The Spartans are being outmanoeuvred.
Ares grits his teeth as he watches the Athenian forces sail to raid the coasts of Peloponnesus – a clever tactic, one that has Athena written all over it. While the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League is launching its attacks on Attica, Athens only has to defend, hold the line, while the bulk of their forces raids the coats, sows unrest, divides focus. It has turned an easy victory into a much more precarious conflict, and Ares doesn’t care for that. He doesn’t care for that at all.
If only he could step onto the battlefield himself, smite Athens with his own two hands. But that will cause Athena to retaliate (she doesn’t act first, never acts first, always lets another shoulder the blame), and they will get nowhere. No, he will have to be patient – a loathsome word if there ever was one – and bide his time. Embolden his armies, but stay out of the physical conflict, unless he can be certain his presence will win Sparta this war. Hold.
That does not mean he won’t be keeping a careful eye on his dear half-sister’s forces, however.
They will arrive soon, he thinks; this small bank of land besides Lord Uncle Poseidon’s realm is hidden behind the cliffs, a perfect spot for a raiding party to land. Doubtless Athena will guide her men straight here – and Ares will be waiting for them, will observe them, will learn their weaknesses. He will not lose another war to Athena.
The first mortal presence that sets foot upon the sands is not that of the Athenians, however. Rather, it is a singular figure, wrapped tightly in a robe to ward off the bitter winds from overseas, hurrying along the coast, a large bundle clutched to their chest. They cross the shore with a swiftness that betrays them native to these parts, and they disappear into a crevice in the cliffside.
Curious, though not his concern. A local in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunate, but nothing of note.
At least, not until he senses the worship humming in the air.
It’s not meant for him, or for Athena. It’s not meant for any of the Olympians. It’s meant for Death.
The oddity of it is enough to pique his interest, and Ares finds himself gravitating towards the fissure in the rock subconsciously more than anything. Because people do not worship Death. People do not pray to him, do not make offerings to him, do not care for him. Thanatos has never received the respect he so dearly deserves.
It isn’t as though he needs the mortals’ regard; Death is inevitable, and he will do his work regardless of the mortals’ disposition towards him. Regardless of how he is disregarded, reviled, warded against, Thanatos is unyielding. Unlike the Olympians, who live and thrive off worship, the Chthonic Gods have never needed something so banal.
But that does not mean they are not deserving of the respect they are due, and Ares is pleased that at least one mortal recognises that.
He finds them in a small cave hidden in the fissure, knelt before a small altar set up in Death’s name. It looks old, worn, not well cared for, but the mortal dutifully brushes away the dust and the dirt and lights a trio of beeswax candles before bowing their head, one hand atop the altar, the other on the bundle of cloth they carried with them.
“Sweet Death, merciful Death, please, take my little one,” a woman’s voice fills the space, her words quiet but heartfelt. “Take him, stop his suffering, please. Sweet Death, merciful Death.”
The woman repeats her prayer over and over and over again, and Ares watches, transfixed, the Athenians approaching the coast long forgotten. There is naught here but the mournful presence of Death, and he very nearly takes a knee in reverence himself. He ought to. There is no War without Death, after all.
But he is stopped by the appearance of another – one that does not belong here.
“Oh, so that’s why you’re here,” Aphrodite says as she steps up beside him, her gaze fixated on the mortal and her child. “A prayer for Death – how very morbidly appropriate.”
She knows, of course, exactly how deep his devotion to Death runs. She has seen his heart, after all. “I was waiting for the Athenians,” he says, voice a murmur so as not to disturb the quiet of this sanctum. “I did not realise Death had a temple here.”
“It is not used often,” Aphrodite says. There is something demure about her, here. Something soft, and melancholy. “Only those who are truly desperate come to ask for Death. This mortal woman has watched her child suffer for months. She has come to ask for his death, solely out of love.”
“That is why you’ve come?”
“Her love is stronger than any other this side of dear old Poseidon’s realm,” Aphrodite confirms. “A rare beauty. Rarer still to find it so close near you.”
It would be an insult, coming from another, but Aphrodite has always understood him, better than anyone else on Olympus. Mortals like to scorn him until they need his aid in battle, and they like to revere her until inevitably a love dies. It is the mortals who begin wars, the mortals who do not nurture love, yet it is the Gods who are blamed. Ares and Aphrodite are rather like two sides of the same coin, in that regard.
“I have never witnessed a prayer to Death before,” Ares says. “I wished to observe.”
“Merely observe?” Aphrodite asks, her smile sly.
“I rather think he’ll be here sooner if you let your heart sing, dearest,” she hums, ever knowing. “You love very loudly.”
“Dite,” he says, warningly.
“Merely a suggestion, darling.”
Ares glowers, but he cannot deny the wisdom of her words – and he does, in fact, wish to pay his respects to Death, without whom he would be less than nothing. So he steps forwards, stands beside the mortal, and kneels with her.
The woman does not see him, does not even feel his presence in a place so steeped in Death. Does not notice when he places a hand on alter, when he bows his head, and –
And there is shouting.
Both Ares and the woman whirl around simultaneously to find a man squeezing his way through the fissure in the rocks – a man wearing armour painted Athenian colours. Two more follow him, the small cave dwarfed by their presence, and the mortal woman, the mother who prayed to Death out of love, shrinks back in fear.
Ares locks eyes with Aphrodite, who pinches her lips the way she does when she’s upset. “That would mark the end of my domain and the beginning of yours,” she says – not accusing, never accusing, never begrudging him what is his, unlike so many others. “I will see you back on our mountain, dearest.”
She vanishes as the three Athenian soldiers draw their swords.
The mortal woman is trembling. “Please, sirs,” she says, quietly, respectfully, “this is a place of worship. Please leave us be.”
“Worship?” one of the soldiers asks, his voice loud and harsh and grating in the gentle atmosphere of this little temple. “That’s an altar to Thanatos. You’re practising the dark arts.”
“No!” the woman exclaims, shaking her head fervently. “No, it’s my baby, he’s ill, I –”
The soldier’s face is contorted with fury. “You would make a sacrifice of your own child?”
She only shakes her head harder, tears streaming down her cheeks. “No, no, please, I just want him to have peace, please, please…”
He laughs, mirthlessly. “Peace? You look for peace in Death? Death, who only takes and takes and takes and never gives anything back? Death, who rips us from our homes and our families? Death, who revels in our suffering? Pathetic. Curse be upon Thanatos, the bane of mortalkind. And curse be upon you for aiding him.”
The woman does not scream as the blade is swung at her head – but she does gasp when steel meets steel and the pure essence of violence weaves its way into the very air itself.
“You!” the soldier exclaims, eyes wide, sword clutched tightly in both hands. “You can’t – Lady Athena will –!”
“This is not about Athena,” Ares says, the words spoken in a soft tone that promises pain and suffering. “You have not invaded her shrine, you are not desecrating her name. And it is not her ire I am concerned with.”
For a moment, the soldier is stunned – and then he has the audacity to scoff. “You defend Death?” he demands – demands, as though Ares is his to make demands of. “We may serve the great Lady Athena, but you too are of Olympus, Lord Ares. Those of the Underworld are beneath you, they are vile, and Death is worst of all! Surely you see –”
He stops short, when the tip of Ares’ blade touches the hollow of his throat.
“Speak ill of Lord Thanatos one more time,” he growls, the red edge of his sword set alight with his fury. “I dare you.”
The soldier wisely holds his tongue.
“You do not understand anything,” Ares hisses, stepping closer, his blade drawing a pinprick of blood. “Without Death, you would be nothing. Pain, illness, old age, your feeble bodies would be forced to live through it all, would be forced to remain in misery for the rest of time. Wars would become an endless cycle, never ending, never crowing a victor. And that is not to speak of how Gaia would suffer under the multiplication of your species, growing and growing until she cannot hold you anymore. Yet you would scorn Death for – what? Granting you release? Guiding you to a realm where you may exist without the confines of your mortal vessel?”
“He takes too much,” one of the other soldiers speaks this time, meekly, pleadingly. “He takes too much, and too soon.”
“He takes only what he is due,” Ares argues vehemently. “He does not ask for offerings, does not lay claim to your food or your lands, despises sacrifices made in his name. You ought to be on your knees thanking him for all he does, for how much suffering he spares you when you’ve done naught to deserve it. Yet you do not so much as show him the most basic of courtesies, you insolent, piteous –”
Letting his aura fill the space and spill out onto the beach is not a decision as much as it is inevitable, because Ares has always loved too loudly, and it is not something he can contain, not when he is pushed like this. If the mortals would scorn Thanatos, he will let his affection increase in volume until it drowns out everything else.
Within the humble temple to Death, the three Athenian soldiers drown in their own blood.
On the shoreline, the rest of the raiding party turns on each other.
Someone is praying to him.
It’s an uncommon enough occurrence for Thanatos to take notice, though it does not spur him to action. His favour, his services, cannot be bought with acts of worship, not like that of the Olympians. He does what he has to when he has to, no more and no less, no sooner and no later. To break from protocol would be folly.
But he cannot ignore the soul’s call that follows not long after the prayer.
The mortals do not realise how deeply he despises sacrifices made in his name, do not understand that his domain is peaceful death, that he hates dealing with violence – and that they are making him deal with it by killing in one of the few temples built in his honour.
But dislike it as he might, it is still his duty to collect the felled souls. No one else will be able to hear their call coming from a place so inherently tied to Thanatos himself.
Thanatos shifts from his pocket of Erebus up to the surface, to a little cave just off the Peloponnesian coast. He is aware of the small shrine dedicated to him here, though he thought the mortals had forgotten about it. But evidently, that is not the case.
For what he finds within his humble temple is a trio of corpses, their blood coating the floor a too-bright red, and a woman, alive, sitting in the far corner, knees drawn up, arms curled protectively around a boy whose soul is almost ripe for harvest.
And outside, the unmistakable sounds of battle.
Not what he expected to find. Not even close.
Thanatos turns away from the bloodshed he does not want, approaches the trembling woman instead, lets her see his physical form. “What happened here?”
“My Lord,” she gasps – has to gasp, her breath uneven, terrified. “I… they came and… I only meant… Lord War, he…”
“Lord War?” Thanatos repeats, brow furrowing. “Ares is responsible for this?”
She nods, and Thanatos scowls, more disappointed than he ought to be. He’s not sure what he expected, truth be told, but… Ares has always been respectful, if nothing else, and despite their vastly differing methods and preferences, Thanatos enjoys working with him, for the most part. It is a welcome reprieve from the mortals who curse his name and the Gods who eye him with mistrust.
Ares knows perfectly well Thanatos does not care for bloodshed. And yet…
He sighs wearily. “Stay here,” he tells the woman. He will not have this mortal suffer needlessly in her quest for his aid, even if her plea to him is pointless. “I will see to it.”
First, though, Thanatos summons his scythe to his hand, and he reaps the souls of the soldiers lying dead on the doorstep of his temple. He cannot allow them to linger for too long.
The butterflies cling to him as he steps outside, the sun’s blinding light and the sea’s harsh wind immediately assaulting him – though both are easily forgotten, even to an entity as sensitive to the surface’s harsh conditions as he, when faced with the battlefield that this shoreline has turned into.
No, not a battlefield. A massacre.
Ares is right in the thick of it, his form a beacon of gleaming armour and an aura of red that is impossible to miss. His power affects all of the mortals around him – those still standing, that is – and while many of them attack Ares personally, a not insignificant number of them is locked into conflict with their comrades. The sand itself seems to bleed, so saturated has it become with mortal blood, and Thanatos’ scythe hums excitedly at the prospect of so many souls to reap.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” a light voice comes from his left, and Thanatos whirls around to find the Goddess Aphrodite perched atop a smooth rock, eyes fixated firmly on Ares. “He does love so purely. I’ve not felt it this strongly in… huh. I’ve never felt it this strongly. How charming.”
Thanatos doesn’t see much charm in this situation. “What happened here?” he demands, has the right to demand, because this is one of the few sacred grounds that belong to him. “These soldiers, they’re…”
Athenian. Of course.
So Ares would soil his altar with blood, as long as it gives him the upper hand against his half-sister. Thanatos should not be surprised, not truly; the Olympians have always considered themselves above him. It only stands to reason they would disregard his sanctity in favour of their own agenda. All Olympians are exactly the same.
Except for longer than Thanatos realised, he has not grouped Ares with his relatives. To be forced to do so now is… disconcerting. He’d thought… he’d thought…
“None of that, darling,” Aphrodite startles him when her hand finds his forearm, touch gentle yet humming with power, calming his unnaturally quick heartbeat. “Ares didn’t come here with the intent to kill.”
Thanatos raises an eyebrow at her. “Really?”
He cannot stop the incredulity from seeping into his tone, and Aphrodite frowns. “Would I lie to you, dear?”
Her answering grin is wicked. “Well, perhaps. But not about matters of the heart, I assure you.”
“I wasn’t aware that this was a matter of the heart, Lady Aphrodite.”
Unless, of course, she considers Ares’ love for warfare a matter of the heart.
Aphrodite sighs dramatically. “Honestly, Gods can be as dense as mortals sometimes.”
The sickening sound of crunching bone behind them makes Thanatos flinch. “With all due respect, Lady Aphrodite, if you have a point, please make it.”
“Look at him,” Aphrodite implores, and Thanatos obliges, no matter how upsetting the sight is. He’s seen Ares fight before, of course – as Death, it’s impossible not to witness the God of War in battle every once in a while. But… this is different. This is not a commander at war. This is almost feral, Ares’ face contorted in blind rage, his motions fluent but uncontrolled, untamed. He perfectly embodies the force of nature that is war.
“He’s… what happened?”
“Those three soldiers in your little temple happened,” Aphrodite says simply. “They weren’t very polite, you know. It’s a dreadful thing, insulting a God in his own sanctum. Ares was most displeased – went on and on about how essential your services are, how you don’t ask for anything, how thankful mortalkind should be for your existence. Truthfully, I was expecting him to start speaking of your lovely countenance at any point, but the desire for battle took over rather swiftly. He’s always loved very loudly.”
She sounds so very fond as she says it, and Thanatos almost believes her. Almost. Because surely it’s an untruth – surely Ares has not been driven into this state because a mortal insulted Thanatos? Mortals curse his name at any given opportunity, and it’s never mattered before, no one has ever…
No one has ever cared before.
But Ares has. Ares does. And that’s…
“Oh,” he breathes softly.
“Indeed,” Aphrodite says, pleased. “A regard so pure is difficult to keep in line. Though I have no doubt you could reign it in, if you so desire.”
He does. He does desire, more strongly than he has ever desired anything – anyone – else. It should scare him. It does scare him. And yet…
He moves without consciously deciding to, floats noiselessly over the ever-growing pile of corpses. He twirls his scythe idly in his hand as he goes, souls soaring up, orbiting him, their wings coloured bloodred in honour of the one who slew them. They flutter away from the hand Thanatos reaches out with, his fingers catching Ares’ wrist mid-swing of his sword.
Ares snarls, twisting his wrist in Thanatos’ grip, head snapping up to regard the one who had the audacity to try and restrain him, and then –
His chest still heaves beneath his armour, his muscles are still tensed, face still contorted with rage – but he stops. And slowly, the violent red glow of his eyes dims. Slowly, his fingers unclench around his sword, the blade falling with a soft thud onto the sand. Slowly, the soldiers around them lower their weapons.
Slowly, Ares returns to himself.
“Thanatos,” he says, voice hoarse and filled with wonder. “What…?”
Thanatos squeezes his wrist before letting go, before stepping back, and Ares shakes his head, collects himself, retracts the last lingering air of his power, his violence, his rage.
“What have I done?” he whispers, horrified. Not at the carnage itself, no – at having created it so near Thanatos’ temple, and within Thanatos’ temple, too. At allowing his own selfish lust for blood to taint the sanctum of one so adverse to it.
He does not hesitate to kneel in the bloodstained sand, head bowed in shame. “Forgive me,” he pleads, uncaring of his pride, uncaring of the remainder of the Athenian soldiers seeing him defer to another God, uncaring of anything but Thanatos. “I did not mean offence, I only wished –”
He stops when Thanatos’ fingers find his skin again, hand cupping his cheek with a touch so very gentle. So much kinder than he has earned.
“I know,” Thanatos says simply. His eyes flick to the cliffside, but Aphrodite has vacated her rock – doubtless because she knows she’s done what she could, for now. “There is nothing to forgive.”
Ares’ eyes widen, lips parting in surprise – and then he hums a soft laugh, warm in the back of his throat. “And there are still those who would deny your benevolence.”
“Fewer now, because of you,” Thanatos does not accuse, but Ares winces at the words regardless. “Not my usual preference, I’ll admit, but… they’re rather becoming, aren’t they?”
He spreads his arms, a good number of the red-winged butterflies coming to rest on his skin. They glow as Ares’ rage had, but where that was a harsh, angry shine, this is a softer light – an inferno dimmed to a spark. Still present, still beautiful, yet much, much easier to contain.
Ares’ expression is an odd mixture between delight and regret at the sight of them. “They are,” he murmurs, lifting a hand as though he means to reach for one, then thinks the better of it. “I wish I had not brought them to fruition, but… they are indeed a sight.”
Thanatos lowers his arms again. “Lady Athena won’t be pleased, though.”
“When is she ever?” Ares’ attempt at humour falls flat, when both of them realise perfectly well what awaits them. Athena will not leave this act of violence against her soldiers unpunished, and it will mean more work for War and Death alike.
“Certainly not in this moment, half-brother.”
Athena’s voice is as ice-cold as one of Lady Demeter’s harshest winters, and Ares sets his jaw as he rises to his feet. He will not kneel for her.
“What fortuitous timing as always, dear sister,” he lies through his teeth.
“Indeed,” Athena says, paying no heed to Thanatos, now half-shielded by Ares’ bulk, or even her own followers, those left alive having taken the knee when Ares forewent his. “Had I arrived later, I might have questioned what transpired here. I did not think you this bereft of intelligence, Lord Ares. Clearly my estimates were too high.”
Thanatos can see the muscles in Ares’ arms tense. “Clearly.”
“I shall adjust them accordingly,” Athena says. “For now, however, you know what will happen. I cannot ignore an attack of this magnitude.”
Thanatos cannot help it; he snorts. For one, because it was hardly an attack of note, in the grand scheme of a war, and for two…
“Is something amusing to you, Lord Thanatos?”
Athena has finally deigned to regard him, and Thanatos draws himself up tall, floating out of Ares’ shadow. “Merely irony, Lady Athena. You fail to see that this,” he says, gesturing at the carnage surrounding them, “already was the retribution, and the slight of which you speak was not directed at you. It was your soldiers who made the error to intrude in my temple.”
“Your –?” Athena begins, but even as she forms the question, she’s sensing for the presence of worship – and if the expression on her face is any indication, she has found he did not lie. “My soldiers invaded your temple, you say?”
“Yet it was not your hand that wielded the sword,” she surmises. “I fail to see why my half-brother was involved in this at all.”
“I intended merely to observe, Athena,” Ares says. He sounds tired more than anything. “It was coincidence that brought us both so near a shrine to Death. But you know perfectly well we cannot allow any mortal to disrespect one of our own, regardless of loyalties.”
“And that was your only reason for all of this?”
Ares does not need to lie. “It was.”
Athena’s brow furrows in contemplation, and Thanatos clears his throat. “If I may, Lady Athena, I believe there is a simple solution here.”
“Is that so?”
He nods, once. “I can overlook this transgression on your part,” he says, taking a shred of vindictive pleasure in the way her lips thin at the accusation, “if you agree to a set of terms.”
Athena is very clearly not pleased, but she keeps a level head. “Name your terms, Death.”
“First, your soldiers shall never set foot on this piece of land again,” he begins, innocently enough. “Second, I would like my temple cleansed, if you would. And third, you will not take this incident into account when you fight your war against Lord Ares.”
Neither of the siblings were expecting that, if the expressions on their faces are any indication. Ares rather looks as though he’s contemplating sinking back to his knees, and Athena narrows her eyes as she looks between Ares and Thanatos. “I do hope this does not mean you have chosen a side in this war, Lord Thanatos.”
“I never take sides,” Thanatos says, truthfully so. “But when you and Lord Ares become involved personally, it adds significantly to my workload. I’d like to postpone that, at the very least.”
Athena ponders for but a moment. “Very well, then. Your terms are agreeable. Let us not speak of this again.”
Thanatos inclines his head in agreement, and Athena leaves with a brisk nod, orders for her soldier already prepared and ready. The coast will be cleared of bodies swiftly, it seems.
Ares moves as well, heads back to the temple hidden behind the crevice in the cliffside and personally drags out the corpses of the three men whose insolence instigated this whole fiasco. He and Athena speak briefly, preciously little love lost between them, and Athena has her men take the bodies away. She doesn’t deign to touch them herself, Thanatos doesn’t fail to notice, though they were loyal to her. Unlike Ares, Athena does not care to dirty her hands.
Thanatos leaves them to it. There is still a prayer he has yet to answer.
He finds the woman in the same corner where he left her, still with her knees drawn up, still cradling her ill child. She is calmer now, if still shaken, and she looks up at Thanatos with fear he is very familiar with – but also with hope, and awe, and that he has rarely seen before, if ever. He cannot recall it, in any case.
“It’s being taken care of,” he tells her, because he did make her that promise. “You can go home soon.”
She answers with a smile, thin and watery but undeniably grateful. “Thank you, my Lord,” she says, voice steadier than before. “I… I did not mean to cause conflict, I –”
Thanatos holds up a hand, and she immediately falls silent. “Why did you come here?”
The woman unbends her knees, relaxes her arms, lets Thanatos see the child wrapped in a blanket with great care. His skin is pale, hair plastered to his forehead with sweat, breathing uneven. One does not need to be Death to understand he will not live much longer.
“He’s been ill for months, Lord Death,” the child’s mother says, her voice breaking. “I cannot see him suffer any longer. Please, I wished to ask… could you… could you take him? End his suffering. I don’t wish to lose him, but…”
She cannot contain her tears, and Thanatos looks away, looks instead at the boy’s soul that is so close to ripe. A few more days, perhaps a week, and he would have felt its call. There would be no harm in reaping it now – he’s done so before, when he had to, during times of plague most often. He could spare this mortal woman days of torment.
“If I do,” he begins, “you cannot tell another soul what transpired here. This is not the way of things, and if word gets out…”
“I promise, my Lord, I promise,” she says immediately, eagerly. “May Lord War himself run me through for disrespecting you if I ever break my vow.”
Considering the scene she has just witnessed, that is as strong an oath as she can make. “Very well, then.”
The boy’s connection to the surface is easily severed, the butterfly that rises from his chest small and fragile and coloured richly purple. It looks out of place between the many red butterflies still orbiting him, and Thanatos keeps this one close, cups it in his palm and holds it to his chest, not unlike the way the boy’s mother holds the now stilled vessel.
“It is done.”
She smiles at him through her tears. “Thank you, Lord Death. Please care for him, now that I’m no longer able.”
“He will exist comfortably in Asphodel,” Thanatos says, is certain that is where this soul is headed. The blessing and curse of dying so young – it’s impossible to have done anything wretched enough to land in Tartarus, but just as impossible to have done anything glorious enough to earn a spot in Elysium. “If you live a good life, you will see him again in death.”
The now childless mother rises to her feet. “Lord War was correct,” she says. “Mortalkind would be nothing without you, Lord Death.”
She leaves him with that, with kindness and gratitude and reverence he is not used to at all. Thanatos remains for a moment longer, until the fledgling butterfly in his hand has settled, and he feels calm and light in this place built in his honour. It isn’t much, this one woman in this one small temple, but it’s enough, for him. He doesn’t need worship, isn’t sustained by it the way the Olympians are, but…
It’s also not something he ought to get used to, and he is quick to sober. There is work to be done, and Death waits for no one.
Thanatos sends the butterflies ahead to Charon, the red ones first, the little purple one a beat later. His brother has worked with him long enough to know the delay means that the soul is premature and needs looking after.
He wonders, briefly, what Charon will make of the butterflies with the bloodred wings.
He wonders, more at length, if Lady Aphrodite’s assessment about their creation was correct.
And the more he wonders, the more he realises that she cannot have been as certain as she appeared. Goddess of Love she may be, not even Aphrodite can read minds, and the notion that Ares would care for him in such a way is… improbable. Olympians do not consort with Chthonic Gods, with lesser Gods.
Ares said it himself, didn’t he? We cannot allow any mortal to disrespect one of our own, regardless of loyalties. It’s not that he wanted to defend Thanatos specifically – it’s that he had no choice but to. That’s all there was to it. Trying to spin it into anything more would be folly, even if Aphrodite would likely find it hilarious if he made a fool of himself. Those of Olympus are all the same, after all. Those of Olympus are all the same, and it is time he learned that.
So when he hears the unmistakable sound of Ares’ heavy boots approach the entrance to his temple, Thanatos grabs his scythe and shifts blindly to the nearest soul calling for release.
He has not seen Thanatos in a long time.
The war has subsided, for the time being; Sparta and Athens signed a truce over hostages and captured cities, and both nations have retreated to lick their wounds. Ares has no doubt a second war will follow sooner rather than later, and he looks forward to it. The chance to topple the Athenian Empire is too tantalising to leave be.
But for now, the mortals are at peace. And Ares, decidedly, is not.
Which is why he finds himself back at Thanatos’ temple, months after he last set foot here to find it empty. It was easy to ignore Death’s absence while the war was in full swing, easy to focus on holding off Athena’s forces, on forging battle plans and bolstering his armies and leading his troops. But now that the fighting has stopped, Ares has far too much time on his hands. Time spent contemplating Death, mostly.
He knows he committed a great offence that day, spilling blood in this very temple, yet Thanatos still told him there was nothing to forgive, even shielded him from Athena’s wrath. But Thanatos has also been steadily avoiding him, and clearly Ares has amends to make. Clearly he must do something to mend their fractured relationship – because he knows he could not live with himself otherwise.
And if it has the added benefit of getting Aphrodite to stop dropping decidedly unsubtle hints, then he shall not complain.
The shrine to Death is exactly as it was before, covered with a thin layer of dust and rubble that is unavoidable in a natural cavern such as this. The beeswax candles the young mother had brought still stand, only half-burned, and Ares removes them, places three newly moulded candles in their place, then meticulously wipes the altar clean. It is soothing work, in a way. There is more reverence in these simple acts than in any of the great gilded temples erected in the name of Olympus.
When he is finished, he lights the candles, and kneels, one hand placed upon the shrine, the other curled over his heart. “Sweet Death, merciful Death,” he begins as the mortal had before him, his subdued voice echoing gently throughout the cave. “I ask once more for your benevolence. I ask that you put yourself beside me, for I am nothing without you. I ask too much, thus I will give whatever it is that you desire. Sweet Death, merciful Death.”
He says the prayer again, then again, and again, the words becoming less of a plea and more of a mantra, a melody, a song. Ares lets his heart sing, as Aphrodite always tells him to, and eventually, finally, his call is heeded.
Ares does not hear Death approach, so deeply is he engrossed in his prayer. But he does feel the hand that settles on his upper arm, and he stops, immediately. Stops, and looks up to find Thanatos hovering over him, face pinched into an unreadable expression.
“What in Chaos’ name are you doing?”
Thanatos’ demand comes out strangled, as though he cannot believe what he is seeing, and Ares bows his head once more. “I am paying my respects, my dear Death.”
“Your respects,” Thanatos says flatly.
Silence. And then, unbidden, a snort, the sound of it loud and not meant for this quiet sanctum. “And since when does Olympus have any respect for their Chthonic counterparts?”
The scorn in his voice is palpable, and Ares tenses – because he is, unfortunately, not incorrect. “I did not come representing Olympus.”
“You’ve been absent,” Ares says, because that sounds decidedly less pathetic than I miss you. “I grew concerned.”
“There’s no need,” Thanatos says briskly. “I am performing my duties as per usual, Lord Ares.”
He is. “You are,” Ares agrees. “Yet I’ve not had a chance to speak with you since last we met here. I’ve rather missed the opportunity to confer with you after a battle.”
“There is no need to confer with me,” Thanatos says. “You are of Olympus. I am but a lesser God. You ought to –”
“What?” Ares cuts him off, head snapping up, eyes glowing a furious red. “A lesser God?”
The indignation in his tone takes Thanatos aback, but he quickly recovers, and dares to challenge. “Is that not how Olympus sees us?”
“No!” Ares exclaims hotly, though it is not, all in all, the truth. His kin does have a lower opinion of the Chthonic Gods – but then Ares has always gone against the grain. “How could anyone ever think –? You’re –! We –!”
He stops, has to stop, to even his breathing and collect his thoughts. The last thing he needs is to fly into a blind rage again, even if the prospect is looking rather tempting right about now. “You will continue to exist long after we are gone,” he says eventually, evenly. “You are the one who will reap the very last sparks of creation in this universe, and perhaps you will remain even after a new world is created. You are eternal, and inevitable, and I wish I could linger long enough to see you extinguish existence itself, for I am certain the end of all things would be the grandest sight any being could hope to lay their eyes upon. You are not lesser. You are greater than all of us combined, and I will revere you for as long as I am able. For as long as I am allowed.”
“Allowed,” Thanatos repeats, as though this is the very first time his tongue has curled around this combination of syllables. “You believe I would deny you?”
“I believe you are Death, and I am War,” Ares says, his every word measured, “and you do not need me as I need you.”
“You would be wrong in that regard, Lord Ares.”
His tone is still so maddeningly even, but something has softened in his face. As though part of him used to be at war, and has now settled in peace. “Lady Aphrodite told me that you love very loudly,” Thanatos says, so easily, as though he has tea with Aphrodite every week. “And I must apologise, for not listening more closely.”
Thanatos stops floating, plants his feet firmly on the rough stone ground, and offers Ares his hand.
Ares does not need to think twice about grasping it.
He lets Death pull him to feet. He lets Death step closer. He lets Death cup his cheek with that same gentle touch he had last time they were here. And he lets Death kiss him, softly and hesitantly and so very sweetly.
He does not let Death go, after that.
And in this place of worship, in this temple to Death, he reveres Thanatos as thoroughly as he is capable of. It is the very least he can give, and only afterwards, when Thanatos leaves for an assignment with a promise to come find him when time permits, does Ares feel at peace.
He really ought to listen to Aphrodite more often.