Pagan Passions

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Chapter 5

There was a tingle like a mild electric shock. Forrester opened his mouth and then closed it again as the tingle stopped, and the sense of falling simply died away. He had closed his eyes on the way into the curtain, and now he opened them again.

He closed them very quickly, counted to ten, and took a deep breath. Then he opened them to look at the room he was in.

It was unlike any room he had ever seen before. It didn't have the opulence of the High Priestess's rooms. I am a room, it seemed to say, and a room is what I was meant to be. I don't have to draw attention to myself like my poorer sisters. I am content merely to exist as the room of rooms, the very type and image of the Ideal Enclosure.

The floors and walk of the place seemed to blend into each other at odd angles. Forrester's eyes couldn't quite follow them or understand them, and judging the size of the room was out of the question. There was a golden wash of light filling the room, though it didn't seem to come from anywhere in particular. It was, in fact, as if the room itself were shining. Forrester blinked and rubbed his eyes. The light, or whatever it was, was changing color.

Gradually, he realized that it went on doing that. He wasn't sure that he liked it, but it was certainly different. The colors went from gold to pale rose to violet to blue, and so on, back to gold again, while little eddies and swirls of light sparkled into rainbows here and there.

Forrester began to feel dizzy again.

There were various objects standing around here and there in the room, but Forrester couldn't quite tell what they were. Even their sizes were difficult to judge, because of the shifting light and shape of the room itself. There was only one thing that seemed reasonably certain.

He was alone in the room.

Set in one wall was a square of light that didn't change color quite as much as everything else. Forrester judged it to be a window and headed for it. With his first step, he discovered something else about the place.

The carpeting was completely unique. Instead of fiber, the floor seemed to have been covered a foot deep with foam rubber. Forrester didn't exactly walk to the window; he bounced there. The sensation was almost enjoyable, he thought, when you got used to it. He wondered just how long it took to get used to it and settled on eighty years as a good first guess.

He stood in front of the window. He looked out.

He saw nothing but clouds and sky.

It took a long while for him to decide what to do next, and when he finally did come to a decision, it was the wrong one.

He looked down.

Below him there were tumbled rocks, ledges of ice and snow, clouds and—far, far below—the flat land of the Earth. He wanted to shut his eyes, but he couldn't. The whole vast stomach-churning panorama spread out beneath him endlessly. The people below, if there were any, weren't even big enough to be ants. They were completely invisible. Forrester took a deep breath and gripped the side ledges of the window.

And a voice behind him said: "Welcome, Mortal."

Forrester almost went through the window. But he managed to regain his balance and turn around, saying angrily: "Don't do that!" As the last of the words left his lips, he became aware of the smiling figure facing him.

She was standing in a spotlight, Forrester thought at first. Then he saw that the light was coming from the woman herself—or from her clothing. The dress she wore was a satinlike sheath that glowed with an aura even brighter than the room. Her blonde hair picked up the radiance and glowed, too, illuminating a face that was at once regal, inviting and passionate. It was, Forrester thought, a hell of a disturbing combination.

The cloth of the dress clung to her figure as if it wanted to. Forrester didn't blame it a bit; the dress showed off a figure that was not only beyond his wildest dreams, but a long way beyond what he had hitherto regarded as the bounds of possibility. From shoulder to toe, she was perfection.

This was also true of the woman from shoulder to crown.

Forrester gulped and, automatically, went on one knee.

"Please," he murmured. "Pardon me. I didn't mean—"

"Quite all right," the Goddess murmured. "I understand perfectly."

"But I—"

"Never mind all that now," Venus said, with just a hint of impatience. "Rise, William Forrester—or you who were William Forrester."

Forrester rose. Sweat was pouring down his face. He made no effort to wipe it away. "Were?" he asked, dazed. "But that's my name!"

"It was," Venus said, in the same calm tone. "Henceforth, your name is Dionysus."

Forrester took a while to remember to swallow. "Dionysus?" he said at last.

There was another silence.

Forrester, feeling that perhaps his first question could use some amplification, said: "Dionysus? Bacchus? You mean me?"

"Quite right," Venus said. "That will be your name, and you'd better begin getting used to it."

"Now wait a minute!" he said. "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but something occurs to me. I mean, it's the first thing I thought of, and I'm probably wrong, but just let me ask the questions, if you don't mind, and maybe some of this will make some sense. Because just a few hours ago I was doing very nicely on my own and I—"

"What are your questions?" Venus said.

Forrester swayed. "Dionysus/Bacchus himself," he said. "Won't he mind my—"

Venus laughed. "Mind your using his name? My goodness, no."

"But—"

"It's all because of the orgies," Venus said.

Everything, he told himself, was getting just a little too much for him. "Orgies?" he said.

Venus nodded. "You see, there are all those orgies held in his honor. You know about those, of course."

"Sure I do," Forrester said, watching everything narrowly. In just a few seconds, he told himself hopefully, the whole room would vanish and he would be in a nice, peaceful insane asylum.

"Well, it isn't impossible for a God to be at all the orgies held in his honor," Venus said. "Naturally not. But, at the same time, they are all rather boring—for a God, I mean. And that's why you're here," she finished.

Forrester said: "Oh." And then he said: "Oh?" The room hadn't disappeared yet, but he was willing to give it time.

"Dionysus," Venus said patiently, as if she were explaining the matter to a small and rather ugly child, "gets tired of appearing at the orgies. He wants someone to take his place."

The silence after that sentence was a very long one. Forrester could think of nothing to say but: "Me?"

"You will be raised to the status of Godling," Venus said. "You remember Hercules and Achilles, don't you?"

"Never met them," Forrester said vacantly.

"Naturally," Venus said. "They were, however, ancient heroes, raised to the status of Godling, just as you yourself will be. However, you will not be honored or worshipped under your own name."

Forrester nodded. "Naturally," he said, wondering what he was talking about. There was, he realized, the possibility that he was not insane after all, but he didn't want to think about that. It was much too painful.

"You will receive instructions in the use of certain powers," Venus said. "These will enable you to perform your new duties."

Duties.

The word carried a strange connotation. Dionysus/Bacchus was the God of wine, among other things, and women and song had been thrown in as an afterthought. The duties of a stand-in for a God like that sounded just a little bit overwhelming.

"These—duties," he said. "Will they be temporary or permanent?"

"Well," Venus said, "that depends." She smiled at him sweetly.

"Depends?"

"So far," Venus said, "our testing shows that you are capable of handling certain of the duties to be entrusted to you. But, for the rest, everything depends on your own talents and devotion."

"Ah," Forrester said, and then: "Testing?"

"You don't suppose that we would pick a mortal for an important job like this without making certain that he was capable of doing the job, do you?"

"Frankly," Forrester said, "I haven't got around to supposing anything yet."

Venus smiled again. "We have tested you," she said, "and so far you appear perfectly capable of exercising your powers."

Forrester blinked. "Exercising?"

"Exactly. As a street brawler, for instance, you do exceptionally well."

"As a—"

"How does your face feel?" she asked.

"My what?" Forrester said. "Oh. Face. Fine. Street brawls, you said?"

"I did," Venus said. "My goodness, the way you bashed that one bruiser with your drink—that was really excellent. As a matter of fact, I feel it incumbent on me to tell you that I haven't enjoyed a fight so much in years."

Wondering whether he should be complimented or just a little ashamed of himself, Forrester said nothing at all. The idea that he had been under the personal supervision of Aphrodite herself bothered him more than he could say. The brawl was the first thing that came to mind. It didn't seem like the sort of thing a Goddess of Love ought to have been watching.

And then he thought of the High Priestess.

He felt a blush creeping up around his collar, and was thankful only that it was not visible under the tan of his skin. He remembered who had ordered the sacrificial rites, and thought bitterly and guiltily about spectator sports.

But his face remained perfectly calm.

"So far," Venus said, "I must say that you have come through with flying colors. You should be proud of yourself."

Forrester didn't feel exactly proud. He wanted to crawl into a hole and die there.

"Well," he said, "I—"

"But there is more," Aphrodite said.

"More?"

The idea didn't sound attractive. In spite of what one of the tests had involved, the notion of any more tests was just a little fatiguing. Besides, Forrester was not at all sure that he would be at his best, when he knew that dispassionate observers were chronicling his technique and his every movement.

How much more, he wondered, could he take?

And, he reflected, how much more of what?

"We must be certain," Aphrodite said, "that you can prove yourself worthy of the dignity of a Godling."

"Ah," Forrester said cleverly. "So there are going to be more tests?"

"There are," Venus said. "After all, you will be expected to act as the alter persona of Dionysus. That involves responsibilities almost beyond the ken of a mortal."

Wine, Forrester thought wildly, women and song.

He wondered if he were going to be asked to sing something. He couldn't remember anything except the Star Spangled Banner and an exceptionally silly rhyme from his childhood. Neither of them seemed just right for the occasion.

"You must learn to behave as a true God," Venus said. "And we must know whether you are fitted for the part."

Forrester nodded. The one thing keeping him sane, he reflected, was the hope of insanity. But the room was still there, and Venus was standing near him, talking quietly away.

"Thus," she said, "there must be further tests, so that we may be sure of your capacities."

Capacities? Just what was that supposed to mean? "I see," he lied. "And suppose I fail?"

"Fail?"

"Suppose I don't live up to expectations," Forrester said.

"Well, then," Venus declared, "I'm afraid the Gods might be angry with you."

Forrester had no doubt whatever as to the meaning of the words. Either he lived up to expectations or he didn't live at all. The Gods' anger was not a small affair, and it seldom satisfied itself with small results. When a God got angry with you, you simply hoped the result would be quick. You didn't really dare hope it would also be temporary.

Forrester passed a hand over his forehead. If he had been doing his own picking, he thought a little sadly, the job of tryout stand-in for Dionysus was not the job he would have chosen. But then, the choice wasn't his, and it never had been. It was the Gods who had picked him.

Unfortunately, if he failed, the mistake wouldn't be laid at the door of the Gods. It would be laid at the door of William Forrester, together with a nice, big, black funeral wreath.

But it didn't sound too bad at that, he told himself hopefully. After all, it wasn't every day that a man was offered the job of stand-in for a God, not every day that a man was offered the chance of passing a lot of strenuous and embarrassing tests, and dying if he failed.

He told himself sternly to look on the positive side, but all he could think of was the succession of tests still to come. What would they be like? How could he ever pass them all? What would be thought necessary to establish a man as a first-rate double for Dionysus?

Looks, he thought, were obviously the first thing, and he certainly had those. For a second he almost wished he could see Ed Symes and apologize for getting mad when Ed had told him he looked like Bacchus.

But then, he reflected, he didn't want to go too far. The idea of apologizing to Ed Symes, no matter who his sister was, made Forrester's gorge rise about five and a half feet.

"However," Aphrodite went on, as if she had just thought of something too unimportant to bother mentioning, "don't worry about it. My father's thunderbolt needn't concern you. I have every confidence that you will prove yourself."

She smiled radiantly at him.

The idea occurred to Forrester that she just didn't think that a mortal's mortality was important. But the idea didn't stay long. Being reassured by a Goddess, he told himself confusedly, was very reassuring.

Venus was looking him up and down speculatively, and Forrester suddenly thought a new test was coming. A little gentle sweat began to break out on his forehead again, but his face stayed calm. He took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on gathering strength. The High Priestess had been something special but, Forrester thought, she had not really called out his all. Venus was clearly another matter.

But Venus said only: "Those clothes," in a considering sort of tone.

"Clothes?" Forrester said, trying to readjust in a hurry.

"You certainly can't go in those clothes. Hera would object quite violently, I'm afraid. She's awfully stuffy about such things."

The intimate details about the Gods intrigued Forrester. "Stuffy? Hera?"

"Confidentially," Venus said, "at times, the All-Mother can be an absolute bitch."

She went over to one of the light-swirled walls, and a part of the light seemed to fade as she did so. Of course, she did nothing so crude as opening a door. When she started for the wall there was no closet apparent there, but when she arrived it was there, solid, and open.

It was just that simple.

She took out a white robe and started back. Forrester took his eyes from her with an effort and watched the closet disappear again. By the time she had reached him, it was only a part of the swirling wall again.

And the hospital attendants were nowhere in sight.

She handed Forrester the robe. He took it warily, but it seemed real enough. At any rate, it was as real as anything else that was happening to him, he thought.

It was a simple tunic, cut in the style of the ancient Greek chiton, and open at one side instead of the front. Forrester turned it in his hands. At the waist and shoulder there was a golden clasp to hold it in place. The clasp wasn't figured in any special way. The material itself was odd: it was an almost fluorescent white and, though it was perfectly opaque, it was thinner than any paper Forrester had ever seen in public. It almost didn't seem to be there when he rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger.

"Well, don't just stand there," Venus said. "Get started."

"Started?" Forrester said.

"Get dressed. The others are waiting for you."

"Others?"

But she didn't answer. Forrester looked frantically around the room for anything that looked even remotely like a dressing room. As a last resort, he was willing to settle for a screen. No room, no screen. He was willing to settle for a chair he could crouch behind. There was none.

He looked hopefully at the Goddess. Perhaps, he thought, she would leave while he dressed. She showed no sign of doing so. He cleared his throat and jerked at his collar nervously.

"Now, now," Venus said sternly. "Don't tell me the presence of your Goddess embarrasses you." She raised her head imperiously. "Hurry it up."

Very slowly, he began taking off his clothes. There was, after all, nothing to be ashamed of, he told himself. As a matter of fact, Venus ought to be getting used to the sight of him undressing by this time.

Somehow, he finally managed to get the chiton on straight. Venus looked him over and nodded her approval.

"Come along now," she said. "They're waiting for us. And one thing: don't get nervous, for Hera's sake. You're all right."

"Oh," Forrester said. "Sure. Perfectly all right. Right as rain."

"Well, you are. As a matter of fact, I think you'll make a fine Dionysus."

She led him toward a wall opposite where the closet had been. As they approached it, a section of it became bluer and bluer. With a sinking feeling, Forrester told himself that he knew what was coming.

He did. The wall dissolved into the shimmering blue haze of a Veil of Heaven, just like the one that had transported him from New York to his present position. Where that was, he wasn't entirely sure, but remembering his one look out the window, he suspected it was Mount Olympus.

But there wasn't any time for thinking. Venus took his hand coolly as they reached the blue haze. Then both of them stepped through.

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