Gods of War
"What's a god to do, eh?" said Ares, leaning back in his deckchair and lifting a cigarette to his mouth. He squinted as he tipped his head back, the sun in his eyes. "Damned monotheism. Damn it to Hades." He paused. "Hades, that is. Not hell. Hades."
"A god's to do nothing at all," Mars said beside him. "Just like the last bloody time you asked. And the time before that. Face it, monotheism's just more theoretically viable." Ares turned to face him with a frown.
"Theoretically gods-damned viable?" he said, "Since when have people worshipped what theoretically gods-damned viable? They worship what gives them bread on the table and an enemy's head before them, that's what, not any of your stupid theoretical viability." Mars rolled his eyes, wiping his chin with his hand.
"Then why do you suppose we're stuck here smoking and drinking light beer rather than leading armies?" he said, shaking his bottle to prove his point. "Just enjoy your retirement for once, it isn't too bad."
"I still have some worshippers!" Ares roared.
"And who are they? Honourable, proud warriors one and all, I assume?"
"Well..." Ares started, but dropped his head and issued an angry grunt. "Stupid half-men prancing around to piss off their parents, one and all. Why do you have to be right quite so often?"
"It's not all bad," said Mars. "Think of the poor old Thracian gods."
"Sad thing, that. Nobody ever told us that we should have been written down for our retirement. There but for the grace of the Fates go we, I suppose." He paused, squinting at the sky and lost in his memories. When he talked, it was as much to himself it was to Mars. "I used to like those guys a lot. They were so understanding when the Greeks decided that I was god of Thrace; just let me hang around there, waging the odd war. And now they're gone. Nice people though. Damn nice people."
"Nice people," Mars agreed, nodding.
"It is a tragedy, the whole thing," Ares said. "Just a few gods hogging all the worship. No consideration for the common god, none at all. And why the hell do they have to make themselves god of bloody everything? Just bloody spite, that's what it is. And selfishness."
"Since when did selfishness ever concern you?" Mars said, smiling. "Most arrogant of all the gods, were you not?"
"Shut your mouth, you," said Ares, not returning the smile. "I know that war's not about posturing and flitting around like a moron: it's about charging into battle with a spear and sword. About honour, yes, honour. Not "tactics". Unlike you and my bloody sister."
"Where is old Athena?" said Mars, "Last I saw of her she was trying to get involved in World War Two."
"As were we all," said Ares, "as were we all. No, can't say I have seen her much." He took a sip of his beer to punctuate his sentence. "Here, did you realise that they hardly even pray to anyone for battle anymore? These stupid gods are just letting them charge to war without anyone to guide them. Now, what would be the harm in letting us back in there? A couple of gods for war, one for everything else. Why the Hades not?"
"I think that that may raise a few issues," said Mars.
"Issues? Whole things riddled with issues as it is. Everything's riddles with bloody issues, and that's never held anything back."
"I would say that issues have held quite a few things back," Mars said, and put on a grin. "Like maybe the phalanxes' issues with hills and trees."
"Oh, you and your bloody legions," said Ares, shaking a fist in playful anger. "There wouldn't be any legions if it wasn't for my phalanxes, and you best remember that, sunshine. Alexander conquered far faster than any of your Romans ever could as well, if I remember correctly."
"And lost with an equally record-breaking speed," said Mars, "if I remember correctly. Or have I gotten my facts wrong?"
"Hey, don't look at me for that," said Ares. "I make my followers win wars, not manage their politics correctly, and it's not as if an army ever defeated us; traitors was all, and that ain't my business."
"No, you needed to wait for me to defeat you in battle," said Mars. "Ah, but those were some wars, weren't they? Full of alliances and betrayal and politics and just plain battles that you just can't get any more."
"Ten thousand angry men deciding the fate of an empire," said Ares with a wide grin. "Those were the days. Not any business with those stupid nukes and what have you. What self respecting god ever let war get that heartless, anyway?"
"It was you that started the process," Mars said. "The phalanx started the slope."
"The phalanx was Athena's doing, I assure you," said Ares, spitting on the floor. "I would never make such a move, to abandon the warrior in favour of the general. Pah!"
"Yet you defend it with such fiery passion?"
"I do everything with fiery passion, my good man, everything. Especially if I can insult Rome in the process." Ares stretched his arms out in front of him, keeping them taught as he slowly moved them up and behind his head, yawning all the way in a great, exaggerated gesture which signalled that he was done with talking.
And for a while they both lay there, taking puffs of their cigarettes and sips of their beer. A bird whistled out a tune, and Ares opened an annoyed eye to watch it until it left. They lay there until they started to snore, and the sky grew darker as the sun fell in the sky. A neighbour started a barbeque in the next garden, sneaking a glance through a crack in the fence at his suspicious neighbours and shook his head at their unkempt lawn.
Just before sunset, Mars got up and walked round to the house on the other side, rubbing his eyes as he did so. Ares continued to sleep on the deckchair, his face both a smile and a snarl. In his mind he could see his old enemies before him, and their blood was on the floor. He had a sword in his hand, and all around him was war; proper war mind, not any of this frilly nonsense they have nowadays.
"You, Ares of Olympus, are cordially invited to a god's reception on the 24th November, in a celebration of all contributions to the divine from past and present. The reception shall be hosted in Spirit's Way, Heaven. All food is provided, and gifts are not necessary.
"Well," said Ares, "what do you make of them?" The sun was shining down heavily on the two war gods, hunched over a couple of pieces of paper, one of which had been sent to each god.
"Jupiter said he got one from Vishnu last month," said Mars, eyes fixed on the letters. "I think that there's a bit of one-upmanship going on here."
"Yes, yes," said Ares, shaking his head, "I'm sure that there's lots of petty politics behind it. But what in Hades do you make of "gifts are not necessary"? I mean, I wouldn't have thought of getting a gift, but here it's talking as if that's just what you do."
"And we'll look like right jerks if we turn up without when everybody else has got one," said Mars, rubbing his beard. "That's all they need isn't it: "Look at the gods of war, turning up without a gift. No surprise, is it, Beatrice?" No, we can't risk not getting anything."
"He'll like a good sword, won't he? Everyone likes swords."
"I think I'd stick with wine, really. He does call himself a god of peace."
"Suppose you can't go far wrong with a good bottle of wine," said Ares, before pausing. "You think that Heracles will be there? Good man, Heracles. Haven't seen him for far too long."
"Hercules was worshipped a little, I think, back in the day. Don't know, really. Didn't he kill your son? I heard you got quite angry at that."
"Oh, I get angry at everything as it happens," said Ares, laughing. "No, no, Cycnus bloody well deserved what he had coming to him. I never asked for a temple of bones, and Elysium knows where the damned boy even got the bloody idea."
"Still, I've always been mighty suspicious of old Hercules," said Mars. "I mean, surely there're only so many times a man can go on an isolated, spontaneous, murderous rampage without him just being just plain psychopathic."
"Oh give the man a break," said Ares, waving a hand. "He's had more enemies than..." He screwed up his forehead. "Well, something which has an awful lot of enemies, I suppose. And it just so happens that quite a few of them... can make him... go insane..." He screwed up his forehead further. "Look, I like Heracles, I do. Don't try to wreck that for me."
"Anyway, I've got things to be doing," said Mars. "Washing doesn't put itself in the machine."
"No, of course it doesn't," said Ares. "See you whenever, I suppose." The two waved to each other, and walked back into their houses, Mars stopping briefly to appreciate the morning before continuing. From a top window on the next house, to the left of Ares', a man watched, morbid curiosity driving his eyes. Soon, however, he realised that there wasn't a whole lot more to see, and so went back inside, to partake in an activity entirely unrelated to this story.
The hall stretched far and wide, huge pillars holding up a ceiling that seemed to be composed entirely of clouds. Angels plucked on their harps, floating around in a manner to be seen as much as to be heard. Light, Ares noticed, seemed to come from everywhere, with not a single shadow in sight. This disconcerted him, but not nearly as much as the main feature: gods, as far as the eye could see. Big and small, fat and thin, the whole room was filled with deities of every description. Ares could see a huddle of sun gods immediately, arguing over the relative significance of solar deities, and a couple of obscure African spirits engaged in awkward conversation with Osiris.
"Ares, you old fool, how you been keeping?" roared a familiar, drunken voice. "I see you brought wine?"
"Dionysus!" Ares said back. "Is it a good one?"
"Oh, wine's wine, when all is said and done," said Dionysus. "Quantity is what matters, not quality. Take my word for it."
"How's Zeus been?" asked Ares. "Any more children?"
"I'd be surprised if not," said Dionysus, "I've completely lost track. I think he probably has as well, if I'm being honest."
"Still in Olympus?"
"Oh Elysium no! Last god got evicted from there centuries ago; that was Hermes, I believe. He curled up into a little ball and just hid! Old "God" couldn't find him, so I heard; so much for omniscience, the pompous prick!" At this he burst out into laughter. Then he straightened up. "Not that I mean that, of course, should he be listening." The frowned a little, the expression ill-suited to his round and red face. "Here, do you know what's going on here?"
"No idea," said Ares. "I just got an invite and turned up. Mars thinks that it's a one up on Vishnu."
"Ah, politics," said Dionysus. "Still, they've got wine, and a good deal of it. Say what you will about this guy, but he sure knows how to serve up ridiculous amounts of alcohol." He took a gulp of wine as if to prove the point, but Ares realised that he had taken gulps of wine after just about every point.
"Anyway, I must mingle," said Ares. "Can't just get stuck talking to the same old gods I talk to anyway."
"Of course, of course," said Dionysus. "There's Aphrodite and Hephaestus over there," he jerked a thumb behind him, "if you want to go and reminisce about old memories." Ares gave him a taught stare, to which Dionysus broke into uncontrollable fits of laughter. "Just kidding, just kidding!" He managed to squeeze out as he quietened into chuckles. "Of course not, of course not!" He walked away, still laughing to himself.
Ares, after standing and slowly swaying for a brief while, decided to seek out the refreshments.
"Ares!" A voice called out as he tried to shimmy his way through a crowd of people. He turned with the food table in sight, groaning. "Good to see you!"
"Lugus?" said Ares, "Good to see you too." He managed to stop himself from wincing at the Gallic deity, but he still struggle to know which of the three faces he was supposed to look at.
"Keeping well, I hope?" said Lugus, two of his faces appearing interested, the other clearly eying the food.
"Not badly," said Ares. "You don't mind if I just skip to the snacks, do you?"
"Ah, I see!" said Lugus. "I'm blocking your narrow path am I? Like you did at Thermopylae." His middle face was wearing a playful grin, but the one to his left seemed genuinely angry. The one on the right was still just looking at the food.
"Ah, yes," said Ares. He had never liked Lugus, and he had never been good at hiding his feelings. "Good old Thermopylae. I got to know that old place like the back of my hand."
"I say we go to the food," said Lugus' left face, the first one other than the middle to talk. The two gods idled slowly over to the food. When they reached there, Ares took a moment to watch how the three-headed being ate with grotesque fascination. However, he stopped when he realised that one of the faces had not been eating, and had been staring, without emotion, at him.
He cast his eyes over the whole scene as he absentmindedly chewed on a cube of chimera (complete with suitably offense pseudo-Greek labels), not trying to spot anything in particular. He saw Loki a few metres away, doing some complicated movements with some small, plastic balls as three minor Chinese deities watched on in fascination. By one pillar various renditions of mother nature were exchanging tips on gardening, all while making sure the others knew that they were merely in their anthropomorphic forms. He saw Thor, posing with his muscles to a distinctly unimpressed Isis. He also, Ares noticed with a frown, had his hammer around his waist.
"Did you realise that Thor has brought that bloody hammer of his with him?" Ares said to Mars once he had sought him out.
"Yes..." said Mars, turning around from a god Ares could not have begun identify. "Do you... have anything to say about it?"
"Well if he's got his bloody hammer, then I need my sword!" said Ares. For a while Mars just frowned at him, as if trying to comprehend the sheer stupidity he saw before him.
"Thor and his hammer," he came out with eventually, "are like one and the same. Thor, hammer, hammer, Thor, they just go together. You and your sword..."
"What about me and my bloody sword?" Ares said, his face reddening. The god behind Mars, whose face was nothing but a pale, motionless mask, seemed like he was sniggering.
"Well..." said Mars, "it doesn't even have a name. It's just, you know, a sword."
"Sword doesn't need to have a name!" said Ares. "Sword needs to make things bleed, that's what!"
"Yes, but, Mjölnir, it sort of defines Thor. Defined his whole damned religion by the end," Mars said, but saw the stubborn expression of Ares' face, and breathed out. "So what, are you going to go back and get your sword?"
"That's exactly what I'm going to do," said Ares.
"You just try and stop me."
"Why would I stop you?" said Mars. "Why not get your shield as well, and a full suit of armour? Hades, why not bring in a whole army, just to let the small talk flow?"
"Shut up you," said Ares, and walked out of the door, grumbling to himself.
Ares ran up the steps to Spirit's Way. He had gotten quite lost, and had needed to, in embarrassed tones, concede and just ask Saint Peter at the gates for directions.
"Hello there!" a voice called out from the top of the steps, and Ares squinted through the now night air to see who it was.
"Hello," said Ares in reply, still not sure who he was addressing.
"Peaceful night, isn't it?" The voice said back. It was perfectly calm, and oddly soothing, but had the thunderous, resounding quality to it that only a god in his prime could muster. Ares supposed that a few thousand years ago, he must have had something like that in his voice.
"Yes," said Ares. "I've never really liked peace myself."
"Ah, of course not," the voice said. "God of war, weren't you?"
"Yes, I was," said Ares, now close enough to make out the figure. He was, of course, "God", with a long white robe falling over His pot-belly, and a long white beard on top. "You not to fond of war anymore, are you?"
"Anymore?" said God, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, you can ask the poor old Babylonian gods when you sacked Jericho about before," said Ares.
"Hey, barely anyone was there when I came along!" God said. "Now when Alexander invaded, that was another story, I can tell you."
"Oh, that was a war of conquest," said Ares. "Not a massacre. Not that there's anything wrong with a massacre of course, when it's called for, but a bit funny having old big and peaceful here endorsing it." Ares was almost surprised at himself at how easily all his grudges came pouring out, but then again, he had learnt to never be too surprised at himself.
"We all do crazy things when we're young," said God, with a soft chuckle. "You'll find that I've mellowed a good deal in my old age."
"Yes," said Ares. "I suppose I have too. Involuntarily, I might add."
"Even gods cannot control themselves, not all the time," said God.
"Look," said Ares after a long silence. "I had an idea, what with you being all anti-war and such."
"Yes?" said God, his thick eyebrows forming a small frown.
"Well, that you could let in a war god, so to speak," said Ares. "You know, you can handle all the stuff that you do, but since you don't like war so much, you just let in another god to handle all of that stuff."
"I believe that you are missing the point of monotheism," said God, His eyes now twinkling.
"Monotheism schmonthiesm," said Ares, "my plan would work!"
"So what would you recommend that I do?" said God, "Send down another prophet? Maybe use up the second coming?" He had a wide smile now, and Ares disliked that patronising look.
"Well, I don't know," said Ares. "We could discuss the details, but the basic idea..."
"Look," said God, "I am terribly sorry, but your time has passed. Mine will too, I believe, in the not too distant future. Atheism's rising all the time nowadays, and though I doubt the end of gods is nigh, there's certainly a mix up in the air." He paused, smiling His incredibly reassuring smile. "Once my time is done and dusted, another millennium or so I'd give it to its end, then other gods may rise in my place. But until that's done, I'm afraid that I shan't be budging an inch."
"So..." said Ares, "you're saying that other gods can rise once you're gone?"
"Well, I suppose so, yes," said God. "That is what has happened in the past." He looked to the sky. "Wonderful night this." Ares looked at Him; He was old and fat. Soft He was, Ares thought, soft from His unrivalled power. Back in his day, all the god's were constantly fighting for position, all the time. But not this old fool, no; this old fool was soft to the core.
Then a feeling rose inside him, a feeling that he had not felt properly for so long. It surged to his head, numbing his mind and filling his thoughts with the same, throbbing feeling. It was his bloodlust, the last sensible part of his mind thought as it shrunk away, the bloodlust which had, in a way, defined him. It was the angry surge, the maddening impulse that could drive him to do anything.
He drew his sword from its scabbard, and walked forwards. God turned round, frowning. Then, His eyes drew wide, and he opened His mouth to shout or speak. Ares never found out what, for then his sword was lodged in God's neck, and a second later His head was on the floor.
"Mars," said Ares. "Mars?"
"What now?" said Mars, turning away from some other obscure god. The thing had three animal heads, all of which Ares could never hope to name, and the rest of its body was hardly humanoid. Ares eyed the thing before continuing in a quiet voice.
"You may want to come and see something," he said.
"Why in Hades would I want to do that?" said Mars.
"You just..." said Ares, "may. Come on. Please." Mars frowned at his manner, before turning to the bazaar thing besides him to mumble some excuse. He then turned back.
"Come on then," he said. "What is it?" Ares led him through the crowds, and out of the front door of Spirit's Way. The night engulfed them, and already the sounds of the reception became muffled. "It better be something important, it's bloody freezing out here."
"There," said Ares, pointing just round the corner of the building, out of view of the doorway. Mars walked over, glad that Spirit's Way was so much smaller on the outside than it was on the in.
"What?" he said.
"There," said Ares, pointing at a bush just across from the wall. Mars looked into it.
"I don't see..." he began, paused, and broke into such a large string of obscenities that they seemed to form one, incredibly long and infinitely rude, compound word. "You bloody killed him!" he said when he was done with the pure, distilled swearing. "He's dead! Why the Hades did you kill Him?"
"He was just saying about when He was gone," said Ares, realising the complete stupidity of the sentence as he said it. "And... and then I got angry... and I had my sword..." His words mumbled out into nothing.
"Well what do we do now?" Mars would have screamed, had he not been forcing himself to be quiet. "He was going to give a speech in half an hour! What the Hades do we do now?" And he launched into a string of swears once more, placing his head between his hands and walking around the patch of grass in a rocking movement. "You know, you are the biggest fool I have ever known."
"Look," said Ares. "I know it seems bad..."
"Yes, it bloody well does seem bad!" said Ares. "You've killed God! You've killed God! I mean, back in our day, that would be like killing all twelve of the bloody Olympians, plus us Roman ones on top, plus a few bloody more pantheons besides! This has got to be the single worst thing that you have ever done! Ever! And that's bloody saying something!"
"Look, what can they do to us?" said Ares.
"How about kill us?" said Mars. "You've just killed the one authority there is around who could pass a lesser sentence."
"No, no, no," said Ares. "Surely they'll ask that Jesus chap? He seems nice enough; saw him talking to Heracles earlier and all."
"We have to hide the body!" Mars said, before pausing. "No, actually you have to hide the body. I, I have decided, will have nothing to do with this." He paused again, breathing slowly. "Yes. You're the one who went and bloody killed him. This is your problem, and I'm bloody well not getting involved." He steadied himself against the wall. "Yes," he said, before walking back inside.
Ares was now alone, and looked down at the dead body of his victim. Then he smiled. He leant down, and hauled God's body over his shoulder, taking His head in his hand and hauling Him up by the scruff of His hair.
And so it was that Ares, the god of war, walked down the central boulevard of heaven, whistling a merry tune to himself. Already the great halls were beginning to creak as He who had given them strength had gone. Ares hoped to slip down a back alley and back to earth. He had heard the there was still a route back to Olympus somewhere around here, and a hole in which a body would fit which even a supposedly omniscient being had not been able to find. And even if this did not work, he could at least finally face his problems with a sword and a battle-cry, as he had been born to do.
The tune picked up as his smile grew, as for the first time in so many years Ares had the blood of an enemy running down his front. He was a god of war, and finally he had been able to kill again. And it was a pretty damn good kill as well, if he may say so himself.