A man—tall, handsome, broad of shoulders, dark of hair and eye, olive of skin—stood atop a small rise, watching the desert sunrise with satisfaction. The sky broke red, making him smile. It was already shaping up to be a great day, he thought, watching as the camp below started to stir. As natives of the harsh, hot desert, they’d learned that it was best to do things for themselves early, and to set bombs on the roadsides during the hottest part of the day, when their enemies found it most difficult to do much. It had taken some doing to convince them to move their operations to daytime, but he’d managed. He hated losing sleep, and found himself unable to sleep during the daytime out in the armpit of the world.
Ares smirked, watching the camp of Muslim extremists pray their early morning prayers, all in neat rows, all facing ancient Mecca (though, he wondered what they’d think if he were to stride down into the small valley and point out that the angel that Mohammed thought he was communing with was sometimes actually him—a pagan god of war).
He watched over the camp as they finished their normal morning routines—without any of them fucking the goats this time, thank all that was holy—and split up and headed out to cause as many problems as they could without being martyred.
He, of course, followed. So much easier to work with those who absolutely denied his existence. Doing that as hard as these idiots did meant that he was, effectively, invisible to them. And any suggestions he made were written off as having come from their subconscious.
So easy. And so easy to keep the conflict boiling.
The roads were dusty, dirty, pitted tracks—with a lot of easy places to hide IEDs for the Western troops to run over and set off. He’d heard (and passed on) that there would be a patrol coming through today, and knew that while there was little chance of the pitifully weak bombs the small band had built would make it through the up-armored vehicles, it would generate a hunt, and probably a fire fight.
Bombs set, the band settled down to wait. And wait. And wait some more. A few of the terrorists fell asleep, breath steadying and deepening. And they waited through the sun topping the sky, then falling toward the west.
Odd, that. His information had placed the patrol’s timing more toward midday than evening.
Suddenly, the small desert sounds—mostly insects and bird call—stopped altogether. All except the cawing of crows…which was weird, since he hadn’t recalled seeing any in the area, thanks to native superstitions.
A shadow passed over him and he glanced up, frowning. The sky had been a blistering, pitiless, cloudless white-blue all day after the glory of the bloody sunrise had faded.
Crows. Thousands of them. Perhaps more than that. Enough to block out the sun.
A soft soprano voice singing a slow song in a language that Ares had never even heard drew his attention back to the road. He frowned—the last time he’d seen that woman, she’d been in the tavern, at the welcome party that Hera and Freya had thrown. Right before she’d knocked him unconscious with his own mace.
Ares started to move, then stopped as the flock of birds overhead swirled, then started landing. Landing on the men he’d so painstakingly guided into position over the course of months. Landing on the men, and starting to eat them.
And not a single one woke. Dead, all.
The hair stood up on the back of his neck and he shuddered. Then straightened his shoulders and jumped from the rock he’d been standing on, down onto the road, just a few yards in front of where the redheaded bitch wandered. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing here, messing up my fight?” he sneered. “Do you people regularly fuck up your counterparts’ plans?”
The bitch stopped, and cocked her head, staring at Ares. Unblinking. Then, she smiled—a smile that went nowhere near her eyes. “I am not your counterpart,” she said softly. The breeze that had picked up with the arrival of so many wings wafted her words to him, or he never would have heard. “My counterpart amongst your pantheon chose to fade long ago, because he was less willing to use his power than I.”
Ares sneered again, trying to hide just how much the smaller redhead was unnerving him. “Right. You’re not the goddess of war from where-the-fuck-ever.”
“No.” A simple word, breathed into the wind. Wind that kept picking up, despite the murder of crows all having landed to feast on the newly-dead. Wind that stank of damp, dirt, with a whiff of decay. Wind that smelled like the grave as it whipped past, tugging at his arms, his legs, his hair, and pushing at his chest.
She started moving again, walking right up to him, and threading her fingers into his hair. “Little god of war, you are nothing to me. Stand aside.”
Ares started to lift his hands, to set them against her shoulders and shove, but found his arms too heavy. His chest felt weak, heavy, like he was trying to breathe with an almost-too-heavy lead weight sitting on his ribs. He blinked, shook his head hard, blinked again, dimly wondering where the light was going.
He felt an impact on his knees, and realized with a distant sense of distress that he’d fallen, that he was dying.
And she let go. Stepped past as he went down to his stomach in the dirt, digging his fingers into the road bed, shaking and gasping.
And she simply walked away, voice raising again in her slow, sad song.
The wind floated over him, carrying her voice. “War brings death, little god. And death comes for all. Be glad that I have had enough for today, and be gone.”