This story first appeared in Weird Tales, (Issue #339)
“What!” bellowed King Pudgewort.Slither flinched, but stood his ground. The king was small and round and red-faced, perfectly designed for bellowing. When he was worked up he could produce a yell that would stun an ogre. However, as part of his job as majordomo, Slither had built up a limited immunity.
“You let that maniac into the palace?” the king continued at the top of his voice. “What were you thinking? Every time he gets past the moat I end up in the middle of something awful!”
“I’m sorry, your most royal worship. I writhe and grovel at your feet in apology. I debase myself for your pleasure.” He did none of these things. Instead, he lurked. Tall, thin, and corpse pale, he was an excellent lurker. “It’s just that…” He stopped and rubbed his long thin fingers together.
“Just what? I know that look, Slither. You smell money. You could sniff out a profit hiding at the bottom of a hog wallow. But, is this a profit for me? Or is it a profit for you?”
“Oh, most noble scion, descendent of a thousand generations of divine majesty, it is both.”
“All right. Out with it.” The king folded his short arms across his ample belly.
“The wizard wishes the use of the great hall for a small unusual party.”
“He what? What has Thurible Halfhexed ever done for me that I should let him use my audience chamber?”
“I asked him that myself. He begged me to remind you of how he fixed the dragon problem.”
“Oh, did he?” The king looked at the small cast iron stove in the corner. There was no chimney, and the door was welded shut, but it glowed cheerfully nonetheless. “Did he remember that he summoned the damn thing?”
“I pointed that out to him.”
“Your Majesty,” said a voice from the door. The speaker was more or less a nose in search of a sufficiently impressive setting. He was short and thin with a narrow chinless face and something that looked like a rabid eggplant where his smelling apparatus should be. His hands and feet at the ends of their spaghetti-strand limbs were in proportion to the schnozz. “I might also remind you of the Dryad,” said Thurible.
“Your fault again,” replied the king.
“You have the most productive orchards in this part of the world.”
“Which no man may enter. I had to hire women as pickers. Do you know what they’ve done? They’ve unionized. The ingrates.”
“What about the troll? Isn’t he doing admirably at controlling the rats?”
“She is. But she was also pregnant when she arrived. Now there’s a whole hoard of the damn things running around in the walls, giggling, and singing, and keeping me up at night. And, as I recall, she wouldn’t have been here at all if not for you. I thought I told you never to darken my drawbridge again.”
“I concede the point, Pudgewort. But this time I have something that you must try.”
The king turned purple. “Never, ever, call me by my given name. I am King!”
“Of course, sire,” said Slither, emulating his own name to slide up to the king’s elbow. “But don’t you think you’re getting overexcited? Here, come back to your throne, and take your pill. Then you can judge what the wizard has brought you in a calm manner.”
The king let himself be led. “All right, you have one minute to state your case, Thurible. Then I’m having you removed. By catapult.”
“Here,” said the wizard. With a great flourish he produced a covered dish from his sleeve and lifted the lid. On the exposed tray were a seedcake, a small scone, and a custard.
The king, who had a fine eye for dainties, was not impressed. The scone was lopsided, the seedcake’s seeds were all on one edge, and the custard sagged in the middle.
“Slither! What were you thinking? You let him into my castle, to show me that? Guards! Off with his head! No. Off with both their heads!” The king waited several minutes, but there was no response. “Slither, where are my guards?”
“Gathering flowers, your Majesty. Part of the contract negotiations with the fruit picker’s local. Remember? But come, the sweets are better than they look. Taste them. Please.”
The king let out a great sigh. “I suppose that the only way to get rid of him is to try one.”
He reached out for the tray, taking the scone. It looked the least objectionable of the lot. As the king sank his teeth into the pastry, an expression of sublime pleasure stole over his face. He finished the scone in two bites and grabbed the custard with his left hand, the seedcake with his right. He alternated bites of the two while making little happy noises all the while. When the food was finished, he licked all of his fingers and thumbs, then stared off into space for a while.
“Where did you find this food?” he asked at long last. “I’ve never tasted anything like it.”
“I have been on quest,” replied Thurible.
The king’s face assumed a momentary sour expression. “The last time that you went on quest you brought back that damnable unicorn.”
“Which you now use for stud purposes,” said Thurible. “Doesn’t your stable turn out the finest horses in the nine kingdoms?”
“Yes, but I can only use virgins as stable boys. That thing will kill anybody else who enters its domain.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought of that. I’d imagine you do have a high turnover rate,” said the wizard.
“Actually,” said Slither, “no. We used to, but I mentioned the problem to the Sultan’s ambassador, and he lent me one of their court officials for a week, the royal eunuchator. He’s got these great big scissors you see and-”
The king interrupted. “I’d rather not talk about it, Slither. It gives me a most unpleasant feeling in my guts. If I’d known what he intended beforehand… But that’s neither here nor there. My point was that in the past Thurible’s quests have brought mixed results at best. But this food is unqualifiedly divine.”
“Funny you should put it that way,” said Thurible. “My quest took me into the very home of the gods themselves.”
“Whatever for?” asked Slither.
“I’m sorry, but on that I’ve been sworn to secrecy. If I told you, I’d have to turn you into a shelf fungi.” Slither looked alarmed, and Thurible made a placating gesture. “Sorry, guild rules, and all that. The important thing is that I was aided in my quest by the cook of the gods, Eris. In exchange for which aid, I agreed to sneak her out of Olympus and to set her up in the restaurant business.”
“What?” asked the king. “With food like that, why does she need your help?”
“Two reasons. First, she’s lousy at presentation. You saw how poor that food looked.”
“How can the chef of the gods produce food that looks like that?” asked Slither. “Don’t they complain?”
“No. They’re all terribly far sighted from peering into the future. Anything within fifteen feet of them is pretty blurry, a fact which aided me in my quest almost as much as Eris did.”
“All right,” said the king. “What’s the second thing?”
“Like Justice, the chef is blind.”
“Well then, why a party?” asked the king.
“That’s my idea,” said Thurible proudly. “If you throw a great feast and invite all of the important nobles of the kingdom and all of the diplomats and guildmasters, they will come. Once they’re here they’ll eat. It doesn’t matter that the food looks bad, they won’t want to risk offending you. And, once they’ve eaten…”
“What’s in it for me?” asked the king.
“A permanent table at Chez Eris, which is going to be one very hot ticket. And, a ten percent discount on all take-out orders.”
The king hefted the empty custard cup measuringly in one hand. “I’ll do it.”
It was the evening of the feast and Slither was personally supervising the door to the great hall. Word had gotten out that something special was happening, and there had already been a number of attempts at gate crashing. He was carefully checking invitations when a tall, somewhat disreputable looking man with grey hair and a patch over one eye strode in. On each shoulder perched a raven.
“Excuse me sir,” said Slither, but do you have an invita–” Slither trailed off as the man turned his one eye on him. There was destiny in that gaze, or at least all the bad parts, and Slither changed his tack. “Er, that is… Um. We’d prefer it if no one brought pets.”
The eye held him for a moment longer and then the man bobbed his head once. “Hugin, Munin, wait with Sleipner.” The ravens leapt into the air and flew outside.
“Thank you,” gulped Slither.
He would have gone on, but just then he was distracted by the arrival of another guest. At least, Slither assumed she was another guest. He certainly wasn’t going to ask for her invitation. There was something menacing about her. He couldn’t really put his finger on what it was, but the necklace of skulls was high on the list. So was the feeling that she hadn’t got quite the right number of arms.
With the next arrival, Slither completely gave up on trying to screen the guests and fled to the kitchens. What, after all, do you say to a man wearing a jackal’s head. But the kitchen didn’t seem to be much of a refuge. Not with Eris dominating it. She was a beautiful woman with long golden hair and a very tight, very thin, white tunic. The bandage over her eyes was even thinner, and Slither would almost swear that she winked at him when he entered.
A few minutes of that sent him back out to the hall. He wanted to have a word with Thurible. It took a few minutes, but Slither eventually spotted the wizard. He was escorting an elderly bald man to a seat at the high table. The man was wearing a simple white robe, and his hands shook with a palsy of some kind. Slither pounced. The man was definitely not on the guest list. More importantly, he didn’t intimidate Slither in least.
“Here Thurible, what’s this. I want to have a word with you. There seems to be odd goings-on. But first, I’d like to see this fellow’s invite. I don’t remember-” Slither stopped in mid-sentence when the old man handed him a folded piece of paper. Slither opened it.
“Plato,” it said, “old dog of a philosopher. If you would see your thoughts embodied, come to my dinner. Eris.”
“What else did you want?” asked Thurible.
“Oh never mind,” said Slither. “I’ll be in the pantry. Send a page to fetch me when the meal is ready.”
Slither spent two pleasant hours with one of the wine casks before he was called to wait on his king. After years of dealing with both King Pudgewort and Thurible Halfhexed, Slither had learned how to hold his liquor.
Still, when he reached the hall, he almost lost the few remaining shreds of his composure. The great room could hold two hundred guests with a bit of creative wedging and a certain disregard for personal space. In accordance with that, two hundred invites had been issued. Every one of those guests was there, but so were at least as many more of the uninvited variety. The room should have looked like the inside of a sardine tin.
It didn’t. The majority of the uninvited guests were of the same brand as the skull-lady and the one-eyed man, who had somehow managed to find seats at the high table. There was something about them that didn’t invite the familiarity of crowding. Each was surrounded by a large zone of empty space. And yet, the hall didn’t look any larger. Rather, it looked curdled, as though one of those clever fellows who make the cranes from folded paper had tried to enlarge the size of the room by folding it and then, halfway through, had given up on it as a bad job. As Slither made his reluctant way from one patch of twisted space to the next, en route to the high table, he found that it felt that way too. It gave him an entirely unwelcome insight into the way string must feel when it’s knotted back on itself to form lace.
He arrived at the king’s side just as Eris rolled a huge cart out from the kitchens. As she moved along the tables she placed a dish before each guest. One cart should never have been able to hold all of the meals, but this one did. Somehow this was even worse than fitting too many people into the hall. After all, as a boy Slither had participated in one of those ridiculous contests where you see how many people you can wedge into a chicken coop. His team had gotten twenty-two people into a space that was a tight fit for that many chickens and the experience had left him with a feeling that people actually took up much less room than they appeared to.
Food was an entirely different proposition. As majordomo, Slither was responsible for filling the castle’s storehouses for winter and he knew exactly how much space a ham or a keg of beer should occupy. His feeling of foreboding grew when the cart approached close enough for him to actually see the food. It looked nothing like the sweets that Thurible had brought the king. This food was perfect, too perfect. The old philosopher seemed to confirm that assessment when a dish was placed before him.
“This is indeed the ideal cream pie,” said the man. “There can be no doubt that this is the REAL thing, not just the shadow on the wall.” Then he rubbed his bald head with both hands and wept for joy.
Eris touched him gently on the arm and then moved on. When each person at the tables had been served, she bowed once and reached into a pouch at her side. Suddenly the whole room was crackling with tension.
“And as a special treat for the fairest,” she said, “I present you with this.”
She placed the prize on the center of the high table. It was a perfect golden apple. The skin was without blemish and it looked to be pure, sweet, and twenty-four carat all at the same time. For a long moment nothing happened. Then, like a snake, the skull lady’s hand shot out.
“This must be mine,” she said. “No one is more beautiful than Kali-Ma.”
“Honey, have you looked at a mirror recently?” said a tall woman with golden braids and a very imposing breastplate. “You’re starting to show your centuries. I’m sure that apple is supposed to belong to Sif.”
“I think you’re both wrong,” said a deep voice that set Slither’s spine to vibrating in two-four time. A shadowy figure seemingly shaped from cold fire had risen from one of the lower tables. There was something about him that suggested that he was really much larger than he appeared. “That apple belongs to my spouse. Surtur of the frost giants has spoken.” He folded his arms across his chest.
“Surtur has spoken, how quaint,” said a man with a hawk’s head. “I doubt that he was even invited.”
“This is the FimbulDinner,” replied the giant. “Surtur needs no invitation.”
“Well,” said the hawk-headed man, “we’ll just see about that.”
He turned and scooped the cream pie out from in front of Plato and hurled it the length of the hall. The pie traveled in a perfect ballistic arc, as though it had been baked for violence. The end of the arc was the center of Surtur’s face, and cream filling exploded outward from the point of impact, spraying everyone with twenty feet. A table went over as a motley assortment of giants, titans, rakshasas, and one enormous wolf leaped to their feet.
Surtur grabbed a turkey leg and hurled it like a hammer. It missed hawk-head cleanly, but managed to knock Kali-Ma for a loop, sending the golden apple rolling out into the center of the room. For just a moment it spun there in perfect peace, then a deep voice yelled “FETCH!” and a huge three headed dog went for the apple. He never made it. A watermelon the size of a wild boar struck him between the eyes of his central head and he went down in a heap.
“FOODFIGHT!” the yell seemed to break simultaneously from a hundred throats at once. Pandemonium erupted as the air was suddenly full of a thousand thousand delicacies. Slither stood openmouthed with shock, and he might have been killed by the shrapnel from an exploding pomegranate had not his feet been yanked from underneath him. He fell to the floor and was immediately dragged under the dubious shelter of the high table. Already hiding there were the king, Thurible, Eris, and the one-eyed man. All three of the latter were grinning and shaking hands.
“What is going on here?” the king snarled at Slither.
“I don’t know, Sire. Why don’t you ask Thurible?”
“Because I am never, ever, under any circumstances, going to speak to him again. And, if you permit him within a thousand feet of the palace, I’ll have you hung, drawn and quartered, and then burned at the stake.”
“Oh, don’t be so hard on Slither,” said Thurible amiably. “None of this is his fault, and I’m sure you’ll profit handsomely from the whole deal. Isn’t that right, Odin?”
“No question about that,” said the one-eyed man. “After this, all the gods will place a blessing of eternal bounty on your table. Your palace will never lack for anything. And,” he placed an arm around Thurible, “You have this most excellent wizard to thank for it.”
“I know I’m going to regret this,” said the king, “but would somebody please tell me what’s going on.”
“Sure,” said Eris, “I’ll-” she paused for a moment as a barrage of high velocity maraschino cherries splattered on the table above, momentarily rendering conversation impossible. When they stopped, she resumed. “Every pantheon has a doomsday legend. The twilight of the gods, Ragnarok, Armageddon, the end of the world in any case, call it what you will. Are you with me so far?”
“Yes,” sighed the king.
“Well, through some very fine divinatory magic, Thurible discovered that these were the end days. Barring some sort of surprise we were all going to end up filling neat matching plots in the graveyard at the end of time. Needless to say, he wanted to avoid that. But there’s no way out. There has to be a final battle of the gods. That’s just how the universe is built.”
“Right,” said Thurible. “It was looking pretty grim for a while. But then I had an inspiration. Most all of the gods have signed very strict treaties covering what armaments they may use in the lands of humanity.”
“We had to,” said Odin, “otherwise we’d have wiped out all of our worshippers long ago. Then where would we be?”
“Anyway,” continued Thurible, “I figured that if we could arrange for the last battle to occur here, where only non-lethal weapons are allowed, the world wouldn’t have to end.”
“Hence The Last Supper,” said Eris.
“FimbulDinner,” agreed Odin with a grin. “Extremely clever your wizard.”
“He’s not my wizard,” said Pudgewort through clenched teeth.
“Are you trying to tell us,” asked Slither, gesturing at the chaos around them, “that if this hadn’t happened, the world would have ended?”
“Of course,” said Odin. “Why else would we have gone to so much trouble.”
“Oh,” said Slither. Then he fainted dead away.
Copyright © Kelly McCullough 2006. May not be reproduced without the author’s permission.