There wasn't much to the landscape yet--not surprising, considering how recently it had been created. For the moment, there was only a dark, stony plain, broken here and there by deep fissures and sharp spikes of rock that jutted upwards like fangs. Light flickered deep inside the fissures, a poisonous green glow that resembled no earthly flame. But then this wasn't Earth, or Olympus, or any other place that had a name. This was something new entirely.
A single figure knelt near the edge of the widest crevice, bathed in the unhealthy glow. At first glance, she appeared to be an ordinary young woman, draped in a shabby cloak. But beneath the cloak, her skin looked like gray parchment, coarse and wrinkled, and her eyes burned with the same green fire as the the fissures. When she smiled, the skin on her face cracked, and blood ran down her cheeks like tears.
"Soon, Father..." Hope's voice rasped in her throat like the rustle of dead leaves. "Your time is almost here..."
The dining hall in Zeus's palace on Olympus was lit by a thousand translucent beeswax candles that never smoked or flickered, nor dripped wax on the gold sconces that held them. No speck of dust ever settled on the pale marble floor, no stain ever marred the snowy linen that draped the massive mahogany table. The view out the windows varied according to Zeus's mood, but it was never anything less than spectacular. Today it was a sweeping vista of forested mountains and crystal waterfalls. The air smelled of pine. The room was a center of perfect beauty and harmony, and Ares could never set foot in it without having to fight down the desire to blast the place to rubble.
The God of War slouched in his high-backed chair, and aimed his best sinister scowl at his assembled family. Most of them didn't notice, being too preoccupied with their own petty feuds and concerns. For possibly the millionth time, Ares wondered why Zeus periodically insisted on these family dinners. No one ever enjoyed them.
Today was no exception. Hera was glaring across the table at Zeus--having a hissy fit over his latest mortal slut, no doubt. Zeus himself pretended not to notice, but the guilty slump of his shoulders told the story clearly enough.
Demeter was bombasting Hades with loud and obviously unwanted advice on redecorating the gardens in the Elysian Fields. Hades looked as if he wanted to snap her head off, but he'd never do it in front of Persephone, the henpecked wuss.
Athena and Artemis, in an effort to keep up something resembling a civil atmosphere, were talking about hunting. Poseidon looked as if he'd have liked to join in, but he was sitting too far away, trapped between Aphrodite and Hestia, and obviously dying of boredom. Ares would've found it amusing if he wasn't in such a foul mood himself.
He stared at his plate with no enthusiasm. Ambrosia was supposed to taste like whatever you wanted it to, but somehow Ares had never mastered the trick. He popped a piece into his mouth, and thought about a nice, bloody steak.
The stuff still tasted like mush.
Next to him on the left, Aphrodite let out a little "oooh" of pleasure, and licked her fingers.
"Spiced peaches," she said smugly, when Ares turned his scowl in her direction.
"Mush," Ares muttered resentfully. His problem, he decided, was that he was too much of a realist. It was easy for the others--if they could delude themselves into believing that Dahak was nothing more than a harmless annoyance, believing that a mouthful of gelatinous goo tasted like spiced peaches must be simplicity itself.
Thinking of Dahak soured his mood even further, and he pushed his plate away. Hebe was at his elbow immediately, offering a drink. Ares shook his head and waved her off.
"What's the matter, Ares?" Apollo's light, mocking voice rose above the others. "Did Callisto kick the appetite out of you?"
There was a ripple of laughter around the table. Ares gripped the arms of his chair until he felt the wood threatening to crack beneath his fingers. Apollo had the musician's knack of pitching his voice to be heard, without ever actually raising it. It made it nearly impossible to win an argument with him. It also made certain that when you lost the argument, everyone within earshot knew it. Ares bit his tongue and stared out the window. Maybe if he ignored the provocation, his brother would tire of the game and go bother somebody else.
Apollo, unfortunately, was on a roll.
"It was a shock, brother, it really was, to see you limping back to Olympus in such a state. Who would've thought the little upstart would give you so much trouble? After all, your pet Xena--oh, sorry, that should be former pet, should it not--seems to defeat her on a regular basis. Hardly breaks a sweat doing it."
Ares's temper wrestled with his better judgement, and won two falls out of three.
"I had beaten Callisto," he growled. "I had her helpless! Until Hope--"
"Ah, yes, of course." Apollo rolled his eyes. "Hope. The half-mortal spawn of some foreign god no one else has heard of before... Very frightening, I'm sure. Enough to send the God of War running home with his tail between his legs."
This was greeted with another burst of laughter, but the sound was somewhat stilted this time. For all their denials, the Olympians could not entirely dismiss Dahak.
"I didn't see you rushing out to fight her," Ares snapped.
Apollo shrugged, and tossed his golden locks with a careless shake of his head. "Why bother? That little mortal hunter you sent back in time did the job just fine. That's your way these days, isn't it, Ares? Sending mortals to do your dirty work for you?"
"At least I'm trying to get it done!" Ares could hear the rising anger in his own voice, but made no effort to bring it under control. He had cause to be angry. This was urgent, dammit, what in Hades would it take to make them listen? "At least I'm not sitting on my hands, pretending I'm safe." He looked around the table, from one impassive face to another, until he finally locked eyes with his father. "You know the danger, Zeus, I know you've felt it! Why won't you--"
"Ares." Zeus did not have Apollo's vocal tricks, but then again he didn't need them. When he wanted to be heard, you always heard him. "We've had this discussion already. The subject is closed. Find something else to talk about."
"It won't go away if we just ignore it! When Hope appeared in my temple, I could feel the power in her, stronger than she has any right to be, away from her father's Realm. And Dahak will be worse. We must start--"
"I said, the subject is closed." Zeus did not raise his voice, or change his facial expression in any way, but the view outside the windows darkened abruptly, as a gray layer of stormclouds gathered above the mountains. In the past, this would've been enough to make Ares subside into resentful silence. But he was beyond caution at the moment. There were scarier things in the universe now than his father's anger.
"Why do I bother?" He smashed one fist against the table, hard enough to rattle the dishes. A drop of nectar splashed from his goblet onto the tablecloth, and promptly disappeared. "I should've left Callisto alone, to mess with time as she saw fit. It would've served you right if she'd wiped your precious Hercules out of existence!"
He knew he'd made a mistake as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Zeus's brows drew together in a dangerous frown. The clouds outside went from gray to black in a heartbeat. Hera, unable to vent her temper through the weather, sent her plate and cup crashing to the floor with one wide sweep of her arm. Hebe and Ganymede, pale-faced, rushed to clean up the mess.
"Can we please," Hera's voice rose to a furious wail on the please, "talk about something else?"
Apollo, having successfully goaded his brother into commiting a major solecism at the dinner table, returned to his meal with a satisfied smirk on his face. Ares, faced with the furious stares of both his parents, and the stony disapproval of the rest of his family, knew that he wasn't going to win anyone over by further argument, not this day. He stood up, barely avoiding knocking his chair over in the process, and marched out of the room, pursued by Apollo's laughter, and by Zeus's irritated call of "Ares! You haven't been excu--"
He let the door slam shut behind him, cutting off Zeus's final words, as well as whatever remarks anyone else might have on the subject, and stormed off down the corridor. The various minor deities whose job was to maintain the palace scattered from his path, ducking into doorways or cowering behind the tapestries as they heard the approaching echo of his footsteps on the marble floor. Ares set a few of the tapestires on fire with a snap of his fingers, but the resulting shrieks did little to cheer him up.
The corridor ended in a tall glass window that opened up onto a terrace. Below, Hera's rose gardens spread out in an intricate geometric mosaic, so many colors that it made his head hurt. Peacocks wandered along the twisty paths, swishing their long tails against the gravel. Ares wondered what would happen if he set the rosebushes on fire, too, and decided he didn't really want to find out.
"Fuck it." He turned his back on the gardens, propped his hips against the balustrade, and stared angrily at his boots, replaying the dinner-table scene over and over in his head. He had made pretty much every mistake he could possibly have made. He'd probably have to apologize to Zeus and Hera. And he still couldn't get anyone to listen to him. That was infuriating enough. But the worst thing of all, the one that really made him want to howl, and break things, and strangle any living thing that came within reach, was the fact that Apollo had been right. He was afraid.
The other gods couldn't know. They weren't there. They didn't see Callisto go from broken and defeated to impossibly poweful in the blink of an eye. Ares pressed one arm against his chest, wincing at the remembered pain of her heel smashing against his ribs. He had been injured during his brief stint as a mortal, and that had been unpleasant enough, but this was the first time he had ever felt such pain as a god. That was when the fear was first planted, but it didn't truly take root until a few moments later, when he watched Strife collapse to the floor with that vacant, glassy-eyed expression on his face, no different than any mortal dying on a battlefield. Eternity snuffed out in a matter of seconds.
He wouldn't have said, if anyone had asked him before, that he particularly liked Strife. He probably wouldn't say it now. But the little slimeball was family, and now he was dead. And the God of War was afraid.
"Dammit!" He whirled around and kicked the balustrade hard enough to make the stone shudder. A flowerpot at the corner toppled off with a crash. Another thing to apologize to Hera about. Well, maybe the world would end before he had to do it
If he hadn't been so agitated, he would've heard the footsteps behind him. But he was agitated, and he didn't realize Athena was there until she spoke.
"Apollo really got your goat, didn't he?"
Ares didn't jump. It was bad enough letting himself get snuck up on, he absolutely refused to be startled.
"Apollo can go fuck a goat for all I care." It occurred to Ares, listening to himself, that he was being childish. He decided not to worry about. He was a god. He could be childish if he felt like it.
"Don't sulk, Ares, it doesn't become you." Athena stood an arm's reach away, looking her usual cool, collected self in a demure silver-gray gown that matched her eyes. "The hallway's full of smoke."
"I made those tapestries, you know."
Was she going to demand an apology, too? Tough. He had his limits. She could go share the goat with Apollo.
"Save your tantrums for the battlefield, little brother." A trace of exasperation crept into Athena's voice, though her face was serene as ever. "You haven't been making much of a show as the God of War lately. There's fighting in Thrace, even as we speak, and something threatening to break out in Knossos. Pay attention to that, not to some imaginary threats from unknown foreign gods."
Ares clenched his teeth until his jaw hurt. "Dahak is not an imaginary threat. He's coming, Athena, and I don't know how or when, but he's going to lay siege to Olympus. I am the God of War, and I am not. Wrong. About. This."
"Ares," Athena sighed. "You see everything as a war. If there was a real threat, Father would know."
"Zeus doesn't know shit," Ares snapped. "If it's not mortal and wearing a dress, he's not going to pay attention to it."
Athena mouth compressed into a thin line, and her forehead furrowed. The expression made her look disconcertingly like Zeus.
"I think you'd better leave, Ares, before you say something really unforgiveable in front of someone who can't pretend they didn't hear it. Let me know when you've calmed down, and we'll talk." She went back inside, leaving Ares to fume alone on the porch.
Well, that was stupid. He might've actually won Athena over, if he'd kept his temper. He got along with her, at least sometimes. But she never really took him seriously, and she always took Zeus very seriously indeed. She was probably on her way back to the dining hall right now, to repeat his rash words to Daddy. Ares decided she was right--he had better leave. He waved his hand, and vanished from the terrace.
He reappeared in the throne room of his own fortress. Now here was a place he could relax in. The throne, carved from a single massive slab of black marble, stood on a dais in the back of the room, offering a perfect view of the unsurpassed weaponry collection that was housed within the gray stone walls. Polished sword blades and brazen shields caught the torchlight, and reflected it back in red glimmers. The ornate armor from Chin and India cast writhing shadows on the floor. The tapestries--a gift from Athena made during one of the times they were getting along--showed scenes of clashing armies and burning strongholds.
But Ares was too restless to sit, and the room did not have its usual effect on him. He measured the floor in long, furious strides, unable to outpace the cold, terrifying knowledge that time was running out on him. On everyone. On him. Dammit, how did mortals function like this, with the knowedge of their impending deaths hanging over them like the sword of Damocles? How could they ever think of anything else?
Concentrate, dammit. Ares stopped in mid-pace, and made himself focus on the object directly in front of him. It turned out to be a Viking longsword, mounted on two braces on the wall. The blade bore the nicks and scars of countless battles, and the leather-wrapped hilt still held the traces of blood and sweat from the hands that wielded it. Reaching out with his senses, Ares could feel the power humming within it, the memory of the blood it had spilled. His mouth stretched into a feral grin. The sword had given him an idea. The Olympians would not listen to him? Very well, then. The Olympians were not the only game in town.
Ares stood in the center of the room, and drew his power around him like a dark cloak. Now that he had a purpose in mind, his fear receded, and his anger became cool and controlled. He should've done this long ago. With a flash of light bright enough to sear the walls around him, Ares disappeared.
The Bifrost Bridge was not, strictly speaking, a bridge. Nor was it, despite the mortals' silly notion of it, a rainbow. It was a walkway, a road through the shadowy, unformed mist-region that separated the Realms. Ares could feel his link to Olympus grow steadily weaker as he followed the shimmering path. By the time he entered Asgard, the link would be gone, and his power with it.
Bifrost came to an end at in immense bronze gate set into a stone wall so high, Ares would have to stand a dozen paces back and crane his neck in order to see the top. He did neither, of course, because it was beneath his dignity to gawk like a tourist. Instead, he drew his sword from the scabbard at his hip, and hammered on the gate with the hilt.
The knocking was followed by silence, which was followed in turn by a deafening creaking of hinges as the gate swung open. Ares found himself facing three women in dark, hooded cloaks. The hoods concealed their faces, but the one on the left had a hunched posture suggestive of great age, and the tall one on the far right stood with an easy, youthful grace that made Ares wonder exactly what was hidden under that cloak.
"Who comes to Asgard?" The crooked figure demanded in a creaky voice. "Name yourself!"
You know perfectly well who I am, you ugly bitch. Ares bit his tongue. The day had already demonstrated the futility of losing his temper. Besides, goddesses that came in threes were usually trouble, and he had no reason to think the Nornir would be the exception. He nodded politely to each one.
"Ares of Olympus, with a message for Odin."
"What kind of message?"
"A private one."
This was followed by another drawn-out silence. Ares was beginning to wonder what he would do if the Nornir refused to let him pass, when they stepped aside.
"You may enter."
Asgard was, in most ways, far more to Ares's taste than Olympus. He liked the rugged, rocky landscape with the snow-capped mountains in the distance. There were patches of snow on the ground, too, and on the branches of the towering trees. And past the trees was a battlefield.
Urgent as his errand was, Ares still found himself slowing down to watch. Rather than the usual army-against-army clash one would find on a mortal battlefield, this appeared to be a free-for-all. Riders and foot soldiers clashed indiscriminately. When a man fell, his victorious opponent immediately moved on to the next closest target. And before long, the loser, too, would get up and resume the fight. Ares's expert eye could discern no pattern to the carnage, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.
Regretfully, Ares tore himself away and walked on. The battle raged on around him. The combatants paid no attention to the tall, leather-clad figure striding purposefully across their playground, which was probably just as well. Powerless in this foreign Realm, he was in no position to fight off an army of dead Viking heroes, should they decide to take notice of him. He had to duck an occasional wild blow as he walked by, but that was all.
The battlefield bordered on the palaces of Asgard's gods. On either side, Gladsheim and Vilholm glittered gold and silver, a bit too gaudy for Ares's taste, but undeniably impressive. Directly ahead, Valhalla seemed to dwarf the mountains themselves.
There was a feast going on inside. Ares had visited Valhalla a few times before, and it seemed there was always a feast going on. Rows of roughly-made wooden tables streched the entire length of the hall. Boisterous men in blood-spattered battle gear snatched pieces of meat from platters, and drank from mugs the size of buckets. The floor was littered with gnawed bones, and sticky with spilled mead. Ares reached between two drunken revelers, and snagged himself a rib. Here, at least, you didn't have to pretend that your food was something else.
He was about three quarters of the way across the hall when one of the warriors stepped in to block his path. The man was nearly a hand's span taller than Ares, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, with red hair down to his collar. He wore a sleeveless chainmail byrnie over a leather shirt, and carried a huge hammer slung from a loop at his belt. He bared his teeth in a ferocious grimace, and grasped Ares's forearm in a bone-crushing grip. Ares, recognizing both gestures as the local version of a friendly smile and a handshake, responded in kind.
"We weren't expecting you. No matter, there's always a free seat somewhere. Sit down, have a drink."
Ares shook his head. "I'd love to, but I'm not here to party. I need to speak to your father."
No, your other father. Ares didn't say it. Sarcasm was wasted on Thor. Ares liked him well enough, but not for his brains.
"Yes, Odin. Is he here?"
"In his usual spot." Thor waved his hand toward the back of the room. "Come on, I'll take you there."
There was a raised semicircular platform against the back wall, with a throne carved of dark wood set up on top of it. Odin sat upright in the throne, looking moody and aloof. He was a shorter, even stockier version of Thor, with grizzled hair and deep lines etched around his eyes and mouth by age and pain. A leather patch concealed the empty socket where his left eye used to be. Perched on the back of the throne, two ravens surveyed the room with beady eyes.
"Greetings, Ares." Odin's voice was a deep rumble, like a rockslide down a craggy mountainside. "What brings you to Asgard?"
Ares returned his gaze steadily. "I think you already know. Have you felt it, Odin? The new power being born? Do you know what's coming?"
Odin's expression was normally so forbidding, it was hard to tell when he frowned, but he certainly seemed to now. "I have felt... something. You seem to know more."
"Not much more," Ares admitted. "The new god's name is Dahak. He has fathered a half-mortal daughter, who has caused... a great deal of trouble to me." He was not about to go into details. He'd always been on good terms with the Aesir, not friendship, but a certain professional respect, and he was counting on that regard now to win them to his cause. But all respect would be lost if they knew he had run from a fight. "He's about to move, I think, but I don't know how. The other Olympians don't understand the danger, they aren't warriors like you and I."
Odin inclined his head slightly, acknowedging the flattery. "What is it you seek here, then?"
"An alliance. Together, we may be able to--" he stopped, because Odin was shaking his head.
"You know such things are impossible, Ares. I'd be as powerless in Olympus as you are here. What help could I give you?"
"Dahak has no power on Olympus either," Ares pointed out. "He's not one of ours. I checked. Whatever he's planning to do, he'll be doing either in the mortal world, or between the Realms. If we corner him there, if we outnumber him--"
"To what end?" Odin shrugged. "Let him rage between the Realms, if that's what he wants. It will do no harm to us, or to you. If he enters Asgard, we will deal with him. Until then... we have our own battles to fight here."
"This is more impo--"
"No." Odin interrupted yet again. Ares wondered if he would ever be allowed to finish a sentence in this conversation. "It is not our job to protect Olympus Ares, it's yours. I suggest you look to it, instead of wasting my time here."
Ares closed his eyes, and counted backwards from ten, slowly. He had to do it twice before he could trust himself to speak without shouting. "I'm not asking you to protect Olympus. I'm asking you to join with me in protecting all the Realms, now, while there's still time."
"I'm not entirely convinced that the Realms need protecting. Dahak may be powerful, but he's subject to the same restrictions as the rest of us. What can he do? Carve out a piece of the mortal world for himself? Let him. We will combat him the same way we combat each other--in the hearts and minds of our worshippers."
"Father," Thor approached the throne "Threat or no threat, this sounds like a good battle. Perhaps I could join Ares for--"
"No." Odin's voice went suddenly harsh. Thor stepped back a pace, looking started. "You have your hands full with the frost giants, Thor. You will not abandon your duties to play games in other Realms."
It was clear to Ares that Odin was afraid. And in Asgard, more than in any other Realm, one could not admit to fear, or even be suspected of it. If he pressed the argument any further, Odin would start to look bad. It might shame him into complying--or it might goad him into blasting Ares to ashes where he stood. Ares looked into the hard, unyielding face, and decided not to take the chance.
Thor wanted to him to stick around, have a few drinks, maybe a practice bout, but Odin obviously wanted him gone, and Ares himself had no wish to stay. He said his goodbyes with cold formality, and accepted an escort back to Bifrost. The Nornir were still waiting by the gate. The tall young one, Skuld, turned to follow him with her gaze as he brushed past. He wasn't sure, but he thought he heard her laughing.
The day went rapidly downhill from there. Ares was ready to scream with the frustration of it, and the indignity of trudging from Realm to Realm as a supplicant. An unsuccessful supplicant, begging for help that was consistently refused.
Ra, Brahma, and Enlil had been civil enough, but no more helpful than Odin. It was clear that they were sitting tight, waiting to see how Olympus would fare before they made their own moves. The Chin Realm was hopeless, full of maddeningly placid deities contemplating their navels and talking in aphorisms. He wasn't even sure any of them had noticed Dahak's existence.
In his desperation, Ares had even tried to approach the Jews' eccentric god. But that one, as always, refused to acknowledge the existence of any other deity, even when the deity in question was rattling his gate and swearing a blue streak. An unproductive visit, but at least it had given Ares an opportunity to blow off steam. Afterwards, he was tempted to give up the entire undertaking, but there was still one major Realm he hadn't tried, and he decided to go for it for the sake of completeness.
Now he stood in the middle of a fertile plain, sunlit and verdant. He could hear the ocean in the distance. There were no dwellings in sight. Ares turned around uncertainly, wondering which direction he should pick. He hadn't visited the Persian gods before. They tended to be an insular bunch. He was about to head for the shore, just because it gave him a finite goal to work towards, when the sun suddenly blazed with a blinding flare of light. For a moment, Ares was blinded. Then his vision cleared, and he found himself looking at a golden winged disk, suspended in the air about three paces in front of him.
"You have not been invited here." The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, but it was clearly the disk talking. Ares suppressed a smirk. If there was one thing he hated, it was gods who couldn't take the trouble to look like normal people. A winged disk. What in Hades was that supposed to mean?
"Am I talking to Ahura Mazdah?" he called out.
The disk seemed to grow bigger, and brighter. The voice grew correspondingly louder. "You have not been invited here."
"Yeah, well, I'm not staying for dinner." Ares was fairly certain he was not going to get any help here. But he'd come this far, and he was damned if he'd leave without saying his piece. For what seemed like the thousandth time that day, he recited his warning of Dahak's threat, and his offer of alliance.
When he finished, the disk--Ares had to assume it was Ahura Mazdah, or at least someone empowered to deliver a message to him--seemed to dim a little, as if withdrawing in thought. When the booming voice spoke again, it held a strange new tone that Ares was unable to imediately identify.
"So Azi Dahaka is beginning to move. We had expected this, but not so soon."
Ares had been expecting a flat refusal. Now he blinked in bemusement. "Azi Dahaka? You know him?" The strange note in Ahura Mazdah's voice suddenly became clear to him. It was guilt. "Shit. He's one of yours, isn't he? Why in Hades didn't you stop him? Or--" He broke off. For a moment, he considered the unpleasant possibility that al the Persian gods were in it together, and that he had just walked, defenseless, right into enemy hands. But Ahura Mazdah could've killed him as soon as he entered this Realm, without resorting to warnings or personal appearances. The mere fact that he was still in one piece was a hopeful sign. "Why didn't you stop him?" he asked again.
"He moved in secret." Yes, that was definitely guilt in that voice, stronger even than fear. "By the time we were aware of his actions, it was too late. He is beyond our reach now."
"Beyond your reach? How can he be--oh, fuck." Ares closed his eyes as fragments of various old wives' tales came back to him. "He's created his own Realm, hasn't he?"
That must've been what he felt, emanating from that Temple in Brittania. No wonder the aether had trembled like Earth during a quake. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had created a Realm. Not in his lifetime, certainly.
But here, at least, was a chance to gather some information, if not aid.
"Can you tell me anything about this Azi Dahaka? Do you know what he's planning? There's more to it than a renegade god staking out new territory, isn't there?"
Another long silence. Ares shifted impatiently from foot to foot. The whole day had been like this, endless waiting, endless talking, and no doing. It went so completely against his nature that it was almost physically painful. Diplomacy was Athena's game, not his. Give him a good, bloody fight any day of the week.
Finally, Ahura Mazdah spoke again. "We believe that he has found a way to expand his own Realm at the expense of another, by channeling power through his mortal offspring. The exact nature of the ritual is not clear to us, however."
And the fear was there again, a cold hand clutching at his chest. If this was true, then Olympus would fall, and the other Realms would follow.
"Do you know of a way to stop him? Or to kill him."
"He cannot be killed. He is a god."
Ares remembered Strife's body, cold and broken on the temple floor, and gave a short, angry bark of laughter. "Bullshit. You and I both know, there's always something that will kill a god. So what is it in your Realm? I must know, if I'm going to risk my hide to fix your mistake!"
"There is nothing. He is a god."
The sun flared again, brighter and hotter than before. Ares squeezed his eyes shut, threw his arm up to block the light, but he could still see it, burning right through his lids.
"You have not been invited here! And you are not welcome. Go!" And then the ground dissolved around him, and he was floating in the aether again.
Booted out the door like an obnoxious salesman. A perfect ending to a perfect day. Ares paused to reestablish his link with Olympus, and followed it back. If Apollo finds out about this, I'll never live it down.
"I'm telling you, Herc, you're going to spoil that kid rotten." Iolaus tried to make his voice sound stern, but he couldn't help smiling. His friend's obsession with little Evander was, well, just plain cute. All you had to was speak the kid's name, and his eyes would light up like festival lanterns. And suddenly, his previously random wanderings all seemed to center on the small village where Nemesis had taken up residence with her son.
Normally, they visited about once a week. But their last trip had taken them far south, to kill a two-headed wolf that had been sent by Hera to terrorize a village for some imaginary offense, and it had taken over three weeks to get there and back. To celebrate this latest visit, Herc had stopped at a marketplace they passed on the way, and bought a colorful wooden rattle, carved to resemble a parrot. Iolaus could hear it jangling inside Hercules's pack as they walked.
Hercules smiled, unconcerned. "There's nothing wrong with giving a baby a few toys, Iolaus."
"A few toys? Nemesis is going to have to move to a bigger house if you don't stop soon."
"Look who's talking. I'm not the one who dragged in that humongous rocking horse last month."
"It wasn't that big."
"Iolaus, I've seen real ponies that were smaller!"
"He'll grow into it."
Iolaus did not press the argument. In all honesty, he was almost as fond of the kid as Herc was. Evander was such a happy, well-behaved baby, except for a tendency to levitate things when he was bored. That was the excuse he and Herc used for all the toys--to help prevent boredom. It amazed Iolaus that any offspring of the God of War could be so sweet-tempered. Ares, he suspected, had been the sort of kid who pulled the wings off flies.
He ticked off the familiar landmarks in his mind as they walked. The bridge, the barley field, the little oak tree grove... the path they followed rose in a gentle slope. Once they cleared the top, they would be within sight of the little cottage where Nemesis had made her home. The closer they got, the faster Hercules walked. Iolaus, with his shorter stride, had to break into a jog to keep up.
"Slow down, will ya? Not everyone has legs two miles long, you know?"
Hercules reached the top of the rise, and came to a stop so abruptly that Iolaus nearly crashed into him.
"Hey!" Iolaus stepped to one side, so that Hercules's broad back was no longer blocking his view of the road ahead. "I said slow down, not freeze like a..." His voice trailed off as he finaly saw what his friend was looking at
The was a pile of charred rubble where Nemesis's cottage used to be.
By the time he recovered from his shock, Hercules was halfway down the slope. Iolaus took off after him at a sprint, this time making no suggestions about slowing down, even though he could see that the destruction was not recent, and rushing was not likely to do any good.
There had been more at work here than a mere fire. The house had been a sturdy one, with strong oak beams and a well-fitted roof. Now there was little left than a pile of ashes. And it wasn't just the house. The little shed in the back, the vegetable garden, the picket fence he and Hercules had built--everything was gone. The ground was soot-black. Iolaus realized with a shock that the scorched area formed a perfect circle, nearly a hundred yards across. The gods had been at work here.
Hercules's face was ashen. He was shaking. He didn't seem to notice when Iolaus gently took hold of his arm.
"Herc... we don't know when this happened, or how. Maybe they weren't home. We should check with the neighbors."
He had to repeat the words three times before Hercules finally turned to look at him, eyes still dilated with shock. "The neighbors. Yes. Of course."
"Come on. I remember there was a farm, down the road a bit." Iolaus managed to keep his voice low and steady, despite the painful tightness in his chest. He was sick with worry, but he knew it had to be a thousand times worse for Hercules. This was way too close to the way Dianeira and the kids had died.
The farm Iolaus remembered was about a quarter of a mile away. They covered the distance in record time. A plump elderly woman opened the door, and peered with suspicion at the two shock-faced, shabbily dressed strangers on her stoop. Iolaus opened his mouth to speak, but Hercules beat him to it.
"The woman who lived in the cottage south of here. Did-- do you know her?"
"Hercules!" The door was pulled open all the way, and Nemesis brushed past the older woman to fling herself into Hercules's arms. Iolaus saw some of the tension in Herc's posture lessen, though he still seemed like a bowstring drawn too tight.
"It's all right, Aglaia," Nemesis murmured in a choked voice. "These are friends."
"Nemesis." Hercules put one arm around her waist, and stroked her hair with his other hand while she stood trembling, her face hidden against his chest. "What happened? Is Evander all right?"
Nemesis's legs buckled. She sat down limply on the stoop, and buried her head in her arms.
"He's gone," she sobbed. "Oh, gods, Evander's dead..."
Iolaus fell back a step, feeling as if he'd been struck. He had been so sure, when he saw Nemesis, that Evander must be all right, too.
"When did this happen?" Hercules demanded in a harsh voice. "How?"
"Six days ago. I had to go to the market." Nemesis looked up and rubbed one hand across her face, struggling visibly for composure. "A girl from the village was watching Evander for me. I was maybe five minutes away, when I remembered I meant to bring an old pair of sandals in to be repaired, so I turned back." She shuddered, and closed her eyes for a moment before going on. "The house, the yard... everything was burning. I couldn't even come close, it was too hot. I could see a dark figure standing in the flames. He seemed to look right at me, and I swear, he was laughing, I couldn't hear it, but I knew, he was standing there laughing at me..."
"He?" Iolaus prompted softly.
For the first time, Nemesis's face showed an expression other than grief. Anger burned in her eyes, hot as the flame that consumed her child.
"Ares." She spat the name out as if it tasted bad. "It had to be him."
"Had to? You mean you're not sure?"
"I told you, all I could see was a dark shape. But he was the only one who would do this. I have no quarrel with the other gods, they've ignored me since I've become mortal."
"What about Discord? She didn't seem to fond of you, or of Evander." Iolaus wasn't sure why he was arguing this, except that it seemed wrong, somehow.
Nemesis shook her head. "You didn't see that fire. It took three days for the ashes to cool down enough to let us collect the bones for burial. Discord doesn't have that kind of power."
Hercules sat down next to her, and put one arm around her shoulders. His eyes looked haunted, and Iolaus just knew he was replaying his own family's destruction in his mind.
It still felt wrong to Iolaus. "Why would Ares want to kill his own son?"
"I don't know!" A note of impatience crept into Nemesis's voice. "Maybe he thought I would turn Evander against him as he grew older. Maybe he decided that since he couldn't raise his son, no one else would. Maybe he just felt like it. What does it matter? Would Evander be any less dead if we knew the reason?"
"No. But if we're going after somebody--and from the look on Herc's face I'd say we are--I'd like to be sure it's the right person. Or god."
"Oh, we're going after him all right," Hercules said in a flat voice. "Ares will pay for this, even if I have to drag him down from Olympus myself."
A few yards away from them, the air shimmered. Hercules and Nemesis, sitting with eyes downcast, didn't seem to notice. Iolaus, however, watched with a sinking feeling as the shimmer coalesced into the unpleasantly familiar dark figure. He gulped. "Uhm... Herc? I don't think dragging him off Olympus is going to be an issue."
Ares stood in the center of the path, looking even more ill-tempered than usual. He looked around for a moment with a distracted air, as if searching for something, then focused his attention on the group in front of him. His scowl deepened as he registered Hercules's presence. Iolaus expected a challenge, an insult, a mocking boast. But Ares seemed to ignore his brother altogether.
"Nemesis. What are you doing in this dump? We need to talk."
Hercules screamed, and charged him.
Ares seemed caught off-guard by the attack. He hadn't even been looking in Hercules's direction. Hercules's tackle, calculated to overcome determined resistance, encountered none, and the momentum sent god and demi-god crashing into the dirt in a tangle of flailing limbs. Hercules was trying to get his hands around Ares's throat, which struck Iolaus as a perfect example of temper overcoming good sense--it wasn't as if Ares needed to breathe, after all.
There was a flash of blue light, and a sound like a thunderclap, and then Hercules was flying through the air in a wobbly arc, as if he was launched from a catapult. That, too, struck Iolaus as unusual. Most of the time, for reasons best known to himself, Ares did not use his powers when fighting his brother, preferring to stick to old-fashioned fisticuffs.
Hercules landed in a cloud of dust, rolled over a couple of times, and rose shakily to his feet. Ares was already standing, but he made no move attack.
"I don't have time for this!" he snapped. "Get out of here, Hercules, go rescue a cat from a tree or something. I must talk to Nemesis."
"Murderer!" Nemesis spat at him. "What could you possibly say to me?"
"Oh, for Hades's sake!" Ares fixed her with an exasperated glare. "This is not the time to critique my lifestyle, okay? This is important."
"How could you do it, Ares?" Hercules demanded. "Your own child. Did you really think he was a threat to you? What kind of coward would kill a baby?"
Ares went suddenly, frighteningly still. The wide, sunny farmyard abruptly seemed dark, and much too small. Iolaus, who had faced Ares down before, and who had little regard for the gods in general, had to stop himself from taking a step backward. Aglaia whimpered and retreated inside. Even Nemesis looked intimidated. Only Hercules seemed unaffected.
"What did you say?" Ares's voice was a low whisper. Hercules started to answer, then broke off when he found himself looking at thin air. Ares had vanished.
There was a long, stunned silence. Iolaus, who was never very good at long silences, broke it first.
"Well, that was surreal." He slumped against the wall of the farmhouse, and ran one unsteady hand through his hair. "Herc, I don't think Ares--"
As if summoned by the sound of his name, the God of War stood in the yard again. His eyes were wild, and for a moment Iolaus wondered if they were going to get an earthquake or a hurricane or something. But all Ares did was grab Nemsis by the shoulders, drag her to her feet, and shake her till her teeth rattled.
"What happened to your house?" he shouted in her face. "Where's my son?"
Nemesis could only gasp in reply. It was Hercules who answered.
"Evander's dead, Ares. We thought... we thought you knew."
Nemesis groaned as Ares's grip on her shoulders tightened. He looked at her with a surprised expression, as if he'd just realized she was there, and let go.
"Tell me what happened," he demanded.
Iolaus watched Ares's face as Nemesis once again described the fire, and the laughing dark figure that had caused it. If the god felt any grief at his son's death, he certainly hid it well. But then again, Ares had made a single attempt to grab Evander for his own selfish purposes, failed, and never acknowledged his existence again. So why expect him to care now? Hercules had been more of a father to Evander than Ares ever had.
Ares listened to the entire tale in stone-faced silence. He stood facing Nemesis, but he seemed to be looking through her rather than at her.
"Hope," he said when she finished, and Iolaus spent a confused moment wondering what they were supposed to be hoping for before he realized that Ares was referring to a person. "Unless it was Dahak himself. He might have the power by now..."
"Who's Dahak?" Hercules demanded.
Things were beginning to click in Iolaus's mind. "In your temple, after Callisto killed Strife, you said a great evil was coming..."
"Not a great evil," Ares corrected impatiently. "The great evil. Dahak."
"And that burnt woman, the one who sent Callisto back in time--Hope?"
"Who's Dahak?" Hercules repeated, louder this time.
Ares gave him a bleak look. "The end of everything." He turned abruptly, crossed the yard in half a dozen long strides, leaned against the fence, and stared into the distance in the direction where Nemesis's house used to stand. It made for an incongruous image--the God of War slumped against a picket fence in a tidy little farmyard, bits of straw clinging to his boots. But Iolaus found that he didn't feel at all like laughing.
"I thought I could stop him." Ares did not look at anyone else as he spoke, and Iolaus suspected he might be talking to himself. "And he must've thought so, too, or why bother killing Evander? Now there's no chance, unless--" He stopped. His gaze, distant an unfocused a moment ago, turned suddenly sharp, and fixed on Hercules. "Why did Hope want to stop you from being born?"
Hercules shrugged. "I don't know. I've never even met her."
"That doesn't matter," Iolaus said. "I mean, if she's that evil, she probably wants you dead just on principle. Most bad guys do, you know."
"What if it's more than that?" Ares was looking at Hercules with a disturbingly calculating expression. "Maybe it doesn't have to be a child..."
"What doesn't have to be a child?" Hercules nearly shouted. "Ares, will you please make some sense? Evander is dead, and I want to know why!"
Ares did not answer right away. He looked as if he was contemplating something he didn't particularly like. Finally, he appeared to reach some sort of decision, and faced Hercules with a determined gaze.
"Can we talk alone?" he asked.
"No." Iolaus put in before Hercules could answer.
Ares scowled at him. "Go away, little man. This does not concern mortals."
"I think," Hercules said, "that the end of everything concerns mortals quite a lot. And anything you tell me, I'd repeat to Iolaus anyway, so you might as well save time."
Once again, Ares hesitated before answering, and Iolaus held his breath. He knew this was more than just a gesture of trust on Hercules's part, though he certainly appreciated it at that level. It was also a test, to see how far Ares would bend on this matter, how important this was to the god.
"All right," Ares growled. "Shut up and listen, then. You've both traveled. I suppose it's come to your attention that the Olympians are not the only gods around?"
"We've noticed," Hercules said wryly.
"Each pantheon has its own Realm in the aether, which serves both as a residence and a source of power. When we walk in the mortal world, we link to our Realm through our temples and worshippers. When we travel to other Realms, the link is lost, and we are powerless--and mortal."
"I guess that means the gods don't visit much, huh?" Iolaus laughed.
"Did I say you can interrupt?" Ares snapped. "I thought I said shut up and listen. And no, we don't visit much. But we don't make war on each other, either. Until now."
"Is that were Dahak comes in?" Hercules asked.
Ares nodded. "A Persian god making a power play. He has created his own Realm."
Iolaus blinked, startled. "How?"
"By getting enough fanatical morons to worship him as the one true god, and using the energy of their worship to reshape the aether. It's risky. If the mortals' faith faltered, he would've been cut off from his old Realm, with no new one to draw on. Left floating in the aether forever." Ares shuddered. "He's done it, however, so the point is moot."
"Okay, so he's done it." Hercules shrugged. "So what? If what you've told us is true, you can't touch him in his Realm, and he can't touch you in yours. Stay out of his Realm, and you don't have a problem, right?"
"Wrong. We do have a problem, and her name is Hope."
"His daughter. His half-mortal daughter." Ares pushed away from the fence, and paced the yard restlessly, fingering the hilt of his sword as he spoke. "Demi-gods are... special. They don't have the powers of the gods, but they don't have our limitations either. They don't need worshippers. They aren't tied to a Realm. You," he paused in mid-pace to look at Hercules, "would be equally strong in Olympus, or Asgard, in Greece or in Chin. We don't know why. Somehow, your mortal blood allows your divine part to draw power from any Realm, no matter where you are. And Dahak has found a way to do the same, using Hope as a conduit."
Iolaus wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but it didn't sound good. "How'd he swing that?"
Ares started pacing again. "I don't know. I got all this from the king of the Persian gods, who wasn't what I'd call helpful. All I know is, Dahak's blood connection with Hope let him do it. That's why I came for Evander."
"Why you--" Hercules's expression wavered between anger in disgust. "You were going to use him the same way, weren't you? To drag a baby into your little war? Ares, that is sick!"
"This is not the time for your ridiculous scruples!" Ares shouted. "Dahak will destroy everything-- the other gods, the mortals, the universe itself! You think I'm going to worry about the fate of one baby, or a thousand? Get your priorities straight!"
The two brothers glared at each other with nearly identical furious expressions. Iolaus was just beginning contemplate the wisdom of stepping between them, when Hercules shook his head and looked away.
"It doesn't matter now, does it?"
"No. Not if it has to be a child. But what if a brother will do just as well?"
"Me?" Hercules blinked at him, startled.
Iolaus decided it was time to speak up before this went too far. "Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! I'm not sure I like the sound of this. You want to use Hercules as a link to Olympus, so you can go to Dahak's Realm and kick his ass, is that it?"
"More or less."
"So what's that going to do to Hercules?"
"I don't know." For the first time since his arrival, Ares began to look cheerful. "Something nasty, probably. But hey, we all have to make these little sacrifices when the fate of the world is at stake, right, brother?" And he slapped Hercules on the shoulder.
Hercules looked at Iolaus. "He has a good point"
That was Hercules all over. Give him a chance at a noble death, and he'd jump at it. It had been the same when Prometheus had been chained--except then they had Xena around too, fighting Hercules for a chance at martyrdom. Iolaus, on the other hand, thought martyrdom was a stupid idea.
"What he has is a damn good story, Herc, but that's all it is! How do we know any of it is true?"
"You were there," Ares snarled. "You saw--"
"I saw Callisto kill Strife with Hind's blood. I saw Hope--who I agree is bad news--send Callisto back in time. But this business of Realms, and Persian gods, and the end of the world... I don't know anything about that. For all we know, this is some minor squabble among the gods, and you want to drag Herc into it to give yourself an advantage."
"Another good point," Hercules admitted. "How about it, Ares? You have any proof of all this?"
"The word of the God of War isn't good enough for you?"
"No." Herc and Iolaus answered in unison.
Ares stared at them. A muscle in his jaw twitched. Iolaus got ready to duck.
"All right, then. How about Xena's word?"
"Uh... sure." Iolaus hadn't seen Xena in a couple of months, unless one counted the alternate Xena he'd encountered when he was chasing Callisto through time. What did she have to do with this Hope and Dahak business?
Hercules nodded, echoing Iolaus's sentiments. "If Xena backs you up, I'll help you any way I can."
"Fine. Let's go, then." Ares reached over and gripped Hercules's shoulder with one hand. The air around them began to shimmer.
"Hey, wait for me!" They were going to go without him, Iolaus realized. He grabbed Hercules's arm with both hands, and prayed to any deity that might be paying attention that this would work. He could feel the air crackling around him, as if before a thunderstorm, and then the world dissolved into mist.
The inn must have been prosperous once, but had obviously fallen on hard times when the trade route that passed it was supplanted by a newer, wider road. The pastoral murals on the walls were faded, and the paint was beginning to peel. Some of the diamond-shaped window panes were cracked, and the rain was leaking in. But there was a roaring fire in the hearth, and fresh rushes on the floor, and the lovely scent of fresh-baked bread drifting out from the kitchen. The two guests who made up the night's entire clientele found they had no cause for complaint.
Xena sat in a wobbly chair with her back to the wall, sipping hot mulled wine from a pewter mug. Across the table from her, Gabrielle was idly picking at the remains of the roast lamb they'd had for dinner.
"This is nice," Gabrielle sighed. "How come we never sleep indoors unless it's cold and raining?"
"There's no reason to sleep indoors unless it's cold and raining," Xena told her, but she had to admit it was nice. The food had been surprisingly good, the mulled wine burned pleasantly on its way down, and the sound of rain on the windows had a soporific quality. The owner had promised them the best room in the house--an easy enough promise to keep, since the house was empty--and she found she was actually looking forward to a real bed, with sheets and pillows and warm woolen blankets. She and Gabrielle had been travelling rough for weeks.
There was a sudden, unpleasant tingle in the back of her neck, the kind of feeling she got when her instincts spotted danger before her eyes and ears did. Without knowing why, Xena found herself on her feet, chakram in hand, crouched low in a defensive stance.
"Xena?" Gabrielle did not actually stand, but she slid her chair back from the table to give herself room, and rested one hand lightly on her staff. "What's wrong?"
A flash of blue light illuminated the room, bright enough that for a few seconds Xena could see nothing but its afterimage. She blinked until her vision cleared, and found herself looking at a rather impressive expanse of muscular male chest, inadequately covered by a shabby yellow shirt.
"Hercules." Xena took a step back and straightened her stance, which put her as close to eye level with him as she was likely to get without standing on a box. "How did you--" she broke off before completing the question, because she could see perfectly well what the answer was.
Hercules was not alone. On his left, clutching his friend's arm in a white-knuckled grip, was Iolaus. And on his right--
"Ares," Xena hissed. From the corner of her eye, she could see Gabrielle finally rising from her seat. "What are you doing here?"
Ares didn't seem to hear the question. He was too busy staring daggers at Iolaus.
"I don't remember inviting you along."
Iolaus looked thoroughly unintimidated. "I'm here. Live with it."
"I said, what are you doing here?" Xena did not raise her voice, but she put just enough of an edge into it to make it clear that if she didn't get an immediate answer, someone was going to be very sorry. It was a tone she had perfected back in her warlord days, dressing down unruly troops, and it had always worked.
It worked now, too. No one actually snapped to attention, but all three men were suddenly focused on her. Ares, she noted with a flash of irritation, seemed mildly amused by the display.
"Why, hello, Xena, it's good to see you too." He hooked one ankle around the leg of the nearest chair, pulled it over, and sat straddling it, his arms folded across the back. "Believe it or not, I'm here because I need you for a character witness."
Xena suppressed a snort. "Is that all? Well, that's easy enough." She turned to Hercules with a smirk. "He's slime, don't believe a word he says."
"Good enough for me," Iolaus said cheerfully. "Let's go, Herc."
"Take one step, and I'll burn this inn and everyone in it to cinders," Ares said flatly. There was a red glimmer in his eyes that Xena might've taken for a reflection from the fire, except that the hearth was at his back. She hadn't the slightest doubt that he would carry out his threat.
"What in particular do you want witnessed, Ares?"
He looked at her in silence for a moment, before transferring that smouldering gaze to Gabrielle.
"Hope is alive," he said.
There was a thud behind her--Gabrielle's staff falling to the floor. The young Bard's face was ashen; even her lips had gone pale and bloodless.
"That's impossible," she whispered. "I killed her myself, you were there, Xena, you saw the body, I didn't lie this time, you were there at the funeral, we burned her, she's gone, we burned her--" with every word, her voice rose in pitch and volume, until by the end she was nearly shouting.
"Shhh. It's all right, Gabrielle." Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders, and held her close. "It's all right. I know you didn't lie." Gabrielle was shaking. Xena stroked her hair, and murmured comforting platitudes in a soothing voice. She could see Hercules and Iolaus watching them with identical stricken expressions. Ares's face was unreadable. Xena wanted to slap him. He'd known perfectly well what this was going to do to Gabrielle. He could've broken the news a little gentler...
"I..." Iolaus shifted from foot to foot, looking extremely uncomfortable. He reached out one hand toward Gabrielle, but stopped short of actually touching her. "I don't know the whole story, but the woman I saw in Ares's temple was burned all over. So whatever you did to her, she survived it."
"You've left it too long," Ares said accusingly. "It's gone long past the point where poison will do any good, or fire, or any other mortal weapon. If Dahak is to be stopped now, I'm the one to do it. Tell them, Xena. Tell them everything, so that they know what's really at stake."
Before Xena could speak, Gabrielle pulled away from her. She looked composed and determined, though her face was still streaked with tears.
"No, wait. It was my fault. I should tell it."
Xena bit her tongue against the immediate impulse to argue. This was not the time to debate the proper apportionment of blame. Gabrielle looked as if she needed to tell this tale, so she would let her do it. Xena nodded, gave her friend's arm one last reassuring squeeze, and sat down. Gabrielle swept the room with a slow, steady glance, licked her lips, and began to speak.
It was at times like this that Xena was forcibly reminded that being a Bard meant more than just telling stories in taverns in exchange for free supper. In a strong, stready voice, without a single stumble or hesitation, Gabrielle recounted the entire story, beginning with their first meeting with Khrafstar, following with the events in Brittania, Hope's birth, Gabrielle's deception, and the consequences it led to. With admirable instinct for what was really important, she glossed over the details of Illusia, saying only that she and Xena had resolved their conflict with some supernatural help. But she did not gloss over Solon's death, Hope's poisoning, or the black rage that had nearly destroyed them both before they found their way back to each other. Listening to it was painful enough. Telling it must've been a thousand times worse, and Xena was filled with a quiet pride at Gabrielle's strength.
"Xena, I'm so sorry." Hercules stood behind her chair, and rested his hands lightly on her shoulders. "I know what it's like to lose a child. I wish I'd met Solon. He must've been a fine boy, if he was anything like you."
"He would've liked you." Xena found herself blinking away a tear. "He would've probably liked you better than he liked me."
"How very touching." Ares's voice practically dripped with sarcasm. "But I didn't drag you out here for a group hug. I need your answer now, Hercules. Are you with me on this?"
Anger flared in Hercules's eyes for a second, but was quickly replaced with a look of resignation. "All right, Ares. You've convinced me. Whatever you need me to do, I'll do."
Ares rolled his eyes. "About fucking time. Let's go, then." He turned toward the door.
"Wait a minute!" Iolaus, who had been speaking softly with Gabrielle until that moment, was suddenly at Hercules's side again, gripping his arm with both hands. "I'm going with you."
"No!" Ares and Hercules spoke together. Ares sounded murderous, Hercules merely worried.
"Iolaus, it's too dangerous. We're talking about a war between gods here."
"I know what we're talking about," Iolaus said impatiently. "I also know that if Ares loses, then no place is safe. And if he wins, I want to make sure he doesn't decide to grab the opportunity and do something nasty to you."
"And if I do decide?" Ares growled. "What do you plan to do about it?"
Iolaus looked up at him with no trace of fear. "Try it and find out."
Xena decided it was time to interfere before things got ugly... or, rather, uglier. The tension between Iolaus and Ares was palpable, and there was obviously more to it than Iolaus's protectiveness of his best friend, or Ares's general contempt for mortals. Even Hercules's formidable presence between them seemed as if it would not be enough to keep them from going at each other. Xena cleared her throat loudly.
"I think we should all go," she said.
"You think?" Ares glowered at her. "Remind me again when I solicited anyone's opinion on the matter."
"Oh, come on, Ares. You know you can use the help. Even if our weapons can't harm Dahak, we could at least provide a distraction as you fight. Don't you want every advantage you can get?"
He thought about it long and hard. His face looked as if it was carved in stone, but Xena, who probably knew him better than anyone else present, could see the emotions flickering behind his eyes, all his anger and arrogance warring against common sense. Amazingly enough, common sense won.
"All right. It's your funeral. But--" he stabbed the air with his finger, just inches from Iolaus's face, "--stay out of my way."
Iolaus looked ready to respond in kind, but Hercules kicked him lightly in the shin, and he settle down with a discontented sigh.
"Whatever," he muttered.
Ares apparently decided to be satisfied with that. He took a couple of strides toward the door, then stopped when he realized that no one was following.
"Well? Are you coming, or not?"
Hercules was the one to actually voice the question they all had to be thinking. "Coming where, Ares? And how do we get there?"
"To Brittania, of course. And I believe the usual way to go is by ship."
"Why Brittania?" Xena asked.
"Because the easiest way to reach a god's Realm is to start from a temple. The one in Brittania has been destroyed, I know, but the power is still there, especially since Dahak had actually physically manifested there."
"Why a ship then?" That was Gabrielle. "Can't you just take us there?"
"Of course I can," Ares snapped irritably. "But if Dahak has any brains at all, he'll be monitoring the aether above Brittania, and I'd rather not alert him to what we're doing until I'm ready to face him. Let him think I'm stymied by Evander's death."
Xena shrugged. "Fine. If you're willing to risk a delay..."
"Not so willing that I'm going to stand here and chat." And he was gone, out the door and into the rain, no longer checking to see if they followed. Xena shook her head, and bowed Hercules toward the door with a sweep of her arm.
They left Argo stabled at the inn, and hired the first seaworthy-looking ship they came across when they entered the harbor. Actually, hired was not precisely the right term. Ares beckoned the captain over, told him where they needed to go, and then just stood there and loomed until the poor man gulped, shuddered, and offered them all free passage. Later, acting on a common impulse, Xena and Hercules took the captain aside, calmed him down with no small amount of effort, and insisted that the two of them, along with Iolaus, would work for the group's passage.
That evening, as she helped reef the sails, with the rain pelting her face and the water-logged cables tearing her hands, Xena spotted Ares watching her from the poop deck. He was leaning against the railing, long legs stretched out to block the walkway, sipping something from a goblet. The rain splattered off an invisible roof above him, leaving him perfectly dry. When his eyes met hers, he grinned and lifted his drink in a mocking salute. Xena swore softly to herself, and went on with her work.
Over dinner in the galley, Iolaus told her about Strife's death, and Hope and Callisto's attempt to erase Hercules from existence. He was uncharacteristically reticent about his time-traveling experience, giving only the sketchiest details. Xena had a feeling he was hiding something unpleasant from her, but she didn't push him on the subject. The story did serve to explain the hostility between Ares and Iolaus. Iolaus had seen Ares in defeat. Worse, when Ares did not dare to follow Callisto through time, Iolaus had gone--and succeeded. It must've been quite humiliating, and the God of War did not take humiliation well.
Ares was not there at dinner. He had appropriated the captain's cabin for his own personal use, and was presumably eating there, provided he was eating at all. Did the gods need regular meals? Another question for the philosophers to fight over.
Shortly before dawn, she climbed up into the crow's nest for her turn at watch. The rain had stopped by then, but the temperature had dropped. Frost crusted the edges of the sails, and tiny icicles glittered on the shrouds. Xena was wearing a thick wool tunic, borrowed from one of the sailors for the occasion. Still, she found she couldn't stop shivering.
The cold must've numbed her instincts as well as her extremities, because she was actually startled when Ares appeared beside her. He was wearing his usual black leathers, and not a single goosebump showed on his bare arms, or on the strip of bronzed skin left uncovered by the vest. He stood with his feet braced shoulder-width apart for balance, and gazed around critically.
"Nice view," he said, and thrust a steaming mug into Xena's trembling hands. "Here, warm youself up."
Xena watched him suspiciously through narrowed eyes. "What is it? I can't get drunk on watch."
"Relax, will you? It's soup. I got it from the galley."
It was beef broth, hot and salty, with a piece of toasted bread floating on top. Xena sighed as the first sip left a trail of warmth from her throat all the way down to her belly. Then she remembered who she had to thank for the feeling, and frowned.
"What do you want, Ares?"
"Nothing. You looked cold, I brought you some soup. Don't thank me or anything."
Xena took another swallow. It really was wonderful. "Thank you," she grunted, hoping he'd leave now.
Ares sat down, leaned his back against the mast, and dangled his feet off the edge of the platform. Xena suppressed a sigh. She really didn't want to be confined in a small space with him for any length of time, but leaving was not an option, and he probably wouldn't let her throw him over the railing, so she resigned herself to the company, and resolved to ignore him.
Which would be easier if she wasn't so damn grateful for the soup, or if he wasn't sitting so damn close. She considered moving over, or making him take the mug back, but either action would be childish in the extreme, and probably result in some snide comment.
"It's simpler when you can just hate me, isn't it?" Ares smiled thinly. "When you can pretend that I have no redeeming qualities, and that your time with me was one big mistake?"
"I have to admit, Ares, if your goal in this Dahak business is to confuse your enemies, you're doing a fine job."
The smile faded. "I've never thought of you as an enemy, Xena."
"Really? I must not be trying hard enough."
Was it her imagination, or did he actually wince? "I'm trying to save the world, you know? You could at least be civil."
"You don't give a damn about the world, Ares. You just want to save your own neck."
"For the purposes of this discussion, the two are interchangeable." He drummed his fingers on the platform for a few seconds, caught himself doing it, and gripped the railing instad. Xena waited for him to say more, but he seemed content to sit still. Finally she shrugged and went back to drinking her soup, which, she noticed, did not seem to be growing colder as time went by. She also noticed that she suddenly felt comfortably warm, much warmer than she should be feeling, even after a hot drink. She frowned at Ares.
"Are you doing that?"
The look he gave her was so perfectly innocent, she wanted to applaud. "Doing what?"
"Nothing. Never mind. Thank you." This sudden string of small kindnesses was making her nervous. When Ares started acting out of character, there had to be trouble brewing somewhere. But she was not going to ask. She wasn't. "All right, Ares, what is it?"
"Nothing." He was drumming his fingers again. "Do you mortals normally get maudlin when you think you might die soon? I've noticed it sometimes, in soldiers on the eve of battle. Never really understood what that's all about."
"It's a common reaction, yes. Why, are you feeling maudlin?" It was almost funny, until the full implication sank in. "Are you expecting to die, Ares?"
"It's a possibility. I find I don't care for the concept."
"Nobody cares for the concept. We live with it."
"No, you live with it." Ares gripped a cable overhead, and pulled himself to his feet. The was no room to pace in the crow's nest, so he merely fidgeted in place. "Every day, there's a million things that can kill you. One misstep in a fight, one lucky shot, a single drink from a contaminated well--it's a wonder any mortal ever manages to die of old age. And even if you do, what do you get? A few decades at most. An eyeblink, hardly worth noticing. I've got eternity to lose!"
If he was angling for sympathy, this was the wrong way to go about it. "Is that what individual human lives are to you, Ares? Eyeblinks in eternity? No wonder you gods treat the world like your personal toybox."
He shrugged, the old arrogance suddenly back in his eyes. "Hey, we made the world, we can treat it however we like. At least we have the sense to know that you can't keep playing if you break all the toys, which puts us one up on Dahak."
Before Xena could come up with a sufficiently cutting answer to that, Ares suddenly cried out and pitched forward, both hands pressed to his temples. He would've gone head first right over the railing if Xena hadn't gripped him about the waist and hauled him back. Her legs buckled with the effort--he was heavy, dammit, a large, awkward dead weight in her arms--and they both collapsed in a heap. Xena's left shoulder hit the mast with bruising force, and her right knee twisted painfully beneath her. She swore loudly as she tried, and failed, to heave Ares's weight off her.
"Ares! What's wrong? Get off me, dammit!"
He did, finally. Xena sat up, massaged her knee until she was sure there was no real damage done, and climbed to her feet.
"What happened?" she demanded.
Ares stood slumped against the mast, still rubbing one temple with the heel of his hand. "He's started. I thought I'd have more time..."
"Started what?" she shouted, but Ares was no longer there.
Startled shouts below made her look down. Ares was standing on the deck, looking around wildly, bellowing Hercules's name at the top of his voice. Xena cursed again, swung her legs over the railing, and began to descend the old-fashioned mortal way, moving as fast as she dared on the icy ropes.
By the time she got down, Hercules, Iolaus and Gabrielle were all out on deck. Hercules and Iolaus, who'd taken their watches several hours earlier, looked rumpled and sleepy. Gabrielle looked seasick. Everyone looked worried.
"The schedule's been pushed up," Ares told her. His voice was rough with anger, or pain, or maybe both. "Dahak has made his move."
"What is he doing?"
"Drawing power from Olympus into his Realm. Every minute we let him get away with it, he's growing stronger at our expense." He turned to Hercules. "We have to try and establish our link now, before we go."
Hercules nodded, his face grim. "Do you know how we're going to do it?"
"Not exactly, but I've been thinking about that. The blood connection seems to be important, so blood is what we'll use."
Ares lifted one hand, and suddenly he was holding a dagger. The long, thin blade gleamed black in the thin morning light. Xena recognized Hephaestus's workmanship, beautiful despite the lack of ornamentation. Ares bit his lip, and slashed the blade across his left hand. Blood welled up in thin line, pooling quickly in the center of his palm and dripping onto the deck. Xena found herself staring in fascination. She hadn't realized gods could bleed.
Ares reversed his grip on the blade, and held it out to Hercules hilt first.
"Now you," he said.
Hercules gave his brother a suspicious look, but cut his hand with no visible hesitation. "Now what?"
"Now pick a god and pray this works." Ares gripped Hercules's hand in his, pressing their palms together so that the blood mingled. A look of intense concentration came over his face. The air shimmered.
Hercules gasped and closed his eyes. His knees buckled. He flung one arm out blindly for support, and Iolaus was there. Ares gripped the railing with his free hand. His face went suddenly pale, and his breathing was unsteady. Xena wondered if it was possible for a god to faint.
For a minute or so the two of them stood frozen. Then Ares shook his head.
"Not enough," he whispered. "I can almost reach it, but it's not enough..." With a jerky, desperate movement, he snatched the black dagger from Hercules and impaled both their hands with one vicious stab. Just watching it hurt. Xena winced in sympathy. Gabrielle, losing whatever tenuous control she had over her seasickness, whimpered and slumped over the side. Ares and Hercules screamed together. Blue lightning crackled around them, leaving charred black spots on the deck. One glowing tendril struck a rope and snapped it in two. One corner of a sail flapped in the wind like the wing of some giant, hysterical bird. Xena could only hope that the ship wouldn't catch fire.
The Ares pulled the dagger free, and the lightning blinked out in an instant, leaving behind only a few black smears and the stink of ozone. Xena rushed forward just in time to help Iolaus catch Hercules as he collapsed.
Ares sat down on the deck with a thud, and rested his forehead against his knees.
"Wow," he muttered. "That was a rush..."
"Herc, are you all right?" Iolaus sounded as shaky as Xena felt. There were five fingerprint-shaped bruises on his shoulder where Hercules had gripped him. "Herc, say something!"
"I'm fine, Iolaus." Hercules sat up, cradling his still-bleeding hand against his chest. The front of his shirt was thoroughly soaked with blood. "Well, maybe fine is not the right word. But I'll live."
"Gabrielle," Xena snapped, "fetch the bandages from my bag, will you?"
"No time." Ares lifted his head, and waved one hand in Hercules's general direction. "Here you go, now you can't say I've never done anything for you."
"Huh?" Hercules looked confused, then startled. He held up his left hand, and stared at it. The blood stains were still there, but the wound was gone. "Uhm... thanks."
"So did it work?" Xena asked.
"Oh, it worked all right." Ares climbed to his feet. He was perfectly clean, Xena noted irritably, not a drop of blood anywhere. "I've never felt this strong outside of Olympus." He grinned down at Hercules, who was still sitting down, leaning against Iolaus. "Was it good for you too?"
"Lovely." Hercules rolled his eyes. "Can we get this over with, please? This may come as a shock, but I don't particularly like being linked to you."
"Picky, picky. " Ares hauled Hercules to his feet. "Gather 'round and hold hands, folks, it's time to go save the world."
Xena gripped Ares's left hand with her right. His palm was hard and sword-callused, and she had a feeling that he needed to concentrate to keep from crushing her fingers to a pulp. She reached out her other hand, and Gabrielle closed her fingers around it in a warm, comforting grip.
"Ready?" Ares asked, and then pulled them into the aether before anyone could answer.
It wasn't quite instanteneous. There was a dizzying moment of half-falling, half-flying through a thick, swirling mist. Then the mist cleared, and they were all standing in the center of a ruined stone circle Xena recognized as the remains of Dahak's temple in Brittania. The mere sight of the place brought back a flood of unpleasant memories, so vivid that she had to close her eyes for a moment to shut them out. Xena gave Gabrielle's hand a reassuring squeeze, knowing it had to be even worse for her, and felt a slight answering pressure on her fingers.
"Dark..." Hercules shuddered. "This place feels so dark..."
"You're sharing my perception of it," Ares told him. All the mockery was gone from the god's face, leaving only grim determination behind. "Don't worry, we won't be staying long."
"Do we actually have a plan?" Xena asked, because she thought somebody had to. "Besides go in and kill him, I mean?"
"It's not as simple as that, I'm afraid," Ares said. "In his Realm, he's immortal. We must weaken him enough for me to grab him and transport to Olympus. There I can kill him. As for a plan--hit hard, hit often, try not to get hit yourself."
"Sounds good to me." Xena took a deep, steadying breath. "Let's go."
The trip seemed seemed longer this time, or maybe her anxiety made the time crawl by slower, Gabrielle wasn't sure. All she knew was, it seemed like hours had gone by before they stood on solid ground again. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, took stock of her surroundings, and immediately wished she hadn't.
They were standing on a seemingly endless expanse of black volcanic stone. It was hot; Gabrielle could feel it right through her boot soles. The air stank of smoke and sulphur and, beneath that, a thick rotting smell that made her want to gag. The ground was cracked in places, and the cracks glowed with green fire that had to be the source of both the heat and the smell. All this was more than enough to convince Gabrielle that this was absolutely the last place she wanted to be. But had she been undecided, the first sight of their enemy would've certainly provided the deciding factor.
Dahak rose up before them like a small mountain. He had a serpentine body that branched into three writhing necks, each one topped with a lizard-like head. Gabrielle had seen war horses that were smaller than those heads. Two massive, clawed arms supported the serpent off the ground. Each arm looked as long as Hercules was tall, and thick as a tree trunk. The entire monstrosity was covered in black scales the size of dinner plates.
On the ground next to him, Hope was a barely noticeable dark speck. She was curled up on her side, making little mewling noises, clasping her hands over a great gaping wound in her belly. Gabrielle shuddered as she realized that the jaws of Dahak's middle head were caked with blood. Obviously, Dahak's method of establishing a conduit to Olympus was more extreme than Ares's.
"Sssso..." all three heads hissed at once, turning gleaming yellow eyes toward them. "One of the Greek godlings has come to take a ssstand... And here I thought you were all sssnivelling cowardsss..."
For once, Ares seemed caught without a snide comeback. He drew his sword and took a step forward, looking not in the least bit happy about it.
"Gabrielle..." One of the heads swiveled toward her. "Mother of my child... have you come to offer me the worship I deserve?"
"I've come to watch you die, Dahak." Well, at least her voice was steady, even if her insides felt like jelly. It galled to admit it, but watching would be all she she could do here. There was no hope of effectively attacking that thing with a staff. He'd use it for a toothpick.
Gabrielle's the sidekick, fighting with her little stick... How bitter, after all she'd gone through, to be reduced to a line in Joxer's song. The fates must have a warped sense of humor. Very well, she would watch then, and if they lived through it, maybe one day she would tell the story.
Xena moved forward with her sword in one hand and the chakram in the other. Iolaus drew his own blade, but hesitated, looking at Hercules with concern. "Are you going to be okay, Herc? I don't like leaving you like this."
Hercules was breathing in shallow gasps, and sweating far more than the heat warranted. He was holding his left hand against his chest as if it still hurt, though the wound was gone. But he slapped Iolaus on the shoulder with a wobbly smile.
"I'll be fine, Iolaus. Go help Ares and Xena. And be careful, will you?"
"I'll stay with him," Gabrielle offered. She had no idea how her presence was going to help Hercules, or anyone else for that matter, but Iolaus looked grateful and kissed her on the cheek.
"Thanks, Gabrielle. Wish me luck."
"Break a leg," she told him. He laughed, and moved off.
Hercules sat down on the ground, apparently unbothered by the heat. Garbielled squatted next to him, leaning on her staff.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Yeah. Give me a smack if you see me starting to look faint. I'm not sure, but I think if I faint, it will break the link and leave Ares powerless." Hercules made a strangled noise, and drew his knees up to his chest. "I just want to state for the record that being a conduit hurts like Tartarus."
"I'll put it in the scroll," Gabrielle promised. Hercules gave a shaky laugh. This seemed to exhaust the conversational possibilities, so Gabrielle turned to watch the fight.
Xena and Iolaus were circling behind Dahak, keeping carefully out of the way of the crashing tail. Dahak ignored both of them, saving all his attention on Ares. Both were bleeding already, Dahak from a shallow cut on one neck, Ares from a gash on his left bicep. Neither one seemed particulary bothered by their injury. Dahak swiped one clawed hand at Ares's head. Ares ducked under the blow, and stabbed upwards at the same time, impaling Dahak's wrist. Dahak reared up off the ground, roaring in pain and rage. Ares was actually lifted off his feet for a second, before his weight drew the sword out of the wound.
Xena and Iolaus both picked that moment to dart forward and strike at Dahak's back. Their blades hit the black scales at the same time--and shattered as if they were glass.
Gabrielle was too far away to hear anything other than Dahak's furious roars, but she clearly saw Iolaus mouthing the words "oh, shit." Dahak's leftmost head spared them one quick look, and then the massive tail struck at them in a vicious arc. Iolaus ducked and rolled under it, Xena leaped over, and both wound up on their feet again, having traded places in the process.
Xena tore the chakram from her belt and threw it. The ring flashed through the air, and buried itself in Dahak's back, just below the point where the three necks joined the body. That got his attention. He arched backwards, thrashing his tail, and Ares took the opportunity to slash at the serpent-god's exposed belly. The sword sank in nearly to the hilt, and Gabrielle could see the muscles in Ares's arms bunching with the effort as he tore the blade free. It took him just a moment too long--he was in the process of jumping back when Dahak's claws caught his leg, ripping four jagged gashes from hip to knee. Ares staggered, but kept his footing and backpedalled out of reach.
There was a crash, and a strangled cry. Gabrielle turned just in time to see Iolaus fly through the air and land in a heap near the edge of a nearby crevice. The rock crumbled where he hit, and Gabrielle rushed forward just in time to keep him from going over the edge into the flames.
"Thanks," he gasped once they were both on solid ground. "Didn't duck fast enough this time."
"Are you all right?"
"Not particularly, no. You had to say break a leg, didn't you..."
His left ankle was twisted at an angle that human ankles just weren't meant to assume. Gabrielle gulped.
She helped him hobble over to the spot where Hercules was sitting, and supported him as he sat down. Hercules gave him an exasperated look.
"I told you to be careful. You never listen to me."
"Yeah, yeah. Lecture me later."
Xena was still circling behind Dahak, but she was unarmed, and Gabrielle knew she was there only because she was constitutionally incapable of waiting on the sidelines. It was Ares's battle now.
And Ares, she realized with a sinking feeling, was getting the worst of it. Dahak was just too damn big, nothing they had done had really hurt him. Even the belly wound Ares had inflicted was just a scratch on that vast bulk. On the other hand, even a glancing blow from those claws could do major damage to Ares.
All three heads struck at Ares at once. Ares flung himself backwards, flipped over in the air, and came down on his feet. His injured leg seemed to give a little as he landed, but he recovered so fast, Gabrielle couldn't be sure if she just imagined it. Ares formed a swirling ball of flame in his left hand, and threw it. Dahak dissipated it with a breath.
Another attack, another last-minute evasion. Ares was limping visibly now, and leaving bloody footprints on the ground. Why didn't he heal that leg, Gabrielle wondered. Dahak was healing his own wounds, he was hardly bleeding at all now. He snapped his tail like a whip, sending shards of rock flying in all directions from the spot where Ares had been standing less than a second ago. One black sliver struck Ares in the shoulder, another grazed his shoulder. He staggered slightly, and shifted to a two-handed grip on his sword.
Xena's war cry rang in the air, rising above the noise of the fight, and Gabrielle automatically whirled in the direction of the sound. Xena had backed off to nearly a hundred yards away, and was now sprinting forward, gathering speed as she went.
"What in Hades is she doing?" Iolaus muttered.
Gabrielle licked her lips. She had seen this before. "Getting a running start."
Two more steps, and Xena launched herself into the air like a missile, tucking her knees in as she sprang, flipping head-over-heels three times before landing on Dahak's scaly back. She was going after the chakram, Gabrielle realized, trying to retrieve the only weapon other than Ares's sword that had inflicted any damage in this battle.
She almost made it, too. Her fingers clutched air only inches below the metal ring jutting out of Dahak's back. But it was just a bit too high, and the scales below it were slick with blood, which kept her from climbing up after it. Xena tried anyway, because Xena always tried, but Dahak coiled beneath her and tossed her off with one great heave, like an angry horse throwing its rider.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shook off Iolaus's restraining hand, and rushed toward her friend.
Xena had managed to roll on the landing, but she was still visibly stunned by the impact. She blinked dazedly as Gabrielle bent over her.
"Damn," she muttered. "I was almost there."
"Almost a goner is what you were." Gabrielle helped her sit up. "Come on, let's go add you to the pile with the rest of the cripples."
"Don't write me off yet, Gabrielle. I'm going to try again." Xena started to stand, got about half-way up, and sat down again. "In a minute or so."
Except, as it turned out, they didn't have a minute.
* * * * *
It was time to face facts, Ares thought grimly as he narrowly avoided yet another swipe of Dahak's claws. And the fact was, he'd been as good as dead since the moment his leg was wounded. He had repaired as much damage as he could, knitting the broken bones and slowing the bleeding somewhat, but further healing would take more time and power than he could spare, under the circumstances. Every step he took sent a white-hot flare of pain all along his left side. Every move required a momentary inner struggle with the part of him that wanted to just lie down and surrender to the inevitable. He wasn't going to be able to keep this up much longer.
It didn't help that he wasn't at his full strength. The amount of power he could draw on was limited by Hercules's constitution, and powerful as the demigod was, it wasn't quite enough. It was a blessing, really, that he hadn't reached Evander in time. The baby wouldn't have lasted ten seconds as a conduit...
The cut on his forehead dripped blood into his eyes. Ares healed it with a thought. It was just a minor irritant, but he really didn't want to die blind. Plus, he needed to be able to see in order to do what he was about to do.
It was funny, in a way. Just a few minutes before, he was telling Xena that there was no difference between saving the world and saving himself. This would teach him to make rash pronouncements.
Dahak was coiling himself for another attack. Ares saw it, judged the direction it would take, and knew he could avoid it. He could probably drag this out for a few more minutes, he had that much left.
Or he could end this now, and take the scaly bastard with him.
Ares watched Dahak's hand heading toward him. Blood--his blood--dripped steaming from the claws. It seemed to move in slow motion. He had plenty of time to brace himself, to gather the power inside him, and to think of about ten thousand reasons why he didn't really want to do this, before it struck.
* * * * *
Hercules screamed and fell backwards, writhing on the ground. Lightning flickered around his left hand. Xena and Iolaus had to throw themselves on top of him to keep him from rolling into one of the nearby crevices, or banging his head open against the rocks.
"What's happening to him?" Iolaus yelled.
"I don't know." Xena looked around wildly, but Iolaus was blocking her view. "Ares must be doing something." She planted one elbow on Hercules's chest so that she could hold him down as she propped herself up for a better look at the fight.
She was just in time to see Ares drop to his knees. Blood streamed down the side of his face where Dahak had clawed him. He managed to hang on to his sword as he fell, but didn't seem to have the strength to lift it.
Xena started forward, but she was too far away, and there was nothing she could've done in any case. Dahak roared his triumph at the black sky, and buried his claws in Ares's chest, lifting the God of War into the air like a rag doll. Ares's head lolled back lifelessly. He's dead, Xena thought in blank disbelief.
And then the small glimmer of lightning around Hercules's hand flared upwards, and stretched through the air to join Ares and Hercules in a blinding blue arc of flame. Xena and Iolaus were both flung back by the force of it. And Ares lifted his sword stabbed downward, impaling Dahak's arm at the point where it joined the body.
Dahak writhed in pain, and tried to fling Ares's body away, but the sword held him anchored, and Ares, somehow, was still hanging on to the hilt. The lightning flared even brighter, surrounding both gods in a hissing sphere of blue flame. It became too painful to look at, and Xena lifted one hand to shield to shield her eyes.
When she could see again, neither Ares nor Dahak were there.
Xena, Iolaus and Gabrielle could only sit and stare. Hercules couldn't even do that. He lay with his eyes closed, and only the slow rise and fall of his chest indicated that he was still alive.
"What happened?" Gabrielle's voice rose in a squeak. "Where did they go?"
"I don't know." Xena kept expecting them to reappear any second, but there was only rock and sky, and Hope's broken body lying curled up in a pool of blood.
"Is Ares dead? He looked dead, but then he moved..."
"I don't know."
"If they don't come back, how do we get out of here?"
"I don't know!" There were far too many things she didn't know. Like, did the world just end? Or only their lives?
The ground beneath her went suddenly soft. Xena's hands sank right through the top layer, and kept right on going. She flung her limbs out, scrambling frantically for purchase, but there was nothing there, it didn't just crumble away, it disappeared, the whole world seemed to disappear, and she was falling into nothingness.
Voices were crying out, and she thought, but couldn't be sure, that one them was her own. She was falling through a swirling mist, but it didn't feel like fog, or like smoke, or like anything else. This was the aether, she realized, and Ares wasn't there to guide them through it, and they were going to fall forever. Or for whatever time the world had left.
Something closed around her, like an giant hand clasping her in invisible fingers. Xena struggled automatically, but found she couldn't move. She could sense the power in that insubstantial grip. It could crush her to a pulp, but it chose not to. That was a good sign, she supposed, but she would really feel better if she knew what had hold of her. And if she knew where the others were.
"Gabrielle?" she called out, and listened as the name echoed ever more faintly into infinity. There was no answer.
The mist thickened smothering her voice. It grew so dense, it felt almost solid. No, it was solid, she was sprawled face down on a smooth, flat surface, and it didn't feel like rock. Wood. It felt like wood. Xena opened her eyes--and when had she closed them, anyway?--and got an extreme close-up view of a polished oak floor. The boards were smooth, and remarkably close-fitted, and they felt warm against her cheek. A faint scent of lemon polish tickled her nose. Hardwood floors seemed like an unlikely thing to find on the Other Side, so Xena decided she wasn't dead. She sat up, wincing as the bruises she acquired when Dahak threw her sent little twinges up and down her back.
She was in a brightly lit, wood-panelled room she didn't recall ever seeing before. Actually, room seemed like an inadequate designation. The ceiling was so high she could hardly see it, and the walls sretched into distance, converging towards some faraway point she couldn't see. The walls were lined with shelves, and the shelves were piled with scrolls. That immediately made her think of Gabrielle, and Xena glanced around wildly.
Yes, Gabrielle was there, thank the gods, along with Iolaus and Hercules. All three were sitting up, looking as disheveled and confused as Xena felt.
"I'm getting really tired of asking this question," Gabrielle announced to no one in particular, "but once again I have to say, what happened?"
"Uhm... that, for starters." Iolaus raised a not-quite-steady hand to point at something behind and above Xena's left shoulder. She turned, and found herself face to snout with one of Dahak's heads.
Her immedeate instinct was to jump back and reach for a weapon, except that she didn't have one. Nor was there any need for one. The huge yellow eyes that stared back at Xena were totally lifeless. Still, Xena backed up slowly, cautiously. Just because one head was dead, didn't mean the other two were, did it? She wasn't really sure how these things worked.
She had to back up quite a ways before she could see the entire body. By then, she could also see the butt end of a spear protruding from his chest, still trembling slightly from the impact. The spear's angle told her the direction it must've come from, so she let her gaze follow the trajectory, looking for the source of the blow.
A tall, gray-eyed woman stood there, looking preternaturally calm despite the blood that spattered her flowing gown. She wore a brazen breast plate over the gown, and a crested helmet over her long dark hair. The combination should've looked ridiculous but somehow didn't.
"It's all right," the woman said evenly. "He's dead. I'm sure Hades is readying a particularly nasty corner of Tartarus even as we speak."
"Athena..." Gabrielle breathed.
That explained the room. Every god on Olympus had their own retreat, a place they created according to their nature. Ares had an armory. Athena had a library.
The goddess inclined her head. "Gabrielle. Iolaus, Xena... and Hercules." She smiled faintly. "It's good to see you again, brother. Though I wish it didn't take such... extreme circumstance to get you to visit the family."
"Nice to see you too, sis." Hercules muttered. His voice was still a bit faint, but he no longer seemed to be in pain. "In fact, I don't think I've ever been quite so glad to see you as I am right now. But how did we get here? And how did that get here?" He gestured toward Dahak's body.
"Ares brought him." Athena's voice cracked just a bit on her brother's name. She wasn't as calm as she appeared, after all. "He knew I have a spell on this room to alert me whenever someone drops in uninvited. I arrived just in time to kill that... that thing, before he could transport back to his own Realm. Once he was dead, the Realm dissolved. I sensed the four of you floating in the aether, and brought you in."
And that, Xena thought, answered every outstanding question except one.
Athena looked down. "Here."
Here was apparently on the other side of Dahak's corpse, so Xena fought down her distaste and clambered over it. Athena's side of the room, she noted, was a total mess. Dahak must've knocked over several rows of shelves in his death throes. Bits of parchment from spilled scrolls crunched under Xena's feet as she jumped to the floor on the other side. She kicked them aside, moved to stand next to Athena, and followed the direction of the goddess's gaze.
Ares lay still on his back in a dark pool of blood. More blood trickled from his leg, and bubbled in the gaping wound in his chest. The right side of his face was a battered ruin, scored by three deep, ragged claw marks that zigzagged across one eye and down his cheek. Xena had been somewhat prepared for it, having watched the battle, but the extent of the damage still made her feel ill.
"Is he dead?" How strange, to be asking that question. Even stranger, not to know what answer she wanted to hear.
Athena shook her head. "We can feel it when one of us dies. He's still here... barely."
"Will he recover, then?" That was Hercules asking. Xena hadn't even heard him approach. "I mean, now that he's back in Olympus, he's immortal again, right?"
"Immortal, yes." Athena hesitated. "And in theory, he should be able to draw on the power of Olympus to heal himself completely. But I can't sense him doing it. I think he might be too weak."
That made Xena feel even sicker. "You mean he might be stuck like this forever?"
"If it comes to that, we'll find a way to kill him." Athena knelt down, and brushed one hand against Ares's blood-soaked hair. "Hey, little brother," she whispered. "Turn my back on you for a minute, and this is the kind of trouble you get into..."
She slid her arms under Ares's body, and rose smoothly to her feet. Ares might've been weightless for all the effort she showed.
"I will take him to Apollo," she said. "He's a healer, he'll help." The unspoken or else hung ominously in the air, and Xena wondered what that was all about. "Wait here. I will return you to the mortal plane when I get back." And then she was gone.
A long, stunned silence descended on the room. Xena felt numb. Too many cosmic events in too short a time would have a tendency to make one numb, she supposed. Everyone else was looking equally dazed. Even Gabrielle, who normally would've given up a randomly selected body part for a chance to browse Athena's library, showed no interest in her surroundings. She simply stood there, staring blankly at the bloody spot where Ares had been a moment ago.
"He did it on purpose," she said finally.
"Huh?" Xena blinked at her. "Who did what on purpose."
"Ares. You and Iolaus were busy with Hercules, but I was watching the fight the whole time. He let himself get hit."
Hercules stared at her. "That's crazy. Why would Ares--"
"I know what I saw," Gabrielle insisted. "He saw it coming, and he braced himself, and he didn't move."
"I believe you," Xena said softly. It made sense. Ares had been losing the fight. This was the only sure way he could've gotten close enough to Dahak to transport them here.
Athena reappeared, alone. She must've cleaned up in transit, because the bloodstains were gone from her gown.
"Are you ready to go back to your world?" she asked. Her tone clearly implied that no would not be an acceptable answer. "Is there a particular place where you want me to put you?"
"There's an inn near Thessaly called The Olive Branch," Xena told her. "I left my horse stable there."
"I know the place." Athena raised one hand, then paused. "I know this seems like an abrupt dismissal. This isn't lack of gratitude, believe me. I'm... preoccupied right now, and so are the other gods. You will receive your thanks when things are a little less hectic."
Xena opened her mouth to say that she would be perfectly happy if she never saw another god for as long as she lived, thank you very much, when the now-familiar mist swirled around her again. When it disperesed, they were all standing in the common room at the Olive Branch again. It was a shock to see it looking exactly the same. Somehow, it seemed as if nothing should be the same.
"Ouch!" Iolaus hopped across the room on one foot and dropped into the nearest chair. "I should've asked her to heal my ankle before we left."
"I think she had other things on her mind," Xena said. "Here, let me take a look at it."
She tore a plank from the back of another chair to improvise a splint. It felt good to be doing something useful, after being reduced to watching from the sidelines while gods battled it out. The innkeeper and his wife crept out of the kitchen, timidly wanting to know if their strange guests needed more food or drink. No one was interested. Hercules and Iolaus asked for, and received, the room next door to the one Xena and Gabrielle had reserved the day before. It seemed like centuries ago.
"So what will we do now?" Gabrielle asked later, as they were undressing for bed in their room.
Xena yawned. "Sleep."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I mean, after tomorrow."
"We go on with our lives. That was the point of the whole exercise, wasn't it? To enable everyone to go on with their lives. If we get an early start tomorrow, we can reach Thessaly before the marketplace closes. I need a new sword. And--oh, shit!" She dropped on the bed, and banged her fist against the mattress.
"What?" Gabrielle stared at her, eyes wide with concern. "What's wrong now?"
"My chakram! I left it in Athena's library, still buried in Dahak's back."
"Oh... well, maybe if you call to her, or go to one of her temples..."
"I don't think now would be a good time. It doesn't matter."
"You could ask Hercules to get it back. After all, Athena's his sister, right? She would--"
"I said, it doesn't matter!"
"Okay, okay." Gabrielle's shoulders slumped a bit. "Just trying to be helpful. Don't get so uptight."
"I'm sorry." Xena sighed. "I'm still a little... tense, that's all. Let's get some sleep."
They went on with their lives.
It was disorienting at first, to find that as far the rest of the world was concerned, nothing had happened. Humanity scurried along on its daily business, blissfully unaware that it had just been saved from utter annihilation. It was probably just as well.
Gabrielle faithfully recorded her version of the events, using up nearly half a dozen scrolls in the process, but would not read them in public.
"Who would believe me?" She shrugged. "Besides, you know I'm no good at action scenes."
Ordinary folks did not suddenly turn into homicidal maniacs, so someone was performing the office of the God of War. Xena observed this fact silently, and promptly pushed it into a dusty little corner at the back of her mind, along with all the other things she didn't want to think about.
The weather grew steadily warmer, until even Gabrielle stopped complaining about sleeping outside, and started waxing poetic about starry skies, and the joys of the open road. You could mark a calendar, Xena thought wryly, by Gabrielle's opinion of camping.
Two weeks after they left Thessaly, Xena rose early, and tiptoed away from their campsite for a quick bath in a nearby stream. She left her clothes under an oak tree high on the bank, but lay her sword within easy reach on the rocks near the water's edge. Given a choice, it was always better to be caught naked than unarmed.
The water was cool, but not so cold as to be unpleasant, and the sun felt warm on her face. The air smelled of wildflowers and fresh grass. Xena finished washing her hair, put the soap down on a flat rock, and floated on her back, eyes closed, kicking her feet just enough to ensure that the sluggish current wouldn't carry her away downstream.
It was wonderfully relaxing, until the back of her neck suddenly crawled with a coldness that had nothing to do with the water, and everything to do with the familiar feeling of being snuck up on. Xena rose up out of the water, sputtering, and snatched up her sword from the rocks.
"Good morning, Xena," an oh-so-familiar voice purred. "At least I hope you're having a good morning. You've certainly made mine."
He stood half-hidden in the shadows of the oak tree on the bank, slouched against the trunk, arms folded across his chest. He was also between her and her clothes. Xena glared at him, considered her options, and sank into the water up to her shoulders. She wasn't embarrassed, but she saw no reason to give him a free peepshow, either.
"Ares. Back like a bad penny, I see."
"Oh, that's a fine way to greet your saviour. You could've at least let me enjoy the view a bit longer."
It was him, all right. Same as ever. Or maybe not quite the same... Xena moved forward a bit for a better look, to make sure the shadows weren't playing tricks on her vision.
"Come out into the light, Ares."
He shifted from foot to foot, but didn't move from his spot. "Why?"
"So I can see you. Fair's fair, after all."
He stepped forward with visible reluctance into a patch of sunlight. The shadows had not been playing tricks on her. There was a black silk patch over his right eye, and three livid scars marked his face from temple to chin.
"Well?" he growled at her. "Aren't you going to say something? Nice to see you, Ares? I'm so glad you're all right, Ares? You look dashing with the eyepatch, Ares?"
Xena's mouth curved into a reluctant half-smile. "You look dashing with the eyepatch, Ares."
He came down to the water's edge and sprawled on the grass. Aside from his face, he showed no sign of past injuries. "You don't have to be sarcastic about it."
"I'm not. Is it permanent?"
"No, it's the latest fashion on Olympus. Ever since Hephaestus married Aphrodite, scars have been all the rage. Of course it's permanent, don't ask stupid questions."
"I see it's improved your disposition."
"Oh, yeah. My depth perception is shot to Hades, I'm as clumsy with a sword as that idiot Joxer you keep hanging around with, and I keep thinking someone's sneaking up on me from the right. No wonder Odin's such a paranoid bastard."
She chuckled, though it really wasn't funny. "I understand Odin received great wisdom in exchange for his eye. Have you?"
He grimaced. "Definitely. Wisdom enough to never pull a stunt like that again. Next time, the universe can go hang for all I care. You and my idiot brother can have the heroics. No one appreciates them anyway."
"What, the other gods haven't been properly grateful?"
"Depends on how you define properly." He plucked a blade of grass with an absentminded sweep of his hand, and tore into progressively smaller bits as he spoke. "They've all sent gifts. Not just the other Olympians, but everyone. I'm going to have to add a wing to the fortress just to house all the junk they've dumped on me."
Xena's mind flashed on an image of Ares arranging little knicknacks on a shelf. She shook her head. The sun was getting to her, obviously.
"You don't sound too thrilled with it," she said.
"That's because it's all bullshit. Not a single one of them actually showed up in person. In fact, they've been avoiding me like the plague. Except Thor. Thor dragged me out to Asgard, poured mead down my throat until I couldn't see straight, and sent me home with a Valkyrie. I like Thor."
"I like clothes. Can I have mine, please?"
Ares did not appear to have heard the question. "I saved their pathetic necks, and all they want to do is hold grudges over past... misunderstandings. You have no idea how frustrating that is."
Xena just stared at him, until he had the grace to blush. "Okay, so maybe you do know. But then you, of all people, should be sympathetic, right?"
She didn't want to be sympathetic, not to Ares. He'd only use it against her, sooner or later. She didn't trust this self-pitying vulnerability of his anymore than she trusted any of his other moods. But he had been right, back then on the ship to Brittania. It had been simpler when she could just hate him.
"What do you expect me to say, Ares? All right, you saved the world. I'm impressed as all get-out. And I'm still not coming back to you."
"Yep." Ares proved that he could roll one eye just as expressively as two. "That's what I expect you to say."
"Why are you here, then?"
"Because. I've brought your favorite toy back."
She barely saw him move his arm, but suddenly the chakram was flying toward her. Xena plucked it out of the air about a foot in front of her face.
"You say that so graciously. I figured, since I gave it to you in the first place, it's only fitting I return it now."
"How about returning my clothes while you're at it?" She was beginning to get chilled. In another minute, she was going to come out of the water, clothes or no clothes. Let him stare.
"Oh, are these yours?" Ares looked down with a look of exaggerated surprise. "How silly of me not to notice."
He snatched her shift from the ground, wadded it up into a ball, and tossed it--about six feet to her left. Xena lunged after it, a second too late to prevent it from hitting the water.
"You bastard..." she whirled around to face him again, but he was gone. Wonderful.
She was standing on the grass, shivering in the wet shift, when Gabrielle stumbled sleepily into view.
"Xena? I thought I heard voices. Was that--"
"It certainly was. Build up the fire again, will you? I need to dry off."
"You know, you're supposed to take your clothes off before you bathe."
"Ha-ha. Come on, I haven't got all morning."
They climbed up the bank together, Gabrielle giggling, Xena shaking her head in exasperation. A low, mocking laugh rang faintly in her ears, but when she looked over her shoulder there was no one there.
Life was back to what passed for normal, apparently. Both for her, and for the God of War. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. It certainly wasn't going to become simple any time soon.
But at least it wasn't boring.
This story is an alternate take on the ending to the Dahak arc that has run through the 1997/98 seasons of Xena and Hercules, and takes place shortly after the Hercules episode "Armageddon Now." It continues in "Serpent's Shadow."
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