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Prologue: A Dream of the Gods

‘Tell me, Muse, of that resourceful man, twisting and turning in the coiling arms of fate…’

—Homer, The Odyssey

I suffer from a recurring nightmare. In it I float above a great expanse, so vast my eyes can’t encompass it. At one and the same time it’s land and sea, mountains and woods and ocean; but it’s also skin, a thin coating over blood and flesh. Creatures crawl over it, lifting their eyes occasionally from their scuttling, earthbound lives to bleed their souls into the sky.

Great, translucent creatures float above, like massive, gossamer mosquitoes, and they drink the soul-blood, subsisting upon it. There are hundreds, even thousands of them, filling the skies and hissing when another draws close.

I’m one of them.

The creatures below send us their hopes, their dreams, their desires, their needs… a cacophonous outpouring of desperation – to live and conquer and understand; to be understood and comforted and forgiven. A great spewing of their soul’s blood. I barely listen as I guzzle it in, and nor do my kindred.

Those below are just ants – only we are truly alive.

But the feeding shapes us, ever-hungry as we are, and we become what we consume. Some of us morph into wind or water. Some attach to glowing stars and passing planets, orbiting in the void. Some cling like leeches to certain breeds of creature, feeding ever more intensely. Those prosper.

At times we flex our might and let the beetling creatures see us, and their awe grows. Those that feed deepest among us turn on their fellows. We war – we dominate or lose – and we herd the worshippers we’ve claimed like lion-shepherds.

They learn sounds and give us names, learn to use tools and how to sacrifice – to us.

Who am I?

I am fire. I am knowledge. I am among the great of my kind.

Time slows as it marches; the herds grow in complexity, and we grow with them. Our names change, so too our appearance and our behaviour. We learn how to negotiate, intimidate, compromise and betray.

I come to love my flock, and to loathe my kindred. I seek to elevate the former and emancipate them from the greed, the power-lust and cruelty of my own kind that holds them down… But my passion earns me the wrath of my kind, and they turn on me…

The dream ends in a dreadful place, a place of fire and smoke. I’m trapped in the body of one of my flock, screaming as the Great Ones – my kindred – close in, ripping at me like hawks devouring a vole. I can see them still, laughing in triumph as they claw me apart, gorging on my insides.

Zeus is there, his thunderous face drunk with gore. Proud Hera embraces him, relishing my fall.

Poseidon is there, bathing in the oceans of my blood.

Hades is there, his cold face gloating while his mad consort Persephone strokes his thigh, mocking me.

Ares hammers his nails through my wrists, to pin me, arms outstretched and feet dangling, to a rock for all eternity. Aphrodite sniggers, her luscious face alive with lust at the spectacle of my destruction. Hermes jeers as he pierces my side with his staff, and Dionysus toasts me with a chalice of my own heart blood.

Then Zeus becomes a massive eagle, tearing open my belly to feast once more, while his companions laugh…

… I burst screaming through smoke and fire, to wake with my heart hammering and my skin bathed in sweat. For long moments all I can do is lie in my bed, rigid with terror lest the winds outside are the beating of giant wings.

Gradually, the distant kiss of the waves on the shore slows my pulse, and my heart ceases to pummel my ribs. My throat unclenches and I can breathe again. Ithaca, my island home, lends me her calm.

My name is Odysseus. I’ve dreamt that dream since I was a small child. I’ve told myself over and again that it can’t be real. I’m a creature of reason, of rationality, a debunker of charlatan ‘seers’ that prey on fools in the port taverns. The gods are just primitive imaginings that we humans will someday outgrow.

But tomorrow, custom dictates that I set sail with my family to Pytho. At the age of twenty, I must stand before the great Pythia, there at the centre of the world, and she will judge my worthiness as heir to my father’s kingdom.

And maybe, I will finally put my nightmare to rest.

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