Aggression tinged his voice, but it was largely assumed. Threats, he had swiftly found out, were meaningless where pain was simply an experience to be savored and death a temporary pause before re-creation. War meant nothing here. But here was not his world, as his companion gently reminded him.
"No doubt." The Iron Orchid yawned prettily, covering her mouth with one delicate hand. "All have the power of gods here at the End of Time. Perhaps you are God of War, but you are still just one incarnation of many in the multiverse."
Ares shifted slightly, admiring her body, naked but painted over with a variety of shades of yellow, lines and swirls meeting and melting around the curves of hip and breast. She had come upon him wandering in the ruins of a deserted Olympus and immediately offered the sanctuary of her home and body. Ares had accepted, thinking her an innocent to be used and disposed of as necessary. He had revised this impression; she was neither clueless, nor an innocent but her intelligence served him better, especially as his powers seemed not to work in this strange land.
He had defied the implicit ban on time travel to journey to the End of Time. It had been a risk, coming so far ahead that even the Fates had not yet spun their threads, but it was the risk that provided the possible payoff. What was not yet written could be altered. From here he could search back, examining the alternate realities for a safe haven or a way to save the gods. His audacity had paid off beyond his wildest dreams. Zeus was here already.
"Men have died at my command," he said, with some idea of impressing her with his importance.
"There will always be fools." She sat up, surveying him through surprisingly knowing eyes. "You would rule us, War? Many have tried."
"And?" He tried to make the question innocuous.
The woman smiled slightly and lifted both hands to encompass their surroundings. "And? And here we are."
Here, at this precise moment, was the shore of Lake Vesuvius whose pink waters bubbled and boiled as they had once done in pre-apocalypse Italy. Ancient culture, Iron Orchid had told him, was the fashion just now and the End of Time boasted at least five versions of Olympus, although only this one had any traits recognizable to Ares. Perhaps that was what had led him to this place when he first arrived, nauseated and disorientated by his journey through the ages.
"Perhaps my arrival was fated?" He was genuinely curious as to her thoughts.
Her glance was catlike. "It was certainly poetic."
Ares laughed, despite his frustration. "Which is all you care about."
"Authenticity," Orchid agreed, tucking her arm in his and strolling towards the lake, "is not always in evidence in our creations but where imagination has guided it would be churlish to chide."
"Imagination profits me nothing."
"Nor is it meant to. It exists for pleasure alone. You confuse me, Ares. For there to be profit must there not also be loss? Tell me then, God of War, what have you lost?"
He hesitated; trust was alien to his nature. Her very self-sufficiency made him wary. "My father, Zeus."
The Iron Orchid stopped at the edge of the water and tested the temperature with the heel of one foot, before stepping in and splashing along the shores. "Your Zeus is dead. You told me so yourself. Your lives and deaths are but legends here. This other Zeus can hold nothing but trouble. It's dangerous to meddle with other dimensions."
"They – we – were real. We were betrayed and destroyed, but I will find a way to restore what has been lost." His fingers curled in impotent rage, looking for a sword he no longer carried. "Dimensions can be crossed. It has happened before. I need to find the other Zeus."
The woman watched him, knee deep in pink water, her skin subtly changing, her body taking on the hue of the lake except for her eyes, which were now huge and black. "Perhaps," she said. "In a little while. Time is nothing."
There was irony here: he, who as an immortal had always defied time, was now aware of each passing second. He needed to act now. She argued. She persuaded. She cajoled. He would not wait. She gave in with good grace and agreed to take him to Zeus.
The king of the gods was being kept by Werther de Goethe in his castle, high on the edge of the dark cliffs.
"Kept? He is a prisoner?" Ares was surprised. Iron Orchid had told him that all enjoyed absolute freedom in this society.
Orchid laughed. "Not as you would term it. Werther has had rooms made for him, such as he would have enjoyed in his natural environment. He is part of the display, but still, he could leave at any time he desired."
Ares shrugged, not really interested enough to pursue the distinction. He was more concerned with how to capture this version of his father. He put the question to her.
"Werther will see us," Orchid replied nonchalantly. "He would not refuse me."
"You're very sure. Are you lovers?" asked Ares, mentally examining the idea and wondering how it could be turned to use.
"From time to time, when the mood strikes." She observed him closely, letting her eyes linger approvingly on the curve of his biceps and the bulge of his crotch. Her lips curved up in amusement. "Beautiful and tragic. Werther will adore you. Zeus will be yours for the asking."
Ares should have been relieved but her assurance irritated him. He strove to reassert control. "But will I him?"
Her look turned sardonic. "Does it matter?"
They flew to Werther de Goethe's castle on a winged unicorn called Peggy Lee. Iron Orchid, dressed now in robes of primrose feathers, rode sidesaddle supported by Ares' arms around her waist. She pointed out landmarks as they traversed the landscape.
Gold. Lavender. Titanium. The colors shifted and merged in a rainbow kaleidoscope then slowly began to bleach out, the gaudy tones fading to white before darkening again to gray and black. As the gothic towers of Werther's home came into sight, a storm broke, wind and rain and lightening announcing their arrival. Gulls circled the high turrets, crying their stragne, harsh song of loss.
Despite the gloom, Werther had been transparently delighted to see them. "Iron Orchid," he murmured bending over her hand in a courtly gesture. "You lighten the darkness of my existence."
"And you darken the lightness of my being," she responded smoothly. "Werther, this is Ares, God of War. He comes seeking his father, Zeus."
Ares stood to one side and studied his host. Werther was white skinned with long auburn hair worn loose around his face, black-tinted lips and eyelids; ageless and beautiful, his manner was oddly boyish, hesitant in this society where self-doubt seemed unknown.
Werther turned to Ares at the introduction and bowed low. His dark eyes lit up in sympathy. "Ares, son of Zeus. He has spoken of you often, but forgive me, I thought you dead."
"To him I am." Ares spoke flatly.
The Iron Orchid stepped in to explain. "Father and son are not from the same universe."
Werther glanced from one to the other, parting his lips with a audible breath as comprehension set in. "Ah, I see. You are dead in his universe, while he is dead in yours."
"I want to see him," said Ares.
"Of course." Werther agreed, his face grave. "How could you not? But are you sure you should? If you were closely connected your meeting could alter events in both your worlds."
"I intend it to." The statement came out like a threat. Ares realized he was standing tense and rigid as if for battle and forced himself to relax.
Werther watched him for a long moment his expression unreadable. Ares wondered what his own expression said. A movement from the Iron Orchard broke the spell. His host gave a resigned shrug. "Then it shall be as you wish. Come. I will take you to him."
Ares breathed in, aware at once of a lessening of some deep fear and a sudden rush of adrenaline. He had done it.
Zeus stood tall and graceful, clad in cloth of gold, but his face was lined with sorrow and his eyes held none of the pride of the god that Ares knew. For an instant his father had looked ecstatic before his eyes dulled in pain. "What fresh torment is this?" demanded the god, in obvious distress. He slumped down on the velvet throne Werther had provided and gazed down at his laced fingers. "Why do you torture me with ghosts?"
"Look at me, Zeus. I'm not a ghost." Triumph, hostility and resentment mingled in Ares' voice. He stared at the god who was, and yet was not, his father.
"Yes, you are," Zeus refuted, his voice breaking on the words. He put his hands over his ears and began to cry. "You're dead. I killed you myself when you tried to betray us. You're dead. Dead. Dead."
"Not in my world." Ares came close and crouched by the broken god, pulling his hands down to make sure he was heard. "In my world you're the one who's dead. And do you know who killed you? Your beloved son, Hercules."
"No. He was never anything to me. I always loved you best. You know that."
"Liar." Ares spat out the word. A lifetime of slights came to the fore, it didn't matter that this was the wrong Zeus; he was still Zeus. It was enough.
"Why did you betray us?" Zeus face was filled with hurt bewilderment. "We loved you."
Ares paused. He had imagined this scene so many times, tried to plan for every possible variation, but he never considered this – a Zeus who had loved him.
"Oh, it's delicious." Werther de Goethe spoke behind him, his voice trembling with passion. "The emotions are so…intense."
Ares turned towards the noise. It proved to be a mistake. In a lightening move, Zeus was upon him, hands wrapped around his throat.
"I will kill you again, and then you'll stop tormenting me," he sobbed.
Ares reached up to free himself. Werther was there first. The lightest of touches on his power ring and Zeus was thrown across the room. His head hit the edge of a table with an audible crack. The god gave a groan then lay still.
"Is he dead?" demanded Ares, rubbing his neck where his father's hands had pressed.
"Werther, who had been examining the body looked up. "Temporarily."
"I want him," Ares said, unable to hold back the words, although he knew that patience would be the wiser course. The whole encounter was proving more unsettling then he had imagined. Orchid was wrong, he thought inconsequentially, where there was love and hate there would always be war.
"Naturally," said Werther, as if there could be no doubt. "Why else did you come?"
"And what do you want in return?" He spoke bluntly.
"Payment?" Hurt bled through Werther's voice, the midnight mouth quivered slightly. "I want no payment."
"A gift," rephrased Ares, hurriedly. The Iron Orchid had tried to explain that Werther would not want anything beyond the experience but he had been unable to take it in. The idea of doing something for nothing was not one he could understand. He tried now to make amends, anxious not to offend. "In token of gratitude."
"I ask only yourself," said Werther simply. "Only for a moment."
Ares grinned. The request was not unexpected but he was surprised to
find that it was also not unwelcome.
"Done," he said.
They shook hands formally and sealed the bargain.
Richly patterned carpets appeared and the room warmed. They were in a different chamber but Ares had no time to examine it. Werther took his hand and raised it to his blackened lips, kissing the inside of his wrist. Ares felt a sudden stab of arousal, like the aftermath of a battle, mixed with almost unknown tenderness. This strangely powerful boy was attempting to seduce him.
He turned his hand, cupping Werther's chin and holding him still while he leaned forward until their lips met. The seduction reversed. Ares kissed him until they were both breathless and the boy was trembling in his arms. They broke off, each taking in great lungfuls of air.
And reversed again. Werther dropped to his knees and stared up at Ares. His dark lips were swollen, pale skin flushed, and his breathing still quick and uneven. He drew Ares' cock into his mouth and deep into his throat, milking it with a series of swallows. No whore had ever sucked so him so exquisitely as this exotic creature. Dark eyes sought his and held his gaze. He came, thrusting deep into the accepting warmth.
"I'm going to fuck you," promised Ares, as they lay entwined on the soft rugs.
"Soon," agreed Werther. "But first I want to love you."
He prepared Ares carefully, easing into him with the skill of ages, until he was fully sheathed, hot skin pressing against his back. Then he seemed all boy again, thrusting deep and hard, pressing damp kisses against Ares' neck and whispering sweet endearments into his ear.
They fucked and slept and fucked again.
"I have to go back," said Ares at last. He made his voice final, surprised to find that it was an effort. Drowsy lassitude made thinking difficult. He limbs felt drugged with honey.
"I know. I expected nothing else." His lover was resigned. "We can only borrow time. Your destiny is in the past."
"You believe in destiny?" Ares rose reluctantly and gathered his clothes.
"Fate is our master."
He was scornful. "Only if you let it be. You have the power to control your own fates."
Werther's pale features reflected disbelief. "The route changes; the destination remains the same." He twisted his power ring. A black robe of supple leather fitted onto his shoulders, capping black silk trousers and shirt. He added an earring and boots matching Ares' own. "You wish to go now?"
"Yes." He quickly completed his own dressing.
Suddenly they were back in the cell with Zeus. The god lay on the floor where they had left him. Werther closed his eyes in concentration and the figure trembled slightly.
"Is that it?" Ares had expected more, some flashing lights or a sound effect.
"It should have been. It's not working." Werther bit his lip in consternation. He tucked a stray hair behind his ear. "My memories aren't strong enough to animate him. We'll need to use yours to bring him back." He held out his right hand. "Put your hand on my ring and think of Zeus."
Ares did so, deliberately bringing to mind Zeus as he had known him best. The prone figure trembled again and started to rise. Ares dropped his hand and held his breath. Zeus sat up and turned towards them.
"You." He stared at his son, the familiar hatred in his eyes.
Ares walked to the king of gods and pulled him roughly to his feet. "Welcome back, father. I've come to take you home."
The destination is still the same.
Werther smiled mournfully and turned away. Ares began to laugh.
Werther de Goethe, the Iron Orchid and the End of Time all belong to Michael Moorcock.