A dim light filtered into the dark. Ariana looked up. There was a tracery of sunlight across the top of the room. The light strengthened. After an hour or so, she could make out some of the features of the room. It seemed to be a tomb with an elaborate wall marker over the sarcophagus. A huge gemstone glowed redly in the reflected light. She stood up and walked over to the sarcophagus. She ran her hands over the strangely flat surface. It was more like an altar than a burial container.
"Good call." The voice behind her was male, rich and vibrant.
She turned slowly to face him. As tall as Hercules, well-muscled, black hair falling in ordered curls to his shoulders, black leather tunic, pants and boots. He was handsome and arrogant. A sword worth a king's ransom hung from his belt.
"You don't recognize me. Well, I can't say we've met before. But that doesn't make me any less angry." His somewhat feral smile turned downward. "You failed me."
"What?" he echoed. "Such an innocent. You were supposed to kill Hercules. And do so before he got to Xena."
His statements bewildered her and it showed. "You dumped me in that meadow."
"You have a good grasp of the obvious."
"You yanked me out of my own place and time and dumped me into that hell hole of a world and you have the temerity to get mad at me?"
The amount of anger in her voice must have clued him in to the fact that this interview was no longer going as planned. "You were the proper tool for the job."
"Tool. As in rhymes with fool, no doubt. You son of a bitch."
He wasn't used to fights getting up close and personal. It hurt when his head hit the floor. He pulled his sword and scrambled to his feet. If this bitch wanted a fight, she'd get one. Albeit a short one. The sword glowed in the dim light.
Ariana pulled up short when she focused on the sword. It glowed. It wasn't reflecting the sunlight coming through the roof. It wasn't reflecting the fire of the gemstone. It was glowing itself. Obviously, she was still in the time of gods and goddesses and what amounted to magic. This god wanted Hercules dead. That narrowed the field a bit.
"At your service. You could even boast you knocked the god of war down - if you survived."
"I'm still alive." It was a hollow boast even in her own ears. She could take a lot of damage, but there was a chance that a god could kill her, permanently. She moved to stay out of reach of the shimmering blade. If she could just get him to talk. "I'm a little surprised to find out that *you* are."
He laughed. It wasn't a pleasant sound in the enclosed space. "Getting buried alive is not the most pleasurable of experiences." The words were out before he realized that she probably hadn't known she was back in her own time before this. She watched his face change as he recognized his error. He was arrogant and he was inclined to boast. Both could be used to her advantage if she could keep away from the sword while she talked to him.
"If you're incarcerated, how did you manage to effect me? You can't get out, so how -"
He made a circling motion with the tip of his blade. "Concentration and power. They made certain I couldn't get out and that all war magic is blocked -"
"But this wasn't actively warlike."
"No. It wasn't. You still fouled it up."
"Maybe you should have met me when I arrived and explained the idea instead of Hera."
"Hera? She meddled in this? No wonder -"
The thought distracted him enough to give her an opening. Instead of trying to harm him, she went for the sword. It might just give her an edge against an angry god. As she knocked it from his grasp, she nearly lost it herself. To retain her grip on the thing she ended up sprawled on the floor in the dirt. There was a howl of dismay that nearly deafened her. Something had happened. She scooted across the floor to the nearest wall and settled against it before pulling her hair out of her face to see what had happened.
Her opponent was on his hands and knees on the floor where she had hit him. There was something different about him. He was still big and muscled but something was gone. Even his clothes looked different. He wasn't wearing well cared for leather anymore. He looked up at her with glaring eyes.
"Give me my sword," he commanded.
He reached toward her. She kicked his hand away. "Ow!" Pain.
"Give me back my sword!" It was a bellow of rage as he launched toward her.
She moved just far enough out of his way to be able to come up behind him and get a good hold on his neck and hair. His hair felt greasy, unwashed. Her strength was surprising for one not a warrior. He felt his air being cut off. He tried to dislodge her. This was worse than being taken on by Xena. He started to black out from lack of oxygen.
"Enough." The hold on his throat loosened. He gasped for air. "What do you want?"
"To go home."
"Fine. Give me the sword."
"The sword. The sword has the power."
"I have the power. The sword focuses it."
"You're lying. Oh, I don't doubt that your own genetics have a great deal to do with your ability to wield the sword's power. Some sort of synergy, I would think. But I think the sword is the key. Isn't it?" She tightened her grip again.
He tried to dislodge her again. He heard the blade hit the ground. He went to his knees and then onto his belly to reach for that precious blade, his crown of godhood. Ariana let go of his hair and brought the point of her elbow down on his bicep. He howled in pain, jerking his hand back. She released him and dove for the sword herself. She came up as he did. The point of the sword touched the base of his throat. She suspected that as long as someone else was in control of the sword, he could not take it from them. His actions confirmed this. Instead of grabbing the blade to wrest it from her, he backed away from the point spreading his arms away from his body to indicate his surrender, however temporary.
"Now what?" he grated.
"Circles," she said thoughtfully. "Whirling winds. Sympathetic magic?" She made small circling motions with the sword. She could feel power pulsing through it. "That's part of it." She could read confirmation in his eyes. "But how to choose where to go? And where are we?"
"My tomb," he answered as though stating the obvious.
Her eyes flickered to the ceiling. "Why don't you just climb out of here?"
"You're a - It's enchanted against your getting out. But the sword can open a - a doorway, a portal." There was something wrong with the line of reasoning, but she couldn't fathom it. And the sword seemed to be taking on a life of its own. It was still circling, although she wasn't causing it to do so. Power continued to build as she backed away from him. The sword having opened a portal before was now attuned to doing so. "How do you tell it where?" she whispered.
"Just think about it."
A vision of hot, dry, pine covered mountains filled her mind. She could see the old adobe house outside Cloudcroft with its modern additions. She could see the stable where she had intended to house a couple of range mustangs. The whirlwind was there, though this time it was manifesting as a sideways tunnel. Home. It called to her. She stepped forward to the mouth of that whirling tunnel. Something heavy hit her, knocking the sword out of her grasp but pushing her into the tunnel. She hit gravel and rolled. The black whirling tunnel was gone. But she was not alone.
"My sword!" he howled again. Ten feet away from her was Ares, the Ancient Greek god of war reduced to mortal status by lack of his enchanted sword. Once again on his hands and knees, he beat one fist against the gravel drive until it hurt too much to continue. He scrambled up into a crouch to face her.
"You did this!"
She took a step backwards at the fury in his face. Then she grinned and laughed. "So. You're out, aren't you?"
"Live with it." She walked past him to the house. The state of the art electronic lock accepted her pass code and let her in to the cool darkness of the living room. She threw herself into her favorite chair, kicked off her sandals and put her feet up. It felt good to be back in familiar surroundings. She would miss Salmoneus. Sweet, enterprising Salmoneus. She would have to see if she could unearth any records of the ancient entrepreneur. Her eyes snapped open. What day was it? What year? It had to be close to the time she disappeared. The house didn't look like it had been empty for very long. Was she late for the beginning of the semester?
She reached for the phone and was relieved to find it still worked. She hadn't missed too may bills. She dialed the time and temperature service. August 15, 1996. She breathed a sigh of relief and hung up, letting the lethargy of relief flow through her. She just wanted to sit and be comfortable for a while.
Ares stood in the gravel drive and watched the woman walk away from him. She was walking away from him. How could she? He was the god of war - All right, for now he was the ex-god of war. That still didn't give her the right to walk away from him that way. Who did she think she was? Callisto? Xena? Maybe she was as good as they were, in her own way, but -
He stopped trying to figure it out and walked up the driveway to the house. The door did not open at his push. This was crazy. Doors opened when you pushed on them, unless they were held from the other side. The door held. He hit the door with his fist and regretted it. Now his knuckles were sore in addition to the deepening bruise on the side of the same hand. Inside Ariana opened her eyes and looked at the door. Why didn't the idiot just come in? Then she grinned. Of course. He didn't know about doorknobs. She thought about letting him stew for a while, but decided that since she was now home, she could afford to be a little more gracious than that. She got up, padded over to the door and opened it just as he was about to pound on it again. "It's open."
"I noticed." He pushed past her into the room. It was small by his standards, but felt comfortable. He commandeered the couch and looked around. "It'll do."
"It better. This is what there is."
"Fine. I'll sleep here."
"So's the bed in the bedroom."
"Modern living arrangements are divided up. This is a living room. It's for the social interaction of those who live in the house and their outside friends, relations and the occasional enemy. Then there are bedrooms: rooms in which the main accouterment is a bed. Generally with clean sheets and blankets and pillows. Also a little more comfortable than my overstuffed couch because even a man of your height can stretch out comfortably instead of getting stuck in an uncomfortable position."
"OK. So where do you cook?" It was obvious that the fireplace in front of him was not the primary cooking area.
"In the kitchen."
"Kitchen. This way."
Despite his desire to remain in command of the situation, or at least feel like he was, he got up and followed her. The kitchen was difficult. Set up for her own use, it ran around the perimeters of what had once been an all purpose room. A fixed island dominated the center of the room, a gleaming light fixture overhead. Ariana pulled out one of the stools clustered around it and indicated he should sit.
"Yes." And he was. He'd forgotten how being mortal was different from being a god. Food was a pleasure of the senses, but not necessary for a god. It was very necessary for a mortal body. He hated being mortal. He tried to not watch while Ariana checked the refrigerator for still edible foodstuffs, pulled two microwave dinners out of the freezer and put them in the microwave for several minutes, made a relatively fresh salad and set out chips and salsa. He looked at the chips and salsa suspiciously.
"You use the chips to scoop up the salsa and eat both," she instructed and did so in illustration. "Mm - this is hot so be careful." Realizing he probably would not be careful, she handed him a large mug of cold water just as he discovered what she meant by hot. "Jalapenos will get you every time."
"You tried to poison me," he finally accused in a strangled voice.
"No. This is local. And this is mild compared to some of the things I've eaten. Now. The food is hot - heat hot, not pepper hot. Give it a minute to get cool enough to eat. And this, this is a salad. Raw vegetables with a cream based sauce. Also not spicy hot. We eat a lot of this stuff. Somebody figured out it's good for you and tastes pretty good, too." She took a stool on the opposite side of the counter island and started eating.
Cautiously, Ares followed suit. His appetite returned when the food didn't bite back.
Ariana observed that it was obvious he needed to learn a few things. Forks seemed a foreign concept. She considered how many times she'd decided fingers were the best utensil and refrained from saying anything. Lunch over, she cleared the debris away, put the dishes in the dishwasher and started out of the room. A thought hit her as she was on her way out. She stopped in the doorway.
"Come with me."
"Because there's one more kind of room you need to know about." She introduced him to the bathroom from illustrating the concept of flushing to non-well produced water. Then she looked him up and down and suggested a bath.
"A bath. You stink."
"Why thank you."
"I'm serious. You are offensive in more than just your attitudes. Strip."
He got a lecherous grin on his face and did so. Instead of coming to grips with his hostess, he was left with a bathtub, running water and no clothes. "Hey!"
"I'll bring you something. Wash."
He managed to get the water turned off and not to scald himself as he settled into the tub. The warmth felt surprisingly good, although it made his hand throb where he had bruised it. Ariana returned in a few minutes with a washcloth, soap and shampoo.
"Gonna help me?"
"Only on the hair. Here." She handed him the washcloth and soap.
"What is this?"
"Soap. You rub it on the cloth, the cloth on you and then you rinse the suds off."
"You do it."
"I'm washing your hair." She emptied a cup of warm water over his head.
"I could let you sleep in some. Now shut up and behave." She applied the shampoo to his probably never washed hair and worked it in. Four washings later, she decided he was acceptable. She pulled the plug on the tub and turned on the showerhead to get him rinsed off. The towel was easy to figure out. It felt good against his skin. Then came the problem of getting him into the only clothes she had on hand that would fit. She almost giggled. The god of war in t-shirt and blue jeans struck her as funny. Luckily the friend who had left the clothing preferred button fronts to zippers.
Ares came out of the bathroom and stood there for her inspection. The clothing was uncomfortably close cut, but soft enough to be comfortable anyway. His own footwear completed his wardrobe.
"Much better. Clean really works on you."
"Thank you. Now, my sword."
"Is in your tomb."
"Which is -"
"How would I know? It was your tomb."
"You don't know where the tomb of Ares is? It's a landmark. It's -"
"It's falling down wherever it is. There was light coming through the ceiling, remember?"
"Ever since those two -" Ares muttered.
"Ever since what?"
"Ever since Xena and Gabrielle's descendants blew it up."
"Smart kids. I don't know where it is. I'll have to do some research. You really want to be stuck back in there?"
"Stuck? I'm out. I want my sword."
"Well, I'm due to start work on my doctorate in anthropology - When!?" She darted out of the room, located her computer and consulted it as to just when her first classes were. "Tomorrow!" she exclaimed.
Ares had followed her. The computer was a mystery, but it seemed to have annoyed Ariana. He felt pleased with this.
She turned to face him. "According to the calendar, I'm due to start tomorrow. I get to go meet my advisor, a Dr. Jonas Binet. I'll see what I can look up when I'm not busy."
"What? This is important. I need my sword."
"Ares, you don't need your sword. There is no temple waiting for you. There are no worshippers out here waiting for the god of war to bestow his largesse on them. Your function is defunct."
His face darkened in anger. He turned on his heel and walked back into the room where he'd dressed and sat down. He could get through this. After all, she wasn't a warrior, what did she know. Just wait until he got his hands on his sword. There would be a need for a god of war then.
"No, I'm not," she told him from the doorway.
"I'll prove it."
"I'll think of something."
Ariana left him to his own thoughts while she changed out of the dress Salmoneus had procured for her and into her own jeans and a comfortable flannel shirt. The outfit was basic, but she luxuriated in its familiarity. There was a crash of glass being broken. She went to see what it was. Ares was cradling his sword hand and swearing.
"That clear stuff is sharp," he pointed out, nodding toward a broken window.
"Ah. Let me see." She took his hands in hers and investigated the slice he'd gotten. "That is deep. Come on, in the kitchen." Compared to their fight, her touch was gentle, avoiding doing any more hurt as much as possible. She cleaned the cut, applied a salve and bound his hand.
"Probably get a doctor to take a look at that tomorrow when we're in Las Cruces."
"Will that help?"
"It couldn't hurt."
The rest of the afternoon she spent cleaning out the stables while he watched or paced like a great cat. Dinner was quiet and Ares retired to bed without protest. He even swallowed the pills she gave him to keep the throbbing in his damaged hand from disturbing his rest.
She rousted him out of bed at sunrise. Ares eyed the wagon they would take to town with misgiving. There were no horses and he could sense no magic. The noise of the engine when she turned it on was disquieting. Given a choice between going and being left at the house on his own, he chose to go with her.
The trip down the mountain was invigorating. The road was smoother than any he had traveled before, although the turns in the road as it curved down the path of least resistance were wrenching. The road flattened out as they passed through what he thought was a city and out into a desert area. They passed over another mountain pass and into a larger city, finally stopping in a parking lot at New Mexico State University. Ariana grabbed a backpack out of the back of her jeep and headed into the Anthropology building without much thought for Ares.
On the third floor, Dr. Binet was just finishing setting up his office as he liked it. His first appointment was late, but he had discovered that this was to be expected in the southwestern United States. There was a knock at the door and a breathless Ariana looked around the edge. She stopped dead in the doorway. Her face blanked in reflex to being startled.
"Dr. - Binet?" she asked, giving his name the French intonation rather than the English one.
He smiled. "Yes. I'm Jonas Binet. And you are -?"
"Dracosi. Belinda Dracosi."
"You're late, Miss Dracosi."
"Sorry. I got tangled up in some things and didn't get out of Cloudcroft until about 7 this morning. It's a longer drive than I remembered," she ended lamely.
"Is something wrong?"
"Wrong? No." Nothing was wrong, she just couldn't take her eyes off the man who looked so much like Salmoneus; a modern dress Salmoneus with puzzled eyes behind his reading glasses. She smiled at him. This could be interesting. "And call me Ariana. It's a - a gift name I'm fond of."
He found himself smiling back. Outside, in the stairway, a deeply masculine voice could be heard cussing about something. Ariana closed the door behind her. There was time enough to deal with the petulant ex-god of war - later.