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Visitors from the East

“They will reject us?” The girl riding beside Darragh, Ciara, said. Her dark eyes looked on as if they were peering through the burgeoning town. She always had a strange fascination with the place and the druids. Their connection with the gods was so much stronger than their own. Even though they had lived in these lands for so many years. Only a few years, which felt like a lifetime, she had snuck into the town again and again. Pretending to be a pilgrim as she learned about Reiya and Seeros. They were so different from her own seasonal gods. They did not go to sleep for three quarters of a year, and could apparently hear them everywhere.

“Yes.” Darragh said from atop his highland deer. A hundred miles at least to the east laid a cove of dead Sigeran worshippers. Slaughtered to the last. Their duty was fulfilled and he had no doubt that the théin Boudicca would honor her word. But the druids were a dangerous and arrogant bunch. Where Ciara's dark eyes were filled with admiration as they approached the main gate, his blue eyes looked icy in comparison. They were slowed down at the gate, as a long line of entering travellers blocked the entrance with sleds of wares, livestock or big family flocks. At the gate stood guards - from their vantage point atop their deer, they could see he was carving down something on a wooden plaque as he let a family enter into the town before waving over the next.

The two of them awaited their turn. Darragh kept fiddling with his spruce wood carved icon of an owl that hung from his neck. Speaking wordless prayers to Irra to protect them. As her emissary was now protecting their homes. Ciara, for her part, could not suppress the smile she had on her lips as she would enter the great place once more. When they finally could approach the gate and its guards, Darragh said: “I have business with théin Boudicca.”

The recording guard looked up past a raised brow. “That’s sanndatr Boudicca now - long may she reign. Have you anyone to speak for you?”

“Only sanndatr Boudicca herself.” Darragh already prepared himself for the refusal. Such was the way with the serpents. Words and honor never meant anything to them. None the less he remained calm. Hiding his disdain for the place behind a mask of friendliness.

“Mhm,” the guard mumbled skeptically and looked to one of his colleagues on the right. “Go, uh, go see if Aifric’s available.” The guard nodded and went off into the city. The gatekeeper pointed to a few benches off to the side of the gate, upon which there already sat some families around a campfire in the centre. “Please, have a seat while we see what we can do about your query. If you’d like anything to eat, ask for Duncan and he’ll bring you some grub. Now, if it pleases, move to the side, if you would. The line is long and the air is cold.” Before they could move, the guard had already stepped to the side and beckoned over the next family in line.

“We will, thank you!” Ciara practically beamed as she stepped her deer away and then dismounted. Darragh was right beside her. Out of earshot he mumbled: “Only a Dûnan would complain about the cold.” None the less the two Cenél sat around the fires. Families were talking and sharing food. Ciara was quick to join them in the conversation. Many children asked about the long braid that fell from her brown hair to her shoulder. Adorned with white plumes and small trinkets. Though she brushed it off as just something she liked. The girl asked many from where they were and what they were doing here, outside of the town.

Darragh, meanwhile, stayed away from the fire and the people but also stayed out of the way as well. He kept fiddling with the owl icon as he stared intensely at the gate and its keepers. His eyes strayed upwards from time to time. Hoping to catch a glimpse again.

“So, what brings you here?” came a voice. It came from a large, round man with a sloppy cap that hid his receding hairline and patchy brown beard covering his jaw like a ragged blanket. He wore thick furs, and in his gloved hands, he held a bowl of steaming oatmeal with what looked to be mushrooms and onions. In between chews, he offered Darragh a sun-like smile, enhanced by the redness of his face.

“The words of-” Darragh tried to say, but Ciara was quick to jump in: “We’re here for sanndatr Boudicca. About a deal we made with her back when she was a théin.” The girl said as she pulled off her leather glove and offered a hand, together with a nice smile, to the man she assumed was Aifric. Her elder, first surprised, then took a step back. Letting the girl handle the dealings. She, after all, had a strange talent for talking with the Dûnans.

The man gave a small sign that the declaration had made him choke on his porridge. He brought his fist to his mouth and, after breathing for a bit, swallowed. The man took the hand politely. “Ugh-... Pardon me - didn’t expect that, is all. Where’re you from, to have business with the sanndatr?” He grunted. “Oh, and I’m Duncan, by the way. Nice to meet you…” He turned his hand as to gesture for her to name herself.

“I’m Ciara.” The girl said motioning to herself. Then she pointed to her elder behind her. “And this is Darragh. We’re from the-” A hand on her shoulder stopped her from speaking. The old man stepped in for a second. “We’re just with a band of mercenaries. The sanndatr asked us to finish some heretics away from here. My daughter here, you see she loves the sanndatr and always wanted to meet her. She’s a true inspiration.” Ciara, catching up quickly, nodded with a smile. “She’s amazing!” That, to her, wasn’t a lie though.

“Oh, she sure is,” agreed the cook, scooping another spoonful of porridge into his mouth. “Mercenary work must be good in these times - bet you two will be walking home with a bag of silver trinkets each. Was it Sigerans you went after?”

“Yes.” said Darragh, as he released his grip on the shoulder of Ciara. She glanced behind her, seeing Darragh take his seat again. “I’m sorry for my dad. He can be a bit grumpy. If I may ask a question, why must someone vouch for us now? I’ve been in town a few times and they always greeted strangers with open arms?”

“The Dûnlands ain’t what they used to be, y’know,” the cook lamented with a shake of his head. “With Sigerans on the warpath still, and bandits attacking traders and travellers in open day, sanndatr’s been pretty thorough with checking around for their ilk, and that’s why we’re taking down the names of those who enter and leave.” He ate some more porridge. “Ain’t nothing we want more than to welcome everybody in here to just live together in peace and joy, but, well, that just ain’t possible. At least not nowadays.”

Darragh was turned away from everyone. Luckily, because he nearly winced when he heard ‘Dûnlands’. As if it was theirs. As if they had always been around. They weren’t the same? What did the druid-kin know of these lands? Darragh walked over the bones of his ancestors. Ciara remained friendly though. “That probably explains why they didn’t let us through. They went to get someone called Aifric. Do you know who he is?”

“Oh, Aifric’s no man. She’s a fine lady, a théin at that! She’s in charge of the guards in town. Proper, polite, powerful - can’t ask for more in a théin. Oh, there she is now, I think - yup, that’s her.” A leather and fur-clad woman with a bronze belt buckle and a woolen bonnet approach, flanked on the right by the guard who had fetched her. She had an axe at her belt, but otherwise looked rather civilian, her torso held warm by a red and green plaid and her legs, covered by a kilt of the same pattern reaching down to her knees. From her feet to her knees, she wore white, woolen kneesocks. Duncan offered her a chestbump salute, and Aifric returned it.

“Afternoon, Duncan.” She said politely. “Are these the ones?”

“The very same, théin. Old man’s named Darragh; girl’s name’s Ciara. Say they’re mercenaries coming to claim the prize promised by the sanndatr.”

“Mercenaries? We haven’t hired--...” She paused for a bit, eyeing Darragh closed. A light of realisation flashed in her eyes. “... Oh, no, I, I know what this is. Alright. Thanks for waiting with them,, Duncan.”

“Least I could do!” the cook answered with a grin and toasted her bowl to both the guests and the théin.

“You two - come with me, please.” Aifric beckoned for them to follow while the guard at her side returned to her post.

“See you later Duncan!” Ciara said as she waved him goodbye. Darragh just offered him a very small nod and a grunt as he passed the cook. Letting Airfric guide them into the town. As usual, Ciara looked around with awe. Every time she returned it seemed as if the city had grown. Darrah, for his part, was looking for the scars left by the Sigerans. While great efforts had been made to hide them, three years of neglect and destruction could simply not be erased in the span of a few months: many buildings and houses were still in ruin; the road was bumpy and unkept; blood and soot could still be seen in spots and stripes on many walls and corners. This city’s scars would take decades to fully heal.

“How’s Cenél this time of year?” came a question from the théin before them, her head turning slightly to ask as they walked.

“Well enough.” Darragh lied. The Cenél were reeling as much from the Sigeran threat as Ha-Dûna had, and they didn’t have the copious amount of blessings from the gods. However, they did have generations worth of knowledge of the land. They would heal like the land would heal. Their houses would be regrown and sacred groves would turn wild again. But for now, they were consigned to suffering as the Dûnans were.

“That so? That’s a relief. There were talks earlier about sending over a delegation with food and supplies eastward to those affected most harshly by the winter. Cenél was on the list, y’know.” She offered Darragh a knowing look. “The offer is still there - you know what they say about the oatcakes here.”

Darragh cast some dark, hard eyes towards the théin but the pleading gaze of his student soften it. It would break his honor. What were they without their honor? Alive, at least. But the Cenél would have to restore their glory. “It would be appreciated.” The elder finally said.

Aifric nodded. “We’ll be discreet about it. If you’d like, you could bring it to them yourself, say you earned it on your own for your people. Ha-Dûna doesn’t have to be involved in any way. It’ll be Cenél’s achievement - not ours.” She took a left onto the main street and nodded to the guards flanking each side of the walled city core. She then pointed across a bustling marketplace to an ageing longhouse adorned with shields, carved animal heads and a great plaque featuring the symbols of the each represented with jewelry and gems: a golden sun, a marble moon, an aquamarine, a silver star, an emerald leaf, a tiny mirror, a wooden harp and a granite tusk. “She’s in there.” Aifric turned back to Darragh and crossed her arms over her chest. “And about the supplies… How you want it delivered, though, is up to you. We don’t want conflict anymore - none of us do. We understand, though, that nothing can go back to the way it was…” She looked off to the side. “We can only, well, beg for forgiveness and pray that bonds of friendship can be relinked.”

Can bonds be relinked if they never existed in the first place? Darragh was about to challenge Aifric’s statement, but chose not to in the end. “I thank you for your offer, but I would be lying to my people then.” With those words spoken Darragh passed the théin. Ciara just offered up a meek smile as she followed her elder towards the longhouse. “They represent the eight Dûnan gods.” She whispered to Darragh, as they both looked at the symbols. The elder had no short amount of distaste. It was, after all, a Dûnan god who caused the atrocities. Not of the last five years, but of the last three decades. They pressed on, reaching the longhouse.

Pushing aside the bearskin door curtain, they were greeted by the scent of charcoal, burnt grain and sweat. The inside felt like a sauna, the heat slapping them in the face like a wash of hot water. Six bodies hunched around the central hearth turned their heads curiously, then lowered their brows in suspicion. “Hail,” came a polite greeting. “You lost, strangers?”

It took a minute for both Ciara and Darragh to recover from the sudden, almost oppressive wet heat. “We… théin Aifric told us we could find the sanndatr here.” Said Ciara. Behind her, Darragh was already preparing for the worst: having been played with.

“Oh! Yeah, she’ll be here any minute. She’s just around the corner, uh, answering nature’s call.” The speaker tugged on his shirt, which was drenched in sweat. “By the gods, Brian, do you really have to keep it so warm in here?”

“Sanndatr’s orders, Faolán,” a fat bearded man likely known as Brian retorted with a nod. “Nothing irks her more than the cold.”

“Yeah, but this is just sadistic.” The man known as Faolán dabbed his forehead with a towel and turned back to face the two at the door. “Well, don’t just stand there - come join us by the fire! You must be freezing, you two!”

“Plus, you’re letting in cold air,” came a sour addition from a brown-skinned woman with black hair. Brian sighed.

“Now, now, Hilda, don’t be rude to our guests - all travellers are welcome in our town.” The woman scoffed and got up from her seat. However, just as she was passing by Darragh, she stopped, eyeing him closely.

“Hey, I remember you.”

Only a Dûnan would complain about the cold. Darragh’s eyes avoided those of the woman named Hilda, as he stepped inside. Though he kept his distance from the fire and the other people. “You must be mistaken.” He said with a faint smile as his eyes wandered around in the longhouse.

Ciara, meanwhile, did not have the same reservations and threw off her heavy fur cloak and the thick wool garment underneath that. Stepping closer to the fire in a very dull wool tunic that was held together with a belt and some copper pins. “It’s really warm here!” She exclaimed to both Faolán and Brian.

“Sure is. Hope it’s not offensively hot to you, friend. Hey, you hungry, by the way?”

“Oh I just ate outside at the gate!” Ciara said as she sat beside Brian with a big smile. “And I mean… I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place this hot.” The Cenél didn’t burn their fires so hot. At least not to warm such a big longhouse. They found it deeply wasteful. She wanted to ask how they could stand it for seemingly such a long time but she didn’t want to insult them.

“Yeah, none of us really do, either - well, except maybe Kaer Aethel over there.” Brian pointed at a bearded man sporting his first wrinkles of age, barely dressed in a white robe with a plant fiber rope around his waist. The man frowned back and slapped the pointing hand playfully away.

“That’s because I live here, you dolt!” the druid replied. Meanwhile, over by Darragh, Hilda cracked a smirk.

“No, I definitely know you. You were the one who held up Boudicca for an age just as we were marching on Ha-Dûna earlier this winter. Come to claim your prize for the work, have you?” Around the fire, the others grew wary.

Even Ciara turned tense as she watched her elder closely. Darragh turned to face the woman. “I have. And I shall claim it off the sanndatr.” His eyes trailed from Hilda towards the druid sitting by the fire. He would not like what would be said in moments.

Hilda eyed him up and down, her bead and bone-decorated brains swinging with her bobbing head. She eyed the cautious stares of her peers by the fire and then turned back to Darragh and scoffed quietly. “Alright. Behave yourselves while you’re here.” With that, she cast aside the door curtain and stepped out. “Shit, it’s cold,” was the last thing she said before her voice disappeared into the distance. By the fire, the five others unleashed as one a long sigh.

“Sorry about her, friend… She doesn’t take well to for-... Strangers,” Brian apologised quickly.

Darragh just let out a grunt and turned away again to observe the longhouse. It felt soulless and bloodless. Completely unlike the houses grown by the Cenél. Darragh was calming himself down. Once the Dûnans were strangers. In his eyes thirty years didn’t change that fact.

Meanwhile Ciara looked visibly anxious as she fiddled with her fingers. Her eyes darting around. Eventually she broke the question: “So what’s she like?”

The five got quiet, exchanging nervous looks. “She’s a bit of a wildcard, that one,” offered Kaer Aethel and took his ceramic pipe out. Brian caught the gesture and took out his own, as well; the remaining two who hadn’t identified themselves yet did the same. Lightning his pipe up with the bowl half-full of pipeweed, he continued, “Fantastic fighter, dutiful théin and able commander, she is, but her heart is full of rage and hate for, well…” He took a slow drag and exhaled into the fires, the smoke shooting up through the hole in the ceiling with the hot air. “... Let’s just say she isn’t very supportive of the sanndatr’s wish to open up Ha-Dûna to everyone again.”

Ciara got quiet for a second. To her, Hilda probably lost someone. Recently. Someone dear. Darragh who overheard was more sceptical. The Sigerans came from within Ha-Dûna. Not from without. Hilda probably despised the locals. Despised them. The two remained quiet and just waited for the return of the sanndatr.

A few minutes passed in smoking silence, the room filling with the cabbagy scent of pipeweed and the occasional sound of coughing. Then, at last, there came stomping on the doorstep and the curtain flew off to the side, revealing none other than Boudicca, dressed in unlaced boots, a woolen kilt, a bear pelt that hung down over her shoulders a little past her chest, and nothing else. She gave her scarred cheek a scratch and groaned. “Ugh! That was the hardest, sweatiest, most painful shit I’ve taken in--” She then caught sight of the visitors and swallowed the rest of her sentence, clearing her throat. “Oh, uh… Good, you’re here.” She stomped over to sit by the fire, taking her reserved spot with the druid at her right hand and one other woman at her left, kissing the woman on the forehead and the man on the lips. “Welcome to my hall, Darragh the Cenél - I see you’ve brought a companion. What’s your name, little sister?”

“Ciara!” The bright eyed girl said. “It’s an honor to finally get to meet you, sanndatr.”

Darragh looked less enthusiastic. “Sanndatr Boudicca.” He greeted her with a small nod. “The heretics lay dead.”

“Good. I expected nothing less from the Cenél. The Sigerans were once our kinsfolk - we take no pleasure in eradicating them; however, just like the herd must be culled when disease is found, so must the evil be vanquished so the kind may remain. You have done us a great service.” She rolled her head around on her neck and shrugged the bear pelt off her shoulders, sweat dripping down her forehead and making her chestnut hair stick to her face. “Name your prize.”

The elder suddenly straightened his back. Standing slightly taller and straighter than before. “A promise of tranquility, peace and respect towards my people and our lands.” The words had been carefully chosen to declare Cenél’s independence from Ha-Dûna. Taking back the conquered lands of the Sigerans, and simultaneously taking the assurance that they will not be attacked in the future by some warmongering Dûnan who would doubtlessly want to raid the lands they once saw as their own.

“And…” His eyes fell upon the druid sitting at the ring. “...a promise that the sacred rites and traditions of my people will never be ridiculed and prosecuted by the Dûnans ever again.” Anyone who knew anything about the Cenél, knew that he wasn’t asking for something as dull as religious freedom. Darragh was talking about magic and his gaze did not waver from the younger druid.

Boudicca furrowed her brow and pursed her lips. “Done,” she then said curtly and stood up, baked sweat running down her torso like rainwater. “Let anyone who speaks ill of the Cenél or transgresses their border be subjected to the whip and rod. Five lashes for blatant ridicule; fifty for religious persecution; one hundred for bringing unrest and chaos to their lands. Pen this down in Dlíbóka post-haste, so it may be made law.” She looked back to Darragh and raised a brow. “Will that suffice?”

“One more thing.” He said, as he walked up towards Ciara sitting by the fire. He put both his hands on her shoulders as he stood behind her, looking at everyone around them. The gods knew he hated this, but it had to be said. Ciara, for her part, had no idea what was happening and looked around rather nervously. “To foster prosperity between our people...I and Ciara will remain here. As representatives to the Cenél.”

“What!?” Ciara exclaimed as she shot up and turned around to face Darragh. “You can’t do that!” Yet as she looked into Darragh’s eyes, she realized he could. Slowly she sat down again. Still looking shocked by the news.

Boudicca gave her armpit a pensive scratch. Following her example, too, the other Dûnans around the fire started loosening up their shirts and robes to avoid their sweat soaking their clothes even more. With a wry brow, she leaned over to Aethel and whispered something to him. The druid’s face turned into a frown and he whispered something back. Boudicca’s answer was curt and the druid sucked regretfully on a tooth. “You’re both welcome to stay for as long as you’d like. You will be given lodgings and food as any other guest would, and you will have my ear should you have thoughts to share. However…” Boudicca rose up, stepped over the bench she had been sitting on and went over to a table upon which stood a covered pitcher and a couple of neatly arranged drinking horns. She lifted the fabric cover and poured some yellow, watery substance into the horn and gave it a sip. “... You will not be allowed to pray to your own gods in the Circle, nor in the temples. Just as we are to respect your faith, we ask that you respect ours by keeping it separated from the Eight. You may have a patch of land on which to build your own altars or godhouse, however - that can be arranged.”

Pray to gods in a temple? Darragh had to fight the disgust so it wouldn’t appear on his face. The Cenél did not worship the seasonal gods at man-made places. They worshipped in places the gods had given them, amongst nature. Of course, only druids would be so arrogant as to create their own, convenient places of worship. “I thank you for your hospitality.” Darragh said with a small nod. “May Cenél and Ha-Dûna prosper with this newfound friendship.”

“That was ever our intention,” Boudicca added and the two clasped hands.

Acropolis Party
Goddess Of Helheim

The base was thumping, even though Hel could barely hear the music. But that base, she could feel it in her stomach and it made her blood course faster. She stood against a wall away from what appeared to have been dubbed the main dancefloor. For the first time, she realized dancing had evolved. From something you did together, to something you did alone or with two. Seeing those kids dance, smile, sweat, and sing along the songs made the corner of her own lips rise a little bit. Sometimes she wished she could dance like that. Hathor had taught her some moves but now she felt almost ashamed of her manners back at the Jade Jaguar. Even though it was just her and the Egyptian goddess.

“A drink?” One guy almost yelled in an effort to rise above the volume. Which pulled Hel from her own thoughts. He looked nice enough. A bit older than most, but still pretty young. With a nice smile and the same golden hair as Baldr. He was holding out a red cup. Probably filled with beer.

”No thanks.” Hel quickly refused him with a handwave.

The youth was insistent though. He came standing next to her, with his back against the wall. Looking at the dance floor. “So why are you here?” He asked over the loud music.

Hel assumed he was referring to how she was dressed. Assuming she was just someone’s older sister who was supposed to be somewhere else tonight but somehow got trapped here. Well, she cast a quick glance at Hebe and Coco to make sure they were safe, before she said: ”To do my duty.” With those words she pulled away from the wall and walked towards the stairwell. To where she heard that soft whisper calling her. She had tarried for too long and indulged in her own curiosities too much already.

The roof wasn’t entirely abandoned. A few chairs were scattered around. Some people were just talking without having to raise their voice. Other circles seemed to have been abandoned. A rather cold breeze was blowing over the roof. Or so Hel assumed, as quite a few people looked like they were shivering a bit up here.

Hel ignored most and walked towards someone who was sitting on the ledge on the ledge of the building. Wrapped in a blanket. Her legs dangling off the side of a building. Looking out into the city as well. Or so it looked. Hel knew what being forlorn looked like. Like mist, she floated over the roof until she reached the girl. ”You mind if I join you?”

The girl for her part only looked up. Underneath the blanket, the blonde looked like a party girl. Quite akin to Hebe, Hel thought. Only with blonde hair and perhaps a more revealing outfit. “Sure.” She said with a small voice before she looked out into the city again. She had a red cup between her legs and was fidgeting with tarot cards in her hands.

Hel did so and joined the blonde in looking out over the city. She couldn’t see it, but the graveyard was in that direction. Hidden by houses and tall buildings. For quite a while they were both quiet. Just looking, listening to the thumping bass below them or the police sirens echoing from a distance. From here, the streets were bathed in the golden street light. People moved like ants. The party was certainly garnering quite a crowd. Yet the blonde remained upstairs. Alone with Hel.

“You waiting for someone?” The goddess finally asked.

“No. Not really.” The girl answered. Never taking her eyes off that far off point she wasn’t really looking at. “I’m sorry. You probably came up to have a smoke or something. I’m alright. Really. I just…like it here. You don’t have to stay here to make me feel better.”

”You tried to talk to your sister today, didn’t you?” Hel said, never looking away from Seattle’s skyline. It would be easier for the girl.

The blonde next to her just let out a chuckle. “I mean… yeah. She texted me about this party. It’s stupid really. She thought it would cheer me up.” She took a sip from the red cup. It didn’t smell like beer or mead. Hel could see that much.

”Not your older sister.” Hel noted, looking sideways now at the girl. ”Your younger one. Elise.”

Quite instantly a frown formed over the girl’s eyes. She even shot up. “W-Wha… how do you know!? Are you stalking me?” She sounded incensed. Even violated. The goddess knew her eyes would be burning on her. Though she didn’t turn around to look the girl back in the eyes. “Fuck you.” With those words, she started to stomp away.

”She said she’s sorry about Derrek.” Hel said, still looking over the city. She was used to anger. To hate. To sadness. People felt a thousand and one things when they died. Rarely was it good. There was nothing she could do but take the punches and shrug them off later. For now though, she just wanted to help Elise and her sister. ”She said she’s sorry that she kissed him and she still love you very, very much.”

“How did you-“

”Know about the kiss? Elise told me.”

“You can talk to the dead?” the blonde said, scoffing as she stood with her arms folded towards Hel. But the goddess could hear that faint glimmer of doubt. The girl wrapped in her blanket believed in something. Now she just had to end up believing in Hel.

”I can. And I bet you’ll want me to prove it. I will if you want me to.” Hel turned to look at the mortal. Her icy eyes looking straight through her. ”But I’ll warn you. Calling on the dead is not a light matter. If you want to call upon someone, do it with respect.”

The girl seemed to be weighing her options. She looked back, at the door. There was a party going downstairs and here she was. Talking to a crazy woman dressed like she was going to some high-class ball. Yet Hel could see the hope in her eyes. She bit her lip and stepped back towards the edge of the roof where Hel was still sitting. “Alright…could you-“ There was doubt in her eyes, and no small amount of fear but also yearning and hope.

Hel took her hands as she got up to stand in front of the girl. “It’s okay.” She said with a soft voice. “Who do you want to talk to?”

“My sister… Elise.”

Hel just nodded faintly, then closed her eyes. It wasn’t so hard to find the recently deceased girl. She was so young. So beautiful. ‘Your sister wants to talk to you.’ Hel let echo in her thoughts.

‘You found her!?’ The goddess could feel the excitement in the ghost girl’s voice. ‘This is amazing! Thank you! Thank you so much! My sister…could you ask her if she’s still going after Jackson?’

”Are you still going after Jackson?” Hel asked out loud, suppressing a light chuckle.

She couldn’t see it, but the blonde whose hands she held was blushing fiercely all of a sudden. “What! No! Is she asking that!?” And so the banter between the dead and living continued, with Hel as a conduit. Somewhere during the improved séance, she opened her eyes again and saw true belief in the blonde called Amber’s eyes. The sisters talked about many heartfelt things. Love. Studies. The future. Even though they couldn’t hear each other, they shared laugh after laugh.

But after about fifteen minutes, Hel gently squeezed Amber’s hands. ”It’s time to say goodbye.” Hel said. ”I can’t hold Elise for much longer.”

Amber nodded and said her goodbyes and then Hel released her hands. The blonde broke into a sob as she whipped away a tear. From each eye. Smushing her mascara. “I’m sorry.” She said, even though she was still smiling. “I just…she died so suddenly. I never got a chance to say goodbye and…I miss her so much.” The sobbing didn’t stop. It only increased.

Hel didn’t want to hug the girl. For obvious reasons. Instead, she just offered a comforting smile to the girl. Both of them returned to sit on the edge of the building. Amber kept talking about her sister. About the things they did. Their fights and how they always hugged it out after. The less Hel said, the more the girl spoke but the goddess took it all in. Letting Amber just talk and vent. Though eventually, the conversation began to stall again. Both of them were again looking out into the city. Though this time Amber looked significantly less somber.

“Do you have siblings?” Amber then suddenly asked.

It caught Hel off guard. “I… do.” Visions of Fenrir shot through her head, from the few photos she had seen. They still hung over her bed. Those old, already fading polaroid’s. Next to more recent pictures of her father.

Amber must’ve sensed something was off. “You don’t see them often?”

Hel just stayed quiet for a while. Her stomach turned inside out as her heart ached. How did Jorm look these days? What was he doing? Did he read her letter? Would he send one in return? What kind of sister didn’t even know what her brother looked like? She missed them. So much. ”No…” She finally said softly. Trying to swallow the tears that were pooling under her eyes. ”Not as often as I would wish.” She finally admitted. But then gently wiped the tears out of her eyes. “It’s…complicated.” If she ever got close to her family, Ragnarök could be unleashed. Complicated felt like an understatement.

“I didn’t see my sister a whole lot either,” Amber admitted. “We used to play together every day. But as we grew older she and I grew apart. Then the fighting started. And then we both went away to college. If I had known she would die so soon, I would Facetimed every day with her.” The girl pulled her knees up to her chin, but a small smile was conjured on her lips. “I’m happy I got to talk to her one more time.”

The two of them remained on the edge roof, together, for a bit longer. Hel fully expected Amber to leave sooner rather than later. She was still dressed for the party and the goddess couldn’t imagine her wanting to stay up on the roof for much longer. Such was the way with people. They moved on. Hel, for her part, was happy to have fulfilled her duty for the night and just look into Seattle night. If Hebe or Comus wanted to go home they could text her. Or they’d find her up here. Which was doubtful, but still.

Sunken in her own thoughts, Hel didn’t even realize Amber was suddenly standing up beside Hel with an outstretched hand and a big smile on her face. “Let’s go to the party.”

The goddess shook her head. ”It’s quite alright. You go down and have fun.” She would stay upstairs where she belonged. Away from the laughter and the smiles and happiness. She was always told to stay away from such things.

There was, for a split second, an intense battle going on between their two stares. Gauging just how stubborn the other person was. “Well…okay.” Amber said eventually, sounding quite defeated. “Just… find me when you’re coming downstairs! I’ll make you an amazing cocktail!” And then she had her arms around Hel. The goddess barely knew what happened before Amber was bending down and pressing herself against her. As a reaction, she reached with her arms around but was in time to stop her. She couldn’t embrace Amber. No matter how badly she wanted to. Slowly she pulled her arms away again and Amber released her.

The blonde vanished down the stairs. Hel realized she was genuinely all alone on the roof and then her mind carried her thoughts away upon raven wings towards the abyss. Towards Jorm. And Fen. And her father. How she missed them. How she just wanted to be with them. And hug them! Hug everyone! Her lip trembled as she felt her sorrow pool under her eyes again. Now, alone, she couldn’t fight it anymore as the first tear fell. A sob shook her body as she tried to suppress that dreadful, all-consuming feeling. But she missed them. She wanted to see them. ”I’m sorry.” She whimpered softly. “I’m so sorry. I can’t. I really can’t.” She spoke the words as if they could hear them.

Quite a few birds were already resting on Duxus’ stone carapace. It wasn’t often they could just sit down on something so high up in the air, where it was safe. The great, stone construct for his part didn’t care. Duxus was slowly but constantly seemingly swimming through the air. The giant lobster figure had flown through a heavy rainstorm already. Which he shrugged off with little care. His duty was simple and direct. Go to the lodepoints of civilization and bring those willing to the Omniversity. In the future such travelling would be easy enough. Now though, he would have to stay put for longer. Perhaps even have to convince whatever local sapient species lived in the vicinity of the merit and advantage of the Omniversity. Alas, as the birds resting had already heralded, the giant construct saw land for the first time in its existence. It started to descend and get closer to the water. With a leisure pace it approached the mouth of the river, which was flanked by two steep walls of stone.

It still took him about two hours to get close to Fragrance. He had slowed his speed significantly as he came down on the mouth of the river. Sinking his legs down first and then lowering his body carefully as not to displace too much water. It’s great claws were safely tucked to its side, while the large, blue crystal-like eyes looked in the direction of Fragrance. On the way, he passed by multiple farms and fields, full of purple skinned humanoids, all of whom immediately ducked for cover upon seeing him soar by. Upon reaching the town itself, he found it seemingly deserted - or rather, that was until his eyes took in the scene, which revealed tens upon tens of muscular males, all sporting javelins tipped with long blades of obsidian in one hand and leather shields in the other. They were adorned with armour fashioned from feathers, leather and fur. All of their ears sported thick dots of cotton. Out from behind one of the houses came one singular male, well-toned body barely hidden under a leather harness bolstered with shark skin and bones. He held no javelin, but wielded a flat club with shark teeth running the perimetre around its edge. White teeth gave some light to his dark colour and he spoke, “That’s far enough, foreigner. Speak to us your purpose right this second, or you, too, will know what it means to come unbidden into Fragrance!”

“I have come…in peace.” The men could hear the words booming through the valley. No mouth moved. Instead Duxus spoke through magic. Moving the air to shape the sentence. The tone it assumed was baritone and seemingly vibrating. Words were spoken slow, loud and clear but also seemingly otherworldly. “My purpose… as given by the gods… is to carry those willing to the Omniversity.” His eyes remained unblinking end lidless. “To learn… and then return… and apply. Your city… was chosen by the gods… worthy to attend… at the mist hidden island.”

The nelves exchanged looks, then some burst into laughter. Their leading representative shook his head and smirk. “Okay, okay. Who put you up to this? Was it Fax the Trickster? What is this ‘Omniversity’?”

Duxus remained silent for a moment. He expected many responses. Everything between awe and dread. Never laughter. “I know not…of Fax the Trickster.” He said, as he moved closer. His shape pushed the flowing water around him away. Causing small waves to form and wash onto the banks of the river. “The Omniversity… is a place… of learning. Risen… from the mists of time. Returned… to aid mortalkind’s… minds… and magic.” The soft glow of his eyes grew brighter and more focused. The light fell upon the muscled males as Duxus observed them with more attention.

The light immediately crippled the nelven attitude, everybody immediately covering their eyes and making all kinds of sounds from grunting to squealing. Even the leader recoiled in pain and clutched at his face. “Agh! Cursed-... Nng!” Pausing to tie a length of black silk over his eyes, he slowly, but surely, attempted to reclaim his smug attitude. “I-interesting, stone beast! A-and what must be given in return, then?!” The others were slowly recovering, too.

The stone giant was not blind to the effects his focus had. Quite quickly he diffused the light of his scrutiny again. Allowing his eyes to merely glow once more. “Your time… and dedication.” Duxus answered. “I should warn… It is not… a place for unearned… arrogance.” The men before him, as confident as they seemed, did not strike him as exceptionally curious, studious or creative. Instead his gaze turned towards the city as a whole as he stepped closer still. “Where… are your sorcerers… and inventors… little nelf?” Duxus finally asked as he slowly turned his gaze down to look upon the men that presented themselves to him.

The speaker rubbed his eyes. “You mean the sages? They are already educated! Go away! Leave us a--”

“Lavender! That’s enough. Let me talk to it.” Another male approached, this one dressed in jewelry, silk and fine furs: A lemur pelt had been twisted around his neck; his chest was bare, sporting a many-ringed silver necklace; his arms were sleeved up to the shoulder in black silk, and his nethers and legs were hidden underneath a black silk skirt. He greeted the stone giant with a series of clicks and touched his forehead and belly. “Good night, divine giant - you are welcome here. I am rach Rose, Sovereign of the Fragrance Merchants. Forgive my peers - they were tasked with guarding our home, and to guard is all they know.” He laughed politely. “Now, you mentioned that there are great opportunities to learn and study at this… Omniversity?” His rose perfume oozed forth like a stormfront. “I would very much like to send my youngest two boys to study at your institution. Would they be taught to be great leaders and traders?”

“I see you…rach Rose… of the Fragrance Merchants.” Duxus’ voice echoed through the canyon as he turned his attention towards the well dressed man. With no way of normally smelling, Duxus only saw a bright red miasma hanging around him2. “The Omniversity… teaches many things… your children… would learn the secrets… of nature… how this world… works… and how they can bend it… to their will… Magic… and technology… mind… and might…. How they chose… to apply the skills learned… is for them… and them alone… to decide… the Omniversity… offers tools…alone.” For a second Duxus’ attention returned to the larger whole of the city. “All… are welcome… All… will be tended to… There is food… and beds…enough.” And such was the truth. No doubt representatives of nobles and kings and sovereigns would present themselves. Offer up their children to be schooled. But the poor and the old would also be accepted.

"A proposal we simply cannot reject, I say," thanked the rach. "Please, grant us a night to gather our children and they will be with you by twilight tomorrow." He bowed deeply and clicked.

“Your wish… is granted… and more.” Duxus said, as it once more shifted itself. Moving closer to the shore, eventually beaching its head. The maxillipeds covering its mouth open up, revealing a gate-like structure it had for a mouth. Which also opened. “Inside… you will find… knowledge… about the Omniversity… and quarters… for travel… I shall stay here… for five nights… and five days… all who desire… may enter.” With that said, the glow dimmed, reducing to a mere flicker in the now dull, almost grey-looking rough crystalline eyes. In turn, inside the grooves and lines in the wall and ceiling lit up in a soft blue light. Revealing the great hall beyond.

The rach looked inside and nodded. “Wonderful. Now, everyone! Run home to every rach and his rachfi - tell them of this godsent gift and have them send at least two sons each. Their education shall carry our civilisation into greatness, fueled by the masterful teachings of the Omniversity! Now, disperse!” Swiftly, the nelves all ran back to their masters to share the news. Many of the greater and lesser lords of Fragrance were initially reluctant - their sons should grow up to be dancers and soldiers, not scholars. Scholars weren’t meant to lead, after all, but to counsel. Therefore, some had to be convinced to give up their sons - often in exchange for gifts. Eventually, though, the nelves had gathered up twenty eager and not-so-eager students who were looking forward to start their careers as scholars. They bound cloth over their eyes and stepped inside the giant’s mouth, where they made themselves at home, already steeled for this sort of absence from their parents. At the bank, all the people of Fragrance had gathered, overseeing the event. Spearheading the crowd was rach Rose, flanked on each side by sages, rachs and rachfis. Waving farewell, rach Rose bowed before the giant. “Bring them there safely, great Duxus.”

“You have… my solemn promise… rach Rose… I shall bring… your progeny… safely to… the mist-hidden Isle.” With those final words spoken, the gate-like mouth closed again, and Duxus’ maxillipeds sealed it completely. Inside the children could find their quarter and parlors. With several observation decks allowed them to look through his carapace as if it was made of glass. A soft rumble echoed from the giant stone lobster as it slowly raised itself from the water. Rising higher, and higher, until he was safely above the canyon’s walls. Then he turned gently and floated away on invisible currents towards the Omniversity.

Inside, the children did everything from burst into homesick tears, cheer at their newly claimed freedom, play around aimlessly, or sit quietly in a corner. One of those sitting in a corner, was a small, plum-dark nelfling with recently cut hair and white freckles on her face. As the sounds of the ocean could be heard outside, the nelfling dug its face into its arms.

“Hey!” came a nearby whisper, and the nelfling jump, turning to face a grinning young boy about the same age. “My name is Sage, son of Nilla! What’s your name?”

The nelfling swallowed and looked down. “I-I’m--... T-Timia…”

“Pfft! Timia! What a girly name!” mocked the boy and leaned down further to inspect the other. The nelfling hunkered down further, covering up the face. Sage scoffed. “You’re weird.” Then he ran away.

Timia felt tears well up in the eyes. Mother had been so adamant that the nelfling should venture out to bring the family pride - to bring her pride. It was rare for nelves like Timia to get an opportunity like this. Stealth and concealment of identity was adamant. After all, no one could know that she was a girl.



A mere two thousand years ago Qael’Naath would not have imagined he would enter one of his sibling’s realm in name of mortals. Yet in a way, the world created had shrunk and sometimes a mere handful of mortals truly could prove to be of fundamental importance. Even the Great Designs agreed with that now. It was a fact the god of magic had issue facing, ever since he discovered his two daughters. Yet it also made him realize that those who worshipped and praised him in the ways he desired, by using and advancing magic, were worthy to be fight and protect. He did with the Cenél and he would do it again with the people of Anghebad.

Once more he his way through Antiquity, noting that in that strange mid-realm something had seemingly changed. Though he couldn’t truly put his finger on it. There was no time to ponder upon it, though. So he pushed on until he found a portal radiating some familiar energy. He floated through, only to find himself facing a massive stone door. Well, he supposed he could hardly fault Sirius for wanting to keep undesirables out. The god of magic knocked three times on the door, and then awaited the response.

The doors slowly opened, revealing the nothingness of the starry ones domain, parts of its cast in blinding light while others were soaked in the deepest darkness with no gradient between the two. Parts of the darkness soaked into the light and part of the light into the darkness, forming a path deeper into the realm.

“Sirius?” Qael called out. In the vastness he had no real clue where the god of the stars was. And his mana was often rendered useless in the realm of others. Call out was a rather mortal way of drawing attention. But it would suffice for now.

The star god’s whisper echoed, “Yes? I have created a path for you through my realm. But if you wish, we can converse from this distance.”

“Ah, no I was just not sure if you were here or somewhere else.” Qael said, softer. Knowing the god probably heard him. Slowly he floated over the path deeper into the realm.

Following the trail of contrast, there was little of note. A mortal would have difficulties seeing within the realm at all, though a god could notice the bits of space debris appearing and disappearing within the mostly empty void. Sirius floated among the nothingness, turning around to face Qael as she approached, though the way that a person could tell is by the rough-spun cloak he worn and by the geometries of his bipedal form, “Of the all of the gods, I did not expect that you were one for visiting. What brings you to my realm?”

“Anghebad.” Qael said, not wishing to draw this out into a lengthy and odd conversation like he had back with Gibbou, Artifex and the strange new sibling. “Your influence did not go unnoticed, brother.” He was simply stating the facts though, with no real expression in his voice. He let the words hang in the void for a moment.

Sirius replied in his own emotionless whisper as if stating the facts, “Yes. The issue has been resolved. There is no need for any further intervention.”

“There was an issue?” Qael said as he raised his non-existent eyebrow under his hood as he stroked his tentacles hanging from his chin. “The city has fared well even with the encounter of the Labyrinth. It's a prosperous location. I did not see an issue that had to be resolved. At least not by a god.”

“They took something of mine and perverted it.” he said simply.

“Sounds rather...possessive.” The god of magic said. “As gods, is it not our task to offer gifts to the humans?” Magic, the Topaz Texts, the Foci. Gift after gift after gift. With not a prayer expected in return. Was this not the true nature of the gods? Even Cadien offered up gifts to his followers. And even though many of his sibling’s gifts were rather self-centered. Still, none seemed quite so controlling over theirs.

“They may commit their evils with the gifts of the other gods, but not with mine.” Sirius replied, the domain grew ever slightly colder for a mere second when he said it.

“Evils?” Qael was rather shocked to hear such harsh words spoken about one of his more favorite locations. Did he miss some grave sins? Were they abusing magic and hampering its growth? Surely not. Orb would’ve known and told him. Besides, the Winds of Magic were sure to fly over often. Allowing the god of magic a sharper sight of the region. “What evils are you talking about?”

“Slavery. It is sorrowful enough that they should practice it, however to involve my creations within is where intervention was required. However, that has been resolved.” he said, almost expectedly, as if that was where the conversation should end.

For a second the god of magic remained silent. So far Anghebad’s tradition of slavery had been an immense boon to them. In fact, he was considering aiding them in their endeavors. They seemed to agree on the idea that not all mortal life, not even within the same species, was equal. And while one could certainly be born with magical talent, Qael began to see the merit of Orb’s teachings and the institutes the Mystics were creating.

“You say it is resolved, what if some other issue dawns? Will you intervene again?”

Sirius paused, seemingly confused by the question, “If they will not heed the warnings, then what other recourse is there?”

“Leaving them be.” Qael said, with a little force behind his voice. “If you believe your gifts are abused, simply remove them.” But he would not see such a burgeoning center of magic destroyed over something as pretentious as divine morality.

“If you wish for me to remove the entirety of my influence over the region, that can be arranged. Though I do not think you would like the result.” Sirius replied, his voice not betraying its calm demeanor, though the environment itself chilled in response.

He wasn’t here to argue, that would be far too tiresome. He noticed the now rather threatening tone Sirius had taken after a perfectly reasonable suggestion. If the trees were the offending factor, remove the trees. Don’t burn everything around the tree. Though it seemed his brother preferred drastic measures over sensible ones. “My wish is to see the city prosper.” Qael said. “And to tell you that it is protected. By me. I will allow the woods to stay if only to serve as a warning against your influence.” With those words spoken, Qael turned around and moved back towards the stone door and the portal beyond.

The Blind Tiger
Ares & Hades

“Did you betray them?”

The question had been hanging in the air ever since the summons. In the car during the late night drive it was a formidable presence to the mortals. Like a stone upon their hearts. They were curious but still full of fear. Few were called to that particular bar and rarely for good news. Ares turned his gaze away from the car’s window and looked at the one Spartan who spoke up. If he told them now that yes, he had betrayed the Three, they would swallow deeply and prepare their MP5s. They were those few chosen who were more loyal to him than to the three in the mob. That loyalty was important, for Ares was the only one who could operate in and around the mob without being a complete part of its hierarchy. Because he didn’t answer to the Three. He answered to the One. The one that not even his Spartans knew about. The puppet master behind the mob empire that was, of all places, ran from Seattle.

“I didn’t.” He said coldly and instantly everyone let out a sigh of relief. They knew it to be true. Ares did not lie to them about these things. But they still had those curious looks in their eyes. Like a dog wondering what you were chopping on the counter. “It took them long enough to summon me anyway.” He said, to feed that curiosity a little, before looking away back outside. Into the streetlamp illuminated night in Seattle.

Minutes later his car drove off. Leaving him alone in a neighborhood most wouldn’t want to be caught in at night. The houses were pressed up against each other, tall and old. There was nothing remarkable about the building in front of him. No broken windows. No extravaganza on display. The house itself though, didn’t matter. It was the apparent cellar door below it. Only a few stairs down from the street. After Ares tossed the half-burned cig, he went inside.

The bouncer let Ares into the empty bar. At first glance you’d think it was just a faithful recreation to a roaring twenties speakeasy. In truth, it was one and the décor had been specially shipped over Washington. The wood still smelled of cigar smoke while the neatly cleaned countertop had that faint hint of Scottish whiskey and champagne combined with moonshine. Parts of the hardwood floor were covered by carpets, seemingly thrown around chaotically. If there were normal patrons, Ares knew they wouldn’t pay it any mind. Criminals like him though, knew where the blood splatters had fallen. Right now the bar was empty. So the god of war did what anyone would do. He took off his jacket, strapped up his sleeves and poured himself a mid-shelf whiskey.

The door shut quietly behind Hades as he made his way towards the bar that Ares had stationed himself at. Releasing a long breath Hades allowed for a large billow of smoke to escape his lips from the cigar he was currently working on. This place had been the result of so many “disappearances” over the years it had basically become an urban legend to criminals. Never sit under a chair without a carpet they used to say. The thought itself made him laugh inwardly. The mortals were always a superstitious bunch especially when their lives were put in danger. Finally making it to the bar Hades looked over the various liquors adorning the wall all ragning in quality and price. “Grab that for me will you.” Hades said as he looked towards one of the more expensive bottles resting on the shelf. “We have a lot to discuss, and it's been a long day.” turning around slightly Hades scanned the room once more looking over the various chairs and tables. Turning back and grabbing the glass off the counter Hades began moving to a table positioned in the middle of the empty bar. “Come sit, might as well get this over with.”

“It has been, indeed.” Ares agreed with Hades on the long day. And even though it had been so long, it still felt far too short. There weren’t enough hours in a day anymore. It used to be simpler, but Ares was never one to wallow in the past like some. As his boss asked, the god of war took one of the finest, upper-shelf whiskey, his own glass and walked around the bar towards the middle table where his boss said. Putting his own glass down before pouring Hades’. With a sigh he almost threw himself back into the old, wooden chairs. One without a carpet underneath. He took his own glass and raised it as if he just gave a silent toasted, and sipped it. It was fine for the probably unpleasant conversation that was about to follow.

Brining the glass to his lips after the small toast Hades sipped some of the amber liquid resting in the glass. The beautiful liquid stung a bit as it went down but no the less was a welcome taste for the crime boss. “How did the hospital go? I assume your lovely sister gave you hell as always.” as Hades placed the glass back onto the table he eyed Ares with a bit of a grin. He knew all too well how little the two could stand each other. He'd go so far as to say it would take a miracle or a catastrophe for the two to not be at each other's throats, then again, it wasn't any better than his brothers were.

“She did. But I put her in checkmate. She will hunt the hooded stranger as well.” Ares said after the almost liquid smoke tasting drink washed down. Under any normal circumstances, that would’ve been the highlight of his day. The one thing that could make him proud. He outplayed his sister. Used the chains to the police and the law against her. But today was not a normal day, and there was not a hint of pride in Ares’ voice. “Did the traitor confess?” The god of war returned then. This was their small talk. Manipulating the law and torturing traitors. Compared with what both did on a daily basis as gods, it really did pale.

“More or less.” Hades said in an even tone taking another sip from his glass with a grin on his face. “I am glad to hear your sister so graciously offered to help us with this matter.” as Hades let out a large puff of smoke from his lips his demeanor shifted slightly becoming more serious. “Have you found anything about Hephaestus?” Hades waited watching Ares and any reaction he would have. He knew this was going to be a sore subject for a while with Ares, hell it still was for him even if it was to lesser degree, but nonetheless it had to be done. “I have my suspicions already but i'd rather not start a war until necessary.” he finished letting his words hang on the end of the sentence that was clearly directed at Ares.

Ares’ face soured as he was once again reminded of his failure. “No.” The word stung far more than the whiskey he just downed in one gulp. It didn’t wash away that bitter taste. With disgust, mostly towards himself, he almost seemed to toss the glass upon the table. It didn’t break though. “I’ve found a notebook.” He followed up. “In his apartment. With a bunch of names in it. Names of minor gods and… Hebe. Hers was circled several times. There was also someone caught on tape entering his apartment. But I haven’t been able to find out who it was.” He should be taking pride in the fact that he had a lot more than Athena already. Instead he hated the fact that it still wasn’t nearly enough. “As much as I’d love a good war now.” That was a lie, but a well told one. There was another thing he wanted so much more than a war now. And he already fucked it up. “I wouldn’t start one over suspicions.” If they did, then they would be at war with the Romans for about 1699 years now. “It’s pissing me off.” Many things were pissing Ares off now and the sourness combined with the slow slipping of control made that evident.

“Well that is interesting now isn't it?” Hades said, beginning to mull over the facts that had just been laid out for him. “But we do need to be careful on how we move forward. Whoever did this targeted Hephaestus for a reason, and I don't think it was because they didn't like him.” Hades let his statement hang for a time as he poured himself more of the Whiskey thinking about everything that was happening. It was so odd that so many things were beginning to happen all at once. “We need to keep an eye on Hebe too. She doesn't need to be part of this, any of it.” Hades said in a serious tone. He may not have had much if love left for his brother and his wife but those same feelings did not apply to his niece.

“Oh don't worry I don't plan to start anything just yet. But I am preparing for it.” Hades looked off into the corner of the room looking over the various old pictures and items from years passed that now adorned the old bar, these were the only witnesses to the conversation himself and Ares were having. “The main problem I have now is knowing what pieces are on the board… and on what side.” Hades finished his eye ever so slightly glancing back at his nephew.

“Hebe’s already covered.” Ares said, as he poured himself another glass of whiskey. This time from the expensive bottle. “Zeus and Athena will look after her. I couldn’t. The Spartans won’t blend in with the whole…school setting.” He loved his sister, but why couldn’t she just go somewhere else but a school? Well, he shouldn’t admonish her for that. She was probably already becoming smarter than half the Greek pantheon. She probably was smarter than him. Ares didn’t catch Hades’ eye though. He just looked straight in front of him. Like a fire would erupt any second from where he was looking. Instead he just took another gulp of the whiskey.

“Killing Heph wasn’t the goal though.” Ares said after a fairly long break of silence. It just didn’t make sense. Gears kept turning but nothing made sense. Slowly he leaned back in his chair. Pondering over the facts. “I mean, the man who killed him had to know he was a god. And they had a god slaying weapon with them.” That much was evident of The Morrigan’s speech about his threads of fate being so suddenly cut. He wasn’t just moved out of Seattle for sure. “But if you have all that, then why go after Heph? Why not you or me or Jupiter or Mars. Any of tens of other gods that are vastly more dangerous even in their mortal form? That leaves only two more options: his death was a message…or they weren’t sure whatever kills gods actually could kill them.”

Hades shifted slightly at the mention of his brother being the one to look after Hebe, sure it was his daughter but he doubted his brother had what it took anymore. “Well I'm sure Athena can handle it, you two may never get along but you're both too stubborn to fail.” Hades kept his eyes where they were still thinking about what the death of hephaestus meant and more importantly how to narrow down his suspicions. Releasing another puff of smoke hades turned his body back towards Ares before placing the cigar on the table. “Ah but that's where you’re wrong Ares. Hephestus is quite the dangerous god, or at least in special circumstances. Let me ask you something. Of any of us who do you think stood the best chance of understanding that stupid stone that leavs us chained here?” Hades paused for a brief moment to let it sink in for Ares and let the gears turn some in his own head. “Cause while I may be wise and smart I was never a forge god nor was I one particularly skilled in that form of magic.”

“That would only matter if we actually knew where the bloody thing is.” Ares said after a brief pause as he waltzed the whiskey in his glass. He maintained his course of thoughts. Right now the biggest threats to any pantheon were still alive. Hathor, Jupiter, Loki, all still breathing and happy. Half of them would be easy enough to get alone. Use just the right words and you could make anyone go anywhere. Instead Hephaestus was dead. “It had to be a message. He was too public. Too visible even to the mortals.” He took another sip of the liquid. Even as he had said the words, he knew he wasn’t absolutely sure of them. “Whoever did it… they left no trace.” No trace, barely a clue. “They had to be in deep. Erasing camera footage. Forging alibi’s. Have locations to work at.” How else could they just have the Seattle mayor vanish so suddenly? “Nothing of this is making sense.” And he wasn’t talking about Hephaestus alone.

“True I suppose. But something still feels off about this whole thing.” Hades began looking up to the ceiling for a second as if hoping to pull out an answer from nothing. “Why does this news happen now? And more so why does Mars drop by at that precise moment acting as if he cares if one of us was the one to pass?” Hades' gaze settled back on Ares. “And then to top it all off my Brother” Hades let the last part come out in slight disgust “shows up after 2000 years of thinking he had died to the colossus.” These questions were more rhetorical than anything he supposed, there wasn't nearly enough to go off of yet and what they did have were accusations at best. “I do sense something is coming though, and we need to pick those close to us very carefully.”

Ares, in a way of agreeing, raised his glace and then downed it. His boss was right on all counts, but there were other things bugging him as well. Ares was perhaps in the unique position of not fearing Hades as much as a mortal would. But he was still the Greek god of the dead. Which meant, when the really unpleasant questions arose, Ares preferred to keep a distance between them. Which he did by getting up and walking over to the bar, grabbing the low shelf stuff. It felt more worthy of the pit that was slowly being dug below the god of war. Silence fell over the bar as Ares pondered upon the words spoken.

“And did you pick Hathor?” The question was thrown like a dagger, shattering the serene calm. Are stood with both his palms resting on the countertop, leaning over slightly as his burning eyes looked straight at Hades. He respected Hathor, and he acknowledged her in a way he acknowledged only a few gods. But that didn’t mean that he trusted her. To him, the series of suspicious events Hades had just summoned up was added upon: ‘And Hathor suddenly inching closer to you.’

Hades stiffened for a moment as the question came out of Ares lips. Hades wasn't entirely sure how to describe how he felt at the way the question was asked. Part of him was angry by the way Ares seemed to suggest that Hathor couldn't be trusted. “And if I did?” Hades said in a more serious tone turning his gaze to lock on Ares never flinching. “She has helped me in the past and made it clear she would be willing to help in the future should I need it.” as Hades finished he stood from his seated position and began moving towards Ares at the bar. “I trust her. Do you have any objections to that?” Hades said in a dangerous tone almost daring the war god to challenge him on the subject.

“I do.” Ares said, never averting his gaze. Even as he said, he knew it wouldn’t matter. Hades was master of his own fate and actions, as much as Ares was master of his own. And the both of them were far too headstrong to admit to the other one without good reason. Or could it be that he distrusted Hathor for another reason. A more personal one? No, that was impossible. “We’re marching to war against a foe we don’t know. What if everything she did so far was just an act? A ruse building up to this?”

“I've known her since the 20’s so I highly doubt she would be willing to put on an act for this long. I owe a great deal of my success to her and all she has done for this organization.” Hades hated the fact that Ares suggested the fact that Hathor could have been lying to him this whole time. Though if he was being honest himself it wasn't the furthest thing that could be true. Very few times in his life could he say that people, gods and mortals alike, were ever kind simply for kindness's sake when it came to him. As a god most did it as a favor to retrieve a loved one from his domain or out of fear of what he could bring, while trapped on earth it was that same. Fear of what he could do or greed for what he had. “If she has tricked me up until this point then I should congratulate her when she does betray me for being so convincing. But until then I have elected to trust her.”

Ares let out a sigh as he leaned back, turned around and took two more glasses. Which he placed before his boss and himself, and then filled each to one finger with some of the other top-shelf amber liquids the place had. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you speak so highly of someone.” He said as he poured. Which was still suspicious to Ares. Hades was not one to make such connections lightly. Even after twenty years Ares felt like little more than a dog sometimes. Not that he minded. With Hades his skills were at least respected. Under his own father he was kicked and ridiculed. Still, when he was done pouring he raised his glass once more. “I suppose that I will remember that from now on.” The god of war wouldn’t trust the goddess yet. That would be insane. But if Hades trusted her for a damned century now… maybe she wasn’t aiming to get the god of the underworld killed. That didn’t mean she could be without motive though. He would find that motive though. As insurance.

Seattle Sacred Heart Hospital
Ares & Athena

...Flashback - Morning of the 3rd...

It was a quiet day in the hospital. Four guys had been dragged in by the cops in the early morning and were patched up in the ICU. Now they were kept in the hospital to recover a little. Cops were guarding their doors, of course. They were drug dealing criminals after all. Except there was no drugs on the scene and nothing to tie them to a mob. It was a quiet day, that suddenly was interrupted by the roar of heavy German cars driving up to its entrance.

Ares marched out from the first car before it drove off again. Surrounded by three of his most trusted Spartans. From the next two cars harried lawyers that had been talking on the phone for over an hour now walked out. Followed by associates carrying piles of files and briefcases. Some more senior associates walked with notepads, jotting down every note. A few carried recording devices on their hips. They passed the income without a second glance. Having already acquired where the four victims were. The entire group of lawyers and high ranking criminals commandeered three elevators. Five minutes later they walked into the hallway. The beat cops were ready to stop them, but a quick lecture given in pure legalize let them quickly pass.

“Hello, I am Lars Johanson. Not Johnson. I will be your lawyer for the coming hours. Please remain in your beds and we shall go over some bullet points.” The lawyer pushed his small, round glasses up his nose as an associate handed him a notepad. “First point, do not talk to the press. Second point, do not talk to the cops. Third point, always plead your fifth amendment rights. fourth point,-“

Ares let the overly expensive lawyer ramble on while the desks in the room were taken over by the associates already preparing every legal defense they could summon. It was kind of funny to see them at work. Back in the law offices themselves several charges of assault and battery were prepared against the hooded individual. Just in case the cops would fail their criminal investigation. Which wouldn’t be a first. The god of war walked up to one of the dealers and sat on the chair beside him. “Tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know, sir.” The man said, clutching his ribs in pain, but not wanting to stop talking; “He came out of the dark. Was upon us fast. Too fast. I’ve never seen anyone fight like that. One moment I was just minding my own business, the next I’m bleeding on the ground.”

Suddenly, before any warning was given, the door swung wildly open, the annoyed face of Detective Natalia Steele and a slightly more worried-leaning face of Colin Brady entered the room, scanning it immediately. The four beds spread in a perpendicular fashion was the source of Natalia’s ire and she ignored the pleading nurse to stop, citing some nonsense about how she wasn’t allowed in the room (in addition to the weary looks of the beat cops who stood outside the room).

“I’m sorry sir, all she asked was where your client’s room was and she just--”

Athena took over, stepping to the furthest bed and she saw it for herself: the bandages, the blood still remaining on their faces, the cuts, and that face looking up at her the chair beside her. That subtle smugness hidden behind a veil of confidence that always stirred the fires of war within her. It was that face that she couldn’t stop herself from loathing. Even now, as Natalia Steele, his face made her blood boil and the urge to want to shoot him dead might make her feel justified, but in doing so, she knew she would expose them both.

So she took in the deepest breath and tried to find that peaceful center she often went to when her rage got the better of her. You’re better than he is. Control yourself. And so she did. Her eyes remained locked on him, though, but she kept it professional -- kept it in line with their mortal identities. Our mortal identities.

She cracked a smile. “Mr. Miknosos, was it?” She addressed him directly. “I wasn’t expecting to find you here.” The tone of her voice hinted at the truth they both knew to be prophecy.

Few people could summon rage in Ares’ as much as his accursed half-sister. Even as mortals, he and Athena stood opposite of each other. And now, in this room, the tension between them was not only instantly clear, it was creating an almost physical presence of pressure in the room. The mortals, both victims and lawyers, looked awkwardly at each other. Ares knew what was happening. Fear crept into their hearts. Lars Johanson, brave as he was capable, took a step towards the detective with his finger raised. Probably ready to point out some legal or technical thing that would force her out of the room. Instead he was stopped by Ares, who knew one of his better lawyers would be eaten whole on the spot if he did.

“Ah, detective Steele!” He said with an almost overly smug tone. “I would say the same but then we’d both be lying.” She and him had crossed paths many, many times. She got close to his operations sometimes. And he had gotten her reprimanded by her superiors on more than one occasion. It never changed anything. “But someone has to care for these unfortunate, low-income, lower class people. Tell me Jeffery, how is that veterinarian school going?” Ares called out.

And one of the beaten goons replied from across the room: “Good bo- sir. One more year and I’m licensed.” Ares just threw him a nice smile as he looked past Athena, before turning his attention back at her again.

“So. What will you do, detective, to capture the man that brutalized these innocent civilians of our fair city?”

She stood there for a long moment, trying not to digest so much bullshit she was being fed from Ares. Although, if there was one thing she had to commend him for, it was his ability to train those dogs to do what he doubtless told them to say. The fear in their eyes was obvious, but she couldn’t necessarily call them out for that. Given how badly they were beaten, it’s a fair assumption that any rookie would say it was due to that and not the God of War sitting next to them. “Of course, Mr. Miknosos. We--” she gestured to her partner, “--that is to say myself and my partner, Detective Brady, only want to catch the person responsible. As I’m sure you would agree, monsters who are allowed to roam free without answering for their actions is the real crime.” The entire time she spoke, her eyes hadn’t left Ares’, as if she was talking to him, and not the Alexander Miknosos alias he hid behind.

Any time before three days ago, and Ares would’ve started the verbal threat dance with Athena until both of them were basically threatening to blow up each other’s houses. And he would’ve enjoyed that as much as any fight with a mortal. Not today though. Today he had far too many worries on his mind. Between Hephaestus, Hebe and now this hooded assailant, Ares did not allow himself to risk losing control. If anything, his entire world would have to be pulled together even more. “There’s a criminal on the loose. Yet here you are talking about the philosophy behind his crimes.”

“The real crime is that these poor men were beaten and left bloody in an alleyway. I’m sure the boys here would be willing to give you a statement of their facts. If that is not why you are here, I suggest you leave this room immediately before I’ll have my lawyers here start filing complaints that will chain you desk duty for the next decade.” To back him up, ever so meekly, two of the four victims raised their legal pads upon which they had already ever so neatly written their statement of the facts and only the facts… that suited them. Leaving behind certain facts and making up a reason for why all four were together so early in the morning. Their stories would, in the broad strokes, all be the same. Each recalling vague details that may or may not be true. No statement is surgically the same but Ares’ lawyers had the art of statement creation mastered.

“So who will your prey be, Miss Steele? An actual criminal on the loose, or your metaphorical free monsters?”

As much as she wanted to say, outloud no less, that he was wrong and these four got what they deserved, that part of Athena’s being that hated it so much, had to swallow that need because Natalia didn’t have the proof to back up such a claim. “There is only one monster, Mr. Miknosos.” Her eyes left Ares’ and to one of the bloodied and bruised men that lay in the bed. “It is the man who is responsible for what they did to you. I swore an oath to serve and protect and if your ...lawyers will allow me to, I would like to ask you a few questions about the person who did this to you.”

Ares let only a small smirk of victory shine through as he stepped aside. “Gentlemen, please offer up your statement. One at the time. Mr. Johanson please make sure that everything goes according to the guidance of the law.” With that said, he sat down letting Athena take control of the room.

And that’s exactly what they did. Colin had taken the reins on the first two - Tommy and Charlie. As that happened, Athena did the same with the ...victim that was in the bed in front of her, while Ares sat on the opposite end. These weren’t her ideal circumstances, but she had to get the facts for her report. It didn’t matter to her personally because Athena knew what she was about to get out of him was fabricated; she just couldn’t prove it.

“So, if you wouldn’t mind, Jeffrey, tell me exactly what happened to you? What can you remember?”

He hesitated, one eye going to Ares shortly before he took in a breath and began speaking. “Me and my boys were just walking, ma’am. And then we got jumped by this animal.”

“Just walking? In a back alley? You’re gonna have to give me a bit more specifics.”

“Okay, so it’s like this: we’re all pretty into this mobile game, Pokemon Go.”

Athena gave both Jeffrey and Ares a dumbfounded look, shaking her head in a subtle manner. “And that’s it? You four were just playing this game and then that’s when the perp attacked you?”

Jeffrey nodded. “That’s correct ma’am. We’re all very lucky he didn’t kill us.”

“I’m sure you are.” Athena jotted down everything Jeffrey said in her notebook. “Were you able to get a good look at him? Do you remember his skin color? Or how tall he was? Or even what he was wearing?”

“I don’t know, Detective. He came at us from behind. All any of us know is he wore a blue sweatshirt. The hood was covering most of his face. I think maybe he was white. Probably with something resembling a blond goatee.”

“Right.” She scribbled more into her notebook. “Now do you know why this man would have target--”

“Excuse me, miss Steele.” Ares piped up from his corner. Interrupting what felt like more of an interrogation than someone taking a statement. Of course Athena would be fishing for a reason as to why they were attacked. “I believe this is a very clear cut case of nothing but senseless violence and bloodshed.” But it probably wasn’t. Still, all the men in the beds looked at Ares and nodded in agreement.

Much like the police, Ares had a room that was slowly being dedicated to the hooded stranger. This wasn’t the first hit on his operations, and it wouldn’t be the last. In truth though, the man was nothing more than a thorn. An annoyance. He never could get a hit on a shipment or disrupt the pipeline of product. The only thing he seemed to do so far was just beat up his dealers. Sadly, mortals were quite frail and began demanding protection against the stranger.

Then, with a simple nod towards Lars was enough to get the lawyer in now: “Alright, miss Steele. As I understand my four clients are not under arrest, so we will request your leave now. Of you and your police officers outside the door as well.” I could see in the glint of at least one associate that they had the words ‘police state’ and ‘abuse of power’ ready and loaded like they were bullets. “They will visit the police station at their earliest convenience to deliver their written statements.” Lars continued, and then motioned at the door. Which was already held open by one of the associates.

She was an idiot. If it was just the Deities of War and the “victims” in the room, Athena wouldn’t think twice about giving Ares the full extent of her ire. She would give anything to wipe that smug expression off of his face, make him know who the true alpha of the two of them are. It would be her way of unleashing some parts of her wrath that were reserved for his mother. Instead, she practiced restraint and let him see her smile.

There was a hint of fire in the way she glared at him. For anyone but them, it was an uncomfortable silence, the kind of silence that often made those who weren’t involved look elsewhere. “If I were you, Mr. Miknosos, I’d advise these men to not keep me waiting.” She, again, completely ignored the mortal lawyer as she focused all of her attention on Ares one last time.

Ares just kept the grin up. Her tone was enough. There would be no complaint, just a small mention towards the police commissioner of Seattle. Noting … abrasive behavior coming from miss Steele. It wouldn’t do much other than just annoying her but that was enough. With the detective’s exit Lars went over several more points of legalities and rights. Assuring everyone in the room that they were in fact victims of a brutal assault. Not cocaine dealing criminals. By tomorrow they would be released from the hospital’s care and ready for their statements. Despite wanting to take their sweet time for it, Lars would force them to go almost immediately after they would be released. Every interaction after they gave the statement could be seen as harassment after all.

Knowing his men were in good hands, the god of war stepped out and pursued miss Steele. “Detective!” He yelled out. “A moment of your time, please. For… a private matter concerning our shared friend.” He looked passed her at the other cops, hoping she’d get the clue and send them on. He hated the fact that they were now forced on the same team. Under the umbrella of their father who no doubt already informed her of the book and the stranger. But this wasn’t about him or her. It was about their family. It was about Hebe.

Her partner and the other cops looked at her, as if gauging whether they should leave her alone. Natalia waved them away. “It’s fine. Go on ahead without me,” she said to Colin as he and the other cops walked on ahead.

Athena faced Ares. Given their history, she didn’t know what it was he had to say to her. Usually whenever they were inches away from one another, someone’s nose was broken. So, if anything, he had her curiosity. “If we are to talk, don’t you think that maybe we should go somewhere a little more private?” She didn’t bother to wait for him to respond and walked past him in the direction of the chapel inside the hospital, which was on the same floor they were currently on.

Once inside the chapel Ares spared no time to turn towards his sister and say: “So what have you found so far in regards to our brother?” Half-brother to Athena, technically. Still, he hoped she would be willing to share the info she got. Much like he shared it with his father, knowing it would leak straight to Athena within minutes.

Athena leaned against one of the benches close to her. She crossed her arms over her chest and glanced up at Ares. “Unfortunately, I am no closer to figuring this mystery out than you are. Whoever it is, they hid their tracks well. Though, if I am being truthful here, Ares--” she sighed out, “--The lack of clarity surrounding Hephaestus’ death troubles me beyond anything this century.” It was unlike Athena to truly confide something like that in general, let alone to Ares, but given the subject matter, she made an exception.

The chapel was a dark place to Ares. Lit only by faint lights in the ceiling and the few candles burning in the front. When his sister confessed she had nothing, he didn’t feel like he had won. Even though by all rights he should’ve. The law failed where his own vengeance was at least succeeding a little bit. Still, that did not bring him joy for once. For a second he let his sister’s fear hang in the air as he pulled out a cigarette and lit it. In this day and age, it felt as if the cigarette was the new incense. With eyes closed he let out a gentle breath of smoke which rose to the ceiling.

“We’ll find who did it.” He assured her. Even if he had to face down the Godslayer himself. Still, there was so much more to do. So much more that was starting to weigh him down. For a second he let his exhaustion show as he sat down on one of the pews, letting his head fall backwards and close his eyes. In between the Hooded Man, the murder of his brother and… Tlaz he felt control slipping ever more. “You don’t have to stay, I think we’ve both said what we should’ve.” He said after taking a very long drag from his cig. But he would stay. Just for a minute. To have just a fleeting feeling of serenity for a moment.

We? Athena wasn’t sure she liked that implication. “So, that’s what it is. You and mommy dearest are going to take the law into your own hands.” The part of her that felt like she and Ares had the potential of having a civil moment was whisked away as soon as she caught onto what it was he actually meant, not that she was surprised. Maybe a little disappointed, but given the temper tantrum he threw at the Conclave, it was on her for thinking Ares was above anything else.

And how ironic that this all came out in the house of the Christian’s God. “I would ask if this was wise of you, but you were never known for thinking, were you, Ares?” She laughed at her own comment. “Because I am a fair Goddess, I will not give you any stern threat”-- not like you’d listen even if I did,-- “but do know this, brother.” She stepped closer to him and towered over him. “Though I won’t forbid you to seek out the answers to this mystery because, if I’m being completely transparent, I am also curious who killed Hephaestus, if your quest leaves a trail of bodies, you won’t just have the Hooded Stranger to worry about.” The tension was so thick, not even Zeus’ Lightning Bolt could cut through it. “Do I make myself clear, Ares?”

Ares let out a deep sigh. Of course his sister was expecting the worst of him. Again. “With ‘we’ I meant you and me.” His eyes weren’t looking at the altar straight in front of him. How strange the Christian god could be described as sometimes. Peaceful, forgiving, self-sacrificing. While at the same time he was in a way one of the greatest God Slayers around. But then he did look up and in his sister’s eyes. “Or did you think I told father about the book, the stranger on tape and Hebe by accident?” His eyes turned away from hers again. He was in no mood to have petty struggles over something as important as this. “You can’t solve this without my help, and as much as I hate it, I will need you as well.”

This was all a mess for a myriad of reasons. After her father had told her about this book, it complicated a lot of matters but it also made her consider an angle that she hadn’t: Hephaestus’ murder wasn’t random. And given the fact that Hebe’s name was circled, that stirred up Athena’s gut feeling that maybe Hera could be the main target. Or someone was aiming to hurt Hera. She would be the first person to admit that the Queen of the Gods wasn’t her favorite person, but Athena liked Hebe. She was a sweet goddess whose soul was untainted. If anything, that sold Athena on what she knew was the right thing to do: work with Ares.

“Very well, Ares.” She stared at him with a neutral gaze. “We will just have to enter a cease-fire until this is solved.”

Neptune's Mansion
Aphrodite & Neptune

The last few days for Aphrodite were a blur. She fully immersed herself in her work, talking to her clients to fix their relationships and all that. Whenever she was not at work, she never let her schedule vacant as she always found something to do such as her gym sessions or communicating with future clients. Whenever her phone dinged from a notification, Aphrodite hoped that it was Eros only to be saddened again when it wasn’t him. She would walk around in her room deep in thought while glancing on her phone, thinking about whether she should send him texts of how she missed him and wanted to talk to him, but she knew he’ll just ignore them just like he always did before.

Now, the goddess of love laid on the bed while staring at the ceiling. It was a bright cheerful morning but Aphrodite felt neither bright nor cheerful. The news of Hephaestus dying, the possibility that any of them would be killed at any moment, and her son being more distant to her than before made her feel very much sad. She didn’t want to spend the whole day crying and wallowing in her self-pity. Not yet, anyway.

She looked at her nightstand and saw a framed picture of her and Eros from years ago, smiling genuinely at the camera while they were spending a day on the beach. Aphrodite had a brief realization and smacked her face in annoyance. She was so busy these past few years that she forgot Seattle had a beach. She hurriedly got up and cleaned herself up, packed up some stuff she thought she might need, and got out of her apartment once she was ready. She put all her belongings in her car and drove off.

It was if a secret memory was unlocked in her mind and Aphrodite automatically knew where to go. She continued to drive into the greener part of Seattle until she arrived at one of the many beaches it offered. She got out of her car and walked barefoot, feeling the warm and grainy sand under her feet until the waves splashed against them. She saw several beach-front houses lined the sandy shores at a distance but she found herself alone at the moment. Deeply inhaling the salty breeze, Aphrodite felt instantly refreshed than ever before. It was the same beach that she and Eros used to visit whenever they had free time. Now that she was alone, Aphrodite felt the sea tugging at her stronger, beckoning her to return to the place where she was created. She took off her clothes until she’s only wearing a set of white triangle string bikini and dove into the cool waters of the sea.

“In other news the Seattle mayor has been declared missing for several days now. The beloved mayor…” Neptune mentally tuned out the massive TV that was showing the 24/7 new cycle. He didn’t want to let Hephaestus’ death affect the work he had to get in now early in the morning. Even though it was on the back of his mind at all times. First he had to get the right calls in, send the right e-mails, generally get things done. Jupiter had called them in for brunch which had ruined Neptune’s entire morning schedule. Though his older brother probably had a valid reason. The early morning breeze coming from the bay blew through Neptune’s opened floor-to-ceiling windows. Custom made. Most architects preferred to lock down a house entirely and then just put in some sort of climate control. Especially in big, modern mansions like the one Neptune had to own. But he had insisted on windows that could open up and as money wasn’t really an object, the architect and everyone involved in the construction had agreed. It was an expensive luxury but one well worth it as he now stood in front of the opened windows with an already cold coffee in his hands. Looking out into the bay water.

He had to go for a swim. With everything going on, it was the only thing that would make sense. Minutes later he was walking across his lawn, then his beach, into the water wearing only his swimming trunks. Leaving his back door unlocked and open. Sure, someone could have the stupid idea to burglar him. But if Neptune wouldn’t make short work of that transgression, he knew he could always count on his brothers to make an example out of the mortal offender.

Meanwhile, Aphrodite swam through the cool waters and continued to swim until she was in the deeper part of the bay. There, she saw a bountiful of fishes swimming through the branches of beautiful corals. She swam beside a sea turtle and even a few manta rays. She approached a nest of clam shells, reminiscing of the time she emerged from one herself. Even as she was gaining consciousness while being formed from sea foam made by the blood and semen of Ouranous’ genitals, she basked in the abundance of life energy all around her that’s present in the seas at that time. In the long time she was underwater, Aphrodite felt so rejuvenated and renewed.

She resurfaced after a few minutes, feeling proud that she could still hold her breath down for long periods of time. It’s a talent she honed herself on as she thought it was very useful for sex but she was surprised that it was also useful for swimming and diving too. She floated along the waters and looked back at how far she came. She also looked at the beach-front houses along the shore.Since she had nothing else to do, she decided to swim towards one of those houses to check it out. The house she chose was definitely the most luxurious-looking out of all of them. She craned her neck and looked through the large windows, noticing that it looked rather vacant. The owner must be gone but why would they leave their backdoor open like that?

Aphrodite looked around one more time to make sure no one was inside before emerging from the waters and entering the house through the back door. Well, she guessed house was the wrong word to describe this beautiful work of architecture-mansion-thingy. It wasn’t as impeccable as her Grecian mansion back at Mt. Olympus but this mansion was definitely divine in mortal standards. She was dripping wet, leaving puddles of sea water along the house’s floor as she looked around in awe of the interior designs. She knew it was very rude to enter people’s homes like this but she didn’t feel a shred of fear because she always had her powers to fall back on in case things get awry. In hindsight, she should have worn something more appropriate instead of a set of bikini but she just shrugged it off.

Only a few minutes later Neptune emerged from the seas. Well, emerging wouldn’t do it justice. It was as if the waves gently delivered him upon the shoreline. The water was his natural habitat, but as a mortal he was forced to stay ashore for longer than he cared for at times. Still, the refreshing water cleared his head for the day. Now he felt like he could face everything! Well, almost everything. There wasn’t a refreshing swim in the world that would prepare him to ever face off against his sister. Luckily for him, he and Venus often saw eye to eye on things.

Though as he approached his house, Neptune began to notice the strange puddles that formed on his specially treated hardwood floor. The aquarium wall remained untouched luckily. Clearly whoever had the stupid idea to burgle his house wasn’t a vandals as well. Slowly, quietly, Neptune stalked through his house. Not caring that he left a trail of water as well. He turned the corner, and in the far distance he saw the person who had entered his home.

She had to be a goddess. Had to be. Her beauty rivaled even Neptune’s sister. Wait…she was a goddess. Far off in the distance stood Aphrodite, admiring whatever she was looking at. Neptune didn’t want to disturb her. He did not want to break this serene moment.

Aphrodite was busy looking at the framed pictures. She leaned closer to get a better look at them and noticed that a certain man was always in them. Perhaps it was the owner of this house? Just by looking at the pictures, she could tell this man was taller than most of his peers and really muscular too. He was the rugged-type of handsomeness and his eyes made her feel like a prey being studied by a fierce predator.

She looked at the other pictures as well and was surprised as the owner of the house seemed to be very with the Roman gods like Mars and Janus. Too close for comfort, Aphrodite thought. With the way they smiled and were completely at ease with each other, in addition to the many pictures he had with the other Roman gods like Jupiter and Venus…

The goddess of love suddenly grew pale. Her eyes widened in fright as she realized that she might be in the house of a Roman god, in the house of her kin’s mortal rivals. All her confidence just melted away like the puddles on the floor. Judging by the aesthetic of the house and the fact that’s positioned just by the bay, Aphrodite guessed that this was the property of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. She didn’t know the guy personally but she didn’t want to stay any longer to find out, and she knew she needed to get out of this house now.

She turned around to run away from the house, only to freeze on the spot as the owner of the house, Neptune himself. Aphrodite gulped, looking at him with a mix of surprise, fear, and nervousness as she looked at him up and down. No matter how scary he looked, she can’t deny that the Roman god looked even hotter when he’s half-naked. The way the light bounced off his tattooed, wet, muscular body made the Greek goddess all hot and flustered. Moments of awkward silence passed and Aphrodite just stood there while admiring Neptune’s physique before she remembered she was wet and half-naked herself.

”Y-You must be the owner of this house, eh? So sorry for barging in rudely to your very impressive abode. I-It looked so beautiful from the outside that I simply couldn’t resist having a l-look around the place. W-Well, I’ll make my leave now. B-Bye…” Aphrodite said with a high-pitched, shaking voice while she turned around and made her way to the main entrance of the house.

“You could leave.” Neptune said, as he turned around and headed for the kitchen. “Or you could stay.” A moment later he reappeared holding two flute glasses and a bottle of genuine, french Champagne. Imported from halfway across the world. “And I can give you a full tour.” With a gentle smile he made it clear that he didn’t really see her as a threat and well, how could he judge her for her appearance when in truth he was showing skin than she was. Besides, it wasn’t as if he was hating the view. Not every day a literal goddess of love and beauty walks your house. The god of water only wanted to make the best of it. At the same time, he kept his distance from the backdoor and Aphrodite alike. If she wanted to leave, well who was he to stop her?

Aphrodite blinked for a few seconds. A Roman god who doesn't want to kill her? That's as rare as a human coming back alive from the Underworld. She pondered for a bit, thinking that this may be one of their schemes but this Neptune guy seemed to be one of the good guys. She definitely didn't feel any sort of hostility coming from him, though he looked more curious than angry for someone who's mansion just got broken in by a stranger. Even when she truly knew he was going to let her leave as the doors were there for her to reach and go out of, Aphrodite still wanted to stay. She didn't know the reason, maybe perhaps she's been very lonely at her apartment. She could call the other gods and hang out with them, go to the clubs with them or to an orgy party for old time's sake, but she was too busy wallowing in her own sadness to make time for her godly social life.

She inclined her head to the side and curiously looked at him, gradually growing a sly smile. "You're not mad that someone just broke into your beautiful mansion?" Aphrodite teased while she slowly sauntered her way towards him. "My, I didn't know Romans were so hospitable, especially towards my kin, Lord Neptune. But if you insist…" She stopped until she had to crane her neck to look up at him, running her finger on his pec downwards before grabbing one of the two flute glasses from his hand. "I will gladly take you on that offer. Although, before we do that, I suppose we can first do something about the both of us being wet, no?"

Neptune just smiled at her question. “Only a little.” He answered, as he felt Aphrodite’s finger run along his peck and then take a glass. Carefully he filled hers, letting the bubbles rise to the brim of her glass, and then a little bit further. So a little foam would run along her fingers. Then he filled his own glass, clinking it with hers before he took a small sip. “Well…there are towels upstairs in the bathroom. Mind if I help you out?” He asked with a teasing grin. The little game they were playing was fun so far.

She dragged her tongue across her fingers to lick up the foam while making sure her eyes never left his before taking a sip of her drink too. She was beginning to like this man more, it seemed that he knew how to play the game and she could tell he was great at it. It's been a very long while since she last had fun with a man, especially a god as hot and amusing as Neptune. She had slept with Poseidon a bunch of times in the past, even bearing two children with him. Would a sea god from a different pantheon perform differently in bed too? It's a theory the love goddess really wanted to test.

Aphrodite smiled sweetly at him. "Of course, Lord Neptune. That sounds delightful." She said, walking to his side and hooking her arm over his. She gave a not-so-subtle squeeze on his bicep while still smiling at him. "Please lead the way, milord."

Lord Neptune. He kind of liked the tone of that. Of course it was all said in good fun. It was clear that Aphrodite was thoroughly enjoying the game as well, so he saw no reason to stop it now. With her on his arm he said: “Right this way, my lady.” With a smile as sweet as hers.

Upstairs he led her to the vast bathroom with a jacuzzi and walk-in shower with room enough for three people at least. Sadly there would be no showering for them. Either way, in the bathroom he put down the already half-finished glass of champagne and grabbed a towel. “Allow me.” He said with a seductive voice as he walked up behind Aphrodite. Slowly padding her dry. First her arms, then her shoulders, then further inwards and downwards. Along her stomach and then her waist. Testing with every touch where she would politely put a halt to it.

Aphrodite was liking the place more and more. She was quietly taking notes in her mind so she had some inspiration for her mansion one day in the future, if they're still bound to Earth by the Colossus at that period of time. She raised an eyebrow at Neptune and smirked at him, putting her glass beside his and raising her hands up in full submission. She really wanted him to just ditch the towel and use his hands instead but it's still all part of the game so she just let him have his fun. When she felt she was dry enough, she put her hand over his and gently pushed the towel away. She got another dry one and smiled a bit mischievously at him. "My turn." The love goddess said with a sultry tone.

Aphrodite walked around him to pad Neptune's broad muscular back first. He's much taller than she was so she had to touch his waist while reaching up to pad his shoulders and arms dry, pressing her body against his back in the process. Once the back was done, Aphrodite then moved to the front, the part where she'll have the most fun. She slowly wiped his pecs, running the towel slowly and gently against his chest before she moved down to his ripped abs. Aphrodite looked up directly at Neptune's eyes as she kneeled before him, a naughty grin on her face as she took her time in padding his thighs and legs dry while leaving his swimming trunks still soaking wet.

The games were reaching their crescendo and the spark was clear to the both of them. Or so Neptune assumed. He most certainly did not expect this to happen when he woke up today, and in all honesty he should’ve started preparing for his brother’s meeting. But then as he looked down at Aphrodite, suddenly no matter the subject it could not be important enough. When Aphrodite rose up again he gave a coy smile. “To the tour then, my lady.”
The crystals appeared quite literally overnight. First as small fragments at first. Though through the night they seemed to take root and grew. Almost all of them remained undiscovered not until weeks if not months later. And even then, the Aspect Crystals remained untouched for weeks longer. Sometimes curious kids broke them off to see what happened. Nothing really. Mages, at first, thought they could use the crystals to their own ends. Except they lacked the proper methods to actually use them. As quickly as they had become intriguing, they turned dull and useless to most again. Elementite, the metal, traced the same story. Its veins underground appeared overnight. The yellowy metal was first to be thought gold. Only when people realized how brittle it was, did they lose interest again. The Cadheron berries were the only creation left alone for much longer than that.

Nidar slept quite fitfully. Nightmares had been plaguing him for two weeks now. Ever since that demon had appeared in the Labyrinth. Enura, the queen, had to lead the bravest of the Mystics into its bowels now. Many called it brave. Not Nidar. He called it foolish. The man was quite contend to remain above ground and draw his runes in the sand-pots that his slaves carried around. But his imagination took him for a stroll every night. Making him read those bloody words again and again.

Just like always he woke up in his tent, drenched in cold sweat. The full moon stood high in the sky. Nidar got up, but felt too late the heavy thing that was resting on him. With a heavy clang it fell to the ground. In the morning haze he barely recognized what it was. But as his scattered thoughts pulled himself together, he realized it were metal plates. Bound together with golden rings. He grabbed it, and carried it to the desk outside his tent.

Orb had come from no-where at night. Just like the Puzzleknots. Nidar still sat on the same desk. Four layers were opened up so far. He was certain in the coming year the next three would open and he’d gain his focus. But this book, it was something else. The plated slabs were showing symbols that were odd at first, but soon Nidar realized their not so hidden meaning. It showed water, over fire. Two rocks being thrown into the water and much more. The earliest pages showed some sort of processes, each with a unique circular symbol.

The rose far too quick for Nidar. Something about the night gave him insight. Now at day, in the shadow, his mind seemed to have turned sluggish. Beside him laid piles of clay tablets. Ready to be fired. Containing the notes of that which he already deciphered. But these texts, which he somehow knew were called the Topaz Texts, they seemed to contain vastly more knowledge. And that which he had would have to be put to the test as well!

Kiara sat hunched over the golden plates. Reading them again and again and again now. Beside her laid various objects in the cave. With a warm fire burning and a cauldron boiling away. She had done as the golden plates had told her to. It wasn’t had to find the berries as a Cenél. Though they had to be new. Her mother, nor her grandmothers recognized the strange berries. Which meant, almost certainly, that they didn’t exist until very long yet. It was a chilling thought. The idea that a god just went about and placed a completely new plant in the world.

Squeezing the seeds had been hard. She had been working on it for three day straight now. But at the bottom of her cauldron she saw the bounty boiling away. A Cenél was able to guess time from shadows and the sun. It was a skill you needed to survive. Especially in the cold, winter nights up here so far in the north. When the hour was over, she dumped a handful of raspberries and a clay cup worth of fresh water into the mixture.

Nothing particularly interesting happened as she kept stirring the pot. Until she felt like there were no more pieces and the strange liquid had broken down everything that was thrown into it. Carefully Kiara scooped up bit of the purple liquid into her cup. At first she just let her lips carefully touch upon the liquid. See if it burned or tasted wrong. To her own surprise, it smelled and tasted delicious. In one greedy gulp she down the rest of the cup. It tasted like true Cenél brewed liquor. Not that pissed out ale the Dûnans served. No this was a strong kind of stuff. Kiara laid back onto the bed she had made of dried grasses. Slowly the potion took effect. Unlike alcohol, it didn’t send her floating. Instead it took away the aching in her old bones. Making her feel less old. With a contend smile she closed her eyes and drifted asleep. Without pain in her joints for the first time in a decade.

Esiré had been obsessing over the gold-plate book for nights now. At day she kept it hidden away from everyone. At night though, she sat hunched over its heavy pages. Tracing her finger over the relief images. The symbols started out obvious, but as she kept turning page after page she noticed how the symbols turned more complex. She had persisted though. Right now she was reading alone at night, with only a candle light in the woods as her company. In in the still burning coals beside her sat a blackened clay pot, happily boiling away. It had taken her all evening to gather enough seeds.

The book detailed a fair few recipes, each calling for generally only mundane things. Nuts, leaves, berries. But there was one hinting towards something different. It was hidden in a clarification. Various ingredients were summed up only as an example involving a certain process. The next ingredients were hidden in similar fashion in the book. Esiré had discovered the pattern though. Once she was certain, she carefully closed the book again and stood up over the cauldron. With her own bone knife she slowly cut open her hand and squeezed it. Letting the blood run off her hand into the boiling cauldron. After she then added some blueberries and a marigold flower. Carefully she stirred it all around.

When she drank the mixture, at first nothing happened. Then her gut seemed to contract. Esiré dropped to her knees, feeling the intense need to puke up the vile mixture she had just drank. She fought that feeling though. With her eyes and mouth clenched close she rolled over the ground for a moment. Clutching her own stomach until the terrible, sickly feeling finally receeded. Slowly she opened her eyes. Not to find the dark world of the night but to see everything in a hue of light blue. The moon above felt as bright as the sun at mid-noon.

Qael’Naath watched with pleasure as his new gift was gleefully accepted. The Topaz Texts were only the start of mortalkind’s discovery of Alchemy. A vital skill that any mage worth his salt would have to master. For the next few years those who possessed the texts would be busy learning all there is to learn about them but then the interesting phase would start. Humanity exploring alchemy blind. Without Qael’s help. They would have to find experiment with what is given in the world. Create tools and better recipes. As he looked through his avatar’s divine senses, he wondered how long it would take before the first Magnum Opus would be build. Well, he supposed that was mortalkind’s test. An hourglass appeared beside him and the tipped it over. Letting the sand run down.

sᴏᴍᴇᴡʜᴇʀᴇ ᴅᴏᴡɴᴛᴏᴡɴ sᴇᴀᴛᴛʟᴇ » ᴊᴀᴅᴇ ᴊᴀɢᴜᴀʀ

The concrete basement of Ares’ small office building was filled with shouts and curses, mixed with the fainter groans and punches meant to hurt. Then, like a sudden crescendo, Ares could hear the roar. Someone was lifted in the middle of the ring. The shouts went from chaotic to animalistically united. The man who did the lifting kept roaring, the shouts around him elevating him from mere mortal to a demi-god for a second, before he let his victim fall upon cardboard below. Industrial light bulbs hanging from the ceiling illuminated the scene. Casting light upon the blood and spit. The two men were now fighting each other on the ground. One on top of the other. Skin split, turning each face into a painting of pain and determination. Ares didn’t need to watch it. Hearing was enough for him. It raised him into that familiar state of mind. Even standing away, leaning against a column, he could hear the three taps. The shouts turned quiet. Three people rushed into the makeshift ring. Marked only by cardboard on the floor. Not in an attempt to make a drop to the floor softer. It was there to soak up the blood at first. Now it marked the end of the ring. That didn’t matter either anymore, really. There was as much blood outside the ring as on the cardboard.

The man who tapped out was dragged off. Sat down on one of those cheap plastic chairs. He looked knocked unconscious, but the way he slightly moved his heavily bruised fingers told everyone he was still awake. Blood and sweat and grime ran down his bare chest and then along his chiseled eight-pack. Spartans didn’t go to the gym to look good. That was just another consequence. They went to the gym because it made them ready for the ring. On the other side of the basement sat the winner. Alone with an ice pack wrapper around his fists and a woman, another Spartan, cleaning out the wound along his cheekbone with vodka, before it would be stitched up. There was no glory won here. The prestige. Nothing was solved but nothing needed solving anymore.

Ares, leaning against the concrete, was itching to join in on the fighting. The lack of results coming out of the last few days was grating on him. Failure was not something he wasn’t accustomed to. But this wasn’t about him. This was about doing good to his brother. This was about the promise he made to his mother. He would find his brother’s body and bury it. That was the least he deserved. After that though, he would find the one who killed him and unleash the fury he was keeping pent up now.

“Boss.” One of his Spartans, still dressed in suit and tie, said as he walked up behind Ares. “We found something.” Ares nodded and walked away from the ring of shouts. Upstairs, towards a small office. Two men sat before the desk. Dressed in long wool coats. A ripped up journal laid upon the desk. Ares picked it up.

“What’s this?” The god of war asked. Going through the book. There were a few names he recognized. Nobody major. Nobody special. Gods but not much else.

“We found in the Mayor’s apartment.” One of the men said. Ares looked up to observe him. Not a Spartan. Not entirely trustworthy. He was a burglar. A professional one. Couldn’t be trusted. But was capable at his job. He gave him a slight, approving nod. In truth this was the first tangible clue he found all day. The failure, the inactivity, it had driven him mad. Mad enough to stay away from Julie for the night. Though he assured her everything was fine. Still, when he’d return home, he would come with the most beautiful flowers he could buy from Kore.

“Anything else?” Ares asked.

“A man left the apartment before we got in. Strange one. Couldn’t recognize him. No video.” The second guy said. He was a burglar also. Associate to the first. Less trustful still and less skilled. If he were, he would’ve followed the person. Alas, this was the deal with apprentices. You had to teach them things. Nobody was born reliable. Ares pulled an envelope out of his coat and offered it to the first man. Who took it without counting and then shook Ares’ hand. “A pleasure.” He said, before leaving with a smile. The money would be the exact amount owed. Illegal didn’t mean without manners.

Ares kept going through the journal. Trying to put pieces together. It was just names. Names and more names. Until his finger fell upon one in peculiar. ‘Hebe’. What did she have to do with this? Why did Hephaestus have her name circled? More questions. Was she somehow involved? No, impossible. The Greeks were all deeply broken but not Hebe. Not ever smiling, ever sweet Hebe. Maybe she was the next target? Or maybe she’s involved in a way she couldn’t know? Rubbing his brow, Ares sat back into his chair letting out a deep sigh. Frustrations kept mounting. Too many questions were being asked and he didn’t have enough answers.

Finally he had enough as he got up and walked out. Half an hour later the bouncer at Tlaz’s club let him right in. Stopping three boys that were first in line and protesting. “He didn’t even have girls with them while they have two!?” One of them exclaimed. It took one look from Ares to shut him up. The God of War wasn’t in the mood for shows or dancers. Instead he went straight for the bar and claimed a bar stool. Ordering a triple whiskey. Neat. Which he downed in one go. After which he ordered a second triple.

It was a typically busy day at the Jaguar, but that didn’t mean that a certain presence went unnoticed by the filth goddess herself. Tlazōlteōtl could spot the fury a league away, bobbing and weaving through her crowd of devoted patrons, a light touch upon each of their shoulders, whispers of thanks for coming and enjoying their nights within the walls of her establishment. Their eyes blown black, their desires and sinful natures coming out in full swing as they respond appropriately with nods and catcalls of their own. A smirk upon her painted lips, her temptations weren’t something any normal mortal could just brush off. But a god?

In no time at all Tlazōlteōtl was leaning against her bar top to the right of her longest known friend. Her honey eyes trailed up his frame, his chest seemed to heave more than usual and she made it a point to announce it to him, “Something’s gotten under your skin, War God.” Her tone was teasing, but there was no mistake in the concern in those eyes of hers.

A delicate hand was brought down onto his shoulder, a sign of support, a small squeeze before she shook him lightly, ”You lookin’ to let loose a little more than usual tonight? Or is it trouble you’re seeking?” Having known him for so long there was little the god could hide from her. His rage, his fury, the itch to be in on the battles and wars to come. But having to be resigned to being stuck; as they all were. She knew it all too well. So, the best she could do is to offer some reprieve that he wouldn’t elsewhere receive. She raised her hand to Hathor tending the bar, a look shot their way, but Tlazōlteōtl brushed it aside with raised fingers, “Let’s get a few more lined up, Hath! It’s a let loose kinda night~”

For a very long moment Ares let the question float in his mind. Hoping the alcohol would make the answer clearer. It didn’t. “I’m not sure.” He admitted, before downing his second drink. If he fought now there would be a promise of blood. He didn’t want that. Not here. Not for him.

As Hathor set about fixing their drinks, and just as Tlazōlteōtl turned to fix her attention onto her friend, a jerking commotion dragged her gaze to the back corner. A pair of mortals stood blocking the pathway from the dressing rooms to the front of the club, one of the girls standing there, clad in her last show’s attire and needing to get back there. “One moment Ares,” as graceful as a jaguar herself, Tlazōlteōtl stalked up to the others, “Oi! What’s going on here?”

“Lalli, these dicks won’t get outta my way for the next dance…” Tlazōlteōtl eyed the mortal men who dared hinder the flow of business and harass one of her girls. “Move out of the way, or I will have you removed. Is that clear?” They seemed inclined to listen as they moved away from the two women, but something didn’t sit right with the goddess. Something that made the hairs along the back of her neck stand on end. With a shake to her head, she motioned to Ares that she would return in a moment, she needed to make sure the others, in the back, weren’t in distress either, and with that she passed through the threshold into the backroom with Citrine following closely behind.

Ares just raised his glass in acknowledgement as he patiently awaited the next refill. Maybe he should start just ordering a bottle. Or two. Or three. Was it a three-bottle kind of night? He didn’t know. It was a slippery slope but one he couldn’t care for right now. His brother’s death, his promise, it was eating him alive. Together with something else. Behind him the three assholes that were making trouble at the dressing room came up to him.

“Oh look who it is.” One of them, the ring leader Ares guessed, said as he laughed with his two buddies. “Man this is why we had to wait outside longer? Look at this excuse of a man. Shit dude, you look like you want to drown yourself.” Ares ignored it. They were stupid. Idiots. He could take it. The insults were nothing new. He rolled with the punches his entire life. And when most of those punches came from your own family, a bunch of strangers couldn’t hurt you.

Despite his clear disinterest, one of them thought it smart to shove Ares. Who barely moved and didn’t even turn around to face them. “Pff. Pussy.” One said as they passed him and leaned up against the bar. “Yo chiquitta!” They hollered at one of the bartenders. A girl, not Hathor. Like all people that worked for Tlaz she was gorgeous and exotic. “Hey do some shots with us!” They kept yelling and hollering at her. While she did her best to ignore them and work through the drink orders of everyone else. “Baby just a shot of tequila. C’mon.” They kept going. Ares clenched his fist. It wasn’t worth it. Not them. Not here. Then one spat at her. “Bi-“

Ares had his hand on the back of the boy’s head and slammed him right into the marble bar counter. Like a rag doll the boy’s body recoiled and fell down. Blood poured out of his nose. On the ground he shouted: “What the fuck!?” His two buddies backed off a bit. Ares grabbed the guy on the ground with the bleeding nose, the one who almost hurled the insult, by both his lapels and hauled him upright.

“Apologize to the lady.” He said with an icy expression.

Then a fist came from the side towards him. Hitting him right in the cheek. Forcing Ares to turn his face and dropping the first guy. He dropped like a sack of potatoes. Ares slowly turned towards the second guy, the one that threw the fist. It was a good one. “I’ll give you one chance to walk away, son.” Ares said with the same, icy glare. The hit never fazed him. The trained boxer, instead, hit him again. Three hits. Right, left, right. Ares took each hit square to the face. His skin along his cheekbone was split. Bleeding. Looking worse than it was. He spat out some blood. Something began to flare up inside of the god of war. Something that shouldn’t but he couldn’t control it anymore. He grabbed the boxer by the collar. Ares headbutted him in a lightning fast fashion. Crushing his nose entirely. A flurry of left-handed fists then rained down upon the boxer. Each hit dimming the light in his eyes.

From behind him, Ares heard a scream. A second later the still screaming third guy jumped on his back with his arms around the god’s neck. The boxer was dropped and then the third guy was thrown off and slammed down against the ground. Both of them were groaning on the floor. The boxer with his face swollen and bleeding as well. But as Ares turned around he was faced with the nose-bleeding first guy, brandishing a butterfly knife. “Fuck. You!” He shouted, pointing the knife at Ares.

Something deep inside Ares snapped. Blood boiled. Fire ignited in his eyes. The same fire that was almost unleashed at the Conclave. He stepped forward towards the guy, who tried to go backwards. Ares wasn’t backing off. He didn’t even look afraid. He was just going forward. Pushing his prey in a corner. Making him afraid. Until the first guy’s pressure was too much. A shout, a lunge. The knife pierced Ares’ shirt and then his skin. He didn’t care. It didn’t stop him. He grabbed the guy by the throat and lifted him right off the ground. Letting gravity choke him. Wondering only if he should crush the kid’s windpipe.

Tlazōlteōtl was diligent in checking in on the dancers in the backroom, making the rounds and speaking with each one individually, noticing that they were all fine. If nothing else they were pissed. This wasn’t the first time those three men specifically had been in and harassed the lot of them. Knowledge that boiled the blood in Tlazōlteōtl’s veins. “They won’t be an issue any longer. Tlazōlteōtl was unable to continue going over the itinerary for the rest of the evening when a number of screams and shouts were heard above the music just past the doorway. Without another word spoken to the dancers she was rushing out the door towards the noise.

There amidst it all stood Ares. Blood boiling Ares. The assholes from earlier crowded around him. That was too generous on the mortals part. Two laid sprawled out on the ground, groaning in agony as they bled all over her floors and bar top. She was only a few steps into the main room of the club when the screaming picked back up and then there was the glint of a blade, the sounds of fabric being ripped, new blood spilling to the floor. Tlazōlteōtl shouted for Ares as she rushed across the club in record time, “Ar-!” She caught herself just in time as she reached with both hands to grip onto his forearm, suspending the guy in midair.

“Let him go… c’mon. He’s not worth it. None of them are…” the words uttered from her lips were soft and harsh at the same time, directed only to the war god beneath her touch. In the briefest of moments, with her grasp tightening on him, she prayed that she was able to do enough, to calm him enough, as she attempted to cleanse him of the rage he felt in the moment. At least long enough for the filth to be swept up from her establishment and never return. Though, she would be lying if she were to utter that they didn’t deserve some sort of punishment. But it wouldn’t bode well for her, or him, if they were to be dealt with in such a public way. Under normal circumstances she would have allowed him to act upon his nature, to deal with those he saw fit to find themselves at the end of his fierceness. However, she didn’t need to give Athena yet one more reason to make a surprise visit to the club. Alex, she called to him, he just seemed to look right through her. The storm was still raging behind his eyes. She wondered if she was ever about to get through to him.

Something strange was happening. Something new. The fires nobody could quench were suddenly receding. Becoming mute somehow. Mute enough at least for the goddess’ words to reach him. He blinked a few times, rapidly. Pulling himself out of the raging trance. The soft touch on his arm beckoned him to stop, and he did. The kid fell down from his grip on a bar stool. He coughed hard, his lungs gasping for air. But Ares’ other arm was quick on the back of his head, turning him towards the girl he disrespected. It wasn’t about their worth. It was about the girl behind the bar’s worth. “I’m sorry!” The kid yelled. “Okay? I’m sorry I never should’ve said those things. Please man… Please…” The kid was sobbing. Blood and tears ran together in a mixture of pathetic-ness. But Ares did release him again. Two bouncers had made their way through the throng of people and proceeded to guide out the three beaten guys. “Wait!” Ares yelled. The bouncers and the three guys stopped and turned to look at him as he pulled out the butterfly knife that was still in him and offered it back. The kid’s just turned away and hurried out.

Ares took a look at his own hands then. They were bloody, bruised, split. “I should… wash up I think.” He locked eyes with Tlaz’s. A moment ago he wouldn’t have recognized those topaz colored eyes. She didn’t deserve that. Slowly he reached out to her with a still shaking hand. With his hand on her cheek he softly brushed it with his thumb. “I’m sorry.” Words always failed him. Sorry was not nearly enough. But he didn’t know what else to do or say.

The words drifted to her ears, even as the DJ picked the music backup and life around them seemed to go back to normal. But it wasn’t normal. Not with the heat radiating from him, from his hand - his touch. She couldn’t help but lean into the feeling. It was comforting and familiar in a way... His words came back to her, and she had to frown a little. He didn’t owe her an apology. He had done nothing worthy enough to utter those words. Shaking her head Tlazōlteōtl grabbed the hand resting on her cheek, reluctantly pulling it away, but not releasing it from her grasp, “C’mon, let’s get you cleaned up,” a smirk on her lips and she was pulling him towards the bathrooms. Tlazōlteōtl was not blind the knowing looks shot their way from the employees - Hathor included. A roll of her eyes and she was pushing the door to the bathrooms open and dragging the god of war in after her.

From the little light that was emitting from above the sinks and inset into the ceiling, Tlazōlteōtl was not equipped to fully examine Ares’ wounds. Hoisting herself atop the counter, and getting situated near the crystallized rock sinks, she ran her hands under the faucet, collecting some water to sprinkle and dab onto the hand she still held. He was too far away, “Scoot closer. Or are you scared I’ll bite… Alex~ his name rolled off her tongue in a way that should have been considered illegal, her eyes holding some mischief to them as she peered through her lashes at him.

Taking his stunned form she held his hand a bit tighter before pulling him closer, situating him between her legs, thighs resting against his own. “There, better. Now I can tend to your hands properly.” The amount of blush rushing to her cheeks was embarrassing, but not as embarrassing if he couldn’t see. She thanked her past self for the brilliant idea of low lighting in the bathrooms. It has saved her this night for sure.

It was silent between the two of them, if only for a moment, though the dull thumping of the music from the main room was pulsing through the speakers and through the walls. Sending vibrations throughout the entirety of the building. She could feel those same small tremors through the counter she sat herself upon, not thinking of the consequences of her actions. Clearing her throat as she continued to wash and clean his hands, sneaking a glance at him. She couldn't help but to admire his strong, sharp jawline decorated with stubble, providing him with a ruggedness she much rather preferred than that brief moment in time when he had decided to go baby faced. A laugh was pulled from her at the thought.

“You always did look better with facial hair," she muttered mainly for herself rather than an audience, though she didn’t miss the way his other hand twitched ever so slightly. “You know, you have nothing to apologize for…” this time she spoke the words directly to him, pulling a hand down to run under the water, his large frame easily towering over her.

Ares’ small smile on his face, formed by Tlaz’s comment on his facial hair, vanished when she told him he shouldn’t apologize. Deep down though, he knew he should’ve have. He didn’t regret those words and he wouldn’t take them back. Still, only Tlaz could ever say he didn’t have anything to apologize for after beating up three guys. “They were rude to your girl.” He simply said while looking down at his fists.

Here, alone with Tlaz, Ares felt the world suddenly retreat. Leaving only this dim lit bathroom. The soft thumbing of the music outside felt further away than ever. While the smell of sandalwood and amber banished all other thoughts. Every connection to the outside world faded. It felt like he was in a fight. With every touch of the goddess, Ares felt a jolt go through him. Forcing his attention more and more on her. Like a fight, he felt his heartbeat rage. His skin turned hot. The water on his fists turned to gently rising wisps of steam. Everything else, every connection felt distant now. Unimportant. The way a fight for your life makes every other worry vanish. Despite the outburst, despite the fighting, it felt as if something was still chained within him. Begging, trashing, pleading, and yearning to be released.

His eyes couldn’t let go of her. Those topaz eyes and her full lips were drawing him in. Right then, right there he wanted her. He wanted the only one who seemed to understand him. The one he didn’t need to lie to. But there was one thing he had to be sure of. His ex had cursed and blessed the both of them at the Conclave. “What did you see in the pink smoke?” He asked, while raising Tlaz’s chin. Making sure he could look into her eyes.

Again, his touch sent heat coursing through her veins, the way he looked down at her with those deep browns, almost like the dirt after a storm, muddied but there was something else hiding under them… with a sort of curious reverence. As if he were staring into her soul, searching for something. The smile she adorned only grew at the sight of his own, faltering only slightly at his question, her eyes taking note of the way his lips formed the words. Tongue darting out to lick her own lip as she mulled over the visions that danced through her mind caused by Aphrodite’s parlor trick.

Tlazōlteōtl turned once more away from him, only slightly, grabbing a cloth in order to dab his knuckles dry, spending an absorbent amount of time just touching him. A sigh of remembrance passing through her, ”Centeotl… the maize fields,” a sad smile now gracing her features, “The harvest season, the cicadas, sour dirt and musk. And heat. Gods the heat… a silly vision.” She tried to shrug it off with a chuckle, before returning the question to him, the motions of her hands halting but never pulling away from him instead, giving him a slight squeeze and turning her topaz gaze to look up into his face.

Not him. But that was a vain thought. Of course she longed for home. Ares could understand that. For a second he remained silent. Letting his own answer roil through his mind. It was selfish. Pained. Yet his heart, his entire body! It cried out now. “I-“ As much as he wanted to say it though, the truth felt like a lump in his throat. Like a lie that would sunder lives. He couldn’t say it. Not like that. Slowly he caressed Tlaz’s face with both his hands. “I… didn’t see who I should’ve seen.” Chains were held taut inside of him. Barely holding in that selfish need as he closed his eyes and inched closer to Tlaz’s lips. Everything was in the hands of the fates now, and with every millisecond Ares feared and then accepted the rejection that would no doubt come.

For the third time that evening his hands were caressing her face and she found herself leaning into the warmth. Basking in the comfort and craving more. She nearly missed the anxiousness in his posture, the thoughts crossing his mind dying on his lips never to truly be spoken. Tlazōlteōtl wanted to ask him what was wrong, to comfort him and coax that chaotic mind of his into a lull that would relax him. However the moment never came where she could act on those thoughts as his words reached her ears she had little time to process before his lips were pressed into hers.

It wasn't forceful, like one would expect of the God of War. If anything it was soft, apprehensive, as if waiting on a verdict to be issued on his actions. There was heat beneath her skin, her fingertips, surrounding her completely. Ares smelled of musk and smoke and heat and it was in that moment she realized the meaning behind those stupid visions. The reason Centeotl faded into a smoke storm brewing… their friendship through the years, always coming to each other's aid. With a renewed vigor, no longer caught off guard she raised her hands, still damp, to card through his dark locks pulling his body closer, chests pressed against one another. Tlazōlteōtl sighed into the kiss, tongue swiping along the seam of his lips, back pressed against the mirror behind.

Something about this moment, Ares and her, all of it, felt right. Had the fates finally granted her what she had always longed for? Her mind was muddled, foggy. The only thing existing was him. His presence, his touch, the slight scrap of his hairs against her skin. "Ares…" his name fell from her lips like a prayer and she hoped to every power that this was real and not a delayed side effect of Aphrodite's tricks.

His name. Like a spell it unleashed him. His lust. His yearning. Unchained. She drew him closer. He pushed his body against her. Pushing further against the mirror. Pushing a little further still. The kiss had turned ravenous. He wanted her. He needed her! His skin lit up as it touched hers. To him there was no more doubt. No more fear. Everything was good in this single moment. Yet his hunger grew greater, as his kisses trailed off her lips, down the side of her neck. Lower… lower…

The door opened. Eyes snapped open. The outside came in. The faint thumping of music turning full blast. Singing. Dancing. Laughter. It flooded Ares, pushing everything he felt in that moment aside. Making him remember. There was something beyond this room. There was someone beyond this room. He pulled further away from Tlazōlteōtl. His hands let her go as they began to shake. “Fuck.” He breathed, looking down in shame. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! He could barely breathe. The walls were closing in. Caging him like a wild animal. Passion turned to dread as he pushed aside the people that had just answered. Going into the throng of people. He had to get out. He had to go back. With shoves and pushes he made his way through the crowds of people not caring who he offended or even pushed away too hard. He had to go out. He had to go out. The dark streets of Seattle were out there. He could hide there. He could vanish there. “You okay boss?” He heard someone say. It was faint. He pushed the man aside and then finally made it out.

He stopped for a second, just outside the strip club. His breath turned to vapor. He looked up, but there were no stars. All around him there were only streets and lamps. He didn’t know which way to take. Where to go. He only knew he had to get out of there. Go away. And so he vanished into the cold Seattle night.

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