In the enormous lounge, impossibly spherical, ever-expanding, many variations on the theme of "head" were bent over game boards. The lack of flat surfaces did not present a problem. The beings devised a ground level that suited their needs and stood on it. The inner walls were black as nothing, but they were decorated with everything. Tiny pinpricks of light, majestic swirling spirals, and intense swathes of color drifted across the black. Plenty of light to play by.
Nobody but gods knew about the Universal Lounge, and nobody was ever told about it. That would spoil the Game.
Near the bottom of the Lounge, a group of twelve gods shuffled in through the wall, looking old and out of place. They were all huddled together as they looked around apprehensively. There was an air of defiant fear about them, as though they were afraid that the vast multitude would rise out of their seats and force them back out into the emptiness. They shouldn't have bothered. Almost nobody had even noticed them come in.
Zeus, in the front, finally managed to get his voice back. "Stop shaking!" he snapped at Demeter. "We all have our pieces. We have a right to be here."
The goddess of agriculture tore her eyes away from the big leather chair at the top of the Lounge and looked at Zeus apologetically. "Sorry. It's just… it's been so long. I hardly recognize the place."
Zeus had to concede her that point. It was certainly much bigger than he remembered, and there were far fewer gods than there used to be. He looked around and spotted an enormous, dusty senet board, shoved up against the wall. The last time the Pantheon had been here, they had challenged the old Egyptians to a winner-take-all tournament. He still remembered the look on ol' Falconface's beak when he'd pulled that Great Alexander and gotten control of the board. Now the senet table was dark and empty, where it had once been full of partying gods. Zeus looked away. The memories stung too much. The Pantheon had finally raised enough belief to buy twelve pieces. This was supposed to be a happy time. He scanned the lounge looking for familiar faces.
To his surprise, there were a few. The first one he saw was Tyche over at the poker table. She was playing against… was that Lachesis? The sex change had gone over well. It was strange seeing her, uh, him without his sisters, but he was focused on the goddess in front of him. Tyche's cat's eyes gleamed the way they did when she had pulled off a successful cheat. Thanatos was wandering around collecting the used pieces as always. He had gotten rather bony, and he had taken to carrying around Zeus' father's old scythe to use as a cane.
Zeus turned around. The rest of the Pantheon was looking at him, looking for reassurance, for confirmation that they were really back, at least for a little while. He saw one of their old tables, set up for them by unseen forces, at the very bottom of the Lounge.
"Well?" he said, hiding his anxiety with what was left of his old confidence. "We've got our pieces. Let's play." He gestured to the table and board, lit with red light by a nebula passing below it.
There was a token protest from Ares, obligated to be the difficult one. "Oh, dad, not that one," he whined. "Hephaestus always sends my piece directly to Sacrifice and Hermes keeps a secret stash of-"
"Be quiet!" Hera said. "You should be grateful that we're even here to play!"
Ares settled down, still mumbling. Zeus occasionally wondered how his son could be so childish even after millenia. He sat down with the others, who were beginning to observe the sacred rituals of any family game night. There are certain rules, even for gods.
"Could I please not be the cobbler for once? I've never had the chance to be the charioteer."
"Would anyone like to form an alliance in exchange for an even split of the belief?"
"No alliances after what happened to the Troy edition board."
"It's just that Artemis is always the-"
"Hey, there's no cobbler or charioteer!"
Zeus took a closer look at the board. It had changed to reflect the lives of the pieces that currently believed in the Pantheon.
"What? Our pieces are children?"
"Everybody has to start somewhere. I can see potential in this."
"Look, the square says, 'Go directly to detention.' What is that?"
"Oh. That's fine, then. I guess we should hold off on the sacrifices until we have more pieces, right?"
A few of the closer gods had begun to take notice of the noisy little table. Zeus waved the Pantheon into silence. "Never mind. It's a game. It will do." He looked across the table at his brother. Poseidon's face was implacable as ever. He was always tough to read. Athena at the end looked as though she had already calculated the groaning Ares' next 50 moves and suitable countermeasures for each one. Zeus felt his sap rising, a bit of his old strength flowed through him again. The strength of belief. They were playing again. That was what mattered.
They were gods. They played competitively, but they were also careful. All of them knew that they had everything to lose.
"Prayer card. 'Give me the courage to ask Tyler out for 500 belief.' Granted."
"Wow. A 1000 profit from that. Tyler must be amazing."
Most gods didn't get a second chance after being booted. Some writer-piece had made new legends and revived old interest. That sort of thing was dangerous. In between moves, Zeus looked to the very top of the lounge. The V.I.G section. He could see, sitting up at the top, The Big Man. Everybody called him the Big Man. His real name was just plain unimaginative. Nearby, yes, sitting nearby was his older brother, the one with the funny name who was famous for once gambling six million pieces and losing, and -Zeus strained his eyes- yes. The younger one who hated having his picture taken or something. The word was that he still hadn't forgiven the Big Man for an old game of Crusaders and Ladders.
"I'd like to purchase Luncheon Plan A."
"Oh, come on, Athena. That gives you the entire corner."
"Maybe if you'd stop drinking, Dionysus, you'd know the importance of good provisions to success."
The Big Man didn't seem to notice Zeus. His eyes were glued to the glowing screen in front of him. Oh, yes, there was a fashion these days for single-god games. Just letting the pieces move about on their own and killing them, Zeus thought with disgust, but only mild disgust, in case it showed on his face.
Everyone knew that the Big Man had made a slip-up. A piece flourished and made new legends, and now the Pantheon was back, with believers. It wasn't a good thing to try and take pieces from the Big Man. He kept his eyes on every one. The ones he had bought had been cheap Agnostic-brand pieces, available to anyone for just a little belief. That was good. If the Big Man caught you stealing, he would challenge you to a game, all or naught. And he never lost.
"Your turn, dear." Hera was nudging Zeus.
"Huh?" Zeus pulled himself out of deep, horrible contemplation.
"It's your turn, Zeus."
Zeus moved his piece and said," Oh, yes. Yes, I will…" he squinted. "'buy the new Perry Johnson book for my… BFF, Annie.'"
A piece materialized in his hand. It looked rather like a young female.
Every god around the table gasped…
…And Zeus' eyes swung like magnets to the Big Man. He looked puzzled. He made scrolling motions on his tablet, as though he were looking for something. Then he looked down, straight at Zeus.
As Zeus prepared to bolt before his ichor froze in the face of the stare, the Big Man's mouth twisted itself into a pleasant grin. He gave Zeus a friendly wave. Zeus gave a sickly smile and waved back. There was evil in that grin.
The Big Man turned back to his tablet, and the Pantheon breathed out again.
"A piece. You got a piece!" Ares whispered.
Hera reached out to brush her fingertips against it, as if to convince herself that it was real.
Zeus' brother recovered first. "So," Poseidon said, trying to cram a bit of joviality into his voice, "what are you going to do with it?"
Zeus said, "Well, I suppose I'll just…" he hesitated in the act of putting the piece on the board and lifted it up again. "No… I have a better idea…" His mind was filled with lightning, the real stuff that he hadn't manifested in centuries. He called softly across the Lounge, "Tyche!"
The goddess and Lachesis both looked to see who had called. His face froze and her jaw went slack.
Tyche recovered first. She politely excused herself and bore down on Zeus, leaving Lachesis to goggle after her.
"Zeus, darling!" she cried. "How lovely to see you again! Please, don't call me Tyche anymore. I changed my name to Luck."
She embraced him. Zeus was very aware of Hera's eyes boring into his back, and he sought to extricate himself from the attractive woman as quickly as possible. She finally let go. Zeus managed to say, "Er, Luck?"
Luck put her head on one side. "Oh, yes, you haven't been here for a while. A few of us, I don't know if you've seen Thanatos, Death, walking around, but a few of us have decided to take new jobs. You know, anthropomorphic personifications. Now Lachesis is just Fate."
"Oh, er." Zeus didn't know, actually. "So, that means…"
"Yep. Out of the running for the V.I.G. spot." She sighed. "Shame. A lot more people believe in me than old Beardo up there." Luck giggled as Zeus waited for the axe to drop.
"Anyway," she said, "you wanted me for something?"
"Oh, yes," said Zeus. He pulled out the piece. "I just got this-"
"Yes, and I was wondering if you'd mind just taking it to Iris."
The rest of the Pantheon gasped at that. So did Luck, her feline eyes wide. "Zeus," she said, any humor gone from her voice, "you aren't actually saying…"
"Yes." said Zeus. "I'm bringing everyone back."
A sort of wild nervous excitement took over Luck's features. She kissed Zeus, and said, "Oh, yes! Right away!" and practically skipped through the wall.
Hera, having recovered from the shock of the kiss, said, "Zeus, what are you-"
He cut her off, "Just feel a little lonely, dear," and he sat back down. "Let's get back to the game while we wait."
The rest of the gods sat down. He looked up and thought to himself, Game on, Big Man. Game on.