< Not with a bang > Ares thought. <Not even with a sword through the ribs.>
He lay there, waiting for the spell to take effect. He was tired. He hadn’t realized how tired he was lately, but laying there, his body finally at rest, the feeling of utter exhaustion swept over him.
He could feel tired now, had been able to feel fatigue for some years now. He had given up his immortality to save Eve and Gabrielle, and now he was not quite mortal, but he was vulnerable. He could be killed. He could age.
He HAD aged.
Before he had allowed himself to be entombed by the Eye of Hephaestus, his hair was streaked with grey, and his eyes were crinked with the creases of age. He wasn’t that old by human standards, but for a god, the idea of aging was a terrifying prospect.
Aphrodite pitied him. He could see it in her eyes, and the thought made him furious. Cupid was more circumspect, but Ares found himself growing short tempered when ever he was around his son, going into a rage over the slightest statement which Ares’ mind managed to turn into an insult.
And Apollo. The smug bastard couldn’t resist taunting him whenever he had the chance, but Ares took pride in the fact that Apollo couldn’t have held together the Greek and Roman worlds without Ares’ advice. Apollo was no leader; he made a good second in command.
< Better suited to administrative tasks, rather than inspiring leadership > Ares thought. <The bastard wouldn’t know how to win a war if a plan bit him on the ass.>
Thanatos had allowed Strife to return from the dead, and Ares was proud to see that his nephew had matured during his time in the Underworld, but Strife’s powers as god of Mischief seemed to spread out to whatever he touched, and it seemed as though Rome’s formerly loyal army couldn’t wait to hack off the head of whatever emperor happened to grace the throne. There was nothing Ares could do about it, though. And neither could Strife. His nephew had his hands full with the wars with the barbarians from the north...
< At least the Underworld is taking care of itself, no thanks to that bitch Persephone> Ares thought. <Oh, she grieves for Hades for a while, but first chance she gets, she runs home to mommy. And Demeter, that traitor, giving loaves to the followers of Eli...>
Thanatos was keeping the underworld pretty much intact with Charon’s help, although some of the nastier ancient gods had escaped after Hades’ death. They plagued the last of the Olympians, but they were no friends to Eli’s followers, either. And it seemed that Eli’s god had no power to stop them, since these ancient gods drew their power from a source that was even more ancient than “the Light.” Trying to ally themselves with these newly released gods was of no avail; the gods hated the Olympians and any other gods, and swore to make the earth a living hell. <Even that bastard Dahok thinks he can make trouble again.>
<And they’ll continue to be a problem > Ares thought. < The Fates told me as much when I last saw them. And that fool Apollo won’t listen to me. He actually laughed in my face! I wanted to smash his nose, but he goes “Ah, ah, ah, Ares... Remember, I can kill you now.”>
He sighed. The spell was starting to work; his eyes were starting to feel like they had lead weights attached to them. They closed, but snapped open after a few moments. “Xena?” Ares whispered to the air.
He could still see her face, impassive as the stone slid into place. She had come at Aphrodite’s summons, and she had been aghast when Aphrodite told her the plan.
“I can’t,” Xena said.
“He saved your child!” Aphrodite hissed. “He saved Gabrielle! He gave up his immortality for them! You owe him!”
Ares smiled. < Aphrodite can be tough as nails when she has to be > he thought.
“Do you want his death on your conscience?” Aphrodite asked.
And then Aphrodite brought Xena in to see him. And Ares saw the horror on her face as she looked at him.
< I could handle that > Ares thought. <At least it was an honest reaction.>
“Ares,” Xena said.
They had talked for a while, and Xena had finally said, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what? For protecting your child? For killing my brothers and sisters?”
Ares was shocked when Xena began to cry.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do this,” she wept. “Aphrodite doesn’t know what the Eye of Hephaestus could do to you... Zeus ordered it built when he thought you had betrayed them to Dahok... It could kill you.”
He felt himself grow impatient with her tears. It smacked too much of the sympathy had gotten from Aphrodite and Cupid. It galled him to get sympathy from Xena as well.
“So? What difference does it make to you? Remember, I’m the one who tried to seduce your best friend, I’m the one who seduced your daughter. Hell, I even killed your precious Eli. I deserve whatever happens, don’t I?”
Ares smiled as he remembered how Xena had gone stiff with anger. Her blue eyes flashed menacingly.
< Yes > Ares thought. <I’d rather have your anger. Your beautiful stiff-necked anger. Your exquisite shit-kicking, take-no-prisoners rage.”
“If it’s oblivion you want, Ares...”
“What I want is to rest. If the Eye kills me, then it’s no loss to you, and my blood isn’t on your hands. And if I sleep for a thousand years, like ‘Dite seems to think, then you won’t be around to see me when I wake up.”
“As if the world wants war in the future.”
“Fine. Then leave. But what happens to your precious reputation as ‘Defender of the Faith’ when it gets out that you had a chance to save me, and you let me die. Ares, the god who gave up his immortality to save your child and your friend? What does it say about your god of Love that his champion doesn’t have enough compassion to help the god who helped her?”
Xena’s eyes had gone narrow with rage, and Ares almost smiled to know that his words were effecting her so. It made him feel as if he had some of his old power back. < At least my power to effect Xena. Thanks to whatever gods are left for small illusions > Ares thought.
Ares could barely keep his eyes, open. The spell was definitely taking effect, and his feet felt so cold.
“All right,” Xena said, finally. “I’ll do it.”
Aphrodite and Cupid wept as he said goodbye to them.
Strife held him for a long time, and whispered, “I love you, Uncle.” It had startled him when Strife said it, his voice was low and trembled as he whispered it into Ares’ ear, as if he were waiting for Ares to fireball him for daring to express such a hateful emotion.
Ares had glared at Strife, but it was only to keep tears from coming to his eyes.
Apollo looked smug, but at least Ares knew that Apollo would never risk the kind of open conflicts that he once had with Eli’s followers. The world would go along until Strife could no longer hold back the barbarian tides. Ares had told Strife to take a message to Hercules when things grew worse. It was a scroll listing all the works that had been created by Greek and Roman authors and philosophers and instructions to take them somewhere safe. <Perhaps to that place that Hercules had once travelled, Eire...>
When Xena’s Chakrum hit the eye, Ares looked out amongst the small group gathered there. Cupid and Aphrodite were supporting one another in their grief; a small smile played on Apollo’s lips, and Strife raised his hand in goodbye...
...and Xena looked straight into Ares’ eyes.
Ares couldn’t read the expression in them.
< But then again, I’ve never been able to read what was going on behind those eyes. My beautiful warrior princess’ eyes. >
Ares sighed heavily as the spell began to overtake him.
<Whatever happens, let it happen fast > Ares thought.
His body felt heavy and cold and stiff. After a while he gave up on movement, and closed his eyes.
<Was it worth it? > Ares asked himself. <Giving your immortality away? Saving Xena and Gabrielle and Eve?>
A deep sleep overtook him.
In a thousand years, he would have his answer.