Ares looked bleakly over yet another scene of carnage. Joxer's face was set and tight jawed. Hephaestus straightened and shook himself out of a trance, his scarred face grimacing in distaste.
"I don't think fire is one of the rogue's elements. This was clumsy compared to the scouring of the earth. Maybe he or she is trying to awaken their fire instinct." Hephaestus shook his head.
"I see Aphrodite has you half convinced it could be a goddess." Ares watched his brother smile.
"She has a number of good points," Hephaestus grinned. "Besides the obvious. I can think of at least five goddesses who might qualify in strength and height to be the warrior who set you up. Athena, Ate, Io, Melpomene and Tyche. Oh, make that six. Artemis is an excellent warrior."
Ares sighed and shook his head. "I can't see any of them doing something like this. Io is the goddess of fertility for Zeus's sake. Why would she take life when she actively promotes creation?"
"I haven't a clue. But Aphrodite has these little flashes of intuition and we ignore them at our peril." The god of fire shot him a quick look that reminded him of the many attributes of the woman who'd snared them both.
"I remember." Ares didn't miss Joxer's flinch but put it aside for later. "We may have to consider them. We've eliminated most of the gods and this," he gestured at the burned and blackened farm, "just keeps happening."
"There were four children this time." Joxer's hesitant voice added. "Every site has had young kids."
"That's true. Adults, I expect to find but some of these homesteads should have been childless. Especially, when school's in session." Hephaestus frowned and looked over the charred bodies that lay scattered over the frozen earth. "I wish there was a way to tell who was killed first and who last."
"Asclepius might be able to tell. He's studied the dead." Ares smiled approvingly at Joxer. "He says it helps him heal the living. We cleared him early on. We need to ask Father if we can bring him into the secret."
"Let's get out of here. We need to get ready for Harmonia's party. Aphrodite will have our heads if we're late." Hephaestus limped away from the dead.
"Oh, gods! That's not today?" Ares looked up in dismay.
"Yep. She turns seventeen at midnight. You'd better have something really nice picked out for her. And don't be too late, not like last time." Hephaestus grinned and vanished in a brilliant flash of light.
"What happened last time?" Joxer asked.
Ares gathered him into a tired hug. He still wasn't a hundred percent back from the effects of the backlash that had almost killed him. But holding Joxer worked its familiar magic on him, filling him with contented energy. Zapping them both to his Olympian temple, he delayed his answer until they were settled at the dinner table.
"There was a little war going on in Macedonia and I forgot her sixteenth birthday party until it was after 11:30. I bathed and dressed in about five minutes and was about ready to zap myself over when I realized I didn't have a present. Not good for an absent father to show up sans gift." He chewed the roast lamb appreciatively and took a long drink of nectar.
Joxer grinned and spooned up some more of the lemon chicken broth. "What did you do?"
"Zapped myself down to one of Pan's temples. He always has kittens and puppies coming out of his ears. He's not the god of fertility and wild animals for nothing. It took me two temples before I found a pure white kitten who'd been weaned and was ready for a new home." Ares shook his head ruefully. "She did not like being scooped up and carried off. I was bleeding in about six places before I got her to the party at the stroke of midnight. Aphrodite knew I'd been lax but I don't think Harmonia ever realized I'd almost forgotten. Neela is still with her and is a very well fed superior sort of cat."
"What did you get her this year? I wish I'd known it was her birthday." Joxer looked uncomfortable and the corners of his mouth turned down. He concentrated on his bread and cheese, missing the loving look that Ares cast his way.
"I think the valley could do without the rose bush you got in Arcadia the other day. Harmonia has never, to my knowledge, ever received her very own rose to grow and tend. I, on the other hand, got her a silver bracelet with a crescent moon bangle. She's partial to anything with a moon on it." Ares moved his foot over to caress Joxer's.
"Do you really think she'd like the rose? The man said it would be a pale pink when it bloomed. He said I could name it anything I liked." Joxer returned the under-the-table caress with one of his own.
"That would be perfect. I know she's never had a rose named after her." Ares gave a mock frown. "At least, she'd better not have. She's way too young to have some love sick fool fawning over her."
"Oh, I'm love sick all right. And probably a fool as well." Joxer laughed and ran his toes up Ares' leg to gently nudge his stirring cock to instant hardness. "But she's safe from me."
Ares smiled his predator smile that usually sent men running but not this man. Joxer just grinned and proceeded to lick his spoon clean with long slow laps that sent a jolt right down to Ares' groin. Two could play at that game, Ares decided and he leisurely began to lick his fingers free of the lamb juices. Sliding his tongue up and down, he stopped to gently bite the end of his thumb.
Joxer had almost stopped breathing by the time their eyes met again. This time it was Ares who held his breath while the young warrior dipped a strawberry in a bowl of honey and raised it slowly to his lips. The golden liquid ran slowly down his hand but it was the slow lick of the pink tongue against the bright red berry that had him mesmerized. That and the strong white teeth that bit into the juicy berry with a crunch.
Reaching across the table, Ares pulled the honeyed hand to his own lips and began to lick it clean with long slow rasps of his tongue. Joxer shivered and slid his toes under the heavy cock to toy with the soft round balls. Ares barely suppressed a groan and bit gently into the fleshy mound at the base of Joxer's thumb. He tasted of fruit and honey and that sweet saltiness that had come to mean Joxer.
"Bed." Joxer's voice was a growl.
"No time. Bath." Ares suggested.
"Now." His foot slid away and he pushed away from the table, his eyes never leaving Ares'.
"Now." Ares rose, leaving a kiss in his palm before letting go and beginning to undress while slowly backing towards the white spa that was the twin of the one in their valley. Joxer followed, both of them shedding clothes and leaving them where they fell. The dark god poured in the spruce oil they both liked while Joxer grabbed some green soap and they stepped into the oversized tub.
Joxer immediately ducked his whole body beneath the surface of the green-tinged water and resurfaced like the sleek river otter to which Ares had laughingly compared him. Suddenly, sight was not enough and the dark god pulled him in tight to his aroused body and kissed the dripping face clean of water. Joxer teasingly ran the soap over his back in long strokes that feathered up and down his spine.
Now it was Ares' turn to shiver and slide his hands down the lean back to cup the firm white cheeks and pull him closer. Their cocks collided and slid against each other in a slippery duel that brought a new urgency to their mating.
"I will never get enough of you, Joxer. Every time we make love it's like the first." Ares whispered against his ear, slowly sliding his tongue down the curve before flicking the lobe.
"Better than the first. Because now we know each other." Joxer moved his soapy hands firmly over the muscles of Ares' lower back and buttocks. "You know what gives me the most pleasure."
"And you know how to make me explode like no other lover has ever known." Ares drew back and gazed into the loving eyes so close to him. "Joxer, would you like to make love to me?" And he broached the puckered opening with his fingers.
Joxer's eyes opened wide and he gulped. "Me?" His hands stilled on Ares' ass and the soap slipped out of his hand.
"It's been a millennium since I gave myself to a lover and he's long since disintegrated into dust." Ares softly touched his lips to Joxer's forehead. "He was a good man who died in battle, much too young. I haven't loved a man since him. Until you came stumbling into my life." He smiled. "Into my heart."
"I never thought of that." Joxer blushed but his hands unconsciously caressed Ares' cheeks. "What if I don't do it right?"
Ares smiled and kissed him sensuously, sliding his tongue in and out in a gentle fucking motion. "You'll do just fine. You won't hurt me, I promise. We can practice until you feel comfortable. Or until I have trouble sitting down."
Joxer blushed a fiery red all over and hid his face in Ares' shoulder. "Let me think about it. Oh gods, I won't be able to think of anything else."
Ares laughed deeply and inserted a second finger into Joxer with a slow rotation that made him arch forward. "It will give the other gods something to speculate about. Especially if you watch me like you just did at the table."
Joxer raised his head and pushed back on the questing fingers before hesitantly feathering a searching touch over the sensitive skin between Ares' cheeks. The dark god bit back a groan and pushed towards the touch. He'd forgotten how good it felt.
"How did I watch you?"
Ares took a deep breath and willed his control up a notch. "Like you wanted to eat me alive."
Joxer grinned impishly and pressed harder, his finger sinking into Ares' warmth. "I did. I do."
"Good. Because the feeling is mutual." Ares pressed deeper and sparked a fire inside of his young lover. Reaching down with his free hand, he gathered both cocks together for more friction. Joxer joined him with his other hand. Slowly they thrust back and forth setting a rhythm that used the water as a third hand to provide the pressure they needed to bring themselves to satisfying completion.
"It's a good thing we're already in the tub." Ares lapped at that mysterious spot on Joxer's shoulder that always made him shiver. He flexed his ass muscles against Joxer's buried fingers. He was going to enjoy the next step. "Because we're a mess."
Joxer tilted his head back and slowly withdrew his fingers, watching the expressions on Ares' face uncertainly. "I didn't hurt you?"
"Only if you leave me." Ares let all the joy he was feeling show on his face. He watched the dark eyes begin to believe and sparkle in the candlelight.
"Never. I can't leave. My heart's with you."
"But I gave you mine weeks ago." Ares whispered.
Joxer gave him a blinding smile that lit the room and they slowly separated to wash each other tenderly, knowing more would come later. Ares knew his young lover needed time to believe that he was what the dark god wanted. They dried themselves and dressed in their best in honor of Harmonia.
Ares smoothed out a nonexistent wrinkle in Joxer's white silk shirt. The young warrior tied off the dark god's lace-up red vest and stepped back.
"There. You look good enough to eat." He said in satisfaction.
"Promise?" Ares put on his most sultry look.
Joxer's eyes went sleepy and Ares almost took him right then and there. "I promise."
The matter hung in the balance while Ares wrestled with his libido and won. Barely. "I'm going to go get the presents. I'll be right back."
"Okay." Joxer smiled. "I'll just finish eating . . . dinner."
Ares groaned and popped back to the cottage. Harmonia's bracelet was in a small wooden intaglio box on the mantle. Joxer's rose was in a pot near the front window, along with several other plants. He'd developed a real passion for gardening and everywhere he went he picked up another plant. Spring had better come early or we won't have room for us, he thought with a chuckle.
Popping back to the temple, he watched Joxer dip another strawberry in honey. But this time, his lover brought it to him and fed it to him a bite at a time. Clutching the damn rose bush, Ares couldn't reach out and gather the young man in. Joxer chuckled and slid his hands up his arms so they cradled the rose bush between them.
"Hold on, love. I want to get there, do our present thing and leave as soon as possible." Ares heard the growl in his own voice.
"All-l-l-l right!" Joxer's eyes lit up and he grinned. "One dance each with the birthday girl and then we head home for our own dance."
"You leading?" Ares held his breath.
"Yes." Joxer looked scared to death but his whisper had the ring of a vow to it.
"Thank you, love." Ares got a good grip on his willpower and transported them to the party.
Harmonia met them with hugs and kisses. She gave Ares a second kiss when she opened the box and o-o-oh'd over the bracelet. He put it on for her, enjoying her pleasure in the tiny perfection of the crescent moon. She was growing up so fast. Pretty soon he'd be beating the young gods off with a stick.
He watched while Joxer showed her the rose bush and explained with a blush that he'd named it after her. She touched the green leaves gently and shook her head. Speechless. That was a first for Aphrodite's daughter. It didn't last of course, and they headed over to the porch to put it in a spot where the sun would warm it in the morning.
Zephyrus caught his attention and he moved over to where the red headed god stood waiting for a report on what they'd found this morning. They'd cleared him early on and he'd been watching for more of the sickness. It was his sighting of the burnt out shell of a farm that had led them there. A slight commotion interrupted his progress and he watched in amusement while Pan chased a Muse out onto the portico.
Harmonia and Joxer had returned and he was getting her a goblet of punch while she showed him some of her other presents. They looked good together, her blonde, pink and white complexion, a nice contrast to Joxer's dark eyes and hair. Too bad, honey, he's taken. Ares laughed to himself and almost made it to Zephyrus' side when a scream whirled him back to his daughter.
She was trying vainly to hold up Joxer. A Joxer who's white shirt was staining rapidly red while he slid slowly to the floor. It seemed to take forever to get to them. Any one who got in his way was roughly shoved aside and he reached them as Joxer hit the ground. In a heartbeat, Ares was on his knees by his side looking in disbelief at the handle of a silver dagger that thrust obscenely out of the young warrior's chest. He clasped his hand tightly.
"Ares." Joxer's voice was so faint; he could barely hear him. The dark eyes gazed up at him in wonder and the light in them slowly went out.
He could hear the exclamations around him, hear Harmonia's sobbing, even hear Zeus saying something. But none of that mattered. Nothing mattered any more. He felt the grief rise up inside of him like a volcano of burning pain. No. Like the Chaos Energy come back to claim him.
He sensed another on Joxer's other side. Someone who touched Joxer and said something nonsensical. "Ares. He's dead. It struck his heart."
"He gave me his heart." Ares spoke through the red haze of anguish to Asclepius. "So that must mean I'm dead." He felt the sorrow grow and knew with his last coherent thought that he had to get away. Had to protect his family, from the backlash of his pain. Joxer was dead.
"No-o-o-o-o-o!" Letting the berserker rage go free, he gathered his beloved in his arms and vanished.
Harmonia sobbed quietly, wrapping her arms around her knees and rocking back and forth. Even though her eyes were closed, she could still see Joxer sprawled on the floor, his blood staining her dress. Joxer was dead. She couldn't make it seem real. Why am I so cold?
The familiar scent of her Mom wafted over her and her strong arms gathered her into a hug. She turned into her and tried to stop crying but couldn't.
"You're safe, sweetie. It will be all right." Aphrodite's croon broke in the middle and Harmonia felt tears soak into her hair.
"Why, mamma? Why Joxer?" She whispered. "I wish it had been me. It would have hurt but I would have healed."
Aphrodite's grip tightened. "I know, honey. One of us has gone mad, Harmonia. I need you to be safe while we sort this out." She sniffed hard and pulled away from the comforting hug. Tilting her head, she met Harmonia's eyes with determination. "Go to Hestia. You'll be all right with her. Tell her what happened and do exactly what she says. Understand?" She drew them both to their feet and moved them to a quiet corner.
Harmonia rubbed her eyes and nodded. Aunt Hestia's would at least be warm. Maybe melt the ice that was freezing her to the bone. She had a lot of questions but the most important she was afraid to ask. Trembling, she held her mother's hand. "What about Daddy?"
Aphrodite closed her eyes and shook her head, two tears rolling down her cheeks. "I don't know, sweetie. He's a strong man, always has been. But ..." she took a deep breath and opened anguished eyes, "he sounded so broken. I've never heard such anguish."
"Heartbroken." Harmonia knew how she would feel.
Aphrodite nodded and hugged her tight before pushing her away. "Go to Hestia now, sweetie. I'll come and get you when I can. Be safe for me, Harmonia. I love you."
"Love you too, Mom." Harmonia tried to smile and wafted herself to the warmth of Hestia's temple. Kneeling by the fire, she concentrated on calling her great aunt. The tears had started again and the flames blurred to yellow and gold.
"Goodness, child. What's wrong?" Hestia arose from the flames and clasped her into a warm embrace. "I just left the party an hour ago."
The story poured out in hideous detail and Harmonia watched Hestia take it all in, her rounded face taking on the unfamiliar angles of anger. She stopped her tale with a finger to her lips.
"Enough, Harmonia. I know this has been a shock for you but there's more at stake here than you realize. We have to get to your father now before it's too late." Her eyes flashed with anger and what Harmonia realized with a shock was fear.
"He'll have taken Joxer home. I can't leave you here, Harmonia. Your mother was right about the madness. The rogue may have overheard and come for you. Hold on." Without another word, Hestia held her firmly and Harmonia's ears popped with their sudden displacement to a dark cozy room.
Harmonia looked around curiously. She recognized the plants that Joxer had told her about lining the hearth. Moving to the table, she reached out a hesitant hand to stroke her father's cloak. Tears welled up again and she surreptitiously wiped her eyes, hoping Hestia wouldn't notice.
"Damn. They're not here." Hestia swore and closed her eyes, stilling into a familiar trance state.
Long moments passed and Harmonia felt as if she should hold her breath. Hestia's eyes snapped open and her frustration was evident. "I can't get beyond the dispersing Chaos Energy. You're going to have to help, Harmonia."
Chaos Energy! Harmonia's eyes grew wide and she nodded slowly.
Her tone softened and she gathered her into a comforting hug. "I wish I could explain more but we're racing against time."
Harmonia felt the earth move beneath her feet and a grumble sounded from far below the surface. Hestia sighed and suddenly looked old to Harmonia's frightened sight. "You are linked to Ares by body, heart and mind. I need you to get a fix on him and then transport us both there. You'll have to concentrate very hard on him."
Harmonia nodded shakily and Hestia held her hands, smiling calmly and taking a deep breath. Harmonia mimicked her and closed her eyes, breathing in slowly as she'd been taught then releasing all emotions with her exhalation.
God of war.
His love shielded her. He was shelter from adversity. Guardian of her childhood. Protector. The tower of strength on which she'd leaned all her life. He was love and security. Safety. An anchor in a world gone mad.
She sent out her thoughts into the valley she couldn't see, slipping through the frozen earth with ease. Deeper, she sank her awareness into the stone and soil, seeking her father with whom she shared the element of earth. Farther out she cast her net of energy, straining to feel the familiar presence. Life abounded in the valley but a well of power drew her towards the mountain.
There. She clutched Hestia's hands and the goddess of fire linked with her and gave her the boost she needed to take them both deep within the mountain. They materialized in a cave of darkness. Harmonia gave a little squeak of terror. She'd always been afraid of being alone in the dark.
Hestia created a ball of fire that hovered above them, casting its warm light over a cavern of crystal. Shards of light flashed from ceiling to wall and back again. Harmonia forgot for a moment why they were there, turning around and looking in awe at the graceful stalactites that dripped in frozen splendor above them.
"Ares." Hestia spoke quietly, reminding Harmonia with a blush of why they were there. Her eyes found her father sitting on the floor by Joxer's body. They looked as frozen as the icicles hanging from the roof.
Hestia motioned Harmonia to move around to the left of the still figures while she moved to the right. Harmonia crept quietly to within a few feet of her father and bit her hand to keep from crying out. His face was set hard as stone in a mask of sorrow that brought tears to her eyes. He didn't seem to know they were even there.
Hestia walked slowly to Joxer's other side and gently sat down across from Ares. From where Harmonia crouched, she could see his eyes gazing into a vision only he could see. Tear tracks streaked his face and his lip was bleeding.
"Ares. It's Hestia, dearest. We need to take the dagger out of Joxer's heart." Her voice was low and he ignored her until she moved her hand towards the warrior. His growl echoed eerily in the cave and she left her hand outstretched, six inches from the silver handle. "We need the knife if we're to find the rogue. You want us to find the rogue, don't you."
"It doesn't matter. Nothing matters now." His voice was a husky version of his normal voice that brought the ever-present tears back to Harmonia's eyes.
"It matters to us, Ares. Let me take the dagger."
"He promised he'd never leave." Ares looked down at the dark warrior who lay so still on the cold stone.
"You're scaring Harmonia, Ares." Hestia gestured with her right hand and Harmonia moved closed, his lifeless eyes moving towards her. That was all the distraction Hestia needed and her left hand plucked the dagger from Joxer's chest.
Ares gave a hurt cry and bent protectively over the body. "Don't hurt him."
Hestia cleared her throat and sagged as if a great burden had been lifted from her. Harmonia watched, puzzled at her aunt's actions. Sure the dagger might be important but why so urgent that it had to be now, she wondered while her father stroked the pale cheek of the fallen warrior.
"Ares, dearest, I have something to tell you. I did something a while back that I didn't ask permission for." Hestia actually blushed under Harmonia's quizzical eyes. "Joxer isn't dead."
Ares shook his head and spoke in a dragging voice. "I know what you're trying to do, Aunt Hestia. Distract me from doing something stupid. Too late." He smiled down at Joxer and a lone tear ran down his cheek. "I fell in love. I'm tired of being lonely. He promised he'd always be there. The loneliness was just a memory banished by his life and joy. I can't go back to that. Better I follow him. I'm not thinking too straight right now, I know. But I could hurt the family and not even realize it." The passion was back in his voice but it shivered with death through the cold air of the cave. "The berserker rage is so close. If you pointed out the rogue I'd have no trouble at all blasting them back to the elements. But I don't know if I could stop with them." His voice trailed off into the darkness.
Harmonia was shivering uncontrollably now. Never in all her life had she felt such grief, such despair and loneliness that froze all other emotions to crystalline shards that cut into her soul. How could he survive this awful feeling of pain? A sorrow too deep for tears shook her to the bone and she wondered if any of them would survive his grief.
"Harmonia, come here." Hestia reached out her hand and drew her close into her warm embrace. "Do you remember when you first met Joxer, child?"
Her teeth chattered a little but she thought back to Hestia's temple. "I came to you for help with the dance at Delphi and Joxer was with you. We sat on the steps of your altar and you fed us while we waited for Daddy to come from the Archives."
"That's right, Harmonia. I fed you cakes and juice and . . ."
"Apples." Harmonia hoped she had the answer right.
"Golden apples." Hestia was watching Ares carefully.
A long moment passed and Harmonia found herself holding her breath in anticipation of ... what, she didn't know. The dark eyes rose from their contemplation of Joxer's face and narrowed at Hestia.
"Apples." He said carefully.
"Golden apples from the Hesperides." Hestia moved restlessly. "I knew you'd take your time getting around to offering Joxer immortality. And he'd probably have refused it because he didn't feel he was worthy. So, I just took matters into my own hands. I know I should have asked permission but ..."
"You fed him Hesperides' apples?" Ares seemed to be having a hard time understanding the words.
Harmonia understood though and she hugged Hestia with all her young strength. The tree in the garden of the Hesperides bore the golden apples of immortality and was closely guarded. It took Zeus' permission or a crafty old aunt determined to do what she thought was right to even get near the tree. Let alone pick them.
"Now, that the dagger is out and his body is repairing itself, it should only be an hour or so before his heart starts beating again and he wakes up." Hestia kept talking while she returned the hug.
Harmonia ventured to speak. "Daddy, it's really cold here. It would be much nicer if he woke up back in the cottage. It's warm there and he's going to be hungry."
The frozen mask dissolved into the face she loved most while warmth flowed back into his eyes. "Truth, Hesty?"
Now, Hestia was crying little sparks while she nodded. "Truth, dearest. Let's take Joxer home."
He leaned forward and gathered Joxer into his arms. "Home."
End part twelve