Aes dropped another branch on the fire and watched the embers rising into the night. Everything dies, he thought. Even me. But I guess that death, while inevitable, is not necessarily the end.
As a youth he had seen his share of death. Hellas was a place of nearly constant war. If it wasn't the Achaean or the Spartan armies ravaging the countryside of their enemies, there were always the Macedonians and plenty of others. And always there was Persia looming to the East.
Cheiron had kept him safe on Pelion. The real Cheiron, that is. But when it came time for him to come down from Pelion and take his place among his people, they were at war. The village the centaur had brought him to had dozens of casualties lying under tents while the local herbalists tried to tend their wounds.
Before he knew it Aes was pitching in to help. For years Cheiron had let him practice what the centaur taught him on injured animals. The only difference here was that the stricken soldiers could talk to him while he was healing them, so he learned a little about the situation. Apparently some king named Phlegyas was making trouble, trying to absorb the kingdoms neighboring his.
After treating the wounded, Aes decided that he could help more by going to Phlegyantis and reasoning with the king. He had no idea at the time that Phlegyas was the sire of Coronis, and thus his maternal grandfather.
The campfire crackled. He tossed another branch onto the flames, thinking of how much that decision had changed his life. On the way back from that journey, he had healed a visiting son of Merops. He could easily have taken a different path...but then he would never have met Epione, the future mother of his children. Merops had given Epione to him to be his wife in gratitude.
“Don't tell me you've lost her already! Damn. It's my fault. You should have been raised around humans, not an old horse.”
Aes didn't even jump at the sound of the centaur's voice. It was a measure of how used he was getting to constant surprises.
“I was,” he said. “And if you were really Cheiron, you'd know that.”
“I am and I do. Shall I recite the list? Achilles, Actaeon, Aristaeus, Asklepios, Jason, Medus, Patroclus, Peleus. Did I miss any important ones?”
“You taught both Achilles and his father Peleus?”
“Not at the same time, but yes. In fact, Achilles wouldn't even have been born if it wasn't for me. Years before, when I was helping Peleus, he wanted Thetis, but he couldn't catch her because she could change her form. I told him how to overcome that, and arranged his marriage to her. Then, when she bore Achilles, I brought him up for her.”
“Then what happened to the wound in your flank, the one that you could not heal? And how and why are you here, now?”
Cheiron kicked at a pebble. “It never did heal, Aes. That wound was from one of the arrows of Herakles poisoned with Hydra venom. To a lesser creature it would have been instant death.”
“Now I know you speak falsely. Herakles would never have shot you. What is your true purpose here?”
“He wasn't aiming at me,” the centaur replied. “There was a crowd of wild centaurs attacking the cave of Pholus. Herakles seized his bow and arrows and chased them away, but while he was shooting at them they ran by where I was and one of his arrows hit me by accident.”
The centaur regarded him. “This dream-world insists on drawing me as you see me now. But it's just a drawing, so don't fret the details. The important thing is why I am here.”
“Another thing,” said Aes. “It is apparently thousands of years since Cheiron lived. How could you be he?”
“How could you be Asklepios? The same question applies, and a similar answer suffices. We were both sired by gods. My father was Cronus, which makes Zeus my half-brother. If I had the same mother as Zeus, I would have been your grand-uncle, since Zeus was your grandfather, as Apollo was your father.”
“Do not tempt the gods with blasphemy,” Aes warned.
“I am not. My father was a Titan. The very same Titan who was your great-grandfather, Aes. His name was Cronus, and he wasn't from this planet.”
“That does not explain how you could still be alive.”
“Well, in a way I'm not. That wound that never healed hurt like the devil. At last I couldn't stand it, so I let it kill me. Herakles brokered a deal to make the most of it. He traded my life for that of Prometheus. Zeus agreed to free Prometheus readily, since he wanted me to die.”
Aes stared at him. “Why would Zeus want you dead?”
Cheiron laughed. “He didn't want me dead. He just wanted me to die. Before you say anything, there is a difference. You see, like you I was part god, part mortal. There was enough of the gods in me that the wound could not kill me. But there was enough mortal in me that the wound would never heal. Zeus got a two-fer: by agreeing to let Herakles set Prometheus free, he ended my suffering and triggered my own apotheosis.”
“I do not understand.”
So Cheiron explained. A demigod or Hero was trapped in a mortal body until it died. Then the divine essence was freed of its confinement and Transcended to godhood. According to him, humanity would Transcend someday but would reincarnate until then. In the meantime, the existing Transcended humans were all descendants of Cronus, which was why there were so few of them.
“And that is where we come to you, Aes. Hades complained about you raising Hippolytus from the dead, instead of letting his spirit go through the Underworld and reincarnate. This gave Zeus the excuse He needed to trigger your own apotheosis. He used a thunderbolt to kill your mortal body to release your divine essence.”
“A pretty story,” Aes commented. “But it does not explain my presence in this dream-world. Did you come here when you died?”
“Not immediately,” the centaur admitted. “You are a special case. He used that thunderbolt to bring your spirit here, so that you would have the best chance of defeating the other Champion.”
“Defeat what other Champion? I'm no warrior.”
Cheiron grinned. “I know. But it doesn't matter. You've been selected to be the First. You probably won't believe this, but it's an honor to be First. Achilles and Ares were ready to fight over it.”
This did not sound good. “First what?”
“Contender. There is another race of Immortals, Aes. They want to be Humanity's masters until earth Transcends. Zeus has other ideas. He wants us to stay free and make it ourselves.”
“So let him go and defeat the other Champion. Who better than the strongest of the Olympians?”
“That's not the way the game is played. When two races of Immortals want to shepherd the same client species, there is usually a series of Covenant matches to decide the outcome.”
Aes shook his head with disgust. Games. “This is foolish. Why not just attack them all at once, as armies do?”
“Two reasons. One, there's a lot more of them than there are of us. In a simple war of attrition we'd lose. But the most important reason is the Covenant. Immortals used to fight all out for clients. But the battles tended to cause a lot of destruction, including, sometimes, the extinction of the very clients they were fighting over. A very long time ago the Covenant was agreed upon to govern such squabbles. Each side chooses a Champion and they duke it out. When one is defeated, the losing side can send in another one.”
“If Zeus is determined to fight them, why isn't he going First?”
“Each side sends in stronger and stronger Champions until one side loses too many and it's obvious that the remainder of them are weaker than the other side. Therefore, each First is by convention and strategy the weakest fighter his side has to offer, not the strongest.”
“But I am not even a fighter! I am a physician.”
“Exactly. Imagine how much it will demoralize them if their Champion is slain by a healer, not a fighter.”
“Slain? That is nonsense. How can I kill an Immortal?”
“Both of you are mortal for this combat. Otherwise the struggle would never end. Whoever they send won't be throwing thunderbolts at you, either. He'll have to face you in a diminished manifestation, an intersection in a dream, mortalized, just as you are presently.”
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