Pagan Passions

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Chapter 11

The Great God Dionysus, Lord of the Vine, Ruler of the Revels, Master of the Planting and the Harvest, Bestower of the Golden Touch, Overseer of the Poor, Comforter of the Worker and Patron of the Drunkard, sat silently in a cheap bar on Lower Third Avenue, New York, slowly imbibing his seventh brandy-and-soda. It tasted anything but satisfactory as it went down; he preferred vodka or even gin, but after all, he asked himself, if a God couldn't be loyal to his own products, then who could?

He was dressed in an inexpensive brown suit, and his face did not look like that of Dionysus, or even of William Forrester. Though neatly turned out, he looked a little like an out-of-work bookkeeper. But it was obvious that he hadn't been out of work for very long.

Hell of a note, he thought, when a God has to skulk in some cheap bar just because some other God has it in for him.

But that, unfortunately, was the way Mars was. It didn't matter to him that none of what happened had been Forrester's fault. In the first place, Forrester hadn't known that the girl at the Bacchanal had been Venus until it was much too late for apologies. In the second place, he hadn't even picked her; he'd kept his promise not to use his powers on the spinning figure of Mr. Bottle Symes. But Venus had made no such promise. Venus had rigged the game.

But try explaining that to Mars.

He didn't seem to mind what went on at the Revels of Aphrodite—being Goddess of Love was her line of work, and even Mars appeared to recognize that much. But he didn't like the idea of any extracurricular work, especially with other Gods. And if anything occurred, he, Mars, was sure damned well going to find out about it and see that something was done about it, yes, sir.

Forrester finished his drink and stared at the empty glass. It had all begun on the day of his Final Investiture, and he had gone through every event in memory, over and over. Why, he didn't know. But it was something to do while he hid.

It hadn't been anywhere near as simple as the Investiture he had gone through to become a demi-God. All fourteen of the other Gods had been there this time; a simple quorum wasn't enough. Pluto, with his dead-black, light-absorbent skin casting a shade of gloom about him, had slouched into the Court of the Gods, looking at everybody and everything with lackluster eyes. Poseidon/Neptune had come in more briskly, smelling of fish, his skin pale green and glistening wet, his fingers and toes webbed and his eyes bulging and wide. Phoebus Apollo had strolled in, looking authentically like a Greek God, face and figure unbelievably perfect, and a pleased, stupid smile spread all over his countenance. Hermes/Mercury, slim and wily, with a foxy face and quick movements, had slipped in silently. And all the others had been there, too. Mars looked grim, but when Forrester was formally proposed for Godhood, Mars made no objection.

The entire Pantheon had then gone single-file through a Veil of Heaven to a room Forrester just couldn't remember fully. At the time, his eyes simply refused to make sense out of the place. Now, of course, he understood why: it didn't really exist in the space-time framework he was used to. Instead, it was partially a four-dimensional pseudo-manifold superimposed on normal space. If not perfectly simple, at least the explanation made matters rational rather than supernatural. But, at the time, everything seemed to take place in a chaotic dream world where infinite distance and the space next to him seemed one and the same. He knew then why Diana had told him that the word "machine" could not describe the Gods' power source.

He had been seated there in the dream room. But it wasn't exactly sitting; every spatial configuration took on strange properties in that pseudo-space, and he seemed to float in a place that had neither dimension nor direction. The other Gods had all seemed to be sitting in front of him, all together and all at once—yet, at the same time, each had been separate and distinct from the others.

He wanted to close his eyes, but he had been warned against doing that. Grimly, he kept them open.

And then the indescribable began to happen. It was as though every nerve in his body had been indissolubly linked to the great source of God-power. It was pure, hellish torture, and at the same time it was the most exquisite pleasure he had ever known. He could not imagine how long it went on—but, eventually, it ended.

He was Dionysus/Bacchus.

And then it had been over, and a banquet had been held in his honor, a celebration for the new God. Everyone seemed to enjoy the occasion, and Forrester himself had been feeling pretty good until Mars, smiling a smile that only touched his lips and left his eyes as cold and hard as anything Forrester had ever seen, had come up to him and said softly:

"All right, Dionysus. You're a God now. I didn't touch you before because we needed you. And I don't intend to kill you now; replacements are too hard to find. I'm only going to beat you—to within an inch of your damned immortal life. Just remember that, buster."

And then, the smile still set on his face, he had turned and swaggered away.

Forrester had thought of Vulcan.

Mars wasn't a killer, in spite of his bully-boy tactics. He had too good a military mind to discipline a valuable man to death. But he was more than willing to go as near to that point as possible, if he thought it justified. And what he allowed as justification resided in a code all his own.

"Right" was what was good for Mars. "Wrong" was what disturbed him. That was the code, as simple, as black and white, as you could ask for. Vulcan was one of the results.

Vulcan had been Venus' lawful husband, as far as the laws of the Gods went. That didn't matter to Mars—when he wanted Venus. He had thrashed Vulcan, and the beating had left permanent damage.

The damage was translated into Vulcan's limp. Any God's ability to heal himself through the machine's power was dependent on the God's own mentality and outlook. And Vulcan had never been able to cure his limp; the psychic punishment had been too great.

Forrester ordered another drink and tried to think about something else. The prospect of a fight with Mars was sometimes a little too much for him to handle.

The drink arrived and he sipped at it vacantly, thinking back to Diana and her story of the Gods.

There was one hole in it—a hole big enough to toss Mount Olympus through, he realized. Where had the Gods gone for three thousand years? And how had they gotten to Earth in the first place?

Those two unanswered questions were enough to convince Forrester that, in spite of all he knew, and in spite of the way his new viewpoint had turned his universe upside down in a matter of hours, he still didn't have the whole story. He had to find it—even more so, now, as he began to realize that the human race deserved more than just the "security" and "happiness" that the Gods could give them. It deserved independence, and the chance to make or mar its own future. Protection was all very well for the infancy of a race, but man was growing up now. Man needed to make his own world.

The Gods had no place in that world, Forrester saw. He had to find the answers to all of his questions—and now he thought he knew a way to do it.

"Want another, buddy?"

The bartender's voice roused Forrester from his reverie. He had absent-mindedly finished brandy-and-soda number eight.

"Okay," Forrester said. "Sure." He handed the bartender a ten-dollar bill and got a kind of wry pleasure out of seeing the picture of Dionysus on its face. "Let's have another, but more brandy and less soda this time."

The drink was brought and he sipped at it, looking like any ordinary citizen taking on a small load, but tuned to every fluctuation in the energy levels around him, waiting.

Only a God, he knew, could hurt another God, and even then it took plenty of power to do it. Actually to kill a God required the combined efforts of more than one, under normal circumstances—though one, properly equipped and with some luck, could manage it. As far as his own situation was concerned, Forrester was prepared for a deadly assault from Mars. Maybe Mars didn't intend to kill him, but being maimed for centuries, like Vulcan, was nothing to look forward to, and it was just as well to be on the safe side. Just in case the God of War had managed to get one or two other Gods on his side, Forrester had talked to Diana and Venus, and had their agreement to step in on his side if things got rough, or if Mars tried to pull anything underhanded.

And any minute now… .

Suddenly Forrester felt a disturbance in the energy flow around him. Somewhere behind him, invisible to the mortals who occupied the bar, a Veil of Heaven was beginning to form.

With a fraction of a second, Forrester was forming his own. But this time he took a little longer than he had before.

It wasn't the first time he'd had to run. For over a month now, he had been jumping from place to place, all over the world. He had gone to Hong Kong first. When Mars had traced him there and made a grab for him, Forrester had made a quick jump, via Veil, to Durban, South Africa. It had taken Mars all of forty-eight hours to find Forrester hiding in the native quarter, wearing the persona of a Negro laborer. But again Forrester had disappeared, this time reappearing in Lima, Peru.

And so it had gone for five full weeks, with Forrester keeping barely one jump ahead of the God of War.

And, in that month, he had achieved two important things.

First, he had begun to make Mars a little overconfident. By now Mars was fully convinced that Forrester was nothing but a coward, and he was absolutely certain that he could beat the newcomer easily, if he could only come to grips with him.

Second, Forrester had discovered that Mars' basic reflexes were a trifle slower than his own.

If Mars had been able to form his own Veil and step through it in time to sense the last fading glimmers of Forrester's Veil, he would have been able to follow immediately. Instead, he had to go to all the trouble of finding Forrester over and over again. That meant slower reflexes—and that, Forrester thought, might just give him the edge he needed.

But this time, Forrester was going to let Mars follow him—slow reflexes and all. This time, he waited that extra fraction of a second—and then stepped through the Veil.

He was in the middle of a great rain forest. Around him towered trees whose great trunks reached up to a leafy sky. The place was dark; little sunlight came through the roof of leaves and curling vines. A bird screamed somewhere in the distance, sounding like a lost soul in agony; the sound was repeated, and then there was silence.

Forrester was exactly where he had intended to be: in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

He had time for one look around. Then Mars stepped out of a shimmering Veil only yards away from where Forrester was standing. Immediately, Forrester felt Mars throw out a suppressor field that would keep him from forming another Veil. He did the same thing. Now, as long as both held their respective fields, neither could leave.

"Greetings," Forrester said.

The bird screamed again. Mars ignored it.

"You're just a little too slow," he said, grinning. "And now, buster, you're going to get it—and get it good."

"Who?" Forrester said. "Me?"

Mars hissed his breath in and fired a blast of blue-white energy that would have drilled through a foot of armor plate. But Forrester blocked it; the splatter of free energy struck at the nearby trees, sending them crashing to the ground. A small blaze started.

Forrester followed the blow with one of his own, but Mars parried quickly. A few more little fires began in the vicinity. Then Mars bellowed and charged.

By the time he reached the spot where Forrester had been, Forrester was fifty feet in the air, standing with his arms folded and looking down in an interested manner.

"You ought to watch out," he said. "You might stumble into a Venus Flycatcher down there. I mean besides the one you've got already."

Mars' mouth dropped open. He gave vent to an inarticulate roar of rage and leaped into the air. As he rose toward Forrester, the defender closed his eyes and changed shape. He became a rock and dropped. He bounced off Mars' rising forehead with a great noise.

Mars roared and dived for the stone—and found himself holding a large, angry tiger.

But an old trick like that didn't fool Mars. Tiger-Forrester, suddenly finding himself fighting with another tiger as ferocious as himself, began clawing and biting his way free in a frenzy of panic. He managed to make it just long enough to become a stone again, dropping toward the Earth.

For a moment, the other tiger seemed uncertain. Then, catching sight of the falling stone, he became an eagle, and went after it with a scream, claws outstretched and a glitter of hatred in the slitted eyes.

Forrester reached the ground first. The eagle braked madly, trying to escape a giant Kodiak bear. Forrester stood on his hind legs and battered the air with great, murderous paws. Mars scooted upward, already changing into something capable of coping with the bear. A huge, bat-winged dragon, breathing barrels of smoke, flapped in the air, looking all around for its opponent. It did not notice Forrester scurrying away in the shape of an ant through the leaves and thick humus of the jungle floor.

By now, the air was becoming smoky and the flames were licking up the sides of trees all through the vicinity, and racing along the giant vines that curled around them. The dragon belched more smoke, adding to the general confusion, and roared in a voice like thunder:

"Coward! Dionysus! Come out and fight!"

There was an instant of crackling silence.

Then Forrester stepped out from behind a blazing tree. He, too, was a dragon.

Mars snarled, breathed smoke and made a power dive. Forrester dodged and the fangs of the monster missed him by inches. Mars sank claw-deep into the ground, and Forrester slammed the War God on the side of his head with one mighty forepaw. Mars blew out a cloud of evil-smelling smoke and managed to jerk himself free. He leaped to all four feet, glaring at Forrester with great, bulging, hate-filled eyes.

"Man to man, you bastard!" he said in a flame-filled roar.

Forrester leaped back to avoid being scorched. He poured out some smoke of his own. Mars coughed.

"Damn it, no more shape-changing!" the War God thundered.

"Fair enough!" Forrester shouted. He changed back to his Dionysian form, circling warily until Mars had followed suit. Then the two began to close in slowly.

Around them the forest burned, vegetation even on the swampy ground catching fire as the entire vicinity crackled and hissed with heat. Neither of them seemed to take any notice of the fact.

Mars was a trained boxer and wrestler, Forrester knew. But it was probably a good many centuries since he'd had any real workouts, and Forrester was counting heavily on slowed-down reflexes. Those would give him a slight edge.

At any rate, he hoped so.

The circling ceased as Mars leaped forward suddenly and lashed out with a right to the jaw that could end the fight. But Forrester moved his head aside just in time and the fist glanced off his cheek. He staggered back just as Mars followed with a left jab to the belly.

Forrester clamped down on the War God's wrist and twisted violently, pulling Mars on past him. The War God, caught off balance, lunged forward, tripping over his own feet, and almost fell as he went by. Forrester, grinning savagely, brought his right hand down on the back of Mars' neck with a blow whose force would have killed an elephant outright.

Mars, however, was no mere elephant. He grunted and went down on his hands and knees, shaking his head groggily. But he wasn't out. Not quite.

Forrester doubled up his fist as Mars tried to rise, and came down again with all the force he could muster, squarely on his opponent's neck.

There was a satisfyingly loud crack, audible, even in the roar of the burning forest. Mars collapsed to the ground, smothering small fires beneath his bulk. Forrester leaped on top of him and grabbed his head, beard with one hand and hair with the other. He twisted and the War God screamed in agony. Forrester relaxed the pressure.

"All right, now," he said through clenched teeth. "Your neck's broken, and all I've got to do is twist enough to sever your spinal column. You'll be crippled for as long as Vulcan has—maybe longer."

Mars shrieked again. "I yield! I yield!"

Forrester held on. "Not just yet you don't," he said grimly. "I want some information, and I'm going to get it out of you if I have to wring them out vertebra by vertebra."

Mars tried to buck. Forrester twisted again and the War God subsided, breathing hard. At last he muttered: "What do you want to know?"

"Why did you and the other Gods leave Earth for three thousand years? And where did you come from in the first place? I want the real reason, chum." He applied a little pressure, just as a reminder.

"I'll tell you!" Mars screamed. "I'll tell you!"

And as the roaring flames crackled in the Amazon forest, the agonized Mars began to talk.

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