Farewell to Youth
This room was different from all the rest in the Halls of War. It wasn't constructed of black granite and grey marble, bronze weapons and scarlet wall hangings. This room was lined with with pale alabaster, trimmed in lapis lazuli and malachite, gold and electrum. In the center of the room was a sunken bath, deep enough to wash the blood-stained body of the God of War.
The ceiling arched overhead in a rounded vault, painted pale blue, like a spring sky, so that when the god leaned his head back, he saw only peaceful blue, none of the violent scenes that decorated the ceilings of most of the rooms in the temple. Around the walls were silver sconces that held lamps scented with sage, and shelves lined with soft, deep towels. There was an altar to one side, where the clothes and the sword would be laid, while the god was bathed, but it bore no images and was bare of offerings.
A goddess waited, standing by the altar, her eyes closed as she prepared herself for her duties. To wash her brother after a battle was her most important duty, a challenging and difficult ritual, to wash away not only the blood but the bloodlust and bring the god back from the near madness of slaughter. She loved and loathed the task in equal measure, as she loved and loathed her brother. For the youths that died in his name were also hers. She gave them vigor and suppleness, strength and stamina, that was granted only to the young. She hated to see them die, so see those hearts stop beating, those muscles lock up in the rigor of death yet she loved to see them expend those young bodies, using her gifts, as they fought and strove and shouted her brother's name.
The air in the room stirred, bringing with it the scent of fresh blood and sweat. Ares, God of War, appeared.
"My lord," said Hebe sweetly, bowing her head before her more powerful sibling, as she had so many times over the centuries.
He stared at her, his eyes wide with battle lust, his body filthy with dirt and gore. His dog, if that vile scaled monster could be called a dog, crouched low and growled at Hebe.
"What are you doing here?" His voice was a growl that sounded like his dog's.
Hebe blinked, surprised.
"What do you mean? I'm supposed to be here."
"Not any more."
Ares unbuckled his sword belt. Instead of handing it to Hebe as he always had before, he tossed it onto the altar himself. She stared at the sword as it lay there. She always took it from her brother on bended knee, placing it carefully in the center of the altar, awaiting her attentions after she attended him. The sword, lying there, askew, looked so wrong to her that she reached out to straighten it. Ares' hand, strong as the finest metals of Hephaestus, caught her wrist and wrenched her around.
"You aren't needed any more." He shoved her away. She fell, stunned, to the floor. "Go away."
The madness in his eyes frightened her as she had never been frightened. Hebe had often seen that cruelty, that rage, in her brother's expression but it had never been directed at her.
"How have I offended you?"
He bared his teeth at her and Graegus, at his side, did the same. "What a foolish question, little sister. Go tend to your husband. He is your concern now."
"Ares, does this have something to do with Hercules?"
Ares laughed, a sharp, humorless sound, as he tossed his tunic on top of his sword. "Of course it does! You're his wife, remember."
Hebe stood up, straightening her robes. "That has nothing to do with this!"
"Doesn't it? I have no trust in those whose loyalties are divided."
"My loyalties aren't divided! Yes, Hercules is my husband but you are still my brother and this is still my duty."
In a single stride, Ares crossed the room, grabbed his sister by her upper arms and pulled her close enough that she could feel his breath hot on her cheek. He shook her, the blood from his clothes and body staining her white gown.
"You love him, don't you? Admit it!"
Hebe struggled, even though she knew her struggles would be fruitless. Ares was infinitely more powerful than her, whether in mortal or divine form.
"Yes, I love him but. . ."
Another push and she found herself slamming backwards into the soft alabaster, the stone splitting under the impact. Ares stalked after her.
"You. Love. Him. Him! And you have the gall to come here. To come to me. Get out, before I show you that gods can hurt gods."
"Ares! Ares!" She reached for his arm but he shook her off. "My marriage has nothing to do with us, with this."
"It has everything to do with this! In this place, I am vulnerable. Do you think I am so stupid as to let the wife of my enemy touch me when I am vulnerable. How foolish do you think I am?"
Hebe blinked, stunned. "Do you think I would harm you? Ares, you are my brother. I love you and . . ."
Ares hand struck her face. She staggered and fell again. Before she could recover, he grabbed a handful of her robe and yanked her to her feet.
"You are Hercules' wife. You are my enemy now. You are never to come here, come to me, again." He tossed her aside again, as if she were a discarded towel. "Get out. I am going to place a warding around this room against you. If you are in here when I do it, you'll find it very painful."
"Ares, please," moaned Hebe, tears streaking down her face, her arms reaching out to him in supplication. "You can't do this."
"I can!" he roared. "This is my sanctuary and you are my enemy. Get out before I do more than hurt you."
Graegus, his temper roused by his master's fury, sprang at Hebe. She shrieked, lifting her arm to protect against the attack. As the hound's teeth sank into her arm, she looked up and saw Ares smiling, pleased by her horror. With the last of her strength, Hebe pushed the dog away and vanished.
Graegus turned to Ares, angry that his prey had escaped, and found his god glaring at him. When Ares kicked him, he took the hint and vanished as well.
For a moment, Ares stood staring at the crack in the alabaster where he had thrown his sister. Snarling again, he waved his hand and the wall was repaired. Then he stripped off the rest of his clothes, leaving them in a heap, and lowered himself into the bath.
As the water swirled around him, it turned red with the blood of mortals. And as the water turned red, it began to dye the stone around it. Slowly, the color began to permeate the stone, turning the floor scarlet, and then the walls and finally, the color crept up and over the blue vault of the ceiling.
In time, the body of the God of War was the only thing in the room that was not the color of blood.