Written for dahlia_moon at the Dreamwidth comm fic_promptly, for the prompt: "Greek Mythology, the Nine Muses, they depended on mortals just as much as the mortals depended on them."
Thanks to Sovay for moral support.
The Muses are immortal, and they cannot recall when they first came into the world. They are shaped by mortal belief, and their knowledge of their own beginning changes as new tales are told and new songs are sung. In the early days, it does not matter. They dwell in the shining palace atop Mount Olympos, drinking nectar and ambrosia. By day, they dance before Apollo, while the brilliant sunlight gleams from his hair and his golden harp, and at night they share the rites of Dionysos, wilder but no less beautiful.
But things change. The sacrifices grow less frequent, and so do the hymns that give the gods their form. At last Polyhymnia looks at her sisters in despair and says, "They do not believe in us anymore."
The shadow of belief sustains them for a time. Poets invoke the Muses because their predecessors did, out of literary convention. Small consolation, when the Oracle's cave at Delphi ends in bare earth and rock, and Olympos is only a mountain.
Their power to shape the physical world dwindles and then disappears altogether. They realize, to their horror, that they are entirely dependent on mortals to preserve the steps of a dance, the words of an epic poem. The Muses are the daughters of Memory, and if memory fails, they too will fall.
The library is burning. They can feel it, as each manuscript and roll of papyrus crumbles in ash. It is like having pieces of themselves torn away, whirled on the wind like the Sibyl's leaves of prophecy. Melpomene stands transfixed, while the tears slide down her face unheeded. "A hundred and twenty plays he wrote me," she whispers, "and I've lost all but seven."
"The ones who did this," Klio promises grimly, "their names will be forgotten forever."
For centuries they wander. Sometimes they find a home, one alone or a few of them together, but it never lasts for long. All they can do is offer their gift, the breath of inspiration, and hope it is accepted. When they cross paths with Apollo, though his hair shines as brightly as ever, his face is pale and the sound of his harp has grown bitter. Kalliope meets Dionysos one night in the vale of Tempe. "Hail, lord, joy to mortals," she greets him respectfully. "How is it with you, and with your followers?"
"They serve Me still, though they do not know it," he answers with undisturbed calm. She sees the divine madness in his eyes, and shivers.
Though much is taken, much abides, and if the works of humanity are fragile, at least they are endlessly inventive in creating new ones. Euterpe collects lyric poems written in languages that did not exist a mere thousand years ago, and they are sung to the accompaniment of new instruments. Terpsikhore boasts of the new forms of dance that appear in the villages of China and France, or the royal courts of Spain and Joseon.
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. They bend their heads together over the lines, scratched with a quill pen. "I wonder which of us he wants?" Erato teases.
"I miss dancing in the heavens," Melpomene says wistfully. She stretches her slender arms toward the stars. "Lost to us now-"
Klio gives a satisfied sigh. "I knew there was going to be a battle."
"You can't kill off the fat knight," Thalia says, outraged. "He was my favorite character. Plague you with boils and blisters and bunions –" The author can't hear her, of course. They can no longer even pass through the ivory gate of dreams to appear to mortals in their sleep. But they breathe in the lines as they are written and re-written, and it is a little bit like the smoke of sacrifice.
Still they wander, hovering hopefully in dance studios and observatories, beside ball-point pens and typewriters. They console one another over the losses and share the best of the gifts that mortals create. One day Ourania calls them all to a dry, wind-swept plain that vibrates like a great drum. The spacecraft leaps upward, cradling its occupant, and Ourania laughs and sings as she is carried to the heavens in fire.
A hundred and twenty plays . . . lost all but seven: This is unfortunately true of the Athenian playwright Sophocles, whose remaining works include the Oedipus Cycle.
joy to mortals: As befits the Muse of epic poetry, Kalliope addresses Dionysos with a Homeric phrase, kharma brotoisin (Iliad 14.325).
Though much is taken, much abides: A partial line from Tennyson's "Ulysses"
O for a Muse of fire . . .: First lines of Shakespeare's Henry V