Contagion of the Gods

Sex, violence, and Greek gods—an epic fantasy in the vein of Gene Wolfe or Tim Powers. 

If Pythias reads the future in the sun one more time, he could go blind; instead, he uses detective skills to solve the problems of Golden Age Athens. Then two charming but ruthless princes engage in a titanic battle to become the next incarnation of Dionysus. The contagion of the gods is loose again. As a member of a secret society known as the Sons of Prometheus, Pythias must find a way to stop the demigods or the nations of the Mediterranean will be drawn into war. A witch and a horse-legged silenus guide them through the secrets behind the Greek legends in an odyssey that travels to the fabled island of the Gorgons and beyond.

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SAMPLE of Contagion of the Gods
Copyright 2012 Scott Rhine


The tombs by the entrance to Athens reminded Pythias that all his visions had ended badly. The mud-caked, thirteen-year-old orphan boy had been starving until the priest, Apollonius, found and renamed him.
Even in the flowering of spring, the Sacred Gate was hostile and formidable to a first-time visitor. The road led into the busiest, most crowded part of the city. People who saw the distinguished priest’s white mantle and golden, linen tunic parted the sea of commerce for him. With his brisk, determined stride, Apollonius dragged the boy past more shrines for honored city heroes and countless market stalls.
The boy’s eyes, the golden-brown color of dark mead, came to life when they passed into the shadow of a rocky outcropping. “That must be the biggest mountain in the world.”
Apollonius smiled. “That’s the Acropolis. We’re still repairing the damage from the last sacking; nonetheless, it inspires awe, boasting louder than words how indomitable the Athenian people are.” He had a rich speaking voice. Although he tended to lecture, he also showed kindness.
“They have a marketplace for everything: fish, pigs, wine, horses, olive oil, and even slaves.” Pythias saw more coins change hands in a single transaction than existed in the tiny fishing village of his birth.
“This is the Agora,” Apollonius proclaimed. “Here, one can find everything that makes Athens great.”
Yet even in the middle of the market, there were still more graves and shrines than trees. Captured Persian shields hung on display in a place his new guardian referred to as the Hall of Victories. Below, a man painted battle scenes on the wall in minute detail.
Then Pythias saw the fountain room. “People drink water that pours from the wall! This is amazing. Do all your homes hold such wonders?”
The priest laughed. “Just the public places.”
 This was the most the boy had spoken in the past week. The orphan was small for his age and spent more time staring at clouds than playing with other children. This, together with his quietness, led the people in the remote fishing village to believe the boy was an idiot. However, when Apollonius had paused in his public benediction, the boy had supplied the words from the year before. Declaring it a sign, the priest inducted him as an acolyte that day. “We have been sight-seeing long enough. It is time to take you to the temple and introduce you.”
Walking a short distance, Apollonius swept his hand toward a magnificent, round building made of honey-colored stone. The forest of columns and the massive statue of the god Apollo out front added to the grandeur. “Behold, the Temple of Apollo Patroos, the Ancestral Father of the Ionian people. From the Acropolis, the bronze roofing makes our temple look like the sun itself. We have ceremonies every sunrise and sunset for the priesthood.”
“What if it's raining? How do you know what time it is?” Pythias asked.
“There is a clock in the Metroon that runs on water. Before that, we used marked candles. Come inside, I am eager to present you.”
The interior of the temple, though vast, was much smaller than Pythias would have thought from its exterior. Apollonius led him into a back room, where three other priests were gathered. “Gentlemen,” he announced. “I have returned with a miracle.”
The three stopped their meal and stared while Apollonius continued. “We are all of divine heritage, sons of Apollo, but I bring into our brotherhood one who has inherited his Gift. This boy, whom we shall call Pythias, has the Sight.”
One gasped, one laughed, and the other choked on the bite he had been chewing. “I heard rumors in the outer townships of a boy who had seen the future. Since we needed an oracle in Athens, I went to investigate. When I discovered him, he was filled with wisdom beyond his years, and look into his eyes. He bears the mark.”
The laughing priest leaned close and stared. “He has a double-pupil in his left eye. How odd. That must mean the second sight. You have honored our city, Apollonius. You may now assume the role of high priest with our blessing.” Then he introduced the boy to all of them.
Pythias was too nervous to remember any of them except the one who glared in anger. The one called Theophrastos complained, “We don't have room for another priest.”
Apollonius shrugged. “Once he is trained, I intend for him to take over the small Oracular temple by the Ilissos, the Pythion. Until then, he can stay with me and my wife.”
“Just one minute. He might have poked the boy's eye with a stick and made up the rest. You're just going to give Apollonius the mantle I worked all these years for? No. There must be a test.”
Apollonius shook his head. “The boy is young and must be trained in the holy ways before he can assume the duties of oracle. We should not rush him.”
However, the others all agreed to the test, not because they cared about the petty jealousies of Theophrastos, but because deep inside they wanted to touch the fringe of the supernatural. Despite all their years serving the Sun god, not one of them had experienced the undeniable hand of the divine. “It's only fair,” they all reiterated.
Apollonius replied, “What would we ask? What supplicants in the last month have needed a soothsayer?”
After much consultation, the group decided to speak to the chief magistrate to see if there was a mystery they could resolve as a matter of civic service, a matter that only the gods would know. To demonstrate his piety, and because it couldn't hurt, the chief magistrate directed them to his hardest case of the week. “In the poor markets of the city, a certain Doric family has been making urns for years. All four brothers do their part. The youngest one digs the clay. The next one shapes them. The one after that bakes them and paints them. The oldest one, Philip, sells their wares in the Agora once a month, and they all split the money equally. Because the work is seasonal, the profit for two seasons must last their family the entire year. Well, after they sold the batch for this spring, some foreign thief followed Philip home. The criminal clubbed him over the head, and ran off with the money. Philip's wife saw the whole thing, but by the time the other brothers chased the foreigner down, he’d hidden their money where no one would find it. The pots he purchased here had already been claimed by his countrymen and filled with other merchandise, so we couldn’t seize them for the debt. We searched their ship and found no sign of the stolen coins.”
Apollonius stroked his narrow beard. “I see your quandary. The law of Drakon is quite clear in the case of homicide and theft. However, if you carry out the sentence without finding the money, the family will suffer. The boy and I will talk to this criminal in his cell. Perhaps we will be able to help.”
When the magistrate escorted them to the holding chambers, the guard said, “Talking won't do any good with that one. We've tried. If the filthy foreigner bothers either of you in any way, just say the word, and I'll let my club talk some sense into him.”
The small room stank, and the spindly, dark man in the corner of the room crouched like an animal. Apollonius tried to coax the man forth. “My good thief—”
The convicted criminal spat at Apollonius. “I not thief! Merchant thief.” The foreigner's accent was very thick and his speech filled with mistakes.
Apollonius shook a finger. “You were apprehended in the thieves' market. This of itself is enough to condemn you.”
“I need buy things cheap,” the man said indignantly. “All your prices too high. If you have place just for thieves to sell, why you not arrest them?”
“Because no one has complained about them. They didn't kill a member of anyone's family,” Apollonius explained.
“I not kill!” said the foreigner.
“Yet the wife identified you. You followed Philip, the urn merchant, home.”
The man nodded. “Yes. He sell me pot with crack. The wax hide it until I put it on my cart. Then I see and get very mad.”
“Mad enough to kill him?”
“No! I just want the money,” the prisoner said.
“And when he refused to give you the bread off his family's table, you used force. You hit him on the head and ran off with the money. Where did you hide it?”
“I not hit any man with bread. I go to house to get money back for bad pot. At door of house, naked lady scream at me. Crazy. Hit with (mumble). I run.” The foreigner was quite emotional about his assertions, but young Pythias had a far-away look in his eyes as if he were concentrating on something in the street beyond.
Apollonius shook his head. “You don't expect us to believe a fable like that?”
 “No, he's telling the truth,” the boy interrupted.
The priest's jaw dropped. “How can you tell?”
Pythias waved the question away. “My mother taught me how. But that's not important. Ask him again about what she hit him with. I couldn't understand him.”
When prompted to clarify, the prisoner pantomimed digging a hole in the floor.
“A spade,” announced Apollonius, and the man nodded.
Pythias thanked the man for his time, much to the puzzlement of the prisoner, and told his guardian, “I'm ready to go now.”
Once outside the prison, the priests clustered around him, abuzz. The laughing priest was delighted. “So now Apollo shows you where the treasure is buried. We give the proof to the magistrate, the man is executed, and the family will be saved.”
“Not necessarily,” said the boy.
“What's the matter? Can't scry the past? Or perhaps the man hid the money where the sun doesn't shine?” Theophrastos mocked. “This is your one chance; we won't pick another test.”
The boy ignored him and spoke to Apollonius. “If that poor man in there is telling the truth, then someone else is lying. I need to talk to the widow.”
“I might be able to arrange that if you can resolve this by sundown services,” said Apollonius.
Pythias spoke with a voice of confidence and rationality beyond his years. “I can't guarantee the help of the gods, but I'm pretty sure about people. This time, let me ask the questions, though.”
Apollonius chuckled as he acceded, placing the burden of failure solely on the boy’s shoulders. However, any success his prodigy achieved would be shared. This exchange set the tone for the rest of their relationship.
An hour later, they were in the widow's home seated on cushions. A court clerk, rented for the afternoon, had accompanied the group to give their claims legitimacy. Apollonius made polite conversation and performed introductions while Pythias watched the family. The widow was much younger than her former husband, and though veiled, was still pretty. She flirted subtly with every man in the room.
Uneasy, the woman agreed to cooperate with the young oracle. “I’ve already told the magistrates everything. Several of my neighbors supported me.”
“You left out some details,” said Pythias. “Why were you naked when the foreigner arrived at your door?”
Every man in the room bristled at the indignity, but the woman failed to blush. “A child like you wouldn’t understand what happens between a man and a woman.” The youngest brother had well-muscled arms from his labor and hovered over the widow protectively. At a word, the brothers would throw the priests and the court clerk out into the street. She was hoping to embarrass Pythias and make him retract his question, but he stood firm. “My husband came home from the market early that day, and he found me in the bedroom upstairs. My beloved was atop me when someone came through the door unexpectedly. The men exchanged cross words while I covered myself out of modesty. The last time I saw my husband alive, his face was ashen with a look of shock. Then he tumbled down the stairs to his death. After I found my husband dead, I was outraged and chased the foreigner out of my home.”
Everything she said was scrupulously true, but she was still hiding something. “So you never actually saw the foreign man strike your husband?”
“No,” she admitted, “but he’s just as dead. I didn’t need to see it happen.”
“Did you actually see the foreign man in your bedroom?” asked Pythias.
“Not clearly, but he was in the hall beside my husband. He was the only man who entered the house after my husband. My neighbors will swear. Who else could it have been? Whose side are you on?” The brothers moved their circle tighter around her.
“The truth—that is what you are seeking. Did you actually see the foreigner carry the money away?”
“No, but he admits that he came to our home to take it from my husband. The jury convicted him.”
Pythias stood. “The jury was wrong. The foreigner didn’t rob you. I’m going to the Pythion Temple of Apollo. There, the gods will reveal the money's hiding place as your family has asked. When we find the money, it will reveal who the real criminal is.”
The brothers, priests, and clerk all flocked behind Pythias as he left the house. Only the widow stayed behind, being too weakened by her grief to make the trip across the city. Not twenty strides from the door, Pythias pulled Apollonius aside and whispered. “Send a priest and the clerk to watch the widow. She’ll lead you to the true villain in this tale. Two impartial witnesses will be enough to force her confession later.”
“On what basis do you make this claim?” asked Apollonius.
“She didn't say there wasn't already a man in the house before her husband came home unexpectedly, and she never said her husband was the man she was making love to,” Pythias explained in private.
“I cannot trust the others. I will go myself. Will the scrying be a ruse?” asked Apollonius.
“No, it wouldn’t be a fair test otherwise. But if we want to catch the culprit in the act, you must watch the wife. An oracle's word alone is not enough to overturn the verdict of a jury.”
Apollonius excused himself to the others, claiming that he had to escort the clerk back to his office and didn't want the others thinking he was coaching the boy. Theophrastos led the way to the small shrine of Apollo. It had a large bronze statue out front, and the front path was overgrown with laurel. The message ‘KNOW THYSELF’ was chiseled in large letters across the front, but everyone ignored it in their haste to begin the ceremony.
“How does scrying work?” asked Theophrastos.
“I get in the proper mood, ask my question, and stare at the sun until I see a picture, or several. The picture will be a tableau that holds the answer to my question if I know how to interpret it.” The pressure made matters difficult, but Pythias forced himself to perform regardless. He knew the widow was guilty; this would be a mere formality.
The braziers were lit and Pythias breathed in the holy fumes. Under the intense scrutiny of the three surviving brothers of the victim and two priests, young Pythias eventually attained the proper state. Then, he walked to the front of the temple, aimed his head up, and opened his eyes. The images came faster than ever before, and he pulled back from their intensity. There was more the gods wanted to show him, but he could not maintain the contact.
“No! It wasn't supposed to end like that,” Pythias shouted as he covered his eyes. Even from this brief exposure, he had spots blocking his vision and needed to prop himself against a pillar to stand.
“What did you see?” demanded his audience.
“Something I wish I hadn’t. Your sister-in-law hid the money down a well. Your brother surprised her in the act of infidelity and, dumbfounded, fell backwards down the steps. No one would believe that she and her lover didn't kill him on purpose, so she hid the money to lend credence to the theft story. The poor foreigner was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Liar!” shouted the potter. “You saw no such thing.”
Pythias stumbled into the temple and sat down. “What I saw was the widow getting caught. Rather than reveal the partner in her adultery, she’ll throw herself down the well. It’ll happen very soon, if it hasn't already. In visions like this, it's always too late to stop the death.”
“We must try!” said one of the brothers, running from the temple. Soon, everyone except Theophrastos and the clay digger had abandoned Pythias.
At the doorway, Theophrastos asked, “Aren't you going?”
“No,” said the muscular brother. “I wanted to have a few words with the oracle.”
Pythias went cold inside. The shovel! “You were her partner. The two of you—” he began, frantically trying to blink the spots out of his eyes.
The digger punched him in the face so hard it broke his nose. What little sight he had regained was gone again as the blood began to flow. The adulterous brother looked up at Theophrastos and said, “What are you staring at?”
Theophrastos looked at the bleeding boy. “A smart-ass, little bastard who cost me my life's work. Don't worry. I'll leave you two alone. As long as he doesn't die, I'll swear you left with me. If he had just kept his mouth shut, the money and the woman would have been yours.” From the front steps, the departing priest said, “Think about this, Pythias, before you ruin another man's life.”
That's when the beating began in earnest.
An acolyte of Pankrates the Healer interrupted the criminal soon after or the damage might have been fatal. In spite of the healer's efforts, however, the boy's facial disfigurement was permanent.
Theophrastos disappeared from the city. The court threw the clay digger into the chasm on Nymph Hill for his crimes, and no matter how much the magistrates pleaded, Pythias never scried concerning legal matters again.

Chapter 1 – A Dangerous Customer

Pythias tried to convince his prospective client that he did not need an answer from the gods. “I have a talent, some say a gift, for scrying. Yet each time I look into the sun, my blindness lasts a little longer. Before my twenty-fifth birthday I shall be totally sightless. Then I will need to rely on my savings and the kindness of strangers.”
He led the client around the picturesque hill of the Muses above Athens. To one side sat the memorial tombs of visionaries and philosophers, and to the other lay the small Oracular temple he presided over—the Pythion. “But you know, sir, that strangers are rarely kind, and a blind man’s possessions are of little worth without loyal servants to guard them. The greatest joys of my present life are reading and the theater. For the rest of my life, I would need people to read to me and describe the world I’ve lost. Ask yourself, what answer could you possibly need that could induce me to suffer the intense pain, days of recovery, and ultimately sacrifice the only things I hold dear in this world?” Then he glanced over to see if his list of risks had any effect on the man.
However, Captain Marius of Naxos didn’t appear to be listening. Instead, he was staring at Pythias’ bent nose and cauliflower ear, the only features the bristly beard couldn’t hide. He seemed most fascinated by the double pupil of Pythias’ left eye, signifying the second sight—the gift of Apollo. Pythias knew he was ugly. In stark contrast, the young Marius was beautiful and charismatic, with a curly, blue-black mane and no sleeves on his shirt to better show off his rippling muscles. The shirt was woven with a rampant lion symbol on the front and a bull on the back. Oddly, Marius wore black leather gauntlets, each with seven bracelets of encircling metal. At his hip, he carried a coiled whip.
Ignoring the rude stare, Pythias continued, “If it’s about love, I care not for the leading of your loins—though you look to have no trouble in that regard. If it be war, I’ll not shorten my life just to help you shorten another’s. If it is about a trial, the gods made it clear that I should not meddle in matters of law. What could you, to whom fate has handed so much, ask of me that would be worth what I would lose?”
Marius hesitated before replying, “My life and the lives of my people. You’ve convinced me that you are a true seer. I’ve come to plead for your help.”
“Tell me more.”
“It’s highly sensitive. If I tell you, you must do the reading immediately.”
“If it is to be done at all, it should be done at the equinox two days hence atop the Acropolis. In addition to my price, you would need a sacrifice for Athena.”
“Pardon me, I’m new to this matter of prophecy. What has Athena to do with this?”
What Pythias neglected to tell his clients was that he had inherited his mother’s talent as a sooth-sayer. He could tell when people were lying to him. This man’s rich tones hid a lie like a stinking corpse. “Athena has little; her priests have everything. They require tribute. If this offends you, there are plenty of other fortune-tellers around.”
Marius frowned. “Charlatans and thieves all.”
“Was one of these thieves from the Temple of Poseidon?”
Marius’ cheeks darkened. “Yes. He took my money, did the reading, but refused to speak the augury.”
“Water can be temperamental to read. What did he give as his excuse?”
“When pressed, he said I was cursed.”
“So you killed him?”
Pythias stepped back. “Sir, don’t let your shadow touch mine. I want no part of your crimes.”
“I’ve been given a holy mission. If I don’t succeed in joining what’s been riven, my people shall be pushed into the sea, and our lush farm land salted. Our men shall be killed, and our women carried away as slaves.”
When this argument didn’t sway Pythias, Marius pulled out a scroll. The parchment was a land grant, a deed. “If you scry for me, Apollo will gain. My family has much land on the blessed island of Naxos. I’ll give this deed to your church to build a new temple for Apollo. Many sects would do much for this honor. There’s even room for a retirement cottage, and I’m sure the church would even agree to give you a portion of the offerings gathered there as thanks. Such a grant would enable you to live in comfort indefinitely.”
Pythias considered the seductive offer. “I’ll give you my answer tomorrow. Sometimes it’s not necessary to scry. Sometimes the gods answer a righteous man’s prayers.”
As he placed the deed back in its bone carrying tube, Marius smiled. “To be sure, I know little about righteousness or prayer, but I’ll visit the temple at sundown tomorrow.”

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