Ares watched in silence as the thick swirls of smoke rose eagerly from the funeral pyre. The smoke, a dark, condensed black, diluted slowly in the air until it matched the unerring gray of the sky and disappeared, fading into the background.
It was a cold evening and Ares was unused to the sting of freezing air against his flesh. He wrapped his arms around his torso and rubbed his bare forearms, wishing he'd had the sense to invest in a cloak or a blanket when he'd lost his immortality.
A red-cheeked boy led a ram up to the sacrificial altar and positioned it so its head was above the stained marble. A trembling girl reached up into the basket resting atop her head and withdrew a handful of grain. The village priest, dressed in tattered, once finely embroidered robes, muttered desperate prayers to the Olympians. He begged for the village of Dheskani be saved from the plague that was sweeping through mainland Greece.
After a final plea the priest nodded to the girl, who sprinkled her grain onto the ram's head. The ram reacted to the touch and raised its neck up as if nodding in submission, agreeing to its own death. With a swift sweep of a tarnished knife, the priest slit the animal's throat, and its blood flowed thickly onto the stone altar.
Another wasted sacrifice, to gods who could no longer listen or care. Ares frowned, rubbed his forearms more briskly, and took a few steps closer to the heat from the fire, which devoured the body of another child. He watched as the priest deftly gutted the sheep, extracted the edible parts, and set the rest on the altar to burn more black smoke into the sky. As if the gods really wanted that stuff. As if the gods were even there. He was the only one listening, and he could do nothing.
Only months ago, he wouldn't have realized these people existed, and only then could he have helped them. He wouldn't have, of course, but in hindsight, it was almost torturous to think of all he could have done. He'd had everything. They'd all had everything.
Ares had staggered into Dheskani late the night before, and the villagers had welcomed him warmly. The archon's wife had tucked him into a spare room and smiled kindly, telling him that he would bring good fortune as a stranger to the town. The burning child had been her nephew.
When would the mortals accept that the Olympians were gone? Destroyed, scattered, replaced by something so drastically different that it was impossible even to name. The gods were left with mortal lives to be led before Death, now frighteningly unknown, came for them.
Ares turned away from the blood and the fire, both reminding him too much of the consequences of war, and of mortality.
* * * * *
Ares jerked at the unexpectedly gentle touch of a warm hand to his shoulder, and he swung his body around into battle posture. He remained tense as he gazed at the demon, hair burning and smoking, eyes dark and questioning.
Ares forced himself to focus and distinguished the burning pyre from the man's form, the flames from his tousled hair. He stopped himself from reaching out. "What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing."
"That's not an answer." Ares tried to muster sufficient anger to match the growl in his voice. How had Iphicles found him? Nobody knew where he was.
Iphicles smiled benignly and handed Ares a folded piece of dark fabric. "You're cold. Put this on."
"I'm not - what the fuck is going on, king? I told you-"
"You told me lies. Put that on."
Ares looked down at the cloth and shivered. Not looking at Iphicles, he shook it out, wrapped it around his shoulders. "You shouldn't be here."
Iphicles raised his eyebrows and his hand, gesturing to the solemn town around them. "Too bad there's a plague. This is a nice enough place to settle down. Trees, hills, good farm land."
"What are you talking about?"
"Us, Ares. I'm talking about us."
"And you're in denial. Trust me." He held out his hand, warm and inviting. "Let's get some food."
Ares blinked rapidly, his eyes irritated at the amount of noxious smoke in the air. He caught the gaze of the archon's wife, who raised a tired hand in greeting, managing an honest smile while handing out portions of the slaughtered animal to the mourning villagers.
Ares grasped Iphicles' rough hand in his.
* * * * *
To fall was simply to fly without the comfort of control.
Iphicles' body was hot against him, his bare flesh shimmering in the light from the small fire. There was so much Ares wanted, so much that he knew he'd been given.
Since he'd lost his godhood, he'd been too concerned with running, hiding, surviving, and mourning to really consider his mortality. Now a future, however fleeting, seemed to be building itself up around him, one monolithic column at a time. If he touched it now, if he let himself feel comfortable inside it, the entire structure might crumble and fall, just like he had.
His fingers trailed geometric meanders over smooth ribs. Iphicles covered his hand with his own, stopping the motion, and slid both their hands slowly up Iphicles' body. He matched Iphicles' lazy grin with one of his own, which widened as full lips closed wetly around his index finger.
The sting of the cold and the terror of mortality were fading. There was a life to survive. He had an ally, for now, or forever... it didn't matter which.