods pinned down by Titans. Not even his thunderbolts could save him now.
Ouranos crawled to the summit of Mount Olympus. For the first time in eons, the Father of All Creation looked down upon his wife Gaia from his rightful place in the sky. Indeed, Ouranos was the sky. But even from this lofty perch, he could not stand tall. He hunched over, his hands covering that most shameful wound his son had inflicted upon him.
Titans and Olympians, his children and grandchildren, clashed all around him, but none noticed the stoop-shouldered being shuffling by. Ouranos was not what he once was, nor would he ever be again. A dickless deity cannot be the Sky-Father. And though he knew he could not regain his throne, his lust for vengeance drove him forward.
Herakles came at Zeus with a wild grin on his face. The hero did not fight with malice, only for the love of the challenge. And what a challenge this was! The king of the gods hurled a thunderbolt, which deflected off the impenetrable skin of the Nemean lion. With a swing of his club, Herakles sent his father reeling across the battlefield. Prometheus stuck out his leg, tripping the thunder-god. Kronos, father to Zeus and grandfather to Herakles, leapt atop his son’s prone figure and held a flint sickle to his neck.
“Yield!” cried Kronos to the one who had taken his throne.
Herakles pulled up short. Something was not right. Defeat showed on Zeus’s face, and the thunder-god would soon give up Olympus. But it was Kronos who looked to claim the victory, not his grandson. And the Oracle had promised Herakles’ friends would join him, yet their corpses lay behind him.
Zeus let out a sigh. Just as the words of concession reached his lips, Kronos screamed in pain. He toppled off of his son, clutching his groin. Behind him stood a white-haired Titan holding a bloody blade. Ouranos, the first ruler of the universe and Herakles’ great-grandfather, had exacted his revenge.
The thunder-god rose to his feet and stood beside Ouranos. Kronos writhed at their feet in the agony of castration. Herakles stood alone against two of the most powerful beings who ever existed.
Prometheus was a trickster all out of tricks. He dashed through the din to stand beside Herakles, who faltered against the might of his father. The Fire-Stealer did what he could to protect the hero, but the wrath of Zeus exploded all around them. The very air crackled with galvanism.
Kronos lay at the combatants’ feet, doubled over and weeping. Prometheus had never much liked his uncle—indeed he had helped Zeus overthrow Kronos in the Titanomachy—but pity filled his heart at the sight of the former King of the Heavens brought so very low. The Titans, who had been so near to victory, now fought without the one who had led them since the dawn of Creation.
But the battle was far from over. The power of the Titans matched that of the Olympians. And having spent half of eternity in Tartaros, the Titans knew well the cost of failure. The Titans rallied behind Prometheus and Herakles.
Zeus feared his rage would devour him as the Titans formed ranks behind his once-beloved son and the traitorous Fire-Stealer. Without a word, the Olympians did the same behind their king. But two Olympians were not there. For but a moment, Zeus reined in his thunder and into the sudden stillness he shouted, “My brothers, come to me!”
At the base of Mount Olympians, Poseidon rose from the crater his fall had created. He wiped the lingering starbursts from Iris’ rainbow from his eyes, took the form of a colt and raced up the mountainside.
And deep within the bowels of the earth, Hades heard his brother’s cry. He donned the Helm of Darkness and disappeared from sight. He then reached up into the soil above him until he found the roots of a great cypress and surged up through the tree and into the sunlit world far beyond his realm.
After ten years of war, Herakles lay atop a pile of charred rubble that had once been Mount Olympus. He and the Titans had fought well, but they could not withstand the thunder of Zeus, the earthquakes of Poseidon and Hades’ cold hand of death. The Uprising of the Heroes had ended.
Zeus stood with his foot across his son’s throat. The Thunderer’s rage had cooled to a soft rumbling in the distance. But Herakles had no doubt his punishment would be cruel beyond all imagining.
Zeus turned his head at the sound of laughter, and Hera stepped out of the haze.
“The mighty Herakles at last brought low,” she taunted. “Such a sight to see.”
Herakles swallowed as best he could under the heel of the Sky-Father. He forced himself to glare up at Hera’s laughing face. And as he read the look of victory in her eyes, it came to him.
“You did this,” Herakles croaked. “You wrought one last scheme against me, and this is the result.”
Hera’s eyes widened in mock surprise. “Why, such an outrageous accusation.”
A scowl formed on the lips of Zeus, and the distant rumbling grew louder.
“Look around you,” Herakles said. “You have your victory over me, but at what cost? Not a single animal or plant lives on this charred world.
“You are the Queen of Ash.”
Hera took a moment to savor the sight of Herakles in defeat before glancing around at the desolation that was Earth. The bastard is right, she thought. But she did not allow that fact to tarnish her victory. For she had a plan.
She then confessed to her husband that it was indeed she who was to blame for it all. After the storms of Zeus’ rage finally calmed, she offered a solution.
At Hera’s urging, Zeus summoned his father. The now-emasculated Kronos was about to return to the blackest pit of the Underworld.
“Husband,” she said to Zeus, “you have won this war, but in so doing, you have destroyed the very prize you sought to win.”
Thunder rumbled around them, signaling his agreement.
“Father,” she said, turning to Kronos, “you will soon return to Tartaros, but without that precious thing that made you my father.”
Kronos hissed at the painful truth of these words.
“It seems,” Hera went on, “that you both—not to mention the rest of us—were better off before this all began. If only . . .”
Hera trailed off to allow her prideful husband to think what followed was his idea.
And so Zeus invested Kronos, Father Time, with the power of Olympus. The Titan spun the world backwards to the time before the Uprising of the Heroes, when Kronos was imprisoned in Tartaros and whole of body, when Zeus ruled Olympus unchallenged, and when Herakles napped upon a human’s throne.
From high atop Mount Olympus, Hera saw the anger of Medea and the boredom of Herakles, and she decided to do nothing.
Matt Hlinak is the author of DoG (Rooster Republic 2011) and several works of short fiction. He is an administrator at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, and a book reviewer for Pop Mythology. He holds an MFA in fiction writing from Northwestern University, as well as a law degree from the University of Illinois.