Rule of Chaos
The road out of Thoethipolis was clogged with refugees. A line of unorginized people, some leading wagon's overflowing with household goods, caged animals, or icons to some particular god or another, others carrying bulging packs and some having only the clothes on their backs, trudged down the southern road. They had not the look of war-ravenged survivors, but more the appearance of a people hit by a sudden and unexpected natural disaster.
On that narrow dirt track, flanked on both sides by trampled grasses already yellowed from a long and hot summer, and to the south by a thick grove of forest and to the north by the rising swell of grassy plain land that was typical of Southern Thessaly, all travelers but three were intent on the way out of Thoethipolis. Three females, one being equine of nature and greatly undisposed to the flock of humanity that pushed and shoved it's way past her golden flanks. Pricked ears were laid flat and large, white teeth showed more often than not in attempts to snap at impudent passerby. The other two being of human standing minded not so much the press of the crowd as they did the gnawing curiosity as to what had driven these people from their comfortable homes. A half year past these very three had passed this road coming from the opposite direction and stayed in the city of Thoethipolis for two nights, enjoying the hospitality and the wealth of prosperous, expanding young town. Thoethipolis had a fine garrison and a peaceful relationship with it's neighboring communities, having two years prior wed the daughter of it's mayor to the son of nearby Aphithone's city leader. There had been talk of the two cities joining into one. The harvests were always good and there had been very few sojourns into the territory by bandits or warlords looking to extend their own influences.
The horse bit out at the ear of a man who dared brush too close to it's head. The woman holding her reins jerked abruptly, causing sharp equine teeth to just miss their mark. The intended victim cast a frantic, pale look over his shoulder, eyes taking in the sword across the woman's back and the elegant, purposeful armor on her body. She met his look with drawn brows and prepared to ask him what horror caused this epidemic flight, but he turned his head and hurried up the path away from them.
"What is going on?" the second of the two women thumped the earthen path with the foot of a wooden staff, taller by a hand span than she. "Is it plague? Have rats descended upon the city? What?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle."
This 'Gabrielle' snorted in frustration, looked wildly about at the passing travelers and fixed her attention upon a likely target. She stepped into the path of a woman clutching the hand of a silently crying child.
"Excuse me." she forced her voice to soothing supplication. "Excuse me, please. What is going on here? What's happened in Thoethipolis?"
The refugee stared at her with bruised eyes, taking in the softly rounded face and gentle eyes of the young woman who accosted her. There seemed little of danger in this girl, and her darker, armed companion stood behind the solid shield of the horse.
"War," the woman whispered. "horrible, horrible war. Do not travel on the path to Thoethipolis, for it is strife with blood."
"War? With who?" Gabrielle cried.
"Aphithones? But Aphithones is Thoethipolis' ally. How, why - -?"
"I know not." the woman cried with a catch of unshed tears in her voice. "Only that there was peace one day and the next our men clashed in battle. There is no reason. My husband is dead." She threw an arm over her eyes and brushed past Gabrielle. Gabrielle let her go, shocked. She turned her gaze to her comrade who stood silent and sullen eyed by the head of the golden horse.
"Xena, did you hear? War with Aphithones."
"I heard." the other said and slowly blinked eyes as dark as a starless night. That dark glare swung westward up the path, where the last straggling remains of the refugees stumbled towards them. She moved forward and the horse, Argo, obediently followed. Gabrielle stood a moment longer, rooted to the path, staring with sympathetic incomprehension at the frightened folk that veered around her in their flight away from home. How drastically cruel that these people, who were truth be known, mostly women and children and old men, were bereft their fine city, their festive lives, their families. How tragic that some misunderstanding between the men that led them, for what else could it be, had sparked a war that in little more than a day destroyed all they had devoted their lives to. She had liked Thoethipolis, and was not certain she wished to see it's smoking corpse, but Xena was already some distance down the road, walking with a determined set to her shoulders. There would be no arguments there. Gabrielle loped behind her, casting looks this way and that at the faces of the people that flashed by.
"This is horrible," she caught up with Xena, hurrying to match the other woman's longer strides. "look at these people. Their faces. Such shock."
"This is war." Xena remarked. "This is what it does to people. Thoethipolis could win this tomorrow and it would still loose."
Gabrielle said nothing, for there was a grimness to Xena's voice hinting that she was relived in her mind all too many wars that she had been responsible for. All too many folk like these that had been forced to flight because of actions of hers. There was guilt there that Gabrielle did not think Xena could ever assuage. Warlord, warrior, butcher, princess. All names that attached to her in the past. She might take one or two of them to use now, but the others burned her soul.
The road was bare of travelers now, save themselves, and at one point forked, one way leading to Aphithones and the other to Thoethipolis. Xena hesitated at the crossroads, looking one way then the other and finally choosing neither, but striding down the middle where no road led at all. Since she chose not to explain her path to Gabrielle, the question naturally bubbled to the surface.
"Where are we going?"
"If they met in battle, it will have been on the plains between the two cities. "
"Oh. Well. Then that's absolutely where we want to go. Right into the middle of a battle. Sure. That's for me."
"Quiet, Gabrielle. I'm not taking you into the middle of a battle. I just want to see what's happened."
Gabrielle nodded and muttered to herself as she had a habit of doing, when Xena was being particularly uncommunicative insofar as her motives.
They walked a good ways. The sun moved lazily across the sky, making shadows long and diminishing the stifling heat of earlier day. Woods spotted the land here and there. They passed a cluster of bodies sprawling in the grass at the edge of one such up cropping of trees. Flies buzzed industriously about the bloodied flesh. Xena took a few steps closer while Gabrielle gagged at the smell. Undoubtedly they had lain, cooking in the sun for some time. Further on, they heard the clash of weapons, and Xena held up a finger for silence, then drew her sword from it's sheath across her back. Gabrielle tightened her grip on her staff, but stayed at Argo's side when Xena motioned for her to do so.
Xena crept forward, topped the rise of the hill Gabrielle stood at the foot of and stared down at the final moments of a skirmish between several men. Three lay dead in the grass, and another two slashed at each other with bloodied swords. Neither were very good. But, even as Xena started down the hill, with every intention of battering the two away from each other and forcing information from them, one managed to get in a strike at the other, and blood spattered from a torn throat. The looser fell, gurgling, clutching at his ripped flesh, and the victor stood a moment in dazed incomprehension that he had won, then jerked his head up at Xena's approach and pointed his blade at her threateningly.
"Back wench." he cried. He was shaking violently.
She lifted one dark brow, giving him a dubious look. His eyes took in her weapon, held oh so casually, and the expensive and unusual cut of her armor. Not a man's armor to be sure. Not even the armor of a woman who wished to play at war, but the armor of a woman who needed freedom of movement, who was supremely confident in her ability to wade into combat with her arms and legs free of weight. Leather worked with silver, with a decorative molded breast plate that did nothing to de-emphasize the fact that she was a woman and proportionally pleasing one at that.
The man's eyes took her in and sort of riveted to her cleavage. He took a shaky step backwards.
"I'm not here to fight you." The calm in her voice was deceptive as in it brooked no disobedience. "I just want to know what started this fight between Aphithones and Thoethipolis."
"Who're you, a spy from Thoethipolis?"
"No. I take it you're from Aphithones?"
"I am." the statement tried very hard to sound proud, but ended up with his voice breaking. "And if you must know, Thoethipolis started it."
"Really? How so?"
"I - I don't know." his eyes went blank, confused, then with silent efficiency an arrow bore through his neck and stuck there quivering. Xena's eyes darted up, searching for the archer, and found him a distant figure on the crescent of the next hill. Another arrow was released towards her and she swore under her breath and dodged to one side. It hit and stuck in the dirt where she had been standing. She continued to move quickly and evasively, using side to side strides that made no easy target for a distant archer. With her free hand she loosed the round Chakram at her belt and with one fierce recoil, sent it hurling towards her assailant. It was too far a throw for enough accuracy to merely disarm and disable, so out of necessity she aimed for more permanent stakes. The sun was in her eyes, behind the archer, so she did not quite see the Chakram hit, but she heard the dull thump of impact and saw the man crumple. She hurried up the hill and scowled at her handiwork. A very good hit. The round blade stuck out of the archer's skull at an angle, just above the eye and ear, half embedded in the skull. The body was still twitching.
She cursed, reached down to pull it out and found it stuck, so ended up having to put her foot to the dead man's neck to gain leverage to yank it out. She cleaned the blood from it on the grass, mood darkening by the moment. She felt little remorse for her victim. He had chosen the path to his death when he'd fired on her. But she did regret not knowing what in Hades this whole thing was about. She disliked killing blindly. She dearly wanted to know if the man she had dispatched had been a bandit, a mercenary, a lunatic out of his mind, or merely a desperate soldier fighting a battle that made no sense.
There was movement on the other hill. Gabrielle topping the rise with Argo in tow. Gabrielle whom she'd told to stay put, and who never listened. She sighed and beckoned the girl towards her. The brazen sun made coppery work of Argo's cream made and Gabrielle's blonde hair, a beacon to anyone hiding with another arrow notched. She scanned the hills but saw no one else.
"Gods." Gabrielle was wide eyed and pale faced by the time she reached the gentle summit. "Did you do all that?"
"Only this one." Xena shrugged, indicating the body at her feet. "They've no more idea what this war is about than the refugees on the road. "
"Ohh, this is bad." Gabrielle moaned, beginning to look spooked. "I really don't like this. Let's just pass on by."
Xena narrowed her eyes, realizing at the look from her friend that she too felt the wrongness in the air. There was something forced, something contrived about everything she had seen and heard so far. It was unnatural. And where that scared hades out of Gabrielle it made Xena unquenchably curious.
"No." she decided. "I want to talk to the mayors of these two fine cities. I want to find out what started this."
So they walked on, down one hill and up another and ten more like them. By the second hill they had found the remains of four more men. By the fifth the bodies of over a dozen, and by the ninth had passed no less than a hundred casualties of this unknown war. When they topped that last hill a plain spread out before them. On that plain lay the bodies of hundreds and hundreds of men and horses. Here and there a cry was raised, and in a few places the sound of metal against metal could be heard. It was hard to see where exactly the spots of combat still existed for small clumps of brush and wood dotted the flatlands.
Gabrielle let out a low, misery laden sound. The blood smell in the still air was cumbersome and bitter. Xena wrinkled her nose in distaste. What a tragic waste. If the leaders of the two forces that had met and clashed and so utterly decimated each other had been here then they were surely among the slain. Savagery. It was as if they had fought to the last man, no one among them wise enough to call for retreat when the losses had become too high. She stepped over a body and curled her lip at the glazed eyed, feral look on the face of the dead man. She touched Gabrielle's shoulder and indicated a clump of trees a hundred yards deeper into the field of dead. She felt vulnerable out in the open and doubly so with Gabrielle and Argo standing as clear targets at her back. In the shadow of the trees she felt better. There were no bodies here, but a few stray arrows stuck in the boles of trees. Only sap flowed from those wounds and that smell was pungent and clean in comparison.
"Leave Argo here." she whispered, not bothering to suggest Gabrielle do the same, knowing it would be a useless waste of breath and not in the mood for an argument. They moved out of the shadows, stepping gingerly over and around twisted bodies. She was not unaccustomed to the horror of a fresh battleground. She had learned long ago not to let the blood and the severed limbs, and the entrails spilling from a sliced gut that one might accidentally tread upon effect her physically. Mentally she had to look upon it with cool dispatch, otherwise she might fall apart at the uselessness of it all and fall prey to the same butchers that had had their way with all these hapless warriors. Were they even warriors all? There were sickles and spades scattered amidst the swords. Axes that were not meant for war, but more for the splintering of wood, and knives such as a merchant might wear at his side. She hissed through her teeth, causing Gabrielle to look up at her in concern.
"Nothing." she answered the unspoken question. "Just nothing."
There was a clump of waist high bramble to the right and Xena veered that way, having a tendency to stay as close to cover as possible. There was a large tree about fifty feet ahead under which a large cluster of bodies lay. There was a cock-eyed flag on a pole stuck in the ground under the shade, a dead man's hand loosely clutching the staff. She recognized the symbol of Thoethipolis.
"That way." she said softly to Gabrielle and then froze as something stirred the branches of the great tree. The air seemed to coalesce and shimmer in the shade and out of instinct towards the appearance of the unknown she grabbed Gabrielle's arm and hurled her towards the bramble, diving after and crouching there with her sword out as four figures seemed to step out of the sparkling air and set foot upon the reality of solid earth. Two women and two men.
The women were distinctive beyond imagining. It was hardly beauty alone that defined them, although they had that in abundance, it was more a glowing aura of power that radiated forth from them. They were both dark haired, and one seemed marginally younger and more physically vital than the other. This one wore her hair in a long braid that hung to her hips, and on her head was a gilded helmet of unsurpassable workmanship. Her armor was the strangest Xena had ever seen, a shimmering, almost scaly suit that covered her body from neck to feet, with an ornate breast plate with the stylized head of a medusa in the center. She wore no sword, although one got the impression she was dangerous even without one. The other woman was adorned in flowing robes of sea blue, intricately woven with glowing strands of violet. Her coiffure was held in place by a spider web like cap of gold and sparkling gems. Her face was purest nobility, and her eyes the glowing golden of a cats. It was she that looked about the battlefield and smiled a smile of purest satisfaction. She lifted a bejeweled hand and gestured to the two men, both of whom wore light black armor and neither of which was armed.
"Fine work Deimos, Phobos. You will be rewarded."
The both of them bowed their heads reverently, the latter named looking up with just a glint of insanity in his black as coal eyes. "Lady." they hissed in unison before flickering out of existence and leaving the two women alone.
Gabrielle caught Xena's arm at that in panic, as if she had not quite been certain of the arrival of these strange folk, but could not question the departure.
"Who. . .? " It was barely a whisper, but Xena silenced her anyway with a hand over her mouth and a dead serious shake of her head.
She looked back to the tree and the living bodies under it, straining her hearing to discover what the soft spoken woman in armor was saying.
". . . .sacrifice enough, Hera?" She caught the latter part of a question and a name that made her draw in breath.
"They are stirred." the aforementioned proclaimed in a grand tone of voice. "I feel them waking, restless at this taste of death we have given them. Soon, niece. Soon and the gateway will be ours. One more such sacrifice and we will reach our goal."
"Hera." Gabrielle squeaked out from between Xena's fingers. Xena glared at her and nodded shortly, somewhat disbelieving herself to be eavesdropping on the mother of gods.
Hera and the other, looked about in pleased satisfaction at the death scattered on the plain and then Hera's smug smile faltered and she looked skyward. The clouds which had been sparse in the evening sky had grown of a sudden to terrific proportions. The sun, already tired from it's days journey was effectively blocked out. A low rumble of thunder shook the plain followed by a shaft of sizzling lightening that hit the ground not five feet from the two goddess'. A man stood there in the white hot after effects of that stunning light. A very angry, darkly elegant man from whom violence emanated like the rain pouring out from the thunder clouds he had summoned.
Xena knew him. Xena was very familiar with that particular god. Ares, formally worshipped by the warlord that Xena had formally been. Worship was not the word she might use for the feelings she had for him now. She let go of Gabrielle, trusting her to keep quiet now that a threat she recognized had come into the picture. From the corner of her eye she gleaned Gabrielle staring at her, but she refused to take her eyes from the confrontation under the tree.
Ares roared into existence mad as Hades, that much was clear. She could hear his voice even over the sudden rain, raised and berating the other two.
"How dare you utilize my tools without consulting me? Do I meddle in either of your business?"
"You overstep yourself." Hera snapped.
"I do not!" Ares flared, in a fine rage. "Are the two of you so bored that you felt the need to initiate this little massacre for pure amusement?"
"Don't you?" The younger goddess asked.
"Athena." he hissed and there was old animosity in both their eyes as they locked glares. "You ever try to stray into my influences. Keep to your own."
"I think not." she hissed back. They were eye to eye and bristling until Hera put bolt of energy between them that ravaged the dirt at their feet. The both of them jumped back, Athena looking smug and Ares fit to explode.
"I find it ever so galling to have a seed from my body berate me. My reasons are my own, child of mine, and not yours to question. You on your way and attend your business and leave me to mine own, or risk my wrath."
"I'll not." he cried. "This is my business and bestow all the wrath you wish, but you'll not meddle with my office again or Zeus will know why?"
"You would run to father?" Athena purred. "How typical."
"At least him, you listen to. What in hades were you thinking, that you felt the need to decrease this population? There was no plague or famine here, that war would ease their plight."
"Like you need a reason." Athena taunted, and he whirled on her again.
"Bitch. What do you care if I enjoy my work? But I assure you it has deeper roots than mere bored fancy. And I also assure you none of mine will help you again."
"You would deny me?" Hera's voice was stone cold, even as Ares was molten fire.
"I always knew father married you for your brains."
"Insolent." she hissed and he shrugged.
For a while longer they argued back and forth, trading insults and slurs like spoiled children. Xena shifted position slightly to ease a cramped muscle, and when she looked back up, Ares was facing Athena again, his hand on the hilt of the great sword at his side. Athena was bristling and at any moment Xena expected a fight to erupt. But, then Hera stepped up close to her son, something sparkling with crystal incandescence in the wan light. She made a motion, a sharp jab of her arm and the god of war stiffened, then jerked around his mouth open in shock. Hera raised both hands and chanted something. The air blurred momentarily around Ares, then clarified. His legs gave way under him and he slipped to his knees still looking up in purest amazement at his mother, who had crossed her arms and was staring down with stone faced interest. Then with a shudder Ares crumpled to grass and lay there unmoving while Athena and Hera watched, and finally after exchanging a few whispered comments that human ears could not pick up, just winked out of existence and left all the bloodshed behind them. Not to mention the god of war who was sprawled in the grass like any of the corpses around him.
"What was that? Xena what was that all about?" Gabrielle was clutching at her arm convulsively, frantically. They were both thoroughly soaked and for some reason, despite the heat of the day this was a bone chilling downpour. Xena shivered, wiped clinging strands of dark hair from her face and rose.
"No." Gabrielle protested. "Don't go over there. "
"I've got to see." she shook of the grip easily.
"See what? The gods did this. Ares is still there. It's a trap."
"It's not a trap, Gabrielle." She hoped. She loped across the bloodstained earth. Mud was already beginning to suck at her boots. She took her sword out before she got there and glanced back once to find Gabrielle standing miserably behind the bramble, hair and water streaming down her face. She turned and cautiously went down to one knee beside the fallen god. He was half on his side, one hand curled to his chest, the other caught clawing at the earth. She could half see the hilt of some crystal blade in his side, driven deeper into him when he'd fallen on it. The ground she knelt on was full of blood and not, she though the blood of the mortals who had fallen under this tree. It was almost warm against the bare skin of her knee. She took a breath and turned him over onto his stomach to better see the weapon embedded in his back. It was a crystal blade. Hera's dagger. What else but a weapon of the gods could lay a god low? She started to put her hand on it to pull it out when a shadow crossed her. Her head snapped up and she glared at Gabrielle for the surprise. Gabrielle swallowed weakly and apologized with a taught smile. They stared at each other for a moment in uncertainty, then Gabrielle nodded and whispered in a tiny scared voice.
"oh why not? Do it."
Xena grabbed the hilt and yanked it out, then cried out in sudden pain as cold fire raced through her hand. She flung the offending weapon away from her, clutching her hand to her stomach and bending over it in a moment of intense hurt.
"LET me see. Let me see." Gabrielle was crying, on her knees beside Xena now and attempting to pry her wounded hand up to where she could see it. After a moment, when the pain had dulled, Xena let her, daring to look herself and see what damage had been done. The flesh of her palm was cracked and blistered, bleeding slightly, but not as she found when she curled her fingers, incapacitated.
"Does it hurt?"
"Of course it hurts." she snapped.
"Serves you right. Hera--gods I can't believe I'm talking about Hera like she's a woman I met in the market - -she put it there and well, she probably did us a favor doing it. I mean this is Ares. He's your enemy. You don't have anything against Hera, do you?"
"I do now."
Gabrielle blinked at her uncomprehendingly. Xena waved her uninjured hand at the plain around them. "Hera caused this. You heard them. Not him. I still want to know why and if anyone can figure out a gods hidden intentions, it's another god."
Gabrielle sat back on her heels, her mouth hanging slightly ajar.
"You're going to ask him to help. He'll use it against you. You can't trust Ares, you know this Xena, why am I having to remind you?"
Xena shrugged, not wanting to continue a pointless argument when she damn sure had her intentions set. Her hand throbbed, and the dull ache seemed to spread all the way to her skull. She clenched it into a fist, grimacing.
"Go get Argo, Gabrielle. I need bandages to bind this wound. He's bleeding like a stuck pig."
Gabrielle muttered something about him being a pig, but stomped off into the rain towards the trees where they had left Argo anyway. She returned with due haste and rummaged about in the saddlebag for the cloth Xena required.
"If he were a mortal," Xena murmured as she stuffed cloth inside the tear in his black tunic and pressed it into the precise gash where Hera's blade had been plunged. "he'd be dead thrice over. He's bleed enough for three men."
"Yeah, if he were mortal." Gabrielle grumbled and helped Xena haul him up and held him there while a tourniquet was wound tightly about his middle to keep the pressure on the dressed wound. Then it was just a matter of wrestling him onto Argo's back, which despite Xena's unusual strength was not particularly easy, considering the rain slick grass, the shying of Argo who obviously had the good taste not to want Ares on her back, and the fact that the god of war was not of delicate stature. Between the two of them they got him belly down across the saddle and Xena managed to calm Argo enough so that the horse didn't buck him right off again.
Gabrielle leaned against a solid equine shoulder, out of breath, cold and wet and very, very dismayed about the plan of action Xena was determined to unfold. "What now?"
"Thoethipolis. I've a feeling the worst of the fighting took place right here."
Gabrielle nodded grimly. "All right. I hope you know what you're doing, is all I have to say."
"Me too." The whisper was almost too low to be heard, but Gabrielle caught it as it drifted by on the wind and shuddered. Ill omens. Ill omens were all she could think about, and wished fervently that they had gone west into Dolopians instead of deciding to march into Thessaly on their way to Macedon and Amphipolis, Xena's home town, which she had taken a desire to visit. A larger journey yes, but oh, to have avoided this would have been a godsend. She shuddered at the term that had popped into her head. At the moment there was nothing she wanted of the gods and much she'd rather they took back. But, there was no swaying Xena when she had her mind set, so they trudged through the rain towards Thoethipolis.
* * *
The city was not smoking or besieged, but it's gates were firmly shut and the watchman at the tower over them flatly refused entrance.
"The battle is over." Xena shouted up. "There is no more enemy. We've wounded here."
"No. No. The gates stay shut."
"But she's Xena." Gabrielle added her voice to the debate. "She's a friend to Thoethipolis."
"Xena? How do I know this isn't a trick?"
Xena was tempted to give the wary tower guard a demonstration of her Chakram throwing abilities and had to draw several breaths to fight for patience. "Fine." she called up. "I'll take my services to Aphithones. If your mayor ever comes back, tell him he had his chance."
There was dead silence after that. Xena turned Argo and started away from the city gates.
"Wait." the same gate guard called, uncertain. "Maybe- -maybe I could open the gates, just a crack and let you in."
She paused, as if thinking it over, then cast a sanguine look over her shoulder up to the dark gate tower.
The city, the guard assured them, had not seen fighting inside it's walls, but it looked revenged. Almost it was deserted, most of it's citizens either fled or dead. A frightened, desperate people had left disorder in the wake of their flight. Merchant's stands were overturned, wares spilling out onto the narrow streets. Doors were left ajar and dogs and chickens wondered aimlessly into and out of homes. A very few folk huddled in doorways, huge, terrified eyes following the strangers in their streets. The crippled were still there, those too weak to flee. And those and the thieves and looters made much use of the abandoned houses. They passed a good number of these folk, running from houses, arms laden with bundled wares, casting furtive looks over their shoulders.
They found an inn, the same one they had stayed at half a year gone, but it was deserted of it's mistress and it's fires were cold in the pit. The rain had dwindled down to a fine mist here, having undoubtedly centered it's attention to the field of battle, since the dust of the streets in Thoethipolis was hardly wetted. Xena kicked open the stable doors and led Argo within and since no one was present to complain, had Gabrielle open the door leading from the inn proper to the stable and let the horse cross a boundary that he was in no wise used to passing. Argo had no slightest hesitation following her mistress onto the hard packed floor of the inn's main room, and set about nosing into the remains of a dinner hastily abandoned on one of the long, plank tables.
It was easier without the rain and the initial panic of the situation to get Ares off the horse than it had to haul him on to it. Xena took most of the weight, which Gabrielle figured combined was a good fifteen stone, and between them carried him to one of the small guest rooms off to the side of the main tap room. There was a pallet with relatively fresh straw against one wall. With a blanket over it, it was not an uncomfortable bed. And with him finally deposited in it, they both sat down, tired and numb from the day's stress, Xena by the head of the pallet, her back to the wall, Gabrielle sitting cross legged in the middle of the floor. They both had fresh blood on them. He was still bleeding copiously, despite the tourniquet. The blood was still warm and Gabrielle found it slightly repulsive, holding that heat of life, so long after it had seeped from Ares body. God's blood. Not natural. She dearly wished to wash it from her body and clothing, but for the moment could not summon the energy to get up. She was not a warrior. She could not so easily shrug off the sight of so much death and not have it effect her. She was tired and the thought of just shutting her eyes and letting the blackness of sleep disperse the images her mind kept wanting to play back over and over behind her eyes, was immensely attractive.
"Go to sleep, Gabrielle." Xena's voice finally penetrated the fog. She had moved closer and Gabrielle hadn't even noticed it. "Go to the next room. Use the pallet there. I'll take care of Argo. He can stay in the main room. He'll let us know if anyone comes."
"What about you? Will you sleep?" Her own voice sounded vacant and thin in her ears. Xena looked over her shoulder at Ares, then back to Gabrielle, shaking her head.
"No. Not with him here. I'll watch him, and in a few hours, if he's not waken, you can relieve me."
Numbly Gabrielle nodded agreement. Xena helped her to her feet, and guided her to the door and gently pushed her in the direction of the neighboring cell. She barely had the presence of mind to throw down her blanket before falling onto it and barely a minute passed before sleep overtook her. And perhaps some god was looking out for her, because there was nothing but blackness in her rest.
* * *
Xena sat on the rush covered floor of the guest room, back against the wall, knees drawn up to her chest, waiting. The sounds of Argo rustling in the hay she had given her wafted in through the thin plank walls from without. She could just see her bulk through the open door as she shifted, then swished her creamy tail. The folk who had fled this place would be back soon enough, once word that the fighting was over reached them. She hoped to have her answers and be gone by then. But no answers were to be had until Ares awoke, and he showed little sign of doing that, lying still as the dead, with the blood still slowly seeping from Hera's wound. She rolled her head on the wall to look at him, bemused and still somewhat dubious that she was sitting vigilance over her bitterest enemy. Gabrielle had spoken true, every word. There was no trusting Ares. He had ever manipulated and tried to trap her. She had been his most efficient servant way back when, in those times before her conscience had demanded better behavior from her. Before the guilt of all the deaths at her hands had driven her to change her way of living. She had worshipped Ares as her patron god and he had blessed her campaigns and honored her, a mortal warlord, his divine presence and godly affections. As much affection as the gods were capable of giving and the god of war was never one to bestow anything without a price. Hers had been her soul. And for a very long time she had been in danger of loosing it forever, to war, to too many deaths, to a cold shell that she had built around herself as protection from all the horror of the things she had done. She had been the best at what she did. No warlord was greater, none fiercer in battle. Her own humanity, small shriveled thing that it had been, had finally saved her, and the intervention of a few friends, some mortal, some not quite so much so. Ares' half brother Hercules, to be exact, had played a huge part in her salvation, much to the god of war's eternal chagrin.
Ah, but sometimes, sometimes when he was at his most charming, his most persuasive, sometimes Ares made her heart beat a little faster, but mostly he just pissed her off. Right now he wasn't doing much of anything. She wasn't angry or agitated. Just calm, and more comfortable in his presence than she could ever recall being. He was very pale, right about now, having spilled a legion's worth of blood and still spilling it. She wondered if the geas Hera had laid upon him had been to keep his god's body from healing the wound, or something else entirely. She leaned forward and loosened the tourniquet, then rolled him onto his side and brushed aside his tunic to better see the wound. She quite expected festering or boils or cracked and burned flesh since it had been Hera's blade that pierced him, but it was still clean, washed that way from all the blood that had passed. The blood was hardly flowing at all now. Just a slight trickle when she pressed her fingers against the sides of the wound. If he were a mortal man, she might have sewed it shut, but she doubted that a god would need such remedies. Once he woke, if he ever did, he could heal it himself. One hoped.
She settled him back comfortably, noticed that he had a fresh smear of blood on his cheek that he must have picked up from the blankets when she'd turned him and reflexively lifted her hand to wipe it off. Her fingers brushed across the flesh of one elegant cheekbone and his lashes flickered. In one blindingly fast motion his hand shot up and caught her wrist. His eyes blazed up at her in momentary anger, then that faded with one blink then another and melted into utter bewilderment. It was not a look she could ever recall seeing from him. It surprised her so greatly that she remained kneeling at his side, her hand caught in his, when she might have jerked free and distanced herself from him.
"What- -?" he started, voice hoarse and weak, then stopped and looked about himself and at her finally. The dazed look was still there and at no moment, aside from the initial flare of anger had there been any hint of the Ares she knew in his expression.
"Let go." she suggested in a voice low and rich with warning, slowly placing her free hand over his. "Or I'll break your fingers." There was no gauging how idle the threat was, considering his condition, but he blinked at her and loosened his fingers nonetheless. She was almost surprised that he caved in, almost disappointed that he had. She sat back, cold and hard faced, as tense for battle as she might be in the middle of a field of war.
"I want to know two things and two things only. Why the senseless battle that cost Thoethipolis and Aphithones so many lives and how do I stop it from happening again, since Hera claimed she needed one more such sacrifice?"
"What?" There was little or no comprehension in the question or in his face as he gazed up at her. If his skin hadn't been relatively cool and he hadn't been a god, she might have thought him mind sick from fever. As it was, she drew her brows, finding little room for patience with Ares' discomposure.
"What. Is. Hera. Up. To?" She ground the words out slow enough for even a dazed mind to understand. He just blinked at her.
"What are you talking about?"
"Hera! You know Hera, right? Your mother, I believe. I want to know what in Hades she and Athena were doing. It was damned sure a contrived battle so I can't see how you wouldn't know the reasons why?"
"Gods!" She slapped her thigh in agitation, wondering if he were goading her apurpose. He shifted, wincing, and twisted his head around to peer in the general area of his wound.
"How did I get this?"
"Don't tell me you can't recall?"
"Ummm." He sat up, rubbing the spot, then leaned in the corner to stare at Xena warily. "Well. No. I can't say that I do. There's something - - but I can't really latch onto it."
Gabrielle stood in the door, her staff in one hand, the other braced on the frame. Straw littered her hair and her eyes had the frazzled expression of a body too quickly waken and thrust into a not pleasant situation. Xena honestly knew not whether to beckon her in, or send her as far away as possible. She trusted nothing she held dear within Ares' reach. But, Ares wasn't making sense now, and she had never had patience for fools. Gabrielle had the better temperament for unraveling the ravings of idiots.
"We seem to have a problem."
"Really?" Gabrielle warily stepped into the room. "Aside from the obvious, dare I ask?"
"Ask away. All I'm getting is gibberish. He claims not to know me."
Gabrielle lifted a brow in surprise, shifting her gaze from Xena to Ares.
"Seems to have a problem remembering what happened altogether, in fact."
"Ohhh. Do you believe him?"
Xena shrugged, undecided on that point.
"I'm sorry, but have I ceased to exist and not noticed it?" Ares flashed them both a glare from his dingy corner. "It's hardly polite to carry on conversations about a person when they happen to be sitting right here."
"You would know polite, wouldn't you?" Xena sneered.
"I thought that's what your type liked anyway," Gabrielle added. "having people talk and talk about you as if you weren't there. That's the whole point of worship isn't it?"
He stared at Gabrielle for a moment after that, obviously stymied by that suggestion. He opened his mouth once, closed it and finally glanced back to Xena in frustration and demanded. "Are the two of you quite insane? What is she babbling about? Who are you and - - -" he trailed off as some other thing popped into his mind that demanded his immediate attention. His expression took on a very thoughtful cast.
Xena and Gabrielle stared at each other and very tentatively Gabrielle suggested. "That magic that Hera did, do you think - - some sort of geas?"
"What's your name?" Xena purred of a sudden. Ares' jerked his head up, stricken, then his eyes turned sharp with frustration and suspicion.
"You tell me." he growled back.
"Hummm?" Xena began thrumming her fingers on her thighs, ignoring Ares impatient, and dared one guess, hopeful, glare in her direction. So Hera had put a geas on Ares. She was not well acquainted with the dealings of gods with one another, her old friend Hercules by far having the advantage of her there, being half a god himself. But she did listen to tales, Gabrielle was a never ending spring of them, and she was aware that there was a great competition and rivalry among the inhabitants of Olympus. She had even heard of gods dying, either by the hands of other gods or by the fates granting some ingenious mortal the upper hand on very rare occasions. Considering all that, and considering Hera's position in the hierarchy of Olympians, it was hardly inconceivable that she might wholeheartedly place a geas on a son of hers who had very obviously been upset with her for stepping over the line of her influences and into his own.
"Does the name Ares strike any bells?" Gabrielle asked, a note of distrust weaving clearly through her tone. "You know, god of war and all that?"
He got a look that was very much the Ares they knew and hated, careful calculation mixed with a liberal dose of disdain and arrogance.
"All right. Fine. Since the two of you are so unmitagatingly generous in your answers, I'll find my own." He rose to his feet, using the wall as leverage and letting one grimace of pain past the mask his face had frozen into. He staggered just a bit stepping down from the raised pallet, and righted his balance with look of offended dignity.
"You forgot your sword." Xena offered sweetly, gesturing with one hand to the plainly elegant great sword that leaned in it's sheath against the wall. He looked at it, then to her and scowled. She tilted her head and smiled grimly. He snatched it up and stalked into the main room. One could hear Argo start at the sudden unfamiliar presence.
"Are we just going to let him go?"
"Suggestions on how we stop Ares from doing anything, Gabrielle?"
"Oh. Well. You've got a point there, but are we just going to let him go and forget about this whole mess?"
"I never said that." Xena rose, feeling her knees crack from sitting with them folded under her for too long. For a moment she stretched, limbering muscles and joints, then casually walked into the main room and set about saddling Argo. Gabrielle trotted after her, throwing what supplies they had unpacked into the saddle pouch.
"So we're going to follow him?"
"What if he just disappears? You know, goes to that place the gods go that we can't?"
"Then we stop following."
"Ohhhh, I see. That clarifies everything."
Back out through the stable entrance, with a sack of grain from the barn and a strings of dried vegetables and jerky that Gabrielle had found in the kitchen. Xena left a denar for the small theft and the abundance of bloodied straw the landlady would have to clean up from the pallet where Ares had lain. The sky outside was almost light, only a few stubborn stars fighting against the dawn's imminent arrival. The street was desolate, not even thieves scurrying about, not a soul in sight or a sound other than the gentle breeze song and the occasional half hearted chirp of crickets. She chose the right hand road, because it was darker than way and somehow she felt Ares would be drawn to the darker way.
The gate at the opposite side of the city from which they had entered was smaller than the main entrance. There was a man sized portal beside the timber barred double gates. It stood ajar and a dazed sentry leaned at an angle against the wall beside it. Xena stopped next to him, staring down without emotion.
"You'd better close the gate. With the city abandoned and it's garrisons gone bandits will be out in force."
He blinked up at her. "Didn't open it. Man came up, asked to be let out an' I told him no. Gate doesn't open till full day - - - "
"And?" she prompted when he trailed off uncertainly.
"I don't know. Just ended up here - - and - - the sentry gates open!" He looked that way in shock as awareness that he had foully abandoned his duty came over him.
"Yes it is. Better close it." She ceased to notice him, leading Argo out that self same open gate. Gabrielle trailed behind, casting the guard a sympathetic look.
The road north was dark yet, and obscured by forest not a quarter mile from the gates of Thoethipolis. How long in truth before word of this tragedy spread and every bandit and mercenary in the area began to descend? The north road, more densely forested than the south, would be a treacherous path to follow, especially when it merged with the greater road leading to Pharsalus.
Xena was tired. She had not even gotten the few hours rest that Gabrielle had managed. Thank the gods they had not pushed themselves the day before, starting late and leisurely making their way towards what they had assumed was a safe haven. She thought that when light had fully blessed the sky, she might mount Argo and sleep astride and trust the watch to Gabrielle. But not until morning when she might study the road for signs of Ares' passing, if any could be distinguished on the path after many folk had surely fled this way.
Wan light began to filter through the foliage. The shades of straight boled trees became three dimensional with the definition of light. A few early rising birds chirped their greeting to the morning, then quieted in apprehension as the shriller sound of metal clashing against metal broke the tranquility.
"Damn." Argo's reins got tossed to Gabrielle. Xena started running, drawing her sword as she did. Around a bend and there was life of a sort not born to the forest. Six men, her glance took in swiftly, and not of the sort employed by city garrison or outlying militia. Hard, desperate men with piecemeal armor and hungry eyes. Starving eyes that held little of humanity in their depths. Ares was in the middle of the loose circle of bandits, looking more indignant that scared. He had his sword out, held in one hand and at the moment tip resting on the path as the bandit he had obviously crossed blades with stared with incomprehension at the stump of a sword in his own hand. The majority of the blade lay severed in the path between the man and Ares. Really, what did one expect? The Sword of Ares, was no minor weapon. Especially if Ares himself had not the slightest recollection of all it's powers. She did not particularly figure he needed the help but she stepped forward anyway.
"Is this a private party, or can anyone join?"
Seven gazes swung her way. Ares lifted a brow. "Are you following me?"
"Now that you mention it, yeess." The yes came out as a battle shriek as the bandit closest to her leapt forward, blade swinging. Agile as otter in water, she jumped to one side, knocked the enemy sword aside with a powerful downward swipe of her own and drove an elbow into the man's unprotected throat. It was as effective as a blade, in it's killing prowess, crushing the windpipe. She spun into the circle of bandits like an elemental, who were only at the gurgling fall of their comrade beginning to move. Her moves were liquid and deadly, utilizing sword as much as feet and hands in her unique style of combat.
She was vaguely aware of Gabrielle matching blows with someone, using her staff against the shorter reach of a stubby sword. Xena took down her third combatant and found a forth at her back. Three moves and she had him disarmed, he came up with a dagger and made to throw it at her, so she gutted him and looked for another. Gabrielle finally took down her opponent with a swipe at his legs that knocked him flat and a firm, no nonsense clock to the head that sent him to dreamland. Where was the sixth?
There, behind Ares who had stood throughout the entire thing, leaning on his sword, with what she could swear was an amused expression on his damned handsome face, doing nothing. The bandit with the broken sword and an entirely vengeful expression, rushed forward.
"Behind you." she suggested. Before the words had quite left her lips he whirled, bringing the sword up and out and his attacker neatly impaled himself on the deadly tip. The man let out a little, mournful wail and for just a moment the wind battered the trees and the Sword of Ares drank the soul of it's victim. That was one man who would never walk the fields of Elysian, his soul gone to darker places.
Ares looked up, just as Xena and Gabrielle did at the strange little disturbance in the weather. The corpse sliding off the blade and hitting the path broke the spell and the world turned back to normal. Or as normal as it got, with a god standing in the middle of the road looking curiously intrigued at the damage wrought around him.
"Humm. That was interesting." he wiped off the blade on the body of it's victim, sheathed it and started down the road.
With an exasperated sigh, Xena cleaned her own similarly and paced to his side. "Where are you going?"
"Just - -walking where ever the road takes you?"
"Humm. Guess so." He turned soulful dark eyes her way. "What is your name?"
"Xena." she sighed again, predicting it was going to be a long day.
"Xena. Wonderful. And I'm- -who again?"
"Ares." she muttered.
He smiled at her, that insidious white toothed grin of his that just glared out at a body from within his trim mustache and beard. No matter what else one could say about him, his methods or the definitions of his sphere of influence, one could not quite get past the fact that he could be devastatingly easy on the eyes when he tried. She refused to drop the stare, disavowing to admit any weakness, even the weakness of admitting to the reality that she found him attractive. Finally Gabrielle gave her the excuse she needed to break away and she dropped back a few paces to stride side by side with her best friend.
"What'd he say?"
"Nothing. He's about as helpful as a sore tooth."
"He looks like he's recovered completely."
"Yeah, well, I don't even want to think about what's normal and healthy mentally for him."
That got a snort and half a laugh from Xena.
"The world's probably better off with him like this." Gabrielle said. "Think about what a world without war would be like."
"Maybe not as wonderful as you think."
"What do you mean?"
Xena frowned and shook her head. There were things you discussed on the road with an untrustworthy traveling companion just ahead of you and likely more bandits in the woods, and things better left to long peaceful nights under the stars where a body could relax enough to theorize and debate to the heart's content.
Morning turned to mid-afternoon and a day and night without food began to make itself painful obvious in the growling of stomachs and the weakness of knees. If she had to Xena could march sleepless for days on end, but at the moment she did not feel as urgently pressed as she might have. She decided upon reaching a grassy clearing that a break was in order. If Ares chose to wonder ahead, fine. The trail was unbroken from here to the larger road leading to Pharsalus for another days travel and he seemed to be sticking to the path. They could catch up with him.
Gabrielle took pity on Xena's exhaustion and lack of sleep, and even though it was not her turn, gathered wood for a fire and trudged into the wood to track down the source of the faint gurgling water noise they could hear from the clearing. There was a tiny brook, trickling from beneath the roots of a particularly massive tree. She filled a skin with water and in turning to clamber up the slight slope, happened upon a pea hen hole which hid the treasure of five small eggs. With a triumphant grin, she gingerly gathered the precious things and made her way back to the road side camp.
Xena had stretched out, with a rolled blanket under her head, her eyes slitted shut, but very much aware, Gabrielle knew, of what was going on around her. Gabrielle set some of the vegetables they had gotten from the inn to soften in water, and put their one iron skillet over the small fire to heat. About that time Ares wondered back down the path, with one hand clasping the wrist of the other behind his back, looking up at the trees as if he'd never seen such wonders before. Gabrielle scowled, hoping her black look made it perfectly clear that his presence was not particularly desired around their camp fire when Xena was trying to get a little rest. If Xena was aware of his return, which she probably was, then she made no sign of it, continuing to lay, with her legs crossed at the ankles as if nothing in the world were wrong. Yet everything was, as far as Gabrielle was concerned, and the center of all evil was prowling around their little camp like a black wolf on the prowl.
"Is there something you want?" she finally whispered through clenched teeth, after he had wondered into the woods behind the clearing, circled them and finally leaned against the bole of a tree at the edge of the campsite and fixed his gaze on Xena's reclined form.
"There is something about her that strikes a chord. I just can't quite pin it down."
"Hummph." The vegetables went into the hot pan in bits and pieces, followed by a sprinkle of their limited reserves of spice. She industriously bent to stirring the meal, which was as good an excuse as any to ignore Ares. When the vegetables were browned enough to suit her, she cracked the eggs and added them to the mixture.
"You," he offered. "Don't do a thing for me."
"Oh, good. That's a relief. You know I can really understand why your own mother would want to stab you in the back and place a spell on you. I really can."
"Is that what happened?" There was a genuine spark of interest in his voice. Gabrielle glared at being sucked into a conversation she had no wish to encourage. Reluctantly she repeated the bare details of what she and Xena had seen and heard in the plain between Thoethipolis and Aphithones.
"What an interesting tale."
She did not like the tone in his voice or the look in his eyes. She really truly did not like people treating her as if she were a moon calf and a fool. She was a bard for the gods sake, a chronicler of momentous things. She was not a town fool or a jester and damned if she would tolerate some arrogant god treating her like one.
"It's not a tale and I wish she'd stabbed you in your black heart. And don't even think there's enough here for you. Gods don't need mortal food."
He shrugged. "It's burnt anyway."
With a yelp she snatched the pan off the fire, cursing under her breath, telling herself over and over that no, it would not be a good idea to go after the god of war with her staff.
"Is that my supper." Xena had opened one eye to peer up at her. Gabrielle mournfully picked up one edge of the omelet. It was quite brown underneath and exuded a slightly scorched odor.
"It's his fault."
It wasn't half bad, if you could get past the burnt flavor, and it took them no time to wolf it down along with some two day old flat bread that was hard as a rock on the outside but still soft within.
"I need to catch a few more hours sleep, Gabrielle." Xena confided to her, the shadows under her eyes and the taught set of her mouth confirming this need. "I don't want to stay in one place too long. These woods are going to be crawling with bandits soon, all heading for Thoethipolis. I'll ride and sleep. Argo has better hearing than either of us anyway. She'll let us know if any danger approaches."
"What about the danger already here?"
Xena cast a slanted look over one shoulder at Ares. "Ask him what it is he remembers about me."
"Oh, great. Leave me to talk to him."
"You're good at pestering people into revealing things they'd rather not. See in you can stir a few memories loose."
"Pestering? Pestering? Me?"
Xena just smiled at her and climbed up to Argo's back, settling herself into a comfortable, rock steady position where she could doze.
* * *
"Go away." There was very definite agitation in Ares' voice, and very visible violence in his eyes. It was cool in the shade of the wood, and the sun was beginning to shift the shadows eastward in it's descent. Gabrielle walked on one side of Argo's head and Ares on the other. Xena slumped in the saddle in between, fall of long, dark hair obscuring her face.
"I can't go away," Gabrielle said reasonably. "I'm right here on this path, and you'd better live with it."
"Then leave me alone."
"Listen, I'm just trying to help, and don't raise your voice so much, she's trying to sleep."
"I don't want your help."
"Well that may be true, but you need it. What if Hera's spell never goes away and you're stuck wondering the world like brain damaged cripple?"
"Do I look crippled to you?"
"No, but you've got to admit you're not doing so hot in the old mind category. Not that I personally don't think Hera did us all a favor, mind you. You know I ought to make some type of offering to her. She's not my patron goddess, that's Artemis now, 'cause I'm an official Amazon Princess, and she's the goddess of the Amazons, but I like her style. She put you down so quick."
He was glaring darkly at her around Argo's nose. "The most unbelievable aspect of this little story you've spun is that if I was a god, and I had met you, then why are you still around to annoy me?"
She stared for a moment, not having a ready comeback for that. Not a half bad question, that. "Even gods can't just go around killing people." She muttered, not quite certain she spoke from a vantage of fact instead of plain wishful thinking.
"Why ever not?"
"Well, just because. Even gods have to have some etiquette, right? Right?"
"Well they do." she assured him, then cast him a dour, meaningful glare. "Most of them."
"Gabrielle, you are an irritant."
"Yeah, well, so are you."
"You both are." Xena looked down from under a fall of hair, eyes languid and shadowed. With a creaking of saddle leather she shifted, stretching her legs, her arms and arching her back to work out the kinks of riding slumped forward. Ares watched the process with interest.
"Sorry. He's the one who has to shout every other sentence."
Xena swung a leg over Argo's shoulder and slid down on Gabrielle's side, giving the girl a conciliatory hug about the shoulders to ease the look of guilt. Gabrielle half smiled, cast one wary look in the direction of their unwanted companion, then whispered.
"He's really hard to talk to. "
Xena shrugged, this hardly being news to her.
"He has this massive superiority complex. It is so annoying."
"He's a god."
"Well, for somebody who claims not to remember that, he's got an awfully good grasp of the concept."
Xena made no comment, using the excuse of the company to walk in silence while she mulled over the disturbing bits and pieces of the dream that had come to her while she dozed. An odd, disjointed vision full of death and misery. A hundred faces had looked up at her from a seeming pit, mouths open in wailing supplication, arms with only stumps where the hands had been reaching up. Vaguely she recalled walking a narrow beam across this pain wracked pit, and fearing desperately that she might fall in and join them in torment. But she had crossed it, and beyond was a field of battle much like the one of Thoethipolis. Whole sale slaughter, uncontrolled and winnerless, and the insight hit her that it had been planned from the start to be so and that it was not the way Ares liked to play out his little wars, for he did love a winner, but never two dead losers. But, Hera worked at more complex schemes and in the dream she had glimpsed Hera's shade at the edge of the plain, laughing, and drifting away towards the distant glimmer of what seemed to be a broad lake. Xena had followed, out of her body, and floating haphazardly over the grass and in and around the boles of trees and finally hovered at the edge of the lake and looked down into waters that were almost black and sensed - - - age. Great, ponderous age and something that stirred at Hera's insistence.
And then the voices of Gabrielle and Ares had yanked her back from the point of seeing what it might be that awoke in that deep lake. Her dreams when she had them, did not usually run to fancy and this one she found entirely unsettling. There had been too much of godly doings lately to discount the appearance of one in her dream. Against all reason and all past experience she truly wished Ares to return to himself, for at his worst he was a more understandable opponent that Hera and in this instant he had a reason to quarrel with his mother as well.
She peered around Argo's nose with an idea forming from the cloudy nimbus of stray thought. Carefully she asked. "Any bursts of memory?"
He shrugged nonchalantly, not bothering to answer.
"If," she continued. "A goddess put this geas on you, then it would make sense that another one could take it off."
One dark brow rose in question at that, displaying some interest in the notion. Gabrielle fairly hopped forward in excitement.
"Of course! What a wonderful idea. Why didn't we think of that earlier?"
"It's a gamble." Xena cautioned.
"Yeah, but what do we have to loose?"
"I don't imagine you have anything to loose." Ares remarked archly. "I on the other hand . . ."
"Have everything to gain." Xena cut him off. They glared at one another for a moment, two stubborn egos refusing to back down from the challenge of that hot gaze. Gabrielle, who cared not a whit about egos and challenges danced between the look, backpedaling and waving her arms with enough agitation to make Argo toss her head.
"Where's the closest temple? We have to be careful not to beg favors from some god that has a feud with him, so who do we try?"
Ares looked satisfyingly blank on that issue, so Xena shrugged and made a guess. "A day and a half's march east of Pharsalus there is a temple to Aphrodite. That might be just the place."
"Aphrodite. Yes." Gabrielle beamed, looking splendidly pleased with the new direction their awkward path had taken. She even smiled at Ares who scowled back, indisposed, one might assume, to the whole notion of them planning his future without so much as a by your leave.
"A day and half? That's not so bad." Gabrielle continued. "We can do that."
Oh, they could do it all right, it was merely a matter, Xena thought sourly of doing it in time, and being able to stop the horrors that her dream suggested were afoot.
* * * * *
A dozen miles east of Pharsalus, with the sky battered and bruised by ominous towers of storm clouds and threatening to bleed torrents of rain, Ares stopped in his tracks as if the ground had reached fingers up to halt his progress. With the expression one might expect to see in the eyes of a seer in the midst of her trance, he stared fixedly west of their path in the direction of Pharsalus itself. There was nothing sight worthy on that horizon that might deserve such a intense gaze, though both Xena and Gabrielle searched that way for some time, then chanced to meet each other's eyes in wary unease.
Xena stepped up to his shoulder and spoke his name in soft query. He didn't blink, did no more for a moment but stand there breathing at a slightly accelerated rate. She hesitated, then put a hand on his shoulder and asked somewhat more forcefully.
"Ares, what is it?"
He jerked his head, as though thoroughly surprised by her presence, then with that same transient look that bordered between awareness and trance, he murmured. "Conflict. The west is awash with it." He seemed vaguely uneasy with the prediction or the fact that he had given it.
"How do you know that?" Gabrielle demanded, shading her eyes and staring futilely towards Pharsalus. Xena cast her an, 'are you kidding, he's the god of war, how do you think he knows it', look, then took a shuddery breath of her own as visions of Pharsalus, which was a larger city by far than Thoethipolis, besieged by war. A war brought about at the instigation of the gods and not gods who had any business meddling in the arena of war at that.
Damnit! Six hours walk to Aphrodite's temple, ten hours travel to the city. She did not want to walk into a war with Gabrielle in tow. She jerked Argo's reins, irritated and fuming at her helplessness and lack of any real knowledge of what was going on in this infernal situation. "C'mon, we've barely the daylight to make it to the temple."
"But, what about Pharsalus? Has something happened there?"
"More than likely." Xena said darkly.
She was not in the mood for talking, and neither apparently was Ares who had developed a very moody expression as he paced along side her. Gabrielle after a few half hearted attempts to engage in conversation, finally gave up and trailed along behind, muttering to herself.
They stopped once, late in the afternoon when Gabrielle developed a cramp, and Xena sat at the base of a gnarled, lightening struck old tree that stood perched by itself on an otherwise treeless expanse of grassland, and stared blackly at the chakram she'd taken from her belt to occupy her hands. Gabrielle sat on a root further down, stretching her leg.
"It's building." Ares stood staring west, rigid, shaking his head with the tense certainty of a man who knew something was afoot but not what or why.
"How?" Xena asked softly.
He whirled, eyes flashing with some inner light that was in no wise natural. "I don't know!" he snarled. "It looms like some. . .wave a hundred feet high, I can near taste it and feel it, and damn you both to hades that you can't."
"You're the god of war, you're attuned to conflict. It makes perfect sense." Gabrielle theorized, both hands on her calf, prodding and rubbing the tightened muscle.
"Well I wish it would stop, it's irritating to no ends." He flung out an arm in absolute frustration and simultaneously the ground shook with thunder. With a flash of blinding light what might have been a bolt of lightening, or mayhaps something more, lashed across the top of the dead tree. Limbs shattered and tore, splintered and fell to earth.
Xena rolled by reflex alone, barreled into Gabrielle and took them both on a bumpy roll down the incline away from the tree and it's falling debris. She lifted her head, when the last of the tremors had faded from the earth, and only the smell of burning timber of ozone rent the air and cast an accusing glare at Ares. He stood there looking rather amazed by the whole incident, arm still half outstretched and mouth slightly ajar.
"You bastard." she gritted out. He blinked and looked from the tree to her, affecting a totally innocent expression.
"I did not do that."
"Like hades you didn't!"
He looked back to the blackened remains of the tree. One dark brow lifted ironically. "Did I? Well damn. How do I do it again?"
Xena muttered a few choice curses that were in no way complimentary to the gods and downright nasty towards some gods in particular. She untangled herself from a slightly dazed Gabrielle, gave the girl a hand to her feet and said decisively.
"If your leg still hurts, ride Argo, Gabrielle, I want to get to the temple post haste."
"I can walk." Gabrielle took a tentative step, winced slightly, then covered it with a smile. Xena glared at her.
"Ride the damned horse."
The temple stood on a grassy knoll surrounded by a cornucopia of lush greenery and fragrant flowering vines. Mid-summer and the leaves were ever as fresh as their initial spring growth, the grass just as green and the air in the later part of the afternoon, reminiscent of the aforementioned spring day. The path leading to the knoll was paved with white stone, of which moss thrived in the seams between slabs. It was of a matching color to the stone that made up the bulk of the temple itself.
The first sight of the structure itself was gleaned as the path turned and the planting of the trees became obviously planned. Looking upward one saw the six volute columns lining the ionic face of the temple proper, and on further inspection delicate relief sculpture could be discerned on the face of the main pediment. The path split at the foot of the knoll, one way leading around the back of the hill, the other up towards the temple. They took the straight way, leaving Argo tethered at the bottom and climbing stone steps that numbered forty to reach the front steps of Aphrodite's house of worship.
Incense burned at the threshold, in huge ceramic braziers and light from high windows softly illuminated the front foyer. A priestess in soft, flowing white robes, glided up to them.
"Welcome to the temple of our lady Aphrodite." she smiled at them all, directing it just a touch longer and a touch more genuinely at Ares, before indicating the inner temple behind her. "Will you offer sacrifice to Aphrodite, or donate gold to her honor, before your worship? Or would you prefer the company of one of her priestess', for worship of a physical nature is always the looked fondly upon by our goddess."
"None of the above." Xena cut in before the priestess could elaborate. It was common knowledge that Aphrodite's priestess' would sleep with anything with two legs. If the donation was right. "We just want a word or two with Aphrodite."
The priestess' smile became a bit more fixed, she tore her eyes off of Ares and planted them on Xena. "I'm afraid that won't be possible. She speaks through the mouths of her acolytes. You may prey at her alter and if your sacrifice is sufficient she may answer you through her high priestess."
"Ah, she may have a word with us." Gabrielle edged forward. "We know some of the same people she does. Can we go in?"
"Maybe later." Xena pushed past, dragging Ares with her. Gabrielle smiled apologetically and trotted after. Xena strode right through the public temple and pushed open the bronze doors leading to the private one with the heel of one hand.
"You can't go there." The priestess cried behind them. "Only the priestess' of Aphrodite are allowed the inner sanctum. "
Gabrielle shut the doors in her face and pressed her back against them. "You know it would really be embarrassing to be run off by a bunch of priestess' to Aphrodite. What now?"
Xena turned around in the center of the floor, surrounded by delicate columns and anatomically correct statues of what one had to assume were portraits of the goddess herself. "Aphrodite!" She cried out, staring at the ceiling, as if she expected the goddess to appear out of the heavens instead of the mere aether. Aphrodite showed herself from neither realm. The priestess outside had grown silent, most likely gone off to gain reinforcements. Damnit! She cast a look to Ares who seemed highly amused by the whole situation.
"She's your sister, you call her."
"And she looks like that?" he indicated one of the statues. Xena could not quite help her lip curling up in a snarl.
"Just do it."
He shrugged an bellowed out the name more like he was summoning a barkeep rather than the goddess of love.
"Like what is your problem?"
Gabrielle let out a little screech and jumped two feet to her left. A flimsy pink and white creation stood where no flimsy pink and white creation had stood before, next to the bronze doors.
"Do you have to yell in my temple? Do I go around yelling in yours?" Sparkling blue eyes glared out from beneath a wealth of golden curls. Perfect pink lips pursed in a pout. What there was of the outfit, barely covered a figure worshiped by mortal man. Aphrodite looked pissed. She planted small fists on hips and stalked over to glare up at Ares.
"Well? What do you want?"
He looked to be considering various responses.
"Ask him if he recognizes you?" Xena purred. The goddess glanced past Ares at Xena.
"What do you mean by that?" She looked back up to him, and he shrugged.
"Believe me, I wish I did."
"You don't remember ME? You have got to be kidding? Everybody remembers me."
"Hera put a geas on him." Gabrielle offered helpfully. "She stabbed him with this crystal dagger and put a spell on him when he was down."
"Hera?" Aphrodite looked at at them all in turn, then finally settled an incredulous stare on her fellow god. "You let Hera get the jump on you? Oh, that's just priceless. You'll never live that down."
"I don't precisely recall it." he muttered darkly. "However I would very much like to and for some reason these two think you might be of assistance."
"Oh right. Why should I? What have you done for me lately?"
"You tell me."
"Nothing is what. That little war in Leuctra destroyed one of my favorite temples, I'll have you know. "
"You like this one?"
She stuck out her jaw stubbornly. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Hera and Athena have instigated a battle of some sort at Pharsalus that could easily spill over to here." Xena stepped up, tired of listening to the two of them banter. "She did this to him because she wanted to meddle in his business and she's sacrificed a lot of lives in the process and there are more probably being sacrificed as we speak. She's up to something and she needs death to accomplish it."
"Pharsalus? Why that bitch. If one stone of my temple gets chipped because of her, why I'll - - -"
"Why don't you just see if you can lift her geas on Ares, and maybe you won't have to lift a finger."
The goddess of love hummphed and locked her gaze critically on the god of war. "Pushy, isn't she?" she muttered. Then muttered some more and twisted her mouth in concentration. "Oohh, Hera is such a sneaky, sneaky fox. Her geas are the worst. Layers and layers and layers. I would never have let her get me with my guard down so badly. 'Course she's not my mother. She stabbed you with that nasty little crystal blade of hers, humm? I guess a blade worked by her, spilling your blood would have been enough of gateway to get past even the best laid defenses, though. Oh, there it is."
The bronze doors shuddered as some heavy weight was thrust against them from without. It repeated, and the slight bar threatened to give. Aphrodite was still talking to her self, making little agitated movements of her fingers. Ares had sort of a blank look in his eyes that was very slowly beginning to clear. He began to clench his own fingers about the same time a muscle in his cheek started to twitch in what might have been anger.
Gabrielle couldn't decide which element of suspense to focus her gaze on, the door, the gods or Xena who was standing very calmly behind Ares, with one hand lightly resting on the chakram at her belt, thumb softly stroking the metal.
As timing and fate would have it, several things broke at once. The door slammed open and half a dozen irate priestess in the company of two lumbering eunuchs who had battered down the door, stumbled into the inner shrine. Aphrodite let out a triumphant little yell and turned a very smug smile on her half brother. And Ares stood for one breath, eyes almost black with emotion, before he balled both fists threw his head back and let out a bellow of pure rage that literally shook the walls.
Everyone mortal put hands to ears at the volume.
"Sacrilege!" A priestess, after recovering from the shock of the yell, started forward, with religious fever in her eyes. Aphrodite turned and fixed her with an impatient stare.
"As if. Listen, we're a little busy, could you like, scram?"
The priestess stopped in her tracks, mouth open in awe, then slowly began backing away, colliding with her colleges in the process as they all made a concerted scramble away from the door. Aphrodite shook her head and motioned. The doors slammed shut behind them.
And like to came off their hinges as Ares stalked towards them, a concentric ring of pent up power lashing about him like the tail of an agitated cat. Plaster crumbled from the head of a column and cracks appeared in the walls. Aphrodite let out a little whine of exasperation.
"Would you stop it?"
He was at the moment beyond listening to reason and well into ranting and raving. Mortal ears had never even conceived of some of the curses that passed his lips as he stormed back and forth across the floor. It was an impressive tantrum. Gabrielle backed into a corner, the same tremors of power that threatened the walls vibrating through human flesh like dozens of little mallets. It hurt. It really hurt. She put hands to ears with a little sob as the pounding started behind her eyes and deep within the channels of her ears.
"Stop it." Xena repeated Aphrodite's command, wincing herself. He paid her about as much heed, and the rage seemed to have every indication of building to something worse than it already was.
"If he destroys my temple, I'm gonna be pissed." Aphrodite muttered, perfect brows drawn in what might have been worry. "There are some things you don't just forgive."
"Yeah, like bursting eardrums and bleeding eyes." Gabrielle hissed through clenched teeth. "Xena do something!"
Xena set her jaw, stepped into the path of his pacing and backhanded him with every iota of strength she had. It stopped him. His head snapped to the side then swung back to gape at her in a split second's shock.
"Get a grip." she advised a moment before his brows drew down and he slapped her back. She took one step backwards from the impact, which was saying something for Xena's constitution, Gabrielle thought, since it had been a strike from an angry god.
"Feel better?" she hissed, glaring at him from out of slitted eyes, circling him in a wary, fighting crouch.
"No." he matched her tone and stare. It seemed as if violence might erupt. Gabrielle was not in the mood for it, and Aphrodite had reason enough not to want a battle here in the most sacred part of her temple. God and human mind came up with the same course of action and acted upon it simultaneously. The two of them cut in between Ares and Xena.
"You two can finish this little mating dance later." Aphrodite pushed Ares back a step or two and glanced over her shoulder at Xena who was likewise bullied into retreat by Gabrielle. Xena glared daggers back at her.
"Don't you all think finding out what Hera's up to would be time better spent than hanging around here disrupting my temple? And what is this disturbance in the aether I'm feeling? Something sooo totally wrong is going on."
"She right." Gabrielle pleaded. "That's what we came here for, remember? And what's the 'aether' and what's wrong with it?"
"It's the realm between." Ares snapped at her, whirling away from his half sister, stalking a few steps then turning back to face them. "The plane that exists between the mortal realm and the Olympian one."
"It's like where we hang out when we want to watch you guys but don't want to be seen." Aphrodite added.
"It's also the access to other realms. Other places."
"Other places? Like Hades or Tartarus?"
"Among others. Damn her, what is she doing?" Ares slammed a fist into into a column and splintery cracks networked out from the impact. Aphrodite glared and shook a finger at him. "You are going to fix all of this."
He ignored her and fixed Xena with his smoldering gaze. "Exactly what did you hear Hera and that bitch Athena say?"
Aphrodite tilted her head towards Gabrielle and whispered conspiratorially. "Athena and him really hate each other. 'Course she's daddy's little girl and can do no wrong, so Zeus always sides with her."
Gabrielle did not know whether to feel honored or flabbergasted to be on the receiving end of this gossip about the gods. She certainly felt it could have had better timing, say when she had the time and inclination to write it all down, not that anyone would believe Aphrodite had imparted the information.
Xena on the other hand was focused solely and completely on Ares, and her fingers itched to wrap around the hilt of the sword at her back. Her hackles were up and all those little warning twinges that kept her alive in the harsh world she lived in, were going off double time. She had no notion if it were him or the disturbance both gods were babbling about that somehow might be triggering alarms in her. She hated this situation. She hated trusting anything to Ares. She took a breath and plunged forward anyway.
"Athena asked if the 'sacrifice was enough?' And Hera said that 'they' what ever they are, were stirred or waking, restless at the taste of death. She said something about a gateway and it taking one more sacrifice to open it. Then you made your entrance and things went to hades. They didn't say anything more about their plans."
He stared at her for a long moment, scrutinizing, as though looking for something she had not voiced in her face, then frowned and glanced over her shoulder to Aphrodite.
The goddess of love shrugged. "Hey don't look at me, I have no idea what they're up to - - - although, maybe I could go pull a few strings, talk to a few of Hera's cronies and see if anybody knows what's been on her agenda lately."
"Is there a lake near here. A deep water lake?" A shiver raced up Xena's spine as the image from her dream hit her. A great, dark lake that Hera hovered above, summoning something so old the very air crackled from the brittle smell of it.
"About eight miles north." Aphrodite supplied. "It's very deep and cold. I know a nymph who tried to make a home of it, but it spooked her so much because she couldn't find the bottom that she abandoned it. " Then the goddess' golden brows drew down and her mouth formed a silent O of surprise. "Oh my. There is something there. I can feel it."
Ares swore, apparently picking up on the same sensation. One moment he was there and the next there was a shimmer of air and nothing where he had stood.
"Oh great, now where's he gone?" Gabrielle complained.
"To that lake." Xena said with solid certainty. "Because that's where this gateway Hera's trying to open will be."
* * *
Eight miles to the lake. Eight miles north to a place almost parallel to Pharsalus. There was no use veering that way, since whatever Hera had needed to happen, had already happened. No use wasting time in another field of battle past walking over corpses that hadn't needed to die. So she went for the lake that she had dreamt about and Aphrodite and Ares had sensed in their godlike comprehension.
Argo carried double, for Gabrielle had been adamant on not being left behind in relative safety at Aphrodite's temple. She had argued vehemently and with no sign of tiring until Xena despaired wasting any more time or breath on the subject and simply swung up on Argo's back and held a hand out for the girl to grab if she insisted on riding into what might be more than a mortal wanted to deal with.
Eight miles, taken at a cantor, a trot, a wind gathering walk, then back to a cantor. Argo could hold that pace, could have held a faster one if not burdened with two humans instead of one. Eight miles in which to seethe at the obliquity of gods; in which to fixate her energies into disparaging them all. Damn Hera for using mortal lives as pawns in a game that was beyond them. They all did it. Every single immortal one of them thought of the mortal world as their playground and thought nothing of snuffing a mortal life or manipulating it to serve their purposes. And yet they were worshipped and revered and probably would be even if all their dirty tricks were exposed to the light of day. She had not paid fealty to a god since her association with Ares, and she honestly thought she might not ever again. She'd seen too much to ever hold them in that high a regard.
There was forest in the distance and somewhere between the outcropping of two huge boulders, a path that led to the lake. A priestess had told them that, wide eyed and anxious after seeing her patron goddess in the flesh. And sure enough the boulders were there, white splotches against a line of green and brown. A mile into the wood, they had been told, down a narrow hunter's trail, and they would find the lake.
Into the wood and what light was left of the day turned murky and green filtered. Of necessity Xena slowed Argo to a walk, fearing a twisted leg in a dusk hidden rut.
Gabrielle had been silent through most of the ride, only a warm presence at Xena's back, and arms wrapped around her middle. She loosened her hold now that Argo traveled at a more sedate pace. Gabrielle had never been entirely comfortable on horseback, being a farmer by ancestry.
"What do we do when we get there?" A soft inquiry at her back.
"I don't know. It depends on what we find."
"It scared Aphrodite. I could tell. And Ares didn't look too happy either. If it frightens gods, it must be horrible."
"Wish you hadn't come?"
A pause. A trembling intake of breath as Gabrielle thought it over, then finally a firm. "No. I wouldn't leave you to face it all by yourself - - whatever it is."
Xena nodded silently, touched by a loyalty that could not be shaken even by fear. She could not, in all her life, recall ever having a friend so true and it hurt knowing that half the situations her reputation and her tendencies led them into were more than Gabrielle, budding warrior though she might be, could handle. That in any one of them the girl might be killed and when one got right down to it, it would be Xena's fault. Gabrielle hated it when she mused on that, and would have berated her if she'd known her thoughts veered in that direction. She half smiled in the darkness and tried to chase those errant musings in another direction.
Water. She could smell water in the air. She fought the urge to quicken their pace. A breeze started, lilting and gentle in the first caress of it's touch, then becoming more insistent in it's attentions. Leaves and debris began to dance in the air and soon the branches of trees bent and creaked under the steady pressure of what could only be the forewarning wind of a storm. Angrily, she brushed hair from her eyes, squinting against the stinging wind. Gabrielle pressed her face to her back trying to hide from the worst of it.
Oh, yes, they were close, for this storm was too sudden and too violent to be purely natural. Argo shied, screaming in fright as a arm sized branch plummeted to the path before them. Xena cursed, holding tight to the reins, keeping steady pressure with her knees and hoping the war trained horse would keep it's head in the midst of this gale.
The rain hit. It came down like fists against the earth, beating the leaves off the trees and in one single moment drenching everything beneath it. It was a deluge, and one had to bow one's head to even breath the water so thoroughly filled the air. It was useless to ride further, and with a motion to Gabrielle, they slid off a trembling, miserable Argo. The world was filled with sleeting sheets of silver and black. Staggering, they made their way down the trail, and discovered a hundred yards further on, a vast space free of trees. For a moment, that was all they could see. Just massive amounts of sky filled with rain and no leafy canopy to impede it's progress earthward. Then with a hand shielding eyes, a vast expanse of ragged water could be discerned.
It was black as pitch and ripped and tormented by the impact of rain. Waves attacked the shore in futile retaliation and the whole body of it seemed to slush from side to side as if it were being tipped to and fro. The sky above it swirled in darkness pierced only now and again by a quick flash of brilliant lightening.
Gabrielle screamed something, but Xena couldn't hear her over the winds, then the girl had her hands on her arm and was pulling her towards the shelter of a cluster of rocks. They crouched between them, shivering, stunned by the ferocity of weather that ravaged the area. There was nothing to fight here. Nothing to match blows with. She could not fight a storm and the dreadful knowledge that this was beyond her seeped into her soul and brought with it fear.
"We've got to get out of here."
She could make out Gabrielle's plea now. Or maybe it was just what she wanted to hear. She did not have the chance to respond, for something was happening in the lake. The water had stopped it's rolling wavelike motion and begun to circle, faster and faster creating a whirlpool that in no wise imitated how a natural whirl pool ought to act. Instead of circling inward, and creating a funnel that pulled matter down to it's depths, this water rose, like the stem of a tornado, twisting
and frothing into the dark storm clouds hovering over the lake. Lightening slashed out of the clouds and pierced the funnel, traveling past it to strike the shore across from them. Another bolt and this one hit the water and then a series of strikes to the shore and the trees beyond it. One hit too close to Xena and Gabrielle. Rock and dirt flew. Gabrielle screamed. Xena covered her eyes, then peered cautiously out as the funnel of spinning water seemed to expand and then exploded outward.
The world was covered in a solid sheet of water. She grabbed Gabrielle by the hair to keep the girl from being carried past as the first wave hit; braced her legs on the rocks to keep herself from being taken by the force of it. It wasn't merely water, but rocks and limbs and gods a whole tree ripped from the very earth and carried towards them like a battering ram. It was too huge to avoid. It's bare branches reached towards them like a hundred spears, and suddenly stopped, skidded off of thin air five feet in front of their faces and whipped past them colliding with the line of trees at the edge of the shore. A horse sized rock hit the same invisible shield and bounced off, settling a dozen feet away. Xena stared at the rock in shock, wondering dazedly why she wasn't dead, then the air shifted directly before her vision and Ares filled that space, staring daggers down at her.
"Are you insane? What are you doing here?"
The first thing Xena noticed about him, was that he was wet. Every bit as wet as she was, and that he had a wild eyed, harried look that belied his usual arrogant superiority.
"What's happening?" she screamed at him, wiping wet hair from her face, noting off handedly that even the rain wasn't getting through the shield that Ares? had put up around her and Gabrielle. "Damn you for leaving without any explanation."
"I don't have to explain anything to you." He was almost reduced to screaming back, so frustrated was he. Ares never screamed. Oh he bellowed and yelled and cursed, but exasperated screams were not his forte.
"Like hades you don't." She wanted to jump up and shake some sort of responsibility into him. She wanted to hit him. She wanted to, strange erratic feeling that it was, hug him in gratitude when the next wave of water and debris hit and the shield protecting her and Gabrielle deflected every bit of it. It was getting less. The lake was calming, but the skies were still dark with gathering clouds.
"Too late." he finally hissed. "Hera, has opened a gateway right here." he flung one arm back towards the lake. "And something has passed it."
"Something? What? What has she done?"
"If I knew that I might feel somewhat better, but I'll tell you this, I don't know what she was expecting, but what did come up out of the gateway scared her senseless. I don't think she'd planned for it. She . . . left."
"She left?" Xena did stand, clenching her fists convulsively, staring past him to the rolling surface of the lake.
"Ran away." he clarified. "Whatever came out of that gate was beyond her control. It must have been a shock." Almost he smiled at that notion.
Xena didn't. "What is it she released?"
"Humm. I can't say that I know, but I intend to find out. I'd watch myself if I were you. I've a feeling these woods have just become a bit more dangerous." Gone. Just like that and he was gone.
* * * * *
For as far as the eye could see, the skies were turbulent with storm, they whirled and spasmed, spitting out flashes of lightening and claps of thunder in such erratic array that one might think the gods themselves were fighting beyond the canopy of dark clouds. It was not an entirely fantastical notion, that, Gabrielle mused, as she walked, miserable, cold and wet behind Xena down the narrow game trail leading from the lake. The winds were gone now, but a cold had come over the world that was unprecedented. She would have given much for a winter cloak, even the thin one in Argo's saddle pouch would have been preferable to soaked clothes and skin naked to the chill pin pricks of drizzle. It was mid-summer for the gods sake! She was dressed for a sweltering day, not an unnatural, freezing storm that numbed the bones. She could not understand how Xena could stride so purposefully down that path, not shivering, arms not clutched around herself in vain effort to warm goose pimpled skin, not stumbling in exhaustion at the trauma, the catastrophe they had both just survived. No, nothing from her. Not a word, not a complaint, not an exclamation of awe over what they had witnessed. Just the steady placement of her feet, the creak of wet leather and the clank of weaponry about her person. Half a dozen times, down that dark and treacherous trail Gabrielle opened her mouth to ask a question, to make a comment that burned within her, only to remain silent, discouraged by the stiff set of her comrade's shoulders, the whitely clenched fists swinging at her side.
They found Argo considerably further down the trial than they had left her, nosing about the foliage and looking entirely recovered from the storm that had spooked her so much earlier. She perked her ears at their approach and shoved her wet nose at Xena, who had no choice but to pause in her determined march and return the favor, scratching under the large jaw, and twisting a wet forelock out of the horse's eyes. Argo nickered, cast great brown eyes at Gabrielle accusingly, as if the ask why in all the world, they had journeyed out in this abysmal weather and when would they have the good sense to find a nice dry place complete with clean water and an assortment of grains.
"Sorry, girl." Gabrielle whispered, patting the muscular neck. "It's been a rough day for all of us." She looked up hesitantly, almost afraid to see what might be in Xena's eyes. Her friend's eyes were shadowed pits, not even a glint of clear blue getting past the darkness. Gabrielle shivered, rubbing her arms methodically.
"It's so cold."
"Here." Xena dug into the saddle pouch and pulled out a thin cloak of oiled leather. "It'll kept the rain out."
With the silence broken, Gabrielle plunged forward with the questions plaguing her. "What happened back there? Was it a battle? Was that Ares protecting us? What did he mean something passed the gateway?"
Xena stared at her a moment, then shook her head, starting down the trail, pulling Argo behind her. Gabrielle had to back out of the way to give the horse room to turn on the narrow path. "Xena, what is going on?" she finally wailed in frustration and fright.
"I don't know, Gabrielle." The soft words barely wafted back to her. Gabrielle stood for a moment, breathing hard, clutching the cloak around her, feeling very much like crying and refusing to give in to the temptation. She put a foot forward to follow and something rustled in the woods to her right.
A big something that snapped branches and plowed sodden leaves in it's passage. There was a disturbed whinny from Argo and the slick sound of metal clearing leather scabbard as Xena drew her sword. Gabrielle tightened her grip on the staff and stared blindly into the pitch darkness of the wood. She edged closer to Xena, straining to hear some word of warning or command that would tell her what she ought to do.
When she was close to the bulk of Argo, a soft whisper came to her.
"Get on Argo, and make haste out of the woods. I'll take care of whatever's out there."
"Gabrielle, do as I say."
"Xena I can help."
No more argument, for the thing that moved in the woods paused momentarily as if picking up on the sound of their whispered words, then with the sound of what could have been a hundred amplified wheezy breaths the ponderous movement turned rapid and crashed through the woods towards them. Xena let out a cry and plunged into the black forest. Gabrielle stood a moment, not knowing what to do. Follow Xena's advice and ride like hades for the edge of the wood or foolishly follow.
She had never been one to always take the prudent course. She clutched the staff and ran blindly into the wood. The sounds were the only thing guiding her through the maze of black trees and grasping branches. Xena's battle shrieks and the rapid rustling of frantic movement.
What pitiful light there was only served to enhance the shadows. She knew she was close, but all she could see were fast moving shapes, the smaller, slimmer one possibly Xena, the other having no outline of anything she knew. It was just large, and ambiguous, seeming to have more arms than it ought as it flayed about itself, attacking or defending against the bite of the sword. It came close, and Gabrielle caught the glimmer of scales?, the flash of a red eye. She struck out with the staff, felt the wood contact hard flesh. The shock of the blow sent tremors up her arms. Then something lashed back and struck her, a glancing blow upside her ear that sent her spinning back into the hard embrace of a tree.
Her vision did funny things then, lightening, darkening, spinning crazily in a combination of both. She slid down the tree, and sprawled in the wet mulch, for the moment not thinking of anything save the dizzying swirl of vision and the ringing inside her head. Her ear hurt abominably.
Everything went black. The pain retreated to a safe distance and for a moment there was peace. Then something wet touched her face and she jerked back to awareness, flailing her limbs in a panic to get it away from her. She sobbed, and struck out with no conscious thought save panic.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle. It's me." Xena's calm voice invaded her hysteria. With a shudder her limbs went limp. She threw herself forward, still sobbing, only vaguely aware of Xena having to hastily rearrange her sword to keep from injuring her. One arm went around her, awkwardly patting her back, the other clutched the sword. There was an awful smell in the moist air.
"What was that? What was it? Did you kill it? Are you all right?" The words came out in one rapid breath.
"I'm fine. It's you who had me worried."
"Ohhh, my head hurts. But, I'm okay, I think. Where - - ?"
"Over there." Xena disengaged herself from Gabrielle's frantic embrace, reaching down to haul her up and keeping one hand on her arm to steady her when she swayed. "I want to go back to Argo and get a dry torch. I want to see exactly what it was I was fighting."
With some effort they managed to light one of the torches they carried protected within the saddle pouch, and with that wavering light threaded their way back through the wood to the place of battle. At best it was an inconsistent light, and Gabrielle thought at first it was a trick of that fickle orange flame that made the body so obscene. Upon closer inspection the dancing light only served to mask the utter horror of the creature Xena had killed. It's body seemed one large mass of solid muscle, shimmering either from the rain, or because the scales that made up it's skin possessed some iridescence of their own. Arms without joints sprung from the torso, six eight of them, maybe more, but it was hard to tell, for a good many ended in stumps that oozed a black, vile smelling substance. At the end of each of those arms was a flaring flap of flesh housing rows of sharp teeth. Even the limbs that served as legs had the mouth-like apparatus. There seemed to be no central face, other than deep set eyes, dull red now in death.
"Have you ever seen anything like it?"
"No." Xena said flatly, crouching by the thing and prodding it with her dagger. "Ares said the wood was more dangerous."
"And then some. Oh, gods, Xena, tell me this was it. Tell me this is the thing Hera let loose and it's over with."
"I can't do that, Gabrielle."
She stood, face grim in the light of the torch she held. Wet hair clung to her cheeks, snaked about her throat like the delicate coils of a barbaric necklace. In the glow of illumination around her, tiny specks of white drifted down. The rain had turned to snow. Snow in Thessaly in the middle of summer. Gabrielle could not find words to express the gut wrenching wonder of such a phenomena.
It was not over. It had hardly begun.
* * * * *
There was very possibly a cracked rib causing the pain in her side. There were sure as hades numerous bruises dotting her body not to mention a nasty scrape on her forearm just above her gauntlet where one of the teeth filled mouths at the end of a tentacle had gotten a hold of her. She did not say a word, figuring Gabrielle to be worried enough as it was, without letting on just how sore she was and just how damned hard it had been to survive that thing, much less beat it. For a few moments back there, in the dark, fighting nothing more than sibilant shadows and surprisingly fast inhuman flesh, she had thought herself dead. It hadn't fought like a man, or any beast she had ever gone up against. It's actions were frantic and unorganized, backed by immense strength and stamina. It fought like a thing devoid of sanity. A thing birthed out of confusion and disorder with no rhyme to it's reason and no method to it's madness. Any other foe and she might have been able to predict it's actions, it's defenses, but this thing was - - - chaotic.
She shivered, looking out over the plains which were already dusted with a light covering of snow. The stuff filled the air, drifting down in soft, airy flakes. There was some light breaking past the overwhelming cover of clouds to the east that cast the whole of the morning into eerie unreality. The world was no longer the place it had been, altered irrevocably somehow, back at that lake by Hera and maybe Ares, who had both fled the scene of the crime, abandoning the mortal realm to it's own defenses. So very typical of the gods in all their dealings with mankind.
The sun might have been at it's zenith by the time the walls of Pharsalus could be seen. The cloud cover had not broken enough to actually see the brilliant orb, but the world was cast in a dull gray that showed well enough the smoke drifting up from within the walls. The city was burning, or had been before the rains had inevitably drowned the flames. The gates were flung open, the guard towers atop them blackened ruins. The air was heavy the odor of burning things. Wood, cloth, grains, flesh. The haze of smoke mixed with the flickering fall of snow and drifting ash. The living were mixed with the dead, the former skulking fearfully about, looting the corpses of the latter, hiding in the shadows of buildings, clutching simple weapons in hands. Cries and the clash of arms still reverberated from the depths of the narrow city avenues.
They stood in the square inside the city gates and looked upon mayhem. A peaceful city turned upon itself in riots, it's citizens killing each other as though their neighbors were invading enemies. Xena caught a man, who was dressed like nothing more than a moderately well to do merchant, chasing a child with a raised hatchet. She broke his arm to relieve him of the weapon, and in the freezing mud, on his knees, clutching the injured member to his chest, he could only stare up at her with uncomprehending madness in his eyes. The child never stopped in his flight, never looked back and might very well have gone on to cause damage of his own.
"There's nothing we can do here." There was dread finality in her voice.
Gabrielle looked to her, stricken. "But, these people - - -"
"Are past our help. I want out of here. Now."
* * *
The aether was in turmoil. The passage through the upper air, that place of inbetween that buffered the boarders of all realities, was usually a serene, balmy journey that was more a reflexive action than an all out effort to leave the mortal realm and struggle through it to the higher realm of Olympus.
Aphrodite had almost broken a sweat, and she hated sweat . It had been like trying to have a pleasant day sailing, when Poisidon was throwing a royal fit. No matter what you did, you were tossed this way and that, and the wind was never at your back, only coming at you from angles that were not beneficial to getting you where you really wanted to go.
She had not come directly to Olympus from her temple, instead hunting down Iris of the rainbows, who was one of Hera's chief messengers, and happened to be a confidant to Aphrodite, since Aphrodite had arranged a little extracurricular activity with a mortal man Iris had had her eye on. It had taken an irritatingly long time, Iris being in some out the way spot in Bithynia creating rainbows after a storm no one was around to see.
What a waste of time. Iris had claimed not to know a thing about what Hera was up to, though she had admitted to seeing her spending quite a lot of time in the crypts of Olympus, going over a lot of the older scrolls, the ones Gaea had written after she and Uranus had started populating Olympus and making sense of the world.
Old, dusty, boring stuff, as far as Aphrodite was concerned, and she did not relish having to follow a paper trail when there was bound to be somebody that she could flirt the information out of. It was such a shame that Hera did not have more male confidants.
After coming up with practically nothing with Iris, and the eerie feeling she had experienced back with Ares and the mortal women at her temple outside Pharsalus growing in leaps and bounds, she had headed straightaway for Olympus and encountered the overly rough ride in her passage.
She shifted into reality in the formal gardens, her favorite spot within the pantheon of majestic structures that made up the city of the gods. No mortal garden could have matched the grandeur, the splendor of the grove of Hera. It was really the best formal grove in Olympus, Hera hating to be outdone in anything. The buildings that one could just glimpse at the edges of the lush growth were shrouded in the mist like fog that lay about the garden.
She might have taken a moment to hang around and take in the delicious smells of the eternally flowering plants, but there seemed to be some sort of commotion going on. A group of lesser gods ran past, carrying gleaming spears, and armored in sun bright mail. Some of Apollo's minions, by the look of the armor, although she could not see faces within the obscuring helms. Then Hermes phased in not ten feet from her and sprinted off towards Zeus' citadel. He didn't even pause to bid her good day, and Hermes always made the time to give her the eye.
She pouted and called after in him exasperation. "Hey, Hermie, what's the rush?"
He paused long enough to look over his shoulder at her, give her a half leer and blurt out. "Trouble, sweetie. Cat's out of the bag, and it's pissed." Then took off with that famous speed of his, through the mist and out of her sight.
Then something happened that never happened in Olympus. The ground shook. The air itself seemed to vibrate and waver, and for one moment she had trouble keeping her balance. The peacocks in the garden let out the most alarming caterwauling, and the black swans took flight in utmost panic. Aphrodite just stood there a moment, arms outstretched for balance, in much the same state of shock. Something very, very serious was up and it would be way too much of a coincidence to figure it did not have some connection to whatever Hera had been brewing on the mortal plane.
She made for Zeus' citadel, the biggest and the most elaborate structure in the pantheon, and had to fight her way up the steps past an irate, panicked gaggle of godlings who crowded the steps and mulled about the great porch under towering columns that one could not even see the tops of. Inside everything was a wash of white purity; marble and gleaming silver and crystal. She pushed her way to the front, ending up standing next to Artemis, who had bow in hand a way too serious expression on her face. Aphrodite would have asked what was going on but there was too much yelling to be easily heard over. Athena and Ares were the main instigators of the verbal brawl and Zeus, who stood a few feet back from them, arms folded over his chest, looked none to happy about it. Hera stood next to him on Athena's side. Hera looked completely smug, but Athena who would never, ever back down from a fight with Ares, actually looked worried.
Before Aphrodite could get the gist of the debate, Zeus lifted his hands of bellowed for silence. Athena bowed her head, ever the obedient daughter. Ares looked like he wanted to say more, but shut his mouth anyways and settled for glaring at Athena.
"This name calling and accusation is trivial when the very fabric of our existence is threatened." Zeus reprimanded, looking truly, awesomely pissed off, his eyes practically glowing, his lined, bearded face exuding all the power at his command.
"She and Hera are the culprits of this - - -" Ares started, breaking the command of silence and gaining a displeased glare from his sire from it.
"Liar." Hera shot back. "Your foolish intervention caused the spell of binding to go awry. What was to be a gift of the greatest magnitude to the almighty Zeus is now the agent of our woe."
"You must be kidding? Since when does Chaos make a good gift? Might as well give him the same dagger you gave me."
"I will hear no more of this, when Olympus is threatened." Zeus thundered, and more than his eyes glowed. Power formed at his fingertips and when that happened you better tread carefully or be on the receiving end of one of his thunderbolts.
"Of course, husband." Hera looked down, tears in her voice. "Love for you drove my actions."
"Oh, right." Aphrodite muttered.
"Father, she speaks only the truth." Athena put in. "Never would we knowingly threaten Olympus."
"Not only Olympus, but all the realms." Hermes stepped into the central theater of action, a bronzed, slim youthful appearing god, with eyes that usually held a mischievous sparkle, now deadly earnest. "Hades' boundaries have also been tested. He holds fast, but fears if the pressure keeps up the walls between the kingdom of the dead and the living will be rent asunder."
A collective gasp went up about the chamber. Zeus' thundercloud look became darker. "Before there was Olympus, before there was the first god or mortal man, there was Chaos. It took all of my grandfather's might to harness and imprison Chaos and even then it took ages to accomplish. I will not have this realm destroyed by the First One."
"Then we fight it." Ares declared. "Marshal our forces and take it down."
"To war with Chaos only feeds it, stay you out of this fray save for defense, unless I say otherwise. War and Chaos walk too much hand in hand for me to feel comfortable with your influences near those of it's."
"But - -"
"How many times should he say it?" Athena cried looking overly righteous. "Hasn't your interference cost enough already? Be a good boy and stand aside. We'll call you when we need you."
Ares looked fit to burst. He snarled at Athena, managed to avoid saying whatever was on the tip of his tongue and settled for drawing air through his teeth in a hiss and then promptly faded out of sight.
"Is she brownnosing or what?" Aphrodite whispered to Artimes in the lull of Ares' departure. The lithe goddess of the hunt looked down her nose at her fellow goddess.
"This is a council of war, don't you have something else you could be doing?"
Of all the nerve! Aphrodite drew her brows and thought distasteful things about virgin goddess'. She decided to be patient and not return the sarcasm, it was after all, a stressful situation, one expected the weak minded to be a little on edge.
"I've sort of missed some of the action. What exactly is going on?"
"Humph, probably off copulating somewhere. Hera accidentally released Chaos - the Chaos - because of something she claims Ares did to upset her Working. Ever since it's been wreaking havoc with all the realms. It came screaming into Olympus earlier today and believe me it was powerful. It took Zeus and Poisidon both to drive it back to the mortal realm. They've been holding it back since then, but it's attempts are getting stronger and stronger. "
"You mean it wants to destroy Olympus? Why?"
Artemis shrugged. "We represent order to it's chaos. Uranus imprisoned it forever ago and it's holding a grudge."
"What are we doing about it?"
"I don't know, but I'll tell you a rumor I've heard. Zeus is planning on closing the aether."
"Closing the aether? He can do that?"
"With the help of all Olympus."
"What'll that do?"
"It will mean no one, god or Chaos can go inbetween to get to another plane. It will mean that Chaos will be effectively trapped in the mortal realm and we here, until Zeus can figure out what to do."
"And what about the mortals who have to deal with Chaos?"
"What about them?"
"That's what I thought."
* * * * *
The world had plunged into madness. From northern Macedon to the southern tip of Laconia, from the eastern lands of Mysia and Phygia to the island of Crete lying between the Cretean and the Mediterranean seas, the sky boiled over with churning slate gray thunderheads. The sun was a poor wan thing in comparison and the moon for three days had not shown her face, much less any fainter sign of constellations. There were places which hardly saw snow in the dead of winter that found a covering of the stuff on the ground a mere night after an earlier day's sweltering heat. The earth shook along the western coast of Acarninia and Aetolia, and a mountain thought long dead on the eastern coast of Thessaly erupted in the early dawn of the second morning after the skies went wild, and buried the town that had sat at it's foot for two human generations in a matter of moments.
For lack of any better thing to do, Xena took the northeasterly road that lead to Cynoscephalae, thinking from there to head due north , cross the Peneus river and the boarder to Macedon. It was a good journey from there to her home of Amphipolis which lay just over the northern boarder of Macedon in Paeonia where the Strymon river fed out into the Thracian Sea. But, she could not quite quell the fear that the world was teetering on the brink on some great disaster, and desperately wanted to see home one last time. She did not think of home often, or the people she had left there and she doubted any of them thought much of her, save her mother. It was more a comforting thought than a safe haven. To know one had a place where at least one person loved and worried over you was a thing to hold onto. If the world ended, she might like to be there when it happened.
She chided herself for being foolish at that morose thought. The world was not going end over some selfish act of Hera's, even though it might groan and complain over the deed. The world was too strong, she suspected, to let the pettiness of gods effect it overmuch.
The snow had stopped falling some time after noon, leaving behind it a blanket some three inches deep of pristine white for as far as the eye could see. The trees were crowned with it, limbs bowing under the weight, frozen icicles dangling from the tips of branches like jewelry from the fingers of princes. If it were not so damned cold and unnerving it would have been pleasantly beautiful. As it was, she and Gabrielle both shivered under inadequate cloaks, trudged through ankle deep snow that had toes numb and fingers aching from the chill and cheeks red from the freezing wind. It was a miserable day on the basis of pure comfort. One wished fervently for a roadside inn and the bliss of a crackling fire. But a day and a half out from Pharsalus, there was no inn to be found and Xena was not willing to stray from her chosen path far enough to find a village that might offer the same hospitality.
"You know, I don't think I've ever been much for snow." Gabrielle remarked, puffing out clouds of frosted breath beside her. "I think I'm more of a spring/summer person. I think if I were to compare my personality with a season it would definitely be spring."
"Really. And what would I be?"
"Winter I think, and I don't mean that in a everything's dying sort of way, I think of it more as a correlation between the inevitability of it all. It's powerful and thoughtful, somber almost."
"You think I'm somber?"
"Well, sometimes. Maybe serious is a better word."
"I'm not crazy about snow either, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle laughed and kicked a clump of that self same substance out of her path. "It would be better with fur lined cloaks and mittens and brand new boots. I think I'm coming down with a cold."
Xena sighed. It certainly wouldn't be a surprise. Everything else was wrong with the world, why not a little sickness to boot?
"I filled up almost the last of my scrolls writing last night," Gabrielle was saying. "Remind me to get more when we get to Cynoscephalae."
"Any more and Argo won't be able to bear up under the weight."
"You know, you hold a certain lack of reverence for literary pursuits."
Xena's customary reply to such an accusation trembled on her lips, and was forgotten in a moment as the shrill cry of a frightened horse pierced the quiet of a snow insulated afternoon. Argo nickered in nervous response, and Xena threw up one hand to muffle the sound, straining her own hearing to discern some other clue of what transpired through the wood ahead of them. She glanced at Gabrielle, thought briefly of voicing a warning that would go unheeded, then motioned the girl to follow with a sharp movement of her hand. She loped through the light covering of snow, steps muffled by the soft powder, throwing her cloak over one shoulder as she did, to allow free access at her sword.
One moment there were only snow covered trees, pitiful and bent with winter's hand over the wilted green of summer growth, then wailing and screams that were more human than equine. A blur of brown and white as a man pelted past her, face twisted in horror, blood splattered across the front of a pleated white tunic. He noticed her not at all, so intent was his fight, so dilated with terror were his eyes. He was weapon less, she took that in at a glance, so feared not for Gabrielle on the path behind her. Any fears she might have, lay on the way before her and to those she stepped boldly forward, sliding her blade from it's scabbard, weaving around one clump of trees and brush, and another - - and stepping full into chaos.
A wagon lay half tilted on it's axis, covered wooden crates spilled onto the snow laden ground. A pair of horses struggled frantically at yoke, one on it's knees, hampered by the harness that held it secured to the wagon, the other mindlessly thrashing in it's efforts to escape the thing that ravaged the humans on the path.
In the light of day, the horror was no less grotesque than it had been by torchlight. The same scaled, muscular body and jagged teeth filled arms that slashed this way and that, scoring a man's face hideously in one swipe, grasping and ripping off a chunk of flesh from the side of a second in another. It weighted thirty stone if it weighed one, and none of that was ponderous, slow weight. It moved like nothing so much as a reptile, each and every arm having the tendency and quickness of a striking snake. Without the cover of darkness, she could make out something more of the way it moved, of the reach of it's tentacle arms. It was making quick work of the men that remained here. The majority of them were robed and weapon less other than the odd staff, which she doubted even wielded by an experienced hand, would do much good against that thing.
An uneven, broken war cry sounded and an armed man rushed the creature, swinging a bronze short sword more like a club than the bladed weapon it was. She saw all the obvious mistakes in the man's attack in a split second, all the openings he left and the inadequacies of the weapon compared to what he was up against. She was so disgusted by the approach and the failure that was sure to result of it, that she almost missed the familiar, haphazard design of the armor. Almost did not recognized the long, somewhat equine face under the peaked helm. Then all the little associations added up and she cursed, for she knew the one inept warrior among this ill fated group.
"Joxer." she cursed under her breath and let fly the chakram even as the aforementioned warrior swung clumsily at the beast, missed and did not move back swiftly enough to avoid the gaping, teeth filled limb that swiped towards his head. He might have lost half a face if the chakram hadn't sliced into the attacking tentacle, shearing twelve inches off it's length. As it was he stumbled back in shock, slipped on the snow slick ground and tumbled to his rear, staring at the still writhing tip of the amputated arm on the ground at his feet.
Xena screamed out her own war cry, drawing the creature's attention wholly and completely to herself. The last of the men fled, clutching sacks and what appeared to be idols to their breasts. She ignored them, focusing on a deadly foe she had already beaten once. It snarled, in it's wheezing, gasping way, and rushed her like a mad dog. She danced out of the way, striking out as she did, and leaving a oozing gnash across what might have been it's belly. The whole of it's body shifted as it tried to compensate for her dodge, tentacles shoving this way and that to keep it from skidding. It reached for her with every arm that wasn't being used to keep it upright, each and every one moving at a different rate, in a different pattern. Damned disconcerting, that entirely unrhythmic motion. She swung upwards, biting into hard flesh, then brought the stroke back down and severed a limb. It made a strike of it's own almost simultaneously, one of the lower tentacles snaking out and grazing her thigh, leaving a bloody scrape that stung like hades. Gods help her if it had venom in that bite. She drew breath and fought off the pain and with a gathering of muscles sprang up and over the head of her foe, jabbing down with the tip of her blade as she did, piercing what might have been it's head. It's hissing breath became more frantic and it's motions went wild. It hit her before she touched ground, a blow to the lower back that sent her off balance and into the snow on one hip instead of the graceful landing she had planned. She skidded three feet before she came up against the trunk of a tree and it took a split second longer than it should have to gain her feet due to snow that she was in no wise used to fighting in. It loomed over her, very secure in it's footing and she hardly had time to bring the sword up in defense before three or four snapping tentacles were at her.
There was a yell and a movement behind it, and Gabrielle was playing the heroic fool and slamming the thing in the back with her staff. Then Joxer was there, jabbing at it with his sword and between the two of them it was enough of a distraction to make the thing pause in it's attack on her, back off a step and start to turn towards the new irritation. Xena did not even wait till she gained her feet to slash out. She cut at the lower limbs, utilizing all of her strength in what she hoped would be a crippling blow. It wavered, loosing it's balance, and shifted to fix her with it's red eye. She plunged the sword into that glowing orb and viscous fluid spurted out, splattering her blade and arm.
The creature shuddered, seemed almost to deflate, then toppled backwards, spilling into Joxer and Gabrielle who stood too damned close to an enemy that had the kind of reach that this one did. Fools both, to try something like this.
She pulled the blade free and stared at the thick blood. As if she were not one to have attempted it twice. She crouched, picked up a handful of snow and smeared it over her arm to cleanse the noxious blood, then wiped her blade in a similar fashion. For once in this too strange day, she was not cold.
"That's two." Gabrielle said, staring down in disgust at the twitching creature.
"Joxer, what are you doing here?" Xena peered up at him. His helmet was askew. The round, home made bronze breast plate that he had strapped to his chest over shoddy, piecemeal leather armor, had a dent the side of a man's hand in one side of it. He was staring down at the many limbed horror with an expression that was the sure prelude to an announcement that he had been solely responsible for it's demise.
Xena was not in the mood for it. She hurt in more places that she might care to admit, and she was spooked atop it all. She was not the type of woman that spooked easily.
"Who were all those guys?" Gabrielle elaborated on Xena's initial question.
Joxer's narrow chest puffed out, and he straightened his shoulders. He seemed to recall having his sword in hand, for he forcefully thrust it into it's scabbard at his side. It only took him two tries to get it in the slot and only one shallow slice across the fingers in the doing. "I'm Joxer, hired guard to the minions of the gods."
"We know who you are, Joxer." Gabrielle reminded him dryly. "What are you doing here? Hired guard?"
"Those men were high priests to Zeus himself, carrying precious, priceless artifacts in honor of Zeus to Pharsalus and only I, Joxer the great, could guard them from the hordes of bandits and mercenaries that besieged them on the road."
One look at what remained of the cargo spilled into the snow showed it contained damn little gold and costly icons. Mostly stone and wooden icons were visible through the splintered wood. If there had been anything of value, the priests had taken it when they'd fled.
"In other words," Xena summarized, rising and approaching the wagon and the two horses that had calmed somewhat since the violence had abated and cutting first the downed one loose, then the other. "You were hired to escort this wagon to Pharsalus."
"And I would have if - - if that thing hadn't slipped up on me unawares. It travels like a cat at night. Silent, sleek, deadly" His eyes narrowed and his hands curled into claw like imitations of a stalking feline to illustrate his point.
"It crashes through the woods like a bull with it's balls on fire." Xena corrected, kneeling by the draft horses, running her hands over their trembling legs. They seemed sound, although one had a nasty scrape on the side where it had thrashed about on the ground. She wanted those mounts, fast travel having become an essential part of her agenda. It was uncertain at best how many more such encounters such as this one she might be able to survive.
Gabrielle was poking about the spilled contents of the wagon, using her staff to break through already shattered boards of the largest crate. The stone face of a dour god stared sightlessly up at her. Fine craftsmanship, that. No doubt a valuable piece in someone's collection. If the priests ever worked up the nerve to skulk back here, they might recover it and the other half dozen icons that still littered the ground, half buried in snow next to the wagon.
"I hope you got paid in advance." Gabrielle said to Joxer, casting him a disgusted stare as he crouched by the horrible corpse, prodding it valiantly with a stick. He looked up at her and blinked owlishly.
"Weeelll, not exactly. But I'll hunt them down in Pharsalus and collect my due there."
Xena snorted. Gabrielle took pity and explained. "Pharsalus is in flames. It's not a nice place to visit right now."
"Oh. Where are you going?"
"North." Xena led the best of the two horses to Gabrielle and handed her the make shift reins. The animal twitched it's tufted ears and cast the girl a baleful stare. Bewhiskered lips pulled back to better display huge yellowed teeth that snapped together with an audible 'click' as he nipped at her shoulder. Gabrielle let out a little yelp and jumped back, holding the reins at arm's length and giving Xena an accusatory stare.
"I don't think he likes me." She had a healthy respect for any animal that outweighed her ten times, and particularly one's who gave her distinctly unsavory looks from their gleaming brown eyes, even if they were big, scraggly draft horses. Especially if they were big, scraggly draft horses, she amended silently.
"Couldn't you ride this one?" she suggested hopefully, trusting Argo by far with her tender person.
Xena just shook her head and motioned up with a jerk of her thumb. Gabrielle sighed, figuring it was for the best that Xena be on the war trained animal if trouble should arise suddenly and not on a beast that might shy and panic in the face of danger. Reluctantly, she led it over to the wagon and used a crate for a mounting block. The horse shifted uneasily and tossed it's head at the indignity of a rider on it's broad back.
Xena was on Argo, heading down the trampled trial that the wagon had come up, cloak flung back over one shoulder and hilt of her long sword gleaming dully in the wan light. Gabrielle yanked on the reins and managed to get her mount turned and plodding after Argo.
"What about me?" Joxer stood in the snow in the midst of the the carnage, looking pitiful and battered.
"We're heading towards Macedon." Gabrielle called over her shoulder. "You can come if you want, it's safer than heading back towards Pharsalus."
"Safety? I scoff at Safety." he pounded one fist on his chest, then winced as he hurt his hand on the bronze plate mail.
"Whatever." she returned, then glanced back once more to see him struggling onto the remaining draft horse and with some awkward effort managed to get it turned and trotting up the trail in their wake.
* * *
It was snowing again, as if their luck were not already running foul enough. The forest was thick with it, and it made an evening grown already dark even more unmalleable for travel.
Xena rode with her sword across the saddle before her, having been forced by the cold to pull the cloak full about her person. With the hood up, only snaky strands of dark hair played about her cheeks, and pale cerulean eyes stared critically out at the world that harassed them. Her skin, where she had been bitten by the creature, was welting. It throbbed like a dozen wasp stings and felt warm to the touch. She had rubbed snow into the wound to cleanse it, and healing herbs after that, but had no notion whether some subtle poison had invaded her system or whether the welting were only some minor reaction to the saliva of the thing. Lightly she traced the outside of the raised skin with a finger tip, half listening to Gabrielle and Joxer's banter behind her.
Joxer of all people. As if she hadn't already a hard enough time keeping Gabrielle out of trouble, now she had him to deal with, and he hadn't a fraction of the sense that Gabrielle had to work with. If ever there was a fool hungry for his own demise, it was Joxer. Always looking for glory that never came his way, and perpetually overestimating the scope of his own ability to deal with the situations his wanderlust got him into. A bumbling idiot that belonged on a farm somewhere, tending fields, not playing warrior in a world that had no tolerance for ineptitude and no facility to give second chances. But an idiot with a good heart, under all the bluster and false bravado.
He was annoying Gabrielle with some concocted tale of his battle prowess, suggesting that her time as a scribe might be better spent documenting the feats of the Great Joxer. That if she wished to be remembered ages from now that it was the only sensible thing to do. Understandably, Gabrielle scoffed at the notion.
"Oh, right, Joxer, what have you ever done that anybody would want to read about?"
"I've done lots." His voice took on the prideful tone of wounded dignity. "Just because you haven't seen it all, didn't mean it didn't happen."
"Find me witnesses, Joxer. Then maybe we'll talk."
"What if I was the only survivor? What if nobody else had the courage to face the monsters and they all ran? What about that? Is that a cook fire I smell?" His nose started twitching with all the efficiency of a rabbit on the run. He perked up half again as tall on his horse's back, scanning the forest.
Xena smelt it too. Smoke on the air, and very possibly the smell of cooked meat, but meat that had a heavy, distasteful scent. The odor hinted at familiarity. It was one she had scented not long past in Pharsalus. Burned human flesh had a distinct reek.
"Is there anything up this trail?" she cast an impatient look back to Joxer.
"Umm," he scratched behind his ear nervously. "A temple, I think. We passed a temple to Demeter that was off the trail. The priests spoke about it."
She swore and kicked Argo into a canter, commanding back over her shoulder. "Stay out of my way, Joxer. Guard Gabrielle's back."
Which command Gabrielle would probably find frustrating, but at least it would give Joxer a reason to keep out of her way. A waist high stone pillar marked the fork in the snow hidden trail. Three, four hundred yards up that and the first outbuildings of a settlement that had grown up around the central temple could be seen. There was hardly anything left of them, charred, splintered wood scattered around the clearing as if the shanties had been smashed by the fist of a titan. The snow was muddied, and heavily trampled, splotched here and there by pools of red. Slowing Argo to a walk she surveyed the destruction, jaw grinding in helpless rage as first one corpse, then another reveled itself in the dirtied snow. A child lay half buried in the wreckage of it's home, mother lying but a few feet away, burned and mutilated beyond recognition.
She tore her gaze away and fixed it on the temple. It was stone and not wood, but it smoke too. Two of it's three central columns had been shattered, and part of the roof that they had supported had crumbled. Something it seemed had jabbed a horse sized hole through the south wall, through which smoke drifted aimlessly. There was no sound, other than the crackle of small fires from within the desecrated temple. How strange that Demeter, who was goddess of the seasons, should have her temple attacked in this time of seasonal insanity.
For a moment she sat still on Argo at the base of the temple steps, stretching her senses to the limit, listening for any sign that an enemy still lurked in the vicinity, but there was nothing. Despite the cold, she unclasped her cloak, not wanting it's hindrance should she have need of free movement. She fastened to the saddle and slid to the ground.
"Be careful." she warned her companions. Gabrielle nodded once, looking pale and sick, Joxer swallowed preparing no doubt for a bravado laden assurance of his own powers of self defense. She wasn't in the mood for it and waved him silent with a sharp jab of her hand. "Quiet. We don't know if whatever did this is really gone. I'm going into the temple, stay here until I tell you it's clear. Understand Joxer?"
He nodded once. She cast her gaze on Gabrielle, silently asking for affirmation from that corner. Slowly the girl inclined her head in agreement.
"We'll look in the wreckage, maybe someone's still alive."
Xena did not disagree, but she knew it was a false hope. Nothing that did this would be so sloppy as to leave survivors. The stairs were covered with a lighter veil of snow. It was unmarred by footprints, save hers. One of the bronze temple doors had been flung out into the yard, the other hung off it's hinges tilted outward. Odd, those positionings, hinting that the temple had not been broken into, but out of. Into the shadows of the central chamber and there was total destruction. Nothing remained that might have been an idol, a shrine, an alter, or even a decorative column. The floor was littered with chunks of stone, wood, globs of what looked to be melted then hardened bronze or gold and the more gory bits and pieces of flesh that could have been human. Small fires crackled here and there, where ever there was fuel to fed their ravenous appetites. She could not ever quite recall seeing anything so totally obliterated.
She knelt at what might have been the nave, and poked through the rubble. Nothing that could give her any clue as to what happened remained. A stone shifted behind her and a shadow fell over her shoulder. Gabrielle or Joxer, she thought with a sting of irritation that neither of them could follow an order to save their hides. She swung her head around with a curt remark on her lips and froze.
A man stood there, looking down upon her curiously. He was tall, and from what she could tell with the light behind him, very pale of skin and hair, though his eyes seemed to shine with an almost silvery light. He wore a multicolored, brocade robe over trousers of the same fine material, and possessed no weapon she could discern about his person. This last fact was the only thing that kept her from leaping to her feet and pressing him back at sword point. She chose to rise slowly instead, sword lowered and unthreatening and stare him levelly in the eyes. They were almost of a height, he being just a tad taller, and innocuously built. There was something slightly foppish to his face and stance. Something very cavalier and not quite stable about him that set the skin on the back of her arms to prickling.
"Well, hello." she said carefully. "I didn't hear you come in."
"Hummm. No, you didn't." he agreed, tilting his head and studying her with lazy silver eyes. "I heard you."
She drew a slow breath, the feeling growing. That was another thing. She hadn't heard him and she had damned good hearing and better senses for unseen things at her back. "Are you from around here? From this temple? This settlement?"
His gaze drifted away from her and around the shattered temple. "Oh, I'm from here and there. There and here. A little bit of everywhere and nowhere. . . . " He giggled and the insanity in his eyes was visible even in the gloom.
"Ah." she half smiled, stepping around him, keeping him well within her vision and moving into the center of the floor where she might have more room. "I see."
"I recognize the feel of you." he twisted his head to peer over his shoulder at her, a burrow forming between blonde brows. "I do believe I've passed you."
"You might have." she agreed. "What are you doing here?"
"Here? Oh, just looking for a way in. They've slammed the door in my face, you know. Rude. So very rude. After all this time, they won't even greet me properly."
He turned full about to face her, a glowing smile on his face. "Oh, the upstarts."
"Xena!" The sound of footsteps running up the stairs, and Gabrielle burst into the temple. "We found three more - - -" and stopped, staring at the strange man. Xena did not turn to face her. Did not dare to take her eyes from the eyes of the blonde man.
"Fine." she ground out. "Go back down and see if there are more."
"But - - who is he?"
"Never mind, just do it."
More footsteps and Joxer bounded up the stairs, skidding into Gabrielle's back. She shook him off, spared one frustrated glare, then turned a sober gaze back to Xena, stubbornly waiting for an answer.
"Who's that?" Joxer repeated the question, stepping boldly into the chamber with a swaggering walk designed to impress all observers with the depths of his valor. "A survivor, humm?" he answered his own query and walked right up to the man and slapped him on the back. "Not to fear, you're safe now with me here to protect you."
"Joxer." Xena purred softly, warningly.
He cast a half apologetic, half irritated glance her way. "And Xena, of course. Why just earlier today I killed a creature so fierce that even the servants of the gods fled from it in horror. A hundred mouths it had, all with razor sharp teeth, at the ends whipping, snake tentacles. "
"You," the man said with a troubled frown marring his face. "killed one of the children?"
"No no no, not a child, a monster. Are you hard of hearing?" Joxer looked back to Xena with the expression of someone who's just discovered he's dealing with a mental incompetent. The man's hands had curled into claw like fists. Xena noted distractedly that his nails were opaque white, gleaming, almost shining like metal. That feeling, that niggleling little feeling was hammering so hard at her that her insides quivered.
"Joxer, get outside." She punctuated the command by stepping up to him, grabbing him by the collar and heaving him backwards with enough force to send him stumbling past Gabrielle and tumbling down the steps of the temple.
"He killed one of the children?" the man repeated, taking a step forward. Xena moved into his path, a grim smile on her lips. "No, he only annoyed it. I killed it. Whose child was it?"
"A child of Chaos." he whispered back a moment before his silver eyes turned molten and energy flared outward from them. She leapt upwards, spinning away in a somersault twist and landing catlike beside a wide eyed Gabrielle. She did not waste time for pleasantries, grabbing the girl roughly by the arm and hurling her out of the temple before she dove further into it, dancing past the man and striking out with her blade at his unprotected middle. Her sword struck something, but it wasn't flesh. More like a barrier inches away from his body that deflected the steel and sent tremors up her arm. He slashed an arm down and white hot force sliced through the air where she had been a split second before. She made another strike at his head and the sword bounced off again ineffectually. He laughed maniacally, throwing his head back and howling. Standing there in the center of the ruined temple, he ignored her, laughing until tears ran down his cheeks and his eyes seemed nothing so much as pools of silver water.
"How I've missed consciousness." he gasped between guffaws. "Life is so much more fun than eternal sleep. You liked my children, did you? Well, how about some more to play with, pretty mortal?" He spread his arms wide, drew a breath and exhaled it. His body convulsed, then his abdomen swelled, bulging outward, first the size of a melon, then that of a heavily pregnant woman, then twice that before tunic split and the distorted flesh beneath began to crackle and glow. Something snake like and sinuous rippled out, grasping after the cold air, then with a sudden motion a form by far larger than the man who had spawned it slithered out onto the floor. Another followed it and another and Xena stood rooted to the spot in horrified revulsion as the birthing was completed and three of the creatures staggered about uncertainly, trailing oozing membranes of their afterbirth. She caught one brief glance, as the rent inside his belly closed of brilliant seething light. A millions points of color and energy that coalesced and swarmed within the trappings of flesh.
Then she was sprinting for the door, in no wise deluding herself that she had any chance against three of the 'children of Chaos', much less the being that had spawned them.
"Go go go!" she screamed at her companions who stood gawking at the foot of the temple. It must have been the look of utter shock on her face that set them so quickly to motion without a single question. They were barely to their horses by the time the children of Chaos were spilling down the front steps to the temple, their sire striding behind them, hands clasped behind his back, eyes still glowing with unnatural light. Xena reined Argo around to stare at him, ready to distract his attention should he make a move for Gabrielle or Joxer before their made good their escape, but he merely smiled at her and inclined his head.
With a frustrated, furious screech she wheeled her horse about and set heels to it's side, thundering down the trail behind her friends.
* * * * *
Xena hated running from a fight, hated even more leaving a situation unsettled, but damned if this wasn't one that she could see no way of winning on her own. Not against that sort of force.
Argo over took the ponderously galloping draft horses before they reached the split in the trail leading back to the northern road. Gabrielle and Joxer bounced about upon those broad backs precariously, hanging on to mane and rein for dear life. Snow was kicked up in Argo's face as she came in close to the rear ends of the two geldings. Gabrielle looked back at her in relief, hair flying every which way.
"Who was that? A god?" The girl screamed over the thundering of hooves and the buffeting wind.
Xena just shook her head, not certain. If he had been a god, he was an unbalanced one, not that there weren't gods aplenty that crossed over the line into insanity, but the majority of them were methodical in their madness. She had honestly not known what to make of that slim, silver eyed being and it was not often that she was unable to gauge the intent of an enemy.
A mile down the path and they were forced to slow the pace, the draft horses laboring under a prolonged gallop that they were in no condition to maintain. At the trot Xena permitted, they were still able to cover a good deal of ground. Argo, who was hardly winded, tossed her head and pranced as Xena kept turning back to survey the trail behind them. No recently spawned hounds of Chaos appeared through the snow misted trees.
"We could have taken him," she heard Joxer saying to Gabrielle. "But, Xena was just worried about you."
"Not just him." she pulled up between them, letting Argo shoulder the larger horses aside. "Three more of those things that attacked your party."
"More?" Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder in distress. "From in the temple? We didn't see any outside."
"From within the man." Xena clarified. "Don't ask me how, but he just - - birthed them on the spot. He called them the children of Chaos."
"The children - -? Then that would make him Chaos. Oh wonderful. That's just great. As if the world weren't screwy enough now we have Chaos and all his kids to deal with."
"Who's Chaos? He didn't look so tough." Joxer leaned forward to peer around Xena. Gabrielle fixed him with her bard's stare.
"You don't keep up with popular religion much, do you? Before the world there was Chaos, and Chaos kept anything from forming, until Uranus banished him and made order out of chaos and formed the world and that's how we came to be. "
Joxer blinked at her in awe. Xena gave her much the same look, not having for even a moment made that particular connection."
"That's an awfully broad leap of logic, Gabrielle."
"No, it's not, Xena. Think about it. Hera and Athena were trying to summon something really powerful. They had to open a gateway and needed death and destruction to do it. What's caused that death and destruction but a senseless act of violence, which was in essence a chaotic act. "
"I don't want to think about it." She was spooked now, more so than when those things had wormed their way out of Chaos' belly. Gabrielle was the one who's thoughts were always stretching the bounds of reality. Xena preferred her feet on solid ground, facing things she could deal with physically with plain, old fashioned steel.
"So what do we do now?" Gabrielle asked carefully.
"What we'd planned. On to Cynoscephalae for supplies, then to Macedon."
"What if we can't escape this? What if nobody can?"
"Gabrielle, you think too much."
"Don't worry, Gabrielle," Joxer gave her his smuggest smile. "I'll protect you."
"Dream on, Joxer."
Since neither of her companions were adept enough riders to sleep on horseback, they were forced to camp for the night. An uneasy watch was set, Xena taking the longest part herself. But nothing attacked them. No slightest thing, save for a solitary hunting owl disturbed their rest. Xena sat by the fire, cloak pulled about her, sword at her side on the ground and watched the nocturnal bird glide through the canopy of branches with unnatural ease. It passed them by without a sound to ever suggest it had gone their way and disappeared into the night. Xena shivered, thought about getting up and searching for more fuel to feed the fire but could not bring herself to move from what had become a comfortable slouch against a fallen tree.
A few hours before dawn she woke Gabrielle to take the last watch, and snuggled down into the warm bed of foliage Gabrielle had reluctantly departed. Sleep came easier than she might have hoped and with it dreams that were less violent than expected but far more troublesome. What she could recall upon waking was vague and indistinct, but the overall impression was of herself wrapped in a snug cocoon of placidity, while the world went on around her, she all too content in her peaceful prison. It seemed never ending and overpowering, and she thought that it seeped at her will, which made the notion of that warm, soft place abhorrent and frightening.
She woke, not knowing what to make of the after images in her mind, and soon even that thought was banished as the smell of griddle cakes frying attracted her attention. Joxer was already up, leering over Gabrielle's shoulder at the sizzling breakfast. His helmet was off, and his short brown hair tousled from sleep. He looked like nothing so much as an oversized kid, with the hungry/eager expression on his face and the way he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. She half smiled as she stretched at the irritated glares Gabrielle kept passing over her shoulder at him when he hovered too close.
Gabrielle saw her awake and smiled brilliantly. "You hungry?"
"Good. You did the most work yesterday, so you get first serving." At which announcement Joxer's face fell somewhat and he relented and slouched off to plop down upon his bedroll on the other side of the fire, muttering over how unappreciated he was.
Soon after they were on their way, and by the time the sun had reached it's zenith, hidden behind the shield of clouds, they had cleared the forest and rode sloping, rock studded hills only occasionally dotted with trees and brush. The land continued on in this vein for hours. The sun was halfway between noon and dusk when they topped one craggy hill and looked down upon a vale scattered with fighting men.
Two forces of men met and clashed, perhaps numbering thirty in all. There was nothing inhuman among them, Xena ascertained very quickly, nothing but swords and hammers to do damage to fragile flesh. She put a hand out when Joxer would have rode down there, eager to get his head split.
"I'm not certain I want to get in the middle of this." she warned. "They're mercenaries by the look of their gear. If they want to kill each other it's their prerogative. Besides, we've problems of our own what with Chaos' hounds possibly on our trail."
"Chaos' hounds?" A voice rang out from nearby, and Xena jerked her head about searching for the source. A young woman perched on the rocks, almost blending in with the stone, what with her short gray and brown tunic, her shoulder length brown hair, and olive coloring. One bare knee was pulled up to her chest, the other leg stretched before her. It was a position of ease in which she observed the battle below. A long, ruin covered spear lay by her side, it's point gleaming gold. She tilted her head, observing them with large, wise eyes.
"What do you know of Chaos' hounds?"
"Only that they tremble at our mighty presence." Joxer did Xena the favor of answering.
The girl, for she seemed hardly past young womanhood, lifted one brow at his boast. She was all too calm this close to a battle, with strange warriors in easy striking distance. "Really? What awesome fighters you must be, then."
"Well, of course." Joxer blushed at that praise, a silly grin twisting his lips.
"They're not so much hounds," Xena said slowly, "as children."
The girl's eyes fixed on her. "Yesss. So I've heard. How do you know this, mortal?"
Ah. She knew it! There were just too many gods around of late. One might only hope this was a benevolent one. "I've seen it with my own eyes. He births them himself."
"You saw him?" the girl leapt to her feet on one smooth motion, took up her spear and marched over to stand at Argo's side, staring up at Xena eagerly. "You laid eyes on Chaos himself?"
"I did. Who are you?"
One slim hand waved negligently, as through that matter were of small import. "Where?" she demanded.
"Oh, here and there. Who are you?" Xena smiled grimly down, refusing to be used or manipulated by any more gods. She was damned tired of their attitudes.
"Nike." the young goddess said impatiently. "Where?"
Nike. If her grasp of Olympian alliances were correct, Nike was a bosom companion to Athena, who as far as she was concerned had a hand in all this. She was not certain she wished to give support to that arena. Then again, why not point her in the right direction and let her try to deal with that jabbering blonde hell spawn, if he was even still hanging around Demeter's temple?
She shrugged, letting her gaze drift back down the the tumult below.
"What's this? Your doing?"
Nike followed her gaze. "Not at all. I am not an instigator of battles, merely a patron of the victorious."
"Ah, then you know me well." Joxer's head lifted proudly as he struck a pose. Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Xena ignored him as did Nike.
"This merely drew my attention in passing, and I stopped - - - and found that I could not leave the way I had come. " Her brows drew in consternation. "They've been at it all morning, off and on. Hysterical that the world is on it's way to the final end, what with all the disturbances this realm has experienced. I suppose mortals will be up in arms all over if this keeps up."
"If it weren't for Hera and Athena, it never would have happened." Gabrielle had obviously kept silent as long as she could. Nike's eyes snapped up to her.
"What know you of Hera and Athena?"
"We know they're the one's who opened the gateway that let Chaos out of it's prison."
Nike's mouth opened, then shut and her pixie-like face set in stubborn lines. "Athena would never."
"Yeah? Then what about Hera? Would you believe it of her?"
"How do you mortals propose to know such things." The goddess demanded.
"We saw and heard them talking about it after they'd caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent men. Then they started riots in Pharsalus and hundreds more died."
"I believe you not."
"Then why don't you go ask then yourself?"
"I cannot." the goddess muttered.
"Why not?" Xena asked.
"Zeus has sealed the aether to keep Chaos from invading Olympus. There is no traveling between the realms. I am here in physical form until it is reopened."
"You mean," Xena purred dangerously. "To protect Olympus from it, he's trapped it here in our world?"
"Just so." Nike muttered.
"Well that's just wonderful." Gabrielle threw out her hands. "We're supposed to rely on you guys to protect us and you just up and abandon us when the going gets tough. I can't believe this."
"It is not so simple as that. If Olympus falls then the major source of our power falls with it. If order fails in Olympus how long to do you think it will remain here? It is to protect all realms that Zeus has done this."
"Right, whatever you say."
"Listen you, mortal chit, this is not the path I would have chosen, but I am forced upon it and will make the best of it. Now where is it that you saw Chaos, for even if alone, I will find him and endeavor to send him back to the pit he escaped from?"
"Was released." Gabrielle countered, but Xena lifted a hand to silence her. She had the very bad feeling that her self-conscious was not going to let her easily walk away from this fight. That with the power of a god on her side there might be somewhat more of a chance to best Chaos and his hideous minions.
"There's a temple to Demeter in the forest a days ride south. Do you know where it is?"
A frown crossed Nike's lips. "If I had the aether to pass through, I might find it in a moment, but this physical travel is somewhat more complicated. I - - don't know. Will you lead me there?"
Gabrielle stared at Xena. Joxer did. Xena peered at the rolling black bank of clouds that seemed to have eternally taken up residence in the skies over Thessaly, looked to her friends, who she had been trying to lead away from this conflict, then finally back to Nike.
"Can you do it? Drive him back from where he came?"
The goddess hesitated, then shrugged. "If I don't see what I'm up against, I'll never know."
Xena sighed and nodded once. "Good enough."
* * **
Nike had her own method of travel. The gold tipped spear she held shriveled and shrank until it was no more than a twig in her hand, then the goddess herself spread both arms wide, bunched her legs and sprang into the air. Before her sandals had cleared two feet of ground her body coalescesed, shimmered and metamorphosised into a great gray owl which took to the air with a powerful swipe of it's wings. She caught a current several hundred feet up and circled the humans on the ground lazily.
Gabrielle stared up at her, eyes wide in awe. Gods and goddess, demons and wars between the immortals. It was just too much to keep straight. She could not quite believe the injustice of it all, these monumental events taking place around her and nothing to write on so that she might put it in ink while it was still fresh in her memory. But no, nobody cared about recording history. They were all too interested in hacking and slashing. Even Xena, and sometimes especially Xena, whom she suspected humored her tremendously when she went on about the importance of preserving all the histories of times gone by, and making sure what happened in the here and now got it's fair chance of surviving the ages.
They returned to the same trampled path they had ridden up, leaving the warring mercenaries behind to sort out their own differences. Xena rode ahead, face dark in thought. She was planning strategy, Gabrielle could tell from the expression, and figured she could do it more efficiently without bothersome questions, so she hung back, leaning her hands on the rump of her mount, who had turned out to be not so bad a ride, once they had established who was who in their relationship. Joxer rode beside her, staring suspiciously at the speck of a bird in the dark sky.
"I don't know if I trust people who turn into birds." he admitted.
"She's not a 'people', she's a god." Gabrielle corrected. "And I don't think I trust gods much either."
"Did you notice the look she gave me? How impressed she was by my prowess in battle?"
"What look? What prowess? She was ignoring you."
"Was not! I know when a woman gives me that look."
"Right! You wish. " She pulled her cloak tighter about her throat, blowing out breath and watching it frost before her face. It was marginally warmer now. There was even some melt of the snow in patches, but mostly it was on the rocks where the meager sunlight had managed to chip away at the icy powder.
"Joxer," she mused. "Why do you think he attacked the temple? It wasn't a strategic location, there were hardly any people there at all. And then one of those things coming after you when you were leading a group of priests carrying icons of the gods. You think he just has it in for the gods, because of what was done to him way back when? Or is he looking for something in particular?"
"I don't know, but we'll find out. He'll be cowering once he knows how many great warriors he faces."
"Joxer, don't be an idiot. He's gonna wipe the ground with us if we're not careful. Even Xena doesn't want to fight him and honestly I don't even think Nike is up to the task. I mean, it took Uranus, the first of all the gods to put him down the last time. Xena and Nike, even with your tremendous presence to back them up are just not going to be enough."
"What are you, the expert on the gods now? You don't know."
"No. I wish I did."
He shut up for a while after that and they just rode, covering ground they had already traveled. They were well into the forest by dusk and night was full upon them by the time Xena called for a halt. Nike fluttered to a perch in a tree and watched them with glowing yellow eyes as they set up camp. It was an uneasy night, under those watchful, almost scornful eyes, and no one felt much in the mood for light conversation.
At the break of dawn they were again on the trail, Gabrielle cold, miserable and sore after sleeping on rocky, uneven ground. She grumbled through break fast and glared at the barely visible owl above them who looked perfectly content as she preened her feathers. They ate cakes in the saddle, washing them down with water from canteens filled with melted snow.
When they reached Demeter's temple, it was much as they had left it, save there were no creepy monsters lumbering down the steps after them. Xena stopped Argo and surveyed the ruins while the owl fluttered to earth and transformed into a slim young woman at the foot of the steps leading to the shattered temple.
"He's not here." Xena surmised, slipping down from Argo and striding towards the temple on Nike's heels. Since no warning had been given, Gabrielle dismounted and hurried after, with Joxer in her wake. He pushed her aside when they reached the steps with a manful look and the suggestion that he ought to go first, just in case. She glared at him, elbowed him in the side and stomped up the steps while he was rubbing bruised ribs at the bottom.
She had not gotten that good a look at the destruction within the last time she had been here, having held more interest for the strange man confronting Xena. Now she stopped and stared at the magnitude of the destruction in astonishment. Nike padded about the debris, looking for who knew what in the shambles of the place, while Xena stood just within the walls by the door, one hand caressing her chakram. Joxer crowded past her, so she moved aside to stand close to Xena.
"I am really, really glad he's not here." she confided. "I don't think I'm ready to face another one of those things again."
"I don't think any of us are. It doesn't change the fact that we'll have to, sooner or later."
"Yeah. What's she looking for?"
Having no answer, Xena merely shook her head and settled her back against the wall, one booted foot resting on a slice of toppled marble column. Finally Nike ceased her prowling and declared.
"I can feel the power he left behind. It's very odd. Very unlike any power I've sensed before. Having scented it here, I think I can follow it's trail."
"Oh, great, we're going to go hunting Chaos." Gabrielle muttered, turning to follow Xena as the other pushed herself from the wall and strode to the front porch of the temple - - - and stopped in her tracks so suddenly that Gabrielle collided into her back. She rubbed her nose and stepped around her friend and paused in mid-step herself, staring out into the yard.
A very large, very fine black horse stood in stark relief against the snow, it's breath forming funnels of frost in the air, it's eyes glowing demonic red beneath a flowing fall of black forelock. It was quite the impressive beast, from a purely physical standing, beautiful to look at and not a thing she would ever want to get within biting or kicking distance of. Much like it's rider, who sat with one leg casually hooked over the saddle horn, staring up at them with disdainful speculation in his dark eyes.
"Ares." Xena said. A muscle in her jaw twitched.
"Xena. Our paths do tend to be crossing."
"The fates must be frowning on me, huh?" she purred. "Where in hades have you been? You left right when it was getting so interesting."
"I told you - -" he started, then narrowed his eyes as Nike stepped out from the shadows behind them and paused on the top step to peer down her slim nose at him.
"Oh, one of Athena's little underlings." He sneered. "Come to try and undo the damage your bitch of a mistress caused."
"Liar!" Nike's spear miraculously appeared in her hand. "It's not so. You twist every truth to your own benefit. Now you slander Athena out of jealously."
"Jealousy? Jealousy?" he laughed, then beckoned her with one hand. "Come on little bird, use your spear on me, if you can."
Nike snarled, leveled her gold tipped spear and descended the steps. Xena pulled back her lips in a growl of her own and leaped over the goddess' head, twisting in mid-air and coming down between the horse and Nike.
"Stop it! Both of you. Nike, I couldn't agree more with most of the things you said about him, but in this case you're wrong. He was not the instigator of this little problem. He tried to stop it. Athena has obviously been keeping a few things from you and you'd better learn to live with it."
Nike glared at her, took a deep, frustrated breath and lowered the spear. Ares moved his mount closer to Xena, so that she stood by his knee.
"I love it when you defend me." he leered down at her.
"Don't get used to it." she muttered darkly. "So tell me, are you trapped in this realm, too?"
"Maybe." he shrugged nonchalantly.
"He is." Nike declared, scowling. "Any god who's here is here to stay."
"May not be for long, if Chaos has his way." Ares speculated, bringing his leg the rest of the way over the saddle and slipping to the ground next to Xena, who refused to give ground at his deliberate closeness. She lifted her chin and matched his stare. He half smiled in amusement at the effort.
"How'd you know he was here?" she demanded.
"I followed his 'scent'. Remember, I was damned close to him when those two bitches released him from his imprisonment. I got a real good idea of what his power feels like."
"I still don't believe you're not at fault here." Nike muttered, kicking at the snow like a sulking child.
"Believe what you want. I could really care less." He paused, eyes attracted to the temple doors as Joxer stumbled out crowing triumphantly, holding what looked to be a melted glob of gold in one hand.
"Treasure. I found treasure." He stopped, staring down at Ares and the tense faces of the women. "Is this an enemy? Never fear, Joxer is here to defend you."
Ares rolled his eyes, casting Xena a dubious look. "Is this the quality warrior you've fallen into company with? You were so much better off when you worshipped me."
"I was in the company of butchers, cutthroats and animals. You call that better company?"
Joxer was fumbling for his sword. Gabrielle put a hand on his chest to stop him from making the biggest mistake of his life. "Joxer. He's an enemy, but not right now. I don't think. That's Ares."
"An enemy, but not an enemy? Wait a minute. Ares? As in 'God of War', Ares?"
"Um humm, that's the one."
"Oh." Joxer's face turned a little pale and he quickly transferred his fingers from the hilt of his sword to a suddenly bothersome itch at his crotch, genitals no doubt having shriveled rather rapidly.
"I won't ally myself to him." Nike declared, thumping the butt of her spear in the snow. "He is Athena's enemy and mine."
"Whatever." Ares walked around her, unconcerned and stared up at the ruin of the temple.
Gabrielle climbed down the steps, gave Ares a wide birth and stepped up to Nike, tilting her head to ask quietly. "Nike, don't be offended, but I've got to ask. Are you as powerful as he is?"
The goddess lifted her chin pridefully, eyes flashing. Her mouth twitched as if she were fighting some inner turmoil, then she lowered her head and whispered furiously. "No. He's one of the Twelve Seated gods. I'm - - - only an attendant deity. My power, comes in some part from Athena herself. . ."
"Who isn't here."
"Who is not here." Nike agreed grudgingly.
"Then don't you think that just maybe he might be handy to have around if we do happen to find Chaos? I mean, if we can tolerate working with him, maybe you could make an effort too? Between the two of you, we might have a fighting chance."
Nike closed her eyes, then opened them and studied Gabrielle thoughtfully. "You are wise beyond your years. I feel shamed not to be practicing the same wisdom, of which a great many folk constantly accuse me of possessing. All right, Gabrielle. I will try."
Smiling, Gabrielle dared to lay and hand on a goddess' arm and give the flesh a friendly squeeze of confidence. Counselor to the gods. She felt better about their odds already.
Xena did not quite share her lightened spirits. Xena was feeling just a little trapped. She stepped up behind Ares and followed his gaze into the shadowed interior of the temple.
"Why aren't you up in Olympus with the rest of the oh so concerned gods who protect and guide us?"
"The company was pissing me off."
"So you choose to be stuck down here with the rest of us sheep to be slaughtered?"
"Oh, Xena, I would never consider you a sheep. Maybe a wolf in sheep's skin."
"You flatterer." she said dryly. "You didn't plan to be trapped here, did you?"
"I didn't expect Zeus would seal the aether so quickly. I can only assume Chaos increased his attack."
"You don't know?"
He turned a tight, irritated grin her way. "My father wouldn't let me in on the fight. Said I was too volatile an element when dealing with Chaos. Not that he wouldn't have been happy to draw power from me, but I'm sorry I don't particularly like being used with no say in the matter."
"Hypocrite." she hissed. "You do it all the time."
"Humm, guess so." He frowned, then swung around to look at Nike. "Did you try to access the aether here?"
"No, why would I? It's sealed tight."
"Someone tried hard. The boarder is strained, feel it?"
Nike frowned, concentrating. A little furrow appeared between her brows. "Yes. It's thin here."
"Of course it's thin. This is a temple to Demeter. Think about it. The aether in any temple will be easier to work because it's traveled so much more frequently. He hit the temple because he has more of a chance of breaking through Zeus' seal here than anywhere else."
"Just a temple," Gabrielle theorized. "or anything closely related to the gods? He had a band of priests carrying icons of Zeus attacked. Would even a statue of Zeus give him more of a chance of breaking through?"
"If it had held a place of honor and worship in a temple, maybe. It would be connected to Zeus, in a way and that might give him an edge. But it would be a long shot." Nike said slowly.
"He's heading east." Ares announced with certainty.
"And the closest temple to the east?" Gabrielle inquired.
"The temple of Athena is between here and Pagasae." Xena answered.
"Oh, good choice." Ares cast a taunting grin at Nike. "I hope he burns it to the ground, it would serve the high and mighty bitch right."
Nike let out a little screech and leapt for him. Xena caught her by the shoulders and miscalculating just how strong the goddess was in her thirst for retaliation, found herself plowed backwards into Ares. He caught her about the waist, swung her around and thrust out his free hand palm outwards, at Nike. The goddess hit what might have been a shield, might have been a lash of energy and rebounded twenty feet. She landed on her feet with cat-like grace and crouched there glaring.
Ares lifted a brow at her and shrugged, then bent his head close to Xena's and whispered. "There you go, defending me again."
She jammed an elbow into his stomach. Hard. With a grunt, he let her go. Gabrielle and Joxer were staring between the two gods with a certain wariness on their faces. Xena mouthed a few choice curses under her breath. What a wonderful, wonderful time she had to look forward to, on the road to Pagasae.
* * * * *
Nike took the skies. If she had felt no obligation in traveling close to the mortals she found herself allied with, she had a down right violent aversion to being in the vicinity of Ares. Ares could have cared less, having no more concern for Nike's feelings towards him than he did for Joxer's.
To her annoyance, the only person in the whole party that he seemed to realize existed, was Xena. Everyone else was an irritant to be tolerated. But just barely. His fiery eyed black steed pranced side by side With Argo, managing to make the mare skittish and none too comfortable with the attentions of an unknown, wholly strange smelling stallion. The stallion was going out of his way to impress Argo, tossing his fine head and flaring the trailing plume of his tail. Argo, one might guess, from the nickers and little nips at the muscular black neck when the stallion veered too close, was slowly warming to the attentions.
Xena vowed to make it a point to keep them tethered far apart, having no desire for Argo to foal some demonsteed's spawn. "Could you keep that nag away from my horse?" she ground out between clenched teeth after the third time the stallion pressed close enough to scrape her leg.
"Nag? I'll have you know Ciciro is one of the finest steeds from the pastures of Olympus. Trained for war, unstoppable. Never tiring."
"Great. Keep him off Argo."
"It galls you, doesn't it, being in my service again?"
She swung around to gaze at him in amusement. "In your service? Get a life, Ares. I'm not doing this for you or the gods, I'm doing this for all the mortal lives at stake. Like it or not, the point here is to save lives, not waste them."
"Oh, and you think that's all I'm about? Wasting lives?"
"That and your own power."
"You were smarter back then, when you were a warlord in your own right. Had a much sharper grasp of reality."
"What reality? Killing innocent people?"
"You had your reasons. Were they good ones?"
"They were revenge and anger." she flared. "I couldn't get at the roots of my own hatreds, so I took it out on the world."
"Oh and I always thought you blamed it on me."
"You had nothing to do with the initial causes, but you damn sure fueled the fire once I started."
"You were methodical and brilliant. Your kills were clean. You think I encourage sloppy, incompetent fools. " he jerked a thumb back to where Joxer and Gabrielle rode. "Can you imagine him leading an army. You'd have - -" he paused and thought a moment before finishing. "- - chaos."
"And war isn't chaos?"
"Not if it's done properly. Granted, you're always going to have the butchers, the maniacs that are in it for the pure rush - -"
He canted a wry look at her. "No. Okay, let me put it this way. I guarantee you, that without war, without the threat of war, the world would not be what it is today, and will not achieve the greatness it might a thousand years from now."
"You know, Ares, that may be true, but it's hard to see the bigger picture when your village is being burned and your family slaughtered."
He gave her a little rolling wave of the hand at that logic, then glanced skyward as the first flakes of a new snowfall began to descend. He held out his hand and a few trapped flakes hovered above his palm.
"This is getting old." Xena complained of the weather.
"Hey, it's snowing again." Joxer called up from the rear, as if they hadn't noticed it on their own.
"He's quick, isn't he?"
Xena half smiled. "You don't know the half of it. He's got a good heart, though. But then you wouldn't know about that, would you?"
He closed his fist over the flakes. Tired of the debate, and the mere stress of his company, Xena reined back, pacing Argo beside Gabrielle. The girl cast worried eyes her way.
"So what'd he have to say?"
"Nothing you'd care to hear, Gabrielle."
"This is so weird, traveling with gods, hunting a god. With her flying around up there and him - - - just being him, I don't know know how to feel. Are we safer with them around or not?"
"Gabrielle, with me around who needs gods." Joxer smiled assuringly. "Haven't you realized yet that with my razor sharp reflexes and inhuman senses, there's nothing that can get past me."
Gabrielle just sighed. Xena peered across her to Joxer. "Joxer, have you noticed the wolves pacing us?"
"What? Wolves? Where?" he almost fell off the horse in his frantic surveyal of the woods. Gabrielle had perked up and peered into the shadowy forest as well. One could just see, every now and then, dark shadows gliding low to the ground, that wove inbetween the trees. Four, five days of winter weather and the game was already becoming scarce enough to have the predators stalking prey they normally avoided, or perhaps they too were affected by the madness Chaos inflicted upon the world.
"They won't come closer." she said, hoping she was right. "They're not that desperate yet."
"They better not, if they know what's good for them." Joxer's voice shook just a little. His eyes kept flickering nervously to the woods.
It was full dark, long past the time Xena would have chosen to stop and make camp, when she finally called a halt, figuring if Ares and Nike wished to go on, tireless in their more than mortal states, they were welcome to. Herself and her companions were not so tireless in constitution. She set Gabrielle and Joxer to taking care of the horses, going herself into the wood for fire fuel, not trusting either or both of them to fare well against wolves, if a pack of them prowled in the darkness, waiting for a victim to break off from the group.
She gathered a great armful, despairing ever getting it lit, the wood being so wet from snow and trudged back to the trail side clearing with it. Ares had come back, she noted and was sitting his horse, looking displeased with the halt.
"You're making camp?" he managed to sound disdainful and skeptical at the same time. She did not feel an answer was warranted, instead dumping the wood next to the pit Joxer had made in the snow. He already had a pile of twigs and kindling built in the spot and was industriously striking flint in an effort to spark a flame. Over head the screech of a night bird echoed through the night. Joxer paused, looking up, spooked.
"We need rest." She knelt next to Joxer, arranging the wood. "Our mounts need rest. Do what you want."
The owl landed on a limb not far over their heads, staring balefully down at the lot of them. In one taloned claw hung the limp, bloody body of a plump rabbit. With a shifting of weight, she flung it down. It landed in the snow, trailing droplets of blood. Supper. Provided by the gods.
Ares sighed, outnumbered. He flicked a finger and the kindling ignited into flame. Joxer snatched singed fingers back, glaring accusingly, albeit somewhat covertly at the god of war.
Gabrielle, who was by far the best cook of the lot of them, took responsibility for roasting the rabbit. It was a fine meal, considering the last few they'd had on the road. Nike perched in the tree, making bird sounds, and Ares had settled next to his fire eyed steed across the clearing, staring at nothing in particular.
"You know," Gabrielle had taken out the leather pouch containing her scrolls, searching through them for a blank space that she might write on. "If we survive this, and I do get to record it all, nobodies going to believe it. "
"Why not?" Xena picked her teeth with a sharp bone, reclining within the forked roots of a great tree. "No one can debate the strangeness of the season, people will be looking for a cause."
"Yeah, maybe. What's the worst that could happen, do you think, if Chaos goes unstopped?"
"I don't know."
"The worst?" Ares voice drifted across the darkness. "The stable fabric of reality tears and everything that's been built so far just falls to pieces."
Gabrielle stared into the darkness. The glowing eyes of Ciciro could be seen, but Ares was nothing more than a indistinct, dark shadow. "What then?"
"Then everything starts from scratch."
"That's if Chaos can be deposed once he gains the power of Olympus." A squeaky, strange voice wafted down from the trees. The owl's yellow eyes blinked slowly, it's beak worked in a fashion unnatural for it's kind.
"He can be." Ares said with an confidence none of the rest of them felt.
"Braggart." the owl croaked. "Zeus and all the twelve don't have the power of the firstborn. It took Uranus longer than you or I have been alive to subdue Chaos. If he gains Olympus and the power contained within it, there may never be a second chance. He has to be defeated here, in this realm, where his power is relatively weak."
"I thought that's what we were about." he replied dryly.
"You plan to confront him with force alone, but that may not be the way. I've been thinking, and there may perhaps be another."
Nike screeched in frustration and ruffled her feathers. "Fool! Never open to any reasoning but your own. You'll regret it."
The shadow that marked Ares, shrugged, lifted a hand lazily to scratch under the jaw of Ciciro as the stallion lowered it's massive head to nuzzle it's master.
There was silence for a while after that. Finally Xena inquired of the darkness. "Can I trust the two of you to keep watch while we rest?"
The owl shifted and clicked it's beak.
"Of course." Ares assured her. She pulled her cloak tighter about her, resting her head back against the bark of the tree. She didn't feel safe, and there was no telling how much sleep she might get this night, when she felt certain her guardians had agendas of their own.
On the far, hazy horizon the earth turned rocky and treacherous, forming what seemed an endless line of not quite mountains that guarded the way further east. A day's travel at least to reach them, then another day past them to the temple of Athena.
Chaos has passed this way. Both Ares and Nike were certain of that, and the one thing the two of them did agree upon was the need for speed, and the frustration of not having access to the aether that would allow it to them. The mortal horses were pushed to their limits, and damned if Xena intended to cripple Argo in a vane effort to rush into a fight that they just might not be able to win.
At mid-day they stopped at a spring kept from freezing by the gurgling ripple of water that disturbed it's surface and let the steaming horses cool. Nike flapped to earth and assumed her human form.
"Vultures feed on something ahead of us. Perhaps a mile distant."
Xena shielded her eyes against the glare of snow, vainly peering that way. Human eyes could perceive nothing, save perhaps specks that fluttered from ground to air in the distance. They would find out what it was soon enough.
Nike crouched by the spring, dipped her hand into the water and brought it dripping to her mouth. It was the first time Xena had actually seen a god partake of nourishment. She assumed they needed it, just not as frequently as mortals.
"We should try and make the highlands by dark." The goddess rose, stretching, then extended her arms to morph. Her brows drew in concentration, as though what had seemed easy before, was now a chore. The change did seem slower, and more laborious than it had prior. The silver owl that remained after she was done, stayed for a few breaths on the ground, shifting it's weight from foot to foot, before bunching it's muscles and launching itself skyward.
Gabrielle moved to Xena's side, shading her eyes to watch the ever widening spiral of the bird's flight. "Was it my imagination, or did she seem to have a hard time changing that time?"
"No. I noticed it too." She glanced surreptitiously at Ares who sat on Cirico, impatiently waiting to resume travel. "C'mon, let's go. We've a lot of ground to cover and I'd prefer to walk the horses for as long as possible."
It did not take long before they reached the object Nike had seen from the air. The bodies of a horse and a man. Not too long dead, the vulture's only having gotten round to tearing out the eyes and the softer flesh of the man's face. There were other wounds that had not been made by the carrion birds, or any weapon wielded by man. From the looks of the rents in flesh, the chunks torn out of leather armor and the gouges scraped in the body of the horse, it was fairly clear what had taken these victims. The children of Chaos had been this way, following in the footsteps of their sire.
Xena crouched next to the body and cursed. There was no time, nor implements at hand for burial, and even though Nike kept the vultures at bay while she circled them overhead, they would be back as soon as the larger predators abandoned the area. Gabrielle had ridden a few yards away, not looking, pale and stone faced. Joxer, for once, had nothing to say, looking rather like he had trouble keeping down his break fast. Silently she swung up to Argo's back and kicked the horse to a cantor, putting the sight behind her.
She did not speak a word until late that afternoon when they reached the rocky foothills of the highlands and then only to suggest a trail most suited to tired mounts. The rocks loomed high around them, casting dark, bottomless shadows. The horses were nervous, tossing their heads at the clatter of shifting rocks and the occasional flapping of wings as Nike swooped close overhead. Xena's nerves were strung tight, twinging each time Argo tossed her head and shied at some unseen, unheard thing in the impenetrable shadow of the trail they followed. Gabrielle's mount climbed close on Argo's heels, the huge head sometimes pressing against Xena's leg as the horse moved too close, wanting desperately to be out of this shadowed, treacherous trail.
"Are you doing okay, Gabrielle?" she asked once of the darkness, when her friend's mount crowded close to her own.
"I know why I never wanted to ride much, now. I don't think my legs are ever going to be the same. I'm so sore I could sleep for a week and still be happy not to mount a horse again - - no offense to Argo, who I love, mind you. Are we going to make camp soon?"
"I don't know. I honestly don't feel good about stopping here. There's just a feeling about this area - - I can't explain it."
"Is it Chaos? Do you think he passed this way? Have you asked him what he thinks?"
The him in question was a good ways up the trail ahead of them and had made no comment, one way or another as to how close they might be to the their foe and Nike, other than the occasional warning about obstacles in their path that the night hid from their weak vision, was silent. Joxer trailed behind, and could only now and then be heard muttering to himself, or humming some innocuous ditty, and one had to assume his nerves were getting the better of him, otherwise he'd be up with them doing his unknowing best to achieve irritation.
The trail leveled out, then sloped downward. On this leeward side of the rise, trees and brush grew up from between the boulders.
"I would kill for a steaming, hot bath." Gabrielle was fantasizing again, staring up at the starless sky. "A big, huge bath where you can soak all day and they never stop bringing the hot water. Steaming water with herbs and a big jug of mulled wine and I could just sit there and maybe even dictate while someone transcribes. Yeah, that would be the most incredible thing. "
"I does sound good." Xena admitted, only she could do without the transcription, maybe substituting a good masseuse to rub the stiffness out of her muscles. She started to mention just that, when the hackles on the back of her neck stiffened in alarm. By instinct she did not even have time to think about, she whisked her sword from it's scabbard, startling Gabrielle to no ends.
"What - -?" the girl blurted, and never got the sentence finished, for a horse screamed behind them, followed by Joxer's screech of surprise. There was a frantic shifting of weight, then a scramble and thud as a heavy body hit the ground thrashing. Xena wheeled Argo, ruthlessly shoving Gabrielle's mount out of her way and thundering back down the trail. It was too dark to see much more than convoluting shadows, but there were enough of them and they were large enough to belong to only one sort of creature.
"Joxer!" she yelled, hearing the clanking of his armor as he struggled for purchase. "Stay down, damnit." She plowed into the mass of writhing shadows, Argo's shoulder slamming into something hard and forcing it back. The mare jumped the struggling form of the downed draft horse, and came about hard, kicking her steel shod hooves hard into a wheezing, hissing monster to her rear. Xena swung full about with her sword, feeling the blade bite into flesh but not knowing what if any damage she did. She might have beheaded Joxer for all she could see. But no, she heard the ruckus as he ignored her warning and rose, and half saw the dull gleam of bronze as he brandished his sword.
"Get out of my way!" she cried, slicing at something that whipped past her leg, then gasping and curling protectively as something else hit her from the other side and bowled her completely out of the saddle. She rolled and came up on her knees swinging. Vaguely, in the midst of her frantic defense she could hear Gabrielle screaming, could hear Joxer calling out that he was on his way to help her, which she in no wise wished, and over it all could hear the wheezing breath of Chaos' children as they descended upon her. She took a vicious bit to her upper arm, felt flesh rip and grunted. It hurt like hades, already starting to tingle. The thing loomed over her and she had no room to maneuver so simply rammed the point of her blade into it's body up to the hilt, which though an efficient means of incapacitating that one, did nothing to her advantage as far as the other creature that came at her from behind.
Then another black form entered the fray and she had to crouch low to the ground to avoid the trashing hooves and tearing teeth of Cirico as the immortal steed rammed into the creature at her back. There was a whistle of a blade and glimmer of metal and the opponent she had impaled was neatly cut in two just above the point her own sword had entered. It toppled towards her and she rolled from under it, and into Joxer, who went down at the impact, entangling her in an disarray of arms, legs and weapons.
Brutally, she disengaged herself, pushing him hard enough to send him sprawling again when she did regain her feet. She glared, panting and stared at the mess of dark twitching shapes that littered the ground. Other than Joxer's shuddering horse which had struggled painfully to it's feet, there was little more movement around her. Ares sat calmly on his steed, studying the remains, his sword across the bow of the saddle.
"So these are Chaos' hounds? Not so bad." he seemed highly unconcerned about the whole affair. Xena wanted to be sick. Her head was reeling from the wound on her arm. She rammed her sword home, and slapped a hand over the rent flesh.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle tromped down the path, pale hair a beacon in the dark. "Are you hurt." she made to pry Xena's fingers away and after initial resistance, Xena let her, standing there shaking from cold and reaction.
"This looks bad," Gabrielle was muttering. "We need to bind this. Joxer are you okay?"
"Of c-course. I h-have a constitution of s-s-steel."
"Look after your mount, Joxer." Xena told him, to give him something to do other than stand there shivering. "You'd better hope he's sound, this is not the time or place to be stuck afoot."
"Ares," Gabrielle called. "She's bleeding bad, can you heal this wound?"
One could just see the glimmer of his earring as he turned his head in their direction. "Healing's not my thing. Ask her." He jerked his chin skyward, where one supposed the owl was circling.
Gabrielle muttered under her breath. Xena patted the girl's hand. "Don't worry. I don't want their help. I've gotten through worse than this without favors from the gods, I think I'll survive now."
Ares' laughed, wheeled Cirico and trotted back up the trail. Gabrielle glared at his back and went for bandages.
* * * *
Xena did not want to stop and make camp in the depths of the night, with darkness to hide the hideous shapes of their enemies. Gabrielle couldn't blame her. Gabrielle, despite being bone weary and sore, rode sluggishly on, head lulling forward, senses graying in and out as exhaustion overtook her now and again. The trail they took, thanks to the guidance of the gods, (at least they were good for something) seemed always manageable, despite the uneven, rocky terrain, and it was not hard to merely phase out and trust the horse to find it's own preferred path. In those moments when she dozed, not quite asleep, not quite awake, her mind envisioned horrible things. Tentacled monsters leaping out in the path before her, reaching for her with jagged teeth gaping, and no sign of the others anywhere on the trail. When her eyes popped open, as they invariably did after such a dream, she felt the momentary sensation of being abandoned and helpless and would have to look around to spot each of her erstwhile companions. And each time they would be accounted for, save for Nike who was invisible in the darkness above. After the attack on Joxer, even Ares rode closer to the mortals, Gabrielle's mount directly after his fire eyed steed and Joxer's limping behind hers. Xena had taken up rear guard and every once and a while, Gabrielle would cast a look back to make sure the shadowy form that was her friend was still there.
Joxer's mount was lagging, bruised and scraped from it's plight. They had only the graciousness of the fates to thank that it had survived at all and that Joxer hadn't been forced to ride double with her. She wasn't sure she could have tolerated that. But she would have, because despite the annoyance his presence often caused, he was a comrade and he had helped them in the past, and he was mortal, and mortals needed to stick together in this situation, with these companions.
There was a gradual graying of the darkness in the sky before them, the oh so welcome signal that dawn was not far off. Dawn and camping for a few hours, and never mind food, she could do without food if only she could lay her head down and sleep. She shifted, twisting around to lean on the broad rump of her mount. Joxer had fallen back a good ways, his horse heavily favoring a front leg. It was hard enough travel over this steep land with a sound horse, much less an injured one. She saw Xena pull up close to him, conferring. She wondered if she ought to fall back, but decided her knowledge of horse doctoring was limited enough that Xena wouldn't need her opinions.
Her own mount took a steep incline with a bunching of muscles and a hasty scramble up. She had to turn about and clutch at the cropped mane for purchase, and then pull back sharply on the makeshift reins as the draft horse threatened to plow into Cirico's rear end. She had the feeling Cirico would take unkindly and violently to such an indignity and dearly wished to spare the unruly beast she rode any sharp hoofed kicks to the head. She topped a rise and closed her eyes as the horse clamored down an angled rock slope. It's hooves made sharp retorts on solid, rocky ground. Over this precipice one could see the sun's wan light piercing the cloud cover, it cast Ares and Cirico in stark relief. But it was an odd light, seeming to to bleed incandescent swirls about the edges that wavered dizzily in her vision. She blinked and brought a hand up to rub her eyes, opened them again - -
- -And something else was there blocking the strange dawn. A man shape that just seemed to drift up out of the rocks a dozen feet in front of Ares' horse and hover there, some three feet off the ground. Vaguely she recalled the narrow face, and pale hair atop the brocade robed body of the being before them. The head tilted curiously and stared at them, or rather she thought upon later reflection, at Ares, as if it were more shocked at their appearance than they were at it's. She heard the beginning of a curse from the god of war, saw him start to lift a hand to do who knew what and then the ground gave way. The blonde man simply smacked his hands together and the stable rock under the hooves of their horses bucked and mortal and immortal steed alike lost footing and tumbled. She hit the earth hard and rolled, the breath she would have drawn for a scream knocked out of her at the impact. The ground opened up beneath her, just stretched like the yawning mouth of a mammoth dragon, and there was no way to stop her descent into that maw. She found enough breath to voice a yowling little shriek and then she was swallowed up.
There was absolute darkness after that and for a moment she thought she might have been unconscious, save that her hearing still picked up sounds, the clink of metal, the creak of leather, a none to soft mutter of indignity from a voice she was well familiar with.
Light blinded her momentarily. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes, then brought it away as pupils contracted to deal with the sudden change in surroundings. The first thing she noticed was that there was no sky. She was lying on her back on rock, looking up at a ragged rock ceiling, at ragged rock walls and no sign of an opening of any kind. The blonde man stood on a rock pedestal on the other side of the cave and Ares crouched not far from her, looking very, very pissed. She didn't know where the light was coming from, one of them she had to suppose. Then upon further study she noticed that it was not very stable illumination, shimmering in and out about the edges and if one squinted, tiny erratically dancing specks of lights could be made out swarming about Chaos. Most certainly a glow of his making then.
The blonde maker of disorder tilted his head, looking faintly amused, faintly curious and asked in a lilting, sing-song voice. "Are you perchance, following me?"
Ares didn't answer. Something slithered out of the crevice of a jumble of boulders. Gabrielle half smothered a shriek. Ares whirled, swiped a hand, fingers splayed towards it and it came apart in segmented pieces. He turned back, glaring, while she covered her mouth with her hands, gagging.
"What makes you think that?" Ares ground out.
Chaos stared at the remains of his creature and frowned. "You killed my child. I hate when my children are killed. No manners and no respect."
"Oh, forgive me. "Ares sneered. "I had no idea manners and respect were your goal here. I thought it was to rip this particular existence asunder."
Chaos shrugged, lifting his hand to study the state of his cuticles. "It's only just. Your kind stole my existence; forced this rigid, stable world into being. The wheel turns, the cycles change. It's time for chaos to rule once more. There's only one thing - - that seething deceiver Uranus has hidden the core of true power in another realm. I can feel it through the veils of existence, but they've shut me off from it. I need to get there in order to taste of it."
"Dream on. You were deposed and rightly so. Live with it."
Power crackled and Chaos lazily motioned with a hand. Something silvery and effervescent flew at Ares, and was deflected. It splashed across the rock wall and charred pitted holes in the stone. Chaos giggled, with a little hop he skipped down to the next level of rocks. "Ooohh, power. You have such a savage taint in the taste of your magic. Are you a son of Uranus?"
Ares cast him a wolfish grin. "Great grandson." he remarked just before the rock under Chaos suddenly thrust upwards in a dozen spear shaped projections- - and veered around him like water passing a rock in the middle of a stream. Ares took a frustrated breath at the failure.
"You know," Chaos remarked. "I been looking for a way inbetween using the houses of the gods. Insubstantial, pale connections that, when a god in the flesh would have so much stronger a bond with that other place."
He grinned. Ares frowned. Gabrielle screamed as a palpable force of energy hit Ares and lashed around him, throwing her back into the wall, ten feet beyond. She huddled behind a rock, murmuring prayers to gods that weren't listening, daring the fates by peering around the insubstantial protection of the rock to see what the gods were doing.
They were not doing much of anything, physically, the both of them standing, staring at each other, Chaos slightly smiling, hands making little idle movements in the air, while Ares had his head lowered slightly and his fists clenched at his sides. The air between them on the other hand was awash in potent energies, whipping this way and that with blurred, distorted swipes of molten silver, fiery red and sponge-like black that all seemed to blur together into one hectic gale of color and activity. One could just make out little motes of light and dancing things buzzing within the disturbance and above the slightly static hiss that permeated the whole mess, one could hear the popping and creaking of over stressed rock. One had to hope- fervently hope- that the cave was not about to fall down on one's shoulders. A god might be able to survive such a thing, but a little girl from Potidaea most certainly could not.
Ohhh, where was Xena? Where was Nike? She would even settle for Joxer right about now, because for all that Ares was a god of the highest order, one of the twelve seated on the pantheon of gods in Olympus, and an eternal thorn in Xena's side, he seemed to be on the weaker end of this engagement.
He took one step backwards as a great gust of power rocked him. Took another as Chaos hopped down to his level, a slithering grin on his lips. It was a game. A treacherous, insidious game that was in no way amusing to anyone other than the lord of chaos himself. Ares staggered as some blow that was beyond the mortal scope of perception slammed into him. With a snarl, he crouched, spun and drew his sword in one smooth motion. The gleaming, faintly glowing blade sliced into Chaos just below his ribcage, then he whirled and jabbed the point at the ceiling over Gabrielle's head and a surge of almost visible force cut into the rock. She squeaked and rolled as debris rained down upon her.
Chaos was staring down at his mid-section, at the flapping edges of cloth that gaped at his elbows and abdomen. Pink flesh was visible beneath. Pink flesh with dry, deep slices marring it's smoothness. A giggle bubbled up. It turned to a full throated laugh as Chaos threw his head back, arched his spine and stretched the wound Ares' sword had made. A thousand spots of light sparkled behind that ripped skin. A thousand winking bits of static chaos that were only thinly held in check by the housing of frail flesh that Chaos had chosen. The sleeves and the fleshly lower arms they encircled dropped off, thudding limply to the floor and writhing hands of chaos extended from beneath the ragged brocade.
"See what you've done?" He grinned wickedly at the god of war, then those flexing, multi-hued tentacles speared towards Ares and impaled him.
With a cry of shock, Ares stiffened and tried to jerk away. He was stuck, with a sizzling arm of energy through one shoulder and the splayed fingers of another going for his head.
The ceiling exploded inward. Rock hailed down and crashed to the floor, hitting both struggling gods. A glowing, gold tipped spear hurled down and embedded itself in the center of Chaos' chest.
It was the most welcome voice, Gabrielle had ever heard. She peered up past drifting smoke to see Xena crouched at the jagged lip of the rock blasted opening, and Nike standing beside her poised for action. Xena jumped down the eight feet or so to the highest level of rock, sword out and eyes flaring as she searched out the most active danger. Nike bounded down the entire distance to the lower floor and crouched a body length away from Chaos, watching warily as he stared down at her spear protruding from his chest.
"Go." she hissed, and Gabrielle wasted no time running to where Xena stood, placing her foot in the stirrup the other made of her hands and being boosted up to the opening, where hands caught her and pulled her up and over the ledge. She grasped at Joxer thankfully, ignoring him while he babbled about how he would have gone down with Xena and Nike, but they needed him to get her out of the cave.
Something rumbled down below, and fire blazed up out of the opening. Both Gabrielle and Joxer fell back. Then Xena was pulling herself up over the edge and yelling at Gabrielle to get on her damned horse and ride even before she had her feet on the upper ground. Casting a frantic look about she discovered that sure enough, her wild eyed horse stood down slope from her, shifting and nervous beside Ares' black steed, with Argo and the other horse not far beyond. The horses then, had eluded Chaos' trap. She had no earthly conception how they had managed that, save that Chaos himself had spat them out, having no need for equine guests in his little entertainment.
Scrambling down the slope, she jumped at her horse from a slab of rock above where it stood, landed belly down across the broad back, and had to grab frantically for purchase as it shied back, then began a hasty descent down the rocky path. She was not enough of a horseman to look back and maintain her seat at the same time in such a rough passage and could only hope and prey that Chaos was erupting out of that slit in the earth to pursue.
* * * *
Ares came out of the pit with a bound that only something more than mortal might have realized. He staggered on the landing, seeming for a moment to loose all balance. Xena gripped his arm when he reeled into her, snapping her head up when a shrieking owl burst out of the ground, striving skyward with frantic, powerful strokes. A thin strain of discordant laughter drifted up out of the dark slit. The owl wheeled in mid-flight and dove earthward. The earth shuddered. Rocks shifted. Xena and Ares, earthbound as they were, fought for and lost balance as the earth lining the lip of the subterranean cavern caved inward.
Xena rolled, came up hard against a sharp outcropping of rock, grunted in pain as Ares slammed into her from behind, then fought to her feet, dragging him with her and propelling them both towards the lower slope and the panicked horses. She shoved the god at Cirico, since all sense of direction seemed to have abandoned him, and hesitated in mounting Argo until he had managed his own saddle. His eyes weren't right, she noted as both horses launched themselves down the path with suicidal speed. There was something missing, something integral to the expression of the god she was familiar with.
The psychotic laughter stuck in her head, even when she was half way down the hill and racing along on firmer ground. He was amused. To the marrow of her bones she knew that this little fracas had ended only because Chaos had allowed it to. She cursed him for it, hating to be outmaneuvered and manipulated. One had to assume that the gods, who thrived at manipulation, and Ares in particular who made it his life's work, had to be very, very displeased right about now to discover that their own game was being played upon them. If she could have sat back and viewed it from a distance, she might have found it vaguely amusing.
Past the slope there was a broad valley, filled with grasses bowed and heavy with snow and cut through the middle by a narrow stream. Xena urged Argo forward to catch up with Gabrielle and Joxer.
"Are you all right?" she demanded. The girl jerked, as if frightened out of a deep slumber and stared at her for a moment with wide eyes. Relief took over and she smiled weakly.
"A little shaken up, but that's understandable, given the company I just had to share. " She had a small cut over one brow. The blood was already starting to clot. Somewhere along the way she had lost her staff. "He's back there, isn't he?"
"Chaos? I suppose so. He'll show himself again when the urge hits."
"Xena, he wants to destroy everything. He said so. He is sooo powerful and don't ask me how I know, but I think he was just playing with Ares."
"He doesn't look so good." Xena murmured, drawing her brows. Gabrielle swallowed. "I think Chaos maybe hurt him. "
"Stay up here with Joxer. Don't stop riding for anything unless I say. I'm dropping back to see about him."
Gabrielle looked as if she wanted to argue, opened her mouth, then shut it with a snap and nodded.
* * *
"Are you hurt?"
Brown eyes glowered out at her from beneath half lowered lashes. A muscle twitched in his jaw and one had to figure that wounded pride was hard at work making his life miserable. One had to wonder what else was aiding in that misery. Cirico's reins lay loosely knotted and untended across the saddle bow, one of Ares' arms wrapped about his ribcage, the other resting lightly on his left thigh. He did not seem of a mind to talk. Xena, at the moment, could have cared less.
"Knocked you down a peg or two, didn't he?" she commented, with the same tone she might have used to describe the weather.
Ares' mouth tightened, but he wasn't talking. She smiled, a lovely, vicious show of white teeth. "You arrogant bastard. You got more than you bargained for and now you're going to sulk about it? Get over it! We both know he let us out of there, and we'd damn sure better have some plan of action when he shows up again."
"To hades with you." he hissed at her. "It would've suited you just as well if he had - - - consumed- - - me."
"Is that what he was trying to do?" She tilted her head curiously, amazed to find a little bit of flustered disorientation mixed in with the anger in his expression.
He glared at her, took a shuddering breath. "He's mad."
"No? I'd have never guessed. What else?"
He lowered his brows, looking particularly cross at her interrogation. Looking into his eyes, she realized what it was that was wrong. The arrogance was still there, lurking in the depths, but it was overshadowed by shock, by the complete upheaval of what he had always assumed to be indefatigable power. His own. He hurt and he couldn't fix it. There was something out there more powerful than the whole pantheon of gods and he couldn't stop it or avoid it. It was a rude and unpleasant awakening and under any other circumstances she would have loved to introduce him to it, but not under these.
"He's peeved that Uranus imprisoned him all that time ago, and he wants to remake the world in his own image. Pandemonium, in other words. He wants to get into Olympus because the power here is limited and he can't do what he needs to do with only it at his disposal."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Can you get to the power in Olympus with the Aether closed?"
He stared at her, lashes flickering down to cover a look of what might have been surprise. "What makes you think that?"
"You're running down. Both you and Nike. She's having to exert more and more energy to change into the bird, and you are obviously not springing back in your usual fashion. Please do not tell me you're cut off from your power source as well."
"Not exactly." he muttered.
"What do you mean, not exactly?" she ground out when he hesitated in continuing. He rubbed his hand up to his shoulder and back down as if the whole of his side were paining him.
"You have to understand the power of a god to comprehend how it's used and how it's replenished."
"Enlighten me, Ares."
For a moment he looked past her, to the snow laden valley, the grey skies overhead, the ominous passage of the ridge they had left, where Chaos might or might not still be lingering under the rocky hillock. Finally he sighed, fixing his gaze back on her face, and said.
"A lot of it has to do with lineage. The purer the line, the more power. Direct descendants of the first ones have the greatest resources to draw on. The whole thing gets weaker as the line gets muddied, but anyway, we each have our own source of personal power, apart from and aside from Olympus. You might consider Olympus a power core, so to speak. It's a realm that is made up of power, of raw energy that over time Zeus, and before him Chronis and Uranus harnessed and controlled. At lot of that power was Chaos', which is why he's so desperate to cross over to Olympus to get it back, a lot of it came from other sources, and all of us, all of the gods can draw on it at will and add it to our own resources."
"So, what you're saying is, that with the aether closed, you can't draw on that extraneous power and have to rely totally on your own?"
"And how much of your own power did you use up fighting Chaos?"
He just looked at her steadily, unblinkingly and didn't answer, which was answer enough. She should have guessed it. He was practically swaying in the saddle. "How long till you can recoup it?"
"Hard- - to say. I can't recall ever having - - drained myself to this point before."
She chewed the inside of her cheek in thought, noticed the downward spiral of the owl as it flew back towards them from where it had been coasting eastward. One could just hear, over the distance and the wind, the angry screech of the bird as it folded it's wings close to it's body and dived, imitating more a hunting falcon than a nocturnal owl. The screech grew shrill and loud as the bird slowed not one bit in it's descent, flashed past Xena and crashed into Ares with it's talons out and ripping.
He toppled backwards over Cirico's rump and hit the ground with a flapping owl over him one moment and a crouching, furious Nike the next.
"Fool! Idiot!" she screamed down at him, hands still curled into the shape of talons. "Do you seek all our deaths to so engage him? Does your insanity match his?"
She clawed at his face and he lifted an arm to fend her off. "You crazy little bitch." he muttered, expression gone dark from insult and pain. "You think I started it? "
"Who else, instigator of wars?"
"Get off me." He made to throw her off, but she grasped his shoulder with one sharp nailed hand and his forearm with the other and held her place with sheer force of will and a power that was obviously not as drained as his.
"Nike, you're not helping things." Xena wasn't sure if she wanted to get between this little tiff or not. Nike did not seem of a rational mind at the moment.
"Stay out of it, mortal."
"Oh, come on, you don't honestly think he waved Chaos down and started a fight, do you? He may be a bloody minded bastard, but he's not a complete moron."
"Thanks." Ares transferred his glare from Nike to Xena. Xena leaned close over Nike's shoulder and suggested. "Attacking him now is foolish. What do you want to do, deprive us of a good deal of what power we do have? You've the head for reason here. Think about it. This is chaos. He didn't start that fight."
"How do you know?" Nike was trembling, pouting almost, but not as sure of herself as she had been.
"I just know is all. Trust me."
The goddess turned great brown eyes up to her, a critical, skeptical look. Then finally with a shake of her head, she released her hold on Ares and jumped back from him, as if expecting sudden retaliation. There was none. He just lay there in the snow, looking disturbingly faint. Xena held out a hand and he hesitated several breaths before lifting one of his own to take it. When he gained his feet, he staggered as though drunken and she had to put a shoulder under his arm to keep him from going back to the ground.
"I don't feel so good." he murmured, close to her ear.
"You look like hades." she grunted in reply, glaring at Nike who stood with her arms crossed over her breast a few yards away. "Conserve your own energy, Nike. Take Argo and ride after Gabrielle and Joxer and tell them we might as well camp here. Chaos'll find us one way or another where ever we are when he wants to."
The goddess did not answer. Her eyes were fixed on the far ridge, over which the lengthening day peeked forth with subtle illumination, casting the jagged outline of the summit in stark relief. And not only the silhouette of ridge, but steadily moving figures of men and horses topped that rise and stood looking down into the valley.
"No." Nike said softly. "This is not a good time for further confrontation."
Grimly, Xena grinned. She hardly knew what else to do in her present state of exhaustion. "Human problems, I can handle."
She pushed Ares at the shifting, black haired support of Cirico, mounted Argo and drove the horse harder than she might have liked to in efforts to overtake her mortal companions, who obviously were not paying attention to the terrain in front of them.
They were arguing about something, Gabrielle's voice tinged with unusual irritation and Joxer's having taken on a stubborn whine. She broke between them, Argo's hooves throwing up snow and dirt as she thundered to a halt.
"The two of you have all the observation faculties of a pair of stones." she snapped, jabbing a finger towards the summit, brisk and agitated in her fatigue. Their heads snapped up and she could practically hear the clicks behind their eyes as realization hit.
"Oh." Gabrielle blinked.
"I knew they were there." Joxer assured her. "I was just biding my time, letting them think they went unnoticed."
"Right. Joxer, ride with me, and keep your mouth shut and your hands off your weapons. I'd like to try and avoid a fight, if it's possible."
"Well if there is a fight, I'm the right man to have at your back."
She rolled her eyes. "Gabrielle, go back and stay with Ares and Nike. Keep them out of it, if you can."
Halfway up the slope, she decided that the chances of a fight were drastically decreased. The line of folk threading their way over the peak were dressed or armed in a fashion conducive to war. Gray and brown cloaks, hoods up over shaven heads, the only possible weapons being staffs clutched in bony hands, these men appeared to be scholars or priests. She pulled to a stop a hundred yards below them, raising a hand and calling for a wary greeting.
"Ho, there, travelers. This is not a safe passage."
Half a dozen pale faces looked up at her, hairless even to the eyebrows. Priests for sure.
"Warrior Princess." One intoned. She blinked, off guard at that familiar title cast her way in a chance meeting by a total stranger. Then her gaze was drawn to the summit as a lumbering shrouded pavilion carried by four more robed priests topped the rise.
The priests tromped steadily down the narrow trail towards her, she had to shift Argo out of the way, crowding close to Joxer's horse, when they showed no inclination to stop.
"How do you know me?" she asked of the last to pass her before the black draped pavilion.
"This vale was preordained." the man quoted calmly. "For seven days times two, we have traveled to find you here."
Utterly confused she let him pass, watched as the pavilion rocked and weaved by her. The shrouds were thick and layered. There was no hint as to who was carried within. Bemused, she motioned Joxer to follow her back down the slope.
The strange party continued on across the valley until they reached the narrow little stream and there, they stopped, taking off the packs they carried and efficiently going about setting up camp. The litter was gently lowered and the priests who had carried it took time to stretch and relieve cramped muscles before joining the others in the clearing of snow and the stretching of canvas. Almost before Xena and Joxer had reached them the skeleton of a tent was up. From the other direction the rest of their companions made their leisurely way towards the activity. Xena rode around the priests to join the others. Nike walked. Ares was mounted, looking sullen and tired and Gabrielle was fairly bursting with curiosity.
"They say," she said as way of greeting. "That they've traveled two weeks to find me here. They seem to know me."
"Ah." Said Nike, as if that explained everything. She gracefully jumped the three foot span of stream and walked into the fast developing camp. The priest paused in their work, half bowing at her passage. Xena had not gotten that sort of treatment, so she had to assume they knew Nike too. They followed Nike's suit, crossing the stream and wading into the camp. Ares did not receive the reverence Nike had, instead deriving bleak, somber stares and one or two hand sketched rune signs warding evil. He chose not to notice.
Nike had stopped by the black pavilion, spoken with a priest and nodded, apparently satisfied with what information she gleaned. She turned back to her companions, wearing the proud, impassive face one associated with her worshipful attributes. The wise, all knowing, goddess of victory.
"She will speak to us shortly, after her meditations are complete."
"Who?" Gabrielle blurted. "Who's in there?"
"The oracle of Dodona. It seems she's had a vision and wishes to impart it' s implications to us."
* * * *
The oracle of Dodona, the oldest of the oracular seats, had traveled all the way from the middle of Epirus, leaving her sacred oak and her rustling leaves far behind her in the urgency of her visions. She was a frail, tiny woman, who might have been thirty, or perhaps forty, or younger or older, it was hard to say when all one could focus upon, when staring into her face were the milky, clouded orbs of her blind eyes.
She stepped down from her pavilion, with the help of two of her priests, and settled on the ground, cross legged upon a thick, cushioned mat placed before the fire pit they had built. They had sat a pot above the flames and herbed water steamed fragrantly, making the whole snow covered vale seem fresh with the scents of spring. The oracle sat, staring blindly into the flames, and when she spoke her voice was like a forceful wind.
"I bear ye tidings of evil to come. Chaos is unleashed upon the lands."
"We know this, wise one." Xena said respectfully, sitting across the fire from the oracle, a mug of hot tea warming her hands.
"The world as we know it, will come to an end." the oracle spoke as if she had not been interrupted. "All order will be swallowed by discord and disharmony. The path to the heavens is no longer viable from this mortal realm and the gods can not hear our pleas. Chaos will consume all, as is his wont and we will be no more." She paused then, blinking slowly, as if catching her breath or waiting for petition.
"Are you saying it is preordained that the world ends now?" Nike asked.
"Is there nothing we might do to avert this disaster?"
The oracle smiled. "Ah, noble follower of Athena. How sweet your voice upon these ears. That was my vision of the future. But it is not the only path that events may take. Anake has many threads that twine and twist together into a snarl that even she may not realize the end of. I have had another vision, as well."
"Dare we hope it has something more useful than the first?"
The oracle frowned at Ares. "All your force will not suffice against Chaos, War. But, then you know that already, do you not? Chaos has had millennia to ponder the power of Uranus and his children. An eternity to build his energies to such a fine degree that no power the gods might throw at him might once more imprison him. Zeus was wise to close the aether between this realm and the other, for a battle between Chaos and the gods would have hastened the demise of this world and all others. "
"You're saying we can't fight him? That there's no hope?" Xena worded the questions carefully, slowly.
"No, warrior princess." the oracle smiled on her. "There is power in this world that Chaos has never known, that was not in existence when he held sway. Do not discount the power that mortals have gained for themselves and found apart from the glories of Olympus. Your own tenacity amazed him. Did Chaos not hesitate more in facing you at the temple of Demeter than he did with all the forces at Ares' command?
"He is anarchy and confusion. Order and serenity must be the tools of his downfall. These things must be enforced upon him, from a front that he has no notion exists."
"What front? How do we do this?" Xena demanded, sitting forward now, the warmth of the tea forgotten.
"There are a people who call themselves the Kymry, who worship not the gods we know, but more the forces that dwell in the earth itself. They practice the power of unity in groves deep within the great forests. They are not a violent people, but they are devout and powerful in the subtly of their magics. Go the the eastern forests, and you will find them gathering in mass at this disarray Chaos has caused in the world. Lead them all to the prison Chaos escaped and then draw him after."
"Oh, wonderful, you tell us we're to trust the fate of the world to a bunch of fanatic, sacrilegious mortals?" Ares waved a hand in absolute disgust. "You're saying Zeus advises this?"
"No." the woman murmured.
"You're the oracle of Zeus, who else then whispers in your ear?"
Her hazy eyes blinked up at him guilelessly. "My visions are not all granted by your lord father. Now that chaos has returned to the world to shatter your illusions of lone supremacy, does it shock you so that there might be other powers dwelling here as well. These Kymry exist and gather not far from here in preparation for what perhaps they do not even know. But their own diviners have sensed this, just as I have. It is only up to you to guide them and show them the nature of the discord their unity might soothe."
"I've heard of them," Xena said quietly, rolling her now cool mug between her hands. "those who gather in the groves to practice- - druidic- - rites. And sacrifices. I'd heard they hailed from Gaul."
The oracle made a tiny shrug. "I only know what the visions tell me. You have until the new moon, before he is unstoppable." With that final pronouncement she lowered her head, closed her eyes and seemed to drift into a trance. Xena stared at her, open mouthed. The new moon was barely two weeks hence. They hadn't the time to track down a gathering of forest druids and herd them all the way back across Thessaly to that damned, bottomless lake that Chaos had risen out of. And even if they could manage that. How in hades were they supposed to lure Chaos himself back to that fatal place?
The priests went about their silent chores, the fire crackled. The oracle for all intents and purposes was gone from them.
"That has got to be the most deranged babble I've yet heard come out of an oracle's mouth." Ares hurled a rock into the fire. An agitated swarm of embers drifted into the frigid air. Priests paused, emanating disapproval. Nike glared. Ares seemed vaguely satisfied at the reaction.
"I'm sorry, were you holding back a better idea, that we didn't know about?" Xena lifted a dark brow and smiled tightly. He shifted his attention to her, jerked a hand roughly in the general direction of Joxer and sneered. "He could come up with a better plan."
Joxer started, as if he hadn't been paying the closest of attention, then puffed out and offered generously.
"I can understand why you would say that. My services are always in demand, being the fierce. . ."
"Shut up, you babbling toad." Ares glared, not appreciating the offer.
"Be nice." Xena leaned forward, purring out the warning from between closed teeth.
"Or what?" He matched her look and tone perfectly.
"Feeling better, humm?"
"Excuse me," Gabrielle leaned forward from Xena's other side with a weary, exasperated scowl. She was a bundle of nothing but pale face and a few flyaway strands of hair under her own cloak and a blanket borrowed from the priests. They'd been able to spare gloves and thick scarves, as well, obviously starting their journey prepared for an unseasonal winter thanks to the foresight of their oracle. "I'm cold and I'm scared and the world's about to end. Could we please stop bickering and do something about it."
Xena sighed, pivoting her head towards her friend. There was utter exhaustion in Gabrielle's eyes, in the set of her mouth. A little wetness had caught in her lashes, the result of too little sleep and too much frustration.
"We're all a little cold and scared." she said gently. "And tired."
"I'm not scared." Joxer grumbled.
"Until we all get some rest, there's nothing we can do." Xena said logically, since no one else, god or mortal had come up with a feasible next step in this mad quest. "We rest here until morning, then we can see about finding these Kymry."
Nike flew ahead in the interest of speed, to cruise the great forest and spy out the gathering of druids. It took a full day to find them, even with her divinely accentuated owl eyes and another three for the rest of the party, grounded as it was, to follow her airborne lead into the great forest, through the labyrinth of ancient trees and finally to come upon a massive gathering of strange, somber men.
The forest was primeval if ever a wood were to claim that description. Dark, even at the height of day, foliage so thick that light only vaguely descended in filtered, hazy patches Little undergrowth survived that dim illumination, so the travel was fairly easy going, the only obstacles being fallen limbs, a thick layer of mulch and the powdering of snow that had managed to escape the upper shields of branches and leaves. It was ethereally quiet, with the buffering layer of snow coating the foliage above and the soft, sponge like quality of the ground under their horse's hooves absorbing the sounds of heavy footfalls. The air was utterly still, only occasionally stirred by a fluttering clump of snow as the frozen crystals escaped en masse from shielding above. Even the disorder of Chaos could not entirely penetrate the eternal calm of this wood.
They rode in a single scattered line past the massive boles, Ares far in the lead, Joxer several horse lengths behind him and Gabrielle and Xena bringing up the rear. Only occasionally might one make out the flutter of silvery owl wings in the canopy of branches overhead.
"You know," Gabrielle said, her voice cast low in reverence of the silence that reigned all about them. "it seems odd to me, that so little relative damage has been done, if Chaos is as all powerful as the gods and the oracle seem to believe. I mean, other than the weather being all screwy and the temple and all the monsters running around, it hasn't been too bad."
"Are you complaining that we haven't seen worse?"
"Oh, no no no. Don't get me wrong, Xena, it's been horrifying enough, it's just that- well, it hasn't been really earth shaking- and it sort of seems to me that it should be."
"The earth shook a few days ago when he had you and Ares cornered in that cavern. I thought the whole ridge was going to collapse."
"Really. I felt tremors but it didn't feel that bad."
"I guess you were side tracked. Take my word, the far ridge across the valley was having landslides, even the sky was shaking. I thought Nike was going to have owlets, she was so upset. But, I understand what you mean. Maybe we haven't gotten the brunt of Chaos' wrath because he's putting too much energy into breaking into Olympus."
"Possible, I guess."
"Besides, who knows what's happening in the rest of the world."
Gabrielle sighed, shivering. "Yeah. You know, I don't think I'll ever complain about the summer heat ever again."
"Yes you will."
Joxer was heading back towards them at a trot. He waved an arm and grinned.
"There's something up ahead. He thinks it's what we're looking for."
Xena's breath quickened. She glanced at Gabrielle with a glitter of excitement in her eyes, then urged Argo into a smooth cantor. The trail in the snow led her to Ares, who sat at the edge of what appeared to be a natural circular clearing in the midst of an otherwise thickly populated forest. She pulled up next to him and stared. A great bon fire had been built in the center, had been burning for days by the look of all the blackened embers around the edges and fed continuously since then by the dozens of brown robed men who occupied the clearing. She could hear the whispered strains of a chant passing among them. The rhythm had a strange, foreign lilt to it. Gabrielle and Joxer came up behind them with more noise than Argo and yet no head turned to observe the intrusion. Xena glanced to Ares in question.
"Why don't they notice us? Your doing?"
He inclined his head marginally, looking not particularly pleased at the discovery. He had recovered fully from his contest with Chaos days ago, and had been sullenly disagreeable about following the oracle's advice since then. But, he hadn't left to follow his own path, or attempted to force them away from this one, which was a surprise to Xena, who would have wagered equally that he take either of the aforementioned tracks above the one he had chosen.
"How many are there?"
"All together, maybe seventy in and around this clearing."
"That many?" She lifted a brow, eyes scanning the clearing, figuring that if there were than many, and in such estimations of forces, she trusted Ares implicitly, then the majority of them were in the woods.
"Well what are we waiting for? We've got to talk to them." Gabrielle bullied her mount in between Argo and Cirico, looking fearless and determined. She canted a look at the god and said. "You don't like this idea because you're afraid a bunch of mere mortals can accomplish something the gods can't."
He rolled his eyes and tried to ignore her.
"Nike isn't too proud to admit she needs help."
He couldn't quite let that one go and dark eyes snapped towards her.
"Little girl, until you have Chaos plunge his claws into your head, don't tell me what I'm afraid of. I don't really care what it is that pushes him back where he belongs, as long as they do it. It's more what will happen if they fail that concerns me."
"All right. Enough." Xena swung down from Argo, giving Gabrielle a warning look. "We might as well get this over with."
She stepped into the clearing, past whatever enchantment Ares had cast over the particular section of of space he occupied, and a dozen eyes snapped up to regard her sudden appearance. The chant faltered, and slowly the rest of the clearing's occupants turned their attention her way. There were no weapons she could see, but the general air was surprised and wary aggression. Men rose from the ground, bodies poised and suspicious. Movement was made towards her.
She raised a hand and called out. "Kymry, who leads among you?"
They paused and looks passed among themselves. A man, balding and arthritic, but with fierce, deep sunken eyes stepped forward, spearing her with his intense gaze. "Who asks?"
"I am Xena, and I come seeking aide with a mutual problem."
There was silence in retaliation to this announcement. No whispers, no conjectures about the meaning of this stranger's words. Nothing but quiet and too many sets of somber, serious eyes fixed upon her. There was movement behind her, her companions choosing no longer to wait on her to make peaceful contact. She half glanced over her shoulder to see Gabrielle and Joxer making their way carefully into the clearing. Of Ares there was still nothing, still encased in his enchantment in the shadows. She wished he or Nike might make an appearance, for the presence of a god would lend great credence to what she was about to say.
"An oracle told me that she dreamed of you. That you gathered in this forest because of the evil that has been released in the world."
"An oracle dreamed of us?" The bald man didn't quite smile at her, but his burning eyes showed amusement. "Tell us what she foretold?"
Xena took a breath and plunged in. "She told us that the world as we know it will end in short order if the author of this madness," and she waved a hand about her to indicate the weather, the world in general. "is not subdued. That the gods who are closely related to this trouble are not able to do this and that the Kymry who wield a different sort of power may be the only hope this realm has of survival."
The man stared at her for a long moment, piercing her with that gaze, reading her soul. "All this, she said?" he finally broke his silence. "Was she wise, do you think, or mad?"
"That, I think, depends on you." Xena met that gaze and held it, her own stare no small or inconsequential thing.
The owl fluttered down towards the clearing, shifting into Nike's form as it touched ground. Murmurs of speculation did whisper about the air then, and men made rune signs in the air above their heads. She merely stood there, letting them soak in the sight of her in their midst. A god amongst a people who did not worship her type of god. The old man turned his narrowed gaze from her to Xena and finally behind Xena to the edge of the wood where Ares gave up his spell of concealment and moved forward a step or two, still mounted on Cirico.
"You've gathered here for a reason." Xena said, loud enough for all to hear. "You've come because Chaos threatens the lands. We've come to lead you to the place where you can fight him and put him down once and for all."
* * * * *
Kymry meant equal in honor. They were a brotherhood whose scattered believers spanned the continent, dribbling over in ages past, so the high priest Aigen said, from the great islands far, far to the north. They believed in the divine light. The inner forces that lay dormant within each and every mortal man. The forces that rumbled within the earth herself, that could be tapped by man. And the more of these Kymry, these active practitioners of this belief that came together and willed the power of the earth forth, the more invincible a force they might become. They did not often band together for feats of great magic. It was not their way to impress upon ordinary folk the scope of their power and certainly not their beliefs, but in this instance they were more than prepared to use whatever potential they could coax forth to vanquish the present foe.
For a while Xena had stood at the edges of a council of the Kymry elders and listened while they theorized and planned among themselves, added what little knowledge she had to give of her experience of Chaos and the things he had so far wrought and the journey they would have to make to reach the deep water lake outside of Pharsalus. They were great fanatical believers in their religion. Fervent when it came down to it. Sacrifices were called for, small animals and such that had been snared within the wood. So their god was not all that different from the gods of Olympus in the honors he, or it demanded. The talk, as far as she was concerned grew tedious, and she soon grew weary of it and left Nike and Gabrielle in their midst to absorb the impact of the druid's words.
Their horses were among the few that all these Kymry owned. They stood picketed on the far side of the clearing, just within the wood. Ares was not far from them, leaning against the bole of a tremendous forest giant, picking undoubtedly immaculate nails with the point of a dagger out of sheer boredom. If Xena found the esoteric religious talk monotonous, then Ares must find it unaccountably dull. Joxer hovered about him, beyond arm's reach, obviously in the throes of some death wish, if the annoying drone of his voice was any indication. Xena had on many occasions wished bodily harm upon him when he pestered her with much the same vocal manner. She did not think Ares practiced quite the restraint she had forced upon her own instinctual defenses against irritants and annoyances.
She crunched across the snow, catching the last part of Joxer's comment.
"- - but I'm sure I don't have to tell you all this. You must keep up with what the greatest, fiercest warriors are doing. The bards already sing of my feats. Gabrielle's got a ton of stuff written about me. Warlords cringe when my name is mentioned. My deeds are legendary and I'm not even dead yet."
"You could be." Ares muttered, not quite looking up from his hands.
"Which warlords, Joxer?" Xena inquired sweetly, planting herself in the snow beside him, hands on hips. Joxer stared at her, indignant that she should ask. Struggling to come up with a name.
"Well, there was Ascalis - -"
"The Piglord?" she laughed. "He stole swine from defenseless villages. He had a fetish for hogs. Not much of a warlord."
"I saved over a hundred pigs. Pigs are very intelligent animals, you know."
"I'm sure they were properly grateful."
"Then there was Scipio the hairy." He hesitated just a little, giving her a look to see if she was familiar with the name. She snorted.
"Scipio is still around. If you routed him, you didn't do a very good job."
"Well there's always Callisto - -"
"Don't even go there." Xena warned.
"Well, if it weren't for me - -"
"Don't." She fixed him with a narrow glare and he shut up quick, swallowing. He shuffled his feet a bit, kicking snow. With an adjustment of his helm, he announced.
"I bet some of these Kymry have heard of me."
"And if they haven't I'm sure you'll enlighten them."
He nodded in serious agreement and stomped off. She watched him go, a smile tickling the corner of her lips.
Ares looked up from his manicure, watching her watching Joxer. The half smile faded under that gaze. She matched the look, calmly, soberly and waited to see if he had anything to say. He didn't, merely leaned there watching, unconcerned with the impropriety of staring outright. Not that she was a study of manners, but he had the damnedest ability to make her nerves go all fluttery and that she could not abide. Other than him, and he did it on a regular basis on certain occasions when their paths crossed, there wasn't a man or god alive, who could rattle her nerves since she'd turned twenty years. It irritated her soundly, making her grind her teeth and force traitorous nerves back to the calm rationality that they usually enjoyed.
"You're not happy with this union, are you?" she remarked more to break her own moment of unease than because she held any doubt as to the validity of that assumption.
He snorted and flipped the dagger, catching it neatly by the tip and flipping it again. "What gave me away?"
"Like I said before - - if you've got a better idea, I'm not unwilling to hear it out."
"At the moment, no." he shook his head, frowning. "It's an unusual situation to say the least."
"What, Olympus being threatened, the gods at a disadvantage?"
"Hades, that's not so unusual. Olympus is a prize a great many would fight to gain."
"Humm. One hears tales." she said carefully. "Traveling with a bard, I have been more than inundated with stories. Whether they're myth or fact, I can only guess. I imagine you'd be the primary authority on wars between the gods."
A rakish smile flickered across his lips. "One would assume."
She blew warm air into her cupped palms, wishing for the warmth of the bonfire but not at the moment willing to wade through the wall of druids about it.
"Nike seems to think it might work. The oracle certainly did. I don't see what other option we have. Go with it, Ares. The worst we can do is fail, and then we're only back where we are now."
"You think that's the worst that can happen?" He chose not to elaborate, just rolled his head to look at her meaningfully. He started her nerves to jangling again.
She looked down at her boots to avoid that look. There was a yell from the clearing. Her head snapped up just in time to see Gabrielle, who had been walking towards her, get hit in the chest with a ball of snow. A dozen feet away Joxer pointed and laughed. Gabrielle shook a fist at him, started to take a threatening step his way, then stagger back as he hurtled another one at her, this one smacking right into her face. She emitted a furious little scream and took off after him. Still laughing uproariously he fled, arms flapping, long legs churning up snow until he tripped over a concealed limb and fell face forward. Gabrielle caught up with him, scooped up an armful of snow and dumped it onto his head.
Watching, Xena felt a wistful wetness gather in her eyes. She didn't ever want to see such capacity for gaiety leave the world. Let the innocent ones always enjoy life. There was a point, after so many deaths, that such simple pleasures as a mere snow fight, came hard.
* * * * *
More than a hundred Kymry gathered. They had leaked into the grove in small groups, or lone wondering travelers late into the night. Their chanting never stopped. It enfolded the wood in it's rhythmic, hypnotic potency. One might even imagine, in a fit of fervent fantasy, that the area surrounding the grove warmed to temperatures above freezing and that the melt of snow on the ground was more from the rising air temperature than from the radiating heat of the bonfire.
Into the night they prayed. To their god, to the earth mother, to the trees, to the sky. Xena lost track of what the invasive chants paid homage to. She thought them beautiful, though, primitive and alluring in their appeal.
At the first hint of dawn, after the great fire had burned down to crumbling embers, the first of the kymry set out south without so much as a by your leave. Xena, roused from sleep by the sound of their passage, rose and watched the grove slowly drain of inhabitants. She pulled her cloak about herself and walked over to Ares, who sat watch on Cirico at the edge of the grove. He looked down on her sardonically when she moved to stand by his mount's head.
"They're heading in the right direction." she sighed. "That's something, at least."
"Nike and that wild eyed old man conferred while it was still dark." He informed her. "She's flapping around somewhere in owl form. I do believe they're following her lead."
"Would have been nice of her to wake us." Xena muttered.
"That's one of Athena's minions for you."
"Oh, and your's are all filled with sweetness and concern for the well being of others?"
He snorted at that, obviously in good enough humor this morning not to rise at the bait. "I've no patience to ride at the snail's pace this motley group is going to make. I think I'll take a ride over to Pagasae and see what's about there. If I'm lucky I'll pass Athena's temple in ruins. I feel the need for some bit of amusement."
She turned to stare up at him, frowning. "It's too far. It's almost the distance of Pharsalus. Damnit, Ares, if we run into Chaos hounds along the way, not to mention Chaos himself, we'll need you."
"You won't. Not soon at any rate. I've the feeling he's a bit further east."
"You've the feeling?"
He shrugged. "Between you and Nike, I would think you can deal with his monstrous offspring."
"But - -"
He leaned down, reaching out a hand as if to touch her hair. She jerked back, glaring in frustration. "Xena, my sweet, you will miss me?"
With a laugh he straightened. Cirico danced about, sensing that he was soon to be on the move. "Don't fret too much. Cirico isn't confined to the speed of mortal horses. I'll be back in a few days- - if it suits me."
"Fine. Great. Take your time." she hissed up at him, very much wanting to strangle him.
The black stallion launched himself across the clearing and into the far woods in a few great bounds. And was gone, leaving Xena fuming in his wake. Damned irresponsible, annoying, insufferable - - - she clenched her fists, bit off a few nasty curses and stalked back across the grove to the niche she and her companions had made for themselves last night. She kicked Joxer in the shoulder to wake him and was only marginally less offensive in breaking Gabrielle's sleep.
They both sat up, yawning and rubbing sleep from their eyes.
"The kymry are on the move." she said shortly, going about the breaking of camp with brisk, efficient movements. She shook out her blanket, rolled it and had it fastened to Argo's back by the time Gabrielle had managed to gain her feet and stumble off into the woods to heed the call of nature.
"What's wrong? Other than the obvious?" Gabrielle ventured to ask, as Joxer was finishing his morning ritual of adjusting his mishmash collection of armor about his person.
Xena almost didn't answer, she was in so foul a temper. She forced herself to take a breath, reminding herself that Gabrielle was not at fault in any of the various things that had set her in such a disagreeable mood this morning. "Ares. Nike. The kymry." She supplied the ingredients of her disapproval. "Exactly in that order."
"Oh. Um, do I even want to know?"
"Might as well." Xena snorted, somewhat mollified as her companions showed every indication of being ready to go. She mounted Argo and waited for Joxer and Gabrielle to get up on their own horses. "Nike led the Kymry out early this morning without bothering to mention it to us." she explained when the girl had ridden up beside her and they followed the trail the druids had taken out of the grove.
"Well it's not like they can hide their trail." Gabrielle said soothingly. "Even I could track them."
Xena lifted a brow and finished. "Ares decided our company bored him and went to take a sight seeing trip to the east coast."
Gabrielle stared at her and blinked. "But- -but we need him. What was he thinking?"
Xena rolled her eyes and sniffed. "I won't even begin to guess. " She drew a few deep, calming breaths to get the irritation under control. With that accomplished she turned a somewhat more cordial face to her friend. "Maybe it's for the best. He said Chaos is lurking about in that direction. Maybe they can keep each other occupied."
"Was he sure? About Chaos? I mean, these kymry, they're not warriors. What happens if we're attacked before we can get back to the lake?"
"We deal with it. And yes, he sounded sure, but who knows with him. We'll be fine, Gabrielle. Stop worrying."
"Oohhh, I hate it when you say that. "
* * *
Back through the great forest and again through the rolling, snow-covered grasslands of eastern Thessaly, this time at a slower pace set by a hundred men on foot. They were tireless though, these kymry, subsiding on a few scant hours of rest each night. Four days out and they'd only just reached the rocky pass where Chaos had ambushed them. Good time. Damn good time for this collection.
The goddess owl flew watch high overhead, and Xena rode the line, back and forth up the scattered length of them, nervous as a young warrior on her fist campaign. She had little wish to repeat the events of the last crossing of these highlands. No desire to discover just how much or how little fighting instinct these druids had. Gabrielle rode to the fore, Joxer in the rear. She feared if attack came it would hit the unprotected middle of the column - - or not. It was Chaos' minions that harassed them. There was little order to the strategy.
The oracle and her party were gone when they reached the fist vale, the only sign of them ever having been there the burnt pit where the fire had been. Back to Dodona, Xena assumed where she could either sit out the end of the world or bask in the satisfaction that she had helped assure it's salvation. Xena galloped past the remains of the oracle's camp and to the head of the line, which was half way up the next rise.
The owl had circled low, one could hear the flap of it's wings it flew so close to the ground. The curiosity was understandable, since they were very close to the place Chaos had trapped Ares and Gabrielle. Xena pulled up close to Gabrielle's horse, then past it, taking the lead on the steep incline. She looked back once to gauge her companion's mood. The girl's face was tight with tension, inflexible with a wary uncertainty or perhaps even fear.
There was a hole blasted out of the side of the rise, treacherously close to the path. It was blackly unappealing, a gaping, ragged maw that dropped down into the earth abruptly, with an air of dread about it that had the hairs on the back of her arms standing on edge.
"Careful." she called back over her shoulder. "Pass the word down the line, the path is half crumbled away near the pit, stay close to the far side."
Gabrielle swallowed, looked down in that dark opening and called warning to those behind her. The draft horse scrambled up to the summit with undue haste, it's ears flattened, and stood at the top, shifting uneasily next to Argo.
"I want to be past these highlands before camp is made." Xena said, then called up the same desire to the circling owl. The bird tipped in it's glide, then rose with powerful wing beats to catch a higher air current.
The first of the kymry passed their vantage, and started on the downhill trek. They watched a dozen or more pass.
"We've been lucky so far." Gabrielle pulled idly at the cropped mane of her mount. "Why do I get the feeling it's got to break soon?"
"This place. It's foul. It seems all the places Chaos has used his power reek of unease. "
"Yeah. Maybe. Um, Xena, I've been thinking. What if we get to the lake in time and all, and- -well, what if Chaos just doesn't show up? What's to make him want to go back there?"
Xena watched the line of brown moving figures, watched the bird barely visible against the gray sky and sifted through the implications of Chaos simply refusing to play their game. It was not a far fetched notion. Chaos was not stupid, merely rooted in disorder.
"The oracle didn't say he'd just be there. We just sorta assumed." Gabrielle suggested tentatively.
"Oracles only see the end results of a thing, not all the efforts the people involved in the prophesy have to go through to make it all happen. Damn. Damn. You're absolutely right, Gabrielle. What in hades do we do if he doesn't show?"
She thought about it the rest of the afternoon and well into dusk. And finally when they'd reached the foothills and traveled a league into them, the kymry showed signs of stopping for the night. They were scattered across the grassland, a dozen or more small fires built up, and very thin rations prepared. The owl did her part, hunting well into the night and dropping no less than ten plump rabbits, three ground fowl and a single boar piglet that no mortal owl would have been able to lift, much less fly five leagues clutched in her talons. Joxer appropriated one of the fowl and proudly presented it to Gabrielle as if he had killed it himself. She looked at it, at him and flatly told him to pluck it, clean it and bring it back and maybe she might cook it. Thin rations, even with Nike's bounty. They shared the bird and pan fried cakes with three druids.
The fire around which the high priest Aigen and the other elder Kymry sat sizzled with the drippings of pork. Xena called for Nike, hoping the goddess would heed her summons and stood at the outskirts of the that flame. Aigen looked at her. The other's did.
Nike walked out of the darkness, a woman and positioned herself near Xena.
"We may have a problem. I know you've talked among yourselves and seem confident that you can counter Chaos' power, but what exactly do we do if he chooses not to show himself? Can you do some sort of summoning?"
"The harmony of our magics is not a thing that Chaos would be attracted to." One of the older men said. "It would be a repellent if anything. He must be drawn to the place of his imprisonment by some other means and very much distracted in the doing, or he will sense the trap and either flee or tear us asunder before the magic is fully worked."
"Well, ya know, you could have told us this a little sooner." Gabrielle complained. Xena stood silent, the hope she had entertained that the kymry might hold the key to her problem shattering.
"Any suggestions how we might go about doing this?"
"That is for you and your gods to manage. "
She turned a glance to Nike, who stared at the old men about the fire with something akin to disgust. "Any ideas?"
"I would think the lure of a god would be enticing to him, since he holds such an interest for using things godly to batter his way into Olympus."
"You think he'd follow you, if you could find him?"
"With the proper goading, I imagine he would." the goddess' look darkened.
"The question if, can you piss him off enough to chase you, and survive at the same time?"
"I admit, but grudgingly, that Ares would be better suited for the task. "
"Yesss," Xena agreed. "He's probably better at pissing people off. But unless he shows up soon, and we can convince him to do it, you may be our only hope."
"For the honor of Athena and the survival of Olympus, I will try."
That was all that could really be asked. Xena felt a little bit of hopelessness settle over her. When Nike went, she had every intention of going along. As the oracle said, mortal opposition was not a thing Chaos was used to. Her sword just might make a difference.
She slept close to her companions to conserve on heat, Gabrielle in the middle and Joxer on the other side. The fire burned low at their feet. The lulling sound of crickets broke the silence of night. Even the druids had ceased their chanting prayers.
A hand pressed her shoulder, then covered her mouth. She didn't even think about calling out, just rolled hard into the body that crouched over her, retrieving the small dagger that rested snugly within the breast piece of her leather armor. She came half up going for the face of her accoster. The wrist holding the dagger was snagged in a powerful grip and a leg snaked out to knock her knee out from under her. With a grunt of frustration she felt herself going down and her attacker on top of her. She made one last effort to twist away, to bring up the heel of her free hand and slam him under the jaw, but with way too fast a grab he caught that hand too. She begin to have a inkling who it was, there were damn few possibilities of people who could take her down. She glared, letting her eyes adjust to to the darkness and the shock of being so rudely waken.
Ares grinned down at her, looking terribly amused. "Your sentries are dozing. Kymry make really sucky guards. " he commented, adjusting his weight atop her, pinning her hands beside her head and forcing a knee between her legs just because he knew it would infuriate her to be in such a vulnerable position. She snarled at him and tried to buck him off, but he was after all, a god, and not so easy to disengage when it suited him.
"Get off." she hissed.
"Ah, but I like it here."
"If you don't get off, I swear I will make you regret it."
"He destroyed Athena's temple. It was in flames. Wonderful sight."
She paused in her efforts to throw him off, narrowing her eyes. Then Chaos was in the east. Ares had been right in his feeling. "Let me go, Ares. We've got a problem here."
"Really?" he consented to release her wrists but didn't bother to shift his body.
"Yes, and your presence, though personally deplorable is - -"
"Gods!" She seethed in agitation. "Damnit, get off me, you bastard!"
He sighed and finally rolled off her, sat in the snow beside her while she rose to a crouch and glared daggers at him.
"Okay, what's the problem?"
"You're the problem." she hissed, still too angry to talk rationally to him. She took three deep breaths, closed her eyes momentarily and fought for some scrape of aloofness. "What else did you see in the east?"
He stroked his beard and watched her. "Turmoil. Fighting. All fine and well if it had any cause or reason save for panic. The Aegean is rising, half the coastal towns are flooded. You think the winter storm here inland is bad - - you haven't seen anything. I can only imagine the same thing's happening all up and down the coast, probably on Thrace's shores as well as Troas, Aeolis, Caria, all the near eastern kingdoms. The idiots are running around screaming that the end of the world's coming, to repent and all that garbage and the ones who aren't are having a fine time looting and burning the ones who are."
"Sounds like your kind of fun." Xena rolled the hilt of her dagger between her palms. "And the world just might be coming to an end."
"Which gets us back to what's your problem?"
"An interesting point was brought up yesterday. What if we go to all this trouble and Chaos doesn't join the party? In fact, the kymry say that once they start their magic he might even be repelled."
"If it involves the chanting they were doing back in the grove, I can understand why?"
"Now that you're back, we might be able to overcome those problems."
"Why, prey tell?"
"Simple. He'll go after a god, because he's looking to bridge the barrier to Olympus and he thinks he needs a god to do it. You stand a better chance than Nike of making him divert enough of his energy and attention to the point that he doesn't notice any annoying little spells of serenity the Kymry will be throwing."
"Oh. Perfectly simple. Perfectly suicidal."
"Nike was willing to give it a try."
"She's one of Athena's brain dead disciples. She's a moron. There's no travel through the aether. What you're suggesting means having a running battle with Chaos over- - what? - - a hundred leagues? I've been up against him and it wasn't fun or profitable in any way I've yet figured out and I don't particularly care for the notion of stretching a similar ordeal out over half of eastern Thessaly."
"Fine. Nike and I will do it."
He jabbed a finger at her in exasperation. "Don't be a fool, Xena. He'd chew her up and spit her out and have you for dessert."
"It doesn't have to be a fight the whole way. Once his attention is fixed, he'll chase. It's just a matter of outrunning him."
"You were out east. He was out east. Did he know you were there?"
"I was shielding. He doesn't bother."
"Do you know where he is now?"
"Nike only has vague idea's what direction he might be."
"Nike didn't have the intimate- - relationship- - I did with him."
"So you can track him down when we need to draw him out?"
"oh, Xena, Xena, Xena - - you really think you're going to talk me into this? What's in it for me?" He leaned towards her with half a smile. She leaned in to meet him, a hand span away from his face.
"You get to go back to Olympus. You get to rub Hera and Athena's noses in the fact that you solved the problem they created."
"Hummm." He lay back on one elbow, sucking on the inside of his cheek thoughtfully. "You know, you've got a point there. Okay, let's do it."
* * * * *
"I cannot believe you are even contemplating doing this. Have you totally lost your mind? Did you fall and hit your head when I wasn't looking? Xena, what are you thinking?"
Gabrielle ran out of breath, stood there as Xena checked and rechecked Argo's girth and just shook from what she felt was totally unmitigated, justifiable anger/ frustration. She was scared, she was cold, she was hungry and sore, and she most definitely did not want to loose her best friend and that's what she felt certain was going to happen. Why did Xena always have to insist on being in the thick of things. A normal, sane person avoided the spot where lightening had already struck twice, but not her best friend. No her best friend rushed over to stand in that exact spot and glorified in her tempting of the fates. A normal person did not volunteer to ride off into the maw of Chaos in efforts to enrage him enough to give blind chase. That was the sort of thing gods risked and even smart gods thought twice and three times about it.
"Xena, you're gonna get killed."
"Oh, show a little optimism, Gabrielle." Xena patted Argo beneath her creamy mane, scratched the velvety nose and finally turned to meet Gabrielle's eyes. "It'll be okay."
"No it won't. You're riding off to meet Chaos head on with the god of war. Tell me that's a sane thing to do?"
"It's the only thing to do."
"Why do you have to go?"
"Because I'm the wild card and we need all the advantages we can get. Gabrielle, stay calm. Stay in control. The Kymry have to make it to that lake and it's up to you to get them there. Don't let Nike or any of them veer from the plan."
"Oh, right." there was wetness gathering in her eyes and she desperately did not want Xena to see it. To think her weak. "Like I could stop them."
"I trust you."
Gabrielle took a breath and knew, just knew she was going to cry. Xena saved her the embarrassment by throwing one arm about her shoulders and embracing her, then whirling and swinging up onto Argo's back.
"I hate to say it," she advised from that vantage. "But rely on Joxer. He's the only element we know in this."
Gabrielle nodded stiffly, lifting a hand in farewell as Xena kicked Argo into a canter and joined Ares, who had been waiting impatiently on Cirico for some time.
The sun was just over the horizon and the camp was breaking up, starting it's sluggish evacuation of the area. She stood and watched until the two horses were mere specks on the eastern horizon, then turned and mounted her own shaggy animal and urged it into a ponderous trot up the line of kymry.
She pulled up next to Joxer, feeling sullen and irritable. In one of his more perceptive moments, he seemed to sense the mood, for he looked to her sheepishly and offered. "She'll be okay."
"You don't know that." she snapped.
"Well, I know that Xena's the best warrior I ever saw - - including even me - - and that if anybody can survive this thing, it's gotta be her. "
"Oh, Joxer. I've just got this terrible feeling. I don't trust any of this. I don't trust Ares, I don't think I really trust Nike. I only partly understand these kymry and the powers they say they control. Everything's out of my control."
"Gabrielle, if it makes you feel any better, I'm here for you. I'm on your side." He smiled hesitantly, as if expecting a scornful remark. Instead she swallowed and the tears she'd held back during Xena's departure rolled down her cheeks.
"You know Joxer, it does."
Another night on the grass lands and in the late afternoon of the next day they reached the forest. The kymry paused to pay homage to the spirits who lived within the enfolding arms of the wood. It spooked Joxer to no ends thinking there were spirits that lived within each tree. Gabrielle was more intrigued by the idea than frightened. The kymry seemed to think that each part of nature held a power of it's own, that everything lived in a sort of harmonic balance. There was power to be had in every living thing, if only one had the discipline and the knowledge to bring it out.
They passed through the forest, a scattered line of travelers that stretched almost a quarter of a mile. It was hard to keep track of everyone in the closed confines of the narrow forest track. Gabrielle did her best, and Joxer took the task Xena had bestowed upon them as guardians of this strange company to heart, riding up and down the line tirelessly, helpfully informing everyone along the road that they were perfectly safe while he was on patrol.
They passed the side trail leading to Demeter's temple. Gabrielle looked down that dark way once, wary and a little breathless, remembering the smoking ruins, the horror that had visited a once tranquil temple. She stood by that fork in the trail for a long time, knuckles white on the smooth wood of her staff, while her horse pulled at the withered leaves within his reach. When the last of her charges had passed, she pulled on the reins of the draft horse and walked up the muddied path after.
She was a hundred feet past the stone marker to Demeter, when the first of the figures appeared from the side trail. They crept onto the road, and into the wood bordering it, furtive, brown clad men, who held the glint of steel in their hands and the fervor of desperation and blood lust in their eyes. They were quiet in their stalking, good at the life they chose, and more than twenty of them had moved into the wood, and up the trail behind the kymry before the heavy draft horse tossed his head and laid back his ears in agitation, warning Gabrielle, who senses were not nearly so sharp, that something was amiss.
For a moment she didn't see them, their clothing and dirty skin blended so well with the wood, then when they saw she scanned the road behind her, the closest of them screamed out a warning cry and rushed at her, spiked club held over his head. Her reaction time was slow, her attention swinging back up the trail to the kymry stragglers who were just looking over their shoulders at the disturbance, before she thought to take a defensive stance. He was almost upon her when she brought the staff up, warding off the overhead blow that would have crushed her skull. The impact went straight up her arms. She set her her teeth against it, bracing her body like Xena had taught her, then while her attacker drew his arm back for another strike, she swung the staff around and down, knocking his feet out from under him. She whacked him up aside the head with the end and barely had time to whirl and face the others as they came at her. She swung wildly, then, out numbered and pressed, the odds greatly against her. She had learned well, but she wasn't Xena. She wasn't really much of an offensive fighter at all, although she did well in a pinch, when there were less than twenty bandits against her.
She was on the defensive now, blocking more blows than landing strikes of her own. The pounding of hooves from up the trail and Joxer's war cry drew some of the attention away from her. In fact most of the bandits had veered around her, intent on engaging victims further up the trail. Joxer rode into a clump of them, sword swinging. The ones on his prickly side dodged, while two more grabbed hold of him on the other side and pulled him from the horse. His one successful tactical maneuver was to flail about wildly as he fell, knocking the two bandits down, and saving himself an immediate cut throat. He scrambled up, marginally quicker than they, and swung about. He looked berserk enough in his frantic movements to give them pause. But not for long.
Gabrielle retreated to where he stood, panting, bruised and fearing for her life. The bandits circled like wolves and the kymry were not rushing back en masse to their aid.
"I'm gonna spill yer guts." One dirty, scar faced bandit sneered, jabbing his sword at Joxer. "But the little girl we'll keep. Teach her what a real staff is."
"Oh, right." Gabrielle muttered and snaked her staff out, catching the offender in the crotch. He bellowed, clutching his private parts. His fellows laughed the pain, desperate to inflict some of their own.
A man screamed. A body flew over their heads and slammed into the bole of a tree some fifteen feet off the ground. Another one followed suit, hitting the same tree and crumpling into the snow at it's foot on top of the first. Nike strode down the trail, her eyes literally blazing, her hair almost floating around her head. Her hands were empty, her spear having been lost to Chaos back in the cave when she'd helped save Gabrielle and Ares. She didn't need it. She mowed through the bandits with the precision of a scythe. She didn't even touch most of them. They came at her and she motioned and they were hurled away.
With the distraction of a goddess, Gabrielle and Joxer were free to get in a few more hits of their own. Joxer very happily took down two opponents and Gabrielle knocked about another three before the remaining bandits scattered, wailing about demonesses, into the wood. Joxer ran a few dozen feet after them, calling them cowards and the like, brandishing his sword heroically. Gabrielle leaned on her staff and merely breathed. The goddess stalked to her side, still emanating enough power to make the hair on Gabrielle's arms stand on end.
"Vermin." she spat. "Looting Demeter's temple, no doubt."
Gabrielle thought the same, but was too short on breath to voice the agreement. She had taken a glancing blow across the ribs and it hurt somewhat to breath. She shifted her weight, probing the sore spot, figuring to have a nice bruise tomorrow but hopefully no cracked bones.
"They looked more like peasants than real bandits." she finally said, when Joxer had sauntered back. "Like men driven to desperation by all this madness."
Nike lifted a brow at her. "They desecrated the temple of a god."
"Maybe. Maybe they're just hungry."
"Maybe they were not really going to kill you and slaughter and rob the kymry. Your heart is too soft, Gabrielle." The goddess sniffed and turned, glaring into the surrounding wood with her sharp eyes. "They won't be back. Not tonight anyway." She shook her head, almost shuddering then flexed her muscles and shifted into the owl.
Joxer started and took a step back, then cast an apologetic look at Gabrielle for the apprehension. "It just sorta takes me by surprise when she does that." he admitted.
"Surprise. What's surprise?" She muttered. "I don't think I can be shocked by anything anymore. She's right though, I am too soft hearted. A bunch of guys try and kill us and I'm making excuses for them. What an idiot I am."
"You're not. You're just a girl and girls are supposed to be nice and sweet and not run around killing people."
"Oh, really? Is that what girls are supposed to be like? Have you ever told Xena this? Please let me be around when you do."
"Xena doesn't count."
"Oh, I wanna be there when you tell her that, too. Thanks anyway, Joxer. I think under all that babble, you were actually trying to complement me."
He shoved his sword into it's sheath and gave her a dubious look.
"Well, you know, all in all, this wasn't so bad. We could've run into Chaos or his monsters and we haven't seen hide nor hair of them. If bandits are all we have to deal with, then I think we might be okay."
"Of course, the word will spread of our might in battle and the country side will quake in fear when we pass."
"Get a life, Joxer. I don't want quaking country sides, I just want to get to the lake in once piece. Gods, I hope Xena has as easy a time of it."
* * *
The pace Ares set was not particularly grueling, it was more a lazy meandering eastward, sometimes pushing the horses to a gallop, sometimes an easy lope and sometimes merely a sedate walk while the god of war got his bearings on just where Chaos might be at any particular time. It was not a fool proof method of tracking the master of disharmony. Ares' bond was tenuous at best and sometimes impossible for him to focas upon, because of the nature of Chaos himself. At times Xena would find Ares staring eastward, disoriented and just a little oblivious while he used immortal senses to track Chaos and found himself drawn into the stench of discord through that thin connecting thread.
The distance they covered was incredible, with Ares admittedly buffering the extent of Argo's stamina. Three days into the east and reached Cynoscephalae. The town was wary and ready to defend against invaders. There were no walls to protect it, but men patrolled the boundaries armed to the teeth. Two war bands had been passed on the road towards the town. They had ridden through the thick of a party a hundred men strong, unseen and unnoticed thanks to a wide spectrum mind trick of Ares. When they'd traveled past the second group heading towards the town at a bisecting angle, he predicted the two warlords would clash before they ever reached Cynoscephalae. Xena silently concurred, figuring the poor town would then have to deal with the victor.
There was nothing to do about it. They had larger ill omens to deal with. Another two days and they reached the mountainous eastern coast of Thessaly. The peak of Mount Pelion stood cloud shrouded in the distance and beyond that, the jewel faceted waters of the Aegean. The weather, which Ares had claimed to be disastrous along the coast was of foul temperament even on the protected western side of the range. Sleet, hail and snow took turns buffeting the earth. Xena endured the majority of it, wet and miserable, but during the worst of the fist sized hail, had no choice but to ride close to Ares and partake of the invisible shield he raised for his own comfort.
They did not cross the range, instead veering northward and riding along the gentle foothills that bordered it. Ares kept changing the cant of their direction, making Xena doubt that he had a grasp on Chaos at all. He had doubts himself, although he hid them well behind a mask of self-assurance.
At a small, farming village some twenty-five league north of Mt. Pelion, Xena had to stop or risk falling from the saddle in exhaustion. In six days she thought she might have totaled some twenty hours of sleep, if that. She needed to rest her body, Argo needed to restore her strength through natural means and not godly ones. The townsfolk were wary and suspicious of two armed riders entering their domain in such frenzied times, but the sight of Xena's denars convinced them that they were not bandits out to rob and kill them.
There were no private rooms to be had, but an elderly couple who no longer had the strength to work the land operated a tavern where for a small sum, clean straw in the corner near the fire could be had, along with warm stew and strong ale. Xena barely tasted the latter, before rolling up in her blanket on the straw and falling into slumber.
She had no notion how long she slept, but even in the grip of exhaustion her senses were sharp to disturbance. The door of the tavern slammed open letting in whistling wind and chill. She half opened her eyes to see the hazy, shadowed figures of two men stomp in out of the weather. One of them had on a patched woolen cloak over worn leather armor, the other a fur vest which smelled as if the animal it had been ripped off of, had not been entirely cleaned from within it. Filthy, beady eyed men, with the expression of hunters looking for easy prey. Through her lashes she looked about the main room, found Ares leaning in a high backed plank chair against the wall, his feet propped on the rough table, crossed at the ankles. She sighed, closing her eyes, content to drift back into her daze.
"Ho, Ale!" An overly loud, harsh voice demanded. "And food. Are you deaf?"
"Do I look like a tavern keep?" Ares' low voice purred. Xena tried to block it all out, she truly did.
"Well get the lazy bastard out here, boy."
Boy? She had to open one eye to see who it was that was probably going to regret ever being born. The bigger, fur vested one was the obnoxious sod. Two hands taller than she was, and three times the girth, with graying hair and beard and enough weaponry on his person to outfit a legion.
"You know, I appreciate a man with a healthy sense of conflict, but my companion over there is trying to get some sleep, and if you keep bellowing like a stuck pig then I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
Both men gaped, obviously not used to ultimatums voiced in quite that manner or tone. There was a rustle of rushes and the old man who ran the tavern peeked around the inner door, still in his night shirt and looking rightly worried.
"You're gonna ask us to leave?" the smaller, leather armored half of the pair repeated.
"Well, I could just reduce you to burning cinder, but that wouldn't be very fair to ask the landlord to have to clean the mess up off his floor."
That went straight over their heads. Ares had yet to sit all four legs of his chair on the ground. Xena opened her other eye and shifted a little to get more comfortable.
"Oh, ain't you the fancy lord, with those fine leathers and that pretty sword."
"You like that?" Ares caressed the hilt at his side.
"I'll take it for me own, when I run you through." the big fur vested one snarled, advancing a step. The tavern owner retreated into his back room. Ares lifted one dark brow. "That's an admirable goal. I think you worked for me up in Thrace once. You were a moron then, too. But an enthusiastic moron."
"I ain't never hired out to the likes of you." The man declared, casting an outraged glance to his partner.
"And loud. I told you to be quiet." He uncrossed his arms and there was a dagger in his hand. With a flick of his fingers it left his hand and hurtled across the room, embedding itself dead center between the eyes of the big man. The axe the man had unhooked from his belt hit the floor before he did. The other one stared down at his companion, stared up at Ares, who still sat there against the wall with a half smile on his lips. His hand hovered over the hilt of his worn short sword.
"I wouldn't." Ares suggested cordially. The fingers twitched, the brow furrowed, then very carefully the hand moved away from the sword. He started to take a step backwards. Ares lifted one finger to sway him.
"Take the trash when you go."
The man hesitated, then bent, grabbed the feet of the dead man, and dragged the body as fast as he could towards the door. There was a thin trail of blood, but it wasn't bad. Ares sat there a moment longer, then seemed to recall something and snapped his fingers. There was a yelp from outside and the door swung open. Nothing entered through it but the cold air and a very fine black dagger, which whipped back towards it's owner point first. He caught it between thumb and forefinger, cleaned the blood off with a rag from the table and secreted upon his person. He glanced over to Xena, who still lay with her eyes slitted open.
Apologetically he shrugged. "Sorry."
She sighed, shut her eyes and drifted back to sleep. For the remainder of the night, there were no interruptions and her rest was sound and refreshing.
The smell of frying pork roused her. The old woman squatted by the fire happily tending strips of salted pork. There was a basket near the hearth that contained fresh flat bread. Xena stretched, taking account of herself and her weapons as she did. The old woman cast a gap toothed smile her way.
"Morning to you, lass. Break fast is cooking."
"So I smell." She looked about. She and the woman were the only ones in evidence.
"He's out already, if you're lookin' fer your man. Said to tell you he'd be back 'fore long."
Xena stood, shaking out her blanket, finger combing the straw from her long brown hair. "He's not my man."
"Oh ho, he sent the ruffians away last night, he did. I'd claim him if I were thirty years younger. Fine, fine man, that one."
Xena smiled, deciding not to argue the point. She wondered outside with the pork wrapped within the warm folds of the flatbread and checked on Argo. The mare was happily munching on season old hay. Her golden ears pricked at her mistress' approach and she thrust out a downy muzzle to be scratched. Obligingly, Xena did so, catching all the sensitive spots. Argo stood there and munched with her great brown eyes closed in ecstasy.
With a handful of straw she rubbed the horse down, which she had been too tired to do thoroughly last night and afterwards threw the saddle on and cinched it up loosely, then went back inside the tavern to await Ares' return.
He was not long in coming. She heard the sound of Cirico's hoof beats and was in the doorway waiting when he pulled up. Excitement glinted in Ares' eyes, and he was beaming that white toothed grin of his.
"Close?" she asked.
"Very." he replied. "There's a rustic little temple to Hera about five leagues west of here. He's there doing a little remodeling. "
She took a deep breath, steeled her nerves and the race of her pulse and nodded. Five minutes later they were on the road. In less than an hour, at a hard pace, they reached obviously structured landscape around what had been a small, simply constructed temple. At the moment it was a scattered collection of masonry and dust, both of which still swirled and shifted about the area, the dismantling having obviously been very recent indeed.
She split from Ares, circling about the area in one direction while he took the direct route through the center. She secreted Argo in the trees and dismounted, carefully weaving in and around the cover at the edge, straining all her senses to their limits in efforts to spy out their enemy. There was one wall of the temple left standing, and that wall overshadowed the blocky form of the alter. A man crouched, one knee to the ground at that alter, seemingly preying or concentrating. Upon recognition of the golden locks and familiar brocade tunic, one doubted seriously it was prayer to Hera the creature was about. She lifted her gaze and found Ares approaching the alter from the open, front side.
Chaos looked up as Cirico's hoof turned a rock and for a heartbeat, she could have sworn his face registered surprise. Then whatever shock had been there was washed away by a beauteous smile. He stood, spreading his arms wide as in welcome.
"My child." his voice carried across the clearing, lilting and sweet. It sent shivers up Xena's spine.
Ares just looked at him darkly, all the enthusiasm he had shown earlier for the encounter now replaced by dead seriousness.
"I'm not your child."
"Ah, but you are such a lovely, lovely gift from the seed of that which I spawned at the dawn of time. I do so welcome your presence."
"I'm afraid I was at a disadvantage when last we met." Ares admitted.
"So you will be this time." Chaos promised, voice changing from one breath to the next from smooth and sweet to hissing revulsion. He jumped down from the alter, lighting on first one chunk of rubble, then another.
The whole of the world seemed to darken between those movements. The already clouded sky seemed to thicken ten fold. Xena couldn't help but look up and shudder. Ares did not. His gaze never left Chaos.
"Maybe. But I'm hardly trapped here, and from what I've seen your destructive power seems most aptly used against stone buildings and hapless peasants. It's no wonder you were vanquished so easily way back when."
Chaos' face twisted into rage. The wind picked up, tossing leaves, bits of stone and dust in it's wake. Xena's spine tingled and she felt certain that she was not alone in the sparse wood.
"Take it back!" Chaos screeched, whipping his arms forward as if he were conducting some massive orchestrative movement. Every loose rock smaller than a full grown sow hurtled past him and towards Ares. Almost the whole of the temple debris was displaced. Ares threw up one hand, palm outwards and the hail of masonry spun around him, pelting the ground beyond. Cirico, though of immortal blood, still threw his head in panic and danced frantically under his master's control.
"Pathetic." Ares observed, shaking his head. "Why don't you spit forth a few of your monsters, maybe they could do better?"
Chaos hissed and the sky spat forth lightening. It hit the temple of Hera, obliterating the alter and shattering the remaining wall. Xena shielded her eyes, shivering. She had thought to slip forward to get a better vantage, but her cover was not longer viable. The plan had been to piss him off enough to give chase, not so much that he destroyed the whole country side.
"You'll beg my forgiveness for that." Chaos screeched and hurled himself at Ares. The shield, if Ares bothered to put it up, didn't work this time. The blonde, silver eyed madness hit Ares and the both of them hurtled backwards off Cirico and hit the ground. Xena took that moment to run forward. It was dark enough now that neither one of them would notice her unless she was right on top of them. She was past the alter and on the now clear dirt ground before the temple, when the earth began to shake. The black stallion screamed, darting too and fro across the clearing, wild eyed and dangerous in his panic. Ares and Chaos rolled around, the air shimmering and indistinct around them. A screeching, horrid sound began to cut the air. The ground under her feet splintered, cracking and steam gushed up as if the very heart of hades had been exposed. She jumped for solid ground, but there was none. The whole expanse of ground around the battling gods buckled and split.
Chaos hysterical laughter rent the air, louder and more grating than the screeching complaints of the earth as it split asunder. Ares rolled away from him, coming to his feet in one smooth motion. Chaos throat was split wide open, his head hanging at an odd, disjointed angle, barely attached by the flesh at the back of his neck. The mouth still worked, the eyes still gleamed. The static wash of color that boiled under that skin crowded outward. Then the skin just seemed to melt back together and was whole again.
"You are going to scream for such a very long time." he promised. "And the torment I will inflict won't ever, ever end."
"Oh, I'm so scared." Ares taunted, dagger in one hand and long sword in the other.
"You will be."
The the clouds came down like a hammer. The whole thick wall of them just seemed to be sucked down earthwards, a spinning, funnel shaped maelstrom that slammed into and over Ares and obliterated him from Xena's sight. She was knocked off her feet, flung a dozen feet back and rocked against the solid, warm form of Cirico who stood with legs wide apart, and head down against the tumult. She latched onto the long mane, to the leather of the saddle and held on for dear life. She couldn't see, she could hear nothing but the howl of the wind, and that vicious force was increasing by the second. Cracks of white energy emanated from the center of the storm. Where was Chaos? He'd been there a moment ago. She was damned certain she knew where Ares was, at the hub of the pandemonium and at this moment, she very badly wanted him out of it and safely within her reach. If he went down now, there was nothing to draw Chaos to the lake.
"Damn! Damn!" She pressed her face against Cirico's silky neck, eyes leaking tears from all the dust and grit the storm had blown into them. With a cry of frustration she pulled herself up onto the immortal steed's back, and kicked him into motion. He sprang forward, into the whirling wall of darkness, into force that almost knocked her off her seat. She bent low over his neck and urged him further. Find a solid body. Any body, and hope it wasn't Chaos. Trust in Cirico to have the instinct to go to his master and not the enemy of his master.
Impact against something. Hands gripped her leg, fingers bit into her flesh. If she opened her eyes, half the dust in the clearing would be in them. She ground her jaw, trusted in luck and grabbed ahold of the wrist, pulling whoever up, figuring if it was Chaos, she wouldn't have to worry about it for much longer anyway. An arm went around her and she thought she could hear somebody screaming close to her ear. Go. Go. go.
She did. Or Cirico did, lurching through the vortex with leaps no ordinary horse might manage. One bound. Two. They were out of the funnel and into the outskirts. Cirico ripped the reins from her hands and took his head, running all out. The land flashed past in a blur. The motion was almost ethereal, so fast and smooth a gait the stallion possessed. She turned her head to see if the body pressed against her back was the right one. It was, to her vast relief, but what she saw coming behind them swept that relief away like so many dry leaves. The funnel was twisting and roaring in their wake. Only it wasn't just the one anymore. Two more had ripped down from the skies to join the first and like dancing, weaving cobras they tore across the earth in pursuit.
"This is a little excessive, damn it!" She screamed back. He wrapped his other arm around her, momentarily pressing his forehead to her shoulder.
"It's working, isn't it?" He sounded breathless, just a little unsteady.
"Are you okay?"
"Oh, sure. Fine. I love Chaos."
She took that to mean he'd live. He was right though, it was working like a charm. If the frenzy that was hot on their heels was any indication, Chaos himself was very interested in catching and stopping Ares.
"Oh no." she cried. "I left Argo back there in the middle of all that."
"She's better off. She couldn't match Cirico's speed."
She worried. She couldn't help it. Argo was one of the few things in life she truly cared about. She hoped one of the others was well on her way to that lake with a hundred druids in tow, because at the speed they were going, it wouldn't take them long to catch up. Gabrielle, be there.
* * * * *
The lake was covered with black ice. A hundred brown figures moved slowly around it's wooded shores, voices raised in chant that came and went like an unpredictable wind. They stopped and settled to the ground where they would, with no discernible order to the spacing or the choice of locale. But as night fell, some fifty small flickering campfires brightened the shores of the lake, a ring of earthbound stars when the sky overhead refused to show any. The chanting never stopped all through the night and into the morning. Throughout the day they took nothing but water to soothe parched throats.
The world seemed very much at peace. Here in this place there was safety and harmony and if one got too close to that frozen, placid water, one forgot that there had ever been anything else. But it was a small speck of order in a world recently bereft of it's senses and to the east a storm was brewing; a storm of such magnitude that the earth was torn asunder by the violence of it's passing. It seemed more likely that this tiny place where tranquility had been restored, would would be crushed and flung away by the gale that approached it. Such a small hope that a girl, a would be warrior, a lone goddess and a group of somber druids might hold out against the raging tumult of chaos.
There was no stopping and no rest in the head long flight from the wrath of Chaos. Cirico's speed and stamina was wholly amazing, but still the storm gained. They crossed half of Thessaly in a day's time and in their wake destruction was left behind. The winds licked at their backs and sometimes when the gape narrowed something more than wind struck at them, something that Xena's mortal senses were only barely aware of. What defense Ares threw up, she had no notion, she only guessed he might be doing something when he tensed behind her, tightening his hold around her waist or the hair on the back of her arms tingled from the certainty that something unnatural was going on.
The earth rotated. Night fell, and passed and the wan light of day again struggled to penetrate the layer of black clouds. Cirico entered a thick wood, which slowed his progress considerably. With the speed and the direct route southwesterly, Xena's sense of place was extremely disoriented. She did not know where this forest was, or why the stallion had chosen to slow his pace to go through it. The miraculous gallop had trickled down to a lope as the horse wound in and out of the close growing trees. Leaves and debris whipped around them. One could hear the shredding of wood in the not too far distance behind them as Chaos' tornadoes bore down.
"He'll overtake us." she screamed, words ripped away on the winds.
"Yes." Ares agreed. "We're almost there."
She blinked in surprise, not realizing they had come that far in so short a time. It had taken them a week or more to find Chaos and in something less than twenty-four hours they had traveled that same distance and more.
"This is the wood around the lake?"
He didn't answer. The shorn top of a towering pine crashed towards them. He jerked an arm outwards, fingers splayed and it spun away, bowling into the trees to their right. Smaller debris pounded them, Ares obviously having no time to deal with twigs when the maelstrom behind them was throwing whole trees their way.
She looked over her shoulder once. The whole of the forest not more than a hundred feet distant was a swirling mass of brown/ gray hell. It sucked up trees and brush and earth into it's maw and spat them back out with tremendous force. She turned her face, shocked speechless. Then they burst into the open, with no forest before them, and only a thin stretch of sand separating the land from the huge expanse of dark lake. The stallion skidded to a stop, his hooves sliding down the the soft embankment and onto thin ice. He broke through, sinking up to his knees before he could scramble frantically backwards up the slope. By then it was too late to look for other avenues of escape, because the gale was upon them.
The winds slammed into them. The earth itself heaved upwards in mass, the whole of the shore cresting up like a giant wave and flinging horse and riders into the air and far out over the water. Xena lost her seat, caught in the ferocity of the wind. She was tossed high, like so much debris and came down hard upon a layer of ice that jarred her with terrific impact before it broke under her weight. Icy water closed over her head, swallowing her whole. She fought against the numbness, the chunks of broken ice that shot downwards past her, the turbulence of the water as the maelstrom hit it. Desperately she won the surface and found herself in the midst of chaos. There was no sky, no shore, no sight of water, just frenzied, overwhelming winds. Power burned within that obscuring storm, showing up in sparks here and there, and centralizing in a not too distant spot in the air which was for the most part darker than the rest, but illuminated every once and a while with a white hot volt of something.
There was a battle ensuing up there. Chaos had finally managed his goal and backed Ares into a corner and Ares was fighting back. But for how long could anything stand against pure chaos? Not long, she thought. Where were the kymry? Where was the mortal magic that might sway the first of all the gods?
A chunk of detritus hit her shoulder and she went under, swallowing a mouthful of water. She came back up gagging, choking, realizing that her body was freezing and she had to get out of this lake. But which way was the shore? There was no way to tell in this mess. She struck out swimming anyway, figuring the exertion might help keep her body from giving into the numbing cold.
A rhythm seemed to drift past her hearing. It weeded it's way through the turmoil of the gale and wrapped it's gentle fingers in her thoughts. Her stroke faltered. The chant grew stronger. A hundred melodious voices softly urging, quietly whispering for serenity. It washed over her like a sweet, spring breeze, making her forget the cold, the grasping fingers of the lake, the pandemonium above it. Calm and peace seemed to seep up from the very earth, from the bottom of the lake, through the icy waters and up into her mortal flesh.
It passed by her, only fleetingly brushing her with it's overwhelming tranquility, not specifically aimed at her, rather at the other conflicting powers that infected the air over the lake. There were no solid words that she could discern, but there was want in that rhythm, in that subtle magic, that could not be denied. It wanted Ares to retreat from the conflict. It wanted very badly for him to give up defense and offense as a whole, for those actions only served to increase the agitation of the chaos that enveloped them all. He fought against such a mandate. She could feel his rebellion, caught up in the chain of the chant, in the thread of magic that was oh so carefully being insinuated into all of this small sphere of world around them. They urged again, and again, and finally he relented. She felt him break away, felt the rage of Chaos as he pursued and then the serenity overcame her and she lost all will to fight against the pull of the water and sank into it's depths.
Dimly, as she went under, pulled down by the weight of armor and sword, she was aware that her lungs burned, that drowning was not far off, but she could not quite summon the ability to care. Down into blackness, into frigid cold, lulled by the magic, conscious of the pain of starved lungs, yet not worried. One might never worry again here.
Something caught her in her downward spiral, embraced her in a not quite warmth and the pain in her chest ceased. Was this death? It did not seem like death. There was no awakening on the other side, merely a continual drift. But, she was comfortable now, so it didn't really matter.
Outside, something hammered at the cocoon that protected her, projecting anger and vengeance. It wanted very badly what was here with her, protecting her, but it's attention kept being distracted by the chant - - the spell of serenity that had already conquered her, was on it's way to overwhelming Ares and strove steadily, subtly to turn chaos into passivity.
Protected, serene, she sank towards the depths and Chaos left her alone, drawn outward to another conflict.
* * * *
Gabrielle screamed. She couldn't help it. A tree, bole, limbs, roots and all came spinning out of the gray wall of storm over the lake directly towards the scant cover she and Joxer shared. Joxer looked up at her shriek of fright and screeched out one of his own as the behemoth sailed scant inches over their heads and crashed into the line of forest behind them. White faced and shocked they turned to survey the jagged, dirt clumped array of roots no more than five feet away.
Three minutes ago there had been nothing. Not a sound other than the persuasive chanting of the kymry and then without warning the earth had exploded on the other side of the lake. For one split second, Gabrielle had thought she had seen a horse and perhaps two people on that far shore, then the forest had exploded behind them, belching earth, trees and anything else unlucky enough to be occupying that particular stretch of land into the lake.
The world had gone completely crazy after that, the lake totally obscured by whirling, gale force winds that drew water and earth into it's spinning vortex with maniacal fervor. The funnel was obsidian black at it's center and stretched all the way to the churning clouds overhead and every once and a while it spat something out at the shore as if in afterthought.
Gabrielle bolted from her cover, fighting the winds and running along the shore in search of Nike. The goddess was in human form, standing close to the shore, staring into the maelstrom. Gabrielle caught hold on one slim arm, using Nike to stop her headlong rush. The goddess turned blazing eyes on her, skittish at the touch and at this moment probably very dangerous to startle.
"Is it him? Was that Xena and Ares I saw go into the lake? What's going on?"
"It is. Your companion is there somewhere. Ares is fighting him. He's not supposed to, damn him." She winced as a shimmering sheet of energy shot out of the vortex and hit the surface of the water not ten feet from the shore.
The chant grew perceivably louder. Gabrielle shielded her eyes from the water and wind and looked around the lake. The druids stood at the edge of the water all around the shore, staring into the storm with placid, somber faces. She could feel the vibration of the song in her bones. She could feel it directed inwards towards the lake like a solid, living entity. The storm began swirling faster, becoming more manic in it's patterns. Nike tensed, half lifting her hands.
"He's stopped." she whispered, barely heard above the gale. "Chaos pursues him, but his attention will soon turn now that the distraction of battle has ended."
"In the lake- -So is Ares, now- -shielding. The winds dip, the waters part. Chaos wants past that shield badly - - ah, he's noticed what we're about. I might suggest you find cover, Gabrielle."
The words were no sooner out of her mouth, than the first wave of storm slammed into the shore. It rocked Nike, but she held her ground. Gabrielle was tossed off her feet and backwards. She sat there, in the mud, desperate to see what damage had been done to their kymry priests. Trees and rocks and huge sheets of water buffeted the shore. The larger chunks of debris seemed miraculously deflected to the side or over the heads of the brown robed figures. Nike's doing. She could save them from being crushed, but not from the wind and water.
A solid form hit the ground next to Gabrielle and she thought it was a projectile from the storm. It turned out to be not so dangerous, merely Joxer who fumbled for her arm, yelling at her to accompany him to greater shelter. She didn't want to go. She needed to see every aspect of what happened. She desperately needed to know if anything alive still treaded water in that fateful lake.
The heavens cried out in rage and spat forth freezing hail one moment and steaming chunks of solid rock the next. She cried out, struck on the cheek, on the shoulder. Joxer fell atop her, protecting her, taking the worst of the pounding. She could hear the hail hitting his armor, hear his grunts of pain when it hit flesh. That gallantry was truly touching, but she could no more than give it fleeting thought, so many more dreadful issues crowded her mind. She glanced up once, looking out over the lake, at the dark rushing wind. There was the start of a glimmer within the darkness. A brilliant, disjointed seepage of light and color that spread out, infecting the earthy tones of the gale. Jagged streaks of power flashed down to join it from the heavons, their appearances followed by the crash of thunder. She put her hands to her ears, deafened, and cried.
Xena, please, please be on the other shore. Please be out of the lake. Oh, gods, oh gods, oh gods, I want this over.
The earth shuddered. The lake surged up over it's shores, it's waters brushing the feet of Nike and the lapping against the knees of every kymry around it's diameter. The funnel of furious wind broke at it's very top, separating from the clouds. It fell apart, dispersing and all the matter it had captured with it's fury spattered the ground, the water around it. The last of the rocks and leaves hit the surface of the lake. The last ripple of disturbance danced concentrically out and brushed against the shores, and then the surface became smoothly placid.
Gabrielle lifted her head, fighting her way out from under Joxer, scrambling closer to the shore to stare as a ray of light from above caressed the water and splayed out as if reflected by a mirror. It was that smooth, that entirely still. Nothing moved on it's surface and there seemed to be nothing under that polished sheen but endless, bottomless black.
The chant still whispered around her. Weaker now, slowing.
Nike shivered and dropped to her knees in exhaustion, head bowed and arms held limp at her sides. Around the shore, brown robed figures began to slowly do the same, sitting or kneeling in the aftermath. Gabrielle scanned those shores for sign of any figure that varied from the regularity of those hundred others.
"Is it over?" Joxer was unsteady on his feet, bleeding from a cut above the temple, helmet pitted and dented from all the hail that had struck it.
Nike didn't answer. Gabrielle didn't know how to. She rose to her feet, slipping in the mud and called out.
"Xena?" It echoed, louder now than the fading chant. "Xena, where are you?" The call turned to a shrill scream of desperation. She ran forward to the very edge of the serene water.
"She never came out. She's still in there."
A hand took hold of her arm, pulling her back. She could not fight the hold and whirled desperately. Nike stared at her, eyes dilated. "If you enter these waters, you'll never leave them. Nothing that ever enters this lake will ever find release from this - - spell again."
"No. NO!" She shook her head, denying it. She turned desperate eyes to Joxer. "Help me search. Maybe she made it to shore during the storm. Maybe she's in the woods somewhere hurt."
For a moment he stared at her with drooping, dog sad eyes, then he nodded. He went one way and she the other, and they met somewhere on the other side, having passed nothing but tired kymry on the way. She refused to stop looking, circling the lake yet again, calling out her friend's name over and over. She widened her search into the surrounding woods after that, passing Joxer now and then as he looked in a likewise manner. The kymry had gathered away from the lake, building a large fire in a pit dug out by the violent and sudden removal of a great tree. They celebrated their victory in somber quiet tones. Nike circled the skies in owl form, ever vigilant, perhaps not so certain as the druids that their power over harmony and order could keep Chaos subdued. She landed once, when Gabrielle frantically waved her down and claimed to have seen nor sensed anything of either Xena or her fellow god.
Soon after the druids began to drift away, until by the dawn of the next day there was nothing left of their presense but the eteranl tranquility of the lake and the charred embers of their fires. Nike left before dawn had even fully touched the sky, burning away clouds that had held their ground for too many days. She did not bother to announce her departure or say fare wells. She merely turned in her flight and angled away, fast becoming an indistinguisable speck in the sky.
Gabrielle cursed her, sprawling on her knees in the melt and the slick leaves of the forest floor and sobbing out her frustrations. Joxer hovered over her, out of his depth. Afriad to touch her, afraid to offer words of consolement when so much anger still lingured in her eyes.
"How could she do this to me?" The anguished shriek was muffled by the snow and the trees. He knew she did not mean Nike and her sudden abandonment. He stood there, wringing his hands while she pounded at the soggy ground with her fists.
"She promised everything would be okay and she lied."
"Chaos is gone." Joxer ventured hesitantly. Gabrielle glared up at him, eyes bare slits so swollen were they with crying. For a moment there was hate there. Hate for him, hate for the world, for the kymry and Nike who had left without helping her with her problems.
"I don't care about Chaos." she yelled. "Go away. Leave me alone!! I can't stand the sight of you, anymore."
He blanched, shifting, hurt and nervous but refusing to back away even when she scooped up what debris that was in her reach and hurled it at him. The dirt and rocks hit his dented breast plate and tumbled to the brown snow. She stared at him, at the bruised look on his face, at the determination in his eyes and new tears rolled down her reddened cheeks.
"I'm sorry, Joxer." she whispered. "But it hurts. Oh, gods it hurts so bad." She crossed her hands over her chest and drew a shudderly breath that hurt all the way down to her soul. "She's my best friend, Joxer. My best friend - - and - - and she's at the bottom of that lake and I can't even give her a proper burial. " Hands moved to cover her face and body leaned over knees, overtaken by wrenching sobs.
For a moment Joxer looked down in helpless sympathy, then he dropped to his knees by her side and ackwardly wrapped his arms around her. She fell into the embrace, weeping all the more.
That night, they made a bonfire at the edge of the lake and Gabrielle stood before it, bathed in it's orange light, and spoke for Xena's soul. The gods would certainly have no cause to dissapointment in her acheivments, she had after all been partially responsible for the saving of Olympus. Late, late into the night she stayed before that fire, until the flames ate at nothing more than charred sticks, and only then when the reflection no longer showed upon the lake, did she retreat to the shelter she and Joxer had made.
In the morning he persuaded her to leave. With numb heart and heavy steps they took to the road she and Xena had traveled some weeks earlier to and from this lake. She had no particular goal, and Joxer's suggestion of Pharsalus seemed as likely as any other. At the very least, she might see what aid might be offered to the citizens of that beleagered city. The dead were the dead and the survivors had no choice but to help each others recovery.
* * *
A flock of geese crossed a sky that was broken with scattered clouds. The sun shone down in all it's benevolent glory, warming a land that had been frozen in the grip of a premature winter a scant week past. Confused and disoriented by the seasonal insanity they had migrated before their time, flying all the way across the alps, across northern Paeonia, and well into the territories of Macedon and Thessaly before the warmer winds blowing in from the Aegean confused them even more.
They circled, wing weary and uncertain, looking for a place to set down and fish. A glittering speck of water in the midst of a dense forest seemed more than promising and as a whole the flock settled down to the surface of the lake. They ruffled their oily feathers and stretched their long necks, reaccustoming themselves to the feel of swimming after flying for so long. They went about their business, paddling, playing, communicating among themselves in loud, raucous bleats. The first of them gave in to exhaustion, folding it's gray head under a wing and drifting on the surface. Others began to follow suit, until soon the entire flock floated motionlessly on the surface of the water.
An eagle, some time later swept by high over head, looking for prey. It's sharp eyes spotted the dozen or so geese immediately and circling once it dropped. With a shriek to startle the prey it swooped down among them, it's talons fastening onto the back on a hapless victim. The eagle's strong wing beats carried itself and it's prize upwards, and only vaguely did it occur in the small, sharp brain of the bird of prey, that none of the other geese had so much as stirred at it's cry, and it's snatching of one of their number. It only looked down once in it's departure. The entire flock still slept, drifting atop that black basin.
It seemed an eternity. The warmth, that was not quite warmth permeated the body, the quiet that encompassed forever, lulled the soul. Never in all of consciousness, in all of awareness had such peace existed. One forgot that there ever had been a before, when the serenity of now caressed every inch of flesh, every pore, every small speck of being inside and out, washing away all the rigors of existence. One could not imagine that even floating in the womb, as safe and protected as a body could be, might come near to equaling this haven.
She was content. Content in the languor that all life had become. Aware only dimly that this ennui was not practiced in solitude; that there was another presence just as snared by the lassitude, that curled around her and shared the eternal sleep. She was comfortable with that presence, appreciative of a fellow soul, willing to float in this serenity forever.
It was a blissfully pleasant existence until some small bit of panic nibbled at the edge of awareness. She tried to ignore it, to block it out, but it did not quite come at her from without, more originating from within the protective shell that she drifted inside, making the distress difficult to rebuff. The anxiety grew, became desperate, like an animal caught in a snare who might blindly gnaw a limb off in it's efforts to escape. It came, she thought, after a good deal of deliberation, from him. She couldn't place a name to that gender assumption, or any physical attributes, it was merely an awareness of what she shared her rest with.
She resisted the consternation, urging calm, urging a return to the previous state. But he was past that, insistent in his panic, in his scratching at the walls that pressed down on them. Gradually she became indignant at the disturbance. What right had he to break into her utopia? Anger grew within her, and that anger fed his panic, his desperation to shatter the silence.
Something invasive and powerful recoiled at the turmoil of emotion. With a force that was both foreign yet strangely intimate, the lake itself shattered the bubble of tranquility and spat that which it could not stomach out of it's placid depths.
Xena came to her senses with nausea rolling in her gut. She spasmed and choked, coughing up a mouthful of acid tasting water. Her body hurt, ribs protesting with each convulsive breath. She lay on a ground covered by more slush than snow, in air that though above freezing did nothing for a body soaked through and through. For a moment, despite the cold and discomfort she lay unmoving, staring at the fouled snow under her nose, trying to recall what had happened. Her memory, for the most part was a blurry reminiscence of sensation and solace - - and before that, what she had been certain was death.
She rolled to her side and came up short against cold solidity. Almost she recoiled, her nerves were that shot, but rational and reason caught up with her from whatever vantage they had been sheltering at. Ares was beside her, on his back, looking as water logged and drowned as she felt. He shifted at her contact, throwing an arm over his eyes and shivering. She propped herself on one elbow, staring at him thoughtfully, then out at the lake that lay beyond her feet. There were about a dozen dozing geese drifting aimlessly along it's surface, other than that it was perfectly placid. The sky overhead was relatively clear, only a few suspicious clouds marring the fine blue of mid-day.
She leaned over and nudged Ares when he made no sign of moving from his present position. "You are alive, I assume?"
He took a breath, then another and answered without shifting his arm from over his eyes. "That might be one way of putting it."
"Hurt?" A little furrow appeared between her brows. She wasn't certain she wanted to feel concern for him, but could not fight off the feeling, considering the suspicion that it was due to Ares and Ares alone that she was alive.
"You tell me. I don't feel like looking."
"Well he's not hovering over our heads, if that's what you mean."
"Well, then he's probably gone."
"Probably? Care to elaborate on that? Do you sense him anywhere?"
He sighed, moved his arm slightly and peered up at her. "Xena, I've been fighting with the damned lake for- -for I don't know how long, you do not even want to know what kind of effort it took to break that cursed passivity. I'm just a little out of sorts at the moment. Give me a minute, will you?"
She wrapped her arms about herself and sat there, teeth chattering, scanning the lake shore.
"Where is everybody?" she murmured more to herself than Ares.
She looked at him sharply. "Not dead, gone?"
"Do I look like Hades? How should I know?"
With a snarl she reached over and grabbed hold of the lapel of his vest. "Use some of your godly perceptions, Ares."
He half laughed at the rough treatment, then waved a hand in surrender. "All right. Your little friends alive somewhere - - the whole bunch of them are. There are no recent deaths here. Of course recent would depend on how long we were languishing at the bottom of this wonderful lake."
"What do you mean?"
"Sweet, it could have been days, or it could have been years for all I know. Forgive me, but my internal sense of time is a little skewered."
"Years? No." She sat back, stunned. Then she glared at Ares. "This better not be some trick of yours."
For a moment he blinked at her in utter stupefaction and she even felt a little guilty for accusing him of such a thing under the circumstances, then his brows lowered and his old look of arrogant assurance fell into place over his features. "Next time I feel the need to play one of my tricks on you, believe me, you'll never know it."
He sat up, shaking off snow and water, obviously having enough power to spare in order to arrange his physical state to one more to his liking. He stood up, looking spectacularly godlike, while she sat in the snow, bedraggled, wet and dirty past any reasonably quick effort to clean up. A weaker woman, even one who held no love for the god of war, would certainly have cringed under that imperious stare, and felt very much the mortal next to his glowing immortality. Xena wasn't weak or easily swayed, although one had to admit to a subtle, deep seated appreciation for Ares at his best.
She glared up at him stubbornly, until finally he relented somewhat and offered a hand to help her up. She refused it, clambering painfully to her feet under her own power. She checked the state of her weapons, found them all there and none the worse for wear for being underwater for gods knew how long. She wrung water from her hair with shaking hands.
"Cold?" Ares inquired.
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
"Oh, Xena, now you're sulking. You never did do sulking well."
"Oh, shut up." she muttered.
"I can help."
"I don't want your help."
"If that's the way you feel, then freeze."
She stomped around the shore, looking for signs of the trail that led away from the lake. The forest bordering the shore was a mess. Every sort of garbage that could be piled up along the brush, was.
She found the path eventually. With all the melt, it was hard to tell how recently feet had trod upon it. She swore under her breath and tromped on. Ares followed. She didn't look but was aware nonetheless of the quiet elegance of his movement behind her. She was more aware of him than she could ever quite recall being, and wondered if it might have to do with the time spent drifting unawares under those black waters with no other presence but his for so long. It worried her, the notion of having some connection to him, of him having some intimacy with her soul. It terrified her that she might hold some intimacy with his.
With a frown she glanced over her shoulder. He was still there, not paying much heed to her. Probably thinking of a dozen other things other than her. She grimaced as that thought left tracks in her mind, despising herself for having even a fleeting concern for what Ares thought. Wanting very badly to get rid of one of her many frustrations she unclasped her sodden, icy cold cloak and flung it violently away. She stalked on, wishing her hair dry, wishing she knew where Gabrielle was, wishing she had Argo to carry her the distance to Pharsalus, which was where she figured Gabrielle would be, as long as too much time hadn't passed.
Argo. That was another thing she could lay at Ares feet. Her horse was half way across Thessaly, and she might never be able to find her. Teeth ground, jaw set and expression became systematically darker and darker.
Ares laid a hand on her shoulder. She let out a howl and spun, knocking the offending member away. She couldn't let it go at that. There were too many weeks of pent up uncertainties and strain. She swiped her leg out, trying to knock him from his feet. He avoided the kick easily, as she knew he would, but she was ready for it, with a roundhouse right that caught him across the jaw. He took a step back and flashed a grim smile at her, never ever one to turn down a fight. Especially a fight with her. He had her cloak over one arm, as dry as the day it was bought. He flung it at her, then swung at her while she was blinded by the material. She took the hit to the temple and staggered, clawing her way past the cloak. She didn't wait for the dizziness to stop, she couldn't afford to facing this opponent.
It was a critical, skilled dance that most men could not have followed even visually, much less physically. It was a study of grace and destructive skill, with each party taking turns leading. She took one blow too many, a sharp jab to her already bruised or broken ribs, and the pain blinded her, made her loose her focus and want to take it beyond a hand to hand scuffle. She reached for her sword in a rage and he stepped back. Ares actually stepped back from the battle and fixed her steadily with eyes that no longer held the glimmer of amusement they had throughout the entirety of the earlier tango.
"Do you really want to draw steel?"
The sword paused half way from it's sheath. She half crouched, breathing hard, adrenalin laced blood pounding through her veins. No. She didn't. Very few times in her life had she ever gone beserker, she had no want for this to be one of them.
"Don't touch me." she hissed.
He tilted his head, glanced across the ground to the discarded cloak. He picked it up, shrugging. "I just thought you might need this. It's dry."
She stared at it, jaw twitching at gallantry from Ares.
"I hadn't realized you were so picky about your laundering." He held it up, offering it to her. She felt foolish. She reached out to take it and he snatched her wrist, pulling her towards him, twisting the one hand back and enfolding the other within the cloak. A neat trap.
"You are so stubborn." he whispered into her ear even as he bore her back into the unyielding, rough bark of a pine. "After all this and you still won't even trust me at your back."
"Should I?" she hissed back.
For a moment he didn't answer, just pierced her with that gaze of his. "Would it matter if I said yes?"
"You tell me." She could feel his breath on her face, was too acutely aware of the length of his body against hers. She either wanted to kill him right now, or throw him down and ravish him. The first she could live with the second she'd never forgive herself for.
His lips came very close to brushing hers and she couldn't quite catch breath.
A twig snapped. Someone made an embarrassed noise. Xena and Ares sprang away from each other like they'd just sprouted thorns. Two swords cleared their sheaths simultaneously. A whiskered, fur clad man leading a mule piled high with the skins of dead animals stood a dozen feet down the path, staring with wide, shocked eyes at the array of very impressive weaponry facing him.
"ummm, excuse me. Didn't - - didn't mean to interrupt anything. Didn't know you were in the middle - -umm - -of anything. Didn't know anyone was out here. Might you not kill me, p-p-please?"
Xena's lip curled. She jerked a nasty glare at Ares, then thrust her blade back into it's scabbard. "You didn't interrupt anything that didn't need to be interrupted."
The trapper bobbed his head graciously at her, casting a wary glance at Ares who was slower to sheath his sword. He seemed, Xena noted with satisfaction considerably more disgruntled with the interruption than she had been.
"Don't see many folk up here." the trapper said nervously. "'specially not lately, after all the- - unnatural going ons. Storms killed a lot of critters though. Good pickins for any with the nerve to walk these woods."
"What's in these woods that would keep people away?"
"Things. Just things that nobody yet's got a good look at . But a man hears rumors. Man sees what's left of the animals and figures nothing natural caused it. Folks are saying the gods have abandoned us and demons have full run of the lands now. "
"They did. A word of advice; never trust a god."
The man just stared at her. Ares did. She felt all her cool rationality settle back over her and welcomed it home, determined this time to keep it where it belonged.
"How long since the skies cleared? Since the great storm hit this forest?"
"Eight days, nine maybe. Snow's gone out past the forest. Just the shade here that makes it linger."
She nodded her thanks and passed him by with one last word of advice. "If there are things in this wood that are more than natural, avoid them. They'll take out a man as soon as an animal."
Down the path without looking back. She said over her shoulder when the trapper was long gone. "I want my horse back."
Ares made no answer. She flicked a glance to him when the sound of his steps ceased. He stood staring at nothing in particular, a half smile playing about his lips. "The aether's open." He looked to her, a slight sardonic tilt to his head. "You're welcome." Just before he faded out of mortal reality.
She continued to stare at the spot he had occupied for a moment, having expected no less of him and still annoyed. She fingered the cloak, she could not recall it feeling ever so soft or fine, yet it looked very much like the well worn, patched one she had always had. With a shrug she pulled it across her shoulders, clasped it and continued on her way to Pharsalus.
* * * * *
A good portion of the city was charred ruins, and that by the hands of it's citizens during the chaotic uprising prompted by Hera. The storms had demolished most of what the fires hadn't and that had been no one's fault save a deposed, mad god. Temporary shelters had been sit up in the market places, and there the homeless and the wounded gathered, soul weary and beaten and none too proud to accept any assistance that was offered.
Xena walked through the milling, somber crowds. It was so different a sight than the wild eyes masses she had seen upon her last entrance into this city. Neighbor had killed neighbor, father had fought son and now they had to live with the brutality of their actions. It wouldn't matter to tell them that the madness had been inspired by a goddess. That wouldn't take away the pain or the loss and it certainly wouldn't bolster their spirits when all they had now was their faith in the gods to make things better.
She walked through one makeshift shelter then another and finally among a crowded group of children she heard a familiar voice spinning a yarn. She paused at the outskirts of the group. Two dozen, wide eyed, dirty faces stared with awe at the bard who for just this moment transported them out of their misery and to a far fetched, wonderful place with her stories.
The tale wound down, and the children cried out for another. A wistful smile passed over Gabrielle's face as she scanned her audience, then her eyes chanced to pass the shadowed corner where Xena leaned and the smile froze. She blinked, eyes widening in disbelief and her mouth opened to form a circle of shock. Xena shrugged and smiled. Gabrielle let out a little yip of happiness and scrambled through the mass of staring children. She barreled into Xena, hugging her close, managing to jar a very bruised, very sore set of ribs. Xena winced and endured it.
"You're alive. I thought you'd drowned. I looked and looked, but I couldn't find any trace. I built a funeral pyre and everything."
Xena laughed at the babble, pushed Gabrielle back at arm's length and stared hard at her. She looked none the worse for wear, aside from a few healing scratches on her face. "Are you okay?"
"Am I okay? Am I okay? I'm not the one whose been missing for over a week. Where were you?"
"Are you going to repeat everything I say?"
Gabrielle stared at her. Xena put an arm around he shoulder and promised. "I'll tell you everything. I promise."
With a deep shuddering breath, Gabrielle forced what have been the first genuine smile in over a week. "You'd better. I've got new scrolls now and I've been looking for a good ending. Don't disappoint me."