A field trip is always an exciting occasion for the gods and goddesses of Nile High. It could mean a closer look at mythical realms such as Olympus or Asgard, a behind the scenes look at the jobs of the elder gods or just an excuse to get off campus for a bit. Though sometimes, such as in this particular tale, it literally meant a trip to a field. Mind you, hardly anyone complained about this. After all, it was still an opportunity to get out of class and blow off some steam.
Hephaestus glanced up from the canvass he was painting. He was trying his best at truly capture the colors of the rolling waves of grass. He was second to none when it came to using the forge and shaping metal into marvelous machines and stunning sculptures. So why was it that painting always seemed to give him so much trouble? It seemed like he'd never be anywhere near as good a Frey. Frey's paintings always seemed so realistic they were like looking through a window at a landscape. Hephaestus' paintings just seemed so flat and lifeless by comparison.
Frey put his hand on Hephaestus' shoulder reassuringly. "Looks like it's really coming along."
"Thanks. I mean, I know you're only saying that to be nice, but thanks all the same."
"No, I really mean it. Everyone views the world differently, and we express those differences through our art. Okay, that might be a little cliché, but I guess what I'm trying to say is this: not all art has to be representative."
Hephaestus gave a weak smile as he whipped off his googles. "You always know just what to say, don't you?"
The two gods stretched out on the grass and out their hands behind their heads. The golden green steppe seemed to stretch on as endlessly as the azure blue sky. Usually, Hephaestus was more at home among the clanking metal and the hissing steam of machine, but maybe nature wasn't so bad. He hadn't been stung by a swarm of bees, trampled by stampeding bulls or mauled by lions. As far things when for Hephaestus, the steppes were shaping up to be his best field trips yet.
Presently, a heard of wild horses appeared of in the distance. Hephaestus and Frey got up to take a closer look, but then a metallic glint caught Hephaestus' eye. Two sets of Roman centurion armor were laying in the grass. That was a bit odd, as neither Hephaestus nor Frey had heard of any Roman settlements in Central Asia. All the same, the two gods decided to have a little fun and put on the armor. Hephaestus stood at attention while Frey paced back and forth like a general.
"Soldiers! A fish loves water, and squirrels love the trees, but what do we Romans love?"
"Sir! We love to expand our territory, sir!"
"Exactly! And why do we love to expand our territory?"
"Because the barbarians are too stupid to know what is good for them, sir! We must bring them the light of civilization, sir!"
"Good work, solider! Keep that up and you just might get a raise...but probably not."
The two gods shared some good laughs over their performance. However, their laughter abruptly stopped when they noticed the school bus driving off without them. The bus was nearly identical to a Greek trireme, save that it could fly though the air, and it had a set of retractable wheels for driving on land. Hephaestus tried his best to make a mad dash for the bus, but his bad leg seized up and he fell flat on his face.
Hephaestus had been crippled even since he'd been thrown off of Mount Olympus when he was a small child. He could never remember if it had been his mother or his father who'd done it, but he supposed, in the grand scheme of things, it didn't really matter that much. What did matter was that, after he'd crash landed, he'd become permanently crippled. Though, his siblings Apollo and Athena speculated that he might have already been crippled, and that the fall had merely a preexisting condition. He had to wear a metal leg brace just to keep his bad leg from giving out; not that his "good leg" was all that reliable either.
Frey slung Hephaestus over his shoulders and sprinted across the fields of rippling grass. Frey was, Hephaestus noted, keeping surprisingly good pace despite the heavy load he had to bear. With one final burst of energy Frey leaped through the air and landed on the top deck of the bus. He perfectly stuck his landing...right on top of Dionysus.
"Oh, pardon me, Dionysus! Guess I didn't see you there."
"You know, we were going to stop for you."
"So, how much trouble are we in?" asked Hephaestus.
"Well, you missed roll call, so you'll probably be on latrine duty for the next week or so. Stiff up lip, lads. It happens to us all at some point. Oh, and one more thing, my name is Bacchus. I don't care what you say about me, just so long as you remember to spell my name correctly. Now, go run along and find some seats below deck."
Something seemed a bit off about Dionysus, or whatever he was calling himself. Hephaestus just couldn't put his finger on what it was. Had he gotten a haircut, or perhaps a new set of clothes, and why did the name Bacchus seem familiar? Hadn't he heard that somewhere before? Oh well, he'd figure it out eventually.
Finding an empty seat was easy enough, but something still just didn't seem right. Hephaestus opens his satchel and his comic scrolls promptly spilled on the floor. He bent down to gather them up and was greeted by a shocking sight: there was no gum stuck to the bottom of the seats! Not only that, but the backs of the bus seats completely lacked any sort of graffiti. It finally clicked for Hephaestus about what seemed so off about the bus. That morning the bus had smelled like fish and seaweed; it had been donated by Hephaestus' uncle, Poseidon, so that certainly made sense. Now, however, it smelled like fresh baked bread and pine trees!
By now, Hephaestus and Frey had gotten a better look at the various gods and goddesses on the bus. There were young deities from pantheon across the world, but they were all wearing, with some variation, Roman style clothes. Their suspicions were raised even more when they noticed the banners hanging from the ceiling. The banners were crimson and embroidered with the letters T.A. in gold thread. There was a god with spiral Gallic style tattoos sitting in front of Hephaestus and Frey. Hephaestus tapped the Gaulish deity on his shoulder.
"Excuse me, but is this bus going to Tiber Academy?"
The Gaul frowned. "But of course. Where else would it be going?"
That was what Hephaestus and Frey had been dreading. Tiber Academy was Nile High's primary rival school. It billed itself as a school for gods of all pantheons, but everyone knew that the Roman gods were the ones calling the shots. To say that the students of Tiber Academy weren't terribly fond of Nile High would, perhaps, be a bit of an understatement. Though, in fairness, the students of Nile High didn't think too highly of Tiber Academy either. Whenever students from the two schools crossed paths it was all but guaranteed that some kind of fight would ensue.
Hephaestus and Frey pulled out their tablets so as to avoid any eavesdroppers. Hephaestus used a steam-powered bronze mechanical tablet, while Frey preferred to use a magic-powered tablet made of leather and parchment.
"Oh my me! We got on the wrong bus!" Hephaestus texted.
"Don't panic, let's stay positive here. Maybe if we just explain what happened, and admit that it was an honest mistake..."
"No! They'll crucify us for sure if we do that!"
"Okay then, so any ideas about how we get out of here?" asked Frey.
"I'm afraid not. Oh, if only Athena was here, she'd know what to do. Wait a second, that's it! Quick, get out your paints and a sheet of paper. If we can paint a rainbow we might be able to get Iris to run a message for us. Oh, and uh, you wouldn't happen to have a couple gold coins you could spare, would you?"
"Does your rainbow goddess take Norse red-gold?"
"I guess we're about to find out."
Hephaestus used his fingers to quickly scrawl what he hoped was a reasonably passable rainbow. He took the gold coins from Frey and folded the rainbow painting around them. All the while he desperately hoped that Iris would get the hint. After a few tense minutes Hephaestus felt the weight of the coins disappear. Not long after that the paper began to glow with rainbow light.
"Hello! Thank you for choosing the message service of Iris the Goddess of Rainbows! Due to an unexpectedly heavy amount of message requests, I've been forced to switched to my automated service. For a shinier rainbow, draw the number one. To subscribe to my newsletter, draw the number two. If you wish to leave a review, draw the number three. Your messages are super important to me! If you are new to my messaging service, draw the number four. To request a refund of your message..."
Hephaestus summoned a flame in his hand and hastily ignited the scroll. Thankfully, despite how loud the scroll had been, hardly anyone seemed to have noticed. Those that had noticed merely gave Hephaestus and Frey a suspicious look before losing interest. It seemed like they were in the clear, for the moment at least, until Hephaestus felt a tap on his shoulder.
She was clearly a student of some importance; that much was obvious from the air of authority she exuded. Her eyes were filled with a fierce and calculating look to them; she was obviously some kind of war goddess. Her long hair was black, but depending on how the light hit it, it appeared to have flecks of purple as well. Her name was on the tip of Hephaestus' tongue, but what was it? She was a friend of Athena's and her name sounded like a kind of food. Lasagna? Carbonara? Pancetta? No, it started with a B.
"Bellona, I presume?"
"You presume correctly, Hephaestus of the Greeks."
"Oh dear me, is it really that obvious?"
"You're the spitting image of my brother Vulcan; just the way Athena always described you in her letters."
"You're not going to turn us in, are you?" asked Frey.
Bellona sighed. "If I'm being perfectly honest, I really ought to. I have a duty to my school and my empire, but Athena is a good friend of mine. I owe her for...well, it's not important. Look, you guys are important to Athena, so you're important to me. Don't panic, I'm going to get you guys out of here."
The first part of Bellona's plan involved keeping a low profile. For a few minutes, the three gods sat together in near silence. At first, Hephaestus was worried about getting found out. As time went on, however, he become more concerned about dying from boredom. He was still clutching some of his comic scrolls. Hephaestus supposed that it wouldn't hurt to look at only one for only a few minutes.
He settled on one of his favorites: The Legion of Interplanetary Deities. It was about a team of young gods and goddesses from other planets having adventures in outer space. This particular issue saw Magnatar, the leader of The Legion, teaming up with the goddesses Karatika and Dream Weaver to save their fellow legionnaire Scorpius from the clutches of the dreaded planet Tyranos. Hephaestus practically had the scroll committed to memory, but it was fun to gaze at artwork. He tilted the scroll so that Frey could look at it as well. To his surprise, however, it was Bellona who leaned in for a closer look.
"Planet Heist is a good storyline. Though, personally, Tomb of the Unknown God is my favorite."
Hephaestus raised his eyebrows in surprise. "You're a fan of The Legion?"
"Well, I wouldn't say I've read every issue..."
"You can reference storylines by name, and you know about The Unknown God. He's not exactly a character most non-fans would be able to name drop. In fact, some would say that you're hiding your love of Legion of Interplanetary Deities in order to keep up appearances," Frey chimed in.
Bellona smiled sheepishly. "That...might be somewhat true. I mean, I've missed out on all the storylines that were censored for political reasons, but other than that...you could possibly say I'm a bit of a fan."
"Censored for political reason? What do you...oh! You missed out on Rings of the Namori? Aw, that was the one where Pharaoh Lad dies! Hang on, I might be able to help you with that."
Hephaestus rummaged around in his satchel and pulled out a series of spare mechanical parts, a half-eaten gyro, a live weasel, a sack of gold coins, 100 origami cranes, a series of unfinished love poems and some text scrolls. After digging around just a bit more he found it: Legion of Interplanetary Deities issues 165-171. Hephaestus attempted to hand the scroll to Bellona, but she raised her eyebrow in surprise immediately pushed the scroll back to him.
"But you've just met me."
"You're helping us out, it's the least I could do. Besides, it's kind of nice to find another Legion fan."
"It might be a bit before I can get it back to you."
"That's okay, better that someone read it and enjoy than for it to just sit in my satchel all day."
Hephaestus offer the scroll again, and this time Bellona took it. "Thank you, Hephaestus. It really is quite kind of...oh no, Minerva's coming this way!"
Frey frowned. "The goddess carrying the scrolls? That's who you're worried about?"
Hephaestus leaning out into the aisle to see what all the fuss was about. When he saw her, he had to blink to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him. Superficially at least, she could have been Athena's doppelgänger, and yet there was just something off about her. For one, Minerva had red hair rather than blue hair, and she was noticeably shorter than Athena was. She was also, perhaps, a bit less confident and sure of herself. It was as though she was a faded copy of Athena.
Minerva tripped and her scrolls sprawled all over the floor. Frey quickly leapt up from his seat and helped Minerva pick up the scrolls. Minerva looked completely gobsmacked when she laid eyes on Frey. Frey smiled warmly, unfolded his hand and flower instantly sprouted out of his palm. He plucked the flower from his palm and handed it to Minerva. The wisdom goddess giggled like a love-struck school girl...which is, of course, precisely what she was.
"Hi, I'm single...I mean, Minerva! My name is Minerva! That what I meant to say before I...I don't believe we've been introduced. What did you say your name was?"
"My name? Ah, yes, my name! My name is Yngvi, and over there is my dear friend Mulciber. We're recent transfers to Tiber Academy, and we are really excited to be here."
"New transfer students? That's strange, I don't remember reading about new students in any of the paperwork for this month."
"Oh? That is strange indeed. You're an intelligent goddess, and always so thorough with your paperwork," said Bellona, an eyebrow raised as she sipped from a cup of complimentary wine.
"I-I-I, that is to say that...well, you see it's really...um, I, uh. Oh! Goodness, I've forgotten to get your coffee. Here, let me go get that for you."
Minerva was about to rush off, but then Hephaestus caught her attention. Hephaestus did his best to seem unassuming and nothing out of the ordinary, but Minerva persisted. There was a worrisome look of recognition in her eyes. Hephaestus didn't exactly help matters by pulling down his helmet's visitor just a bit too swiftly.
"You seem strangely familiar."
"Well, you know, I've got one of those faces."
"You look like Vulcan, but you can't be Vulcan. I just spoke with him before I got here. So then how can it be that you...ow! Ow! Weasel! Weasel on my toe! Ow! Ow! Get it off! Get it off! Get it off!"
The weasel that Hephaestus had pulled out of his satchel had clamped down on Minerva's big toe. Minerva tried her best to pull the weasel off, but that only caused it to bite harder. She resorted to hobbling around in circles and trying to kick the weasel off, but she wound up falling flat on her face when the bus came to an abrupt stop. By now the bus was filled with a chorus of laughter from students reveling in the schadenfreude of the situation. Bellona took the opportunity to take Hephaestus and Frey to the upper deck of the bus; hopefully, away from prying eyes.
There were a few gods and goddesses working the masts and rigging of the upper deck, but thankfully not many. Bellona pulled a small blue bird out of the folds of her cloak. At first, Hephaestus thought that it was a living bird, but upon closer inspection, the bird turned out to be completely mechanical. The metal bird ticked and creaked with the sound of interlocking clockwork gears. Bellona cupped the bird in her hands and gently stroked its head. The bird's eyes began to glow with red light, and its beak opened with a click.
"What's on your mind?"
"Begin new message to @Olive_Owl. Code 405, signifiers Heta Fehu, end message. Send immediately."
The mechanical bird made a series of whirring and clicking noises; it then gave a bow to Bellona and took flight. Hephaestus had never really been much for social media, but he had to admit, the technical aspect had more than peaked his interest. He'd have to take a closer look at one of the message birds once he and Frey were safely returned to Nile High. For now, however, it would have to wait.
Surprisingly enough, it didn't take long for a response to come. A new bird landed on Bellona's hand. This one appeared to be purple rather than blue; no, not purple, wine dark. With a few clicks, the metal bird's chest opened and a rolled-up piece of paper slowly extended outwards.
"You have received a new photo from @WineDude69."
Bellona sighed and pushed the photo back into the metal bird. "Bacchus again. Delete it, I'm not interested."
"You sure? He could be a fellow artist giving you some references for your sketches," said Frey.
"Trust me, they're not the sort of photos you share in polite company or...wait a minute, how did you know I sketch?"
"Well, the first tip-off was the graphite under your fingernails. Then I saw the way you were looking out the window at the landscape. You were memorizing every little detail so that you could recreate it later. Don't deny it, I'd know that look anywhere. Of course, the biggest clue was when I caught you flipping through your sketch book."
Bellona pulled out her sketch book and handed it to Frey. "It's a hobby of mine, when I can find the time. I mostly sketch in black and white. It's practical, if not always ideal."
"Have you considered using a color-changing pencil? I've got plant to spare, strait from the craft fairs of Alfheim."
"That's okay, you don't have to..."
"No, I insist. It's no trouble at all. I've got plenty to spare, and I'll have plenty more soon enough. Light elves are good people, but they can be a bit of a handful at times. I remember, on this one trip to Alfheim, I had to wear a sack over my head so the paparazzi would leave me alone. Man, that was one crazy...hey, look! The bird's back!"
Sure enough, Bellona's metal bird had arrived with a scroll sticking out of its beak. Bellona was about to unfurl the scroll when there was a clanging of bells from atop one of the bus’s masts. Everyone look up to see a god leaping from mast to mast. He effortlessly soared through the air as though he didn't have a care in the world. There wasn't the slightest hint of fear nor hesitation in any of his movements. The god slid down a rope ladder before somersaulting in the air and sticking his landing.
Hephaestus was finally able to get a good look at the god. He was wearing the finest Roman armor, the gladius on his belt gleamed in the sunlight, his beard and haircut were tripped to precision. He was, both literally and figuratively, dressed to kill. There was something familiar about this god; Hephaestus just couldn't put his finger on it. Then it clicked: this god was the spitting image of Hephaestus' brother Ares! He was certainly a lot more well-groomed than Ares, but the resemblance was there. The answer to the god's identity was on the tip of Hephaestus' tongue.
"You're Mars Ultor!" Hephaestus inadvertently spoke aloud.
"My reputation precedes me! Say, I don't believe we've met before. Are you recent transfer students?"
"Heph-er, Mulciber! Mulciber at your service, and this is my friend Yngvi."
Mars gave them each a hearty slap on the back. Hephaestus nearly got toppled over, but thankfully, Frey caught him before that could happen. Mars took in an, almost comically, deep breath before slowly exhaling and gazing out at the rolling steppe.
"You boys couldn't have picked a better school to attend. Here at Tiber Academy we like to suck out the marrow of life. Wherever we find ourselves, be it the eternal city or out in the wilderness, we learn with a vigor like no others. You'll have the time of your eternal lives turning wild lands into provinces of the greatest empire our world has ever known. You'll see plays, experience gladiator matches, listen to poetry, watch chariot races and so much more. Most important of all, when it is time for Bellona and I to have our day of days, you shall be at our wedding!"
"That, uh, that's certainly a lot to take in."
"Fear not. It can seem overwhelming at first, but I have full confidence that you two will find your place at Tiber Academy in no time at all. Still though, it does seem rather odd that I've never encounter either of you before."
"That is because we have been very busy with our extracurricular activities," Frey interjected.
"Oh, really? And what might these extracurricular activities be?"
"Why, singing in the choir, of course."
"Singing in the choir?" Mars repeated, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
One look at Bellona was all Frey and Hephaestus needed to realize that this was the worst possible answer they could have offered. They needed to salvage the situation before Mars connected the dots. Perhaps a joke could defuse things? Yes, that could be something. It would have to appeal to Roman sensibilities while still being side-splittingly hilarious. Frey decided to take the initiative.
"So, who wants to hear a joke? It's really, truly and honestly hilarious."
"Well, with those credentials you'll need a proper audience. Gather round everyone, Yngvi is going to regale us with a joke. Whenever you're ready."
"Okay then, what would Neptune say if all the seas were to boil away?"
"Hmm, I don't know. What would Neptune say?"
"Well don't look at me, I haven't got a notion!"
Instead of a chorus of laughter, there was a series of confused murmurings. Frey exchanged an uneasy glance with Hephaestus, worried that their plan hadn't worked. Then the coin dropped. All of the assembled Romans were practically rolling on the deck laughing once the joke clicked. Hephaestus supposed that it had been a cleaver joke, but not anywhere near as gut-bustingly funny as the Romans seemed to find it. Still, who was he to argue with results? Mars gave Frey, a very enthusiastic, handshake.
"You sir have a gift. A gift I say! You should write your jokes down in a book. You could fill the world with a lot laughter and joy. I think we could all use some more laughter in our lives."
"Why, thank you. I'll certainly keep that in mind."
Bellona leaned up against Mars and batted her eyes. "Dearest, we have been traveling for quite a while. Perhaps it would be best for everyone if we were to make a stop at a trading post? We're not too far from Ulan Barter."
Hephaestus frowned. "Don't you mean Ulan Bator?"
"Actually, no. That really is what it's called."
Mars rubbed his chin in thought. "It would be an opportunity to get better equated with the local culture. That could be useful for when we annex this region in the name of the empire. Yes, I do believe we can arrange that."
As soon as Mars had his back turned Bellona mimed gagging to Hephaestus and Frey. That certainly seemed a bit odd gesture for a betrothed goddess to be making. Hephaestus also not that, in the time he'd been on the Tiber Academy bus, he had yet to encounter a single teacher or other faculty member. For that matter, the students of Tiber Academy seemed far more disciplined than the students at Nile High. Perhaps they didn't need as many teachers to keep an eye one them?
Hephaestus wasn't quite sure what he expected Ulan Barter to look like. As it turned out, it was a series of enormous interconnected tents. No, not tents, there was a technically terms that was escaping his mind. Yurts? Ah, yes, that was it. Back below deck, Mars was standing in front of a podium situated at the bow of the bus. The students were standing at attention, extended their right arms forwards, their fingers pointed forwards and their thumbs tucked under their palms. Hephaestus and Frey shared a knowing glance with one another and tried their best not to laugh. Performing the Roman Salute in Greece or Scandinavia was a good way to get socked in the face. There was a certain thrill to, secretly, breaking such a taboo.
Mars tapped his spear against the ground and cleared his throat. "My fellow Romans, and assorted other deities, we have arrived at our first pit stop. There are many of you who may think that this is just a trading post. I would caution you to remember that this trading post is situated on a tributary of the Silk Road. I'm sure I don't need to remind you what an advantage it would be for Rome to control and command the Silk Road's wealth. Treat this as you would any educational activity. Now, that doesn't mean you can't take this opportunity to stretch your legs or acquire some trinkets for your collections. However, anyone caught spending more than five denarii will receive latrine duty for a week. Have I made myself clear?"
"Yes, Mr. Praetor!" replied the students in unison.
"Excellent! Remember, Rome is ever expanding. Today the Silk Road, tomorrow China, and a week from next Tuesday it'll be the Americas! Then, three months from now, Proxima Centauri! Let's make it happen people! To the trading post!"
Before long the Romans were swarming the stands and displays of trinket and knickknacks. Hephaestus, Frey and Bellona found a comfortable stop at the trading post cafe and tried to look assuming. The cafe menu wasn't really much to snuff at; pretty much everything included yak's butter in some capacity or another. The trio ultimately settled on ordering yak's butter tea. Hephaestus took a single sip, just to see what it tasted like. It took every ounce of his will power just to keep it down. Or, to put it another way, it took everything had in him not to yak. Hopefully it wouldn't be long before the bus from Nile High arrived and he could put all this behind him.
"So, you're going to married to Mars. Congratulations?" said Frey as he smiled cautiously.
Bellona suddenly become very interested in her tea glass. "It's mostly for symbolic and political purposes. The top god and top goddess currently attention Tiber Academy, together in marriage. It wouldn't be considered proper...that is, Father wouldn't have us marry anyone else. Not lesser gods, and especially not any barbarians."
"And by barbarians, I'm assume you're referring to gods such as Hephaestus and I?"
"Do understand, I meant no slight again wither of you. In Rome, anyone who is not a Roman is referred to as a barbarian."
"But you do love Mars, don't you?" asked Hephaestus.
Bellona sighed. "I love him like a brother. Of course, that's primarily because he actually is my brother. He is a good god, a god who will serve Rome well, but..."
"But there someone else who holds you heart."
"There was, but I've learned to let it go. I have my duty to Emperor and Empire. Sometimes that means I have to put the needs of Rome ahead of my own wants and desires."
"But everyone deserves to be with the ones they love!"
Bellona sullenly traced circles on the table with her finger. "Would that it were so easy. Would that it were so easy."
Now, in light of the above conversation, the gentle reader would do well to keep in mind a few facts about divine relationships. Gods, lacking any sort of DNA, are not subject to the negative effect associated with incest. Thus, such relationships are not considered taboo in the slightest. For though gods may look and act human, they are very different from you or I. Without further delay, allow us to resume the story.
Hephaestus placed his hand on Bellona's arm in sympathy. When he looked up he found Mars and Minerva standing before him. The weasel that had been on Minerva's toe was now hanging from her nose. She and Mars were holding a large bundle of scrolls and papers. The scrolls were completely decked out in wax seals and gilded emblems. Hephaestus, a sinking feeling swiftly forming in his stomach, soon realized what the scrolls were: administration records! Oh no, they'd finally been found out!
"Oh, hello there. Funny thing, Mars and I were nosing through some records..."
"And speaking of noses, might you feel better if I were to remove that weasel, dear sister?"
Minerva's cheeks turned as red as a hot iron fresh from the forge. "Oh, right. Yes, thank you dear Mars. That would be most divine."
Mars hadn't taken more than a single step towards Minerva before the weasel let go. The weasel promptly scurried across the floor and promptly made beeline for Hephaestus' satchel. As much as Hephaestus tried, he just couldn't think of where the weasel had come from, or why it loved his satchel so much. There were a few minutes of awkward silence as everyone just stood around shuffling their feet. Eventually, Mars broke the silence by clearing his throat.
"So, anyway, Minerva and I were going through some records. It seems that there is a slight problem with your membership in the choir. You see, neither of you are in the choir. Ask me why."
"Why what? Be specific, Hephaestus of the Greeks."
"Why aren't Frey and I part of the choir?"
A disturbing knowing grin was spreading across Mars' face. "You aren't part of the choir because Tiber Academy does not have a choir!"
"Oh, doesn't it now? Well...that was just a slip of the tongue! What we really meant to say was that we were...uh, tap dancing with the Math Club?"
"Mars, wait! It's not what you think!" Bellona pleaded.
"Oh, I think it's exactly what I think it is, my dear Bellona. Clearly, you lured these intruders into a false sense of security until they could be apprehended. Well done! In fact, I think we can all learn from the example Bellona has set."
By now a large crowd of Roman gods and goddesses had amassed around Hephaestus and Frey. Hephaestus gasped with shock when he saw a tall muscular Germanic god wielding a double-bladed battle axe. He shrieked in terror when he saw an Aztec god with two sacrificial knifes. He almost fainted when he caught the sight of two goddesses holding a large wooden cross. Mars himself was swinging a large metal chain around his head as though it was a lasso. Amidst his fear, Hephaestus was vaguely reminded of gladiator games. Well, he'd never actually been to a gladiator game, but he had read about them in books.
Strangely, Frey seemed completely calm despite the impending doom. In fact, he was examining his fingernails and looking rather bored. Almost mechanically, he looked up and extended his hand forwards.
"Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but don't Romans offer those condemned to death or torture a few words? You know, a little preamble before the main event, and all that."
"Alright, that's a fair point. What words do you have to offer?" asked Mars.
Frey smiled. "Oh, just these two: Alf Seidr!"
Frey clapped his hands together three times in rapid succession. On the third clap, a burst of glowing green energy erupted from Frey's hands. The magical energy knocked the Tiber Academy students to the ground like a stack of dominos, but left Hephaestus and Bellona standing. Hephaestus was ready to bolt form the door when he realized that he wasn't being chased. Tentatively, he tapped a Roman with his foot. The Tiber Academy students had been knocked completely unconscious by Frey's magic.
"There, that should buy us a few minutes before they come around."
"I don't understand..."
"Elf magic, just a little gift I gave the light elves. What you just witnessed was a slight variation on a stun spell..."
"No, I mean that I don't understand where the Nile High bus is. Athena said it would be here about now," said Bellona.
"Key word being 'about.' Hardly anything at Nile High ever runs on time," said Hephaestus.
"Well, with a ringing endorsement like that, we'll need somewhere to lay low."
The choices of hiding spots that wouldn't be blindingly obvious was severely limited. About the only real option was the, much neglected, set of toilet stalls. Still, desperate times called for desperate measures. The three deities took a collective deep breath and do their best to all squeeze into a stall. The stench of the stall reminded Hephaestus of what he'd always assumed the Underworld would smell like. Actually, that was a tad hyperbolic; he was fairly certain that Uncle Hades kept a much, much stricter sanitation service than Ulan Barter.
Hephaestus tried he best to imagine that he wasn't crammed into a smelly bathroom stall, desperately hoping not to be found by a school of very pissed off Roman gods. He envisioned himself back at his forge on Mount Olympus, working on a new automaton design, or perhaps making some jewelry for Aphrodite. He tried to imagine this, but that strain on his imagination was just too much. Presently, there was a knock on the door of the stall.
"Um, er, uh, o-occupied!" Hephaestus stammered between coughs and gags.
"Oh! Terribly sorry sir, my mistake. Say, you wouldn't have happened to have seen a Greek god and a Norse god, would you?"
"No! No! I mean, no, can't say that I have."
"Okay then, you take care now."
"Wait just a minute!" shouted Minerva. "Bacchus, don't you think it's just the tiniest bit suspicious that this man has three sets of legs?"
"Hmm, well, when you put it like that..."
Suddenly the stall's door became covered in grape vines, and before long it was completely yanked off its hinges. The next thing Hephaestus knew he and Frey were being dragged out of the stall by even more grape vines. They'd barely had time to recover before they found themselves pinned beneath a large net. The net began to hoist itself into the air and displayed Hephaestus and Frey as though they were a pair of prize fish. Hephaestus felt a sharp pan erupting from his side. He looked down to see Minerva jabbing him with some kind of wooden staff. The other Tiber Academy students appeared to be rummaging around for objects to toss.
Hephaestus and Frey had officially hit rock bottom, but they couldn't give up. Hephaestus was god of fire, and could summon flames at will, but he always had trouble during times of stress. Still, anything was worth a shot at this point. He closed his eyes and tried his best to block out the jeers of the Romans. He only needed enough fire to burn a hole in the net, and possibly clear some space for running. Hephaestus could something hot churning deep within him. It was growing rapidly and raising higher by the second. Now it was in his mouth and seemed ready to burst at any moment.
Hephaestus exhaled and...blew a steady stream of hot air onto the net. Oh no, it hasn't worked! Hephaestus tried a few more times, growing increasingly desperate with each attempt, but the most he produced was a few measly embers.
"Look everyone, his pilot light's gone out!" laughed Gaulish god from earlier.
Mars gave Hephaestus and Frey and disappointed look. "I can't tell you how let down I am! You boy were on your way to becoming such good Romans. But spies have to face their punishment sooner or later."
"You're not gonna crucify us, are you?"
"Goodness no! You're first time offenders; it's far too early for that sort of thing. What this situation calls for is something on the lighter side. I'm told that the natives of this region have a custom where lawbreakers have their arms and legs tied to four different horses, and then swiftly yanked apart. Sounds like a lovely opportunity for cross-cultural enrichment, wouldn't you say?"
"How's about this: you let Hephaestus and I go free, and then we all have a good laugh about what a misunderstanding this was," said Frey.
"Nobody asked what you think!" Minerva snarled as she jabbed her staff into Frey's face.
Mars' eyes suddenly when wide and he snapped his fingers. "Good gracious, we've forgotten the Two Minutes Shame! Romans, ready your rocks for a shaming. Now then, since the lovely Bellona was the one who identified these spies, she gets to cast the first stone. Whenever you are ready, dearest Bellona."
Bellona was caught between the axe and the alter. She had her duty to Rome, but she'd grown fond of Hephaestus and Frey. They might not have been Romans, but they were good gods at heart. They certainly didn't deserve to be subject to torture just for being from another school. There was only a handful of occasions that Bellona had questioned her commitment to Rome and its ethos; this certainly qualified as one such occasion. Everyone was starting to get antsy and questioning why she hesitated. Perhaps she could deliberately miss? No, she was one of the best markswoman at Tiber Academy; everyone would suspect that something was amiss. She could toss the rock gently, but that would just kick things off, so that wouldn't do.
Thankfully, Bellona caught a lucky break, and was saved from having to make a decision. Seemingly form out of nowhere, a banana cream pie sailed through the air and hit Mars directly in the face. If Mars had looked like Ares before, he was a near perfect facsimile now. His eyes turned into balls of flaming hatred and anger as he scanned the room for the culprit.
"Who threw this pie at me?! Tell me! Tell me now!"
As if in response, another pie hit Mars in the face. The students of Tiber Academy turned around to see Athena, along with the rest of Nile High, standing next to a large stack of pies. At long last, Hephaestus and Frey's salvation had arrived! Athena picked up another pie and tossed it up and down in her hand. The Tiber Academy students drew their weapons and prepared to attack, but Athena wasn't perturbed in the slightest. As a matter of fact, she actually yawned as she lobbed yet another pie at Mars.
"Oh, I'm sorry, would you care for some whipped cream with that? It's only one drachma extra."
"Romans, change of plans! Nile High has compromised our position, and they must be eliminated posthaste. Fall into rank and prepaid for battle!"
Before long the entire yurt was consumed by speeding pies, clashing swords, crackling magic spells, smoking potion bombs, jabbing spear and slapping fish. In a way, it would of have been oddly comforting, if Hephaestus and Frey hadn't been sitting ducks in the middle of a battlefield. Nike and Victoria were attempting to strangle each other, Horus and Mithras had mutually pied one other with cherry pies, and Thor and Donar were sparing with their hammers. Meanwhile, Pan and Faunus were smoking joints together, while Bacchus and Dionysus compared notes on types of wine.
Thankfully, Bellona was able to use the chaos as an opportunity to cut the net containing Hephaestus and Frey open. The trio of deities searched for a spot to rendezvous with Athena amidst the swelling chaos. Before long, they found a spot behind a stand of dried meat snacks, and decided to observe the fighting. The Tiber Academy students were organized and coordinated, but they were completely caught off-guard by the sheer disorganization and unpredictability of the Nile High students. What the Nile High students lacked in precision, they more than made up for in enthusiasm.
Out of the smoke of battle a figure emerged. She had long blue hair, grey eyes, olive green chiton and bronze battle armor. At long last, they had found Athena. Bellona and Athena embraced one another in a hug, but almost immediately, they let go and look a bit embarrassed of themselves. Their shame soon turned to happy laugher, as though they were sharing a private joke, and they smiled together like old friends.
Bellona placed her arms around Hephaestus and Frey. "Excuse me, miss. We're having a two-for-one special. They're house broken and they've had all their shots."
"Hmm, I don't know. I'll have to think about it...okay, I thought about it. Yeah, I think I'll take them."
Just then, Minerva charged forwards with her staff pointed towards Hephaestus. She stopped dead in her tracks as soon as she saw Athena. Minerva's eyes went wide, as though she were a sheep who had just stumbled across a wolf. Athena simple smiled and waved, which proved more than enough to cause Minerva to faint and collapse to the ground. Bellona picked up Minerva and slung her over her shoulder.
"Duty calls. Farewell, Hephaestus and Frey. Perhaps we could have been friends, if things were different."
"You know, we could always write each other," Hephaestus offered.
Bellona smiled. "Yes, I think I'd like that very much."
"If you're ever in Vanaheim, give me a call. I'll show you my favorite sketching spots," said Frey.
Bellona pressed the tips of her fingers against Athena's. "I kept my promise."
"Don't keep your distance," said Athena, a wistful look in her eyes.
With that, Bellona rushed off the join her fellow Romans. Athena, meanwhile, made damn well sure that Hephaestus and Frey made it onto the Nile High bus. By now, the yurt had caught on fire and everyone was making their way to their respective buses. That was how it usually went when Nile High and Tiber Academy got into a scuffle; it usually ended in a draw because everyone got board of fighting. As soon as the three of them had sat down, Athena slapped Hephaestus and Frey on the back of their heads.
"That's for not looking before you leaped!" said Athena, but then she pulled them into a hug. "And this is for making it back."
"Got it, look before we leap...literally," said Frey.
"So, anything interesting happen while we were away?"
"You want to know about me and Bellona, don't you?"
Hephaestus smiled nervously. "Well, I kind of parsed out that you used to be her girlfriend. It's just...well, kind of not what I expected."
Athena arched her eyebrow in surprise. "You do know that it's called Greek Love for a reason, right Hep?"
"No, no, I get that's part! I meant it's weird because she's a Roman..."
"And I'm a Greek," Athena finished. "That's what did us in. Dad and Jupiter were less than enthusiastic about our relationship. We broke up, so it goes, but we've learned to make our peace with it. I found love with Thoth, and hopefully, Bellona will find someone to love her."
"I suppose that good and all but...I don't know, it seems a little sad. Bellona's such a noble goddess, even if she is one of the Romans."
Athena smiled. "That's the thing about the Romans, not all of them are bad. Really, none of them are truly evil. Misguided, a bit thick at times, but at heart they are good people. No matter what else happens, always remember that."
At long last, Hephaestus and Frey could simply sit back and relax. The scent of fish and seaweed, which had seemed so off-putting before, now had an almost comforting quality to it. The graffiti on the back of the seats, and the mysterious green stain on the ceiling, seemed to have an almost artistic quality to them. There were some gods and goddesses tossing a glowing ball across the aisle, others who were playing pranks on everyone, and a few who were just chatting loudly and shouting at each other from across the bus. Overseeing it all, a group of teachers were desperately trying to bring about some semblance of order.
It was disorganized, chaotic, wild, unpredictable and overall it felt like home. It was a Nile High field trip, and Hephaestus and Frey wouldn't have had it any other way. There was just one slight problem: there were two version of Dionysus, and one of them was wearing Roman clothes. Not only that, but unless Hephaestus had come down with a case of double vision, there were also two version of Apollo. Hephaestus and Frey looked at Athena, and it was obvious that she'd noticed as well.
"Here we go again," said Hephaestus and Frey in unison.
Athena sighed and pulled out an olive green mechanical bird. "Start new message to @Daughter_of_Rome. Tag, now I'm it."