16. Larger than life
It was unusual to wake up earlier than Ares. He was almost always up and around when I woke up. Either that or he woke me with kisses and cuddles, wanting to start the day with affection. But today it was the sun which woke me up and I found my love still sound asleep next to me in the bed. Rising on my left elbow I regarded him where he rested - convinced that very few people had actually seen Ares when he was sleeping. His parents of course, some lovers. Some men he might've shared tent with at the front. But Ares never wanted to be caught with his guard down so he was very aware with when and where he slept. Thus others never got to see the difference. How smooth and relaxed he had become in both body and aura, his face soft and devoid of the plethora of emotions always showing there during the hours of awakeness. He looked younger too - boyish. At that moment I really saw the resemblance between Kalian and his father. The same kind of cheek, chin, nose and well defined brows. It made it easy to guess what Kalian might look like in some fifteen years.
"You're so beautiful my love." I leaned over and kissed him lightly on his full lips, careful not to wake him up, after all I knew that he had stayed up late yesterday to make sure everything became in order for our journey to Greece. Instead I climbed over him and out of bed, went to the bathroom and then I exited from the suite and out in the large hall outside. The area was now more or less emptied now, there was just some leftover furniture and scrap still around - and a lot of dust worms becoming visible in the slanted sunlight of morning. Stretching like a cat I walked across the floor which felt a bit cold against my bare feet and up to a dirty window where I looked out without really expecting to see anything else than the street outside and perhaps some Greek warriors packing stuff.
But there it was - the strangest thing I'd ever laid my eyes upon. It looked like a cross between an enormous vehicle and an iron stove and with a large chimney on the top from where it came puffs of gray smoke. I had no idea at all what it was supposed to be. And what it was doing down in our street.
"What the... Ares!" I sent out a mental call to my beloved and he was next to me in just a few moments.
"What do you make out of...?" I started but Ares laid his arms around my chest and said:
"Hephaestos! And right on time too! It's me who overslept. Shouldn't have happened." Then he kissed me quickly on my cheek before he let go of me and turned around and went back to the room.
"Hephaestos?" Ares brother? What was he doing here?
"Wake up Kalian, I'd better go down and say hello to him!" Ares sped by swiftly, performing the kind of acrobatics only a man does who is trying to hurry away and put on his pants at the same time. I heard him curse as he banged into something in the hallway and then almost tumbling down the stairs. Giggling slightly and shaking my head I went to do as he said. He was so head over heels sometimes, my beloved. And, by the sound of it, almost literally too this time!
That was something Kalian hadn't inherited from his dad at least. Our son was more thoughtful and modest in his activity. He was also tired in the mornings just like I. While Ares was all rise and shine, almost before the sun, and full with plans for the day, I was usually not myself before I had got the chance to splash some cold water in my face and get a least a glass of fruit juice to drink. Kalian was the same. When I woke him up now he was so very reluctant to rise, placing the pillow over his head and making sounds of complaint.
"Honey, come on, today is the day we're leaving. And our ride is already here."
"Can't we wait another day? I wanna sleep!" my son whined.
"Wasn't it you who said it was beginning to become boring here?" I asked and tried to remove that pillow.
We struggled a bit and then Kalian let go.
"Are we going to Greece now? To Olympos?" He asked and pushed his knuckles towards his eyes, rubbing them ungentle and making a face as if he was not really ready to begin with the day.
"Yes, but we're stopping in Salenda first.
"That's where I'm coming from, right? Where you met dad? And Xena?"
"True! Now, come on, we don't want to keep Hephaestos waiting, and I'm sure you want to see his 'larger-than-life' vehicle!"
"Are we going to ride in that?" I bent my head back, regarding the large monster almost blocking the whole street, and which had attracted a lot of spectators.
"Sure!" the bulky man called from above. Hephaestos, the divine inventor and manufacturer - and younger brother of Ares as well. Tales held him for ugly, but I could not make out more than a huge, somewhat stout form, dressed in heavy and well worn, brown leather from top to toe in spite of the warmth of the day. "And you must be Didi and Kalian. Ares told me about you, the beautiful healer goddess! You got everything packed? Set, steady and ready to go?"
"Yes, we took care of it yesterday" I replied.
"Then all aboard the Mileburner!" Hephaestos called out and saluted with one large, gloved hand.
"He's got a strange way of talking" Kalian pointed out.
"That's probably because he's from Greece." was the only reply I could think of. At the same time the dark warriors were milling all about us, carrying onboard the last of the packing. There were Agakar and Amanos, trying to convince a few horses that it was safe to step inside the large compartment and there was Takakis and Sthenephon carrying wooden boxes with arms in. Dovan and Ares were discussing how to strap down certain goods the best way and Achilles came out carrying flags and banners, not only Greek but conquered Anatolian as well. And Meliklea came up to me and laid a hand on my arm:
"Narinda?" she asked. "Can you come help Astymache, she fell and I think she might have sprained an ankle?"
That particular healing required only five minutes of my time and meanwhile the others were almost set. But in the last moment before we were going to take off I heard someone calling behind me. There were Xena and another colleague of mine, Lavian. Xena ran up to me and gave me a hard hug, her voice choking upon tears.
"Good luck now Nari dearest and take care of yourself!" I also felt my eyes sting when I returned the affection. Then I hugged Lavian too, and the old herb doctor held out a package to me:
"Just a little something to remember us by, dear!" Thus he got himself a hug too and I wished them both good luck with their future project. They were overseeing the rebuilding of the more or less destroyed hospital of Darangorlad and were hoping to restart their business there as soon as possible.
After that Xena bent down and hugged Kalian and finally she did something which would have seemed unbelievable just a fortnight ago, she turned to Ares and gave him a heartily hug too.
"Take care of Nari for me now, big guy! Promise me that!"
"I promise, Xena." Ares assured as he hugged her back, gently while a bit awkward. "Although I bet you know as well as I do that she's more than capable of doing so herself."
Xena laughed and then she and I hugged one last time before I let go of my long time friend. As well as a part of my life.
When Kalian and I mounted the Mileburner we were almost the last ones on board. And regardless of being overexcited about the large vehicle Kalian was a bit shy when his stout uncle offered him to come and sit next to him in the driver's seat up above the rest of us.
"Go ahead, lad!" Ares urged. "You'll see everything better from up there including how Heph is driving. And if you should happen to change your mind you can always come down here and sit with mum and me!" A slight push in the back and Kalian was off swiftly climbing up the polished brass ladder to the drivers' seat.
Meanwhile we took place under the canopy on slightly worn, red velvet seats mounted at the sides of the vehicle, with some of the luggage in the middle between us.
"All set now?" Hephaestos called out with a loud voice and a lot of replies confirmed that it was the case. Then the large engine was kicked in gear with a rumbling sound, almost like a waking volcano. A likeness enhanced by the fact that even more smoke came billowing up from that black, cylinder shaped chimney pipe. The construction shook like an earthquake before those large wheel below us started to roll and we were moving forward. First slow and lethargic and then faster and faster.
I turned around one last time and looked at the Headquarter which had been our home for about a week, almost a hundred impressed mortals lining the streets and most of all Xena and Lavian who waved like mad until we turned the corner and I lost sight of them. And I knew that it was the last time I saw my long time friend. At that moment I felt my troth swell and the tears becoming impossible to hold back. Leaning against the shoulder of Ares I gave way to the sadness and he laid his strong arm around my shoulders, pulling me nearer and comforting me. Meanwhile from the driver's seat I could hear Kalian exclaim his joy, and begin to chatter, no doubt bombarding poor Hephaestos with a million and one questions.
That evening we stopped on a high cliff overlooking the sea. Watching the sun sinking among the waves in the west I pondered over how my life had changed so rapidly in just a few days. Three weeks ago I had been working in the Darangorlad hospital, never guessing I'd do anything else for quite some time. Then the war had swept in like a tidal wave, first with the Anatolians and then with the Greeks. And among the latter my beloved had been - and he had been the very last one I expected him to be. If someone had told me three weeks ago that he was Ares I had thought that person being mad. Back then I had simply feared the Greek God of War, just like every other sensible being around had done. I had really believed him to be the monster everyone had talked about. The senseless and war crazed killer and destroyer, the burner, raper and plunderer.
That had been war propaganda, encouraged not the least by Ares himself. Propaganda, rumours and disinformation, powerful tools, no less potent than any blade or siege machine. A weapon which had made people drop whatever defense they were capable of and run when Ares and his Dark Warriors had come their way, biding next to no resistance at all. So these days Ares seldom had to do any killing himself. Then I believed him when he said that he had only raped once in his life. That was after all more believable than if he had said 'never'. He had told me he had been seventeen and felt like a rookie in the army of his sister Athena. And to prove himself for whoever he felt the need to prove himself for back then he had raped a mortal girl being about his own age - and ended up feeling like a filthy scum afterwards. He hadn't proved anything with that act, he told, and he had never done it again.
Now I heard him talking with Kalian and Hephaestos as I returned to the campfire. Hephaestos was still wearing his long leather cloak, although he had removed that tight-fitting, goggled cap. And he wasn't really that ugly, he appeared more like someone who didn't bother with his looks. Greasy, unkempt hair and stubble robbed him of an otherwise comely face. But there was kindness in those features, his brown eyes shone with interest as he was talking with my son.
"You do have a cool machine, uncle Heph, and you sure must teach me how to drive it one day" Kalian was saying. "But we could have flown much faster to Salenda, why didn't we do that?"
"Because I wanted to socialize a bit more with my Dark Warriors, make sure they all were all right and had something to return to after war." Ares replied "And this was a fine chance. Besides we'll be in Salenda tomorrow around noon, there's no reason to hurry."
"Okay" Kalian said and returned to his dinner. I sat down next to Kalian and declined another helping of food. Having spent the whole day sitting down didn't really bring about the usual appetite. Instead I felt content with a cup of watered wine and to listening to the conversation going on around me, while trying to push back the sadness still lingering after having said good bye to Xena. She really had been one of a kind when it came to friendship and I doubted that I ever was going to find someone like her again.
Kalian put down his plate and turned to me, I could see that there was something he had been thinking about for a while.
"Mother" he said. "What's Olympos like?"
"I guess your father is best at replying to that."
"He only says it's great and I'm gonna love it there. But what if it's not, what if I hate it? Can we go back to Darangorlad then?"
"I guess we would have to do it without dad then, and you sure wouldn't want to do that, dear."
"But dad might go off to another war and then we won't be living together anyhow. Can't we go to Darangorlad if there's another war? I have all my friends there after all."
"Little Hero!" Ares turned from Hephaestos to his son. "You'll get a lot of new friends, I can promise you that. Timing is great, there are usually no children around at Olympos, but these last few years we've been having a kind of baby boom. So there are cousins to you as well as a few aunts and..."
"You think I wanna play with an old aunt?"
"One of them is younger than you to be true."
Kalian began to laugh at the very thought. After all to him an aunt was a grown-up.
"Her name is Soteira, she's my little sister."
"So your parents - my grandparents - are still having children?"
"Not on a regular basis, but the last years they had a few. Perhaps my dad has stopped... ah, never mind."
"How old are they anyway?" Kalian asked.
"My parents? Zeus is 1252 and Hera is 1234."
"Wow" Kalian dropped his yaw, and that made me realize I had never asked Ares about his age. And Ares, reading my mind as usual, asked Kalian to guess his age."
"Thousand" Kalian shrugged.
"A little bit more, I'm turning 1108 next month."
Kalian wow-ed again and then put on his thinking face before asking:
"And gods never grow old, never die?"
"No, not in the mortal sense." Ares replied.
"How could you kill Taniroth then?"
Now it was Ares' turn to wrinkle his brow:
"You know the concept of death is not as simple as it might seem" he begun, and I read in his eyes that this was quite a lengthy explanation he was going to give us. Now it was my time to read his mind and I poured him some more wine and handed it over, not bothering with mixing it with water.
"Thanks dear," he smiled at me before continuing his lecture.
"When mortals die, that's almost always a plain and simple occurrence. They just take the next step further in the great cycle of life-death. The go down under, cross the river Styx and enter the Hades. To be more exact the Asphodel where their souls become cleaned from the memories and traumas from this upper world. When the souls are completely cleaned and pristine, almost like a white sheet of paper they are ready to be reborn, to come back into the upper world to lead new lives. There are a few exceptions though. Hades may, with the help of his advisors, reward some really noble and honorable person with a stay in the Elysian Fields."
"What's that?" Kalian asked.
"That's a paradise place, very reminiscent of a seaside resort here where the artificial weather is always great and life is one long vacation, with endless parties and slacking. The mortals can spend as long as they want there but most of them tire after a while and chose to be reborn again."
When Kalian had said cool one more time Ares went on:
"Then there's the Tartarus trip for the rotten souls. People beyond remedy, real assholes, tainted deep down in their souls - they are considered beyond cleansing. Unable even for the magic process of Asphodel to handle. So these souls are contained deeper down under. Not really in Tartarus to be true, since it's a singularity it's almost impossible to send someone there. But these souls get stored somewhere in those surroundings. I don't really know where other than it's eternally scary places and unable to escape from since the time-space gravity is so hard that you cannot get out. Zeus told me once that's it's easier for a mortal to break the bounds of Earth gravity than for a condemned soul to leave the Tartarus area."
"But usually" Ares went on "the mortal souls just get cleaned off their memories and get sent back up again, into a select growing fetus in some woman's body somewhere."
"So all the memories are gone?" Kalian asked. "What for?"
"For the people to not carry any old goods with them but to be able to start anew somewhere else. But those memories aren't really gone, they get recorded somewhere down under, and under special circumstances they can be retrieved. Or at least parts of them."
I had been listening with interest to Ares too, and now I leaned forward:
"How about immortal souls? I saw when Taniroth died, that he went - well somewhere else. And Ikaton - he was going to some other wicked place. If you kill a god - where do their souls go?"
"Since immortal souls are not parts of the life-death cycle because of their different composition, they don't go to the Asphodel. Instead they can end up almost anywhere down under. Those waste expanses we refer to as never-under are almost as hard to return from as the Tartarus area. The simple reason is their vastness. An immortal soul severed from its physical body get lost down there and become almost impossible to retrieve. It has been done. My father has done it a handful of times - and even for him it's hard. But I know of no one else who are able to do it."
Ares went on talking about the endless wastes down under, how different they were from what we knew and how scary they were, how they could drive an immortal soul mad. Then I suddenly felt something heavy landing in my lap. Kalian had fallen asleep, most probably against his will.
"We better do as him and bunk in!" I told Ares. "But I guess this discussion topic is endless."
"Yes it's quite larger than life," my love replied. "So we could go on for hours. But you're right, Didi-mou, we do need our beauty sleep as well!"