"My flesh crawls as I listen to them pray. The day of doom has waited long.
They call for it." -- Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers
Part 1 by Thamiris
The younger gods felt it first: a pain that rippled across their skulls like a red wave. It swallowed their strength, made even breathing hurt. Nothing could cure it, although Asclepius fed them crushed lavender soaked in myrrh and old nectar. Ate, already weak from her fall to earth, wept ichor tears in a sunless grove, fingers grinding into her temples. Cer, daughter of Nyx, stopped haunting the graves of murdered men to curl up, moaning, in a cold corner of Asphodel. Herse, who'd swept the grass each morning with the hem of her green gown, refused to leave her bed, and the meadows turned dry and brown.
A light breeze of worry billowed through Olympus, down into the sea and under the earth. Excuses followed, pathetic attempts to explain the inexplicable, and beneath that, quiet streams of relief, especially from the Twelve. To avoid the truth, they celebrated with elaborate parties, and came costumed in silks and jewels, hiding their faces behind intricate masks even when they coupled, which was often. As the plague spread, and gods began to die, the festivities grew wilder, more carnival than funeral. Time lost shape, and night became day, then night again, in a senseless sequence. Confused, the people stopped offering gifts, and shrines began to burn, then crumble.
And still the parties continued.
Then one sultry summer morning, Hera woke gasping as a raven clawed behind her eyes. Terrified, she rushed to a scrying pool, expecting a reflected skull. But the face wavering in the green water was hers, only with shadowed eyes and pallid skin.
Not mortal death, not yet. But soon.
* * *
"It's Eli's followers," Hera announced from her throne. She sat stiffly, even before her assembled family. "They're killing us."
Ares shook his head, fingers clicking restlessly against his sword's pommel. "No, they're disorganized. Xena and Gabrielle are too busy with Eve to guide them." The panic sounded more like irritation, which pleased him. His head ached, had been aching for days, worse every hour, and he tolerated it today only because demigods, it seemed, weren't immune to this fucking plague, either. He'd searched out Hercules this morning to kick his ass for distraction and found his half-brother white and shivery, with Iolaus danced worriedly around him.
"I say it's that mewling brat's fault," Hades snapped. In the faint gold light, he seemed to glow with an unearthly shine, both his death-honed flesh and his pupil-less black eyes. "The Fates swore she'd ruin us. Zeus is dead because of her. It's not just Eve's fault, either, but yours, Ares, for interfering, for thinking with your cock instead of your brain again. Let's kill her. She won't suffer for long."
"Why don't you go fuck--"
"It's not the child." Athena stepped between them, the top of her head barely reaching Ares' chin. "Ares is right. The peace-lovers are scattered, waiting for something to happen."
"You know so much: so what is it?" Apollo leaned back against the wall, arms folded over his chest. Yeah, he looked calm, Ares thought, but he was fooling no one. Even the blond hair, Apollo's pride and joy, hung limply.
A shift in the ether, and Hephaestus materialized, head tucked down as always. "I think I know."
"You?" Apollo rolled his eyes, then closed them.
Hephaestus ignored him, moving awkwardly toward his mother, right foot dragging. An iron shield appeared in his hand as he knelt at Hera's feet. "These have been showing up a lot in the weapons Hades sends me."
"I don't understand."
"It's a Roman shield," Ares said. "So what?" Joining his brother at the dais, he took it from him. Uninteresting, overall: hexagonal, fairly small, framed in bronze. The front was divided in four, a different god's face painted in each section. "So some soldier's hoping his favorite corn-god'll save his ass in battle. Big surprise: it didn't work. We all know that the Roman gods are weak. Caesar never gave them a chance."
Hephaestus was nodding. "Caesar spoiled us. He saw the gods as competition and replaced their images with his, knocked down or appropriated their temples...If anyone was going to be worshiped, it was him."
Apollo let out his breath in a long hiss. "You've really lost it, you crippled idiot. We're fucking dying here, and you're giving us a lesson in Roman history." But he remained with his back against the wall, as though for support. And when Ares looked up again, Apollo had half-turned from the room, sneaking a drink from a small silver flask.
"The Senate might've hated him, but the people loved Caesar," Athena said thoughtfully. For the first time, Ares noticed how tightly her skin was drawn over her small bones, how she seemed to have shrunk. But the mind stayed sharp as her sword. She had balls, his sister. "When Augustus took over, he had to distract them somehow. What better way than by giving them back their gods?"
"The Romans gods are causing this. We're dying because they're growing in strength." Hera raised a fist, and the shield rose with it, before exploding into a million tiny particles with a sharp splintering sound that tossed echoes through the chamber. Then she collapsed back on her seat with such force that her upswept hair tumbled down. No one went to her, and Hera didn't bother to brush away the dark strands that now hid her face. She seemed half-dead, her chest barely rising.
"I'm outta here--" Apollo began when Athena struck him hard across the cheek. He crumpled to the floor, clutching the flask to his chest.
"You useless bastard," she spat out. "We've spent enough time indulging ourselves. It's time to face facts. Either we kill the Roman gods, or we die. And we do it together."
Ares' pain dulled for a moment. "Let's go kick some ass." He drew his sword, felt reassured by its solid weight. "That's what we need. Action."
Hades whirled toward him. "You do that, and we'll be counting Chronos' bones in Tartarus."
"You son of a--"
His sister raised her hand. "This needs planning. We can't go running off to Rome--not like this. We don't know our enemy. I suggest that we send a few spies to their camp. Discover their weaknesses. Then we act. Those of us who stay behind will use what's left of our power to hide their divinity and let them pass for mortal."
"I'll do it," Ares said. "I'm sick of waiting around."
Athena smiled cooly. "You can go, but not alone. You'll need someone there to keep you in check. Hades, you go with him. Shut up, both of you," she added over their protests. "Now, we just need to figure out how to get you into the city without alerting anyone."
"There's a Corinthian delegation heading there," Hades said reluctantly. "A few of the soldiers have been talking. Apparently Iphicles wants to secure ties with Rome to prevent an invasion."
"Perfect." Athena waved her hand, and Ares' leather vanished, replaced by the blue and black livery of the Corinthian court. Another wave, and Hades wore a similar outfit. Walking over to Apollo, she plucked the flask from his hand, assessing the remaining contents with a quick shake. "Good. There's enough of this left to scramble the memory of a few dozen mortals. Just get into Iphicles' palace, pour a few drops of this into the wine, and they'll believe anything you tell them. The effect won't last forever, but you should have a good week or two."
Ares beat Hades to the flask, tucking it into his pocket. "Ready to raise some hell?"
But Hades had already gone.
* * *
Part 2 by Foxmonkey
Ares materialized in a crouch - expending the energy to appear in Corinth had driven an iron spike of agony through his head. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," he groaned. He grimaced, willing the worst of the dull flashes of pain to the back of his mind. He hoped Hades hurt as much; they could have saved a little energy and gone together. He stood slowly, looking around.
Just as he'd thought - he'd hoped - the smug leader of the Underworld was beside him on the grass, curled in on himself. "Hey, quit napping," Ares said, nudging his uncle with his toe. "We've got work to do." As the god of war he was used to pain; Ares guessed that Hades' resistance had been dulled by millenia of unchanging life in Asphodel. He ignored the muffled curses Hades muttered, and quickly assessed the situation.
They'd materialized in the palace gardens. Too early for giggling, strolling courtesans, the place was deserted. The trees and flowers, normally among the finest in Greece, looked as sad and nearly defeated as the gods that tended to their needs. Ares glanced over his shoulder; behind him, Hades had gathered himself together and was slowly rising to his feet.
"Thanks for the toe in the ribs. That was helpful." Hades' expression was grim as his eyes swept over the gardens. Ares gazed at him a moment. "What?" Hades asked, a note of offense in his voice.
With a twitch of Ares' finger, the slicked-back, slightly silvery sheen of Hades' hair was lost, and it softened, longer than Ares realized, falling across Hades' forehead. A blush of life warmed his pallid complexion. His eyes, which seemed startled and slightly outraged, were now deep blue. Ares' own eyes widened with surprise and approval.
"Quit staring - this is how I looked before I descended into Tartarus. Which way?"
Squaring his broad shoulders, Ares led the way toward the throne room, their bootheels clicking a counterpoint to the throb in his head and the beat of his heart. Fingering the flask inside his jerkin, Ares wondered if they weren't about to get themselves killed.
* * *
"Show me something I can fucking well use, or get out," Iphicles said through clenched teeth. Augustus was riding Rome's throne making noises in Corinth's direction, and it was obvious that the king was harried.
The court livery had gained them unchallenged entry. Ares and Hades stood at the back of the room watching silently as the delegation tried on and discarded diplomatic approaches designed to appease the new emperor.
"Augustus isn't an unfair man. I doubt you'd need anything fancy to woo him." Ares stepped away from the wall as everyone in the room turned to see who had spoken.
"Who're you?" Iphicles asked. The challenge was softened a bit by the way Iphicles' eyes lingered over his body; his miscreant half-brother's brother obviously had good taste. Ares could use that to his advantage.
"Just a man who wants to help, Sire." Ares gave a little bow, and stepped closer. "May I?"
The wrinkled mouths of Corinth's sage advisors parted in howling protest, and the king scowled. Iphicles waved a hand to silence them. "You're giving me a headache." He nodded at Ares. "Proceed." Once again the king's amber eyes turned his way. Even in the midst of arguing with his court, Iphicles seemed to find the fit of Ares' clothing a pleasant distraction. Ares bowed again, maintaining eye contact, and a light flush of crimson stained Iphicles' high cheekbones.
There was a momentary distraction when several stewards entered the room, each carrying a silver tray bearing pitchers and goblets. Ares glanced up to see Hades, under pretense of checking the ewers for poison, let a tiny, glittering drop fall into each one. Apollo's brew should weaken their stiff, aging necks.
"Highness," Ares continued, looking at Iphicles, "August is fair to his people; he's taken a great interest in improving the lives of ordinary citizens. He refers to himself, in fact, as the first citizen of the republic. The average Roman probably sees him as a breath of fresh air after Caesar's tyranny." He paused; Iphicles' interest had been piqued. The king idly swirled the contents of his goblet, a smile playing at the corners of his lips.
"Who *are* you?" Iphicles asked again.
Ares took a goblet from a passing boy. "Approach him as one ruler to another, one…first citizen, to another." He took a sip from his goblet; Iphicles' eyes met his as they both drank. "Save the impressive displays; he's not like Caesar. He's improved the city and he's a patron of the arts." Ares took another small sip of wine, noting that the king did the same. "Augustus," his gaze followed the long line of Iphicles' body, "appreciates beauty."
The heady brew was taking effect; the advisors were talking softly amongst themselves, and all were nodding. When he glanced at Hades, his uncle's look was approving, and for the first time, Ares thought he saw respect.
* * *
"That was your big plan?" Hades asked when Ares returned to his place at the wall. "Although that little seduction was lovely to watch. Where'd you get all the information on Augustus?"
The angle of attack had been decided upon, now the council members talked with the king to finalize plans. "I kept an eye on Rome after Caesar's untimely demise," Ares answered. "Caesar had introduced me as Mars, so I had a small obligation to my handful of Roman devotees. I'd spent a lot of time there; I just wanted to make sure that things were going well under the new emperor."
"You wanted to see if the new emperor was as much fun as the old one," Hades snorted.
"Why Uncle, I'm shocked." Iphicles looked up and over at him a little too casually, and Ares tipped his head in acknowledgment. "As it is, it seems things were going a little too well under Augustus, at least as far as the gods are concerned. I never sensed anything in my last few visits. Guess I stopped too soon."
The crowd around the king suddenly broke into smiles and they all began shaking hands. Iphicles stood and cleared his throat. "We've decided on a course of action. Plans will be finalized tonight, and in the space of a few days, we'll start for Rome." A small cheer rippled through the room and interrupted whatever he'd said following; he paused to let it die down. "In the meantime, your king is tired, and needs to confer with his new aide." Iphicles locked eyes with Ares, and the look of surprise on Ares' face was only partly feigned.
Beside him, Hades gave a soft hoot.
* * *
Part 3 by Narcissus
Athena paced. Each passing moment brought greater pain and less strength. She could see it in the faces all over Olympus. Sending Ares and Hades was a start but it might not be enough. In any case, it was unlikely to bring relief soon enough at this rate of deterioration. She needed help.
She knew where to go; she just hated to go there and hated to ask that witch for help. As much as Athena prided herself on her prowess in battle, her greatest strength had always been her keen, orderly mind. She had devoted her immortal life to reason and matters of the intellect. She'd devoted countless hours to fostering the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge among the mortals under her care. The person she needed now was the antithesis of everything she stood for. Well, it could not be helped. Wisdom told her to find help regardless of her dislike for the source.
* * *
If Athena's palace on Olympus was a testament to the greatness that could be achieved by the intellect in harmony with the senses, this place had to be its opposite. She always felt nauseous when she came here. In her weakened state, she could barely stand. The horizon refused to stay where it belonged. Clumps of land floated by and turned into what passed for clouds in the greenish sky. In the distance, a purple-black river changed its course and coughed up gouts of bile that solidified into fuzzy black puppies. Living fodder for whatever a witch might want to brew.
Athena shuddered and centered her mind and will as best she could. Might as well get on with it. She drew the knife quickly across the throat of the lamb she'd brought with her and muttered her incantation. She felt the witch materialize behind her just as the horse head peered over her shoulder.
She turned to find the dog's head staring at her, tongue lolling in a parody of a faithful companion delighted to see the mistress. "Hecate, please," Athena groaned. "You're much easier to talk to when I only have to look at one head."
"Very well," the lion's head sighed. There was a puff of vile, black smoke and Hecate stood before Athena in her more human form, the guise of the crone. Athena noted that the crone looked quite vigorous, far more vigorous than she herself felt. In fact, as vigorous as she always did. She said as much.
"Perhaps my power comes from a different source than yours, a deeper source, " the witch whispered. "Whatever is going on, and I can feel it in my bones, I've remained strong so far. It's so nice to see you, my dear. I've been expecting you."
"Have you seen anything that would help us? Do you know where this is coming from and how?" Athena might not enjoy being in Hecate's presence but she had ultimate respect for her ability to see.
"So far, nothing is clear. I'm not at all sure the Roman gods, or at least our counterparts, are to blame. Those Romans devour the gods of everyone around them, then birth them anew in a Roman form. But that's for future speculation, my dear."
"Can you help us? We need you now." Athena worried about time slipping by. In Hecate's world, time shifted as much as did the ever-malleable landscape.
"I can do many things. Some for now and some to become clear in the visions. And, of course, there will be a price. In time, I can brew a potion to halt the sapping of our strength. But first, we need protection for the two emissaries you've sent to Corinth. You've sent two of our strongest into great danger. What we need is a mortal with powers of sorcery to protect them." Hecate's strange, watery eyes grew unfocused for a moment. "The king. It will have to be the king. Although I hate placing so much power into a male vessal. Ares will have to bring him to the crossroads. And," she grimaced, "Ares will have to control him. Can he do it?"
Athena's face was set in stone. "He'll have to. What's your price?"
Hecate chuckled. "The price? Your newest mortal lover, my dear. She'll have a featured role in a little ceremony I'm planning."
* * *
Ares hated being ordered around by females. He'd had his own plans--a little seduction laced with a strategy session. He sensed that he and Iphicles would soon see eye to eye on Corinth's mission to Rome. With any luck, they might also soon be cock to ass. Instead, he'd had to excuse himself temporarily from the king's presence on the pretence of needing to relieve himself so that Athena could order him to get the king to some crossroads so Hecate could pull some sort of hocus pocus. It was enough to make a god scream or blow something up. And while Ares feared little, Hecate gave him the creeps.
Hades had disappeared, muttering something about reconnaisance and how the king's affairs were so disorganized. Fat lot of help he was.
Ares straightened his shoulders and smoothed his mortal clothing. As much as he hated to admit it, Hecate usually knew what she was talking about. He'd better start scheming how he was going to get this king to the crossroads.
When he entered the king's chambers a few moments later, all signs of turmoil were gone from his face. "Your highness. Sorry to make you wait." He smiled the smile that turned most immortals weak in the knees. Its effect tended to be even more devastating to mortals.
"Please. There's no need for formality here," the king said, as he turned from the table with two goblets in his hands. "Make yourself at ease. My name is Iphicles and I'd much prefer you to call me that" While Ares had been gone, the king had removed his vest He stood before Ares now in a soft woven shirt and tight leather pants.
Ares thought he looked good enough to eat. And ready to be seduced. He'd planned to lull the king into letting down his guard, then knocking him out and transporting him to Hecate's altar. Instead, it looked like pursuasion might be possible.
Ares reached for the proffered goblet, managing to brush Iphicles' fingers with his own in the transfer. Although the king managed to control his reaction well, immortal eyes could see the slight shudder that rippled down his spine. Ares wondered what it would feel like to lick those full lips and caress the seam between them with his tongue. Perhaps he'd have a chance to find out. Sometimes Hecate's little ceremonies had a decidedly kinky component.
* * *
Part 4 by JJ
Ares lowered his eyes to the goblet, to hide his thoughts. He knew in his weakened condition, he could give something away and the last thing he wanted to to do was give Iphicles any reason to not trust him.
"Thank you," he murmured using a low seductive tone. "Iphicles." Ares carressed the name putting all the seduction into it he could.
"Tell me, how do you know so much of Augustus?' Iphicles asked moving to his desk and settling a hip on it. He had never seen a man as beautiful as the one before him. He was captivated, but he was not stupid. The fact this man had shown up at such an opportune moment, with the needed information, was just a little too coincidental to Iphicles' liking.
"I travel quite a bit, and have been in Rome since Ceasar -- died," Ares answered carefully taking a sip of the wine.
"And you are privy to the Roman Counsel?"
"Oh no," Ares soothed, realizing the confusion brought on by the drug was already ending. However, Ares was a strategist and able to deal with the unexpected development. "Augustus is trying to calm the people after the way Ceasar tried to bully everyone. He wants the people to know he's human. What I have told you is pretty much common knowledge in Rome."
"You speak Greek fluently and without an accent," Iphicles pushed slightly.
"I am Greek." Ares looked straight into Iphicles' eyes and held them for a moment, he allowed his presence to fill the room, despite the pounding it brought on.
He moved towards Iphicles, intent on bringing this seduction to a quick end and getting the man to Hecate. He realized he was getting weaker and even though he did enjoy the chase, this was not a time to indulge himself.
"I must admit, I am intrigued, but I don't even know your name?" Iphicles said with a half smile. "Who are you, sir? Who are you that you show up in my court, just when I need you, wearing clothes that name you as one of my court, who I have never seen before." He stood and moved towards the man. "To be honest, if we were on a battlefield, I would run you through as a traitor. You are too good to be true."
Ares smiled, knowing that what Iphicles said was true. He was not a trusting man when it came to unheralded good fortune.
"Then you would lose a wealth of information. Come, Iphicles. Walk with me and I will tell you all of my secrets," Ares enticed.
"On two conditions," Iphicles said, moving to within arm's reach of the man.
"And they are," Ares responded staring blatantly at the king's full lips.
"One, you tell me your name."
"Armes," Ares replied, leaning closer to Iphicles, intent on capturing his lips and finalizing the seduction. "And the second?"
"That you hold still for a moment." Iphicles reached up and wrapped a hand into Ares' hair and kissed the god. Suddenly, they both found their arms wrapped around the other, their lips sliding against the other's. Ares' arm came around Iphicles and pulled the man fully against him and for a moment, they battled, the king versus the god.
A sharp knock on the door, and the two broke apart breathing hard.
"What?!" Iphicles demanded.
"Uh, your majesty," came the hesitant voice of his manservant. "The food you wanted."
Iphicles stalked to the door and snatched it open, while Ares stared out the window and saw an aggravated Athena staring at him.
"We don't have time, Ares!"
"I am doing my best. Would you prefer me in a prison for kidnapping him - we are talking about trust here, Athena. He has to trust me enough to take me to Rome." He thought at her, cursing her for the pain it brought on.
"We are talking about our survival, Ares!" She answered his thoughts.
"Let me deal with this. I will bring him to the crossroads. Make sure the witch is ready to do whatever she thinks is best."
Athena nodded and disappeared. Without thinking, Ares put a hand to his temple. The pain was like someone slowly putting a dagger through his head.
"Armes, are you all right?" Iphicles asked, placiing a hand on his shoulder.
"Uh, yes, the wine," Ares stumbled. "I usually don't drink quite this much."
"Perhaps the walk you spoke of would help ease your head."
"Yes, that would be good."
So the king and the god with several guards went into the gardens Ares had gained entry by some hours before. Ares knew that just outside these walls, there was a meeting of three roads as well as the river.. He leaned against the outer wall, Iphicles looked at him questioningly, noting the pallor and the sweat that dotted the handsome brow.
"Are you feeling better?"
"These walls - how do you stand them?" Ares questioned.
"I agree there are times I yearn for the open country, but I am the king, and must be protected at all costs."
Just then a team of horses went by, and Ares lifted his head as if listening. He looked left and right, and saw a doorway. He looked back at the king.
"The guard will have a fit, but if the walls bother you that much, be my guest."
Ares went to the door and slid the latch aside and as he pulled it open, he was pulled back against Iphicles' chest and drug backwards, a knife pressing into his ribs. Ares had enough sense not to fight, realizing what this might look like to Iphicles. A set up to let someone inside the castle walls. He weakly lifted his hands.
"Do you know how lucky you are that no one came through that door?" Iphicles hissed in Ares' ear.
"I apologize, your majesty. I did not realize what that would look like," Ares responded as Iphicles released him. He felt the knife removed and the arm around his throat release him. Ares stood up and straightened his clothes. He turned and watched Iph sheath the blade. He was about to say something when a female scream sounded from outside the walls, both man and god turned and saw a woman lying in the middle of the crossroads and an older woman screaming. Iphicles brushed past Ares to help.
Iphicles ran to the woman, apparently unconscious, his guard close behind him, Ares taking up the rear. He knelt and gently turned the woman over. A moment later, Athena stood up and stared at her brother angrily.
"Took you long enough," she hissed.
"Hush, Athena. He brought the one who will hold the power. Now come, the three of us can move together more easily. We take all of them, and bring them back in just a moment. I cannot hold time forever, you know."
Ares looked back at the castle. Hades waved a hand, he would watch things from here. Ares stepped to open side of Iphicles and his guard.
"Ready?" he asked the crone.
"Always, Ares," she responded meeting his eyes.
Ares wondered if she saw the shiver pass through his body just as they disappeared from the crossroads outside Corinth.
* * *
Part 5 by Candace
Hades leaned indolently against the garden wall, pursing his lips in thought as the Olympians disappeared with their newest pet mortal. He had been toiling away in the bowels of Tartarus, as usual, while the obtuse twelve had frittered away any timely advantage they may have had, reveling in song, the grape, and one another's bodies.
The Lord of Asphodel had given the matter much thought while Ares was busy playing at seduction with the amber eyed mortal. Hades prowled through the warrens of corridors in the Corinthian castle, brushing the minds of the various servants and statesmen, then slid through the catacombs beneath the stout palace, listening to the stories that the stones in the vaulted walls sung.
Hades had been turning the matter over and over in his mind. Did the slain Roman soldiers not kiss the hem of his cloak once they'd taken their mortal wounds? Did the Latin prayers to Pluto not reach his ears as easily as the Greek prayers to Hades?
Athena's logic must have been flawed, Hades deduced, for was he not an aspect of Pluto, and Pluto a persona of his? To suggest to the fiery Athena that her logic was faulty would have been tantamount to searching for a knot in an endless loop of string. It was much easier to agree with her and be sent along with the War God to Corinth (and ultimately, Rome) to perform his own investigation.
Yet, as Hades traced the waves of wrongness and unease, he found that they did radiate from Rome like rings emanating from a pebble dropped in a still pond. Someone caused his strength to ebb, and someone sent bright shards of pain through his skull -- someone that had the gall to tamper with the person of the King of the Underworld.
Hades intended to make that someone very, very sorry.
* * *
Iphicles blinked in dazed confusion, searching for the fallen woman he'd rushed to succor. Below him, where her body had been, was the strange, silken grass of some bizarre foreign land, golden yellow and limp as hair.
Armes shuddered as a floating clump of clammy sod brushed by his cheek. "Here?" he demanded, trying hard to keep the panic from his voice as he beheld the foul dominion. "We had to bring him here?"
"Armes," the king gasped, drawing his long dagger to protect them both from the strange phenomenon. His guards were poised behind him and an unnatural posture, running, frozen in mid-stride.
"Hold, Iphicles," said the strange advisor, his voice taut with exhaustion. He placed his hand on Iphicles' forearm gently, though he didn't try to force him to give up his weapon.
"All right," snapped a petite woman, the one who had been sprawled upon the road, but was now at Iphicles' side. "We have to hurry. There's no time to coddle anyone's tender emotions here." She turned to a crone who was smiling vaguely, though where her rheumy eyes lay was anyone's guess. "What do we do now?"
The ancient hag chuckled, a dissonant, singsong noise. "Now, my dear, now -- now we take the two who will be sacrificed, made more, made less, made into that which would not be without that piece of the other."
"Wait," Armes whispered in Iphicles' ear, for the warrior king was wound tightly, and ready to stab first and let Hades sort out the mess. The king nodded once, trembling with the effort of his restraint.
Armes looked to the small woman in warrior garb. "What the fuck happened to the plan? Ha -- Hames and I were handling things just fine."
The 'plan.' Of course there was a 'plan.' It was too perfect, the way this Armes had shown up when he did. "I knew you were too good to be true," Iphicles growled.
The warrior woman shot Iphicles an acid look. "Don't worry, Your Highness. He'll grace your bed happily -- if he lives long enough."
A flush of angry color spread across Iphicles' cheekbones. How dare she?
The woman swung around to Armes. "Don't you dare imply that I've changed the plans to suit my own purposes. Don't. You. Dare."
"Come, my pretty, come," crooned the crone, coaxing a fifth figure out of a stand of twisted, red trees that bent as if they wished to return to the earth.
Iphicles raked the young woman with his eyes, trying to determine what role she played in the absurdity. A Northern Amazon, she was swathed in pelts and beads, the great, curling horns of a ram upon her head. She held her face carefully blank until her eyes fell upon the warrior woman, then her expression lit like the dawn. "Great Goddess," she whispered, touching her fingers to her lips in a gesture of reverence.
Goddess? Iphicles thought. Uh-oh.
"Noemi," the goddess replied sadly, and Iphicles saw the weight of the world on her slumped shoulders.
"Now, now, now," cackled the hag as she inscribed a pentagram into the limp grass with a stick of willow. "Don't mourn yet, my dear. She would sacrifice anything you wished of her, no?"
Iphicles watched the Amazon's quick eyes as she took in the nature of the situation. "Of course," she answered, her voice strong and clear. "I belong to Athena to do with as she wishes. I would never question the Goddess' will."
Athena, then? Iphicles' throat went dry. Whatever was happening was deadly serious.
The crone guided Noemi by the elbow to a point on the pentagram. She turned, then, to Iphicles. "And you. Would you accept the divine gift of sorcery in order to protect the gods of Corinth?"
Iphicles turned huge eyes to Armes. "Is this true?" he whispered, wondering how he, a mortal could possibly hope to protect a god.
The handsome advisor nodded tersely.
Iphicles made his decision quickly, for a good ruler could see when there was little time to weigh and measure. He stepped onto one of the pentagram's points, stating, "I accept."
The bent crone gestured for Athena and Armes to position themselves each upon a point, then took the long, well-worn dagger from Iphicles' unresisting fingers. "Wisdom of the ages, wisdom to foster the growth of civilization, wisdom to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors," she sang, her voice an eerie thread. She took Athena's hand and drove the tip of the dagger into her palm as the Goddess of War watched stoically. "Wisdom and war," she whispered, and Iphicles felt a sursurrous rush of power as the goddess' blood spilled into the center of the glyph.
Iphicles' flesh prickled as the ancient woman turned to Armes, her cloudy eyes unreadable. "War, the domain of the mortal animal, friend turns against friend, brother against brother in the fight for dominion."
Oh, Iphicles thought, stunned, for he knew now that the man he'd been tasting earlier was Ares, God of War.
Ares stretched forth his palm, not flinching as the dagger cut into his flesh. Iphicles supposed the wound was small compared to all the others he'd taken in his long life. An eerie chill ran up the king's spine, though, as Ares' blood joined that of his sister. "War and power," the ancient witch sang.
The crone shuffled to the apex of the pentagram, humming to herself. "Power," she chanted, "power to shape the minds of men, power to cause empires to rise and fall, power to cause the death of the gods." He voice rose, shrill on the final note, as she plunged the dagger into her own hand, saturating the earth with her purple-black blood. "Power and wisdom."
An unearthly wind roared in Iphicles' ears as the hag plunged the dagger into the earth, which wailed as she stabbed it. "Power and wisdom and war, keen the blade of mortal metal, sharpen it to the hone of spirit."
Iphicles swallowed bile as the crone dragged his blade from the wounded earth, now glowing and ghostly where the old metal had been. She turned to Noemi, who had watched the proceedings with laudable calm. The Amazon nodded once, and the witch slid the blade into her sternum with no effort at all. The crone drew the blade downward, and while Iphicles was certain that something was happening, he saw no gore.
"Yours is the power of sight, the power of fire, the power of spirit. This is the gift that you sacrifice for your lover." The elder plunged her hand into the ghostly wound and drew out a swirling, prismatic ball of energy. Noemi blanched as the incorporeal mass was taken from her, but her eyes met Athena's and seemed to find strength there.
The witch turned to Iphicles, who faced her, proud and brave though he was shaking inside. "And now we grant you the power of sorcery, that you may protect your lover-to-be with your sword and your mind, lest he go the way of the gods that have faded before him."
Iphicles scowled but accepted the kiss of the ghostly blade. It felt like the atmosphere before a great storm, laden with crackling energy. His eyes tracked the witch as she pushed the glowing ball of energy into his ribcage, where it swelled and filled him with an uneasy strangeness.
The hag stared at Iphicles' broad chest, scowling. "Not enough room," she muttered, thrusting her hand within suddenly and plucking out a sparkling blue mass with a sickening twist. Iphicles sagged, stunned by the indefinable loss within him. "We'll take this out of the way," she said, flicking the azure energy at Noemi, who gasped as it entered her body.
* * *
Part 6 by Oshun Anat
Noemi gasped as the overwhelming energy filled her. "Oh Goddess!! Rena!!"
Iphicles glared at the witch. "Who’s Rena? What have you done to me!"
"I have taken that which you no longer need. The grief for your dead wife will only hinder the cause by blinding you to the truth behind his demands. The powers I have given to you will only go so far, you must have clearness of thought or all will be lost. Your control of your grief was but an illusion, and it would not have taken much to make you lose your grip. Remember this: this Caesar is no different than his uncle. He may love the citizens of Rome, but Julius taught him well. He knows you. Your strengths, and your weaknesses. And now you have one less weakness. I have done what I have set out to do. The rest is up to you."
Hecate seemed to sink into the ground as Noemi’s form stopped shivering. "Oh Athena, he loved her so much!"
Athena cradled her lover and soothed her. "Together we will work through this. I will help you turn this grief into something more productive." Turning to Iphicles, she said "Take good care of Ares. We need him to survive if we are to win the war." She left in a shower of golden sparkles.
"Shall we, my King?" Ares offered his hand to a slightly shaky Iphicles.
"Yes, we shall. We shouldn’t keep my advisors waiting…I really don’t need to put up with their mindless chatter today. And who is this Rena that she is rambling about?" Iphicles started to walk back to the castle, not waiting for Ares to follow.
Quickly catching up to Iphicles, a startled Ares asked "You don’t remember her at all?"
"No, why should I?"
"She was your wife."
"That’s impossible. I never married."
"You were married for years."
"No, I was not! Stop telling me these lies, lest I leave you to fight whomever your enemy is alone!" He reached the palace gates, and scowled at the chamber guards. Reaching the throne room, he called for advisors. With a swift gesture, he dismissed Ares, and turned to the closest and asked "How go the preparations for the trip?"
* * *
Ares had waited a few minutes to see if Iphicles would invite him back into the conversation. When it became apparent to him that he was not wanted, he left for the small chamber that had been assigned to him.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, cursing as the headache began to take hold. <<Hecate, what have you done to him?>>
The crone’s voice filtered through his mind. <<Merely taken away all memories of his dead wife Rena.>>
<<Was that really necessary? He is not the man he was before>>
<<Yes, it was. I had to ensure that nothing would stop this plan. As much as he has gotten over his grief, it still haunted him. Now nothing stands in your way. His thoughts are clear. He will protect you when you reach Rome. >>
<<How? He won’t even speak to me now!>>
<<He will, and you will go with him. Iphicles is not a fool. You know about Augustus Caesar. Therefore, you are an advantage to him. But he will not waste him time in conversation with those that cannot help in the present. You will be called upon. Have patience>> With that Hecate effectively ended the conversation.
"Have patience. Easy for her to say." He sighed, and went in search of uncle, in the hopes of hearing good news.
* * *
Part 7 by Toridon
He watched the scurrying activity from a great distance, steeling himself, as he always did, to withstand the onslaught of thoughts and feelings that flickered through and around him like so many errant wisps of smoke. Fear and panic, hatred and love, worry and misplaced confidence, condescension and humility: these and a thousand others, past and present, vomited through that part of his mind that served as an isthmus for the procession of emotional history of all those who walked on two legs. He felt the weight of it pressing down on him, and the underlying essence of ultimate futility drew a covert sigh from his breast.
He turned and walked back across the immense chamber, his arms clasped loosely behind his back, and faced the imposing figure seated behind the massive desk. "May I speak, my lord?"
Calm eyes, framed in an impassive countenance, rested steadily on his face. "You may."
He took a deep breath. "Is there no other way?"
"No. There is only this." At his wave, numerous advisors and counselors moved swiftly and silently, the door closing behind them with a soft thud. He rose and walked slowly around the desk. "Are you not yet reconciled to what must be?"
"It seems a drastic step," he said, struggling to replace the instinctive rhetoric of compassion with polite words that might persuade without angering. "This is so … final. We are giving them no chance at all, either to survive or to prove themselves."
"They have been given such chances in the past. Opportunities for gentle change have been ignored, and imprecations from various quarters have provided all of them with the greatest amusement. The death of their ruler gave them neither the desire for reflection on the progression of destiny or the impetus to adapt to it." He stepped away and moved back behind the desk. "Must I put into words, once again, what you know quite well?"
"I simply believe --"
"We have not chosen their path. THEY have chosen their path." He seated himself with grand deliberation. "Resign yourself to the necessity of what must be done."
He shook his head. "I do not see the necessity! It has never been explained to them, and we -- yes, WE -- have allowed them to go on with their existence, have never required or even requested that they expend effort in analyzing the consequences of what they might choose to do. For thousands of years they have existed according to a set of precepts that have been deliberately upheld and consistently reinforced. Do we now have the right to change those laws, without warning, and then penalize those who have no way of knowing that they no longer apply?"
He watched, with sinking heart, as the elder's face hardened into a familiar visage. "Had any of them ever looked beyond their sacred Olympus and their placid assumptions of ownership of the universe, they would have discerned the winds of change long before now. They were given every opportunity to adapt. They chose not to." A heavy hand slammed onto the flat of the desk. "It is not incompetence that has condemned the Olympians, overwhelming as that might be -- it is their own conscious will."
He gestured emphatically toward the opaque glass. "We are asking them to play a game for which they have not the rules, with pieces that are deceptively masked, using clues that are at best shadowed and in some cases deliberate prevarications. The deck is stacked in such a way that black is white, night is day, and right is wrong." He closed his eyes, fighting against the tightness of indignation in his throat. "There is no justice when the die is already cast."
He felt the impenetrable gaze fixed on him, even through closed eyes.
"You still harbor the childish, ingenuous hope that any of them have the intrinsic insight and strength of character to redeem themselves, even at this late date."
He met the stern face of the elder and spoke in a voice that quivered with exhortation. "I still harbor HOPE, yes. I must." He stepped forward, his gait steady. "I invoke my privilege in this matter to ask that they be given the chance to survive. That there be one path, clear enough to be seen by those who choose to see it, by which they can avoid annihilation." He took the elder's hand in his own. "I ask for one last chance for the Olympians."
* * *
Part 8 by Tacitah
After several days of frenetic activity, the delegation was ready to leave for Rome....
Ares clutched the railing, "Gods don't get seasick, gods don't get seasick." Became his mantra as the swells of the waves gently rocked the ship back and forth. Hades didn't look much better. Another sign of their weakening condition. Iphicles, on the other hand looked tan and healthy, confident as only a king in his prime can be. Ares glared at the robust figure, they would be back on dry land soon enough.
The power Iphicles had received glowed from within him. The ceremony had given him the powers, true, but not the knowledge of how to use them. Ares could sense the power, but Iphicles had been unable to access them as yet. Both gods had spent several frustrating days trying to teach the new sorcerer, but a God's powers and sorcery don't work quite the same way. That was partially why it was so important to bestow the powers upon Iphicles, but it was maddening at the same time.
Ares looked up to see the king approach.
"You don't look so good, " concerned, Iphicles put his hand against the god's sweating forehead. "Here," Iphicles pressed a small bag into Ares' hand. "Put this in your mouth and suck on it."
Ares peered into the bag, "Candy?"
"Candied ginger, a sailor's best friend." Iphicles smiled, "I never leave home without it, I'm not a very good sailor. Come on, let's get you inside. Just looking at the waves makes it worse." Iphicles helped the God to his feet. They lurched and staggered across the deck as if they had just come back from a three-day-drunk.
Iphicles had never really thought of the gods as being very human.... There was of course, his annoying little brother, but Hercules was his brother. Earthbound, decidedly mortal, except for his strength, and perhaps his 'I'm always right' attitude. Most annoying. After weeks of close quarters with two of the twelve Olympians, he was starting to see a resemblance with the Demigod. Then there was Ares, seductive, charming, powerful, sexy and sick as a dog. Iphicles hid his grin. Somehow seasickness in such a powerful God was an endearing trait.
Then there was the matter of the power bestowed on him. They said that he would be able to perform magic now, not that he had seen any evidence of it. Hades and Ares had spent the entire voyage tutoring him, but nothing had happened.
The ceremony itself was a blur. Faces, images, but nothing concrete that he could really remember. He was shocked to learn that the beautiful young advisor was none other than Ares, God of War himself! And the other was Hades, Lord of the Underworld. That was a combination guaranteed to make him sit up and take notice.
He had seen the changes slowly take over Corinth. It was nothing drastic or dramatic, but little by little, the kingdom had lost something imperceptible. Its glory, liveliness, sense of well-being. Whatever it was, it had left him feeling slightly tattered and used as well. He was rather relieved to find a 'cause' of the downward slide and even better to be able to take some action.
"Here My Lord," he gently lowered Ares to the bunk, "rest, and you'll feel better in a bit."
* * *
Part 9 by Aly
Ares collapsed backwards on to the bunk, then curled into the fetal position. His stomach muscles were aching from their concerted effort to throw up every piece of food he’d ever consumed and his brain was trying to expand to double its size. Iphicles perched casually on the edge and tugged the coarse woven blanket half over him, smiling slightly at the sight of the god as he tentatively sucked at the lump of candied ginger in his mouth, pulling grotesque faces that would have made a six year old proud.
"It’s disgusting. How can you eat this - crap!"
"Get used to it - it’s a long voyage." There was a distinct lack of sympathy in the king’s voice. His attention had wandered and his eyes were fixed on the porthole as Corinth’s shoreline as it receded into the distance behind them, his mind already on Rome and the challenges they would face there. "It’s that or spend the rest of trip attached to the railing, feeding the fishes."
Ares was sick, not dead. It was time to remind Iphicles just who was the god here, and who was the worshipper. He managed to lift one hand, intending to wrap it around the king’s unprotected throat. Just a little squeeze, and the man would be on his knees, begging for mercy…
Catching a glimpse of the motion from the corner of his eye, Iphicles intercepted instinctively, first blocking then grasping Ares’ wrist in his strong brown hand. The corded muscle in his forearm stood out with the effort as he held the god’s hand immobile. Their eyes locked in challenge as mortal flesh battled doubly weakened god.
For several minutes the battle continued, each unable to assert his dominance but unwilling to give the contest away. Deep brown eyes glared menacingly into defiant amber eyes. Finally, another spasm of sea-sickness shook Ares’ weakened body. He dry retched noisily and abandoned the contest, his eyes half closing as he dealt with the pain.
Iphicles released him, cautious of a feint. He stood and crossed the cabin to grab a skin of water and poured it expertly into a cup, not spilling a drop despite the motion of the ship beneath his feet. Returning, he brought the half filled cup to Ares’ lips and tipped it, forcing Ares to swallow everything or suffer the indignity of being weak, ill AND soaked.
Ares swallowed, expecting his stomach to eject its contents immediately. It didn’t happen. The cool water made him feel slightly better. Or at least less likely puke his guts again.
"You’re weaker than a woman." He grinned as he said it to take away the sting his words might otherwise have had on the touchy god. Bending over, he touched his lips lightly to Ares’, almost as if in apology and drew back slightly. Ares eyed him balefully, but made no protest.
He licked his lips, tasting the residue of the candied ginger from the god’s mouth. "Doesn’t taste that bad to me." He leant forward again, ready for another taste. Ares watched him, finally distracted from his sickness, but too passive in his illness to take charge.
This time the god’s lips were warm beneath his, soft, alive. Not like…. Who was it? He had the sense that there was something he had forgotten, something that had mattered to him, so important to him that not knowing it felt like he had forgotten part of his own soul. But how could that be ? He’d given everything for his city, give up his life, his freedom. Being the king defined who Iphicles was. Nothing was more important, no woman, no man, no god. No one mattered that much to him. No one.
Once he’d dreamed that there would be someone for him, someone who would feel for him as Deineira did Hercules, someone who was willing to make the sacrifices that Jason had for Alcmene. He was older now, wiser. Ambition was halfway decent substitute for love. Lust filled the yearning to be close to another person. Iphicles took his satisfaction where he could. It was the way it was.
After all, there had never been another person who honestly cared about him.
He pushed the weakened god back against the bunk, his tongue slipping between the god’s lips, into his warm, wet mouth, growing bolder. The candy-sweet taste contrasted well with the god’s slippery, active tongue. He devoured his prize, his copper-coloured hair dropping forward to tickle Ares’ cheek, as he shifted to pin him to the bunk, chest to chest, his hands either side of Ares’ head.
Hades backed silently away from the doorway, lips pursed in disapproval at
the scene he had just witnessed, god and mortal entwined. Ares was thinking
with his cock again. He was on his own.
His nephew had always been impulsive, led by his passions. Seeing him
succumb to the pleasures of the flesh at a time when all his energy should
have been on their strategy, their plans for the future filled Hades with
nothing but contempt. The king was already on their side, fully under their
control. Nothing but fleeting pleasure would be the result of their liaison.
The ruler of Underworld curled his lip and strode briskly back to the deck
of his ship, cloak fluttering behind him.
* * *
Part 10 by Jenn M
Mithra sighed. He felt the pain of the Olympian gods and it disheartened him. First it was the humans being tested for their worthiness. Hercules saved mankind with his selfless acts. Now Ahura-Mazda focused on the Greek gods.
Ahura-Mazda was usually a fair ruler. As the elder he demanded the utmost respect. When he made a decision it was for the best. Except maybe this time, Mithra thought to himself.
Ahura had been around for all time. He was the one that brought fourth all that now live upon the earth, including the deities ruling over its many nations.
Each pantheon thought they were the most powerful. Each had their own version of creation, but they were all wrong. This hadn't been a big concern but now one by one Ahura was going to wipe them out.
He would let the different pantheons destroy one another. He slowly sapped the strength from the Greeks, knowing that soon the Roman gods would swoop in and finish them. Then soon the Roman gods would be wiped out by another group until they were all gone.
* * *
Mithra's thoughts were interrupted by his twin Mihr.
"Why do you sit and worry over some useless Gods. Ahura is right they have no redeeming qualities and its time to be rid of them." Mihr's voice held contempt for his brother.
Mithra had always been the favorite. The golden haired one. He was a healer and a peace keeper always fighting for others' rights. Mihr considered him weak.
Mihr was a warrior and destroyer. Always ready to do battle if necessary. Thought he looked like his brother, Mihr was dark haired not blond. While Mithra's eyes were a shining shade of cerulean, his were murky brown.
Mihr was glad Ahura had decided it was time to take back control of the world. Mihr had been telling him for eons that it had been foolish to have those weak and foolish deities controlling his world. Finally Ahura agreed and now it had started.
Mihr chuckled to himself. Ahura was getting weak-minded. Mihr noticed some time ago. SInce than he'd been plotting. He planned to eventually be sitting in the elder's place. It was only a matter of time.
He had convince the elder to let the gods wipe each other out. If they knew what was really happening they might join forces and fight back. the Light was stong but since Azriels fall from grace the were weakened. Azriel almost destroyed them and managed to take a third of their ranks with him.
Mithra didn't like the look on his brother's face. He was up to no good and he had suspected for some time that Mihr had a hand in what was going on.
He knew the Elder was not always thinking clear. He was so old, older than any could imagine. Mithra feared his brother was taking advantage of the situation.
* * *
Mithra decided to take action. He was going to find out what was truly going on. As peace keeper and healer he couldn't stand by and watch all the gods of the world be slowly decimated. Had they any knowledge of what was going on then it would be different. Now they were just sitting ducks. They were unaware of the true nature of things.
Perhaps it was time they knew what they were fighting against. They should know who the Light was.
Ares was the first to sense the Light and take action against his unseen enemy. So he was the one Mithra would go to. Perhaps then they would have a fighting chance.
* * *
Part 11 by Jen
Motes of dust swirled in the disturbed air behind him, sparkling briefly in the bright sunlight from the arched windows. These, and the soft whisper of the rich purple cloak and the quiet tread of his sandals were the only things to mark his passage through the pink-marbled halls.
He paused briefly at the doorway besides which torches were kept constantly burning before taking one of the torches and descending the narrow stairway, the grooves worn into the stone steps telling of frequent use over many years. This underground chamber was yet another thing that he had inherited from his great-uncle; yet another which he had put to better use. Gone were the restraints and the exotic toys, many of which had been unfamiliar to Augustus and were still a mystery to him, even though he had spent some time trying to imagine their possible uses. Instead the chamber had been enlarged, an entrance to the guarded courtyard created, and the altar which had already been in the dungeon, with iron restraints embedded in the rough hewn stone, had been re-dedicated.
The dankness of the stone walls and the fustiness in his nostrils caused him to shiver. There was none of the beauty, the grace and proportion he craved and which had driven his rebuilding of the city. This dark hole did however have one insurmountable advantage: privacy. Here, under guise of worship, the real political manoeuvring was done. It did not matter to Augustus whether the temple was dedicated to Mithras or to Mars; all that mattered was that the bulls were sacrificed and the blood ran red to assure the generals of his loyalty to their god. The focus of his soldiers' worship was immaterial, as long as they fought and killed and died in Rome's interest.
Augustus did not wait in the temple for long. He had swiftly discovered that one of the principle disadvantage of personally overseeing a network of spies of whose existence no one else was aware, was in the time wasted awaiting their return, the date of which could rarely be guaranteed, and the tedium of personally sorting through each report, looking for useful information amongst all the chaff. Yet he would not voluntarily blind himself because of a little impatience. He had learned much from Caesar, including the measures to take in order to avoid meeting his predecessor's ugly end.
Sunlight greeted him at the top of the stairs, and it took him a moment for his eyes to adjust again as he replaced the torch in the sconce. He knew he still had a few days before the Corinthian delegation reached Rome; he would be patient, as always, yet he felt a sudden keen anticipation at the thought of negotiating with a weaker party, all of whose positions were already known to him.
A smile played around Augustus' lips, a smile which bore evidence to his inheritance quite as much as did the arrogant tilt of his dark head and the assured stride of his long tanned legs. He had indeed learned much from Caesar.
* * *
Hades stood on the deck, every sense strained in the direction of Rome despite the bright flashes of pain that such concentration caused him. He had already felt the wrongness that was concentrated there; perhaps as they drew nearer, it would become clear to him.
He broke his concentration with a gasp, instinctively ducking to shield himself behind the raised bows of the ship. Yet still he could feel - it - searching for him. Instantly he turned his attention to the gulls which screamed around the ship, immersing himself until his whole awareness was the movement of air against his wings, the salty tang of the wind in his face, and the unceasing watchfulness with which he searched for food. There was no trace of his godly consciousness for another to find, just another gull riding the wind. But in the very back of that gull's mind, a voice cried that the work of his fellow Olympians in shielding them had failed.
* * *
Part 12 by Semiramis
So not all the Greek Gods were prepared to party themselves out of existence, letting themselves be swept to oblivion in one last tidal wave of orgiastic excess. Some, at least, had it in mind to fight back.
But their shields were pitifully inadequate, and now he knew them - and they, in turn, knew him. True, it was not a very fair exchange of information from their point of view for they actually had merely an *awareness* of him. Even so, he was curious to see what they would make of the knowledge. In fact, he felt almost inclined to let them continue their doomed venture out of curiousity, just to see if they could penetrate the smoke and mirrors he'd hedged about both himself and his purpose.
They would fail utterly, of course, but that wasn't the point.
It would be extremely interesting to watch them *try*.
* * *
The waiting was nearly over.
Augustus never let anyone see how much he hated enforced inactivity, of course. To do so would have revealed a weakness - and yet another crucial thing he'd learnt from the late, lamented Julius was never to reveal a weakness. After all, one could never be entirely sure when a friend would become an enemy. So Augustus sat still as stone and waited, not so much the flicker of an eyelid or the twitch of his purple cloak giving away his feelings.
Augustus had arranged for the Corinthian delegation to be met and escorted into his presence by several suitably pompous senators. This, he judged, showed a certain amount of respect for his visitors without in any way suggesting that he regarded this fellow sovereign as his equal. The Corinthians might be his guests, but as King Iphicles was here in desperation to protect his beleaguered country he could hardly be said to match Augustus in power and importance.
Now Augustus watched the delegation approach, inwardly congratulating himself on making it quite clear from the outset exactly how he ranked the Corinthian king's status in comparison to his own. Later, he remembered this moment with much bitter amusement that he could have been so damned arrogant in his assumptions, so deluded in his belief that the Corinthians were of negligible importance.
For, mere seconds later, as he let his gaze skim in polite interest over the Corinthians, he found his precious world-view shifting abruptly on its axis, leaving him reeling in breathless confusion. With the greatest of efforts he tore his gaze away from the dark-haired man who flanked the king and pulled himself together.
At his side, his wife Livia stirred and shot him a sharp glance. His lapse of concentration had been as fleeting as it was inwardly devastating, and it was certainly not obvious enough for anyone to notice - except her. Livia knew him too well, damn her; she read him like a book in spite of his best efforts to keep his mind closed and secret. And keeping his mind closed and secret was something he frequently tried to do, for although she was beautiful and intelligent there was a darkness and a coldness in Livia that did not incline him to trust. Or to love.
Livia made no comment, but arched one painted eyebrow and regarded him with her beautiful, calculating eyes. There was no love lost on her part, either. Augustus knew full well that what Livia loved was power - and right now he was her means to access it. He was also aware that any interest he displayed towards another person would be interpreted by her as a potential threat to her own position.
Augustus rose to his feet as the formal introductions were made. He would have recognised the Corinthian king from the likeness that adorned that country's coinage even had the man not been wearing his crown. But there was an unexpected air of authority about him that strongly suggested this king did not see himself in the position of weak supplicant in which Augustus had cast him.
When the king stepped forward, Augustus noted that the man introduced as Armes moved with him, almost mirroring the king's movements. They were rather alike, Augustus realised, but where Iphicles was painted in copper and gold, Armes was wrought in obsidian and bronze. Black hair fell to his broad shoulders, and his dark eyes met those of Augustus with a frank calculation that owed nothing to court artifice or even good manners.
It was unnerving. It was also intoxicating. For a moment Augustus could almost fancy that his interest was returned, and the notion stirred anew that burn of unexpected desire in Augustus, that need and ache to touch, to taste, to be consumed by -
"We have much to discuss." King Iphicles was obviously not minded to indulge in small talk. He raised his chin and stared at Augustus, as if daring him to disagree. Augustus was forced to wrench his attention away from Armes and back to the king. Then he noted with dismay how close the two of them stood, almost as if -
They were lovers. Augustus was certain of it. The Corinthian King and this glorious man, Armes, were lovers already, or lovers soon-to-be. There was a fierce, bright heat connecting them that spoke volumes to Augustus, and he wondered briefly if his own desire communicated itself with as much clarity to the two men as theirs did to him.
Whatever, this was going to be an interesting negotiation.
* * *
Part 13 by Arami Vahagn
“They’ve arrived,” Athena announced, opening her eyes and turning to the group gathered around Hera’s throne. Keeping track of Ares, Hades and Iphicles took a lot out of the goddess and she quickly sat down as her strength left her.
“Do we really think this is going to work now?” a melancholy Apollo muttered from the corner where he had slumped. He’d become less cocky and more like a belligerent child. “We were unable to mask Ares and Hades’ identities long enough, and against the Roman gods, they’ll not stand a chance.”
Hera sighed. The outcome did seem extraordinarily not in their favour, but she didn’t reveal that to her children, and the rest of her family. She must keep some semblance of control for their sake. “We don’t know that they still won’t succeed. We must give them a chance.”
All around Hera, the other gods were growing weaker by the minute. If the Corinthian delegation could not find something useful in this fight, the Queen of the Gods feared all would be truly lost.
Suddenly the ether was disturbed and all looked to see who had arrived. “The humans know something is going on,” said Cupid, who faired no better than the others did.
His magnificent white wings, usually a stunning sight to behold, now were dull and lifeless. He didn’t have the strength enough to move them as he normally could. The God of Love’s blonde hair hung limp about his head and his bronze skin was changing to a sickly grey pallor.
“What do you mean?” Hera asked, quizzically.
Cupid moved to a nearby chair and sat. “There is talk growing amongst them that we are gone and have left them. The empty temples, the tokens and offerings that have gone untouched and unnoticed are adding up, and it’s causing a panic,” he replied, his green eyes flickering with concern.
Hephaestus, remaining quiet until now, spoke. “I don’t think any of us has the strength to deal with this now. I don’t think it’s too pre-mature for us to plan for this full force attack that is going to happen.
"Whether or not Ares, Hades and the mortal king are successful, something is going to happen. We ALL need what is left of our powers and abilities to fight, survive and win.”
As some of the other nodded in agreement to the lame forger god’s words, he continued. “After whatever happens, happens, we will either have our full strength back to right was is going wrong down on earth....” He hesitated in saying more.
“.... Or we won’t be around to worry about the humans anymore,” finished Cupid, saying what they all were thinking. “Well then, let’s hope that Ares and Hades have enough strength left to find out what we need to fight and defeat these Roman gods.”
* * *
Part 14 by Amoreena
Iphicles stared at Augustus, unflinchingly. He wasn’t about to make another move, not just yet.
To his side Ares suddenly lurched forward, his hands quickly grabbing at his temples as he arched over in agony.
The king, concerned with his aides sudden outburst, stepped in front of him. “What is it? What’s wrong,” he asked, concern evident in his tone.
“There’s a bloody battle raging in my head and the balance of power just shifted!” Ares snarled. The pain in his head was multiplying with every passing minute. It was as if his brain was trying to escape out of his skull. If that wasn’t bad enough, on top of it all he was hearing things. Senseless mutterings, no rhyme, no reason, just endless babble.
* * *
Augustus stood silently watching the two with renewed interest. It was becoming more and more evident to him that there was indeed something between these two Greeks before him. If one of his aides had ever dared to speak to him the way that Armes had just spoken to his king, he would not live to tell the story. It just wasn’t done.
Livia quietly took hold of her husbands elbow and brought her head close to his. In a whisper barely audible to mortal ears she advised, “Might it not be wise to offer the services of our healer? He does appear to be in significant pain.”
Augustus nodded and stepped away from his wife.
Iphicles held his hand against Ares’ and tilted his head to the side. “Is the pain intolerable, shall we summon a healer?”
With that Augustus made his offer. “I can have our healer here in no time if required. At this point you are still my honored guests and I will see to your needs.”
Ares nodded to Iphicles, “Maybe it would be best. I am finding the pain very distracting.”
Augustus called for the healer and had Ares shown to the chambers that had been prepared for the king and his aide.
* * *
There was only so much fun one deity could have and this was more fun that he had had in an eternity. Setting one Pantheon against another, making the Greek Gods believe the Roman Gods were the cause of their doom, it was all just so, wonderfully amusing. He wouldn’t have to worry about having to do any of the dirty work himself, they were taking care of each other quite nicely. Oh how the mighty have fallen. The great Ares, God of War, unable to keep his mind on anything other than the pain in his head. Hades, too busy trying to figure out whose doing what to whom, to see what was right in front of his face. And Athena, well, there was no explanation for Athena. She of all the gods of Olympus, was the biggest letdown. With Ares, it was more or less to be expected. He was known for his short sightedness. Only seeing what he wanted to see when he wanted to see it. If it didn’t benefit the god of war, it wasn’t important enough to dirty his hands with. Let his lackeys handle it. That, would turnout to be his downfall.
The game was progressing at a faster pace than he had anticipated and all the players were present. He was ready to make his next move, and what a move it was. It was going to change everything.
* * *
Ares sat on the bed and held his head in his hands. “Oh, this infernal pounding! “ As his powers weakened, the ache in his head grew. Trying to concentrate, he finally willed the pain away long enough to hear it. The senseless mutterings were beginning to come together to form coherent thoughts. Suddenly, it came to him. He knew. He had the answer. There was not going to be an easy solution to this problem. There were things he had to do to ensure the survival of his family. This time, he couldn’t just think about himself. This time, he was the one who could save them all. This time, he would be the hero.
* * *
Part 15 by Kobra
Ares lay back and closed his eyes letting his mind drift. He needed to calm the pain. He remembered seeing Xena treat one of her generals for migraine and tried applying pressure to his hand as she had done. After a little trial and error his mind cleared and he was able to plan. He liked his plan. It was cool, it was daring and it was not what anyone would expect from the god of War. He would enjoy the execution, immensely, but how would he persuade Iphicles to play along in the seduction of Augustus?
* * *
Hades had watched the scene in the Reception Chamber with interest. After the incident in the harbour he was keeping his thoughts masked behind musings of Persephone. Interesting that she and Hecate kept their names in Rome. Through this screen he noticed the interplay between Augustus, Iphicles, and Ares . Whatever power was interfering here was clearly focused on Augustus, and it was jealous. Augustus’ fascination with the Corinthian pair had immediately triggered the backlash of power hurting Ares so badly.
After Ares and Iphicles were rushed away by healers and the Chamber cleared Hades was left to his own devices. He wandered through the Imperial palace observing and listening. He wondered why he hadn’t experienced any of Ares’ pain. He had been watching Livia at the time and thinking of his own wife. Was that it? Sephe’s power was drawn from a similar source to Hecate’s – and Hecate was the least affected of the Greek gods.
Hades decided he needed to compare notes with Ares and turned to head towards the guest quarters. He walked straight into a squad of four imperial guard. They drew up around him.
“Come with us. Sir.” one said.
“I’m one of the Corinthian delegates.”
“We know that, sir” delivered with the eternal, patronising patience of the experienced sergeant. “Someone wants to meet you.”
And Hades knew there was no point arguing and that he would get no more information, so he turned and let his escort lead him to his meeting. Besides, he was curious.
The squad quick-marched him through an almost bewildering maze of corridors and into a part of the palace he believed must be private quarters for the imperial family. A man with the superciliousness of trusted servant met them and dismissed the guard. He was small, dark, clearly Greek and equally clearly a slave, but the guard snapped to attention and left.
“I’m Philo,” he said, as if this explained everything. He conducted Hades along the corridor and through a set of double doors. He left, closing the doors behind him and leaving the lord of the underworld facing a desk occupied by a woman busy with papers. She looked up from her writing and smiled slightly.
“Ah good,” she purred. “My lord Hades. I’m Livia Augusta. One day I will be the Mother of Rome.”
Hades opened his mouth to deny her statement but she waved him back to silence, and pointed to a blind crone squatting mumbling to herself in a corner of the room. A girl of about thirteen or fourteen knelt beside taking notes on wax tablets.
“Don’t try to deny who you are. The Sybil says you are and I believe her.” She looked him and down critically. “Although, I was expecting you to be older and not quite so pretty and darker”
She gestured him to a chair, poured wine into two goblets, handed him one and seated herself near by. Hades took a careful sip. He had some access to Pluto’s records and they had some very interesting information about how many people had ended dead through drinking Livia’s wine.
“I’m going to help you, but I want something from you in return. When I die, I want to be a goddess.”
Hades couldn’t mask his surprise at that. “That’s not in the rules,” he observed, almost as a reflex.
Livia looked triumphant. “Are you still trying to deny you’re Lord of the Underworld?” she demanded.
“No.” Hades admitted, a twinkle creeping into his blue eyes.
“Good.” Livia noticed the twinkle, “Don’t try to charm me. I’m resistant.”
“Why do you want to be a goddess? You don’t seem to be insane.”
Livia ignored him. She sipped her own wine and began to explain. “You’re here because the gods are in trouble. And you’re in trouble because Augustus is a fool. He doesn’t understand that Rome’s power comes from Rome. Some soldiers brought a cult of a god of light back from the East and they’re infecting the army with it. Which was all right, you need one war god. But they dragged Augustus in and he’s thinking about making this god, who is not to be named in front of women,” she spat that phrase out, “supreme in Rome.”
“Augustus doesn’t understand that danger comes to Rome from the East. Always has and always will. Antony was destroyed by it. Caesar had his difficulties there too. Of course, Augustus thinks he’s only going to be Emperor for a while and he will restore the republic. But he won’t. The republic has gone for good, and I know I will spend my life fighting to keep the Empire intact. I will do terrible things.”
A bleakness entered her voice and Hades felt her give into a brief moment of loneliness and despair as she said, “I don’t want to spend eternity in Tartarus.”
She looked up at him with a slight trace of tears.
“And the only way to avoid that,” Hades added, “is for you to become a goddess.”
“And for that to happen Augustus has to be a god.”
“And, if there is only one god, you can’t be added to the pantheon. True.” Hades absorbed the information and continued, “So this ‘one god’ is trying to annihilate the opposition by dividing us from the energy we get from our Roman aspects. Bringing those aspects into new life will produce new gods, but gods who will suffer from the weakness of the new-born and so be easier prey.” He laughed. “Ares would really love this!”
He noticed Livia was watching approvingly as if a favoured student had finally caught up with the professor. “You know how we fight this don’t you?”
Livia nodded serenely. Hades knew he would get no more information without acceding to her demands. He knew about the cycle of creation and death. He knew that one day the Olympians would end but he would prefer it to be tomorrow not today and in one month Persephone would return to him. What made a god or goddess? Would his agreement mean anything anyway?
“If I can help you become a goddess I will.” Hades said offering his hand to seal the bargain.
“Swear by the Styx.”
Hades swore the terrible unbreakable oath and Livia took his hand.
“The Sybil says you need “To make the mists firm again. To bring order from perplexity. Unity from diversity.”
“That’s it?” Hades wasn’t impressed, but he was the closest of his siblings to his sister Hecate. They shared darkness and mystery. He thought he knew what it meant, and it certainly meant he had to talk to Ares now.
Part 16 by Lorraine
"The Sybil says you need "To make the mists firm again. To bring order from perplexity. Unity from diversity."
"That's it?" Hades wasn't impressed, but he was the closest of his siblings to his sister Hecate. They shared darkness and mystery. He thought he knew what it meant, and it certainly meant he had to talk to Ares now.
Hades ground his teeth in frustration. Three days. Three bloody, interminable days, while he and the rest of the Olympians got weaker and weaker. And he still hadn't so much as seen Ares!
The only thing he had accomplished was to confirm that the danger came from the east. He paced through his room again, cursing. Livia Augusta had expended her power in getting him to her, Augustus had learned of their meeting and sent her to a country estate for her 'health.' And he had kept Hades almost completely isolated. Hades snarled out another curse, whirling he spied a collection of expensive vases. Lifting one he hurled it against a wall with a satisfying crash. A wave of pain rolled through him and he grabbed a chair arm for support.
"My Lord? My Lord!" The urgent voice finally cut through his dizziness.
"Get out," he snarled in a low voice, too weak to yell. The slave continued hovering, making what he might have thought were soothing sounds. They only served to irritate Hades more. "Get! Out!" Fury laced Hades' voice strengthening it. The slave took one look at the god's blazing eyes and fled. Hades ran out of rage and the temporary strength it brought seeped away, leaving him shaking with exhaustion. Carefully, he sat in the chair letting the cushions support him.
He sighed. "We are running out of time." Hades voiced his observation to the empty room. He didn't have the range to contact Greece; this weak and not even Persephone would hear him. His one attempt to contact Pluto resulted in an attack of debilitating pain, even worse than Ares'. And Ares remained completely focused on his plan to seduce Augustus.
Suddenly, Hades smiled. Then slumped back in his chair. He reached out with his mind, calling, but not towards Greece.
*Persephone,* he called for her, keeping his mind's voice a gentle caress, reaching until he lightly brushed against her awareness. He recalled their first kiss: her gasp as he pulled her to him; her soft lips parting under his; how she trembled against him as his hands traveled down her body to cup her buttocks.
*Persephone.* He reached again, only this time he added heat and passion to his mental voice. *Come to me," he pleaded, seeing their wedding night. He remembered his first sight of her unclothed, how she paled when he stripped; afraid until he kissed her tumbling them both to the bed.
*Come to me.* Then later, her gasps as he showed her passion's joy. The memory of their bodies driving together overwhelmed him and he arched into orgasm.
"Who are you?" she screamed.
Hades clamped his hand on her arm, holding her there. He took his first look at his wife's counterpart. Rome's Persephone was younger, more naïve, and the eyes were blue, not brown, but the hair was the same as his. And so was the feel of her power.
*Persephone!* He drove his mind into the young goddess's and called his wife. *Persephone, I need you.*
"Hades, what do you need of me?" His wife stared at him from her counterpart's blue eyes. Hades released her arm. Hades kissed her soundly before answering. "Call Pluto, then go to Hecate and tell her I've found the solution. We need 'to make the mists firm again. To bring order from perplexity. Unity from diversity.' And tell Athena, the danger is from the east. Not Rome!"
A slightly perplexed look crossed her face, then a smile of understanding. "I ..." her voice broke off and changed twining, "...We understand." A grin of pure mischief replaced understanding. "Ares is going to be sooo pissed when realizes we're going to have to cancel the battle, because we have to not fight to win." She giggled. "At least Aphrodite and Cupid will be happy."
"Pluto!" she called, waiting until he appeared and Hades had grabbed him. Then she vanished the combined power of the two goddesses carrying her back to Greece.
Hades struggled with Pluto trying to hold the writhing god. A new, still young god, Pluto had the slender appearance of a young man in his late teens or twenties. He kept his hair long, giving Hades a handhold. The older god tangled his hand into Pluto's hair, turning it to twist several loops of hair around the hand and wrist. With a sudden tug he wrenched the new god's head back.
"Ahh!" Pluto's gasp of pain gave Hades the opportunity to kiss him and force his tongue into the new god's mouth.
*Don't fight," Hades ordered, *we have to join.* Pluto continued struggling, almost winning free several times. As they wrestled, exchanging blows, they tore the clothing off each other. Until they struggled, completely stripped, skin touching skin. Mouths exchanged kisses and bites. Hard cocks bumped against each other, occasionally being ground together as they grappled.
"I won't yield," Pluto ground out, as Hades rolled on top of him.
"Then I will." Hades kept his hold on the boy, settling astride his cock, wincing slightly as it entered his body. He pushed down harshly, crying out his pleasure as the cock brushed his prostate. Pluto's body met his rhythm and they drove together. Their bodies plunged towards the abyss, dragging their minds and beings closer together. Finally, they cried out as one.
Hades released his essence, his body collapsed, vanishing. Pluto convulsed once, twice, moaned, "Persephone," and fell to the floor.
Part 17 by Thamiris
"The high priest wants a word, emperor."
"Not now." Augustus didn't turn his head, still watching the tall, dark figure of Armes make his way down the temple's main aisle, Iphicles at his side. The last thing he needed was some priest begging for money. After he'd bedded the Greek, then the flamen martialis might receive a few war horses as a token of imperial favor. Or maybe not.
Armes had been interested in the festival of Mars Invictus, and in this temple. But Augustus sensed his disappointment when Mars disdained first the thirty argei tossed in the river, the bound rushes sinking beneath the green water in eerie imitation of drowning men, then, at the temple, the blood of five bulls that stained the altar red. Iphicles, seated beside Armes on the marble bench left of the dais, whispered consolation in the other man's ear, closer than twins.
Jealousy slithered under his skin as the two passed through the door on their way to the feast, and Augustus jerked around when the acolyte repeated his question. "Don't forget yourself," he hissed.
The man didn't even flinch, and Augustus realized why. Dressed in full military garb, from the bronze, muscled cuirass to the leather tunic and high brown boots, a silver sword fixed at his side, he wasn't a mere altar boy, but one of the elite salii who'd marched and chanted in the procession earlier. "Your highness, he begs your forgiveness, but it's urgent." Bending down, he added quietly, "It's about the one you want."
Startled, Augustus stood, ready to demand an explanation, but the young priest was already striding down a narrow passage to the left. "Wait here," he told his head guard. "I won't be long."
The fat white candles wheezed in their sconces, billowing out a black-edged cloud, and Augustus' eyes began to burn. Around him on the marble walls, the frescoes blurred, came to life: a dance of riotous color. His guide had vanished, swallowed by the smoky gloom, and the stillness beat like a heart. Remembering his uncle, betrayed to death by his friends, he pulled a dagger from his boot.
The corridor ended abruptly at the staircase spiraling downward, and he took it quickly. If the priest wasn't waiting at the bottom with a damn good story, there'd be more than stinking bulls' blood on the altar. Maybe that'd draw Mars out--if he even existed, Augustus thought, as he carefully descended the stairs. No one had seen him in years, not since Caesar's rule. Even then, the gossips vowed that the handsome god on the fields of war knew less Latin than a horde of barbarians. Or a pantheon of Greek gods.
He reached the bottom, which opened into a small stone shrine, the entrance guarded on his right by a life-size statue of the god. Not seeing the priest, Augustus glanced at the basalt figure, with its wide, unseeing eyes and smooth, hard curves, and mentally shrugged. Hard to tell much from carved stone. This conveyed strength and a conventionally handsome face, nothing more. Although there was something about those full lips that--
A current of air struck him, so hot his lungs were seared. Blinking his stinging eyes, he squinted, knife raised. The room grew darker, as though a dozen mouths breathed on the braziers' shivering flames. Sweat slicked his skin, made his red robes cling, while fear spread fiery fingers through his gut. To dominate it, Augustus stepped forward, toward the shallow recess embracing the altar.
A gold cup sat squarely on its center, brimming with wine that smelled thick and old. Defiantly, Augustus brought it to his lips, and, tilting back his head, drained it. The scorching rush left him dizzy, weak-kneed, and the cup clattered against the worn stone floor, the knife beside it. At a sound from behind, a clickclickclick like a key turning in a lock, he spun around and tripped, landing with jarring force on one knee, eyes squeezed shut: a false supplicant.
With a deep breath, he opened them to a nightmare. "Oh god. Oh god." An odd echo caught the words, and tossed them back, and they rang louder and louder, until Augustus covered his ears against the crashing thunder of his own shocked voice.
"Yes," it said, or seemed to say. "I am god."
Death-black hair spilled in waves above even blacker eyes--all black, as though the pupils had melted and spread. It seemed to be smiling, ripe lips curving upwards in a face beautiful like pain. The figure wore only its own skin, glossy and gold, adorned by a long snake with shimmering red, black and gold scales.
At first, Augustus thought the snake was real, that this creature wore it coiled about his neck, one end hanging down his back, the other roiling across the smooth, glowing chest, between the hard thighs. But as his gaze slid down, and the god moved closer, the snake moved with him, painted indelibly onto the sculpted body.
"Touch me, and I'll tell you what you want to know."
Tentatively, fingers trembling, Augustus reached out to stroke the swerve of serpent over one lean hip. He would've done it anyway, compelled by something he didn't understand, couldn't speak or think, but knew. This was right. This was perfect. This was god.
"Yes, that's right. Perfect." One massive hand fell like rain over Augustus' head, a caress soft and sweet. "They're plotting against you."
He couldn't stop touching the god's skin, so perfectly fluid, like water, although the words might've excoriated him. "Like Caesar," Augustus whispered, licking a scarlet scale.
"No. Not your men. The others. The king and his godly advisor."
"Godly...?" A dust of memory, made faint by the spicy taste of the god's lacquered skin, like autumn. "Armes."
"No," the god said gently, "Ares. He wants you dead. They both do. And they'll try to seduce you. Instead, you'll seduce the king. Easy enough. He's lonely, and the other one can't cure that. He doesn't know how. But you do. You'll feed him love, bit by bit, and then he'll feed you. Ares would never let him, and that's their mistake. You'll take him in your mouth, like you're doing to me now, and suck until his seed's warm in your belly. Then you'll have his power. Show me how, Augustus. Show me how you'll suck him."
He worshiped the thick cock in his mouth, venerating it with his tongue, while his hands danced over the rippling snake-skin.
"I knew you'd be good." The god's hips began to rock, and a low thrum filled the shrine, the sound of divine pleasure. It rumbled against Augustus' skin, under it, vibrating along nerve endings until he moaned against the cock filling his mouth. "That's right. Come for me."
Drops of honey fell onto his tongue, and he prayed harder to the pulse of the god's heart. Then the drops turned into a river, and he kept swallowing until the world went black.
Augustus awoke in a broken heap on the floor, his own semen smeared on his thighs. Looking up, he noticed that the ceiling was painted cerulean blue, like a summer sky, scattered with enameled stars. It was ugly, hideous, and he knew that nothing could ever be beautiful again.
"It's time to move," the god said, breaking the shadows.
"Yes," he replied, his mouth opening again for benediction.
"Time for that later. Let Iphicles fill it for now."
A question came to him, some lingering need for sense and order. "Who are you?"
Another agonizing smile. "I'm Mars," he said.
Part 18 by Foxmonkey
Statesmen in white tunics sailed past as Ares and Iphicles stepped close together. Most of the men were followed by slender, hot-eyed youths. Though Mars hadn’t responded to earlier offerings, the Romans seemed determined to call him out with a lavish feast set in the palace gardens.
Everyone was smiling, and Iphicles could feel the excitement in the air. Before the crowd swallowed them, he glanced over his shoulder to give Augustus’ retreating form a quick glance. “He’s going back to Mars’ temple,” he said, and swerved to avoid a drove of olive-skinned slaves burdened with goblets of wine. Ares plucked two goblets off of the nearest passing tray, and handed one to Iphicles.
“I don’t know why I expected him to appear,” Ares said. “*If* he even exists.”
As the first guests pressed through a series of stone archways, musicians began to play. Slim-footed women with painted faces gave them sly looks as they whirled to the music.
The palace gardens were dotted with tables; pyramids of perfect fruit, the best the empire had to offer, lent a fragrant sweetness to the warm spring breeze. As Greece faded, the glories of Rome increased in equal measure. Iphicles wondered if Augustus had gone out of his way to bedazzle the Corinthians.
“It’s very…lavish,” Iphicles observed. Slightly ahead of them, a young slave led him and Ares toward what was obviously Augustus’ table. Draped in gold and purple silks, and set higher than its fellows, the table offered a sweeping view of the festivities.
A cluster of grapes disappeared from a nearby platter to reappear in Ares’ hand. “It’s not bad,” he agreed, “though Caesar *really* knew how to throw a party.”
The warm Roman spring had coaxed god and man into simple short-sleeved, linen shifts, which ended just above the knee. At first Ares had chosen his usual black, but Iphicles had convinced him to try something different. Every head turned as they walked by, and confirmed Iphicles’ opinion that the god of war looked spectacular in red. In return, Ares had dressed him in gold. After a lifetime of being admired, and years in the public eye as king, Iphicles was nearly immune to the open stares aimed in his direction. He was aware of the picture he made, but he was more pleased that Ares’ company made him the envy of the feast.
He opened his mouth to receive a fat, sweet grape from Ares’ fingers, taking the fingers into his mouth as well as the fruit. He curled his tongue around Ares’ thumb, licking away the sticky juice. He bobbed his head slightly in a frank pantomime he was sure Ares would recognize.
“By the gods, you’re shameless,” Ares said.
“I’ve heard that before,” Iphicles agreed, licking his lips. He gave Ares a little smile, and Ares shook his head, smiling, settling back on a long, low couch. Iphicles sat beside him, and looked down when Ares cupped his bare knee. Ares looked obscenely relaxed.
“Would it cause a scandal if I lifted your shift?” Ares asked. He moved his hand further up Iphicles’ thigh. “I haven’t touched you yet, and I want to.” Hidden from view under the hem of his shift, Ares fingered Iphicles’ rapidly thickening cock. “You’re big, like me.”
While Ares’ actions might have caused a stir at a proper Greek function, the feast to Mars evidently called for a carnal celebration in his honor; at least one guest per table had spread his knees for his dinner partner. Relaxing a bit and honoring an odd saying he’d heard recently, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” Iphicles opened his legs a bit wider so that Ares could freely fondle his cock. He closed his eyes, leaning back a little, pulling the shift above his waist. The air was cool on his cock, but only for a moment. He opened his eyes when Ares moved beside him, and watched the dark head descend between his thighs. He closed his eyes again, blocking out the music, the laughter, and the soft moans of those nearby, also worshipping Mars with their mouths and cocks. He concentrated instead on Ares’ hot, wet tongue.
He’d lived his life for Corinth; he’d been a soldier, a mercenary, and was currently giving his all for his country as king. He took his pleasure when he could find the time, but he’d never had time for love. He cupped Ares’ closely-cropped head, weaving his fingers through the dark hair, soft and thick as shorn velvet. *Could I love you, god?* he mused. *Would I want to? Your days might be numbered,* he reminded himself. That brought the unwelcome reminder that this might be pleasurable, but there was still urgent work to do. He had a power inside him, as yet untapped, that they needed to figure out. And the gods were dying. This god was dying.
“You could work with me here,” Ares said, interrupting his thoughts. The god looked irritated, but amused.
Iphicles looked down at him, and blushed in embarrassment. “I’ve wanted this since I met you and…I’m sorry.” He leaned down to meet Ares’ upturned face. “You taste like ambrosia, grapes and wine,” he murmured.
“You’ve never tasted ambrosia,” Ares laughed. “You’re drunk.”
“I….” Iphicles stopped. “Yes, I have tasted ambrosia. I…I….” He looked down at Ares, an incredulous grin spreading across his face. “I feel it. Whatever it is, I feel it, here.” He thumped his chest, and his heart pounded in echo. “The power. It’s close.” He closed his eyes. “It feels like I’m drunk, but I’m not. My gods, you feel this way all the time?” Ares’ hands gripped his hips, and the god pulled him close.
“I feel better when I’m coming. You’ll see what I mean.”
White heat burned in Iphicles’ chest, a tiny spark that glowed and ebbed. He imagined he could see it, and watched it pulse in time with every heart-stopping stroke of Ares’ mouth. He clutched at Ares’ shoulders, laughing and crying as the power grew and took hold, surging through his body, leaving his limbs tingling. He pushed his hips off the couch, driving his cock further into Ares’ throat. He exploded with a burst of the same white heat, growling in a fierce whisper as he came, “I love you, my beautiful god. I love you.”
He opened his eyes, and thought for a moment that everyone would have turned in their direction to watch. But the feast was in full swing, and raucous screams filled the air as the painted dancers ran, laughing, from over-eager suitors. People were eating or fucking or dancing to the pipers. The barest slip of time had passed, for Ares was still licking his lips, giving him a grin. He hadn’t caused a scene after all.
“If Mars misses this, he’s a fool,” Iphicles laughed. But the laughter died on his lips when his breath was sucked from his lungs. Ares looked up at that moment, and their eyes met. Both had the same thought. *He’s here.*
“He *was* here,” Ares’ voice was low, even though there was no one close enough to hear. “He just left. The fucker was right here and I never knew it.”
Even Iphicles didn’t need to hear Ares’ next words.
“This is bad. This is really bad.”
Part 19 by Narcissus
Before he'd left Rome's pathetic emperor in the temple, he'd whispered into the mortal's broken mind once again. He had no doubt that the man would do exactly as he wished. Augustus had a talented, if somewhat untutored, mouth. He'd seduce the king and steal a sorcerer's power for his god. And deprive the Olympians of the only real shield that remained to them.
He had no doubt as well that the Olympians, and Ares in particular, would learn that Augustus had been serving the will of Mars. Chuckling, he congratulated himself on the perfection of his plan. If Mars were seen to be pulling the emperor's strings, then who could guess who was the true puppeteer? No one would know that he, himself, had Mars tucked away in a safe place for his own delectation and amusement.
The young god was a tasty morsel indeed, full of anger and passion. He still fought against possession even though he knew his captor's strength. The hatred, mixed with the young god's blood and semen, made for a tangy drink indeed. Sucking the life force from that godly vessel was very sweet and sent a pleasant hum of power through him each time he forced the young god to his will.
And the Olympians, and Ares in particular, would see Mars as the enemy until it was far too late to save themselves from their fate. Soon all of them would be nothing more than wraiths, circling the ether and moaning at their loss of power. He couldn't wait to see Ares at his feet, desperate for continued life and a supplicant for whatever morsels of attention he chose to bestow. It would be sweet to appear to the former god in this body. He shivered with pleasure as he caressed his own flesh. A god could get used to this kind of beauty and the worship it engendered. What he got now was never enough. Rivers of blood slaked his thirst only momentarily. Even now, the surge of power he'd received from the emperor's worship was fading, leaving behind the perpetual hunger for more and more.
His father was completely distracted, still focused solely on draining away the power of the Olympians, punishing them for their alleged misdeeds. By the time he noticed what his less-loved son was doing, it would be far too late for the one who considered himself the father of all. He, the world's rightful ruler, would have accumulated all the power he needed to destroy his father and his mewling weakling of a brother. He would own the universe, bending gods and mortals alike to his will. The world would be his to use for his pleasure. He chuckled to himself as he imagined the even greater ecstasy he would find in destruction and chaos.
The god stroked his cock as he imagined his future. Now that this phase of the plan had been set in motion, he had time to spare before the next act. Perhaps he should stop by this festival in honor of Mars. After all, everyone thought he was Mars, so it might be fun to continue to act the part.
* * *
He fled the gardens while rage thundered behind his eyes and pumped through his flesh. This was not possible. If he had not seen it with this body's eyes...
Even seeing it, he couldn't seem to take it in. Ares--beautiful, dark, vicious Ares--on his knees to a mortal, sucking the mortal's cock with tenderness and passion. And the mortal king, damn his luscious, muscle-bound hide, had felt the bright pulse of power inside him as he whispered his love and devotion to the god at his knees. Even now, the mortal's knowledge would be growing, as the sexual pleasure he'd experienced from the god's mouth unlocked that secret door in his mind. And Ares strength would be growing as the king's swallowed seed released a sorcerer's healing essence.
This was not supposed to happen! Ares should have been too weak and drained to crave any kind of pleasure. Ares should have been too arrogant and selfish to bend his knee to a mortal. And the king should have seen Ares for the greedy, selfish bastard he was.
And they had felt him! That moment of sexual union had made both god and mortal into more than they had been, and they had sensed his fleeting presence. Of course, they would think that Mars had blessed the orgy by his attendance.
There was that. He, himself, was still hidden from them. But only for as long as the king had no time to use his new-found knowledge to begin conjuring visions. And that cursed Hades or Pluto or whoever he was these days might reappear at any moment. If that one was able to blend the wisdom of the elder with the budding vigor of the younger...
It was time to adjust his plan. He could no longer use Augustus as a weapon against the king. That whisper of love from the mortal's mouth made that impossible. Blast this love that these inferiors found in each other! He'd thought to use the king's hunger for love to drain him dry. Instead, the king's love for Ares would make him immune to Caesar's blandishments, even if the king gave his body to the emperor.
Without his bidding, his mind wandered again to the vision he'd seen in that cursed palace garden: those full sweet lips wrapped around the king's thick, gleaming cock; the mortal's transfigured face as the pleasure and power pulsed through his glowing, muscled body; the god's grinning, beautiful face as he licked the last of the king's seed into his mouth.
As he spirited himself to his favorite hiding place to plot and plan anew, hunger clutched at his vitals. And his anger knew no bounds.
* * *
Athena rested her weary, aching head in her hands. She and Heph had been trying to forge a battle plan. But the other gods bickered and whimpered constantly. How was she supposed to mold them into a fighting force worth having when they would gladly claw each other open to obtain even fleeting relief from the overwhelming pain and despair?
She felt the whisper of power as someone materialized in front of her, but she was just too tired to lift her head. While she considered where to find the energy to deal with whoever wanted her attention now, something snuffled wetly at her hair and into her ear. It smelled of horse. She roused herself in time to look, confused, into a pair of deathless horse's eyes.
She noted, in the minute amount of her mind that still functioned, that this time Hecate was wearing the horse's body only. She started to form a question only to be rudely interrupted.
"Yes, dear. I sent the other two bodies, as well as my hell hounds, off to round up the others. When they arrive, I'll put on my human form just to make you happy. In the meantime, rouse your lovely ass and come with me. Ares and Iphicles have found the key and twisted our enemy's plan. It's time for us to do our part." The horse trotted off. Athena grabbed her shield, focused her mind as best she could, and followed.
* * *
The crone was bent over a large vessel, stirring its contents and releasing tufts of strangely-scented vapor into the sacred air of Olympus. She drew a knife across her fingers and watched her puple-black blood drip into her potion.
"The time has come. Each of us must give of his or her own essence to conjure something greater than any of us individually. By this, we will find renewed strength and see the path our enemy follows. Step forth, each of you, and give of what you are."
Athena thought that was a very coherent speech for Hecate. Since it was followed by a stream of incoherent babble, conjuring words, more than likely, she was grateful that Hecate had managed to provide that much direction for her wounded family members. Strands of strangely colored mist floated out of the vessel and shimmied around the assembled gods. She was about to step toward the cauldron when Cupid rushed forward and fell at Hecate's feet. Athena almost fell over in her shock. Cupid was not known for being a team player or a volunteer for anything that involved effort.
"I can't stand the pain any more. Take whatever you need," he moaned.
Hecate drew her knife across his palm and added his blood to the steaming contents of her cauldron. As his blood dripped into the vessel and mist wreathed his handsome, sullen face, Cupid smiled, as if he now understood what was expected. He pulled a feather from one of his drooping, dusty wings, kissed it, and sent it sailing down into the vat.
Part 20 by JJ
One by one the gathered gods added both their blood and a symbol of themselves to the cauldron. Aphrodite ripped a swathe of fabric from her pink outfit, Hera, a feather from her headdress, Hep a tool he had with him, and although not strengthened by the process, the infernal pounding in their heads stopped. Hecate looked up from her chanting and looked at Persephone.
"You must summon Hades and he must bring Ares with him. Do not leave the mortal there unattended."
Hades continued to pace in the room he had been left in.
'How much longer before Ares figures out I am not with the delegation," the god of the underworld fussed. He picked up a vase and threw it at the wall to vent his frustrations, but realized that he didn't feel nearly as badly as he had before. What was going on. He sat on the bed and quieted himself, listening for anything he may hear. There were many voices in this land, and he wasn't sure which to heed.
"Hades," a quiet voice echoed, but he knew it anywhere.
"You and Ares must come - now. It is imperative. Bring the mortal with you."
"Which mortal, Iphicles or Augustus?"
"Iphicles, and hurry." Her voice faded, but Hades was relieved that his head did not pound this time.
"Ares," he mind called, but instead of an answer the door opened and the two people he was searching for appeared. Hades immediately saw the two were stronger.
"We have to go back, Hecate needs us."
Iphicles nodded as he stroked Ares' arm, Hades noticed how Ares seemed to lean into the touch. His eyes narrowed.
"We have unlocked the power of the crone," Iphicles answered the unanswered question.
Iphicles reached out and placed his fingers on Hades brow. Hades' first reaction was to swat the imputent mortal into his own domain, until he felt the remainder of the sharp pain vanish from his head and the ache leave his joints.
"How?" was the only question he asked.
After Augustus had cleaned himself and the mind numbing presence of Mares had left him, an anger began to surface. He didn't know why, or for what reason, but he knew that the Greek delegation would pay for what they had done. Particularly Arm -- Ares, yes, that was it, he would take Ares and Hades and keep them in Rome forever. If they couldn't return to Greece, they couldn't defeat Mares and if they didn't defeat Mars, Augustus would rule forever.
The Emperor of Rome stormed from the temple and went to his table, demanding to know where the Greek King and his aide were. When he was informed they had returned to the palace, he knew where they would be. They would be with the other one - Hades. A cruel smile twisted Augustus' lips as he made his way to the palace. His own people stared at him as August almost ran knowing he must get there quickly to stop them.
As the door to Hades room flew open, Augustus saw the three men standing side by side, and the king wave his hand and they vanished.
"NO!" Augustus yelled, but it was too late. They were gone. He fell to his knees, pressing the heels of his hands against the blinding agony that ripped through him. Another cry was ripped from him and a familiar voice that said,
"This is your punishment for failing me."
His counselors found him collapsed in a heap on the floor. They were very concerned. The king and his aides were gone, but the rest of the delegation remained. The emperor was in what appeared to be a stupor, mumbling strange words and of seeing the face of death itself. Augustus was taken to his room and given a sleeping drought. He had to be kept away from anyone in this condition, or the rumors of the Julius, Augustus and Claudius being insane would start back up again.
Hades allowed Hecate to draw the blade across his hand and his eyes cleared to their normal hue. He looked around, removed his cape and threw it into the pot. The mists were thick around the cauldron, but the smell was refreshing, almost invigorating.
Ares stepped forward next and his blood joined the others. He drew the dagger from his belt and dropped it into the cauldron. It began to fizzle and bubble. He watched for a moment as the brew changed color and consistency, as it moved of its own accord.
"It is almost done," Hecate chanted. She drew the blade across her own palm and the contents hissed and bubbled as they mixed. She changed shapes and drew a hair or feather from each of three heads and dropped them in. The mists surrounding her and the cauldron almost obliterated them from view. "Mortal, come forth, you hold the key."
Mithra lifted his head, he had thought the outcome of this was as sure as time. He let his mind open to what was taking place. He felt his twin's anger, rage, unparralleled feral desire to kill. He also noticed the pain of the Greek gods was less than it had been, and there was a strength and a power there.
'What had they done?' he asked as he looked into a nearby pool and reviewed the last fews days activities. He laughed with glee as he saw Mihr's plans come to naught. Ahura should be made aware of what his twin was doing.
"So the Greeks have figured it out?" Ahura questioned. He stared down on Mithra. "I am impressed perhaps they are worth something after all."
"Ahura, the danger is not passed. If Mihr is successful in his plan, and the Greek god joins with him as Hades and Pluto did, he will be taken completely unaware. Even if he sensed the danger to protect his family, he will do so. Should he suffer Mihr's possession, for his act of kindness?"
"You have my permission to intervene only in that instance."
"Thank you Ahura," Mithra said as he left to keep a close eye on the breaking events.
The gods stood straining to see what happened as Iphicles entered the mist. They saw the blade applied to his hand and the concoction began to hiss and spew. The mist deepened.
"Now Mortal, now," Hecate ordered.
There was a flash of light, two screams and a sudden explosion. Silence ruled as Ares picked himself up and moved to Hecate and Iphicles.
"Don't let him be dead," Ares thought as he checked Iphicles neck and was relieved to find a pulse. He moved to the crone, and found she too lived. Her head rolled weakly to Ares.
"Quickly, return to Rome. You have work that needs to be completed," she whispered weakly. "Be on your guard Ares, great danger." Her eyes closed.
Iphicles stirred, and Ares moved back to him.
"We must go back to Rome," Iphicles murmured.
Ares helped him to his feet, the two stood unstably for a moment and then Iphicles waved his arm and the two vanished.
Part 21 by Candace
Hades' lips quirked into a wry smile as the two love struck puppies rushed off to Rome without him. Then again, he couldn't really fault them, since Ares and his mortal concubine didn't posess the clarity of vision that Hades' new dual nature granted him. He sighed to himself. He'd been doing that quite often of late, forming an opinion and then shooting it down himself. That was to be expected, he imagined, with the merge he'd undertaken with Pluto.
Hades sighed. He'd just done it again.
Very well, he told himself. Shall I follow them to Rome, or would it be better to solve the problem from Olympus? He was curious to know what would happen in Rome, of course, but perhaps now that the remaining Olympians were free from their head pains they'd be willing to take a more active role in their own survival.
The gods needed to merge with their Roman counterparts, just as Greece, herself, would soon be folded into the mantle of Rome; one pantheon for one people. The gods would resist, of course, so Hades would need to be very cautious in the way he presented his argument. 'Yes, I was leery at first also,' he thought fondly. He referred to that in him which was Pluto, which was now as much "I" as that which was Hades. 'Yet I was so aroused by the manner in which I was taken.' The twin spirits in the god's soul stroked one another in their perpetual carnal embrace.
Ares would resist, Hades realized, for Ares' newfound adoration of the Corinthian monarch would prevent him from merging with Mars. Hades smirked. If Mars was anything like Ares (which was fairly safe to assume), the hot blooded gods would just as soon end up battling.
No, Hades decided, it was best to give Ares some time, to let his relationship with Iphicles ripen over the normal course of events, for wasn't the faithful, loving part of Iphicles stolen from him to make room for the sorcery? Their 'love' would unravel soon enough of its own accord, and then Hades could convince Ares to welcome the embrace of Mars.
Hades materialized in an orchard outside Corinth, sprawling languorously upon a bed of soft heather and fallen leaves. He observed the industrious bees as they buzzed in their looping circuits, gathering nectar for their queen. How to proceed, he mused, running a hand down his thigh, then up again, playing at the hinge beside his stirring cock. Persephone had merged already, both goddesses so strikingly similar that they had no fear of one another at all. His wife's eyes swirled hypnotically, blue to brown to blue again, and she thrummed with divine power just as if she'd never contracted the godly plague to begin with.
'Mercury was always a worthy ally, cunning yet practical,' thought that which had been Pluto.
'Hermes, as well,' agreed Hades' portion.
The messenger gods were summoned in unison, each appearing on either side of the Death God within a heartbeat. The elder god smiled, knowing that Hermes saw Hades, while Mercury was seeing Pluto.
Hermes, slender and blond, peered at Mercury with caution, no doubt due to the mistaken theory that the Romans were causing the Greeks' distress. "Why have you summoned me, uncle?"
Mercury tossed his flaming red hair and quirked an eyebrow at Hermes. "Call you Pluto your uncle, fair Greek?"
Hermes looked apprehensively from the smirking Roman to his uncle, who gazed up at him indolently, stroking the long, hard bulge in his clingy leggings. "I do," Hermes whispered, mesmerized by the teasing, deliberate motion of Hades' hand upon himself.
Hades looked from one handsome god to another. "Lay with me," he said, seduction and command mingling in his voice.
Mercury dove into the heather eagerly, drawing the Death God's face to his in a fervent kiss. Hermes moved as if to help his uncle, then checked himself, for it was obvious that assistance was neither needed nor welcomed. Hades removed his hand from his erection and wrapped his fingers daintily around Mercury's nipple, while the Roman god's hand resumed the stroking that Hades' hand left off.
Hermes stared as clothing was shed and thick, rigid cocks were bared to the lazy afternoon breeze. Hades' head was thrown back, a look of sublime ecstasy upon his exquisite face, as Mercury trailed kisses down his bare chest and about his slender hips. Hades' eyes opened, then, his pupils and irises all black, like two spreading drops of India ink, and impaled the trembling Hermes.
"Pleasure me," Hades commanded.
Hermes knelt beside the writhing pair and ran a shaking hand down Hades' chest, painting cautious circles around Hades' nipple with his forefinger.
"Yes," Hades hissed, wrapping one fist in Mercury's fiery hair while his other hand tenderly stroked Hermes' cheek.
Hermes leaned forward and warily took Hades' lower lip between his, teasing it with small, hot darts of his tongue. Hades allowed a breathy moan to escape his throat. Both messenger gods quivered in response and redoubled their efforts to raise him to a fine pitch of arousal.
Hades moaned, long and low, as a silky, wet mouth enveloped his cock while another suckled his tongue. All this was compounded by the duality in his soul that somehow still rode the wave of the orgasm that brought them together. "Yes," he groaned, hoarse and breathless, "please. Uhn, yes."
Though that which was once Hades coveted Hermes' kisses, had always secretly desired them, the essence of Pluto reminded him that the seduction he'd staged wasn't purely for his own enjoyment. The dual nature also concurred that Hermes' mouth would feel just as wonderful on its cock.
"Please," Hades whispered into Hermes' sweet mouth, "suck me."
The blond god rose to his knees and brushed bits of heather from his gleaming shoulders, his face flushed and needy. Hades watched him stare apprehensively at Mercury's bobbing head, as if he couldn't figure out how to get around the Roman.
"Please," Hades encouraged, adding a longing look and a gentle push to his supplication.
Timidly, and all the more endearing because of it, Hermes bent his mouth to Hades' thigh, trailing his tongue upon his uncle's hard, smooth flesh. Mercury angled his head so as to make room for Hermes, cupping his hand gently at the base of Hermes' skull, inviting him to partake of Death's cock.
Then there were two mouths upon Hades' cock, and he gasped for air as one tongue swirled around the head of it and another toyed with the base.
Mercury grunted eagerly, sucking hard, now, but only on the slick, leaking head. His hand wove itself into Hermes' silken hair, encouraging the shy Greek.
Hades felt the heat in his groin build, hitting small peaks of arousal, leveling off for a moment, then peaking again as a tongue or a mouth played upon his straining cock just so. "Yes," he gasped, tossing his head, for he was high on the wave of passion, hurtling inexorably toward the point of no return.
The messenger gods, sensing Hades' impending release, strived harder to please him, to drive him mad with their lovely, hot mouths and their talented lips. Hermes and Mercury were so focused on the Death God's orgasm that they were completely surprised by the joining of their own mouths.
Power coursed through them, relentless, tearing Hades' orgasm from him with brutal force.
Hades/Pluto screamed, laughing with delight as his seed filled the mouths of Hermes and Mercury and the arc of power thrummed between all of them. "Yes," he whispered as his heartbeat calmed, and the flaxen and amber gods lost themselves within one another, drunkenly consuming his essence from each other's mouths.
Passion and need and surprise and satisfaction radiated from the two slender bodies as they grappled over Hades' spread legs, fingers grasping hard for purchase on sweat-slick flesh as the urgency to consume one another overtook them.
Deep in the catacombs, upon an altar sticky with coagulated bulls' blood, seethed Mihr. The form he had usurped from Mars was tasty, indeed, but the fleshly shell had its limitations as well. Mihr was reluctant to bring the gleaming, dark, muscular Mars to Greece, for his hold on the form would grow more tenuous the farther he ranged from Rome.
He cursed the wretched Greeks for eluding his grasp, and particularly for ignoring the fine bait he'd so carefully selected, Augustus. The destruction of their miserable war god would have been accomplished by now, if only they'd had the decency to stay put and be vanquished like good little victims.
Mihr's sulking was interrupted by a glimmer of sorcerous power, an energy that smacked of the Corinthian whore-king. Interesting. Upon extricating itself from the web, the fly continued to circle.
Part 22 by Oshun Anat
His chambers were dark Guards dismissed long ago, Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus sat on the floor, staring at the lone candelabra that sat in the middle of the room. He watched the shadows dance, simultaneously revealing and burying the secrets of the chamber.
"I am Caius Octavianus. I am not Julius Caesar. I will not end up dead because I have angered Mars."
He stared at the flames, finally convinced for a moment that he would be safe from his god's wrath.
"I am Caius Octavianus. I am not Julius Caesar. I will find a way to restore his faith in me. I will not fail him again."
As he sat still, he could hear the mutterings of the guards outside. He knew that rumors would begin to fly about his sanity. Some part of him told him that he had better stop it before it started. The rest of him didn’t care.
"I am Caius Octavianus. I am not Julius Caesar. He will find me worthy. He will continue to protect Rome."
His voiced dropped to a whisper. "I can not continue my rule without Mars’ guidance. I need his support. I need his strength."
He stood up and walked over to the window, staring out in the pitch black night.
"I will find a sacrifice worthy of his honor. But what will appease my God?"
The night offered no answers.
"He will want something unique. Something that has never been offered before. But what could I give to him?"
Turning back to the flames, he sighed and tried to reconstruct the night that he had serviced the god.
"He wants that king, Iphicles!" His brow wrinkled. He knew the reason why, he was sure of it, but for the life of him could not remember the exact reason. "I will give him the king. He will be pleased."
He laughed. Quietly at first, but slowly turning hysterical with each passing second until out of concern for his health, his guards came rushing in.
"Oh, yes, I am perfectly well. I just have a gift to prepare for Mars." He dismissed the nervous men and turned back towards the now sputtering flame.
"I am Caius Octavianus. I am not Julius Caesar. I will triumph."
Part 23 by Toridon
They moved swiftly through the maze of corridors beneath the imperial palace, and Ares found himself having to work to keep up with Iphicles' steady pace. Finally, the exertion proved too much in his weakened state, and he sagged against a stone wall, trying desperately to breathe around the pounding in his chest. He closed his eyes, dots of color flashing against the lids.
Bootheels clicked rapidly back toward him. "Ares. We have to hurry."
"In a minute."
"We must --"
"We will. In a minute," he said, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. The pain was gone, but the damnable physical weakness -- undoubtedly the weakness of a mortal -- remained. "Just let me catch my breath."
Iphicles looked at him, a small smile on his lips. "Take your time, Ares. You're of no use to me if you faint."
Ares looked at him sharply. "Maybe you could walk at something less than a sprint?"
"I suppose. If that's what you need."
"Fine," Ares said tightly. "Let's go." He pushed himself off the wall with his hands and they started down the dim pathway again. As they walked, he concentrated on quelling his rising anger at the king's amusement, knowing that he could not afford to expend the energy.
"Which way?" Ares asked. The corridor forked into two identical pathways, both dimly lit by torches mounted on the walls. "Shall we flip a coin?"
Iphicles gazed steadily at a vacant place on the wall directly in front of them. Finally, he said firmly, "We go left."
"Any particular reason?" Ares asked, a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.
"It smells right," Iphicles said simply.
Iphicles fixed Ares with a level stare. "There is no time for an explanation. Let's go." He sidestepped the god coldly and strode down the left-hand tunnel.
Ares followed at a slight distance, temper giving way suddenly to puzzlement, and he pondered the replacement of the warm, caring lover with the icy, almost malicious man who moved purposefully, unhesitatingly and without a visible trace of trepidation, through the dank corridor, apparently unconcerned as to whether he followed or not.
He saw Iphicles pause abruptly and push against a roughhewn wooden door recessed into the wall. It creaked open slowly, emitting a puff of dust and the smell of rot and mildew. Ares followed him into a small room, thick with shadowed reflections from the tiny half-boarded window, and unfurnished except for a splintering slat bench and the burned-out remains of a thick candle in a metal dish.
"Now what?" Ares asked cautiously.
Iphicles pointed toward the far corner of the room, and Ares peered intently, his eyes finally discerning uneven stone stairs that curved up and out of sight. Their boots thudded softly against the cobblestones, and as they ascended farther up the stairs, Ares felt the air thickening, growing heavy with electricity like the greenish haze that develops before a sudden thunderstorm. He inhaled deeply, smelling metal, and the hair on his forearms and the back of his neck stood up.
The stairs ended at another wooden door, but this one was thick and polished, and ornately carved with the imperial crest.
"What is that?" Ares asked in a whisper.
Iphicles said nothing, but gave Ares a questioning look.
"That … chanting." He listened carefully, hearing the faint words, 'I will triumph,' in a voice that was almost familiar. "What is that?"
Iphicles leaned close to Ares, his breath carrying a faint whiff of sulfur. "You would probably call it a battle cry, Ares." The king chuckled softly. "But I would call it an incantation, my dear."
Part 24 by Tacitah
The king gently pushed at the door, cracking it open just enough to look inside. Lit candles covered every available surface. Glowing eerily through the low hanging haze of smoke that filled the room. The atmosphere was heavy, oppressive. Ares labored for a breath, his heart pumping frantically.
In a secluded corner lay slumped the figure of Augustus, only his mouth moved. "Triumph…I will triumph…."
Ares lifted the Emperor by his throat. "Triumph over what?" He gave the dangling figure a rough shake.
"I will triumph…I will triumph…I will triumph…" The room dimmed and the air lay even heavier on the occupants.
"He's mad. Ares put him down, you won't get any answers." Iphicles looked at the ranting figure with distaste.
The king's voice penetrated the madman's mind. "King Iphicles?" Augustus focused his attention on the golden figure hovering over him. "MY LORD! MY LORD! SEE WHAT YOUR SERVANT HAS WROUGHT!" He resumed his litany, this time invoking his God to take his offering.
The room shook; candles flickered and fell, plunging the room into an eerie half-light. A deep chuckle filled the room. And a figure materialized in a show of lights.
"Show off." Ares muttered under his breath.
"Welcome Ares, I've been expecting you." Mars' impassive eyes swept over his counterpart, and the king. "Who shall we have dance first? My puppet or yours?"
Part 25 by Aly
Ares smiled, almost lovingly. It was a calculated expression of the charm which won him so many followers, bedazzled lovers. It was the last sight of many brave warriors before they gave their lives to increase Ares’ power.
"Puppet?’ he asked. "I don’t see any puppets here, Mars." His gaze flicked across to the hunched, muttering figure in the corner, viewing the ruin of a once proud man dispassionately. He spared no pity on the fallen emperor. "I don’t need to hide behind mortals. I fight my own battles."
Mars sneered at him. "Oh, of course you do. You’ve spilt enough blood to fill every stream and river in Greece. You’ve waded hip deep in gore and suffering. Your warlords have laid waste to entire kingdoms. But are you still the god you were?"
He leaned in close. "I’ve been watching you for a long time. You’re past it, yesterday’s news." He laughed humourlessly.. ‘You’ve even found true love." He raised his voice in an imitation of Iphicles’ and clasped his hands to his breast. Rolling his eyes theatrically, he declaimed "I love you, my beautiful god. I love you." He shook his head in disbelief. "You let mortals flout your will and live - I’ve watched you and your former protégé, Xena. Could that woman have any less respect for gods and yet you let her live?". He snorted contemptuously.
"Puh-leese ! Call yourself a war god ? You make me puke. Get ready to bow down to your new master or die," spat the god. The rage on his face disappeared into a leer. "I’ve seen you do good work on your knees."
Ares contained his anger with an effort and drew himself up proudly, the exhaustion and illness forgotten. He walked slowly, to conceal his weakness, his gait giving the appearance of stateliness, raw power contained by will alone. He stood toe to toe with the darkly handsome Roman, staring him down.
Drawing upon all his reserves of power he decided not to use Iphicles, unable to admit his true motives for sparing the king this fight. He trusted only himself: the fate of his entire family depended upon him and he wouldn’t, couldn’t let them down. If he could shame this upstart god into a battle of individuals alone…Ares weighed up his chances. At the very least, he could weaken Mars and trust to Iphicles to finish him with the help of Hades and the other gods. If they ever got off their oversized asses and did something useful for a change.
He reached out and grasped the other god by the neck, first one hand and then the other. Subtlety had never been Ares’ strong point. Squeezing with all his might, his strongly muscled hands, calloused from years of swordplay, dug deep into his enemy’s exposed neck. He focused all his energy on his hands, throwing everything he was into the struggle.
He was War and he lived for the battle.
Even in Greece, Hades knew the moment the battle was joined.. Dark, forbidding clouds formed jaggedly in a previously clear sky. The sun took on a reddish glow, its rays spilling like the blood of a sacrifice across the hillsides. Birds cried out their terror harshly in the sudden twilight. Volcanoes muttered and the ground itself shuddered and twisted, sending men and women, lord and peasant fleeing for their very lives. Ares was drawing energy from the country itself, bleeding the stored power of hundreds of past battles, pulling it violently from the earth.
He had no more time. Back to Rome.
Part 26 by Jenn M
Hades arrived in the dark chamber. He was just in time to see Mars knock Ares down on the hard stone floor.
Ares' brief burst of strength had come and gone leaving him as weak as a kitten. He struggled in a vain attempt to free himself, knowing that this might be his final moments of life.
Hades rushed forward but was sent flying backwards, his body slamming hard against the stone wall. He felt an unseen hand hold him tight to the wall. Mars was stronger than he realized.
Iphicles, seeing his lover lying like a helpless doll under Mars, felt a searing anger. Like a dam, the powers he had not been able to tap into rushed forth from him.
He hit Mars with a powerful blue bolt of light. Unable to stop the power now that it was unleashed, a volley of the blue flames kept shooting from his palms. Mars screamed in pain and fury. He lifted a hand to protect himself.
Ares used the moment to advantage. Mustering the strength he pushed Mars from him. He rolled away trying to stay away from Iphicles' shots.
With Mars' attention focused on his attacker, Hades was able to release the hold on him. He ran to Ares' side and helped him to his feet. They ran to stand behind the Corinthian King.
As quickly as the power had come, it was gone. Iphicles tried desperately to summon it back. He felt a void where the power originated. With it gone it allowed room for something new to fill it. Memories forgotten rushed back. Rena, he had forgotten Rena. His grief came back like a tidal force. The pain seemed to magnify as it took its place in his heart. The unexpected onslaught of emotions sent the king reeling to his knees.
A scream of fury burst from Mars' lips. He started towards the trio, seeming to grow larger and angrier with each stride. He reached the King, grabbing him by the throat and lifting him off his feet.
Hades and Ares were frozen in place unable to move to help Iphicles. Hades had felt the return of Iphicles' memories. If the King didn't get his emotions in check he would be unable to summon the powers that were still with in him.
Iphicles' eyes bulged as he looked into the black voids that were Mars eyes. In that moment he knew he would die. He felt something snap: it was his neck. Before everything went black he heard Ares' anguished cry.
Mars tossed the limp body aside. "Now to take care of you two." A malicious smile curled his lips into a grotesque mask as he moved towards the helpless gods.
"MIHR!" The angry voice was heard before the speaker was visible.
The dark angry God spun around in time to see Mithra appear.
Part 27 by Jen
Incandescent gold filled the chamber. Hades' dual perception began at last to filter the blaze of light until he was able to see that what stood before Mithra was a tall, blond figure, the body that of a young man in his twenties, the power of aeons in his ageless blue eyes. Hades spared a brief glance for Ares, hands pressed tautly against the rough stone wall, readying himself to launch forward as soon as he was able, his chest rising and falling swiftly as he fought harshly for breath through his bruised throat, his eyes dark with fury on the foreign gods. It was little more than his pride that was hurt, then. Turning his attention back to the two figures before them, Hades watched intently.
"You have no right here, brother."
Light danced off the walls around them, bright shards that exploded in Hades' vision, before the flat tones, as harsh as the light the god gave off, filled the room. "The Elder grants me that right, Mihr. Your underhandedness assures me of that right."
The beauty that was Mars' form stared down his twin, seemingly weighing what his response should be. At length, his head dipped ironically. "Save the display, Mithra. It's not impressing anyone here. I'll see the old fool, this time."
Turning on his heel, he surveyed the Greek gods, his lips curving as he took in Hades' intent scrutiny and Ares' rage. Stepping forward, carefully avoiding the king's broken body, he stood before Ares, his eyes hot. "I'm going to enjoy destroying you, you know."
It was the certainty of the voice which chilled Hades. This was no idle threat or boast, but a statement of fact.
Ares lunged for Mihr, his slowed reflexes meaning that he staggered awkwardly when the figure dissolved in his grasp, leaving only a suggestion of mocking laughter echoing around the chamber.
"Annoying, isn't it?" Hades couldn't resist the jibe. Of all his nephew's irritating habits - and they were legion - that was one which never failed to annoy him.
More slowly, the brightness of the second god disappeared until the room was lit only by the flickering candles. Dark eyes met blue, neither god needing to vocalise the obvious conclusion that they had at length found the source of the problem. Or rather, that the source had found them.
Movement from the corner of the chamber drew their attention from one another. Augustus was rocking himself gently. "My Lord has taken his sacrifice." The litany had changed. "Rome is safe. Rome is safe."
Glancing away with disgust from the pathetic figure, Ares found his gaze drawn irresistibly to the place it had so far studiously avoided: the flagstones on which the king's body was sprawled limply where it had been thrown, the head at an impossible angle, the lips which had opened so warmly and willingly beneath his now still. Moving slowly forward, he knelt down on the cold stone floor and reached out to Iphicles, his arms cradling the king gently while his hand searched his neck in a futile search for evidence that the blood still pulsed through his veins.
At length he looked up at Hades. "He died protecting us." The richness of his voice in the heavy air contrasted sharply with Mithra's harsh tones, and the flatness of Mihr's speech. "Hecate intended him to be part of the solution to all this." His brown eyes were steady on his uncle's. "We need to bring him back. You need to bring him back."
Hades regarded the king's body thoughtfully. Iphicles' return might be to their advantage; it all depended on what precisely Hecate had had in mind. It might be that the king had already fulfilled what she had intended. It might be that bringing him back would prove disastrous, causing Ares to lose focus on the immediate problem in his desire for the mortal. And all that was supposing that he had the time to spare to return to his kingdom and make it happen, while all the time their predator circled. Hades was needed here.
"There's nothing I can do," he told his nephew.
"Fuck you, Hades."
Hades suppressed a smile as he realised that the furious snarl sounded more like Ares than he had heard from him for some time. Perhaps *this* was why the mortal had been sent along; to rouse the God of War from his unaccustomed passivity.
"He was given the gifts of spirit and vision," Hades dismissed. "If he chooses to employ them, he can return."
"If he knows how," Ares growled. He still hadn't moved from where he held the king's lifeless body.
"Ares, we don't have time for this." Hades was debating with himself, again. "If Mihr has control of Mars, which I think we can presume he does since he was here in Mars' form, it means my original solution won't work. We have to look for another answer."
Part 28 by Semiramis
Death had come as a welcome relief from the pain of his last seconds alive.
Iphicles had no idea where he was, but he found this lack of awareness paradoxically soothing; the pale nothingness surrounding him was as lulling as a mother's meaningless crooning to her infant. He had a sense of being wrapped about by the silence, of being held safe in the calm embrace of eternity.
In the first few moments following his arrival here he had been filled with a sense of terrible urgency, knowing that matters of great importance had been left undone. But those early impressions had faded with the pain, receding into the distance until they vanished completely and left him suspended in this twilight world, feeling increasingly vacant and serene.
If he looked down he could dimly make out the shape of his own body, and see, too, that it was still being cradled in Ares' arms. He was vaguely aware that Ares looked to be arguing with Hades, but why that should be and what they argued about was something that no longer concerned Iphicles greatly at all. Detachedly, he noted that there was no sign of the god who had killed him.
Iphicles supposed he should feel angry, or sad, or something, but the truth was that he didn't feel much of anything any more. Nor did he care to set about remedying the situation. All he wanted to do was to let go his thoughts and feelings completely, freeing himself to drift in mindless passivity through this endless, empty space.
And then he realised that something was being called into existence out of the emptiness.
A dark chamber took shape around him, blankness somehow coalescing into a room which was almost twin to that in which he'd met his death. Burning candles appeared on every surface, pock-marking the gloom with bright spots of light. A mist of smoke swirled around him, but he could not feel the sharp stink of it against his throat or in his nostrils.
>From the centre of the chamber a woman watched him: a Roman woman with dark, penetrating eyes, her tall figure wrapped in a star-strewn mantle. Iphicles was vaguely aware that he knew her, but the effort needed to recall her name seemed beyond him.
"Iphicles!" The woman addressed him sharply, and he saw that her lips were drawn tight with exasperation. "*Concentrate*, you fool! My time here is limited - as is yours if you let your mind wander like this."
"My time here? My time *where"? I'm dead! Isn't death eternal?" Without even thinking about it, Iphicles found he had a voice - and the sound of it seemed to bring back some of the reason which he'd been happy to let slip away from him only moments earlier. "Livia! You're Livia! Why are you here? Are you dead too?"
"So many questions! I'm very much alive, thank you. And you, my pretty Corinthian king, aren't quite as dead as you think."
"What?" Iphicles' mind felt sluggish again and he stared at her uncomprehendingly as she sighed in impatience.
"You are not yet completely detached from the mortal plane. We stand now in a place between the realm of the dead and the living. This is also the land of dreams, which is how I am able to be here and yet still live."
"Why are you here?" The question demanded to be asked, as if some deep, secret part of Iphicles knew that the fate of worlds hung upon the answer.
"I am here to remind you of who you are, to advise you of your purpose ... and your power."
"My power?" Iphicles unaccountably found a shiver going through him, as if something inside him was struggling to break free. Something terrible. Something -
"The crossroads! Hecate! You were given the power of sorcery, the ability to protect with your sword and your mind! *Think*!"
But it hurt to think. Oh *how* it hurt! But the pain and the memories came flooding back with Livia's words and Iphicles couldn't stop them. The last memories hit first, and he screamed now as he had not been able to when his neck was snapped like a dry twig. The agony was bright and burning, searing through him with its blistering heat.
"*Think*!" Livia's voice insisted. "Take back the memories!"
"The battle with Mars - Mihr ... " Iphicles gasped, pressing his hands to his temples, trying to fight through the intensity of the pain. "I was *winning*, but then I - what *happened* to me?"
"Noemi died, and Noemi was the Amazon who held your grief for your dead wife."
"Rena .... " Iphicles felt Livia's hands cover his own, and her breath ghosted across his face. The pain eased a fraction.
"When Noemi died the memories returned to you full force."
Iphicles remembered. A tear slid down his face. Grief for Rena, or for himself? It didn't matter. Livia's fingers soothed it away. "And those memories drove out all the power I had," he said dully, bowing his head in defeat.
"*No*!" Without warning Livia's open hand cracked across his face, and Iphicles reeled backwards, shocked out of despair by the sheer violence of her words and actions. "You *let* the power go, you idiot! It still exists inside you - there's room enough in your mind now for the power to live alongside the love. But only if you let it!"
"I still have the power?" Even as Iphicles asked the question, he knew the answer. He could feel it again, washing through him with clear strength and brightness, a cool wave of potency surging back into every fibre of his being. Terrible and ruthless in its beauty, the power within Iphicles drove back the pain, hounding it until it curled in upon itself and died. Iphicles drew in a deep, shuddering acceptance of the power inside him, and raised his eyes to meet Livia's. "Then I needn't stay here."
"At last you begin to see the truth of it." Livia stepped back, her lips thinning in a smile that owed as much to relief as it did to satisfaction. "When Hecate spoke to me through the Sybil and told me what to do she said that you would understand, but I was beginning to doubt her."
"Why didn't Hecate come to me herself?"
"She could not do so now and remain undetected, but the brief presence here in this realm of a mere mortal will not arouse the attentions of our Enemy." Even as Livia answered him, she turned her gaze to the world below, focusing her attention on the pathetic figure of the Emperor. She sighed. "Together Augustus and I could have been great, but he never understood me. And what he didn't understand he hated. And so I came to despise him."
"His mind has been ruined," Iphicles observed, wondering how much pity Livia actually felt for her consort. He couldn't find much in his own heart: the Roman had, after all, offered him up as a sacrifice to Mars to save his empire.
"Ironic, isn't it? A king with a ruined body, and an emperor with a ruined mind!"
Livia laughed, and as she did so her figure began to shiver, turning transparent as glass until she had faded away to nothing like water in the sun. The shape of the mirror world in the void began to fade also, and Iphicles realised that just as her will had created it so her absence was undoing it. He realised, too, that he could create his own world, and now he knew his power he would be able to walk here in safety for as long as he chose. But -
Iphicles looked down at the world below, at Ares, and knew what he had to do.
In a dark, forgotten corner of the chamber, Augustus stirred, lifted his head and spoke.
"Ares," he said softly, and then more forcefully: "*Ares*! Look at me!"
Hades, as well as Ares, turned then and looked. And both gods knew the instant they stared into Augustus' eyes that the Emperor's body was now playing host to another mind; a mind that had returned to the world of the living, but not to its own broken body ....
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