Chapter 1: Opening Act
by Jeff Grubb
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Gods: Super-powerful celestial beings that not only control the myriad universes, but are invested and entrusted with the very being of those universes. Gods are broken down into great houses or pantheons, which in turn control portfolios, ranging from the powerful to the mundane. More powerful gods within each house are charged with the more powerful duties, while the more mundane tasks -- well, they are left to younger, less experienced divine beings. These lesser godlings gain their training in small matters, in Portfolios where (it is to be hoped) they will not do TOO much damage.
-- Amandar's Great Big Book of Divine Power

Jest, who was Prince of Fools, Child of Humor (House of Art), Godling of Pranks and Demigod of Pratfalls -- in short he was a very, very minor god -- was seriously trying not to enjoy his assigned chores. Everything on his list was right up his alley, and he would have been most disappointed should these tasks have gone to a sibling or cousin, but the very presence of an organized list offended him. It seemed to suck all the life out of the joke when you knew what was going to happen.

First there was the matter of the skunk, which the young acolyte was sneaking into the choirmaster's office. Of course, that was the intended prank, but Jest's task was to loosen a few threads along the bottom of the bag, so that it would instead drop the skunk in the nave, right before a paladin's ordination ceremony began. The young lad quickly discovered his skunk was missing and was crawling around beneath the pews just as the organ fired up the first notes of the processional. At that point Jest left.

From there Jest shifted into a snow-covered world, where the locals gathered outside a theatre for the debut of a major ballet. A breath from Jest melted the snow before the ticket office, then a wave of his hand froze it again, just in time for a society matron to go sprawling forward, fur stole flying, slamming into a ragamuffin scalper. A nice bit of work worth a few chuckles from the surrounding swells, but still a fairly traditional prank. As a bonus Jest moved to the stage itself and left a similar slick spot there, carefully exiting before the prima ballerina pirouetted onto the suddenly greased stage.

Then on to another world. He had to be a boomer, appearing in a comedy club on one of those worlds that had forgotten most of its gods. Those worlds always made Jest's skin crawl, since he was effectively functioning off the residual beliefs of other followers in other worlds. As a boomer he just had to lighten the mood in the audience, laughing a little louder than normal and clapping a little harder. But the act killed and really didn't need him to promote it. He did spot a mean drunk at the corner table -- the type that would rush the stage, grab the mike, and start telling the "real jokes" that the other guys at the shop always laughed at. Jest tied the mean drunk's shoelaces to his chair, paid for his own drink, headed for the john, and kept on going.

And so it went. Leaning a broom too far into a passage, at ideal tripping level. Deepening a pothole on a busy thoroughfare. Tweaking that perfect insult in a ten-year-old's mind. Guiding that bear closer to the picnic. Overseeing the invention in one dimension of the whoopie-cushion (always a high point to the day). But the spontaneity was missing, so Jest rarely tarried around long enough to witness the fruits of his efforts. It was just before the celestial noon before he reached the end of his list. And that was more boring still. He sat for a moment on a lonely tor, watching the multiverses spinning around him, all with believers and nonbelievers, mortal groundlings who lived their lives under the beneficence of the Great Godly Pantheons.

Boring.

Jest rose to his feet, dusted off his harlequin pants, and cracked his knuckles. He thought about heading back to the Artistic House. Bad idea. The Lesser Goddess of Dance might be there, and she might have already tweaked to which of her siblings greased the skids beneath the prima ballerina. Very bad idea.

Best to stay away from the rest of his pantheon for the moment. Instead he cast his mind out to the others. Whisper was in her listening post. Tears was wallowing in a funeral. Storm and Sand were feuding again over some small matter. And Rust . . .

Rust was far out in the hinterland dimensions -- the ancient, fallen worlds. And he was up to something very odd, for Rust.

Jest looked around, made sure nothing funny was going on, and then winked into the ancient existence.

The minor god of Rust was sweating heavily, his hands pressed against a door of dark metal. The surface of the door had been carved in a deep-runed frieze, but the aeons had reduced it to little more than a rounded canyonland, with the original carvings now merely faded squirmings over its ornate surface.

Blood-red sweat streamed down the side of his dark-red face. He didn't even look up when Jest manifested next to him.

"Go away," he said simply.

"Whatcher doing, Rusty?" said Jest, ignoring him.

"My tasks," said the larger godling. "Don't you have the same?"

"All done, big guy," said Jest. "Some of us know how to budget our time and resources for maximum efficiency."

"Hmph," growled Rust. "I'm surprised the God of Punking knows the word 'efficiency'."

"A good joke is always an effective joke," said Jest. "Short and sweet. Besides," Jest leaned over his shoulder, "I know words like that because I have the time to learn. Because of my ef-FISH-she-en-cy."

"Go away," repeated Rust. "We can talk later."

"Watcher doing, then?" Jest shielded his eyes and looked up at the rune-covered door, tall even by godly standards.

"Working," grunted Rust.

Jest made a thoughtful noise. "It doesn't seem like you're getting a lot of traction here. I've seen you bust through mountains in shorter time."

"Not trying to," said Rust, his voice a little strained, "I am pulling the rust OUT of this door. Making it stronger."

"Hoo!" laughed Jest, and for moment could have sworn that Rust's deep red flesh grew redder from embarrassment. "Who did you cheese off in the Fire Pantheon to gain THIS little task?"

"I did not cheese anyone . . ." began Rust, half-turning from the door. The door groaned a bit and patches of red began to spread on the surface.

Rust placed his hands back on the door, "Crap," he said. "Crap, crap, crap."

"Sorry," said Jest, sounding for just a half-second as if he was sorry.

"Can you come back later?" said Rust. "I'm kind of busy here."

"Sure," said Jest, but he didn't dematerialize a single atom of himself. Instead he looked over Rust's shoulder. After a pause, he said, "You wonder why?"

Rust nearly leaped at the sudden noise. "What?" he shouted.

"You wonder why?" repeated Jest. "Why you're keeping a door from rusting."

"Because I was TOLD TO," said Rust crossly.

"And you do everything your elders tell you to?" said Jest. "Don't answer that -- I know the answer. Young Rust, devoted scion of the Great House of Fire, charged with the small but necessary task to oxidize, tarnish, and weaken."

"Do you MIND?" said Rust.

"Not in the slightest," said Jest. "Thanks for asking. No, but the 'why' I was asking about was 'Why would the Fire Gods, your Lords of Destruction, want to keep something intact?' Wouldn't something like this go to the Forge Gods? Hammer's people? Why this particular task? Why you?"

"I said, I was . . ."

"Told to, yes," said Jest. "But it's an odd use of your god-given abilities. I mean, it's like asking me to write an opera." Jest paused for a moment, and Rust hoped briefly that Jest would merely grow bored and wander off. Instead he added, "Did I ever tell you that I did try to write an opera? Using armpit noises."

Rust shook his head and tried to keep from smiling, "Don't you have someone else to bother?"

"They're all BUSY," said Jest. "Chores. Tasks. Allotted Duties. Whisper is plugged into her gossip network. Tears is being his tedious self. Leaves is out doing turn-of-the-season stuff."

"Perhaps they would be better company than I," said Rust. He could feel the dark metal beneath his fingertips down to the atomic level, and it seemed to be actively resisting him, fighting back his attempts to pull the oxidized parts away. He redoubled his efforts, very much aware that too much force, too little grace, could exacerbate the situation and cause it to rust faster.

"And Sand . . ." started Jest, then stopped. "But never mind."

Rust's hands nearly left the door. "Sand? What about her?"

"Nothing," said Jest. "She's busy with her own tasks. Assigned by her elder dods, the House of Earth and Wind. Like the rest of us, shackled to the responsibilities of creation."

"But you know something," growled Rust.

"Only that she's on the same plane with Storm right now," said Jest, as calmly as he could.

Rust cursed again, "She's with Storm? What is she doing with him?"

"Who am I to analyze the motives of the gods?" said Jest, a smile crossing his face. "Oh that's right, I'm another god. A very, very minor one, like you and I and Storm, but deity-class nonetheless. And all I said is that she is in the same reality with him. It doesn't matter if they're working together or apart, or even against each other."

"Fine," snapped the Rust god, his eyes boring into the great door, "Can we just change the subject?"

"Not a problem," said Jest. "Here I was worried that you might get jealous."

"I am NOT jealous!" snarled Rust, and his hands began to glow red for an instant. It was only for a fraction of a second, but it was enough to undo the entire careful structure he had been building all morning. Lines of dark crimson spread from his palms across the face of the door, and the ancient surface began to fracture like an eggshell.

"Crap!" snarled Rust, shoving his hands back against the door, but it was too much pressure now. The spiderweb of rusted cracks now breached wide, glowing deep from within as the metal reached a point of spontaneous combustion. Heat leaked out from within the depths of the door, and pieces began to slide away, an avalanche of dark, glowing, rusted metal cascading down upon them.

Jest took three steps backward as the door became a pile of metal dust. Rust did not move, and the entire flow of the collapsing door wrapped around his legs, burying him to his knees.

Before them the portal yawned open into a Stygian darkness. A gust of trapped air, smelling of things long dead in this dimension, wafted out around them. Before them there was nothing but ebon depths.

For only a moment, there was silence between the two godlings.

"Crap," muttered Rust, softly. "Crapity crap crap. My elders are going KILL me."

"Sorry about that," said Jest, the ghost of a smile crossing his face. "I suppose we have no other choice now than to investigate. See how much damage we really did."

To be continued...


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