Title: When Death Rears its Ugly Head

Title: When Death Rears its Ugly Head

Author: Smenzer

Rating: PG

Pairing: Ares/Gabrielle

Archive: Yes, please. Let me know if you take it, OK?

Teaser: Ares learns a lesson about War

Disclaimer: The characters are not mine. They belong to Studios USA or

Whoever owns the Rights to Xena: Warrior Princess. This is just for fun. No money is being made.

Authors Note: This story is loosely based on the Xena Sixth Season Episode "Path of Vengeance". Some incidents in that episode never happened. Eve never went to the Amazon camp and there was no trial, hence Xena and Gabrielle never became involved. Instead, the Amazons (led by Varia) and the Romans went to war.

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The war had been fast and bloody. Both sides had been eager to wipe the other off the face of the Earth. In the end, both sides lost as the men lay dead or dying on the bloody field of war. The battle had taken place in a large valley situated between Rome and the Amazon Lands. The valley had once been beautiful, filled with sweet grasses and wild flowers. Now the ground was torn up and smoke drifted skyward off the broken bodies of the slain men. The once fresh air was filled with the overpowering stench of rotting corpses.

 Ares walked through the field. He had never felt this powerful before. Both sides had worshipped him. He had lost many worshippers during his time as a mortal and so he had been forced to do something major to get them back. True, most of them were dead now but he knew there would always be more now that people knew he was around again. The power flowed into his body and he felt great. Ares knew that this war would be one for the history scrolls. Never before had there been such a large and deadly battle. Just as Ares walked past, a root twisted out of the ground and brushed against his boot. Before it could get a hold, Ares had moved on. In a flash of bluish-white light, Ares popped off to Olympus.

Xena and Gabrielle entered a small town on horseback. After riding for several minutes through the empty streets, Gabrielle reined in her horse and stopped. She glanced at the shuttered windows and the tightly closed doors. "Where is everyone, Xena? It's noon. The streets should be filled with busy people, shouting children and barking dogs. But I don't see anyone."

"I don't know. Maybe they're scared of the war in the nearby valley." Xena guessed. The two friends had heard of the big war between the Amazons and Rome. The news had reached them about two weeks ago and they had traveled as quickly as they could towards the war zone. After that, though, news had been very sketchy or missing all together. "But I've seen towns under attack before and they don't act like this. And there are no signs of troops in the area."

"Do you think everyone left?" Gabrielle asked as she jumped off her horse. She led the chestnut mare over to the town's inn and tied the lead rope to a wooden post.

"I don't know. Let's find out." Xena jumped off Argo and stepped up to the inn's door. The sign above the inn's door read The Black Kettle. Xena tried the door and discovered it was locked. She tried peering in through the window next to the door but it was covered with a big board. Lifting her fist, Xena pounded on the door. "Anyone in there?"

They heard footsteps inside and a voice floated out to them. "Who's there?"

"Two hungry travelers." Gabrielle replied. She and Xena exchanged a confused look when the person did not open the door. "This is Xena and I'm Gabrielle. We've traveled a long way to get here and we'd like to know what's going on."

"Xena the Warrior Princess?" the voice asked from the other side of the door.

"Yes, that's me." Xena replied.

The door creaked open and they saw the innkeeper. He was a plump man with a baldhead. He wore a grease-splattered apron and his sleeves were rolled up. The man's frightened eyes darted around and as soon as they were inside he slammed the door shut and locked it. "Did you see any of those horrible things? They're out there, you know."

"What things?" Gabrielle asked. "We didn't see anything. Do you have any news of the war? We haven't heard any news lately and it's very odd. We're worried because many of the Amazons are our friends."

The main room of the inn was dark as all of the windows were covered with thick boards. The room was lit by dozens of candles. The innkeeper walked over to the bar and picked up a white rag. He started to wipe the empty tables although they were already so clean they even shone in the weak candlelight. "If you really are Xena, maybe you can stop the evil thing. We've prayed to the Gods every day to send someone who could kill the thing. Finally they have answered our prayers. And you haven't heard any news because anyone who goes outside ends up dead. The Gods have smiled on you that you reached my inn alive."

"I doubt that." Xena muttered. She pulled out a chair and sat down. "Look, why don't you sit down and start from the beginning. We'll be glad to help your town, but we need to know more. We can eat while you tell us what's going on here."

The innkeeper hurried into the back room and came back with fresh bread, cheese, some roasted pork and a few vegetables. He pulled out a chair and sat down across from them. "It all started with that war, the one between Rome and those Amazons. We were frightened it might overrun our town but they stayed in the valley. In a few days it was over. As far as we know, everyone died. It was terrible. On windy days, when the wind blew from that direction, we had to stay indoors and close the windows. The smell was terrible, like rotten meat. It made you want to gag."

"Are you sure everyone died?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes sad. "Surely there's always survivors."

"If there were, they didn't come this way." He said. "Then those things started to appear. The first one got Magnes, the baker. I didn't see it, but I heard the tale from others. It was a bloated gray head that floated in the air. The evil thing had that same stink as the valley, of rotten meat. It killed him. Others tried to fight the head but they died, too. A few managed to escape and that's how we know what had happened."

"I never heard of anything like that." Xena admitted. "Are you sure this head creature is tied to the valley?"

"One of our men had managed to sneak over to the valley," the innkeeper explained. "That was after we had saw the evil floating head. Thanis is a hunter and very clever. That's how he managed to get there and back alive. He didn't go into the valley but stayed in the foothills above it. He reported seeing an evil twisted tree in the valley's center. We don't know where it came from, as there were no trees there before. We think the place is cursed from so much death."

"We'll stay the night here to rest and then set off in the morning." Xena told him. "Maybe we can kill that tree for you."

"We don't have much but we will give you whatever you need if we have it." The innkeeper said as he showed them to a room upstairs. The innkeeper closed the door and left.

"Xena, what do you think that tree is?" Gabrielle asked as she sat down on one of the two beds in the room. This room, like the common room downstairs, was lit by candlelight as boards covered the window. "And how are we going to kill it? Fire?"

"I don't know." Xena replied as she sat down on the other bed. "But I know you're staying here. This is too dangerous for you. I can't risk that you might get hurt."

"Xena!" Gabrielle jumped to her feet, her hands on her hips. "You can't go out there all by yourself! You need my help. Besides, I'm a warrior now, you know that!"

"It's dangerous." Xena said.

"And I've been in dangerous situations before." Gabrielle replied. "I've been in wars before. You know that. If we're going to beat this thing we need to stay together."

"All right. We'll leave together tomorrow at first light. But I wish I had more information on what this might be." Xena said. She was quite for a while as she thought. Then her blue eyes lit up as she got an idea. "And I think I know where to get it."