Read by Tom Sellwood
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Being a Greek god is not all it once was. Yes, the twelve gods of Olympus are alive and well in the twenty-first century, but they are crammed together in a London townhouse—and none too happy about it. And they've had to get day jobs: Artemis as a dog-walker, Apollo as a TV psychic, Aphrodite as a phone sex operator, Dionysus as a DJ.
Even more disturbingly, their powers are waning, and even turning mortals into trees—a favorite pastime of Apollo's—is sapping their vital reserves of strength.
Soon, what begins as a minor squabble between Aphrodite and Apollo escalates into an epic battle of wills. Two perplexed humans, Alice and Neil, who are caught in the crossfire, must fear not only for their own lives, but for the survival of humankind. Nothing less than a true act of heroism is needed—but can these two decidedly ordinary people replicate the feats of the mythical heroes and save the world?
ONE MORNING, WHEN Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be.
The tree was standing alone in a sheltered part of the slope. To the untrained eye, the casual passerby, it probably just looked like a normal tree. But Artemis's eye was far from untrained, and she ran through this part of Hampstead Heath every day. This tree was a newcomer; it had not been there yesterday. And with just one glance Artemis recognized that it was an entirely new species, a type of eucalyptus that had also not existed yesterday. It was a tree that should not exist at all.
Dragging the mutts behind her, Artemis made her way over to the tree. She touched its bark and felt it breathing. She pressed her ear against the trunk of the tree and listened to its heartbeat. Then she looked around. Good; it was early, and there was nobody within earshot. She reminded herself not to get angry with the tree, that it wasn't the tree's fault. Then she spoke.
"Hello," she said.
There was a long silence.
"Hello," said Artemis again.
"Are you talking to me?" said the tree. It had a faint Australian accent.
"Yes," said Artemis. "I am Artemis." If the tree experienced any recognition, it didn't show it. "I'm the goddess of hunting and chastity," said Artemis.
Another silence. Then the tree said, "I'm Kate. I work in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs."
"Do you know what happened to you, Kate?" said Artemis.
The longest silence of all. Artemis was just about to repeat the question when the tree replied.
"I think I've turned into a tree," it said.
"Yes," said Artemis. "You have."
"Thank God for that," said the tree. "I thought I was going mad." Then the tree seemed to reconsider this. "Actually," it said, "I think I would rather be mad." Then, with hope in its voice: "Are you sure I haven't gone mad?"
"I'm sure," said Artemis. "You're a tree. A eucalyptus. Subgenus of mallee. Variegated leaves."
"Oh," said the tree.
"Sorry," said Artemis.
"But with variegated leaves?"
"Yes," said Artemis. "Green and yellow."
The tree seemed pleased. "Oh well, there's that to be grateful for," it said.
"That's the spirit," Artemis reassured it.
"So," said the tree in a more conversational tone. "You're the goddess of hunting and chastity then?"
"Yes," said Artemis. "And of the moon, and several other things. Artemis." She put a little emphasis on her name. It still hurt when mortals didn't know it.
"I didn't know there was a goddess of hunting and chastity and the moon," confessed the tree. "I thought there was just the one God. Of everything. Or actually, to be honest, I thought there was no God at all. No offense."
"None taken," said Artemis. Unbelievers were always preferable to heretics.
"I have to say you don't look much like a goddess, though," added the tree.
"And what does a goddess look like, exactly?" said Artemis, a sharpness entering her voice.
"I don't know," said the tree, a little nervously. "Shouldn't you be wearing a toga or something? Or a laurel wreath?"
"You mean, not a tracksuit," said Artemis.
"Pretty much," admitted the tree.
"Times change," said Artemis. "Right now, you don't look like somebody who works in mergers and acquisitions for Goldman Sachs." Her voice indicated that the clothing conversation was closed.
"I still can't get over the fact that you're a goddess," said the tree after a pause. "Wow. Yesterday I wouldn't have believed it. Today . . ." The tree gave an almost imperceptible shrug, rustling its leaves. Then it seemed to think for a bit. "So does that mean, if you're a goddess," it said, "that you can turn me back into a person?"
Artemis had been expecting this question.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but I can't."
"Why not?" said the tree.
The tree sounded so despondent that she couldn't bring herself to reply, as planned, Because I don't want to. "A god can't undo what another god has done," she found herself saying instead, much to her own surprise. She hated admitting any kind of weakness, especially to a mortal.
"You mean that guy was a god too? The one who . . . did this. Well, I suppose it's obvious now. I kind of hoped he might be a hypnotist."
"No, he was a god," said Artemis.
"Um," said the tree. "Could you do something about that red setter? I don't really like the way it's sniffing around me."
Artemis pulled the idiot dog away.
"Sorry," she said. "So what happened exactly?"
"I was just taking a walk yesterday and this guy came up to talk to me—"
"Tall?" said Artemis. "Blond? Almost impossibly handsome?"
"That's the one," said the tree.
"What did he say?" said Artemis.
The bark on the tree seemed to shift slightly, as if the tree were making a face.
"I, um . . ."
"What did he say?" Artemis asked again, allowing a hint of command to enter her voice.
"He said, 'Hello. Do you want to give me a blow job?' "
A blow job. Why did people do these things to each other? Artemis felt faintly sick.
"I said no," continued the tree, "and then he said, 'Are you sure, because you look like you'd be good at it and I think you'd really enjoy it.' "
"I'm very sorry," said Artemis, "about my brother. If it were up to me he would not be allowed outside unsupervised."
"He's your brother?"
"My twin. It's . . . unfortunate."
"Well, anyway, I just walked off, and he followed me, and I got a bit scared and I started running, and then the next thing I knew . . . here I am."
Artemis shook her head. "This isn't the first time something like this has happened," she said. "Rest assured, we will be having words about it."
"And then he'll turn me back?"
"Absolutely," lied Artemis.
"No need to tell my family back home what happened, then," said the tree. "Good. Maybe I should call in sick at work though. I can't really go in like this. I had my phone with me; it should be around here somewhere. Could you dial my boss's number and hold the phone to my trunk?"
"Mortals aren't going to be able to understand you, I'm afraid," said Artemis. "Just gods. And other vegetation. I wouldn't bother talking to the grass, though. It isn't very bright."
"Oh," said the tree. "Okay." Artemis gave the tree time to absorb this information. "Why aren't I more upset about this?" it said eventually. "If you'd told me yesterday that I was going to be turned into a tree, I'm sure I'd have been really, really upset."
"You're a tree now, not a human mortal," explained Artemis. "You don't really have emotions anymore. I think you'll be much happier this way. And you'll live longer, unless it gets very windy."
"Except your brother's going to turn me back."
"Of course he is," said Artemis. "Right, then. I'd best be getting on. I've got to get these dogs back to . . . my friends."
"It was nice meeting you," said the tree.
"Likewise," said Artemis. "Bye, then. See you soon. Maybe."
The pleasant look on her face vaporized before her back was even fully turned. The dogs saw her expression and whimpered as one. But they had nothing to fear from Artemis. It was time to go home and find Apollo.
THERE WAS A time, thought Apollo, thrusting rhythmically, when sneaking an illicit bathroom shag with Aphrodite would have been exciting. He scrutinized her as she leaned away from him against the peeling back wall, one dainty foot up on the stained toilet cistern, her toenail polish the only paint in here that was perfectly applied. She was exquisite. He couldn't deny that. Simply the most beautiful sort-of woman ever to have sort-of lived, though Helen of the ship-launching face had given her a run for her money. Eyes (thrust), hair (thrust), mouth (thrust), skin (thrust), breasts (thrust), legs (thrust)—he could not fault an inch of her. Though this was hardly an achievement on her part. She was the goddess of beauty, after all. But still, thought Apollo, sublime as she was, did she have to look so . . . well . . . bored? True, Apollo was so bored of Aphrodite that he could almost scream. His pride, however, demanded that she not feel the same way.
"Right, I'm turning around," announced Aphrodite.
"Okay," said Apollo. At least he wouldn't have to look at that passively indifferent face any longer.
Aphrodite detached herself from him and turned so that she was facing the wall. She arched her back, pointed the flawless ivory spheres of her buttocks at her nephew, and supported herself against the wall with her slender, elegant hands. Apollo reengaged himself and resumed thrusting. Looking down at the back of her head, her glossy black hair curling down over the alabaster slope of her shoulders, he could almost imagine that he was screwing Catherine Zeta-Jones. He wondered whether he could persuade Aphrodite to speak to him in Welsh. Just for the novelty. Anything for some novelty.
Apollo wanted out. Out of Aphrodite, out of this bathroom, out of this house, and out of this life. He was sick of London. The family had moved there in 1665, when the plague was keeping property prices rock bottom and before the destruction of the great fire sent them spiraling upward again. This had been a typically canny piece of financial engineering by his half sister Athena, the goddess of wisdom. At the time, though, he had foreseen that they would never actually be able to sell the house that they had bought so craftily, and he had tried to warn the rest of the family, but they hadn't listened. It was true that he had been known to lie about his predictions just to get his own way, and everyone knew that he didn't want to move to London in the first place, but even so, this time he had been right, and he'd known it from the start. It was putting the property in Zeus's name; that had been the problem. But even he could not have foreseen what would happen to Zeus.
"I was thinking of redecorating my room," said Aphrodite, interrupting his thoughts.
"Again?" said Apollo.
"I could do with a change," said Aphrodite. "I'm sure Heppy won't mind."
Heppy was Hephaestus, god of smiths and Aphrodite's husband, as hideous as she was beautiful. Treated with contempt by the rest of the family, he nevertheless did all the refurbishment and repairs in the house. As they had been living in the same place for more than three hundred years, that was a lot of refurbishment and repairs. Even so, in Apollo's opinion, he could have done with spending more time on things like patching up this damp, crumbling, leaking bathroom, which would be in the interests of the entire household, and less on adding further unnecessary levels of luxury to their bedroom every time Aphrodite had one of her increasingly frequent whims.
"So what are you going to do this time?" he asked her. "More gold leaf? Hang some diamonds off the chandelier? Get rid of the roses at last?"
Aphrodite looked sharply at him over her shoulder. Even her glare was calculated to be sexy.
"There's nothing wrong with roses," she snapped. "No, I just thought I would change them from red to pink again." She turned back to the wall, picked up a passing cockroach, and crushed it between her thumb and forefinger. "Do that more slowly," she said.
Apollo obediently changed pace. He thought of his thousands and thousands of years of living with Aphrodite, thousands gone and thousands yet to come—and that was the best-case scenario. And she never changed. Never, ever. But sex with Aphrodite was better than no sex at all. And none of the other gods would sleep with him. If only he could get a decent mortal lover, someone like one of his old lovers in Greece or Rome, who worshipped him and everything he did . . . but he refused to let his thoughts stray in that direction. It was too depressing. Things had all been so much easier in the years that they were now obliged to refer to as BC.
There was a knock at the door, a distinctive grumbling thumping like the falling of distant bombs. It could only be Ares, god of war: Apollo's half brother, roommate, and, gallingly, Aphrodite's favorite lover. Apollo paused midthrust.
"Can you get a move on in there?" came Ares's voice. "I've got a Start the War demo this morning, and I need a shave."
"Bugger off," shouted Apollo, resuming his activity. "I got here first, you'll just have to wait."
"Oh, let him in," drawled Aphrodite from beneath him. "He can join us. It'll be fun."
"Didn't you hear him?" said Apollo. "He's going out. He doesn't have time for you."
"Everybody has time for me," said Aphrodite.
This was almost certainly true. But Apollo felt no need to be sexually outclassed by his brother.
"This bathroom is first come, first served," said Apollo primly. "If Ares doesn't like it he can get Hephaestus to build another one. It would be about bloody time that he did. And your frigging new wallpaper can just wait."
"Okay, I'm done now." Aphrodite orgasmed quickly and tidily, and removed herself from Apollo.
"I hadn't finished!" protested Apollo.
"Well, you should have been nicer to me then."
Aphrodite stepped over to the cracked enamel bath and switched the shower attachment on as Apollo watched his tumescence disappear. He limped over to the sink and splashed cold water onto his genitals. Aphrodite had no respect for him. Glancing at himself in the moldy mirror above the basin, he wondered whether she might think more of him if he had a tattoo.
"I don't believe it," said Aphrodite.
"I was just thinking about it," said Apollo. "I wasn't actually going to—"
Aphrodite spoke over him. "There's no hot water. Again!"
She marched over to the door and opened it, sticking her head out into the cold, empty stairwell. "Who used up all the hot water?" she yelled. There was no reply. She pulled her head back in and slammed the door.
"I hate this family," she said.
"The feeling is mutual," said Apollo.
Aphrodite spun around. Apollo was expecting her to bite his head off—possibly literally—but instead, unexpectedly, she had one of her best smiles on her face, the one that looked like dry land to a drowning man, like water in the desert, the one she saved for only the most special of occasions or, rarer yet, for times when she was genuinely happy. It had been perfected over the centuries to be irresistible. She wants something, thought Apollo slowly and numbly, but the words refused to take meaning in his head.
"Apollo, darling," said Aphrodite, her eyes suddenly shining with what Apollo couldn't help but think must surely be unfeigned warmth, "seeing as we've just had such a lovely time together, I don't suppose you could just use a teensy bit of your power to heat up a tiny little bit of water for me? Just enough for a quick, quick shower. You've made me so"—and she trailed a delicate finger down between her breasts—"sweaty."
Apollo blinked twice and swallowed. He told his penis sternly to stay where it was. He waited until he was quite sure that his body and mouth would obey his brain, and then he said, with all the nonchalance he could muster, "Sorry, but no."
"Please, darling," said Aphrodite. "I'd do it myself, but you've worn me out. You could join me if you like." She stepped closer to him, gazing up at him from beneath the undulating black of her lashes.
Apollo looked down at the ground. "The answer is still no," he forced himself to say. "If you want hot water, use your own power."
"Suit your fucking self," said Aphrodite, dropping the smile like a cold, dead fish, and she stepped beneath the icy beam of the shower, pulling the curtain shut behind her with the sharp rattle of a snake.
It was the wrong decision and Apollo knew it. According to everything he'd heard about the place, hell had no fury like Aphrodite scorned. Improbably, though, he felt slightly cheered. Her revenge would be swift and no doubt deadly, but at least it would pass the time.
ONCE ARTEMIS HAD returned all of the dogs to their ungrateful owners and accepted her derisory pay, she did not, as was her usual habit, return to the park to catch some squirrels, but instead headed straight for home.
She paused outside the front door. The once-glossy black paint was peeling off in long, jagged streaks, and the knocker, in the shape of a laurel wreath, was so tarnished that it was impossible to tell what kind of metal it had been originally. Artemis always waited a few moments on the doorstep before heading inside, to shrug off the disdainful world and regain her rightful stature. And also because it was the last peace and quiet she was going to be getting for a while.
This time, before she had even opened the door she could feel the elephantine stamp of a heavy beat reverberating in her chest. She pushed into the house against the tidal wave of music and forced her way down the front hall into the kitchen at the back of the house. Her half brother Dionysus had set up his decks at the kitchen table. Beside him on the floor was a stack of records, and in front of him an empty bottle of wine and another that was a fair way gone. Dionysus was busy cueing up another record, headphones on, a blissful smile upon his goatlike face.
Behind him, Athena was shouting. She was barely audible above the music.
"Have you any understanding of the duties other members of the household are performing at this hour?" she screamed. "I am undertaking a groundbreaking research initiative in the upper rooms! The amount of noise that you are producing is rendering that task impossible! I would move that your so-called hedonism is merely a mask for deep selfishness!" Athena was getting so agitated that her glasses had steamed up. She didn't actually need glasses, but she wore ones with plain lenses in order to enhance her air of wisdom.
"Has either of you seen Apollo?" said Artemis.
Dionysus carried on mixing (or perhaps scratching—Artemis didn't know the difference). Athena carried on screaming.
"My research is not performed just for the pleasure of it! It is undertaken for the good of the entire deistic community! Including yours, you pickled lump of goat meat!"
Artemis left them to it and surfed the wave of beats back down the hall and into the living room at the front of the house. All of the sofas and chairs in there were torn or broken, so Ares was sitting on a cushion in front of the rickety coffee table, his maps and charts spread out before him, a pair of calipers in his hand. His brow was furrowed; he appeared to be performing some complex calculation. He didn't look up as Artemis came in.
"You need a shave," said Artemis, standing in the doorway.
"Mmm," said Ares, without turning his head. "This war on terror isn't producing enough casualties. Bringing in Iran is the obvious choice, but I don't think they've got enough firepower yet. I wonder if I could somehow antagonize Japan?"
"Have you seen Apollo?" said Artemis.
"Bathroom," said Ares. "Tell him to get a move on. I need a shave."
"Yes, I just said that," said Artemis.
"There's always Russia," said Ares, "but they've been harder to provoke since the end of the Cold War. Why are mortals so hung up on peace?" He shuffled through his papers. "Or maybe it's time to broaden out some of the African civil wars?"
Artemis slammed the door and went upstairs to the landing, where Hephaestus had installed the bathroom in what had been Athena's old study—a decision that had not gone down very well with Athena. Artemis didn't knock. Artemis never knocked. She merely kicked the door open and swept inside.
Apollo was naked and sitting, legs mercifully crossed, on the toilet seat, painting his fingernails with clear polish. Before Artemis could speak to him, though, the shower curtain was yanked aside to reveal Aphrodite, glistening wet and smiling a serpent's grin.
"Shut the door, would you?" she said. "You're letting in a terrible draft. Look, my nipples are all erect." She fingered one as if testing a cherry for ripeness.
Artemis refused to rise to the bait. She knew that Aphrodite delighted in trying to shock her. Instead, she grabbed a towel from the rail and threw it to her aunt.
"Wrap yourself up, then," she said.
Aphrodite caught the towel and coiled it around her hair. Artemis turned away from her and faced her twin.
"I need to have a word with you, Apollo," she said. "Is now a good time?"
"No," said Apollo.
"Good," said Artemis. "I was out running on the Heath today, and guess what I found?"
"Two men rogering each other in the bushes?" suggested Aphrodite, who was now perched on the edge of the bath.
Artemis suppressed a shudder. "I wasn't aware that I'd invited you to join this conversation," she said.
"You didn't," said Aphrodite.
"Apollo," said Artemis. "Any suggestions of your own?"
"Not a clue," Apollo said, but he looked a little pale. He knew what was coming, and he rather hoped that he was wrong.
"Allow me to jog your memory," said Artemis. "Does the name Kate mean anything to you?"
Apollo was genuinely surprised. "It doesn't, no," he said.
"Typical," said Artemis. "That makes it even worse. Kate is the Australian mortal that you turned into a tree yesterday."
Apollo's face went from pale to white. He looked like a statue of himself.
"You did what?" said Aphrodite, rising to her feet. If anything, she sounded even angrier than Artemis felt.
"I . . . ," said Apollo. "I . . ."
"You wouldn't heat up so much as a cupful of water for me, and yet you were willing to waste gallons of your power on transmogrifying some stupid mortal slut?"
"She wasn't a slut," said Artemis. "Not with him anyway. I think that was the problem."
Artemis and Aphrodite shared a rare, complicit laugh. It was the final straw for Apollo, who leaped up.
"It's none of your business what I do with my power!"
"Actually," said Artemis, "I think you'll find that it is. It's all of our business." She stalked over to the bathroom window and yanked up the blind. "Did the sun come up today?" she said, squinting outward. "I think it did. Lucky for you." She closed the blind again and turned. "Did it come up on time though, or maybe it was slightly late? Is it shining as brightly as it usually does? Is it as warm as it should be? I'm not so sure. Maybe the sun is fading. Maybe it's going out. Because the god who's supposed to be in charge of it is too busy throwing away what's left of his power on inventing a humanoid species of eucalyptus to do his job."
"Don't be such a hypocrite," said Apollo. "What about you? They've just banned hunting in this country, you know. And chastity? What kind of an outdated concept is that? It doesn't sound to me as if you're using your power where you're supposed to. Or maybe you're the one who's got none left."
"That's not fair," said Artemis, her eyes appealing to Aphrodite to back her up.
"Two words, Apollo," said Aphrodite to her nephew. "Global warming."
"Don't you start," said Apollo, spinning to face her. "Goddess of beauty? That's going very well, isn't it? Aren't you aware that there's an obesity epidemic sweeping this planet at the moment? Is that what you call beautiful?"
"The difference between us," said Artemis, "is that Aphrodite and I don't go around willfully wasting our power on unnecessary procedures just because some mortal won't let us . . . let us . . ."
"Stick it in her," finished Aphrodite helpfully.
"You mean you don't get caught," said Apollo.
"You," said Artemis, ignoring his comment, "are going to take an oath that you're not going to do anything like this ever again. No more squandering your power turning mortals into trees or anything else like that."
"An oath on Styx," added Aphrodite. Oaths sworn on the river Styx were absolutely binding for gods, which was why they hated taking them so much.
"That's not fair," said Apollo. "You have no right to make me swear an oath. I won't do it."
"Fine," said Artemis. "I'll just call the rest of the family in here and tell them what you've been up to. Then we can decide democratically what to do about it. If you really think you'll get a better deal from them—"
"No, no," said Apollo, "don't do that. There really isn't any need for anyone else to know."
"So make the oath," said Artemis.
"Hang on, no," said Apollo. "You're not making sense, you can't just make me swear an oath like that. None of us know what's going to happen in the future."
"Not even you?" said Aphrodite.
"Athena might come up with something to make us powerful again," Apollo continued. "And what is the point of being powerful if you can't use your power to do whatever you like?"
"Until Athena figures out a way to turn back time, we are stuck with the power that we've got, and when that's used up . . . ," said Artemis.
Beside her, Aphrodite's lovely face turned ashen at the thought.
"Face it, Apollo, we're getting old," Artemis said. "You can't just go around using up all your power on frivolities. You won't have any left. And we need you. We can't run the world without the sun. You have to cooperate."
"So I'll cooperate," said Apollo. He made a move to go.
"That's not good enough," said Artemis. "I need a guarantee."
"Which means you have to swear on Styx." Aphrodite smiled.
They were between Apollo and the door. He knew that both were stubborn enough to wait there for years, if need be.
"So what do you want me to swear?" he said eventually.
Artemis took a few moments, then announced gravely: "Apollo, you must take an oath on Styx that you will not use your power unnecessarily until such a time when our strength is regained."
"Wait a second," said Apollo.
"I'm not swearing that. It's a totally disproportionate restriction of my abilities. We don't know what Styx is going to define as unnecessary. She's a river. There isn't a huge amount that's necessary to her."
"He has a point," said Aphrodite. "All she does is flow."
"Okay," said Artemis, "this is what we'll do. You'll have to swear not to use your power to harm mortals unless we get our power back."
"No," said Apollo. "That's not fair either. I might need to harm mortals. Sometimes it's important, you know that, you've had enough men torn into tiny pieces for watching you get undressed."
"True," admitted Artemis.
"Plus, you said yourself we might never get our power back, and I don't think you have the right to make me swear to do anything that could last forever. All I did was turn one little mortal into a tree. This is getting totally out of proportion. Harming mortals is fun. We've all done it."
"You still deserve to be punished," said Aphrodite. "Artemis, he still has to swear something."
"I agree." Artemis thought carefully, then said, "Right. You will swear not to harm any mortals unnecessarily for a century or until we get our power back, whichever is sooner."
"A year," said Apollo.
"A decade," said Aphrodite.
"Done," said Artemis.
Apollo looked sulky, but he knew that he had no choice.
"I swear that—" he said.
"On Styx," Aphrodite reminded him.
Damn. "I swear, on Styx,
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