The Helmet and the Plume
by Ellison Wonderland
There is a cave far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden so that mortals can never find it, no matter how deep they dig for gold and precious stones. There are even those who say that it exists outside of time and space. Mostly, it's the Fates who say so, to explain why they don't get visitors.
Inside the cave sits a giant wheel, which has turned without ceasing since the dawn of time. Clotho sits ever at the wheel, spinning out the threads of all living things. "Would it hurt him to call in on his daughters every now and then?"
"Not high and mighty Zeus," complains Lachesis, weaving the threads into a tapestry so complex that even the gods wonder at it.
Atropos, waiting with her shears to cut the threads and send mortal souls to Hades, has other things on her mind. "Whose turn is it to mix the ambrosia?"
No one answers her. They all know very well whose turn it is to mix the ambrosia with honeyed wine, almost their only treat. Clotho's legs have long since fused with the wheel where she has sat for eons, only her fingers moving as she spins each life into being. Nor can her sister Lachesis pause in the constant weaving of the tapestry. Only Atropos, snipping regularly with her shears, can take time out to make the ambrosia and do the other domestic chores. She didn't mind it so much, for the first millennia or two. But now she hates her sisters with a passion, and many a mortal life is snipped short before its time, as testimony to an angry fate.
"I'm not making the fucking ambrosia," says Atropos. "You lazy cows can get up and do it yourself."
Her sisters regard her in confusion, as the doom of cities hangs in the balance. At Corinth a battle drags on and on, long past the time when the rebels should have been vanquished. King Iphicles watches in astonishment as the warriors refuse to die from their many wounds. Lachesis weaves and the men fight on, the shears not snipping a single life. The atmosphere grows tense in the Cave of the Fates.
"But you always make the ambrosia, dear." Clotho's tone of sweet reason is not calculated to mollify her sister, if the resultant bitch-slap is anything to go by.
Lachesis pokes at the errant Fate with her awl, distorting the destinies of many.
Atropos stabs back with her shears.
If anyone *could* get near the Cave of the Fates, they might have been surprised at the sounds of screaming that are emanating from it, rocking the world to its very foundations and playing havoc with Destiny.
Ares sniffed the blood-scented air, his erection straining against the tight leather confines of his pants. Battle always affected him like this, making him deliciously hard and sometimes bringing him to orgasm after orgasm, if the fighting was intense enough. At the moment, King Iphicles' mouth was jammed up against his leathers, which helped with the overall excitement.
Ares looked down and smiled. Strife, his hair spiked with dried blood, held the gagging king in place, forcing him harder against Ares' groin.
"So, little King, how badly do you want to win this battle?"
Iphicles' words were muffled, though they caused a pleasant movement of lips and teeth. His eyes, on the other hand, were more than eloquent.
Ares threw back his head and laughed. "You'll take my cock down your throat, or I'll cut it here and now."
Ipchicles managed to move his head from side to side. Strife tugged on the king's hair, pulling his head back to expose his smooth, bronzed throat.
"Alright, have it your way," said Ares, slicing with his dagger in one swift, fluid motion.
Blood spurted out to soak the gods' leathers. Strife screamed his delight at the glowering sky. Thunder cracked, loud above the groans of the wounded and the dying. It was a day of portents.
Ares kicked the dead king to the ground, wiping his dagger clean in Strife's hair.
"I might still fuck him," said Ares, grinning at his nephew. "Send him to Hades with my seed in his ass."
A bloody fist reached out to punch Ares in the balls. The blow connected with savage force and he howled, his eyes wide with pain and astonishment. Usually, when Ares cut someone's throat, they didn't hit him in the balls afterwards. A day of portents indeed.
"Strife, please kill this mortal for me," gasped Ares, bending down to explore the fading line on Iphicles' throat. But though they stabbed, garrotted, and throttled him, the King of Corinth would not stay dead. At each failed attempt, his smile grew broader and his fists punched harder, till finally Ares tossed him halfway across the battlefield in frustration.
All around them, dying warriors were getting up and resuming the fight with their erstwhile killers. In a way, Ares' fondest dreams were coming true -- endless battle without the risk of killing off all the participants. No need to worry about keeping enough people alive to fight another day. But where was the satisfaction, not to mention the socially useful functions of population control and inter-city regulation, if no one was dying? Something was very wrong here.
"Hades," shouted Ares. "Why aren't you doing your job?"
The sky was split a second time with lightning, a long slow boom of thunder following in its wake.
"Zeus wants us," said Ares, just as Iphicles made it back to their side and stabbed him with his sword. Ares pulled the blade out of his leg and watched without visible emotion as the wound dripped onto the ground. It seemed that only fatal wounds were healing themselves -- anything that wasn't life-threatening had to run the normal course of events. Great. That one hurt.
"I'll be back to thank you for that later," he promised, enjoying the look of fear on Iphicles' face as the two gods disappeared in a blinding flash of light.
"Kill another cow!" shouted Zeus, shaking his venerable fist in Apollo's face.
Mount Olympus shook with a hard tremor, and the assembled gods eyed each other uneasily.
"Ten cows or twenty," said Apollo, "the entrails will still say the same thing."
Ares surveyed the stinking mess of offal on the ground. They were supposed to take Apollo's word that it told of a battle between the Fates?
"The tapestry continues but it grows less stable every moment," said Apollo. "The omens are clear. Someone must bind Atropos to her appointed task, or destiny itself will begin to unravel."
"Hephaestus," called Zeus, scanning the crowd for the smith god.
Binding, chains, Hephaestus; whichever way you looked at it, you were looking for Aphrodite. Ares spotted her over to one side, where she appeared to be writhing with the excitement of it all. Her skirts seemed to be unusually bulky as well. This was gonna knock Zeus on his imperial ass.
"Can you -- where is he -- oh, down there -- right -- can you forge a magic chain that will confine Atropos to her -- er -- fate?" stuttered Zeus.
Hephaestus' head popped out from inside Aphrodite's robes, followed soon after by the rest of his misshapen body. Ares had little time for the smith god, or indeed anyone who wasn't physically perfect, except when he needed a new sword or dagger. Then it was time to play kissy kissy with the beast. But it had to be said that things of great beauty emerged from his workshop. Dite had told him once that those pieces of art reflected a beautiful soul. Hephaestus had a tight ass and made the finest killing machines you could ever hope to see. Ares was a great believer in taking what he could get.
Hephaestus rumbled low in his deep chest, his breath stinking like a forge. Ares grunted, moving closer and inhaling with every evidence of enjoyment. He liked the scent of fire and metal. There was something earthy and elemental about it, that spoke directly to his cock. And Hephaestus was a good fuck, especially if he let you use the hot iron and the flames.
Ares licked his lips, his cock straining against his leathers. That stupid king hadn't gotten him off earlier. Where was Strife when he was needed?
Before Hephaestus could dredge up any words, another figure pushed its way forward through the gods. It was the goddess Themis, blindfolded goddess of justice and harmony, widely rumoured to be the mother of the Fates, though she dared not admit it publicly.
Everyone watched in consternation as the goddess tripped and sprawled at Zeus' feet. Hera looked on benevolently. Ares was sure that he'd seen a dainty foot slip out to trip her rival.
"Watch where you're going, dear," said Hera serenely.
"Take this amphora," said Themis. "It is filled with ambrosia mixed with my blood, from the early days of the world, the Golden Age, when harmony still ruled and peace filled the land."
The sentiment made Ares' stomach roil, and he made barfing motions with head and hands, pretending not to notice Zeus' frown. The whole speech might have been more impressive, of course, if it hadn't come from ground level.
"Without my blood, you will never reconcile Atropos to her task. Though you may chain her, Hephaestus' power alone cannot compel her. This will engender the inner peace and cooperation needed for the sisters to resume their work, and for my daughter -- er -- for Atropos to find contentment at her own weary fate."
Zeus looked awkwardly at the spilled amphora, the last of its contents leaking out beside the blind goddess. "Yes, thank you for that," he said, reaching down to assist Themis to her feet. A growl from Hera saw him pause in mid-stoop.
Graceful in his own way, Hephaestus stepped forward and helped Themis to rise. He patted her arm kindly.
"I don't suppose that fresh blood would be just as effective?" asked Zeus.
Ares drew his dagger with a smile, enjoying the soft hiss of metal on silk. It should be easy enough to refill the amphora.
"Sadly, no," murmured Themis, covering Hephaestus' hand with her own. "In these dark days of war and bloodshed, the blood of harmony is less potent than it was. Conserve this amphora wisely. It may be our only hope."
Hera was too brazen to look the slightest bit guilty, as several accusing stares were directed her way. "Nonsense," she said firmly. "I know the type of chain that old Scarface will have to make."
The two gods bowed ironically to each other, though Ares noticed a grimace of pain cross Themis' face as fingers tightened on her arm. His own lips twitched with amusement, as he re-sheathed his dagger. This was going to be fun.
"The solution is simple. The blood of harmony need not be mixed with ambrosia and swallowed to be effective. It will work just as well, even in these degenerate times, if it is dripped directly onto the chain as it is forged."
Themis looked even less happy, even though there was no way she could see the triumphant smile on Hera's patrician face.
Ares drew his dagger again. "I'll help," he volunteered.
"Yes, indeed you will," said Apollo, his hands buried in a fresh batch of cow's guts.
Ares didn't like the sound of that. Before he could cut Apollo's tongue out, however, the slopes of Mount Olympus shook with such force that they were all tossed to the ground like so much flotsam.
"What was that?" chorused several voices. The gods clambered to their feet, some looking embarrassed at having been thrown around with such ease. Everyone seemed to be looking to Zeus for enlightenment, even Ares, much to his chagrin.
Zeus drew himself up to his full height and looked out across his world, eyes peeled for something that could have caused Olympus itself to shake to its foundations. His pale eyes narrowed. "Corinth is gone."
"Gone? What do you mean gone?" demanded Ares. He had unfinished business with its pretty king.
"It has gone," repeated Zeus.
"Did one of us destroy it?" asked Aphrodite, looking at Ares accusingly.
"Would whoever just reached inside my bodice and scratched my breasts, please remove her hand," said Themis.
There was a moment of confused silence, while Hera muttered something about needing to test some fresh blood.
Zeus was shaking his head. "No, it's gone. As if it had never been. Our reality, reflecting the tapestry that gives it shape, is being damaged."
What about Iphicles? He'd been born in Corinth. Ares did a quick check along the link that tied him to his occasional lover and -- nothing! It was as if Iphicles were dead. But even in the underworld there would be something, some trace of his essence, a shade for Ares to retrieve. It was more as if Iphicles had simply ceased to exist. Suddenly, it was difficult to smile so easily. Sure, he'd been a bit rough with the king sometimes, but he always remembered to buy him back from Hades. Well, there had been that one time, but it was only for a few weeks, and Iphicles had probably appreciated the peace and quiet.
Ares nudged his leg wound with the dagger, welcoming the pain, eager to feel something, anything. Iphcicles was gone, and somebody was going to bleed for it. At the moment, it was Ares.
"That tremor we just felt was a ripple in space and time, as Greece reshaped itself around the fact that there is not, and never has been, a Corinth," said Zeus. "And this sort of thing is only going to escalate unless we fix the tapestry, quickly."
"Duh," said Aphrodite. "It must be something else. If Corinth never existed, then how come we all remember it?"
Zeus glared at one of his more problem children. "We're gods, we remember everything."
"Except for marriage vows," offered a voice to his left.
Zeus made an obvious decision to ignore this interruption. "Hephaestus, Apollo will guide you in what is needed to chain and subdue the Fates. Ares, you will assist with providing the -- er -- blood of harmony. None other of my children is so suited to such a grisly task."
Ares took no notice of his father's sneer. Who had created the god of war, after all? He twisted the dagger in his leg, watching the blood drip between his fingers. "If this works, will it restore the tapestry to what it was before? Will Corinth exist again?"
Zeus looked at him oddly. "Why do you care? You're hardly noted for your interest in preserving the natural order."
Dite was at Ares' side suddenly, taking the knife from nerveless fingers. "Bro wants his Iphy back," she whispered in his ear. "You make sure my Hephy comes out of this alright, and you'll get your Iphy back so tight and sweet, you'll stay in bed for a week."
Dite took in her brother's disbelieving look, and added, "I'm the goddess of love. If I say it, it's gonna happen. Dead or alive. Lost or found. You'll get him back."
Ares looked up at his sister and smiled. "Perhaps I'll settle for your Hephy instead," he whispered back. "He's just as tight and lasts longer."
Aphrodite slapped Ares so hard his ears rang. Before he could retaliate, Hera was in front of him and reaching for the dagger, her other hand dragging Themis by the scruff of the neck.
"Time for some good old-fashioned blood letting," chortled Hera.
"Ares will do it," roared Zeus. "We want her alive at the end of it."
"Do we?" asked the Queen of the Gods, managing to sound like a petulant child.
Ares sighed, caught between the fireballs that his parents hurled at each other, managing to deflect at least one of them at Dite. This was turning out to be a very difficult day.
"Iphicles," whispered a quiet and unexpected voice, lurking somewhere inside his chest. Ares was not used to this sort of nagging pain and didn't really understand it. What had Iphicles been to him, after all? A convenient hole to unload in when his blood burned. Nothing more. Hair like silk, soft to stroke, to sniff, to taste even. Lips like plump cherries, rich and dark, made to be plundered with a ruthless tongue. Strong muscles under satin skin, that he could knead for hours at a stretch. Listening, always listening, to the soft gasps, the unwilling pleas for more. Music more beautiful than Apollo's, when Iphicles begged for his touch.
Ares prodded his leg wound one last time, before seizing the goddess of harmony with both fists and propelling her off in the direction of Hephaestus' forge.
"I liked Corinth," wails a voice in the darkness. "I *need* Corinth. Nothing makes sense without it. Feel this pattern, it's all wrong now!"
"I liked ambrosia," says a second voice. "In fact, I think I *need* it. My -- my hands are -- shaking -- I can't really -- spin..."
"I want to get out of here," says the third voice. "I *need* to get out of here."
"Who's stopping you?" asks the second voice. "Light the -- relight the lamps on your way out."
"I'll make you some ambrosia," says the third voice, coaxing now. "If one of you unties me. You've tied these threads so tight, I think I've got Corinth up my ass. If anyone's looking for it."
"Why don't you just cut your way out?" asks the first voice, quite snarky. "Oh. Perhaps because your shears are jammed in my foot?"
"Well, if someone would get off her ass and do some of the chores occasionally..."
"I think if I could just reach a little bit further, I could get the jug...almost..."
"You know, if you've got divine teeth, you can chew through anything. Eventually."
"I wouldn't chew through that one. I think that's Zeus."
"I never liked him anyway."
Ares drew the chain through his fingers, letting it caress his cheek before winding it round his fists. It was a dark red colour, almost black, the hue of dried blood.
Somewhere nearby, a goddess wept.
Hephaestus was smiling at Ares in triumph. He wasn't half bad looking in the light of the forge, sparks settling around him, the smell of ozone in the air. It was even possible not to notice the scars, backlit as he was by the glow of flames. Ares' tongue slipped out for a taste, licking the chain with slow, smooth strokes. The glance he threw at Hephaestus was scorching.
"I'm going to do you over your anvil," murmured Ares. "And I'm going to wrap this so tightly round your balls that you'll never come again."
"We don't have much time." Hephaestus looked around nervously, as though they hadn't done this a thousand times before.
The white-hot anvil was slowly fading to a dull red, its surface flickering with the shadows of past fucks.
"I'll roast you alive, inside and out."
Promise or threat, it made Hephaestus' cock bulge under his leather apron, as if it could trace its agony still imprinted on the anvil.
The air shimmered with the arrival of another god; Aphrodite, looking from her husband to her brother in suspicion, her breasts thrust forward aggressively as though if they only jutted out far enough, they could prevent adultery. "Zeus wants you. Now."
Ares grinned at his sister and reached out to loop the chain around Hephaestus' neck. "In a minute, sis. You wanna watch?"
Hephaestus reached up with his hand to grasp his creation, and Ares felt a tingle shoot through his fingers where they gripped the chain and straight to his ass. It was an odd sensation. A kind of emptiness, tinged with desperation. Hunger.
Shuddering, Ares dropped his end of the chain. Iphicles, he thought.
Hephaestus was still smiling, his eyes roving from Aphrodite and back again. But his smile didn't look quite so pleasant in the hellish firelight, more crooked. Sinister almost. "A chain to control Fate itself. My greatest work."
Ares tried to dispel the odd feeling inside him with familiar actions, licking his dagger clean before re-sheathing it. Unbidden the image came into his mind of Themis, bent backwards over the cooling metal, her blood hissing as it dripped from knifepoint to chain. The blood of harmony. It all tasted the same to Ares.
"Come on, Hephy, let's not keep the old goat waiting," said Aphrodite, transporting all three of them to Zeus' garden, its leafy dampness oppressive after the hot, dry air of the smithy. Ares drew in deep breaths all the same. He still felt strange, out of kilter with the world.
Zeus was seated nearby on a marble throne, in the midst of a circle of roses. Each bloom bowed slightly towards the centre, as though nature itself worshipped the King of the Gods. But his face was grey, and it seemed to Ares that he met their eyes with difficulty.
"Apollo," Zeus called, without his usual thunder.
The sun god appeared instantly. Ares perked up, not so much at the sight of his brother as the smell that came with him, of steaming entrails. There was nothing like divination to invigorate the spirit.
"Well?" demanded Zeus.
"The tapestry grows more distorted with every second that passes. Unless we act now, the existence of life itself will be threatened."
Dite moaned and Hephaestus moved to comfort her. It may have been coincidence that the same position also enabled him to push his ass back against Ares' groin.
Ares grinned. Oh yes, "Hephy" wanted it alright. The world might be in danger, but the god of war could still get his rocks off.
Aphrodite threw him a puzzling look over her shoulder. She was the goddess of love, of course, so there was no way she wasn't going to be noticing their arousal. But there was something sad, almost compassionate, in her eyes. He may not be an expert in those emotions, but he'd seen enough of them, even on the battlefield, to recognise and wonder at them.
"Two gods must go to the Cave of the Fates," intoned Apollo. Ares had a strong impulse to shift his attentions from Hephaestus to the sun god, and ram something hard up his ass. "The strongest of the gods, to hold together the pattern and subdue the Fates, and the smith god, to bind Atropos with his chain and invoke its power."
Zeus tried to stand but swayed, almost toppling into Apollo's arms. Ares sensed the transfer of healing power from son to father, and itched to smack the patently false look of grave concern off Apollo's face.
"It has to be me," said Zeus. "I'm the only one strong enough."
"You're dying," snapped Apollo.
It was though someone had punched him in the stomach, and then belted his face for good measure. Ares couldn't believe it. Hephaestus ground his ass against Ares' cock, but it wilted in the sudden shock.
Zeus took the news without visible surprise, not even bothering to question it. "Poseidon, then."
"Um, in case no one's noticed, there like isn't really a sea anymore," said Aphrodite. "Poseidon's...gone."
Ares was staggered. How had things deteriorated so quickly?
Zeus shook his head slowly. "And Hades is trapped below -- nobody's dying, no traffic passes between the worlds. That leaves..."
It was inevitable of course. Every eye turned to Ares. If he didn't know it was impossible, he'd think it had the air of fate about it.
Hephaestus rattled his chain and smiled a killer smile. "Just you and me, Ares."
It was weird, out of character for his shy, hesitant brother. But what the fuck? Ares could handle Hephaestus, no matter how bizarrely he behaved. Far below Olympus, the battles continued with no one dying, no conclusions, no victories, just endless violence and desperate prayers to the god of war. The warriors had been woven as fighting when the shuttle paused on the loom, and so they fought on, locked in that pattern for all eternity. Or till the world ended, which was beginning to seem the more likely option. And in the meantime, the incense of their battles wafted heavenward, making Ares stronger.
"Go now," commanded Zeus.
"Wait," called an imperious voice, a second before Hera popped into view.
If Ares had expected an affectionate final leave-taking from his mother, he was to be disappointed.
"Take this with you," said Hera, thrusting a brimming amphora into his hands.
"What is it?" he asked.
"More blood of harmony," mumbled the Queen of the Gods. She couldn't quite meet anyone's eye. "I thought it might be useful."
Ares threw back his head and laughed. This could very well be the Twilight of the Gods, but his mother never, ever failed to amuse him.
Seizing Hephaestus' hard, calloused hand in his own, Ares blew them all a kiss and transported off Mount Olympus.
It was time for his quest to save fate from the Fates.
"She's almost chewed through Zeus, you know."
"At least she's got something to eat."
"What was that?"
"I'm trying to bring the sea back."
"You're raining brimstone on Sparta."
"It's what they always thought they deserved. Lucky them, I say."
"I'm going to untangle these threads eventually. And when I do, I'm going to kick your scrawny butts from here to Mount Olympus."
"Who needs you? Just fuck off, already. Snip. Snip. Snip. Hardly the most demanding job in the world. It's not like you have to spin life into these threads, or shape complex patterns or anything. Oh no. A snip here. A snip there. Some of us had it easy, I'd say."
"We'll see how you feel about it when I've snipped your fucking legs off."
"Shows how much *you* care about your sisters. I haven't had legs for centuries. But callouses. You should see the callouses on my -- well, you know where."
"Do you think *I* want to stand here weaving all day? But we've got duties and obligations. Destiny is who we are. It's what we are. You'll still be the implacable ender of life, even if you're wandering around up there picking flowers."
"I just want to get out."
Hot rolling waves of pain.
Ares heard a voice groaning in the distance. It might have been Hephaestus, he wasn't sure. Bracing himself in the centre of his hard, hot spirit, Ares pushed against the waves with all his power. Every nerve ending lit with agony and fire, as he battled his unseen enemy.
The pain receded and he became aware of other things. The air was dank and musty, and very cold. Carefully, he opened his eyes, almost frightened that any sign of life would bring a return of that terrible pain. It was pitch black, but his sharp ears could detect the sound of someone nearby, moaning softly.
Ares willed a little light, ready to fight the waves of pain if that should trigger them, but again there was no response. In the dim glow of his own power, he could see an amphora clutched in his arms, even though he couldn't feel it, and a figure lying nearby on the cold, hard dirt.
Ares stood, placing his heavy burden on the ground, and nudged the other man with his toe. When the prone figure groaned and rolled over in response, the left side of its face proved to be faintly scarred, marring the perfection of what otherwise would have been a very beautiful man.
"Hephaestus," he said.
As if speaking the name triggered his memory, Ares recalled with instant clarity where they were and what they were trying to do.
"What's going on?" asked Hephaestus, his voice weak with strain.
"We're deep in the tunnels under Mount Olympus," said Ares. "Don't you remember?"
"You were going to take us to the Cave of the Fates."
There was a faintly accusing tone to that statement. Ares let up for a moment on his efforts to hold the pain at bay, and enjoyed the sight of Hephaestus writhing on the ground. There was something almost erotic about it, his features tight with agony, his limbs sprawled and twitching. Ready and waiting to be fucked.
"I got us as close as I could," growled Ares. He relented and pushed against the waves again, protecting Hephaestus with his power. It was almost more than he could manage. "The chaos in the cave itself must be incredible. I can't transport us closer without draining my life force past the point of no return."
Hepheastus heaved himself to his feet. "Looks like we're gonna have to walk, then."
He was just in time to catch Ares as an even more powerful wave caught them, knocking the war god off his feet and making his eyes go blank with strain.
"Zeus could handle this better than me," whispered Ares. The admission cost him dearly, but they both had to know what they were getting into.
Hephaestus held his red-black chain taut in his fists and closed his eyes, adding his strength to that of Ares. The war god could almost feel it as his brother studied the nature of the waves, seeking to understand their weave and flow, and to fight against them. In a way, he knew that Hephaestus with this smith's mind had a better chance of comprehending the pattern and detecting its weaknesses, as if it were a newly forged piece of metal that he was testing for flaws.
"Take a drink," said Hephaestus at last, putting down the chain.
"What?" Ares was baffled by the suggestion.
Hephaestus pointed to the amphora on the ground. "The blood of harmony. It might help you to assert more power over the chaos that's tearing the tapestry in pieces."
Ares grunted. "I wish we'd brought Themis. A permanent supply of the blood might have been useful."
What would it do to him, to absorb some of the essence of harmony into his warlike spirit? Hephaestus gave him an unpleasant grin, as though he knew Ares' doubts and was laughing at them.
Giving his scarred brother an angry glare, Ares hunkered down on the floor and lifted the amphora with both hands. He was *not* afraid of this.
The thin red lines of a painting leapt out at him from the side of the large jug as he raised it to his lips. There were two figures seated side by side on the ground, eating what looked to be a picnic feast, a horn of plenty showering them with grapes, peaches, olives, and a blood-red wine. In the next scene, the two men were fucking, one bound tightly and helpless, the other labouring over his back, deep inside him.
Ares was about to drink when he recognised the attributes of the lovers. The bound man had scars on the side of his face. The other one fucked him with a large, stylised sword tied at his waist -- the Sword of War.
Ares and Hephaestus, one bound, one free, fucking on a thin layer of clay that divided them from the blood of harmony.
Ares shivered. Hephaestus' eyes were locked on the other side of the amphora. The next scenes of the painting continued there, but he had no idea what they were.
The liquid sloshed against his closed lips, still warm, as though it had been drained this very moment from Themis' veins. War devouring peace, with an angry smith to bear witness to the taking of one by the other.
Just as he was about to open his mouth and take a swallow, a wave of such power hit them that had it not been for Hephaestus' powerful arms locked around his waist, he would surely have gone down. The flat red paintings blurred and ran on the surface of the amphora, as though the paint was still wet and the artist had dashed them with water, washing them away.
Ares moaned. "Athens has gone."
No more vase painting. No philosophy. No democracy.
Somewhere, far away, he could hear Athena weeping.
Hephaestus stared at the other side of the amphora. Ares knew that it too would now be blank.
"Bring it back," hissed the smith.
Ares closed his mind and ears to Athena. "I don't know if I can."
"Try. You have to bring this under some control, or we will never even get to the Cave of the Fates."
Try as he might, using all his power to block the waves of chaos, Ares could not shut out his sister's grief. But it was growing weaker, fading, as though with Athens gone she would soon be gone too.
Reaching out with his mind, he joined his power to that of Athena, and risked a brief taste of the blood of harmony. Instantly, he felt the rational violence of Athena join with his own, even as a strange sense of stability, of hated sweet reason, began to flow through his veins.
Hephaestus joined them, pressing his lips to Ares', tasting the blood in his mouth and biting down to produce a new tang of his own.
All three gods closed their eyes.
The tapestry of life hung before them, bloated and obscene, in a place outside of space and time. Its threads hissed and spat like living snakes, striking out at them, forcing Athena and Hephaestus back. But with a bloodthirsty roar, Ares plunged headfirst into the pattern and grasped the unravelled spirit of Athens in his fists. Forcing the threads back together, he tried to fuse them with fire and blood, spending the last of his strength. Somewhere deep inside him, there was a faint hope that his brother and sister could still bring him back to his body.
There was a splintering in his mind, as Ares felt himself whipped and tossed by the cords of the tapestry. Athens was his goal but he needed something, anything, to hold on to, to keep himself afloat in the chaos, and to serve as a focus for recreating the quintessence of that proud, beautiful city. Ares remembered drinking from the amphora, his veins pulsing with order and harmony, the blood of Themis a slight frisson on the surface of his violence. And in Athens long ago, in a house near the agora, a man had painted red lines on a vase, capturing forever a prophetic scene of gods fucking on a hillside.
The world went red on black and Ares felt himself fade into its darkness.
Ares sits naked on the ground, resting his firm buttocks on fresh summer grass, enjoying the scent of fruits and blossoms in the air. There is a sense of peace, of harmony, bone deep inside him. He plucks a peach from the fingers of the man next to him, biting into its firm flesh, letting the juice run down his chin, making his dark beard stiff with the seepings of life.
Hephaestus laughs at him, his tongue swiping at Ares' beard. There are scars on the left side of his face, but they are so faint they seem like the lines of centuries of laughter.
Ares takes another peach. In the distance, the Acropolis of Athens is perched on a high hill, the blue sparkle of the sea nearby.
Ares takes a bite of his peach and blinks. When he looks again, the hill is bare and a barren wasteland stretches out beneath it. Sea and city are gone, as if they had never been.
Ares swallows. It seems of little moment. The sun warms his skin, and Hephaestus is nuzzling his thighs. He sets the peach aside to reach down and stroke Hephaestus' hair. Nothing is as it should be -- but somehow, everything is right.
Insects swarm on the abandoned peach, devouring it, till Hephaestus flicks the tip of a blood-dark chain at them and they vanish. He offers the chain to Ares, a sweet smile on his lips.
"Tie me up," he murmurs.
Ares laughs, his cock jumping at the thought, and grabs Hephaestus' wrists in one powerful hand.
The smith doesn't fight as Ares loops the chain around his wrists, pulling them tight behind his back and binding them there. He knows that the chain will cut deep grooves in his lover's flesh, and that his shoulders must already be sore with the strain. Ares smiles and slowly devours Hephaestus' throat, marking it with his teeth, enjoying the groans that this elicits.
When he opens his eyes, he can see Athens again in the distance, but flat and lifeless like lines on clay, a background that's not fleshed out like the main scene. The sun glints on foam as waves crash and seabirds wheel and cry.
Ares rolls Hephaestus onto his stomach, crushing a fistful of olives and forcing them inside his anus. His fingers plunge through the slick oil, enjoying the hard lumps of the pits, looking forward to their abrasion of his cock. Hephaestus's sharp grunts of pain, as he forces the crushed olives deeper, are music to his ears.
"Did you do this to Dite?" whispers Hephaestus.
Ares spreads the other god's buttocks and plunges his thick cock inside to the root in one swift lunge. The olive pits are torture on the sensitive tip of his erection. Exulting in the pain, Ares pulls out and pauses, waiting for the begging that he knows will surely come.
In the distance, sand blows across a darkened desert and swirls over a barren hilltop.
"Fuck me," pleads Hephaestus. "Fuck me, you asshole. Do it now. Do it! Now!"
"Since you ask so nicely," murmurs Ares, plunging full-length inside his lover.
People shadow the distant walls of the Acropolis like ants, running here and there in time to Ares' thrusting. Sails dart on the water in tune to the same gavotte. Somehow, they know that Ares is fucking them into being.
"More! Harder! Do it!"
Ares thrusts inside the tight, velvet heat, which grips his cock, mashing it with pain and pleasure. He moans in Hephaestus' ear, tugging on the lobe with his teeth, before biting down viciously. He can feel the bound hands straining against his stomach, desperate to get free, to touch the neglected erection that hangs bobbing in the air in front of them.
"Come with me," growls Ares, thrusting harder and harder, forcing himself so deep inside Hephaestus that he must surely pump his come out of the other god's mouth.
The two lovers convulse, screaming their pleasure into the rising wind. The scent of semen and olive oil is carried on the breeze. Far away, the people of Athens sniff the air and wonder what it is that the gods are bringing them today.
Ares closes his eyes and lets his mind drift in rare contentment.
The first thing he noticed was a warm stickiness on his thighs. Ares had come and come hard. He smiled to himself. He'd surely just made someone very happy.
"Ares! Wake up," urged a voice in his ear.
The war god stretched languorously. What was the hurry? Didn't this asshole believe in afterglow?
He opened his eyes and immediately wished he hadn't. The dark walls of a tunnel stretched all around him, and the strained, anxious face of Hephaestus filled the foreground. He didn't look like someone who'd just enjoyed the rough pleasures of the Ares experience.
Glancing over at the amphora, he was relieved to see that the paintings were back. Athens had been restored, and he could sense that the tapestry was more stable. For a moment at least, he thought, he'd had harmony inside him and been inside it. That didn't make a lot of sense, he knew that, but he reached out to touch the red figures anyway. The spare lines seemed to leap off the clay at him, punching his guts with the brief scent of peaches and olives in the summer air.
"I don't know what you did to the tapestry, or how you did it," said Hephaestus, "but you seem to have bought us a little time. We need to get to the Cave of the Fates now, before it gets too unstable again."
Right. The main task was still at hand. To chain Fate and save the world. More in Hercules' line, really, but he'd do his best.
A firm hand took his and pulled him to his feet, steadying him as he rocked a little, weak as a kitten. Whatever the hell he'd done, it had certainly sapped his strength. Ares smiled briefly at Hephaestus. You couldn't really see the scars in this half light. The other man was beautiful, his smile rich with promises. And he was smiling now, kissing Ares gently on the lips before propelling him off down the tunnel.
"I will help you, when the time comes," whispered a voice in his mind. Athena, her gratitude cloying in his mind like wine mixed with too much honey.
Ares shook himself and started to walk in the direction of the tapestry, putting one heavy foot in front of the other. He could feel it pulling at him, hear the clamour of a million voices as life was spun into existence with nowhere to go, no shape to take. Hephaestus' arm supported him round the waist, and he thought he felt the brief touch of a kiss pressed on his wrist. Smiling in the near-dark, Ares let himself be led towards the Cave of the Fates.
It seemed like they walked for hours. Hephaestus' limp was barely noticeable at first, but eventually his leg dragged as they staggered onwards. The smith god carried the amphora and the chain, sweating in the chill air, and was practically carrying Ares too, without a word of complaint. He seemed inexhaustibly strong, and the war god was glad to lean on him, to soak up the heat of his fires and warm his spirit at Hephaestus' forge.
The amphora was clasped to his chest, the painting of the lovers on a summer hillside facing out to the world. Ares wondered briefly what was on the other side, as he put forth his power to dampen another wave of chaos and reinforce the warp and weft of the tapestry. Leaning on Hephaestus, listening to the rumble of his steady beating heart, Ares absorbed the wave into himself and dissipated it, preventing the unravelling that would have seen Olympus itself disappear into the ether, the gods and all their works lost for eternity.
After that one, Hephaestus really did have to carry him, balancing the amphora on his head with a small weave of power. Ares put his arms round an oak solid neck and nestled in happily, letting his body be cradled tenderly in Hephaestus' arms. They were almost there, Ares could sense it.
The voice of Athena was speaking in his mind, telling him that he needed to see the paintings on the other side of the amphora. That he had to be careful. That Iphicles's existence was at stake, if nothing else mattered to him. That something was wrong. She owed him, he had to *listen* to her. Why wouldn't he listen?
Iphicles? But surely he and Hephaestus were together now.
Was this what calm thoughts were like? This bland steadiness, like a trail of excrement down the middle of a long, straight road?
"One taste of harmony doesn't make us fucking married," he growled at his companion.
Hephaestus' expression was unreadable. "I already have a wife. Had you forgotten?"
Ares was saved the trouble of answering this by a loud shriek, so close that Hephaestus jumped and Ares was tumbled unceremoniously onto the ground. As if he wasn't already sore and dusty enough to satisfy his worst enemy. "Well, if I can't have it, then no one else will either," shouted a woman's voice, its tone ragged with desperation. Ares could hear frustration and rage, and sensed almost unbelievable power. He reached out with his mind, touched the thoughts of the speaker, and realised with horror...
Clotho was about to tear ambrosia from the pattern. If she were successful, he and all the other gods would have died long ago, their immortality lost, and there would be no one left to restore the tapestry. He would be dead, on the very verge of completing his mission, and the whole universe would be justified in its contempt of him. He could hear Zeus' scorn already, certain that the King of the Gods would find a way to let him and everyone else know it from beyond the grave.
"Stop her," whispered Hephaestus.
"Get ready with your fucking chain."
Ares ground his teeth and let his thoughts drift to the tapestry, angry and roiling, so immense that it made him feel like a bug on the edge of Olympus. His consciousness plunged inside the threads, seeking the three enormous, pure white strands at the centre of the tapestry, tightly woven together at the core of the pattern.
The three Fates. Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. As these three threads unravelled from each other, the whole pattern was distorted and gradually disintegrating. But there was still time, there had to be. The ends were still within reach of each other, linked by other threads if no longer bound together directly, and several more strands were converging on the centre. He recognised his own at once, bright red like fresh blood, shot through with black and white, speckled and dazzling in its power. Close beside it was another red thread, grey with ash and ragged at the sides, but exuding strength and purpose. Between these threads there was a space, as though something were missing that had been there before, but Ares could see its shape clearly as if it were the hole left by the last piece in a puzzle. Thin and weak, twisting round on itself and leaving a clear mark where it had been imprinted on the blood-red thread, the light and lovely shape of a silly mortal.
Only one of those threads was a strong enough cord to bind the Fates back together again.
"Now Hephaestus," he whispered with his mind. "Take us in there now."
Ares stands before the Fates.
Atropos pleads with him, her eyes dark and wild. "I want to get out."
"I just want a little ambrosia," says Clotho. Her hands shake too much to spin. "Just a little. Get me a cup, would you? It's over there. Just a taste. I need a taste. I can bring your mortal back."
Lachesis kneels by the tapestry, her head bowed in despair. "The pattern is damaged beyond repair. I cannot hold it together. Help me. Help us. Yours is the task. Mud mixed with blood. Chaos and harmony. War and peace. I have woven you together. I cannot do more. I cannot..."
He reaches out to the tapestry, and takes the blood-red thread in his fingers. It resonates in his mind, violence tempered with reason, with harmony. Almost, it seems to him the grey cord of his sister Athena. But no, it is still him, just different, changed.
"Tempered steel," whispers the voice of Athena in his mind. "Do what you must."
Still holding the red thread, Ares stretches out his left arm and grasps Clotho's strand, holding it firmly next to his own. His right arm reaches as high as it will go and seizes Lachesis' thread. Now he holds a Fate in each hand. He bends forward, taking the writhing thread of Atropos between his teeth and biting firmly.
He almost spits her out again, when a spit-slick finger breaches his anus.
What the fuck?
His wrist aches as a second finger joins the first, exploring virgin territory. Looking down, he sees the spot where Hephaestus kissed his wrist in the tunnels. It seems like a hundred years ago. The smooth links of a chain are melded to that spot. Ares panics as he realises that it is *him* who has been bound.
"Did she squeal for you, brother?" whispers a voice in his ear. "Did my wife scream when you fucked her?"
At his feet, the amphora mocks him, full of the blood of a goddess. He can see the other side now, the scenes hidden from him all along, concealed by Hephaestus and by his own arrogant folly.
A woman, clearly identifiable by her enormous breasts, is being fucked by a man wearing a sword. A third figure watches from the shadows. Even painted lines on a jug can vibrate with anger, and Ares sees the rage in the watcher's stance.
"Do what you came here to do!" Athena gibbers at the back of his thoughts, as Hephaestus rubs his cock between Ares' buttocks.
"Help me," screams Ares in his mind. He cannot open his mouth to speak.
Pain shoots through him, like a red hot blade, plunging agony into his bowels. Hephaestus is inside him now, all the way.
Sweat drips from his forehead as Hephaestus fucks him. Ares forces the threads in his hands towards his mouth. They are strong and rigid, incredibly difficult to bend. He uses all his strength, even as it is hammered out of him from the inside. Hephaestus is moving smoothly now, his passage lubricated by blood.
"Let me go and I'll stop him," offers Atropos.
Ares snarls at her and bites down hard with his teeth.
"I can help you," says Athena in his mind.
Memories of Iphicles come like a winter rainstorm, leaving tracks of moisture on his cheeks. Iphicles, his throat cut, blood dripping from his neck like come. How he'd laughed at that one. Hades, bent over his throne like a whore, while Ares paid the price to get his pretty king back again. Iphicles spread out on his bed like a feast, legs bent and desperate to take Ares inside him. Iphicles' rare, hesitant smile, perched atop a body sweet with the smells of sweat and sex.
Love, like a teardrop in Aphrodite's eye, spills out on the floor of the Cave of the Fates.
Hephaestus climaxes inside him, screaming his anger and hatred. The final thrusts are so hard that Ares staggers forward, his boot crashing into the amphora with shattering force, his ass on fire with agony.
The blood of harmony soaks into Ares' boots and feet. He has all three white threads in one hand now, using the red cord to tie them together in a knot that Atropos herself could not break.
Hephaestus yanks out of him, howling in triumph. Ares releases the Fates, sees the chain that binds him to them, and bows his proud head at last.
It is over.
Hephaestus bends down to kiss him gently on the lips. "You will rot in here with them for the rest of eternity."
The pattern is rewoven, Lachesis hard at work to bind the flailing threads back together again. Ares senses the moment that Corinth is restored and Iphicles pops back into the tapestry. He is attuned to it now, tied forever to the Fates.
A hum fills the air as Atropos' shears resume their snipping, almost drowning out the crunch of Ares' blood-soaked boots as he makes his way over to the corner and pours a cup of ambrosia. There is just enough slack in the chain for that. He already knows that he cannot break it. No god can break a chain forged in Hephaestus' smithy. Zeus could order his release, of course, but that wasn't very likely in the next millennia or two.
Clotho rewards him with a smile as he offers her the cup.
The snipping of the shears pauses in its terrible work. "I just wanted to get out for a bit. Is that so bad?"
Atropos' question seems to be directed at the one person who seemed not to care about the fate of the world.
"Not at all," says Hephaestus. "It got me what *I* wanted. All's well that ends well." He smirks at Ares and turns to go.
The smith god takes a step. Ares whispers in Atropos' ear. The three sisters lock eyes as though communing with each other, then nod in unison.
"We are agreed."
One voice issues from three throats. Hephaestus clearly doesn't like the sound of it. His back stiffens and he pauses in mid-step. His eyes widen as he turns just in time to see Atropos slice through his chain with her shears.
Smiling, the Fate hands her shears to Ares and vanishes. Hephaestus watches in growing horror as Ares takes up her task, ending the lives of mortals with every evidence of enjoyment.
"What -- what's going on here?"
Ares allows himself a moment to savour the look on Hephaestus' face. They both hear the laughter of Aphrodite echoing in the cave, making the smith god even more pinched about the mouth.
"It's quite simple," says Ares. "I am now bound to the Fates, one with them in the tapestry. For one year in every hundred, I will do Atropos' job, and she gets to walk free in the real world. She can even start a war or two if she wants to."
Ares holds up the thin, fragile-looking thread that embodies Iphicles, King of Corinth. "And this thread never gets cut. Zeus flatly refused to make him immortal for me. But now the tapestry itself will reflect my desires. In every way."
Ares throws back his head and laughs. "You've just made me more powerful than you can ever imagine." He holds up a fire-red thread, shot through with grey. "As for this thread, who knows what's going to happen to it?"
Hephaestus stands motionless as Ares strokes his life-cord with the shears.
Not even the Fates know what will happen next.