Acrisius rose from his seat in the temple antechamber, depositing the eighteen-month-old copy of The Delphian he had been reading on the table, and followed the high priest into the great chamber. He passed a file of people holding poorly mythological beasts—a Phoenix with badly-burned talons; a Chimera with it's snake's head charred to a cinder (the fire-breathing goat part of the animal had turned on the snake part in an argument about whose turn it was to use the digestive tract). Most obvious of all though, at the end of the row of seats, was a badly-gored satyr and a Minotaur covered in bruises and cuts. Apparently, the two of them had got into an argument in a tavern about who was the more mythological.
Acrisius turned to summon his servants, but was immediately checked by the high priest, who, with unambiguous gestures, indicated that he was to come alone.
'The rules, guv,' he said gruffly. 'We've 'ad so many sneaking in their mates for free oracular revelations and supernatural services that we've 'ad to put a stop to it. We've all got a living to make, you know.'
The antechamber connected to the great chamber through a low passage, its walls closely written with the most mysterious and esoteric portents and charms. A narcotic fog hit Acrisius like a slap in the face, but as he became accustomed to it, he surveyed the surroundings with awe mixed with not a little fear, for Acrisius was never at ease with religion. He was one who preferred the simple, earthy things in life—like raping, pillaging, slaying and burning.
It was apparent that some awful invocation was nearing its climax. In the centre sat the Pythia upon a tripod, drugged and crazed, in the throes of some religious ecstasies, with drool and chewed bay leaves collecting in her lap. She was surrounded by priests in robes, writhing on the floor like snakes and chanting summoning spells.
'Ow. Ung. OW! Ung. Apollo. Apollo. UNG! Oong ...' chanted the priests in unison.
'Ayeee! Whee! Yipipee! Whooza! Frooza! Wheeeee ...' replied the Pythia.
It was something like that, anyway.
Suddenly, with a flash and a bang, the figure of a golden-haired man, very beautiful, and shining with a preternatural light appeared above the Pythia. The high priest immediately abased himself before the god, and signalled to Acrisius to do likewise. For a long moment there was silence. Then:
'Well?' said the god angrily, adjusting his tunic and doing up the Olympian equivalent of his fly, 'this had better be important!'
'Hey man, look it works. IT WORKS! Cra-zee. Crazy, man. Like, wild. Like in-cred-ib-le. Like, shit. Like, HOLY SHIT! What do we do now?' the Pythia muttered, and then enunciated in a shrill voice:
'O Great god Apollo. O most holy one. We, your poor servants, the most miserable of worms, the most humble and wretched of creatures implore your most wonderful divine help in ... um ... er ... ridding our land of the ... ah ... famine that ... ah ... has sore afflicted the albeit unworthy and impious people of Delphi ...'
'There's no famine on,' thought Acrisius as he lay on the floor. Apollo, surprisingly, seemed to like this sort of treatment, but before he could reply, a strange box in his belt started bleeping. He pulled it out, extended a shining metal strand from the box, and began speaking into this wondrous device as though he was verily speaking to someone standing next to him.
'Ah. Hi, Dad. ... Where? Delphi. In my temple. ... Who? ... Uh c'mon Dad. She wanted it. ... Why? Look, I'll do what I like! ... I don't care! ... Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. I know. I KNOW. Look, don't bug me, man. She wanted it, O.K.? ... What? WHAT?! WHEN? I DIDN'T KNOW THIS!'
And with another flash and another bang, he was gone.
There was another long moment of silence. The Pythia and priests slowly recovered their holy composure. The Pythia extended her arms in a prophetic gesture and intoned:
'Truly, today we have seen a marvel. Though we are but mortals, we have beheld the most holy countenance of the Great god Apollo. This day we will call blessed. We will tell our children and our grandchildren of the wonder that we have seen. Yea, let no-one doubt the holy power of the Delphic Oracle!'
Acrisius, though brave enough in battle, was quite unnerved by this experience. The high priest led him toward the Pythia, and bowed before her, saying,
'Your holiness, this unanointed one was present during the divine revelation. Shall I have him blinded?'
'Blind the King of Argos? What do you want? Another Peloponnesian war?' She paused for a minute, and then added, 'What's he here for?'
'He needs a son to succeed him,' answered the priest.
'Hmmmm. Lost keys, chariots not starting, runaway slaves, stray pets and horses returned, no problem. But sons—tricky. Has he tried screwing? That is probably the surest method.'
'I suspect that he probably has, your holiness,' replied the priest gravely.
'Well, let's see what we can do.'
She stuffed another clump of bay leaves into her mouth and began chewing. She then closed her eyes, and for a long while sat there motionless apart from the occasional jaw movement. Minutes passed. Acrisius was just beginning to think that she had forgotten his request when she leapt up.
'Mmmmmff. Mmffllgrr. Mnnnnnnfrglfrgl .....' said the Pythia. She then spat out the bay leaves. Her eyes began to roll, and she shot her arms up suddenly in apparent supplication to an invisible presence hovering above her head.
'Two words,' said a senior priest standing on the right. Her left arm dropped, and the right was held in front of her, palm outwards, as if forbidding approach.
'First word.' The Pythia drooled and uttered a despairing wail.
'Oooooooooargh! Umnnn! Umnnumnnn!' She then gestured solemnly with her right index finger to her ear.
'Sounds like.' She fell on her hands and knees and crouched low on the ground, snarling like a one-headed Cerberus. Acrisius' nervousness increased with every second. He wondered whether it had really been worth it. All the bribes of pretty slave-boys he had given to the Delphic Secretary to secure him an early utterance; hanging around in the queue all day waiting to wash in that filthy Castalian shower with smelly barbarians, queer athletes, and worst of all, that wretched poet who claimed to be blind and kept feeling for the tap around everyone's private parts. He also wished that he had taken the opportunity to make use of the latrine instead of struggling through that boring article about the favourite food of famous poets in The Delphian when he was in the antechamber.
'Dog?' said the priest. The crouching figure shook its head violently.
'Lizard? ... No, not lizard.'
The Pythia got up and hurled herself at the ground a second time.
At this the woman nodded and grinned like a harpy at the sight of a good dinner, making obscene coaxing noises at the same time.
'Low?' said the priest. At this the Pythia nodded more furiously than ever.
'Sounds like low ... hmm. Mow? Flow? Blow? .. Sow?'
By now Acrisius' senses had had enough, and his body decided to give itself a rest. He fainted dead away and lay slumped in an attitude like a Sphinx after mating. His lurid dream was horrific indeed. He was pursued by a Hydra, eight of whose heads gnawed at his bowels, while the ninth, which had the Pythia's face, screamed what he later realised was a recipe for Moussaka into his ear. After hearing the insanely loud parting scream 'Gas mark seven until the topping is golden-brown!' spat from fangs covered in ghastly crimson, he then plunged over the edge of a precipice and was caught by the blood-dripping ghosts of everyone he had had put to death that month. They buried him up to the neck in sacrificial entrails while the blind poet's dog threateningly lifted a leg next to his head.
'No! No! No!' he screamed, so loudly that he woke to find the priests applauding him in a patronising fashion.
'No—well done. Quite right. You must be psychic. The first word seems to be "No".'
Acrisius recovered his composure while the Pythia stuffed her mouth with another wedge of bay leaves. She continued, holding up both hands and gargling repulsively.
'Second word,' intoned the priests. The priestess grinned inanely and held her hands up to her face, one on each side, fingers splayed as if the depict shining rays of light.
'Clown? ... Idiot?'
As Acrisius watched, he began to smell a many-headed Stygian rat. Something inside him just snapped; his head was a little clearer and his eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness. The Pythia, obviously, was doing a very immature impersonation of the sun. The drachma dropped.
'Son,' he said confidently. The Pythia collapsed on her tripod, nodding feverishly. The priests, however, were far from pleased. One correct guess from a client was bearable, even encouraging, because it demonstrated his eagerness and belief; but to have the entire oracle interpreted by a profane mortal, without the intercession of priests threatened their very livelihood. They rounded on Acrisius and prepared to take him to task.
Acrisius, on the other hand, was himself angry at having been put through what seemed an absurd ritual just to be told that he was not going to have a son after all. His native impiety asserted itself and he barked at the priests before they could begin.
'Oh, bloody marvellous! Just superb! I've spent a small fortune in time and money for nothing! Just how much do you clowns get for this little freak show anyway?'
With their holiness in question the priests were furious. This sort of thing rarely happened. Most people were true believers and shut their mouths in pious gullibility. But they knew just what to do. There would be no need to blind him or tear out his tongue as there might be for a commoner—they had ways of dealing with awkward potentates.
'Be careful, my child: be careful,' they said, 'The entrails spoke of the danger of impiety when we read them yesterday. The great god Apollo, whose mouthpiece we are, will be greatly displeased at your uncouth ravings.'
Acrisius blushed crimson with embarrassment. If news of his outburst got out, his name would be Griffin droppings. He would have to bribe the temple press officer—Oh Zeus! Was it all worth it?'
'As to your grandson ...' said the right-hand priest, turning and winking at the Pythia. She evidently got the idea: she rose, her eyes bloodshot and her mouth fixed in an insane grin. She gurgled.
'Oh ... bugger ...' moaned Acrisius. She breathed in the incense deeply and fell backwards, all her limbs pointing in the air.
'Four words.' One leg stayed up.
'First word.' She crouched into a ball.
'Small word ... if .. on .. an .. up .. it ...'
Acrisius was now considering the awful prospect of not having a successor to resist his detested brother's claim to his throne. He considered in this difficult moment that if he was lucky he might get killed, but if not might be imprisoned with Slesius, the disgusting homosexual Centaur who Proetus unleashed on his personal enemies once they were in his power. Acrisius winced involuntarily and returned to the spectacle before him.
'He will ... third word.' The Pythia leapt upon one of the small Hippogriffs which scavenged for the remains of burnt offerings under the sacrificial table and throttled it.
'Kill,' said the priests in unison. She then pointed with determined emphasis at Acrisius.
'I'm afraid you'll have no son, but your grandson is going to kill you, Acrisius. That will be seven pairs of oxen, a pure white ass, four bronze tripods and a cauldron. Thank-you so much. Goodbye.'
'But ... but ... are you sure about the message?'
'Couldn't it mean that he will be a great warrior ... or a well-known Hippogriff wrestler?'
'I'm afraid not. There's no mistake. Now if you don't mind, we've an anorexic Ogre to see ...'
Acrisius was herded through the exit door where a precise and offensive acolyte presented him with his bill.
'How are you going to pay?'
'Olympian Express,' he said weakly.
'That will do nicely. Have a nice day,' said the acolyte with a smile like a corpse. This infuriated Acrisius.
'I'll have a nice day,' he shouted, grabbing the wretched official by the throat, 'Yes, I'll have a nice bloody day, you slimerat! You mealy-mouthed pimp! When I've mangled your scrawny white neck, you miserable blood-sucking vermin!!!'
'Section two, paragraph 4a!' squealed the acolyte, 'Temple handbook volume four! I do not have to put up with this! This is intimidation! Help! squealed the acolyte. I am being intimidated! Help! HELP HELP!!'
Three guards appeared and pulled Acrisius off the official, the latter of whom went into a fit of hysterics as soon as he had recovered enough strength.