Sleep is not a concept that comes easily to one who has never had need of it. Of what use does a god have for sleep?
But Ares has found out the hard way that mortals do need sleep. Far too much of it in his opinion. For the first few days after becoming mortal he tried to do without it. A horrible mistake he discovered after collapsing of exhaustion on a lonely road. He was fortunate not to be robbed of what possessions he still has.
Even more annoying is the hunger. He's dismayed by the amount of food he has discovered he requires just to get trough the day. And he has gone without mostly since becoming mortal. While he is a warrior without peer, a hunter he is not. While he could easily deal with any fool seeking a fight who crosses his path a deer or rabbit is far too formable for him. After nearly falling on his sword the second day trying to spear some wild fowl he gave up. Berries taste pretty good anyway. Except for those red ones he ate last night which he is sure are responsible for the stomach ache and nausea he is feeling now.
To add more to his woes is the concept of money. It galls him to imagine he may have to resort to hiring out his sword as a mercenary. He is really beginning to regret his actions on Olympus. But he is certain he would most likely do it again. Not for Eve and certainly not for Gabrielle. But for Xena he most assuredly would.
If only mortality didn't hurt so much!
Too add to the torture of sleep is finding somewhere to do it. Sleeping in the woods proved annoying if not dangerous. Bugs, snakes, spiders and more lethal creatures roam those places. To say nothing of the wind, the cold, the irritating and constant noise. But with no money he certainly can't go to any village.
So he has taken to sleeping thus far in the numerous places that no one seems to tend anymore. Temples to the gods. Though hardly any time has passed since Xena turned Olympus into just another mountain in Greece , the temples are all but abandoned. As if the people know that they are all but gone. His first night he slept in a temple to Zeus. As the first of them to fall his father's temples were the first to be neglected. The only temple he has seen with any attendance still is Aphrodite's. But they are waning as well. Soon they will all fall into ruin. Or worse… be rededicated to that God worshipped by the followers of Eli.
Tonight he sleeps, or more accurately tries to sleep, in one of his own temples. Already it is covered everywhere with a thin layer of dust. And anything that could be of use to anyone has been stripped out it. The statue he sleeps near has been rent asunder. Its head and both arms are gone. Earlier in the day he had seen some men plowing a field with what he is sure the sword from this statue.
He tucks his hands behind his head in what will no doubt prove to be a futile attempt to get comfortable on the stone bench near the statue and altar. His stomach interrupts him by growling loudly. He's ceased talking to it knowing it will be fruitless.
Just as he feels himself beginning to drift off to sleep a wind blows through the temple disturbing all the dust. He sits up for a moment and looks back towards the door. Closed. Looking around he finds no windows. Where did the wind come from? But as he watches the dust still stirring he amends that question to where is the wind coming from. He gets up off the bench and draws his sword intent on making whoever is ruining his sleep pay for it.
The dust begins to swirl into a vortex that spins faster and faster. Backing up Ares realizes he is experiencing something he hasn't felt since that day Dahak's fire first burst forth from the earth to greet him. Fear. That fear waxes when he sees the dust tornado beginning to take shape. Human shape. He knows for a fact that restless spirits do walk the earth. It dawns on him that this may be a ghost come seeking revenge on the now all too mortal god of war.
He turns to go for the door when an impossibly familiar voice calls out to him.
Ares. Brother. Do not run. There is no need to fear me.
He turns and watches in amazement as the dust coalesces into the shape of a nubile woman clad in the rainments of an Amazon hunter. Only these rainments are made from gold and silver not hide and cloth. In her hand she holds a long bow and on her back is a quiver of arrows. Lustrous red hair cascades down over her shoulders. Ares has to blink to make sure that was he is seeing is indeed there. It most surely is. But it can't be! "Artemis?"
Yes dear brother. It is me.
"But it can't be. You're dead. Xena killed you."
But it is me. I assure you.
"Why? How? I don't understand."
It's all right. The how is not important. But I must tell you why and I do not have much time. I've been granted these moments in order to help you.
"Help me? With what?"
With regaining your godhood.
Ares is thunderstruck. "But I gave up my immortality. It can't be returned to me."
Not returned Ares. Regained. There is a way for you to become a god anew.
Even the merest hint of that makes him overjoyed. To be rid of this cursed mortality. To reverse what was obviously a mistake. "What do I have to do?"
Artemis's spirit smiles. The Amazons. You must go to my chosen and take the ambrosia from them.
Of course. The food of the gods. It made Velasca and Callisto goddesses. It can make him a god once more. But the reality of getting it is problematic. "It's unlikely they will give it to me."
I said to take it from them Ares. They will never give it to your of their own free will.
That statement takes him aback. "You mean steal it? From your own chosen people?"
They are no longer my chosen brother. They turned from me long ago. And I do not mean for you to steal the ambrosia. You are not a thief.
Ares shrugs helplessly. "Then what am I to do?"
Do what you have always done brother. Raise an army and take it from them!
"Maybe you haven't noticed but I'm not a god anymore."
Ares! Have you grown so weak already? That you could not with your words and actions raise an army!
Her words shame him and he fights to cast his eyes down in the way humans do when they have been scolded by others. Instead he holds up his great sword. Given to him by Zeus himself as the symbol of war. The symbol of his station and purpose. His purpose in existence. The God of War!
Yes my brother. You are the God of War. The Lord of Battle. Now reclaim what was taken from you!
"Yes!" Ares screams as he turns and strides purposefully towards the exit of his dilapidated temples. As he exits he makes the promise to himself that it will not crumble into ruins like the others. They may pass from human existence without a thought but he will not!
As soon as Ares has left the temple Artemis smiles fiendishly. "And so it begins." From her mouth comes not one voice but three. She explodes again into the dust that formed here. Moments later the dust begins to coalesce again this time into three female figures. Each dressed in torn and stained strips of red and black cloth. Their hair is unkempt and their eyes are wild. After they finish reconstituting they begin strangely to dance around to a music only they seem capable of hearing.
At a glance one would think they are mad. And while madness is an aspect of what they are , it is not they who are mad. They cause madness and torment. It is their purpose and their desire. They are older than Olympus itself. Feared by men and gods alike. They are Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone. They are the Erinyes. Known to the race of men as the Furies.
"Madness is so easily brought out in men," Alecto states.
"Strange to think of him as such," Tisiphone retorts. "I think I actually miss him as a god."
"Don't be ridiculous Tisiphone," Megaera rounds on her sister Fury. "No one misses him. And they never will."
Tisiphone takes a step back. "Well. I suppose you are right."
"Silence!" Alecto shouts causing her sisters to cower slightly. "It doesn't matter. He will not find the ambrosia. There is none."
Megaera laughs. "Yes. The only thing he will find are Amazons standing before his army. And he will go through them like a scythe through wheat to reclaim his lost godhood."
"And when she hears of it Gabrielle will beg Xena to help her adopted people." Tisiphone giggles like a girl. "And then…"
"Then Ares will kill them both! And he will spend the last of his days drowning in his mortal despair!" Alecto screams gleefully. "The god slayer will be dead. The traitor will suffer. Then shall the Olympians be avenged on all who brought about their downfall."
They wail as one and begin laughing in delight. The laughter carries for miles around. Men, women and children in a nearby village cower in their homes at the insidious sound. But Ares striding with purpose towards what he knows is a nearby garrison is so consumed with what he doesn't realize is dawning madness hears nothing.
The temple the woman exits from is more a ruin than any of those dedicated to the Olympians. It has been subjected to abuse and defilement by any who knew its purpose in the past. Hammer and chisel have been taken to most of its walls. Anything of any value inside was long ago removed but not kept by those who removed it. They considered any item from that place cursed. But many of them needed dinars so they sold it to others who knew not what they were purchasing. Any who lived through the horrifying events of some thirty years ago do not even speak of it to people too young to know about it.
But the temple at the base of the Sister Peaks is the only home Seraphin has known these thirty years. For she would not give up her faith. She would not turn her back on her goddess when all others who followed her did. She alone has remained steadfast. And in her heart she knows that one day she will be rewarded.
She tried to return home to Poteidaia but she was cast out. Beaten and banished by all who knew what she had done. She still limps from the leg that they broke so savagely. And the vision in her left eye is still blurry from the blow the blacksmith dealt her. But it didn't matter. She would not renounce her goddess. She was punished for her faith. As any true martyr is.
She limps to the edge of the nearby forest to check her traps. In one snare she is happy to find a rabbit still struggling in it. Her leg screams in pain as she kneels by the animal. Removing a small dagger she slits the animal's throat to finish it off. None of her other traps are sprung. She will not eat well tonight but at last she will eat. She plods ahead into the woods towards the small stream that runs within. Climbing down into the stream she pulls up the small clay jug she placed there the night before. She stoppers the jug then moves with great effort back towards the temple. The pain in her leg and face drag her down daily. And she feels far older than her sixty years.
Upon her return here years ago she found the main entrance to the temple purposefully collapsed. It had taken her some time to find a small crack in the wall at the back of the temple where it rests against the Sister Peaks. And even more time to remove enough stone to be able to get inside. Even now the hole is barely big enough for her withered frame to get through. But that is by design. She wants no one to climb in one night and kill her for her beliefs.
But today she finds the hole has been broken open wide enough to allow a full grown man through with ease. Frightened she looks around to see if anyone is still around. Over the years she has grown adept at reading the sounds of the land around her to detect anything out of the ordinary. She hears nothing unusual. Which means whoever did this is inside. She sets down her food and water then begins to move though the hole. She had made the small tunnel with two turns in it so that she would hear anyone crawling through it long before they got inside. It is large enough now that she can see clear through into the temple interior.
When she enters the temple proper she draws her dagger even though she is certain that anyone strong enough to move all that stone is more than a match for an old woman with a knife. Several torches , not to mention the glow of the lava pit, illuminate the temple's vast but mangled interior. She sees no one. Perhaps whoever it was had arrived and finding her absent had left intent on returning later. But who would want to come after her now? After all this time?
Still pondering the intrusion she goes back out and retrieves her food. She looks over the bits of rubble outside and wonders about how to restack the stones to reform her tunnel. Returning to the temple interior she is shocked to find a cloaked figure now standing by the lava pit where before there had been no one.
She drops the clay pot which shatters and draws her knife again. "Who are you?" she demands though certain that her raspy voice will in no way intimidate this intruder. "What do you want? I haven't got anything to steal."
"Seraphin." The voice that flows from under the cloak is all at once familiar, terrifying and wondrous.
The knife falls from Seraphin's hand in disbelief. It can't be.
The cloaked figure turns. Backlit by the lava pit it seems to glow with an otherworldly aura. "The last of the faithful." Hands as white as marble slip from the sleeves of the cloak to push back the cowl and reveal the face of …
"Hope! My Goddess!" Seraphin falls to her knees and supplicates herself before the living goddess who stands resurrected before her.
"Rise." Hope's voice is unchanged. Both beautiful and horrific in its utterance. A voice so like Gabrielle's but touched with a magnificence that her childhood friend could never emote.
Seraphin does as she is bade. Hope walks closer and she can see that the goddess is diminished somewhat. Her skin is the color of bone or marble. Her once golden hair is now as black as tar. Lines are present in her flesh giving her the appearance of advancing age. And on her left shoulder around her collarbone is a wound that looks black and infected. She cannot help herself and blurts out, "My goddess. What has happened to you?" She slaps her hand over her mouth ashamed and afraid out her outburst.
"Xena and my mother happened to me," Hope says invoking the name of the warrior princess as a curse and not deigning to speak her mother's name. "By treachery I was murdered yet again by them. But as before, as always, I have risen again. What is death to the Daughter of Dahak?"
"You look…" Seraphin searches for any word that will not bring offence but will state her meaning.
"I do not look sick Seraphin," Hope informs her devout follower. She sits on a small pile of stones. "I am sick. For my first resurrection I required flesh and blood." She runs a hand through her black hair then looks wistfully at her hand. She can almost see the borrowed blood pulsing through her veins. "Now it seems I require only blood. Vast amounts of blood."
Without a thought for her own well being Seraphin picks up the knife she had dropped and lays it against her wrist. The weapon sails from her fingers to land in Hope's grasp. "Not yours. You have bled for me already, Priestess of the Blood."
Seraphin's heart is filled with joy to hear her goddess speak such words to her. She walks to her goddess and kneels by her side. "What must I do to serve?"
Hope turns her face towards Seraphin and smiles. None of them were loyal to her. Not Ares. Not Callisto. Not her priesthood. Especially not her mother. But this one has held onto her faith. She will be useful. But not in this wretched, crippled form. She looks down at the knife in her hand. She places a finger under Seraphin's chin and tilts her head back. The Priestess does nothing to hinder her. Hope holds out her arm over Seraphin' face. "Open your mouth, Priestess of the Blood. And receive the blessing of your goddess."
Filled with a joy she would never have thought possible again in this world, Seraphin complies.
Hope touches the point of the dagger to her wrist. As she takes it away a single drops of blood falls into Seraphin's waiting mouth. When the drop hits her tongue the reaction is immediate. The priestess's body snaps so rigid so fast it sounds like bones are snapping. Her face contorts in pain. But she revels in it. This is a gift from her goddess. A gift of her own blood. A burning sensation begins deep inside her. As if her body were on fire from the inside. The sensation courses from within her out to her arms and legs. The pain she has felt in her leg for thirty years is burned away. Her old bones and muscles seethe in an agony that stirs her desires like no man ever could. When the burning from within reaches up to push from her throat Seraphin cries out with a sick orgiastic glee, "HOPE!" Then falls onto her side.
She is not sure how long she is unconscious. But when she wakes she is aware of many things. The pain in her leg is gone. Her vision is no longer occluded. The weariness of her advanced age is gone. She feels young again. and when she looks at her hands she discovers that she does not just feel young. The crooked hands with which she labored to hold anything with are strong and supple. She puts her hands to her face to find no wrinkles. She pulls a strand of hair into view and sees no grey but blonde. She is young again! Most curious but greatest of all to her is the burning sensation around her heart. It is painful. Oh so painful. But she rejoices in it. For she knows it is the mark of her goddess's blessing.
"You understand , don't you Priestess of the Blood. You are bound to me. Body, heart and soul. So long as I live you shall remain forever young. You are mine." Hope stands over her Seraphin. What she has said is not a question. It is a statement of fact. A declaration.
"Yes my goddess," Seraphin remains kneeling reveling in the ability of her young body to do what would have caused her agony only moments before. She places her hands over her burning heart. "How may I serve?"
Hope smiles again. "I have been asleep a very long time. You must tell me what has happened since the day my mother placed me in my grave."
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