For the tenth time that day, Jeanie swept up the mess of the other gods. Without as much as a sigh, she wielded her broom with true command, and watched as the chunks of glass, twisted metal, and broken laurel wreaths behaved as she shepherded them into a corner.
Once upon a time she used to moan that if only the gods could clean up after themselves, there would be no more problems in the entire universe. She knew it was an impossible dream, however. Two solid eons of being a cleaner had taught her that.
Still, at least it was work. In these hard economic times, when true belief amongst the human population was about as rare as diamond-studded gold, you had to do what work was given to you.
"The offices on the third floor need scrubbing," mumbled Jerry, one of the other cleaning gods as he whistled his way down the corridor. Jerry always whistled while he worked. If he didn't have a mop or broom that he could lean against casually, he'd have his two large hands stuffed into the pockets of his overalls. He'd probably seen it in a movie, she'd often thought. The exact twist to his head, his casual demeanor, the melodious tune of his whistling. Jerry had modeled himself on what he thought the humans imagined a cleaner should look and behave like. He wouldn't be alone.
Since the events of Ragnarok, and the massive upheavals it had caused in the divine world, things had changed around here. Old systems had crumbled. While that might sound good, it left divine beings with a heck of a lot of self-searching to do. It was clear that myths had been lost, remodeled, changed, swapped, and plain old forgotten since the beginning of time, and it had opened the doors to a sweeping away of tradition.
Jerry was no longer a god of cleaning. If he wanted to be, he could specialize and be a god of whistling while he walked and cleaned, or he could generalize and be a god of anything that could be swept away. The point was, as long as he found a vein of belief as they were being called – some area of human interest and passion where devotion could still sustain him – then Jerry could reinvent himself all he wanted.
It was a strange time, to say the least. Reinventing the gods aside, it also meant that where once everyone had had their place, now every god and goddess worth their laurel wreath and toga was scrambling for the big positions. Gods of radishes had designs on being gods of the whole damn garden patch. A god of a slight breeze didn't want to ruffle leaves anymore; he wanted to call storms down from the heavens with the power to create a new world in their wake.
Jeanie sighed, leaned down, picked up the torn and tattered edges of what looked like it was once a decent toga, and stuffed them in her pocket. She could use the rag to clean the windows down on the first floor, she reasoned. There had been a colossal fight in one of the main waiting areas downstairs when some enlightened fool had decided to gather all the potential war gods together and tell them that, "Sorry, guys, but with the current flow in war-belief, we can only sustain ten of you." Suffice to say, every budding Thor and Mars had snatched up every possible weapon and shown how much war was in that room, thank you very much.
Jeanie wasn't prone to sighing. She was prone to doing. But today, and for the last couple of days, she'd been sighing. Ragnarok may not have been the death of the gods – which was a good thing – but it sure had brought a lot of mess.
There was a crash from farther along the corridor. It was followed by a quick series of what could only be described as wallops, then a triumphant cry. Out of one of the side rooms burst a figure dressed from head to foot in billowing capes (yes, more than one – because more capes only added more power), a luridly bright laurel wreath, and a strange combination of a stretchy toga that seemed somehow to descend into tights. The figure rushed past Jerry who raised an eyebrow and changed the tone of his whistling.
"They'll believe in me," the rushing figure proclaimed, a manic grin spreading across his face.
At first Jeanie had no idea what she looked at as she turned to watch the curious sight fly down the corridor and down, presumably, to the great glass stairs that would take him back to Earth. As she watched the collection of capes ruffle out behind him as he skidded his way along, her mind filled in the blanks. Superhero. The poor fellow was trying to be the god of superheroes, that or the god of more than one cape. Considering the current human interest in superheroes, she could guess it was the former.
Jerry gave a light chuckle as he walked over to the door the budding superhero-god had dashed from, and whipped out his screw driver to bolt it back into place. "I hope it works out for the lad," he mumbled into the chipped wood.
Jeanie blinked then shook her head slowly.
Was this what the gods had come to? She could imagine that god, whoever he'd once been, had shown up to the Integration Office that morning with a stack of applications for various dream jobs – like lightning god, money god, good-times god, and the like – only to be rejected for all of them. In an act of desperation, he would have ferreted himself away in some broom cupboard, hacking away at his usual garb until he'd Jerry-rigged up something suitably superhero. When it came to god logic, as long as you looked and acted the part, you were the part.
"Stop shaking your head, Jeanie. At least the lad is trying." Jerry went back to whistling as he finished fixing the door.
Trying for what?
Why bother changing yourself just because you can?
Jeanie had thought it over many times, but still couldn't figure out a good enough answer. The thing about being a cleaner god, 24/7, was that she had a lot of time to think. She'd played over the events of the Ragnarok-that-wasn't many times, and each time she couldn't understand how the world had become the way it had today. Each and every god was acting as if the final battle was over, as if from now on everything would be changed for the better, full stop. No more effort. No more wars. No more self-discoveries.
Jeanie knew a thing or two about beginnings, or at least she liked to think she did, and the starting line was never that close to the finish.
Jerry straightened up, sniffed sharply at the air like a hunting dog tasting a scent, then pointed with a slice of his arm down the corridor. "Smells like we've got a rollicker of a mess down near one of the processing centers."
She nodded. "I'm onto it."
By the time she'd made it there, broom swinging over her shoulder as her wad of keys rustled in her pocket, sending a tinkling jangle wherever she walked, Jeanie saw what Jerry had been on about. The processing center – a huge, cavernous room in the old style of a Greek temple, with everything in carved marble – was a complete wreck. Actual pillars had been knocked down, with chunks of marble scattered everywhere. Statues that had once depicted the old, intricately carved, toga-clad forms of some of the more popular gods, were ruined.
She leaned down as she crossed the threshold of the door, and picked up what looked like it was the left cheek of Mars. Instinctively, she shook her head.
A massive chunk of stone suddenly struck the door frame above her, and she ducked with a snap. Broom still in hand, keys jangling madly, she twisted to the side and plunged down to her knees as she narrowly dodged the crumbling missile. Rather than shouting at whatever godly lout had thrown it, she twisted her head to check on the door. If there was one thing that irritated her more than anything else, it was damage to buildings. Beyond that, specifically to doors. It irked her so badly whenever one of those brutes of uncontrollable godly rage would crash through doors, gates, and passageways, damaging them beyond repair. Did the giant louts not understand that a door destroyed was an option obliterated?
Angry, but controlled, Jeanie crouched low and swung her head back to the main event. Two giant, giant gods were having a battle right in the middle of the room. They crashed through pillars, pushed each other into any remaining statues, and generally heaved and cried with great, stupid menace.
If Jeanie were any other cleaning goddess, she'd stand by and watch until the cleaning could start. A true cleaning god or goddess wouldn't care who was making the mess or why, they'd be glad for the life-sustaining work.
Not Jeanie. They'd almost ruined that door.
Standing up, she wielded her broom in an arc, somewhat like Saturn might have wielded his scythe. She half-marched, half-menaced her way into the throng. "Stop right there—" she began to cry. Before she could finish her admonishment, another, far deeper, far more authoritative voice sprang out from behind her.
"Thor, what the hell are you doing?!" the voice echoed, no – vibrated – through the entire building.
In an instant, one of the brutes pulled away. As he did, Jeanie recognized Thor. Only seriously tough gods could pull off long, golden locks while still maintaining their macho allure.
As he turned her way, the expression on Thor's face turned from one of war-like passion, to one of brow-beaten admonishment.
Thor stared past Jeanie and looked like he'd just been sprung.
Jeanie turned her head, watching as Dione stalked through the door, hands held into tight fists.
"Details, come, I was doing my job," Thor managed, voice choppy. "It falls upon my shoulders to ensure the protection of this establishment—"
Dione let her mouth drop slowly, then she swept a hand out around her. "Who's going to clean this up, my champion?"
Thor grinned, teeth somehow glinting like diamonds under full sun. "A cleaner god?" he suggested automatically. He laid eyes on Jeanie, and gestured her way. "What luck, here one is now."
Dione slid her eyes sideways, looking at Jeanie for a moment. "No," Dione said, "You're going to clean it up. Others shouldn't have to pay for your—"
Thor, in an instant that seemed to somehow hint at eternity, took one step towards Dione and turned into Zeus. It was a seamless, strange shift. In one instant a different man stood in the same body. If Jeanie had been the kind of goddess to be impressed by the antics of the divinities around her, she would have raised an eyebrow at that display of power.
She was more concerned about her doorway.
"I was doing my job, my love. Our visitor is not welcome." Zeus shifted his head to the side as he walked over to Dione, hands outstretched in pleading.
Dione didn't slap at his hands, and nor did she pull away as Zeus planted a hand on her shoulder and leaned in to give her a kiss.
"And who is our visitor?" she asked through a tight breath, though she was becoming measurably calmer.
As if in answer, the brute, who had spent the entire conversation with his back turned to them, twisted his head slowly to the side.
Dione's eyes narrowed. "Atlas," she said after a slow pause.
He was huge. Of course he was huge. He was freaking Atlas.
Since Ragnarok, Jeanie had seen her fair share of powerful gods. She'd also seen a number of lost gods pop up from legend. When change was promised, you could never predict who would herald the call.
This was something special – even Jeanie could tell that. Atlas was old – ancient, even. He was from the war that had led Zeus to the ascendency of the Greek pantheon. The Titan War. One of the first battles of the gods.
Dione, to her credit, seemed to keep it together, but Jeanie could tell she was surprised. Zeus, for his part, didn't move a hand off her shoulder, but whether it was to placate or protect her, Jeanie couldn't tell.
"A Titan," Dione said the words quietly.
Atlas seemed to shift at the soft call. His nose twitched up, his fingers moving into a fist.
Whether it was a sign of aggravated, growing aggression, wasn't clear.
In an instant, Zeus turned back into Thor – his fighting form of choice – and twisted Mjollnir up onto one shoulder. "You aren't welcome here, Titan," Thor rumbled, voice bottoming so low on the word titan that the remaining pillars in the room gave a grave shake.
Atlas didn't attack, but suffice to say he stood in such a way that the battle seemed to seep through his pores. He was large, literally titanic, though his form didn't have that squished, odd look that human body builders got after too many steroids. From his shoulders, to his neck, to his powerful torso and legs, his body looked precisely like a powerful, but proportioned Greek statue. He wore nothing more than a toga that was cut at one shoulder, and every line of every muscle was visible underneath. His dark, curly hair sat close and compact along his skull, with a matching ray of stubble over his chin and under his lip. His eyes, slate grey like the sky before a storm, blazed at the world with all the ferocity of molten lava.
Jeanie had only seen pictures of Atlas, and those had usually been the stylized human renditions. They'd all depicted him with the world on his back, body bent forward as he alone took the burden of propping the heavens away from the Earth. Of keeping the two realms separate so the sky didn't fall to the Earth. The man, the god, the Titan – he was a new sight. It was in the way his eyes blazed with frightful reckoning, the way his form was one of the most powerful Jeanie had witnessed.
With several surprised blinks of her own, Jeanie realized that, for once, she was interested in the happenings of the divinities around her. She didn't deliberately distance herself from her fellow gods; she was just too busy to find the time to care. There was always so much to clean. The others didn't appreciate that. They didn't realize that if the great glass stairway wasn't oiled with the balm of stars every single day, it would lose its shine and no god or goddess would be able to navigate down to Earth without tripping over and landing in a pile of broken divine ankles at the bottom.
And that was just the staircase.
Jeanie's true calling was to polish, file, oil, and fix locks. She was the godly equivalent of a locksmith, overly fond of doors, brooms, and never fond of fights.
Yet here she was, riveted to the spot as she watched a legend come to life before her. For Atlas was a legend. No one had seen him since the War of the Titans, most assuming that he was up on some remote mountain somewhere, back straining as he kept the sky afloat.
"You have left your post," Thor growled at Atlas, menace obvious as it seemed that Mjollnir itself wanted to spring free from his grip and punish the Titan on its own.
"Post?" Atlas rumbled, and he really did rumble. His every word sounded like an avalanche cascading over some great, rocky outcrop. His eyes shifted and tightened at every syllable.
"You know. You have a duty—" Thor began.
"I have a punishment."
Thor growled, Dione placing a flat hand on his chest and shaking her head. "We'll deal with this together," she snapped. "Atlas," she said in a no-nonsense tone, "Why have you come here?"
Atlas considered Dione coldly. He let his eyes drift up and down her figure, from her ice-white bun to the human skirt and blouse she always wore. At the obvious move, Thor stepped forward, a whole range of what could only be described as angry colors glinting off his helmet and chest plate.
"Thor," Dione warned again, "He's trying to stir you up."
Atlas moved, letting his head slowly arch down to the side as he repositioned his feet on the marble. Despite the colossal, powerful nature of his form, the floor didn't shake at his move.
"I have come here," Atlas rumbled, "For the same thing that everyone else has come for."
There was silence at that.
Dione blinked. "What might that be?" she asked, crossing her arms in front of her, her expression unmoved. "If it is to redecorate my Processing Room, then your task is done and you can jolly well go home and study interior design, for all I care."
Atlas curled his lips. It was neither overtly menacing, nor overtly kind. It was somewhere in between.
For some strange reason, Jeanie found herself holding onto her broom with a far harder, far more sweat-slicked grip.
"I have come to seek my destiny, goddess," Atlas concluded, eyes slowly gazing around the room, as if he were looking for his future through the very rubble and dust. Those slate-gray blazing eyes locked on Jeanie before they wandered off again.
Dione looked lost. Since Ragnarok it had been made clear, by her own actions, that gods and goddesses could break free from the limits of their myths. Thor/Zeus/Jupiter had changed. With a myth like his, it spoke volumes about what others could do. The current day was meant to be a time of freedom. But could Atlas – an angry, powerful relic from the past – adapt to this new future?
Thor arched his shoulders up. "You wish to seek your destiny, Titan?" he demanded in a voice that sounded far less like the sleazy, warring god of his past, and far more like the Deus that was always underneath. "Why now?"
Atlas appeared to watch the shift in Thor with great interest, his eyes following Thor's every movement with a keenness that belayed an intelligence your usual brutish titan wouldn't require to crush, smash, and conquer.
"Now is the only time," Atlas said as he rested back, "And now is good enough."
Dione looked up at her husband, her bottom lip puckered as she chewed on it softly. "We did change the rules after Ragnarok," she said softly. "Hell, we let Tolus off the hook."
"Dione, he's a Titan." Thor bent his head down to his wife, eyes darting softly this way and that as he surveyed her face. "You have not fought them, but I have. Trust me. We need to think about this."
"You think?" Atlas pointed out, jaw becoming stiffer with each word. "How interesting. How you have grown, lightning god."
Thor bristled, Dione grabbed his arm, Atlas laughed, and Jeanie – for her part – shook her head. She had half a mind to start sweeping up around this giant mess. Yes, while it had been enough to catch her attention moments before, the mystery and surprise of it now started to wane. This was an administrative issue: could an ex-Titan – a god who had been punished with the task of holding up the sky, a god who had fought in the War of the Titans – be allowed to reintegrate into modern society?
She didn't care.
She gave a barely audible sigh and clutched her broom tighter.
Somehow it got the brute's attention. Atlas twisted his head to look at her. That's all he did. He looked. His gaze didn't slip up and down her overall-clad figure. He didn't snicker, didn't snarl. His slate-gray eyes simply locked on her and he watched her with the unwavering attention of a man who'd stared at the heavens for eons.
Jeanie, despite herself, clutched her broom all the tighter. She let a hand fall down to the massive key ring she held at her side. Being the best and most dedicated lock cleaner of the gods, her key ring was essentially her power. She could, given enough time and desire, open any door, any lock, any box anywhere. After years of service, she had developed a certain understanding of keys that no one else could replicate. It hardly made her a powerful god – not by a long shot. She was, in terms some humans would appreciate, a tradie god. Other powerful gods called on her when they had accidentally locked their worshipers in the dungeon, or had found an interesting box with the words "Pandora, you'd better not open me again" written across it in blood, and needed someone to pick the lock. It didn't make her popular, it didn't make her powerful, but it sure as heaven made her busy. While Jeanie's official job was with the Integration Office, her every waking moment spent on Earth was as the roving god locksmith.
Under the gaze of a fierce Titan, she found herself grasping for the only real source of power she had: her keys. She might be able to throw them at his face and distract the brute with the shiny metal, but she doubted she was dealing with your usual brain-dead macho god here. There was a timeless, ancient intelligence behind those eyes as they locked on hers. Obviously eons of holding up the sky on his back had taught him two things: how to think and how to watch.
She grabbed her keys in one hand, the broom in the other.
Atlas shifted his gaze back to Thor. Not without glancing down at her keys first, then back up at her face.
If Jeanie was the kind of ditsy goddess to be easily overcome, she'd be melting into a pot of fear. Instead she steadied herself, let her fingers gently pat through the hundreds of keys on her keychain, and let their power reassure her. In times of trouble she always told herself one thing: there are always more doors to open. If something violent and foreboding rests behind one door, lock it and move on to another.
"We're going to have to do some research," Dione broke the silence. "You are a very old god, Atlas. Your legends are intertwined with others," she let her eyes drift over to her husband, "And they are engrained in the minds of others. For those reasons I can't give you an automatic answer here. You have my promise that I will look into it."
Atlas stood there, then, after what felt like a perilous moment, he shrugged. "Very well, I will wait."
Dione sighed with relief. "Excellent then." She smiled. "I will be as quick as I can. Though it will take some time – there are a great many myths surrounding you."
Atlas, expression firm and stony, didn't move a muscle. "I will wait," he repeated.
"We will contact you when we are done. It may take several weeks, months even." She blinked.
"I will wait," Atlas repeated, body stiff and strong.
"Leave your contact details with the Main Office. You may have popped your head out of legend, but that doesn't mean you can stay off the grid. Now that you are a real god again, you are going to have to sign a shrine declaration form, a legend identification form." Dione began ticking things off on her fingers. "We'll need the exact address of whatever… precipice or mountain ledge you'll be living on," she trailed off thoughtfully.
"I will wait," Atlas said one final time.
Thor leaned down to Dione, turned her around gently, and nodded towards the door. "He means he'll wait right here, Dione." Thor chuckled. "Right here."
"What?" Dione went to turn, but Thor led her towards the door, a hand flat on her back.
"He's Atlas, Details. When he says he'll wait, he means it."
Both gods headed for the door, Dione blustering, Thor shooting one final look at Atlas.
That left Jeanie, the practically invisible locksmith janitor, standing in a ruined room with a Titan who was too ancient and mean to get along with the gods of the modern world. Despite her usual casual attitude, both her eyebrows shot up underneath her curly, thick black fringe.
He shifted his head towards her, and she heard every creak of his muscles.
The tension tightened in her chest, and she shot her hand back to her keys.
As his gaze alighted on Jeanie with that same look of interest, Dione came wheeling back into the room. "I'm sorry, how rude of me," she spoke quickly as she shook her head. "Jeanie, is it?"
"Yes." Jeanie, glad of the excuse not to look into Atlas' slate-gray eyes, turned to Dione with a snap.
"Deus has dispatched several gods here for our…" Dione slid her stare over to Atlas, "General security. If you feel comfortable enough to clean up once they are here. Then that would be very much appreciated. If not, I'm sure this mess can wait."
Jeanie had always liked Dione, even before she'd stopped Ragnarok and reinvented herself. There had always been a cool, calm, efficient manner about the woman. Like Jeanie, Dione always got down to business, never pausing to faff around. Sure, Officina had gone on to find out she was a powerful proto goddess of imagination married to the fundamental form of the tri-god Thor/Zeus/Jupiter. But hell, the girl had never let it go to her head.
"It's fine," Jeanie, still rifling through her keys, forced the words out of her mouth. "… I'll stay here and clean," she said, bravely but stupidly. "I'm a goddess of cleaning – I can't abide a mess." She stupidly let her eyes settle on Atlas.
Dione looked impressed. "If you are sure. Thank you. The other gods will be here in a moment." She turned on her heels and walked out.
Which left Jeanie the locksmith janitor goddess with Atlas, the Titan of old. If it came to an actual fight, her money was on the guy who could lift the sky into place.
The end of Chapter One. The rest of this book is available from most ebook retailers.