The altar is made of stone. It's cold under Xena's naked back, and she can't move. Her wrists and ankles are shackled to the altar.
The priest is wearing a hood, his face invisible. His black robe is decorated with the symbols of his god. Skulls and swords, silver and red on the black. There is no presence prickling on her skin; there are no hidden eyes watching here. She is alone with the priest.
Xena squirms to get a better feel for the shackles holding her. Give her five minutes unobserved, and she'd be out of them - but not with her enemy standing over her, watching her every move. It'll need to be quicker than that, or ... Xena pushes the thought aside.
The priest, a thin, bony figure of a man, steps closer and lifts an urn above his head. Slowly he tips it, and red, red wine pours out of it in a stream, splashing cold onto Xena's bare stomach, flowing over her belly and down her sides, onto the altar, rivulets as dark as blood.
The priest sets down the urn and draws a dagger from somewhere in his robe. He raises it in both hands above Xena. "Lord Ares, accept this offering ..."
With a flick of his wrists he sends the dagger spinning into the air. Xena watches in dread and fascination as it hovers at the high point above her for a moment, then rushes down - -
Blue sparks flash, blinding, and the dagger is gone. There is a familiar prickle at the back of her neck, and the gooseflesh on her arms isn't from the chill of the stone, the wet of the wine alone. Not any more. Her shivers are fever.
Above Xena, the priest - not the priest any more; his muscular figure gives him away - pulls off his hood. Ares.
Ares's bearded face smirking down at her, Ares's bare arms reaching for her. Xena scowls in furious, bitter relief.
His lips part as he bends over her, his tongue pink between his lips. The very air feels warm around him. Ares's studded vest brushes against Xena's skin, and then his beard tickles her belly as he tastes the wine still pooled in her belly button. It's an almost innocent touch, for him, but it sends a bolt of heat through her, and something inside her convulses in sudden, urgent need.
Perhaps that's why it takes her a moment to realise that at his touch, the manacles around her wrists and ankles have melted away. She doesn't let relief overwhelm her - she grins at him, ferally, and her hands move to his shoulders. Xena braces herself, and like a bow-string released, she springs up, throwing him across the room. With a triumphant battle cry she comes to her feet.
Ares has already caught himself, and he's just standing there, watching, the heat in his eyes palpable. Xena crosses her arms in front of her chest, defiant.
"Ares. What game are you playing?"
He leans back against the tapestry decorating the temple wall and pouts at her. "You'd rather I hadn't stopped that guy? Great fun to bleed out like that, shackled to an altar, with a dagger in your guts."
It feels like truth.
She doesn't dare trust the feeling, but if he's telling the truth, he did save her. Xena straightens her shoulders uncomfortably. Slowly, she breathes out, in, out, and lets her arms fall from her chest. No, she can't trust him.
But then again, his touch unchained her.
Xena bares her teeth; then she's on the move. An ululating battle cry, a jump - she spins through the air, and she slams him into the ground, straddling him. "Ares," she breathes. They are both naked now.
He is grinning up at her. "Hello, Xena."
His hands are warm on her shoulders. His right hand slides, slowly, ever so slowly, from her shoulder to her breast, and Xena can't quite suppress a gasp as his thumb brushes her nipple.
She grinds down on him, and their mouths crush against each other, devouring each other in desperate, furious hunger. He bucks up, hard against her thigh, and she reaches down, squeezes him until he gasps, breathlessly. A moment later she's sinking down on him, clenching tight around him. Heat is pooling in her belly, and sparks of pleasure shoot straight up her spine. She burns.
Xena braces herself against his shoulders and rolls her hips. Ares's eyes are glassy, and there's a thin sheen of sweat on his skin, as if gods sweated, as if gods could feel as mortals do.
"I know what you are," she breathes against his lips.
He pulls her closer, bucks up against her. "Do you?"
She bites his jaw. "A thing of darkness. Blood and bones and rage. You burn like fire, and you destroy everything in your wake. You're cruelty and death and the sheer joy of destruction." Xena hesitates, but only for a second. "God of War. It's what you are. But it's not all you are, is it?"
He covers quickly for his surprise. "Why, Xena, I thought you'd never ask."
They move together, harsh one moment, tender the next, and then harsh again. There's a red glow emanating from his hands where he touches her, and the shivers running through her body are like nothing she's ever felt with a mortal man. It's something she'd never thought she'd let herself feel again.
Xena remembers what one of his priests once told her: Every punch, every kick, every thrust of your sword is a supplication. And she can't stop it. He burns inside her like fire.
She gasps, open-mouthed, against his lips. "It's in my blood. You're in my blood."
He groans, deeply, and comes, deep inside of her. The glow around her surges as she follows, burning, burning her to cinders.
Xena wakes with a gasp, breathing harshly. She sits up, wild-eyed, wide awake, and runs a critical glance over her camp in the woods. Everything seems normal.
Eve is sleeping peacefully beside her. Ares is nowhere around.