Ares sat bent over a cigarette burn-scarred table in a shadowed corner of a rundown, roach-infested bar, and tossed back another shot of rotgut that burned like the very fires of Hades.
The bar was small and crowded, the sort favored by beefy men in biker's leather and painted women in barely anything at all. Harsh laughter and coarse language floated along with cigarette smoke through air that felt heavy and greasy, kept moving by slowly turning, rickety ceiling fans. Tinny country music twanged from an old jukebox at the rear of the dull and boot-scuffed dance floor. Half of the machine's neon lights were long burnt out, the other half flickering in a last ditch effort to stay lit, sputtering but refusing to die.
The place seemed made to order for Ares. It was the type of establishment known for nurturing ill tempers, and giving birth to drunken furies. Every so often, a fist would fly or a blade flash, spilling blood. It didn't happen regularly, certainly not frequently enough to suit Ares, but often enough to keep him from losing his mind completely to boredom.
There were those rare times when some drunken asshole would aim his anger directly--if misguidedly--at Ares. He lived for those moments. Those times, few and far between though they be, were what kept him coming back to this little bunghole of a bar night after night. They were what made living in the human realm tolerable. It was during those times, when a rock-hard fist or silver blade would swing in his direction that Ares enjoyed the luxury to let loose and be himself. They never lasted long, of course... just a moment, a single movement, before the owner of the fist or the blade would be lying on the floor in pool of his own blood, gasping for air like a dying trout.
Ah, good times.
Sadly, tonight didn't seem to be one of those nights. There hadn't been any fights at all, not even a loud disagreement. Everyone made nice-nice with everyone else, looking to get drunk or laid, preferably both, and all those warm fuzzies floating around the room were enough to make Ares want to puke.
Ares wondered--not for the first time--how he'd managed to sink so low. There'd been a time when being the god of War meant something, demanded respect. When the very mention of his name struck fear into the eyes and hearts of all within hearing distance.
He disliked thinking about just how long ago it had been since last a warrior quaked in his sandals over hearing Ares's name.
Today, he was relegated to sitting in the shadows, and considered himself lucky if he got to break a nose or two in a mismatched bar fight with a couple of inebriated bikers.
He put the blame for his plight squarely at the feet of technology. Modern warfare sucked the big fat one, in his opinion. It eliminated any need for his specialized talents. How could he compete in an age where men fought battles with smart bombs and chemical agents? He couldn't very well ride into battle on the back of a Minuteman III missile, now could he?
Sometimes he thought he'd willingly give his left nut for just one go-round with a Spartan. Hell, a one-armed Thracian with a bum leg and a bad ticker would've put up a better fight than anyone Ares had gone up against in the last couple of hundred years.
Humans had gone soft. They were nothing but button-pushers now. Point a gun and call it war... where was the glory, the honor in that? Sun Tzu must be spinning in his grave, he thought. That war was an art form was the only thing we ever agreed on.
Sighing, Ares caught the waitress's eye and signaled for her to bring him another shot. If he couldn't fight, at least he could get drunk.
"How did I know I'd find you here?"
Ares glanced up at the sound of the familiar voice. Hermes perched on the edge of a chair at the opposite side of the table, sitting stiffly, uncomfortably, as if loathe for any part of his anatomy to touch anything in the bar. He wore an expertly tailored, dark blue, Savile Row suit, a crisp, white shirt open at the throat, and a pair of dark Armani shades. There wasn't a single strand of his stylishly cut, blond hair out of place. He looked like he'd just stepped off a runway in Milan.
Knowing Hermes's penchant for haute couture, Ares figured his guess might be right on the money. "Slumming, Herm?" he asked sarcastically, arching one sleek, black eyebrow.
Hermes made a rude noise. "Puh-lease. If I were out to have a good time, I wouldn't pick a shithole like this to have it in. I'm more of a five-star, linen napkin and crystal wineglass sort of guy." He slipped his sunglasses down with one finger, eyeing the waitress in her cheek-revealing Daisy Dukes with barely veiled disgust as she set a fresh drink in front of Ares.
"Anything for your friend?" she asked. Her eyes raked Hermes, returning his look with one of obvious disdain. "Something purple with an umbrella and fruit in it, maybe?"
"I should think something in a nice antibiotic would be more appropriate for this place," Hermes retorted without missing a beat.
Ares chuckled, although Hermes didn't look very amused. "I think he'll pass."
The waitress hesitated. "You know he's asking for trouble coming in here dressed like that, right?"
"I only wish," Ares replied, earning himself a glare from Hermes.
She shrugged, shook her head, and moved on to the next table.
"She's right, you know. The humans are probably chomping at the bit to see how far up your silk-suited rear they can shove their boots," Ares said, lifting the shot glass of amber liquid. He couldn't quite squelch the eager smile tilting his lips at the thought.
Hermes looked offended. "I'm a god, too, in case you've forgotten. If any of these leather-trussed monkeys dares so much as breathe on me, they're toast." He eyed the shot glass. "Tell me you're not going to allow that filthy thing to touch your lips. I know you're less than diligent about things like hygiene, but even you can't be that disgusting."
Ares flipped him the finger, tossed the shot back, and then deliberately tongued the rim of the glass, just to see Hermes squirm, clearly revolted.
"Ugh! You realize you've probably just given yourself the plague, right?"
"Last time I checked, I'm immortal. I can't even catch a cold." He leaned forward over the table and stared hard at Hermes. "What do you want, anyway? I know you didn't pop in here just to shoot the shit with me."
"Good-looking, lethal, and quick on the uptake. I always liked that about you, Ares," Hermes said. He looked down at his hands, examining his perfectly manicured nails. "I have a message for you from Zeus."
Ares sat back abruptly and slammed the shot glass down on the table. "I'm not interested."
Hermes's head snapped up. "Well, you'd better get interested, no, you'd better get positively fascinated, and quickly, or daddy dearest is likely to use your ass for target practice. Do you want a thunderbolt zapped up your sphincter?"
"I've had worse things shoved up my ass."
Hermes put his hands up. "Please, I can do without the mental images, thank you. Listen, Ares, you and I have always been friends, right? Well... maybe not friends, per se, but we were never enemies. I even got you out of the jam you were in with the Alodae giants, didn't I?"
Ares rolled his eyes. "Is it really necessary to bring them up again? I get one helping hand from Olympus in all of my sorry existence, and none of you ever let me live it down."
"Hey, saving your butt wasn't my idea of a good time. If it wasn't for me, you'd still be rotting in the jar the giants trapped you in. As far as I'm concerned, you owe me. Look, if you just keep your yap shut long enough for me to deliver my message, I can get out of this cesspit and delouse myself."
"Fine. What has Zeus's toga in a twist this time? What does he want from me?"
"A small favor. Nothing of consequence. Tres petit."
Ares was instantly suspicious. Those words raised a red flag, if any ever did. "Zeus never asks for small favors. They're always gigantic, humungous, colossal favors, and equally large pains in the ass," he retorted.
Hermes lifted his hand, his forefinger and thumb barely touching. "All he needs you to do this time is kill one puny, insignificant human. The means are completely up to you... beating, strangling, draw-and-quartering.... You should be thrilled."
Ares stiffened, feeling insulted. "I'm the god of War, not murder. I don't find pleasure in dishonorable deaths. Why can't he do it himself? Killing humans never caused Zeus to bat an eyelash before. Why ask me to do it?" Ares asked, his eyes narrowing. Zeus would never ingratiate himself to Ares over something so trivial. One word, one flick of his finger would be all it took for Zeus to do the deed himself. What gave him such pause about killing this one particular human that he would risk involving Ares?
Hermes suddenly seemed to find his diamond cuff link incredibly interesting, refusing to meet Ares's eyes. He fussed with the large stone and mumbled something under his breath.
"Herm, I'm losing patience here. Plus, you're taking up my valuable drinking time. Spit it out," Ares snapped.
Hermes sighed and continued to fidget with his cuff link. "Okay, okay. The target isn't exactly human. He's a son of Aphrodite."
Ares sat back in his chair, blinking in shock. Now, there was a name Ares hoped he'd never hear again. His affair with Aphrodite eons ago was one of the few times he'd bedded a female, back when he still thought he had something to prove to Zeus and the rest of Olympus, and it had brought him nothing but ridicule and pain. Since then he'd jumped the fence for good, and never looked back. "I want nothing to do with that bitch. You remember what happened the last time we were together."
"Yeah, whenever Hephaestus ties one on with Dionysus and that bunch, he tells the story. If I'm forced to hear one more time how he caught you and Aphrodite mid-coitus, I'm going to shoot myself in the head with one of Eros's arrows."
"I reiterate... why doesn't Zeus whack this half-breed himself?"
Hermes rolled his eyes. "You've been down here for far too long. You're out of the loop, Ares. All right, listen up; I'll give you the Reader's Digest Abridged version. After the last time Hera kicked Zeus's ass over the latest illegitimate Zeus-ling he sired, she forced him to issue an edict forbidding us from having sex with humans. I believe Hera's words to Zeus were, 'No more screwing with the lower life forms, or I'll rip off your balls and use them as earmuffs.' This is going back, oh, a thousand years ago or so, but you get the drift."
"I guess I missed the memo," Ares said flippantly. "That still doesn't answer my question."
"You know Zeus was never big on self-denial. Since Hera only expressly forbid him from fucking humans, he's started banging the goddesses. These last few centuries he's been amusing himself with Aphrodite."
Ares curled his lip. "Typical. He could never keep it in his toga, and she's a born slut. Hephaestus must be spitting kittens, but I'll bet he's too much of a pussy to call Zeus out for screwing his wife. So, let me guess... Aphrodite decided to step out on Zeus with a human despite the new law?"
Hermes dropped his gaze again. "You know her. She's so self-centered I'm surprised she doesn't walk in circles. She must've finally gotten bored with Zeus twenty-one years or so ago. Next thing we know, she's got a demigod baking in her oven."
Ares barked a sardonic laugh. "Yeah, that sounds like Aphrodite. She was always into instant self-gratification, and damn the consequences."
Hermes shrugged. "What do you expect? She's the goddess of Procreation, and likes to practice what she preaches." He placed his hands flat on the table, and then realized he had touched something, and pulled them off as if they were on fire, flapping them as if he could shake loose whatever human cooties he'd picked up. He opted for leaning in, and lowered his voice to a whisper, as if he were afraid of eavesdroppers. "Hera knew about Zeus's affairs with the goddesses, of course. She always knows. She has more spies on Olympus than the CIA. Word has it she's been dying for the opportunity to put a major hurt on Zeus for sleeping with them, but since she technically only forbade him from fucking humans, she'd couldn't. He is the King of Olympus, after all. She can't nail him for keeping to the letter of the law.
"Zeus harbors a soft spot for Aphrodite. He covered for her while she was pregnant and helped hide the baby, but now the brat has reached his majority. The kid is coming into his powers, and that's going to alert Hera to his existence. If Hera finds out Aphrodite broke the law and Zeus protected her and her spawn, it will give Hera an excuse to go gunning for them both. She'll demand retribution, up to and including pickling Zeus's dangly bits in a jar. Zeus needs the human dead, but he can't kill Aphrodite's son without pissing Aphrodite off. You know Aphrodite... if she gets angry, she'll give Zeus up to Hera no matter the cost to herself, and Hera will be wearing his dick as a necktie by suppertime."
"Why me? Why not you, or Apollo, or Hades? Hades is god of the Underworld. Taking out one scrawny half-human should be a snap for him."
"One," Hermes said, holding up a slender finger. "I'm only the messenger boy, not an assassin. Two, Apollo is a nitwit who can barely tie his own sandals without help. He'd only fuck it up, and Zeus would have more of a mess to clean. Three, Hades would snitch to Hera in an instant... you know he's always been jealous of Zeus for getting Olympus while he got stuck with the Underworld."
Ares smirked. "Okay, I'll give you that much, but what's in it for me? I've never exactly been the golden child on Olympus, and they completely turned their backs on me after the Troy debacle. Why should I bother helping?"
Hermes snorted. "You mean aside from avoiding the aforementioned thunderbolt up your rectum?" His expression grew sober. "Zeus said to name your price."
The magnitude of the offer took Ares aback and told him just how badly Zeus needed his help. In short, Ares could ask for the throne of Olympus and Zeus would be honor-bound to relinquish it to him. Olympus would no doubt erupt into civil war should that happen, and that prospect alone was enough to give Ares a hard-on. "How long do I have to decide?"
"The human is showing signs of his powers unleashing as we speak. It's only Zeus's power keeping him hidden from Hera, and he can only keep a lid on it for so long. When Aphrodite's brat comes fully into his own, all of Olympus will know about it. You need to move fast on this, Ares."
Ares rubbed a hand over the scruff on his jaw, thinking. It had always been his experience that if it sounded too good to be true, it usually was, but he found the possibility of a war on Olympus too tempting to pass up without careful consideration. "Where is this human?"
"Not far from here. He lives in an apartment nearby."
"Well, that's convenient."
"Blame the Fates. The Moirae live for the shits and giggles of meddling in our lives, you know. I'm almost surprised they haven't dumped him in your lap." He stood up, tugging lightly on his cuffs, straightening them. "So, what's your answer?"
Was that guilt Ares caught flashing in Hermes's eyes? No, it couldn't be. Hermes wouldn't dare evoke the Fates in a lie, would he? He dismissed it as his imagination and propensity for disbelieving everyone and everything. Ares's lips curled into a feral smile. "Tell Zeus I'll do it, and to start packing his bags. My price for this little favor is his throne."
Hermes gasped, his skin bleaching white. "Are you crazy? The whole of Olympus will go to war if you force Zeus to give up his throne!"
Ares's wicked smile widened and his dark eyes sparkled. "I know. I'm looking forward to it."