"So...what are they again?" Iphicles eyed the three thumbnail-sized, tear shaped gems, laid out upon the coarse cloth before him.
"I told you." The old toothless gem dealer leaned against his wooden booth with wheezing a sigh, letting his gaze wander around the quiet village marketplace. "That one's amber, that one's jet, and that one's thgreesuf."
The dealer suddenly found a splinter of wood of immense interest.
"You mean 'the green stuff'? You don't even know what it is, do you?"
With another wheezing sigh, the dealer started packing up his goods, placing them in a small linen satchel. "Look, it's green so it's probably jade."
"It's not jade," Iphicles snapped. "I know jade when I see it. And as for these amber and jet stones." He poked at the dark honey, then black stone. "Even I can see they're flawed."
"That's why they're cheap."
"If you don't like my prices find another jewel dealer." The man sneered his gums and continued to pack. "Good luck in these shitty little border towns, pal. There's a festival in Athens that I'm going to. I'll make some real sales there. I haven't got time to waste talking to pain in the ass customers like you. Are you buying or not?"
Iphicles studied 'the green stuff', picking it up and tilting it to the sun. Sure it was green, but it wasn't jade or any other stone he could identify. He watched the gold highlights sparkle in the sun. It certainly looked like a quality stone, if an unfamiliar one.
"Well?" The dealer had packed up the rest of his display and now stood glancing up at the sun's progression across the sky. "I haven't got all day."
"Fine. I'll take it." Iphicles dug out the agreed upon coin and slapped it into the awaiting dry palm. "Couldn't you think of something better to call it than 'the green stuff'?"
"Just name it after the recipient." The gem dealer secreted the money in the folds of his cloak and made a hasty escape through the thinning crowds.
"Yeah, right," Iphicles blew out a heavy breath, his gaze drifting up to the tree-covered hill that hid his rendezvous point. "Because he's not going know what it is."
How could it be so damn hot when the sun was so damn low? Iphicles plodded up the hill, stripped to the waist and bathed in sweat, his wheezing horse struggling behind him. Pausing to glare up at the thick green canopy that only served to trap the stifling heat, Iphicles stretched a hand back to pet the mare's rapidly flaring, hot velvet nose.
"I'm sorry, honey." He gasped. "It won't be long now. I'll tie him down. You kick him."
Up through the forest they continued, stumbling over the root thick, sun-dappled ground until the trees finally cleared and they were fighting for breath atop a small, sun blushed plateau, dominated by a weather-beaten grey temple.
"Nice." Iphicles ran a hand through his plastered down hair, his gaze trailing over the vine draped, yet finely carved set of six stone pillars that held up the modest portico. "But a Tartarus of a climb."
Leading his mare to the overflowing water trough by the foot of the temple steps, Iphicles let her drink a little while he unsaddled and got a closer look at the temple carvings.
Unsurprisingly, they were battle scenes, but their recurring subject was so unexpected it arrested Iphicles' attention away from his exhausted horse, sending him up the uneven steps for a more intimate examination beneath the shielding vines.
Defeat. Every story wrapped around every piece of exquisitely worked stone told of defeat. Iphicles ran hungry fingers over the rough stone face, moving from one depiction of failure to next, from pillar to pillar until he'd read all the scenes that decorated the portico. Some stories, such as the battles with Athena at Troy and on the road to Delphi, were well known and, consequently, over used by the Athenians. But others, telling of gods, giants, demons and distant lands, were so alien, yet utterly compelling, that they drove Iphicles to his knees as he pursued them around the stone, thirst and heat forgotten.
The first tales told of a young god being hunted down by giants, looking on in horror while older gods fall in their attempts to defend him until, finally, the giants are cornered and brutally slain; the young god still looking on. Then came tumultuous depictions of swirling clouds that seemed to be tearing the young god apart while other gods watched, one goddess working a loom. The god then grows through battles against demons and foreign gods, tales of fire and capture, blood and loss. Then silence. Iphicles repeatedly ran searching fingers over this blank stretch of stone, trying to find traces of the worn depiction. Nothing. The carvings hadn't worn away because there was never anything there. A time of nothing. When the tales began again the god seemed older, the few defeats more bitter and their punishments harsher -- yet even on this last pillar, as on all five before it, there was the proud proclamation: Ares, God of War.
The cool wall of air hit Iphicles' lungs with the force of a physical blow as he walked from the shaded portico into the absolute black of the temple. Coughing for breath, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark, for that was all that there was to see. In sharp contrast to the rugged exterior, the inside of the temple was lined with seamless panels of polished ebony...and nothing else. No fixtures, fittings, decorations, or statues -- only a long altar stone atop a low, three-stepped dais in the middle of the room.
Iphicles didn't quite startle as a stretch of darkness upon the altar moved at the sound of his gulping breaths.
"Finally," Ares drawled, glinting silver as he sat up so Iphicles was able to pick out his warmer shadow from the ebony obscurity. "I was considering sending Graegus out after you with a wineskin."
Turning quickly around, Iphicles blinked into the gloom for the war dog he considered his own personal nemesis. "He'd drink the wine and eat the skin before he got past the clearing." Satisfied that there was no place for the monster hound to hide, Iphicles continued towards the altar.
"You're probably right." Ares grinned and gestured Iphicles towards a goblet of wine set upon the bottom step of the dais.
Watching Ares adjust his earring so it swung freely, Iphicles reached down and retrieved the goblet then wrapped one arm around his shivering chest, rubbing his hardening nipples while greedily drinking down the spiced wine. "The pillars," he gasped, using the empty goblet to point back to the open doorway. "Those carvings--"
"Are outside, Iphicles." Ares stood and walked down the steps to run his fingers through Iphicles' damp hair. "And we're here." He laid and gentle kiss on each of Iphicles' fluttering eyelids and the empty goblet dropped to the floor, rolling, forgotten, into darkness as Iphicles brought his arms up around Ares' waist. "And we're all alone," Ares purred just before his divinely sweet mouth covered Iphicles'.
With Ares' warm body pressing firmly against him, those strong hands pulling him insistently closer, Iphicles could only press back with a desperate strength, eagerly thrusting himself forwards but knowing he could never give as much in return, could never give enough--
"I've got something for you." He suddenly pulled away from Ares to fumble light-headedly through his leggings.
"Yeah, we'll get to your 'present' in moment." Ares reached out, scowling when his hands were slapped away.
"It's not that kind of present, Ares," Iphicles hissed. "It's a -- found it." He triumphantly brought the green gem to Ares' eye level.
Ares continued to scowl. "What is it? We could be fucking right now, Iphicles."
"Don't you know?" Iphicles frowned at the sparkling green stuff. "You're a god. Aren't you omniscient or something?"
"I'm the God of War," Ares growled, turning his back on Iphicles and walking up the dais steps. "That's a jewel not a weapon. If it had been set in a sword I may have been able to get a feel for it." He sat on the altar with a shrug and a sigh. "Look, Iph, I was going to tell you this later but since you're in such a chatty mood right now..."
"What?" Iphicles asked into the silence that belied Ares' words.
"War, Iphicles. War is coming to Greece." Ares' voice was quiet and steady, echoing softly in the darkness. "The temples will be ruined, the cities sacked, the people lost."
"So we'll fight. Greece has fought off invaders before." Iphicles swallowed against his suddenly dry throat, barely hearing his own words over his hammering heart as Ares slowly shook his head. "You're the God of War, Ares, you can't just--"
"I'm not 'just' doing anything," Ares snapped. "It's the end, Iphicles. It's the end of Greece as you know it, and it is coming." He stood up and tugged down his leather vest. "Everything comes to an end. You mortals should be used to it by now."
"'End'?" Iphicles lunged up the dais steps and seized Ares' nearest arm, his fingers digging hard into muscle. "What do you mean 'the end'? What are you telling me, Ares? Are the gods deserting us? Are you--"
"No," Ares smirked, caressing Iphicles' hot cheeks with his cool fingers. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll always be here."
"Me too," Iphicles groaned against the feather soft kisses trailing down his throat. "And we can fight, Ares."
"The fate of Greece is set and nothing can change it." Ares' voice vibrated against Iphicles' pulse. "I wanted to tell you. You should know it's coming."
"When?" Iphicles hoarsed, winding fingers through Ares' thick hair as that scorching mouth sucked along his collarbone. "Who's going to attack us?"
"Rome, and soon." Ares tongued back along the hollow of Iphicles' neck.
"We can fight Rome," Iphicles insisted despite Ares' clever fingers working to relax his tensing muscles.
"The old gods knew fate." Ares paused and Iphicles jerked under the gentle brush of sharp teeth against his hot skin. "You can't bargain with it. It just is."
Ares' talented tongue began to trace down Iphicles' heaving chest; Iphicles pressed forwards in panting anticipation -- only to shiver into the nipping air that swirled around him in the wake of Ares' abrupt departure.
"Let me see that stone again." Ares caught Iphicles' tightly clenched hand and eased the fingers open to pick the gem out of the small indentation it had made in the palm. "Yeah." Ares grinned, lighting the tear from within so it filled the room with a calming green glow. "It's one of Gaia's tears. Who'd of thought a mortal would find one."
"Gaia?" Iphicles watched the golden sparkles play through the green. "This is a real tear from The Goddess?"
"So they say." Ares shrugged, handing the gem back to Iphicles. "Hera and a couple of other goddesses had one. They're only jewels." He ran his hands down Iphicles' hips, the material disappearing before his touch. "They're supposed to be the tears Gaia cried when she founded Delphi and saw the future of the world." Ares began kissing Iphicles' neck once more.
"Is it true?" Iphicles fingered the smooth gem with one hand, stroking the soft skin beneath Ares' studded leather with the other.
"Who knows?" Ares purred in Iphicles' ear. "But not even Gaia could fight fate, and the gods have legends too."