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The tower was night dark and stood on the edge of reality. It thrust it's blunt turret into a sky that bled violet and gray, that crackled here and there with thin fingers of electricity and rumbled with distant echo's of thunder. The land around it was barren, an endless expanse of rocky earth that sloped down from the summit the tower occupied in all directions. Only here and there did a sprig of grass dare to show it's face, or a scrawny scrub brush poke up from between the field of rocks. It was a highly defendable place in which to exist. High ground, and no hiding places anywhere below it. A fitting retreat for a god dedicated to war.
It was not quite within the realm of Olympus, and not quite apart from it. No mortal could reach it without godly help and no god, even Zeus himself, could pierce it's defenses without a great deal of effort and an even greater deal of aggression from the master of that tenebrous tower.
For all intents and purposes it was a retreat, for it's master was not always well appreciated within the pristine boundaries of Olympus proper, where the majority of his fellows kept their own formal dwellings. The right knife in the back, even for an immortal, could mean a abrupt end to the eternity they all might be expected to live.
At this particular time, it was more a retreat than ever, for the god of war had been harried and exhausted recently, to the point that his internal forces were not up to their usual standards. Ares had had a bad week. A bad several weeks if truth be know, cut off from the power and haven that Olympus and her bordering realms offered, battered and bruised by the maleficent forces of chaos, which no one god might ever have hoped to overcome and finally entrapped in an all encompassing spell of peace and serenity that had liked to driven him mad and had taken every ounce of power he possessed to break free off. He was in no wise up to taking on the sharp tongues and sharper manipulations of Zeus' court in Olympus. His antagonists there, namely Hera and Athena at the moment, could wait. They could stew and simmer and wonder what he was up to and listen to whatever tales Nike had to spin about just what had occurred in the mortal realm.
So he took to his tower and brooded. He let his wounds heal and regained his composure, paying little heed to the various worlds that revolved outside. The dark, lovely female creatures that glided about the tower serving his needs came and went in silence, no one of them gaining even a glance from their master's dark eyes. They were sycophants of a sort; would never even had existance save for his whimsy. He used them when he chose and banished them at just as regular an interval and created more. Now they were an encumbrance on his privacy and instinctively veered far from him unless directly summoned.
His present choice for sulking was the tower armory, where all of the weapons of war were displayed. His collection was abysmally fine. A virtual den of destructive power. Hephaistus himself did not possess such a deadly array, although a good number of the pieces present in the room had been made by the hand of that misshapen master of the forge. Hephaistus and Ares had had a thriving trade going on for a while, until that little misunderstanding over Aphrodite had caused the smith to turn deadly sour.
The sword had been his greatest work. It sat elegant and perfect in line in it's place of honor. The smith had given it his utmost effort in the forging. Ares had poured his will and power into the god worked metal. Maybe too much will and too much power, for the thing was linked so intimately with him and the Office now, that too permanent a separation was a cruel blow. That drawback irritated him to no ends and he often wondered if the Smith had secretly planned it to work out that way.
He reclined in a great, plush chair in the center of his deadly shrine, comfortable in a finely woven silken robe, a decanter of cool wine left by one of his servants on the floor by his side. Here above all other places he could feel the thread of battle as it unwound on mortal earth. He could concentrate and sense where the greatest conflict burned. If he wanted he could summon a view, in the great mirror like shield that dominated the left wall, of any given battle. Nothing of particular importance was occurring now. The powers that be in the mortal realm were still reeling from the tumult of Chaos's brief resurgence. There were skirmishes and raids and clashes of rival forces, but mostly it was in the aftermath of riot and natural destruction. Man's scavenger instincts coming into play, as he preyed upon the weak and the injured.
There was a rapid patter of feet across stone floor. A smooth furred head thrust itself under his dangling hand, and another came to rest upon his knee. Great brown eyes stared up at him adoringly, a lolling pink tongue drooped from the side of a ferociously toothed mouth. The pack leader and the eldest bitch of his dogs. Probably the only creatures alive that might so thoughtlessly intrude upon Ares' solitude without retribution. He scratched the bitch's head absently, and she twisted to lick his hand eagerly, ecstatically euphoric at his return. The whole of the pack roamed the barren lands about the tower, a deadly obstacle that any intruder in this, Ares' most private of places, would find hard to deal with.
They settled at his feet, mindful of his mood, and lay with only the occasional thump of tail on the floor, content to be in his presence.
He continued in his brooding until another presence, this one also subservient to him, but not nearly in so adoring a fashion as the hounds, materialized three feet in front of him. The dogs lifted their heads growling at the sudden intrusion. Ares half followed suit, pulling his lips back from his teeth in a snarl of displeasure. He was not in the mood for Stryfe.
Stryfe was narrow, raw boned, had the skin of a cavern dweller who had never seen the first ray of sun that was set off by spiky,midnight black hair and black leathers that covered him from the neck down. He was fairly hopping with excitement. His long arms were moving even before he opened his mouth.
"You're back! Why haven't you been to Olympus? Have you seen what's going on in the world, it's great? The mortals are loosing their minds. I can't remember when there've been so many skirmishes, murders, raids, attacks, clashes - - the list doesn't end. This is like the best time I've had in forever!"
"Is there something you wanted in particular?"
The warning note in Ares' tone went straight over Stryfe's head.
"Sure. Sure. Hera's all over this Chaos thing. Saying that the whole thing was your fault and all to begin with. Nike's been telling everybody how mortal magic put Chaos down, but I don't believe that. Athena's not saying much of anything. You really need to set everybody straight."
"I could really care less what they believe."
"No, no, no. Really. You should put in an appearance. Hermes is hosting a huge celebration party- -you know about the aether being open and Chaos being banished again and all."
"Go away, Stryfe. I'm not in the mood."
"Oh. Well I can see where you might not be in the partying frame of mind. How about a good battle? Enyo's in the middle of a nice little blood bath over in Eastern Thrace."
"She can deal with it."
"There looks to be a huge conflict brewing with the Hindus over in Drangiana. They're getting bold. There's a huge army heading west."
"Whatever. Deal with it."
"Me? Really? I can do whatever I want?"
Ares shrugged. Stryfe giggled.
"All right. I'm outta here, then. Oh, by the way, sorry about Cirico, he was the best in the stables."
Ares didn't even watch him dematerialize. He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair thoughtfully. He looked up at the mirror shield and willed an image. Thessaly. There were a hundred little flares of conflict. He narrowed the focus to the east and idly flipped through the images. A dozen minor warlords took advantage of the panic Chaos had left in his wake, attacking towns, settlements, travelers. Nothing truly worthy of His attentions.
But, then again . . . .
Through the aether. It might have been a thousand miles it might have been ten. The trip took less time than a handful of drawn breathes, accomplished at a whim, but then gods preformed miracles out of hand oft times for no other reason than mere whimsy.
Mortal man, in all his vast ignorance of the way things really were, in all his beliefs and religious fervor, was firmly rooted in the assumption that the gods had reasons and deep motivations for all the strange and wonderful works they practiced, when in fact a great deal of those works were spur of the moment and involved no forethought whatsoever. The gods as a whole, with a few notable exceptions, were a flighty bunch, and much given to self indulgence.
Ares had never considered himself flighty, although he was certainly convinced that quite a few of his blood relatives had caused the creation of the word, but he had to admit that he had never been one not to practice in self indulgence. Being worshipped as a god and having no higher deity in which to devote one's own reverence did tend to over inflate the estimation of one's own worth.
It was more to appeal his sense of indulgence towards self than any outright act of charity that he stepped out of the aether and onto a storm wrecked field some ten miles from Mount Pelion on the eastern coast of Thessaly. Not too long ago he had been in this exact spot, although it had been snow covered and occupied by the worst threat this mortal realm or the Olympian one had ever known. The ravages of that encounter still scarred the land. The earth was pitted and bare of grass, several man wide trenches gouged the earth where chaos created twisters had formed out of still air. The rubble of a rustic temple to Hera were flung far and wide. He trailed about the border of the small wood that backed the spot the temple had stood, casting senses in a general sweep of the area, looking for traces of a particular something.
There was nothing here worth his notice, nothing but wood life, flittering birds, an old peasant woman at the outer edge of the wood gathering herbs.
He faded into the aether and out of it again five hundred yards distant, in waist high grass behind the aged woman. She was on her knees at the edge of the clump of trees, picking mushrooms that had survived the frost.
"Old woman." He made no preamble, she being so far below his usual associations. She let out a little gasp and twisted, falling back on her hands, staring up at him in abject horror. He was in no mood for blathering fear, and waved a hand shortly at her to indicate he was not about to separate her head from her scrawny shoulders.
"Stop your cowering, I've just a question to ask."
She pulled a canvas bag a quarter full of fungus to her chest and stared at him suspiciously. She might have been any old woman in Greece from the look of her. Starved, dirty, uneducated and superstitious. There were a million like her and old women were not a class that the god of war had much traffic with. There were very few of them on the battle field and even fewer that preyed to his office. It was something of a surprise when this one widened her eyes and crowed in much the same shrill tone a warbling rooster might employ to wake it's masters.
"Caww, I know you, I do!" She scrambled awkwardly to her knees and peered closer at him. He lifted a brow condescendingly, giving her a look he might any madman that happened to darken his path.
"Of course you do." he tried to brush off the fact that she wasn't cowering or looking particularly awed, and get to the reason he'd bothered to approach her at all. "You live around here?"
"Course I do. In the town maybe an hours walk south. Don't remember me, do ya? But I recall you. Stayed in my place almost a moon past and chased off the bandits. You and that warrior woman."
He didn't recall the woman, that type of detail he didn't bother to retain, but he remembered the incident. The fact that the woman recalled him made the question he had all the easier.
"Do you remember the horse the woman rode? Gold hide, cream mane? Mare? Have you see her?"
The woman snorted. "There isn't an animal not wild within twenty leagues of here that hasn't been slaughtered or taken by the bandits. Out in force they are, after all the madness with the season and the storms. We can't even prey proper to Hera for succor, what with her temple gone to bits and pieces."
"Give me names. What bandit chieftains, what warlords passed this way."
She tilted her head, crinkling one eye at him dubiously. "Lady lost her horse, huh? Maybe it'd be easier just to get her some nice jewelry or some flowers to make it up?"
"She's not much for jewelry or flowers. The names."
"It's your head."
She reeled off a half dozen names of petty warlords, bandits and general trouble makers that had made the area a practice in misery since the downfall of Chaos. Ares was vaguely familiar with most of them, warlords being more his forte than old women. It was just a matter of going back to his tower and checking with the magic shield on the locations, and then making a trip to whatever spot that particular band was plaguing at the moment.
Vitalis of Abdera was in Macedon, half way up the Haliacmon river, hitting the towns and villages along the banks. That hefty war band had a good deal of horse to it's name, but none of them the one he wanted. Tiberus the foul, a viscous, scar faced mercenary that had fought under Ares' flag on more than one occasion, was in Aetolia, holding the city of Thermum under siege.
Ares drifted through the ranks invisible to mortal eye, half his attention on looking for a particular golden hide, the other half estimating that the flimsy walls of Thermum might hold up another day or two under Vitalis' forces before they crumbled. They were already contemplating building better walls and digging deeper wells inside those self same walls, having been little prepared for attack.
He was in the middle of the picket line, surrounded by several dozen shaggy, smallish horses, watching the defenders on the wall rain arrows down upon a group of attackers that had dared skirt into range. Shields went up and arrows thunked into hide covered wood. The jeering shouts of the attackers could be heard as they waved arrow studded shields.
Stryfe appeared beside him, shifting his weight from foot to foot, very obviously agitated over something.
"Unc, I've got a problem with the Drangiana thing."
"I'm busy, don't bother me."
"But - - - "
"What? Do I have to do everything? Are you totally incompetent? Deal with it. Use your imagination."
"But - - -"
"Scram. You're bothering me."
Stryfe opened his mouth, closed it, wrung his pale hands, then finally lifted his chin in determination and nodded his head, as if having won an argument with himself. He disappeared and Ares went back to watching arrows and counting horses.
By the time he'd tracked down the fifth name the old woman had given him, he was bored and frustrated. The damn horse could be dead for all he knew and he knew exactly who would be blamed if that was the case. Not that he wasn't to blame for a dozen other things, figuratively or literally as far as she was concerned, anyway. It was just that he felt responsible for this one, and he hated to feel beholden to anyone or anything. But mostly she'd asked it of him, with that tone and look she got that implied that she knew there wasn't a chance in hades of him coming through with the goods. That irked.
So here he was ignoring the really important conflicts occurring around the world, leaving those to his underlings, which were not always the most reliable when it came down to critical decisions, looking for a horse. He was starting to feel ridiculous and silly and it was getting on his nerves. It took him a day to track down the last name on the list. A bandit lord that was obviously lying low, the shield had a hard time finding him since there was no current conflict or battle involved. Finally not a day's ride from Mount Pelion deep within the eastern range, the twenty odd man band of thieves was found. They were living it up, having recently raided a rich merchant. His ware had been mostly foodstuff and wine, the remnants of which were scattered about the mountain clearing the bandits had chosen for their layup.
Ares drifted on the verge the inbetween and reality, looking for the picket, finding it within the shade of forest and discovering immediately a bright golden coat amongst a darker array.
Success flooded through him. He might have won a battle and felt as much fervor for the victory. He approached her and she tossed her head, laying back her ears, sensing his presence even though he did not stand fully in her reality. Wonderful, the horse had a disliking for him. Figured. Her coat was dirty and mud caked, no one having taken a curry to her since she'd been lost most likely. The bridle was still about her head, but her back was bare. The gear was in a pile beyond the picket, and damned if he was going to pick through it looking for a particular saddle. He walked back to the camp fire and the circle of thieves about it and stepped out of the aether and into reality.
It took a moment for them to realize there was a stranger in their midst, so stuffed and besotted with stolen wine were they. Then one saw him and the cry went up. Hands fumbled for weapons, and bodies staggered to their feet. He was gracious enough to wait for them all to gain their feet before inclining his head marginally, gathering a smattering of stray power and unleashing it upon them. Every one of them was yanked off their feet and hurled backwards, crashing up against twenty separate trees and sticking there, pinned to the bark as if the trees had suddenly sprouted fleshed and clothes fungi. He looked around at twenty horrified, stunned faces, not even bothering to look anything other than sinister.
"I'm feeling very generous. Most mortals who draw steel on me don't live long enough for blade to clear sheath."
Quite a few mouths opened to no doubt beg apology and he waved a hand to cut it off. Singling out one pudgy, red faced bandit, he released the man from his tree. His chosen victim stumbled to his knees and stayed there, shaking. "Go find the saddle that belongs on the golden horse."
The man scampered off to do his bidding. He turned to survey the rest of the horrified faces. Every eye was understandably fixed on him.
"This is your home base, so you must do most of your raids in the area. There's a village not far from here, near where the temple of Hera used to be. It's under my protection. Leave it be and spread the word that any who endanger it risk My wrath."
"Wh-who're you, lord?" Someone stammered.
"Ares." he smiled cruelly, then glanced over one shoulder as the bandit he'd sent to saddle Argo came forward leading the horse. He thought the saddle was the right one. But it was minus saddle bags. He fixed the sweating man at Argo's head with his darkest glare. "Where are the saddlebags?"
"I- I dunno. Nothin' in 'em but scrolls and writing stuff, a few trail goods and some blankets."
"I didn't ask for a list of the items. Find it."
The man blanched, stumbled a step or two backwards then ran for the ravaged wagon that had contained the bandit's most recent haul. After a good deal of tossing things about, the man came out with a weathered set of travel bags clutched in his hands. He ran over with very much the same expression one of Ares' hounds might have when retrieving slain game. He gestured with a movement of his head towards the horse, and the man scurried over to tie them onto the saddle.
He was pleased. With no small bit of anticipation, he was looking forward to the reaction he might evoke upon the receipt of this selfless act. It was not a minor thing, a selfless act from the god of war and one might expect in return a great deal of gratitude. Of course, she was not a normal mortal and did not always react in a predictable fashion. He had to assume if he got a nod of thanks it would be a great capitulation on her part. He was not a fool to expect more.
There was a disturbance in the aether, as though some very disorganized being were struggling through it's insubstantial fabric. Stryfe stumbled into Ares' presence, half submerged in the inbetween and invisible to the mortals in the thieves den. He looked, it were possible, more scattered and windblown that normal. There was a great smear of blood across his face and a good deal of it in the spiky tumult of his hair.
"What happened to you?" One had to admit to surprise when seeing a god so appallingly blood spattered.
"You have got to come to Drangiana. This is not fun anymore. " His hands were agitated blurs of motion. He could hardly stand still at the most passive of times, he was practically shivering all over in his state of panic.
"What have you done?"
"I tried to get you to come, but noooo, you were busy. I went and got Enyo and she made matters worse. He's really pissed off and he's defying all the laws and getting right out in the mortal field of battle and we're having a really hard time holding him back."
"Some uppity, crazy foreign deity. He's mad. Frothing at the mouth, red eyed, blathering insane, mad. How was I supposed to know the twit meant anything to him?"
Ares took a calming breath, curled his lip in agitation over the fact that he didn't see any way of getting out of going and seeing what Stryfe had managed to stir up. And Enyo. Stryfe and Enyo together could make for a gruesome bloodbath, neither one of them having as much respect for the contest of battle itself as for the mere sport of spilling blood. Fine. A quick trip to Drangiana to fix whatever his two subordinates had made a mess of then find Xena.
Argo had no liking for the aether. She tossed her golden head, laid her ears flat and bared large white teeth at the god holding her reins when they emerged into pseudo reality again. Standing on the fringe of inbetween was somewhat better than the formless non reality of the aether proper. One could see and smell and even feel the earth under one's feet, but could not be seen by any of the reality rooted creatures that walked the mortal realm. She let out a shrill scream and pulled at the reins when a boy running an errand blindly ran through her ghost like body without blinking an eye.
Ares dropped the reins, and stepped forward to survey a field littered with bodies. They had stepped out of the aether in the middle of a flat plain where only a few dozen men still skirmished. The majority of both armies had retreated from battle and gathered almost a half league apart, mere dark lines in the distance. It was all flatlands to the west, where the Grecian army made camp, and to the east beyond the Hindu forces the vague purple outline of mountains could be seen below a sky who's sunset was a seeping, blood red. He could feel the spent power in the air. Gods had battled and recently. He could feel it in the earth, in the small tremors that still ravaged her as she rebelled against the magic that had been used on her in an effort to destroy man. The hundreds of bodies that littered the crimson stained grasses had not all been slain by mortal methods. A supernatural hand had been used against a good deal of them. It was forbidden for a god to fight in a mortal battle. It was Zeus' law and Chronus' law before him and as far as Ares knew every other minor deity, even the strange foreign ones who had to traffic with the denizens of Olympus were bound by the same rule. Of course it could be bypassed and gotten around, he had done it enough times himself to know, but subtly was the key to getting away with it. Not outright slaughter. Who ever had wasted his power on this field had made no bones about the fact.
He stood staring eastward, while Stryfe shifted and babbled under his breath behind him, trying to get a fix on whatever force the Hindu's had protecting them. It was shielding, to a degree, which was understandable, since both Stryfe and Enyo had been opposing it. Perfectly reasonably that it be on it's guard against two godly opponents. He could get a sense of something, though. A great simmering cloud of discontent. Of bitter rage. Of - - grief? Powerful. Not a minor force. Not a familiar one.
"Okay. What exactly have you been up to?"
Stryfe shifted guilty eyes back to the line of Greek forces, scratched a bit of flaking blood on his cheek and whined. "Well it seemed like a cool idea at the time."
There might have been five hundred men mulling about on the western side of the blood slick plain. There were maybe three, four dozen tents sit up and three times that many fires around which, tired, hollow eyed men huddled. They had been full of adventure and the lust for riches when they sat out on the road that Alexander had forged, storming through the eastern kingdoms of Susiana and Persia and on towards India herself, pillaging and raiding whatever district that might fall under their might. It was only when they veered from Alexander's route and moved into Drangiana after rumors of riches to be had there, that they had run afoul of trouble.
An army easily the size of their own that was on the move from the north, also heading towards India and the lands that had never fallen under Alexander's dominion. That was when their warlord, Nicocles had decided to test the might of his men against the heathen Hindus. That was when Stryfe had started whispering in his ear words of baleful advice.
Stryfe led Ares to the largest of the tents, past sentries blind to their presence. The interior was dim and stale, reeking of the smell of sweat mixed with blood. One brazier cast a weak glow about the interior. There were pieces of armor spread here and there, the remnants of a half eaten meal, unrolled maps and lying sprawling on a thin layer of blankets the half naked body of a young woman. Black hair spilled about face and shoulders, as fine and shining as spun silk. Skin the color of sun baked wheat and the texture of the newest of infant's covered what was at first glance a superb body. Black lashes lay upon soft rounded cheeks and a single red circle decorated the girl's perfect forehead, painted or tattooed on her skin. Lovely creature, until one's attention roamed past the exposed breasts to the jagged, deep wound in her stomach. It had stopped bleeding some time ago, from the look at it, drying up eventually once the heart had stopped pumping vital blood.
Ares looked to Stryfe and lifted a brow in question. His nephew shifted a little and blurted.
"I thought it would be cool to have Nicocles kidnap her. They were protecting her like she was the rarest of treasures, so I thought 'hey, it'd really piss them off if she was taken.' So, I sorta suggested it to Nicocles and he snuck in yesterday morning before they'd woke up and snatched her."
"Obviously it worked. Pissing them off?"
"Oh, yeah, it worked great. They just about lost their minds. Went totally berserk. Nicocles lost maybe two hundred men. It was a great slaughter. After they backed off a little, he came charging back here, just a little bent out of shape and took it out on the girl there. You know, rape, murder, the usual thing. It was about then that this other force came storming up from out of nowhere and starts cheating big time. Hits the forefront of Nicocles forces and just starts chopping away at mortals right and left. There's bits and pieces all over. Arms, legs, fingers, toes, ears, noses - - -"
"I get the idea. What did you do?"
"Well, first off I tried to get you to help, but noooo, you were checking out half the horses in Greece. Then I went and found Enyo and together she and I managed to force him back, but he was ranting and raving so much that I couldn't make much out of what he was angry over. It's sort of been a stalemate all day. But I think something's gonna break soon."
"Oh, I don't know. Probably hanging around the wounded, you know how she likes fresh spilled blood."
Ares drummed his fingers on the hilt of his sword, calculating how long it would take to solve this little problem and get the battle on track so he could get on with what he really wanted to do. Confront this foreign upstart, who was obviously young and obviously not up on the rules of combat when dealing with mortals, for a start.
"Watch the horse." he directed Stryfe and stepped deeper into the aether. He stepped out again within the front lines of the opposing force. A flood of dark skinned, dark eyed, slightly exotic looking men swirled around him. The faces of Nicocles' soldiers had been tired and somewhat stunned. These men were hard eyed and indignant with righteous ire. It was a bad sign for the western warlord. An army that had righteous indignation on it's side was an army to be reckoned with.
In the midst of the enemy he focused on the power that fueled their religious fervor and found it skirting here and there about the front lines, screaming to the heavens in a booming voice filled with rage and anguish.
He was not a pretty sight, this foreign godling, who rampaged through the aether. Four arms sprouted from an overly tall torso, two of which brandished blades. The body was gleaming bronze, sporting only an elaborate loincloth to cover nakedness. The head, which sprouted from bull like neck was a hideous collection of features that had been mashed together to create an angry visage, which in itself might not have been appalling save for the fact that a third baleful eye gleamed forth unshed energy in the center of the broad forehead. He'd seen these eastern gods before, these deities of the Vedas, and a good many of them sported an unusual number of limbs.
Ares strode through a clump of Indian horsemen, towards the raging four armed figure. The frenetic motion stopped. The glowing eyes fixed on him as the one thing that did not belong on this side of the battlefield. The wide twisted mouth pulled back in a snarl, revealing sharp yellowed teeth and a howl, to end all howls broke through the aether. The cry drifted even onto the mortal realm, for the men existing around them paused in their motions and cast wary, frightened glances about themselves.
"Murderers! Defilers!" A sword was thrust at Ares, who stopped some five feet from the strange deity. He crossed his arms and lifted a calm brow at the turbulent creature.
"Now that would be a matter of opinion. This is a field of war, after all. War breeds casualties."
"Are you the master of those dogs that seek to defy my wrath?" The other sword arm slashed the air. "Send those to me that took my promised and I will practice a thousand deaths upon them."
"Ahh, I don't think so. You seem to have trouble playing with others, so let me phrase this so even you can understand. . . . you're messing with a mortal battle in a manner that's forbidden. The same rules we follow- - you follow. Stay out of it physically or suffer the consequences."
The godling threw back his head and screamed. He was a very loud being with a very unreasonable demeanor. There was a discordant look in his red eyes that reminded Ares of Chaos. It was an uneasy connection.
"Shiva follows the rules of no one. God or mortal. She promised to me in flesh and prophesy has been defiled. Touched by the hand of man before she came to me. Those responsible will pay."
The murder played second best to the rape. Wonderfully sentimental, this Shiva. Ares shrugged. "You were warned."
"I hear your warning," Shiva cried. "And respond with this."
He drew in a enough air to actually stir Ares hair, turning an alarming shade of purple in the process. All three of his eyes bugged and with a explosive bellow of released breath a great shimmering creature shimmered into existence above him.
It unfurled newly created wings and hovered for a moment over Shiva's head, twisting it's sinewy neck to survey the scattering creatures below it. Ares stepped back to get a better look, impressed at the relative ease with which Shiva had pulled the thing out of the aether. It was a good twelve horse lengths long, covered with glittering red scales over a long, snake like body. A triangular shaped head was capped by a hard ridge of bone that continued down the spine of the thing to the very tip of a thrashing tail. It was very obviously visible to the mortals, for the Hindu army was clearing rapidly from the area it occupied.
Shiva lifted one thick arm and gestured to the line of Greeks across the battlefield. The great head twitched in that direction, then with a heavy flapping of transparent wings it took off across the field. Shiva turned his hideous face back to Ares and grinned. "Let the Greeks rest in the belly of that."
"You wish." He stepped into the aether and out of it across the field. Stryfe was still there, holding onto Argo's reins. Enyo had joined him, blood covered as always and armed to the teeth. They both stared at the apparition that flew in a weaving, side winding pattern across the land towards the Greeks. Nicocles' men had seen it as well, for a great tumult rose up in the forces. Men cried out to their patron gods for protection. Swords were drawn by the brave, and the not so brave retreated in panic. Arrows arched upwards and rebounded off of scales, throwing up sparks in the process.
"He sends creatures of magic at us." Enyo hissed, white teeth showing in a grin through lips stained red with blood.
"Uhh, it looks sorta big." Stryfe observed.
"It is." Ares waited until the thing was close enough to see individual scales before drawing his sword. He heard Enyo draw breath in anticipation behind him. Stryfe stepped back nervously, more one for instigating trouble than actually participating in it.
The dragon opened it's mouth and venom shot out, spraying the men in the front lines. Screams rose up as flesh was seared from the bone, then bone itself was charred and eaten away. Ares struck as it passed by over head, swinging his sword in an arc over his head. The blade sliced through scales and flesh as if passing through water. The head separated neatly from the body, which continued to fly on for a good two dozen feet before faltering and crashing to the ground. Men scattered, to avoid the thing. The head dropped just beyond the gods spewing blood that washed not only objects in the mortal realm but those within the aether as well. Enyo laughed uproariously, throwing her head back at the spray. Stryfe just stood there, holding the horse, looking miserable and blood splattered. The horse's golden hide turned suddenly rust colored. Ares had the forethought to put up a shield, not in the mood to bathe in the life's blood of Shiva's creature.
One could hear the bellows of frustrated rage from across the field.
"So, what's his problem, boss?" Enyo rubbed fresh blood between thumb and forefinger, luxuriating in the feel. Her hair dripped with it. There was no time in memory, which was saying a lot for a god, that Ares could recall not seeing her covered in blood. She was the most loyal of his subordinates, and the most blood thirsty, but honestly he did not find her prolonged companionship a thing to be desired.
"The girl in Nicocles' tent used to be his betrothed. He's a little ticked off."
"Blood's blood." Enyo shrugged.
"It's not so much the murder as the rape."
She lifted a stained brow and frowned. "Chauvinist bastard." she hissed before fading into the aether, no doubt to find the freshest scene of bloodshed.
He went back to Nicocles tent, just to see one more time the girl that had this Shiva so upset. Pretty girl, but not immortally so. It might just take the decimation of Nicocles and his army to salve the wounded honor of the raging god.
"Sooo," Stryfe paced behind Ares, casting looks now and then at the murdered girl. "You think maybe having her taken wasn't such a good idea?"
Ares tossed him a dark, disgusted glare. "You think?"
"She's not all that much." Stryfe stepped closer to the pallet, looking down at the corpse.
"He seems to think differently." Ares crouched next to the body, wondering if the return of this bloodless carcass would throw more fuel on the fire or temporarily quench it. If this was a princess of high standing, the Hindu's might take time to honor the body and give Nicocles' time to buffer the flagging spirits of his men. "I think we'll take her back to him."
Stryfe started to ask why, then froze blinking. The girl had opened her eyes. She was staring up at them with wide brown orbs that radiated some bit of concern. She sat up without a grunt, groan or any other strain that might result in having been brutally gut stabbed. Stryfe let out a little yelp and jumped backwards. Ares had to admit to no small amount of surprise on his own part, for not only did she seem fully alive, but she was looking directly at him and seeing him with no difficulty when he was still firmly rooted in the inbetween.
"I am not going back to him." The words were firm and clear and edged with a good deal of petulant superiority. "You can just forget that right now. I did not go through all this just to go back to being Shiva's betrothed."
Quite truthfully, Ares was at a loss for words. It was not an occurrence that happened to him frequently. It took him a good moment to gather his wits and by that time the girl had climbed gracefully to her feet and was staring around the tent. She fixed Stryfe with one brief, baleful glare before placing small fists on shapely hips and declaring.
"This was interesting. Being murdered was different- - sort of neat, but I'm not sure I liked the defilement. He was really kind of a ugly guy. He had hair on his back. Yuck. But I guess it was okay if it gets me out of the betrothal. An unpure bride is no bride for a god, right?" She cast a hopeful look at Ares.
"Dare I ask what you are?"
"Dare I ask the same?" she smiled at him, showing dimples. The rip in the flesh of her stomach was slowly pulling together. Without modesty at all she set about adjusting the torn folds of her dress.
"We asked you first." Stryfe recovered enough to jump in, trying to look disdainful. She wrinkled her nose at him with a look that clearly told just what she thought of him.
"You're an irritant. A skinny boy. Go away and leave me alone." She lifted her nose at him, then glanced back to Ares, and the look changed. She fluttered her lashes and smiled. "I'm Kali and I'd be really, really happy if I never ever saw Shiva again. He's a big thoughtless brute and I don't want anything to do with being his consort."
"Girl, I could truly care less. What I do care about is that he's over there joining in on this mortal battle and that's against the rules."
"The rules set up by the first gods."
"Oh, all those western gods. You're one of them. You know we're really far away from all that. We're almost in mother India."
"It doesn't matter where we are. That's just how things are."
"Oh, whatever. Who're you again?"
"He's Ares. God of War." Stryfe shot at her. "And you'd better listen to him."
Kali sighed, ignoring Stryfe. "Oh, I'm listening. You have such a commanding voice. Are you a terribly powerful god?"
Ares took a deep breath, fighting for patience. The twit had stepped closer and had that infatuated, on the prowl look in her eyes. He really didn't have the time for this.
Light pierced the gloom of the tent as the flap was throw back. A man in dusty leather armor stalked in. Grizzled face, long, unkept braided hair. A large man, and vain by the look of the gold beads woven into his braids and the jewelry studding his lobes. He came in with the stride of man on the verge of a frustrated rage and faltered in his step, his eyes fixing on the very animated Indian princess standing in the center of his tent to the blood stained pallet where her lifeless corpse should have been lying. His mouth dropped open in shock. His hand went to the hilt of the sword at his side.
Kali lifted a brow and remarked to the occupants of the tent that the mortal warlord could not see. "That's him. The hairy buffoon who defiled me. He smells of vermin."
One had to agree on the smell thing. Nicocles brought with him a wafting aroma of putrid, unwashed things.
"Demoness!" the warlord screamed. He rushed at her blade drawn back for a killing swipe. She shifted, catching his wrist with one small, delicate hand. With a flick the bulky warlord was flung backwards into the forms of the men who spilled into the tent at his cry.
"Kill her." he shrieked, untangling himself from his guards. The group of them came at her warily, brandishing blades.
Ares crossed his arms and watched, curious as to what this obviously more than mortal woman would do. A man jumped at her, trying to drive a dagger home. She knocked him aside, but took a blow from a second that knocked her from her feet. She spun and hit the floor, head bowed, hair a fall of black that concealed her face. A low, guttural growl whispered forth from beneath that silky veil, and when she turned her head to look back up at her attackers, her eyes had gone from brown to glowing, baleful embers of red. There was the ripping of cloth as two appendages sprouted forth from just below her ribcage, rapidly becoming another set of arms. She rose and made a gesture with her upper right hand, then screamed set into the soldiers crowding the tent. A sword was wrenched from the hand of the closest and with it she swung about, hacking and slashing at vulnerable mortal flesh. Blood flowed in abundance. Nicocles, being by far the craftiest of his lot, stayed to the rear and managed, when every other living mortal in the tent was butchered, to escape, screaming warnings, into the outside camp.
Kali stood there panting, holding a sword in one hand, a dagger in another and a severed head in a third. Ares had to admit to being impressed by her utter savagery. It was unexpected and a little bit disconcerting, considering her first impression.
She lowered the sword and tilted her head to catch his gaze. Her tongue was protruding just a tad from her exertion. She pulled it in and smiled coyly at him. "The whole defilement thing was a one shot deal. I needed it to get out of marrying Shiva. I couldn't have that mortal vermin touching me again. He's so far below me. I need someone of my own station." She batted her lashes and giggled, which was enough of a contradiction, considering the weapons and the severed head she was gripping to make even Ares stare at her a moment in wide eyed shock. Stryfe's mouth hadn't been closed since she'd sprouted the extra arms.
"You know, I've never been to Olympus. I hear it's very nice. Do you have a palace there? I'm sure you have many."
"Stryfe!" Ares whirled on his nephew, jabbing an arm towards the east. "Go over there and tell that jabbering maniac that his lovely bride is alive and well and too get his immortal self off this battlefield before I loose my patience entirely and force him off."
"Oooohh, could you do that?" Kali dropped the head and one of the blades, pacing up to Ares with three waving arms.
"But," Stryfe complained. "Why do I have to tell him?"
"Don't give me grief, Stryfe. Go."
"Do I get to be a hostage?" she held out two of her four arms, wrists together. "You can tie me up, if you like."
He looked at her, opened his mouth, then shut it with a snap and a grinding of teeth. "What I would like, is for you to go back to where you belong, so these mortals can get on with this skirmish."
She pouted and retrieved the arms, crossing both pairs over her chest and upper stomach. "I'm not and you can't make me." She thrust out her chin and gave him a 'I dare you to try', glare.
"I don't care what you do. Stay here if you want. I've got better things to do." He turned on his heel and left her, striding through the wall of the tent to where Argo still stood, rooted in the inbetween. Kali followed, now fully immersing herself in the aether and passing the unseeing eyes of the reinforcements that Nicocles had brought back to his tent.
"Where are you going?"
"Not your business." He caught Argo's bridle. "Go back to your betrothed." He stepped deeper into the aether and she faded from sight.
As taverns went, the Lady's Bounty was one of the finest in Greece. It was located on the central avenue of the budding city of Pydna along the Aegean coast of Macedon. A temple to Aphrodite flanked it on one side, and a newer, whiter shrine to Zeus himself was being constructed on the facing street. It was a bright city, with wide roads, stone houses and flower boxes overflowing with ivy and greens. The blooms had not yet come back to the land, after the misplaced winter that had covered all of the known world. The crops were struggling, a total loss in some provinces, salvageable in eastern Macedon, which was why Pydna and her sister cities along the coastal trade routes were still able to offer travelers the bounty of her wealth. Her walls were high and a fine, well armed legion patrolled her territories.
Travelers were made welcome, as long as they did not have the aura of bandits or spies of northern warlords about them. Those that had gold in their pockets were showered with great hospitality. The Lady's Bounty had been pointed out as the best of all the taverns in Pydna, known for it's bathes as well as it's fine cooking.
The wine was to die for. The food was fit for the gods. The dish of the day was Pullum Frontonianum, a chicken sauteed in a rich creamy sauce. Sea mussels baked in wine, and Scillas, which were large shrimp baked in the same substance were served as appetizers, along with pear souffle and steamed vegetables. The bread, smothered with honey and butter was fresh from baking.
It was all in all, a dinner not to be soon forgotten. The bathes before it had been glorious, and the day in whole peaceful. Still despite all that, Xena was unsatisfied. She sat picking morosely at scraps of chicken on her platter, clean and rested and totally overcome with a brooding discontent. Gabrielle's chatter barely registered. She heard one word in five, and registered even fewer than that. Time was wasting. She could not get over that panicky emotion. Had held it close to her bosom for weeks now, since that very fateful day Chaos had been released. She wanted badly to be on the move, to be doing something and could hardly explain it to Gabrielle, much less implement it, when the girl insisted on stopping at every miserable village they passed, interviewing peasants and farmers, scribbling busily on the new batch of scrolls she'd acquired all the different and wide spread views of the time of Chaos, as she called it. She was determined to chronicle the whole miserable incident. Xena could just as well forget it ever happened.
Only she couldn't, for there were too many scars on the land, on the faces of the people they passed. She carried scars of it herself, that were slow to heal, having been caused by beasts of Chaos himself. And the aftermath was almost as bad as the time of Chaos itself, for those given to conquest and evil were practicing their skills to the utmost of their abilities.
They had been attacked four times on their weaving path from Pharsalus in the center of Thessaly to this city in Macedon. They had seen countless other atrocities that had already been preformed upon travelers on the road before them, to the small settlements that bordered it, even to rival war bands and bandits that had clashed and left their dead to rot in the sun. Hades was getting an onslaught of business of late. She'd sent some of it his way personally.
She caught the last part of Gabrielle's sentence. "No." She snapped in response to the innocent suggestion that they stay in Pydna one more night. "The stone walls stifle me. One night's enough."
"But, Xena," Gabrielle paused in bringing a shrimp to her mouth, trying to sound reasonable and calm in the face of Xena's short temper. "We're both tired. Both of us, even if you won't admit it. We've been traveling non-stop for weeks now and pausing a few hours along the way in a few towns does not count as a real break. It's nice here. It's clean. The food is good. It's safe."
"I'm not staying."
"You're being silly." Xena glanced at her darkly for the ascertainment. Gabrielle waved a hand and amended. "Okay, maybe not silly, but you've got to admit you've had sort of a phobia about staying in one place too long since you came out of The Lake."
Xena looked away, refusing to react at the mention of the lake. She didn't like to think about it. She would not speak of it, at least not the details to Gabrielle, which frustrated the bard to no ends. Perhaps it did have something to do with her mood of late. It would pass in it's own time. Everything did. It did not particularly worry her, even if the rush to travel was driving her companion mad.
"Xena, what's on the road that we need to get to? You've got to accept that fact that she's probably lost to you."
"It's not Argo." She muttered, figuring that maybe in part it was, that maybe she was feeling just a little helpless over the fact that the one companion she'd had longer than any other was either dead from the beasts of Chaos or in the hands of someone who'd traveled far and wide of the place Xena had left her. Mostly though, she just felt antsy and agitated when she tarried too long. She felt as if the walls were closing in with no way out and she couldn't tolerate that apprehension.
"Gabrielle," she said grimly. "Just humor me."
So after the delicious dinner, they left the very comfortable Lady's Bounty Inn and Tavern, and made their way out of Pydna. Gabrielle looked back at the walls in regret, leaning heavily on her walking stick and resettling the weight of her pack on her shoulder.
"So do we keep along the coast or head inland."
"Inland. I've lost the desire to visit home."
Gabrielle lifted a brow, surprised at that admission, since some weeks earlier, it had been her companion's fondest wish to see how the town of her birth fared. From the look of things, the further north they traveled the better things were. Chaos had taken it's hardest toll in the southlands. Thessaly had been one big icicle and she hated to contemplate what the lands below it had endured. She'd heard enough tales.
They set out due west from Pydna and slept in the wilderness that night. It was in no wise as comfortable a bed as they had had the night before, but Xena was more at peace on the hard ground. She could sleep better with the stars over her head and the sounds of the night around her.
Another day's walk and they reached the shores of the river Haliacmon. It was a wide, unruly expanse of current, bordered with muddy shores and deceptively smooth waters at the banks. Xena chose to follow it's course southerly and within hours they had reached a calmer stretch of water. A small settlement had grown up around the banks, and several small boats were moored in the shallows. For a silver denar a local fisherman was more than willing to ferry them across. He chattered the entire way, speaking of the mad happenings of late and the local superstition as to why it had happened. Gabrielle took it all in, asking questions that the man was happy to answer. She was composing the latest rendition of the time of Chaos in her head by the time they'd set foot on the far shore.
Xena looked about at the sparse wilderness growing along the bank impatiently while Gabrielle and the riverman talked at the water's edge. The country was wilder out here, there were damn few spots of civilization on this side of the river. Nomads roamed the land, but set up no permanent homes. The villages that were present were harsh, poor settlements forever wary of the numerous war bands and mercenaries that used Macedon as a middle ground between their homeland of Thrace and the richer lands that they raided further south. Macedon was not a place to let one's guard down.
She turned her attention back to the river bank preparing to urge Gabrielle to haste. Before she could open her mouth, the hairs on the back of her neck bristled. She lowered her chin, upper lip curling, eyes narrowed. She locked her gaze on the face of the riverman, who was facing her and the only one of the three who's view took in the shore behind her. For a moment he continued to talk animatedly with Gabrielle, then his hands faltered and his eyes widened. He garbled whatever he was saying, for Gabrielle leaned forward, asking him to repeat it.
Xena didn't wait to see more. She whirled, reaching for and drawing her sword before she had completed the move. There was a horse in her face. A blood crusted, familiar faced horse that stood not more than three feet behind her, shifting uneasily on the soft ground, ears alternately flattening to her neck and pricking forward as her sensitive nostrils picked up a scent that she was well acquainted with.
Xena blinked. Her mouth dropped in utter shock and her sword point wavered, drifting to the ground and landing there with a thud. She almost lost her grip on the hilt, she was so overwhelmed by surprise. Almost. The horse extended it's head and nudged her with it's pale nose.
"Argo!" she burst out. Tentatively she reached out her free hand and touched the soft fur of the mare's muzzle. It was Argo. It truly was.
Gabrielle, who had turned from her discussion with the riverman at Xena's cry, was staring with just as much shock as Xena at the apparition on the bank. Only, having a better view she saw what Xena did not, and her exclamation uttered a different name.
Xena jerked her hand back from her horse upon hearing that, trusting that Gabrielle would not go about shouting the name of the god of war for no good reason. One had to assume therefore that he was in the vicinity. She tightened her grip on the sword and peered around Argo's bulk. Sure enough he stood slightly behind, and to the side of the horse. He looked his normal godly self, attired in stunningly worked black leathers, his great sword sheathed at his side, his expression as usual, superior and slightly mocking.
Xena did not flinch. Did not bat an eye or accelerate the rate at which her heart beat. She placed her other hand on the hilt of her blade and rested her weight upon it in a casual stance. She heard the splash of the riverman as he made a panicky retreat into the water, heard Gabrielle's step as the girl came up behind her.
"See, I can do a good deed." Ares didn't say it like he expected a prize for the effort, but she knew him well enough to gather that he might expect something. She let her eyes drift over Argo. There was a good deal of flaking, dried blood on horse and gear.
"She's covered with blood." Xena stated dryly. "Do I even want to know why?"
He shrugged, half a smile playing about his lips. Magnetically her eyes drifted back to him. She recalled, with some slight rising of heat, the last conversation she had had with him. She fought it down with the same cool impassion she might use to plan strategy against an enemy. He was, after all, one had to remember, an enemy.
"My scrolls!" Gabrielle yelped, darting past Xena to Argo's side where a familiar saddle bag was hanging from the saddle. She untied it, and dropped her knees between the horse and the god of war, digging through it in excitement. Scrolls were laid reverently on the grass beside her. Little streams of wetness moistened her cheeks. Xena stared at her fair head, so intent on the contents of the long lost baggage, then back up to Ares.
It was not a fair move, this generosity on his part. She did not quite know what to do or say in return. She almost felt like crying herself, so great was her relief at Argo's return. She had almost given the mare up as lost. But, no, she could not afford to show weakness to him of all people. She set her jaw and tilted her chin skyward. He saw the look of stubbornness, recognized it for what it was and lifted one hand in a gesture of negation.
"I owed you. All right. Can you accept that?"
"For what?" Her voice had taken on the deadly earnest purr it often did when her life was in dire jeopardy. "If I recall, you're the one that should be asking for repayment of debts?"
"And if I asked, would you?" he lifted a brow curiously. She snorted.
"So you see why I wouldn't bother." he explained.
"Fine." she said. "You've given me back Argo. We're even. Leave it at that."
"Not even a 'thank you, Ares, your kindness surprises me'?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Are there strings attached?"
"Not a single thread."
"Okay. I'm surprised. And if you're not lying through your teeth and you don't have a hidden agenda or expect anything else other than an apology, then I'm flabbergasted and I thank you."
"Why, Xena," he said dryly. "You word it so prettily."
"Ummm," Gabrielle was staring behind Ares, a scroll half unwound in her hands a quizzical expression on her face. "Who's she?"
Xena's head jerked up. Ares whirled. A pretty young woman, dark skinned, with flowing dark hair, in a brocaded, silken dress stood on a higher level of the bank looking down upon them. She seemed most certainly out of place on this wild river, with the jewels that banded her wrists and throat and the exotic cast to her features. One had to wonder where she'd come from.
"Oh there you are." The girl stepped down the bank delicately, stopping dangerously close to the god of war, and casting a disdainful look past him at Xena and Gabrielle. "What are these?" As if she had never seen another woman before.
Xena lifted a brow, exchanging looks with Gabrielle, who with a hand on Argo's saddle, pulled herself to her feet.
"Led a sheltered life?" Xena muttered at the same moment Ares exploded.
"What are you doing here? Why are you following me?"
The girl blinked up at him innocently, her eyes so deep a brown as to seem to have no pupils. "But you captured me and saved me from marriage with that abomination. By all rights my life belongs to you."
"I did no such thing." he shot out both arms so violently that Argo shied away from him. Xena caught at the loose reins. He turned about and speared her with a glare as if she might have an opinion of the strange girl's claims. "I had nothing to do with it. It was Stryfe."
Xena shrugged, wishing Gabrielle would move further away from the pair. "I could really care less."
"Stryfe is your servant, is he not?" the girl inquired reasonably. Mortal women just did not face the gods down as this one was doing. Not normal mortal women at any rate.
"He works for me, okay? He's not a servant."
"Per say." Xena added.
Ares glared at her. The girl inclined her head. "Was it not the hand of your servant that initiated my capture and my subsequent ravishment and murder?"
"You were ravished and murdered?" Gabrielle asked disbelievingly.
"Who are you?"
The girl cast a beatific smile her way. "Kali. I go by no other honorific at the moment, being a conquered concubine."
"You can go be Stryfe's concubine, if you're so hot to be one." Ares suggested. "He hasn't had a willing woman in ages."
"I'm not surprised by that. I would rather not lay eyes upon his annoying visage again, if it suits you, my lord."
"It doesn't and I'm not your lord."
Xena laughed. She couldn't help it. This Kali was obviously a goddess, or at least some creature with enough power to frustrate the god of war. "You know, this sounds like a private discussion, so we're just gonna take our leave."
"It is." Kali agreed.
"It's no discussion at all." Ares ground out. "I've nothing to say to you. I don't want your services in any fashion. Go back to your betrothed." With that said he blinked out of reality.
Three women and a horse were left staring at each other. The one that could have followed him drew her brows and frowned. "He covers his passage well. It might be difficult to find him."
"Ummm, not to stick my nose in where is doesn't belong, " Gabrielle suggested tentatively. "but are you sure you want to follow him? I mean he sounded a little ticked off at you."
Kali fixed Gabrielle with her liquid brown gaze. "Which of you is it that so draws his attention?"
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged stares. Finally Xena shrugged and sheathed her sword. "That would be me. But believe me, it's not a regard I relish."
"Wise of you." Kali did not look particularly friendly when she said it. Xena half smiled, recognizing a threat when she heard one. She deliberately made light of it, directing her focus to Argo, running hands over the mare's body and legs to assure herself there had been no injury while she had not been under her care.
"He is worthy of me." Kali informed them.
"It's not something I'd brag about."
The young woman drew her brows. "There is scorn in your tone."
"Yeah, so what? Listen, I'm picking up a little jealously in this conversation. Get over it. You want Ares, go for it. I don't. Understand?"
"It hardly matters if you desire him or not. He clearly desires you. That is not acceptable."
"Hey, if you can change that attitude, I'd be grateful."
The young woman pulled at her lip thoughtfully, then her eyes lit up and she smiled. "Ah, there he is."
Her fade from reality into the aether was somewhat more gradual than Ares, but she disappeared nonetheless, leaving two curious, uncertain humans in her wake.
"You know, I'd be very interested in finding out what that was all about." Gabrielle admitted.
"Oh, I don't know. It sounds sort of epic. I mean she's a god, who's betrothed to some other god that she really doesn't like and she gets rescued by some other god. . . ."
"I believe the terms she used were; captured, ravished and murdered."
"Yeah, whatever. It could make for a good tale. I'd really like to know the details."
"So make them up. That's what most of the stories concerning the gods are anyway. Total myth that has nothing to do with how they really are. Listen, Gabrielle, I've got this bad feeling. I want away from here now."
"Oh, the same feeling we've been putting up with for the last few weeks?"
"No. This is a different one."
"Don't you think we could at least stand to give Argo a bath first? She's disgusting with all this dried blood."
Xena cast a dour look at her horse. Argo returned it solemnly. It was an echo of the stare Gabrielle was giving her. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Argo really did need a bath. And a rubdown. Not to mention a little fattening up, since her ribs were faintly visible under the stained coat. She sighed in surrender.
"Okay. She gets a bath." Xena just hoped they didn't regret going against her instincts.
Ares had returned to his tower and was rummaging about in a dusty, cluttered corner of the armory when the braying of the hounds alerted him to the presence of an intruder in his private realm. He was of a mind to let them rip to shreds whoever was bold enough, and stupid enough to trespass in his territory. There were very few things living that could match his pack here on the rocky, barren lands of their own birthing.
Still, one was curious, and one had the the most dreadful, niggling feeling just who the intruder might be. He found what he'd been looking for beneath a cluster of pikes and staffs, stuffed it through his belt next his sword and stepped through the aether to the craggy hill leading up to the walls of his black tower.
The hounds were in a frenzy. A dozen of their number had gathered, huge, red eyed snarling beasts. Their speed was beyond that of normal, mortal dogs, and their ferociousness tenfold, a hundred fold. They jumped and snapped and tore at the figure in their midst. One grabbed a swath of cloth here, another slashed teeth through flesh there. All the while the prey whirled about, whipping twin blades to and fro, doing some amount of damage of her own. There was blood across the chest of his favorite bitch, and scratches and gashes on the smooth pelts of half a dozen others. He was of a mind, at the sight of blood drawn on his precious pack, to let them take her down. She was a nuisance anyway, and she looked to be tiring. A hound leapt up and latched onto one of her arms and she wailed, flailing about, dragging the beast of it's feet in her frantic efforts to dislodge it. But the jaws held. Blood spurted and with one arm incapacitated and her defenses down the others slipped in for the kill.
Ares took an exasperated breath and barked one short word of command. Each of the hounds ceased it's attack, turned their great heads towards him, crowding about his legs with adoring eyes turned his way. The Hindu girl sat on the ground, bleeding, large eyed and disheveled. She blinked up at him with much the same cow eyed look of adoration as the hounds at his feet. It was completely and utterly intolerable.
"Away." he waved an arm and the hounds scattered, trotting off into among the niches and crevices of the surrounding landscape. He turned on his heel and stalked towards the tower, not bothering to use the aether to bypass it's physical walls. He expected her to follow and when he had crossed the threshold into the main hall of the tower he whirled and faced her down. She stood just within the door, clean and devoid of blood, clothes mended once more.
"You saved me once more."
"Stupid, little bitch." he ground the words out. "I did not save you. I was saving my hounds the scratches you were inflicting. Next time you venture onto my lands I'll not call them off. And after they have ripped you to shreds and devoured your flesh, there will be no resurrection. Not even for a god. Understand?"
She stared at him soulfully and nodded. "As you wish, my lord."
"Are you totally impaired? I am not your lord. Your lord is that monstrosity back in Drangiana. Let me say this so that even you can understand. I'm not interested! Stop following me! I'd rather bed a pig girl than a four armed, simple minded foreign twit. Stay out of my business and away from my property."
Her eyes narrowed slightly and the sway of her body, when she took a step further into the hall, was laced with provocativeness. "Oh, I think it's clear who you'd rather bed, my lord. I guarantee you my swords are sharper than hers."
His head went up and for a moment he merely stared at her. Then his smile came back, grim and cold. "As I said. Stay away from my property. I'd advise you to vacate now. The hounds are on their way back, and this time there will be no calling them off."
One could hear the braying of the dogs outside. Kali glanced over her shoulder, brows drawn. "You would not."
"Try me." He faded into the aether, leaving her there to either face his pack or follow suit. He did not particularly care which.
* * * *
The plain reeked of mortal blood, sweat and exhaustion. Fear was as heavy a presence in the air. It was hot, even with the sun on it's way towards the horizon, and swarms of insects took advantage of so many decomposing bodies. The forces had dwindled on both fronts. Skirmishes took place here and there at the outskirts of the main line. The simmering aura of Shiva could be faintly sensed across the bloody field. At rest now, but still sweltering in rage.
Ares searched out his own cohorts. Enyo wondered among the men at arms, ceaselessly sliding a dagger in and out of it's sheath. The look of battle frenzy was still in her eyes, and there would be little reason in any thing she had to say with the insanity upon her. He bypassed her, tracking down Stryfe. That one sat within the confines of the aether beyond the battle lines, already swallowed in shadow by the departure of the sun. He was subdued, the nervous energy that usually flowed out of him unchecked, in unusual absence. Ares stood over him, frowning.
"What?" he finally demanded impatiently when Stryfe's morose silence continued.
"This is no fun. It's the antithesis of fun. I hate it."
Ares stared down at him critically. Big words from his nephew and a somber attitude were warning signs of worse moods to come. What had they been doing while he was gone? "Fill me me."
"He sent two more dragon thingies across the field. We managed to take one of them down pretty easily, but the other one was going around ripping people's heads off while we were at it, so Nicocles' men are pretty bummed out right about now. Then to top it off, Shiva himself comes charging over after Enyo's taken down the second dragon and starts pounding on us. US. He's crazed. Out of control. The only reason we're not smears on the ground is because I told him the girl was alive and threatened her future existence if he didn't back off."
For a moment more he stared at Stryfe's white face. The report irritated him. The whole situation irritated him. It had been, so far, a rather annoying day. The Shiva/ Kali thing was vying to take the prime place as cause of his bad mood with the oh so appreciative reaction from Xena to the return of her beloved Argo. Not that he was naive enough to have expected more, but the term 'thankless bitch' kept reasserting itself in his mind. It was not a good time for Stryfe to hit him with news of how badly their side had fared while he'd been gone.
He stepped into the aether and out of it again a short distance away in Nicocles' tent. The warlord himself was there, conferring with a handful of harried looking soldiers. The god of war was in no mood for subtly. He made himself visible to Nicocles. In the middle of a harried and angry accusation over the incompetency of his men, the warlord looked up and gaped. A gaunt faced, rough man, whose little bit of refinery had been pushed far to the rear in dealing with a situation that no mortal general ought to have to deal with. His face turned red. The veins popped forth on his bull neck and one blood stained hand shot up in accusation.
"Who are you?" he roared. Ares stood and stared, wondering if the blood vessels would burst in the man's rage. One had to assume there had been one too many apparitions appearing in the warlord's tent of late. The four men around Nicocles stared in the direction their warlord indicated blankly. To their eyes there was nothing but dirty canvas wall and dust hazed air.
"Milord. What is it?" One hesitated to ask. They had after all heard tales of the grotesque female creature that had wreaked havoc in this very tent only hours ago.
"Fool. An intruder. There." Nicocles jabbed his finger again.
"They can't see me." Ares stepped forward, wading through the corporate form of one of Nicocles' commanders to stand before the warlord himself. "Only you."
Nicocles stared at Ares, at the desperately confused faces of his men, then once, guiltily at the blood stained pallet in the corner. Ares followed his gaze and let a small, grim smile touch his lips. "Oh, I've nothing to do with her kin, of that be assured."
"Who - -" Nicocles started. Ares cut him off with a sharp wave of his hand.
"Send them away."
For a moment the warlord hesitated, then his resolve firmed and he jerked a thumb to the open tent flaps.
They had no hesitation in following his command. Carefully he turned back to Ares. "The gods fight for them." he accused.
"And for you, else you'd be long dead."
Nicocles looked him up and down, took a shaky breath and swallowed whatever assumption he had made from that assessment. He bowed his head somewhat, a grudging honorific to a creature he was not quite certain about.
From his belt, Ares pulled the arrow he'd retrieved from his tower arsenal and held it up before the warlord's uncertain eyes. "This arrow was forged by the greatest of all smiths. It flies truer than any missile made by human hands. The wound it makes will be long in healing even in a god, and through that wound all the victim's power will flow into the hands of the archer that fired it. While you hold it taught in your bow, your eyes can behold that which they normally might not see. Your enemy raves on the lines opposite. There is no mistaking his form, for face is hideous and his arms are twice the number of a mortal man. Pierce him with this arrow and you will find the battle turns your way."
Nicocles stared at the slim arrow with fervent interest. The sweat stood out on his face, glistened in his beard. His hand lifted, reaching for it, then paused trembling. He looked into Ares' eyes.
"If I leave my men to do this thing, will my army be protected?"
The god of war shrugged. "Of course."
Ares arched a brow. "You demand the word of the god of war?"
Nicocles swallowed and nodded. Almost Ares was impressed by the man's courage. "My word."
The arrow was snatched from his fingers. Nicocles clutched it to himself and backed a step away as if fearing retaliation. All that happened was that the dark apparition before him faded from sight.
"Did you mean it?" Stryfe asked, just a touch of a whine in his tone, when his boss reappeared beside him.
"The part about Nicocles getting Shiva's power if he wounds him with that arrow?"
Ares tilted a sardonic look Stryfe's way. "Someone will get it."
"Who do you think?"
Stryfe actually took a few seconds to ponder it, just long enough for Ares to roll his eyes skyward and wonder why he bothered at all.
"Oh. Oh, yeah. Cool." Stryfe beamed at him happily. "So what'd we do, just sit around and wait till it happens?"
"You do. I've other things to do."
"Should I let you know when it happens?"
"Don't bother. I'll know."
Argo was skinny and ill cared for. She had a patch of mange on her shoulder and the marks of cruel usage on her sides. She munched contentedly and wholeheartedly on dry Macedonan grass, moving only by degrees to reach more fodder. A small fire crackled in an earthen pit, cool night breezes occasionally flickering it's flame. Gabrielle sat with her back to it, sorting through her precious scrolls, muttering to herself over damages only she perceived. Xena had a small clay pot between her knees, slowly grinding herbs and mud into a paste to treat Argo's ailments. She too, was single minded in her work, and her companion had long since given up attempts to hold conversation. There were times when Xena was not fit company for creatures that walked on less than four legs. She was brooding and she should have been elated. She was suddenly at a loss for destination when before her wondering had been driven by forces she did not attempt to discern. She felt at this moment, under a clear Macedonan sky, aimless and without purpose.
Long after Gabrielle had settled in her blankets to sleep, Xena brooded under the star filled sky. She smeared her mixture on Argo's sore spots, groomed a coat that she had already brushed several times and still could not tame her restlessness enough to seek out her blankets. A sound in the darkness beyond the small circle of light made by the guttering fire caught her attention. The soft crumpling of grasses on this Macedon plain. Casually she glanced at Argo, saw the horse's ears flicker and her nostrils flare. The great brown eyes looked into the night westward. Xena rose from her cross legged position and wondered over to Argo, running her hands down one muscular shoulder, smoothing a creamy forelock. She stretched, extending her arms over her head, arching her back until her spine popped. Without seeming purpose she slowly strolled into the darkness, timing the cadence of her steps to the speed her eyes adjusted to the almost total darkness. A dozen steps out and she began to humm to herself. There was a blackness to her left, that matched no tree or rock silhouette. She passed it by, without pause.
Cloth moved, the sibilant hiss of metal clearing leather graced the silence of the night. Xena whirled without preamble, blade out of it's sheath in less time than it took her to turn. Steel met steel with a sharp clash and the shedding of no few sparks. A powerful blow. The force of it was unexpected and her right arm went numb from the impact. She spun away and was almost impaled when a blade slashed at her from a level no blade should have come from. One attacker, she knew that, fighting with two swords, but one of those blades was at a damned funny angle.
She went down, tangling her legs with other legs in the darkness. Above her she felt balance give, saw the glint of starlight off twin blades and rolled frantically as those points drove down towards her. The other fell forward, sword points first, hit the ground and rolled in the opposite direction. Xena reached her feet first slamming a heel into her opponent's chest as the other rose. The form toppled backwards, a slight screech escaping it. Not a man's sound. Not a man's sound at all. She paused, recalculating. The hesitation was a mistake. Her attacker, her female attacker came at her in a frenzy of spinning blades. She blocked one strike, another, then backpedaled as each blow numbed her arms. She was liable to loose her grip on the sword if she didn't gain some sort of advantage. She sprang to the side, flat out running a few steps to gain distance. She loosened the chakram and flung it, heard the hiss of it as it spun through the air, and the more solid sound as it sliced into flesh.
It was a good hit. She knew that without the benefit of daylight. She knew her own accuracy with the weapon. Her attacker should have fallen. Should have at least faltered considerably. Instead a cry of rage went up and a weapon was flung out of the dark at her. She expected a sword. The woman had two after all. She was looking for a sword, not a dirk the length of her hand that was night dark and barely big enough to perceive. Too late she shifted, and what might have pierced her chest impaled her left shoulder, jarring into bone and muscle. She grunted, fighting back the pain. That she could deal with later, if she survived.
"Who are you?" she hissed into the darkness.
Soft laughter was her answer. The darkness moved at her and she fended off blades. Parry, parry, parry, lunge, parry. She was on the defensive and she hardly liked to be in that position. She backed off, out of breath, panting. A lilting, accented voice drifted out of the night.
"You're very good, for a mortal."
"You're not one?"
One began to think one might recognize that voice. One began to entertain a notion of what this might be.
"Why are you attacking me?"
"You're keeping me from something I want."
A short laugh escaped Xena. Her shoulder was starting to throb. She felt a trail of blood seeping down her arm. "All I have in this world is this sword and that horse. Don't tell me you're in need of either of those."
At this slower pace Xena could make out the silhouetted extra set of arms. If this was the girl from the river, then she'd been hiding those extra appendages well. Kali had been her name.
"He wants you, when you, a mortal, are very obviously beneath him."
"He? He, is not an issue with me, if we're talking about who I think we're talking about. I thought I'd made that perfectly clear."
"What regard have I to what matters to a mortal? You are in the way, I shall remove you."
Xena shook her head, frustrated, angry. "You can try."
She tensed her guard, waiting for the attack. When it came it was not in the form of a blade. Something twisted in her gut. Some, glowing pit of hard pain that grew with each breath she took. It was of a similarity to giving birth, but a dozen times worse. The shock of it took her so much by surprise that she doubled over, dropping her sword to clutch at her stomach. The physical pain of the dagger had been nothing, this made her scream.
"Cheater." she tried to gasp when she'd caught her breath after her initial cry, and Kali only stood there, lifting one fist and clenching it. The pain blossomed into white hot agony. Xena went down, tears streaking her face. If she was going to die, gods she wanted to take this bitch with her. Curled over her knees, she grasped for the small dagger she kept nestled in a sheath at her breast. She slipped it out with trembling fingers, drew one last lung full of strength and flung it at her tormentor. It sank into Kali's left eye.
The pain subdued, but did not quite go away. She could half hear Gabrielle calling her from the darkness. She did not have the breath to tell the girl to stay away, to run as far as she could. Kali threw back her head and shrieked. But she didn't fall. She didn't do anything save pull the blade from her skull and stand there clutching her face, babbling in an incomprehensible foreign tongue.
Gabrielle stumbled out of the darkness, shied away from Kali's dark form, and went to Xena.
"C'mon. C'mon, get up."
"I can't. Gabrielle - - -run. Now."
"Are you out of your mind? C'mon."
Xena tried to gain her feet, having little other choice what with her friend's stubborn refusal to abandon her. She stopped, staring, when she had almost gathered the strength to do it. Kali had stopped screaming, and started shimmering. Glowing in fact, with an aura that started at her hands and spread up her arms to her torso.
"You will wish you died quickly." she cried out, took one stride towards them then stopped, for rather suddenly, more than grass separated them.
There stood a none too pleased seeming Ares, who crackled with a power all his own. If Kali was an unstable vessel of shimmering power, then he was filled to overflowing with a steady, pitch black aura of strength. The two opposing forces might have clashed and found themselves of an equal footing, save that Kali drew back, abashed, and he lifted one rigid finger and jabbed it at her in the cold anger that he managed to convey so well.
"I told you to stay away."
She whimpered, but it was more the sound of a spoiled child, than one of fear, then she was gone, faded into the either. There had been nothing in her look or manner to suggest fealty to him.
He turned and took a step towards Xena, intentions hidden behind a cold mask.
"Stay away." Gabrielle cried, holding her friend close. Xena was having a hard time keeping her equilibrium. Her vision grayed and swum crazily. The hurt in her shoulder and gut vied for dominance. She could not deal with him now. Absolutely could not stand up to a contest of wills with the god of war. He showed every indication of forcing the issue. He ignored Gabrielle's protests and crouched next to them, one knee in the same damp grass she knelt in. He put a hand out and touched her. His fingers wrapped around her shoulder, his palm resting in the blood of the wound made by the dirk. A warmth flowed forth from him, not a thing that eased the pains per say, but calmed the panic that twisted in her mind.
"It's not irreparable." he told her. "Rest will heal it."
"Fine." she ground out. "Go away. I'll rest."
He shook his head once, earring glimmering in a ray of starlight. "No. You're not safe so long as that one roams the aether."
"What does she want?" Gabrielle cried accusingly.
Ares looked at her, Xena lifted her head to do likewise, groaning when a bout of nausea hit her. He pulled her forward, out of Gabrielle's embrace, despite the girl's protests, and the world grayed. . . .
. . . .and faded back into focus in a different place. She was on her back, in a deliciously soft bed, with the warm light of day shining down on her from a window to her left. It was a fine, beautiful room, strewn with tapestries and fur floor coverings. The walls were hewn from great pieces of black stone, as was the floor. The furnishings were fine and of a craftsmanship fit for kings. She sat up, silken sheets sliding from her bare shoulders and stared about her in confusion.
"Gabrielle?" she called quietly. Then louder. "Ares!!"
The door opened, and the former slid into the room, bearing a tray laden with aromatic delicacies. Gabrielle looked none the worse for wear. She attempted a wan smile.
"I'm up. Where are we?"
"Ummm, I'm not quite certain about that. We're in a tower and if you look out the windows, there is some very unsavory looking land around it. Nobody will talk to me."
"Ares tower." Xena seethed.
"More than likely." Gabrielle agreed, setting the tray down. "You hungry?"
"Where is that bastard?"
"Well, I don't quite know the answer to that one either. He sort of deposited us here and left for parts unknown. On the bright side, he did bring Argo. She's down in the stable."
Xena glared at the brave smile, glared at the food that her growling stomach very much wanted to sample. "I've been here before." she hissed. "I didn't like it then. I don't like it now. Where's my armor?"
Gabrielle put out a hand hesitantly. "Maybe you should just try to rest. You were hurt pretty badly."
Slowly Xena swung her bleak gaze to Gabrielle. The girl blanched and withdrew her hand, muttering. "Maybe not."
There was in the mortal world, a great absence of the gods of Olympus. Very few of the mortal shrines received visitations by the deities of their choice, and very few mortal or halflings had visions of things godly. Oh, there had been a few brief inspections, mere flickerings into the mortal realm, directly after the time of Chaos, by certain gods, to check up on their properties, but all in all they were suspiciously absent.
One had to know just exactly where to look. One had to have an ear to Olympus to know just what grand activities the gods were up to. One might find them, if one really wanted to, gathered in mass, a slurringly drunken, boisterous mass, over at Hermes estates just within the borders of Olympus proper, participating in the celebration party to end all celebration parties.
Ares had been avoiding it like the plague so far, and was sullenly, displeased with the fact that he found himself having to wade through the mess. Every body under the sun, stars and moon or made by them, was there. A frolicking band of young nymphs scurried past him, squealing shrilly as the odorous form of Bacchus scampered after them, hooves sliding on slick marble floor. Almost he careened into Ares, just managing to save himself in a sharp turn that had both hooves and one hand on the floor, the other hand being occupied with a half full wine skin. Ares glared, Bacchus cackled and hurried after his giggling prey.
A group of Apollo's little underlings were singing drunkenly by a marble fountain, trying valiantly to woo the very lovely Irene, goddess of peace. He passed the little cliche, ignoring the fact that Irene was pointedly ignoring him, as she generally did. Conflicting offices. She never could take it in the business like stride that he did. Never could get over the fact that her victories were short lived and few and far between, while his, considering mortal men and their violent passions, were never ending.
Someone latched onto his arm, spilling wine down his leg in the process. He turned a slow, icy gaze downward at the half man, half goat boy who leered up at him.
"Ares, baby, where you been? This gig's half in your honor. The high and mighty bitches been taking all the credit."
Puck leaned closer against him, spilling more wine. "Stryfe said you were pulling a sulkathon down in your tower. Wha's up?"
"Get off me, you little aberration."
Puck stared up at him uncomprehendingly until his fingers started to burn, at which he yelped and jerked his stubby hand off of Ares' arm.
"Touchy, touchy." Puck muttered, dipping his fingers into what wine remained in his goblet.
Ares pushed past, looking through the crowd for a certain, hard to miss face. Puck trailed behind him, out of easy striking distance.
"Why don't you go pay homage to your mom? She's receiving supplicants. Maybe she'll forgive you."
Ares stopped. Puck stopped and backed up a step. Several heads turned, waiting to see if the half boy would survive that suggestion. Ares took a breath, and a second and figured if he turned and Puck was still there, he was going to see just how sharp his sword really was on the little irritant. Puck wasn't. The assembled gods turned back to their previous entertainments, only casting sidelong, curious glances at the god of war as he stalked through their midst.
He was pissed, and getting more so by the moment as snatches of conversation reached him in passing. Damn Hera and Athena both for spreading the blame to him. The one time- - the one time- - he wasn't to blame for creating a major catastrophe, and they managed to credit him with it anyway. The very next person, god or halfling, that came up to him with a snide comment was going to loose an appendage.
A too pretty, nymphish boy flittered past, one of Aphrodite's playthings no doubt. Ares snagged a smooth, thin arm. Large, startled eyes peered up at him. "Where's your mistress?"
The big eyes blinked and the other arm lifted to point in the direction the boy had come from. A highly crowded, highly loud direction. Ares sighed, and released his informant. He plunged into that crowd, a dark dagger of purpose among so many light hearted celebrants.
A pale, moonlit radiance flickered before him. Artimis in all her cool, virginal beauty blocked his path, her golden twin hot on her heels. Great. Next to Hera and Athena, the twins were the last people he had the time or patience to spar with.
"Are the rumors true?" Artimis tilted her head and fixed him with her pale stare. Apollo stared over her head, the smug half smile he always wore fixed on his perfect lips.
"I wouldn't know, since I haven't been spending my time listening to gossip mongers. Excuse me."
He made to move around her and Apollo managed to shift into his way. "The ones about you releasing Chaos."
"There's a rumor about that? Oh and here I thought you were talking about the ones concerning you and your - - fondness- - for the young acolytes serving in your temple."
The sun god turned just a tad red, whether from embarrassment or rage, it was hard to tell.
"You- - you slanderer." he cried, ever, ever the silver tongued devil. Ares rolled his eyes, figuring that if Apollo wanted to brawl, fine, he needed a release of frustrations. But, Artimis put a hand on her brother's chest, forestalling that action and turned a glare to Ares.
He shrugged, almost disappointed, and breezed past. All he needed now was Athena, or Hera to make his day complete, but luck had decided to sway his way and instead he found the outskirts of the court surrounding the goddess of love. Couples littered the floor, reclined on couches, leaned against columns. Aphrodite herself was propped up against an array of pillows, having her feet rubbed by an over muscled, over oiled young man. She saw him and beamed a smile his way.
"Hey, sweetie, where've you been?"
"Working." he stalked over and stared down at her. She returned the stare, tilting her perfect face.
"Work, work, work. You don't relax near as much as you should. You were much better off when you were with me."
"You were with me." he corrected.
"Whatever." she waved an airy hand, tossed her golden head and accused. "I should be mad at you for what you did to my temple, but I guess I can let it slide, considering you got rid of Chaos. He was like totally bad news. Hera is sooo full of it. You should hear the nonsense she's been spouting and people are buying it. You should really set the story straight."
He lifted a dark brow at her. "You're championing my side?"
"Hey, I'm stupid like that. You know, keep repeating the same mistake over and over. "
"I need a favor."
She shrugged, creating a delicious show of cleavage. One had to stare. One never could really get over Aphrodite. "What kind of favor?"
"Oooohh, is this a favor I'm going to enjoy."
"More than likely. Spreading the blessings of love is your office, after all."
Nicocles moved through darkness. Grass trampled flat by days of fighting barely rustled under his boots. He was alone, silent in the throes of late night. One hand clutched a bow, the other hovered near the sword at his belt. He traveled the outskirts of the enemy line looking for a god. And finding none. A hundred sleeping Hindus were all that met his night adjusted vision. No ranting deity. No dragons. No target for the god made arrow he carried.
Nicocles stalked the night . . . .
The goddess of love was having a good day. Even if she had to leave the party early, she was still high on the overall excitement that permeated Olympus. It was even better that everyone whined and pouted that she had to leave, but she promised them all, in her sweetest voice and most alluring look that she'd be back 'just real soon'.
She was going to a battlefield, so she dressed appropriately. A gauzy pink robe over a sheer little number that rode high on her thighs and pressed the grandly impressive curve of her breasts to their most flattering extreme. A little pair of high heeled sandals with pink puffs on the toes adorned her perfect feet. Her hair tumbled around her like a living mass of gold. She was enough to decimate any army.
All she was looking for really, was one barbarian god, whom, if Ares' description was at all accurate, was hideous and unreasonable and without a tactful bone in his unearthly body. Well, Aphrodite dealt with that sort every day.
The battlefield, like most battlefields was dirty and smelly, crammed with unwashed male figures. She shifted through the aether. She didn't want to touch the muddy ground with her lovely new sandals, so hovered above it as she looked about for the aura that would suggest the presence of a god. It took her a while to find him, since he was over on the enemy side causing trouble. He was trying to flatten a section of the Greek army and two of Ares' underlings were having a hard time stopping him from doing it.
Aphrodite merely popped into existence beside the big, many armed brute and waited for her divine presence to attract his attention. It didn't take long. It never did. The beastly head shifted her way and the small, blood shot eyes widened slightly at the sight of all her glorious flesh. The jaw dropped slightly and she saw the suggestion of sharp, white teeth. Big arms. Big muscles. Entirely male even if he was a little on the untamed side. She wondered what else he had two sets of.
"Listen, tall dark and atrocious, can we talk?"
His eyes continued to bug at her. She put her hands on hips and smiled. "Maybe somewhere where we can have a little privacy?"
Without waiting for an affirmative reply on the Hindu god's part she flickered out, leaving a trail wide enough for a troll to follow. She reappeared on a grassy knoll some five leagues from the battlefield, and let her feet settle down to touch the unsullied ground. As expected Shiva appeared not long after, his stupefied look replaced by one of indignant rage.
He shook two out of four fists at her and snarled. "Do not think that the wiles of a Greek whore will sway my wrath."
"Greek whore?" she repeated. "Do I look like a Greek whore?"
"You look like a western seductress, a creature of ill repute to tempt a virtuous man's will."
"You being the virtuous man? I don't think so. Listen, I'm here because you're acting like an ass, plain and simple."
Shiva swelled up in offended fury. The whole of his body seemed to turn a scathing shade of red. Aphrodite waved a negligent hand at him.
"You're the one with the problem, not me. I'm the goddess of love and you've got romance problems. Either you want my advice or not."
"Advice from a painted woman? From a slut who bares her body for all to gawk at?"
She shrugged. "You find a man on that battlefield, on either side that wouldn't lay down his life, wife and sanity for me and then you can say my advice isn't worth your time."
He stared, obviously not used to fighting verbal battles with scantily clad females. "I don't have a romance problem." he finally muttered in a somewhat more subdued tone of voice.
"Oh, right." she drawled. "I can understand why your intended would take off and it's not because of that pretty face of yours. It's your attitude, Shiva. You've all ritual and propriety and sometimes that's not what a girl wants. No wonder she's all over Ares."
"If he touches her, I'll rip him asunder."
"Chill, big guy, he doesn't want her."
"She's not good enough for him? Why that arrogant - - "
"Shiva, get a grip! Sheesh, but you are hard to deal with. Listen, he's sort of all moony over somebody else, get it? He doesn't want your Kali. He wants her to come back to you. The only trouble is convincing her of that."
"I'll drag her back by her hair." Shiva assured her, absolutely convinced of his own prowess to win a woman's heart.
Aphrodite lifted a brow at him." That's not what I had in mind. Listen, you've got to do something nice to win her over. I mean, after all Ares has got you hands down in the looks category. Look at him. Look at you. Look at him. Look at you. Capish? Do you see the problem yet, Shiv? You've got to use something other than that mug you call a face and your sparkling personality to win her over. You've got to be sensitive. Do something really nice. Something that she'll just swoon over."
He was staring at her, somewhat aghast at the suggestion. But there was speculation in his eyes. He lifted one hand to scratch behind a lumpy ear in consternation.
"Do you think so?" It was a hesitant swaying over to her way of thinking.
Victory once more. Aphrodite beamed.
"Trust me, sweetie. I know what I'm talking about."
Ares stepped out of the aether in the main hall of his dark tower and into pandemonium. There were dogs in the hall, running about yipping in excitement. His women were in much the same state, frantically rushing to and fro as if the tower were under attack. It was not the peaceful homecoming he was used to.
He stalked through it, wondering what in hades Xena could have been up to in the shape she'd been in when he'd brought her here. A dog ran across his path, bumping into his shins with it's bony shoulder. Fed up, Ares bellowed for silence. Every living thing in the hall stopped fast and stared at the dark, agitated figure of their master. To the hounds he cried, "OUT!" and the dogs with tails tucked skulked from the hall. To the woman he beckoned with the curling of one finger. Three of them hesitantly glided up to him, heads bowed, eyes downcast.
"What is going on? "
"She got out. The dogs chased them back inside. She's a madwoman." They all exclaimed at once.
He stared at them and asked in a perfectly calm tone of voice. "In that order, I take it?"
They nodded all of them. "The little one's a tyrant. I don't like her at all." One complained. "She's been bossing us around like she's lady of the tower."
"And the other?"
"She frightens us, master. She won't talk much, but her eyes are - - terrible."
Ares sighed. So. Xena was not comfortable in his tower. Not a surprise. He figured that by now she had worked up a fair amount of resentment towards him. He'd left her to stew far too long. But, he'd had no choice really, not if he wanted Kali off both their backs.
"Where is she now?"
The women exchanged guilty looks. "The tower, my lord. The high tower."
He lifted a brow in surprise. "My tower?"
They nodded. He swore under his breath, and stepped into the aether.
And out of it in the darkened recesses of his private domain. Xena sat in his chair, one leg propped over the arm and swinging idly. In her hand she held a dagger made by the Mountain Blacksmith himself. A very deadly little piece that would find it's mark on every throw and always return to it's sender. It had other properties that even a god might hesitate to test, so he stood very carefully out of threatening range and matched her icy stare.
"My servants tell me you've been unhappy with the accommodations."
She continued to stare, unspeaking. He took a breath and a casual step forward.
"My personal retreat." he explained the room. "I'm surprised you discovered it. Especially since it's door has a sturdy lock."
He got a lifted brow out of that one. Her boot clad foot still swung lazily. Casually she flipped the dagger, making a game of catching it by the very tip of it's blade.
"Careful." he warned. "If that blade pierces the skin the wound will fester and never heal."
"Oh, don't worry." she purred at him. "I'm very good with a blade."
Of that he had no doubt. He had overseen a great deal of her early training himself. "Just a suggestion."
He slowly walked the circuit of the room, hands clasped behind his back, posture relaxed and displaying no hint of the tension she made him feel. One did not give away even the slightest weakness to an enemy, and despite how badly he might want her back into his fold, Xena was essentially an enemy.
"This place," she said. "is not on the mortal plane of existence."
"Which means there is no way for a mortal to leave it and happen to find her way back to where she belongs."
He nodded agreement. "You always were quick on the uptake, Xena."
"Oh, yes." she agreed, voice gone so low and sibilant that he hardly heard her, then without warning she jumped from the chair and flung the dagger with a force and speed that even impressed a god. He barely managed to avoid it's malicious edge.
"Not up on the basic guest rules are you?"
"Let us out." she snarled. "You have no right to keep us here."
"I'm a god, I can do what I wish."
"You're an overbearing, arrogant pig."
"All that? And here I thought you were softening towards me."
He saw her eyes flickering about the room for the handiest weapon and held up his hands to pacify her. "All right. All right. You know, if this is the thanks I get for doing a favor - - an out and out good deed - - then I'm tempted to give up the practice all together. Leave it to all the pansy gods flittering around Olympus or my moron half brother."
"Good deed? Right. Since when have you ever done anything to help anyone but yourself?"
The sneering sarcasm in her tone was offensive to his dignity. The price of her good will was becoming a bit too high. He bowed and scraped to no one, mortal or god. He'd made an attempt at politeness and she rebuffed him. Fine. Let her stew a while longer. Let her rage at the heavens for all he cared.
With a jerk of his head he transported her out of his high tower room and back to the main hall, then put a stronger spell on the lock of the door. After that it was just a matter of stepping into the aether and going back to the battlefield to see what luck Aphrodite had had.
"Kali!!" The name rang across the plains. It may have echoed through all of eastern Drangiana for all Ares knew. He just happened to pop out of the aether at the same time the cry pierced the air. He winced at the intensity, both physical and mental ears ringing from the volume. He stood on the hill over looking the plain, still deep enough into the aether not to be visible to any mortal eyes that happened to look that way and stared down at a very odd sight. He blinked for several seconds at the muddy battlefield below, momentarily flabbergasted at what met his eyes. For a moment he almost thought he wasn't seeing what his eyes clearly told his brain he was.
Aphrodite stepped up behind him and absently he noted that she had on the same outfit she'd worn at the party in Olympus. One tended to notice her outfits even under the greatest of duress.
"It's not exactly what I had in mind." she said disgustedly. "He sort of goes overboard. Way overboard. All that just to impress a girl. Me, I'd take a castle in the clouds, golden chariots, the adoration of thousands - - "
She trailed off when she realized she'd lost his attention. He started down the hill, physically walking the distance because he needed the slow approach to convince himself that his Greek army was no more. Well, they were still there, in fact most all of their bodies still lay on their side of the field, it was just their heads which were missing. There was a forest of pikes in the center of the field and upon those hundreds of grisly, blood dripping heads were stuck. The Hindus were gathered in a nervous group on the far side of the field, obviously overwhelmed by the cruel luck that had turned the battle their way. Whether Shiva had made himself known to them while he went about merrily decapitating Ares' forces was unknown. Ares could have truly cared less.
Shiva was pacing back and forth behind the wall of head studded pikes, another dripping trophy clutched in one of his hands, as Ares stalked towards him. He had passed at least a hundred wide eyed heads when the aether ripped and the cause of all this stepped out right in the middle of the display.
Ares stopped. Shiva stopped. Kali looked around herself in awe, her dark eyes wide and disbelieving. Tears formed at the corners of her lashes, one single trail curving down her cheek.
"You did this?" she was staring at Shiva, two sets of hands clutched at her breast.
Shiva's whole angry countenance dissipated and his hideous face screwed up in what was almost childish bashfulness. "It's a gift. For you." he held up the arm with the severed head, offering it to her. The head squeaked in indignity and upon closer inspection it was recognizable as Stryfe's. The eyes were very much animate and the mouth was twisted in discomfort.
"For me?" Kali stammered. "You did all this for me?" she turned and surveyed the damage, noted Ares' presence behind her absently before turning back to Shiva. "No one's ever done anything like this for me before. It's so sweet."
She took the offered head, looked at it briefly before handing it to Ares who'd stalked up behind her. Her attention was focused unerringly on Shiva. Ares, who found himself holding Stryfe's head was more than a little put out.
"Do you see what he did?" Stryfe complained, voice thin and gurgle, no surprise considering he had only a portion of his throat to speak with.
Ares distractedly dropped the head in the mud, ignoring the indignant yelp that resulted.
"You know," Kali turned to him of a sudden, "He might not be so bad, if he's willing to do something like this for me."
He really could not think of anything to say to that. It was more than he wanted to deal with at the moment. Aphrodite came up behind him, placing her hands on his arm. She had sort of an uneasy smile on her face.
"See? Love wins out in the end. Again."
He turned disbelieving eyes on her, completely and totally disgusted. She shrugged and disappeared. Kali had wrapped all four of her arms around Shiva's thick torso. The destructive god looked distinctly uneasy at the attention.
"I am not," Ares said disdainfully. "Going to forget this."
Kali slanted dark eyes his way. "Oh, don't be a sore loser. You had your chance."
A mortal man with a god hewn weapon slunk out of the cover of forest. He hunted a god at the behest of a god. And yet when his eyes turned to the field where two armies had clashed, he saw no sign of life, mundane or immortal. What he saw was a horror that was like to bring tears to his eyes, and Nicocles was not a man that had ever shed a tear.
With bow in hand he trod the flattened grasses to the row, upon row of bloody stakes upon which rested the heads of friends and comrades. There had been a promise made. A pact between himself and a god. His god. His men were to have been protected, watched over in his absence and yet he found them slaughtered like the meekest of sheep. The pact was broken. Cruelly, horribly broken and vengeance rose like bile in Nicocles' throat. With a shattered cry he threw back his head and screamed rage to the heavens.
Three females stood on the road outside of Pisa. Two human and one equine of nature. They were not quite certain how they had come to be there, having recently been in a more ethereal and dark place. The darker of the three spun around, staring at the well maintained road, at the civilized country side around them, then checked the state of weapons about her person as if fearing some of them might have been misplaced. None were.
"He let us go." Gabrielle said in awe, moving around Argo's head to confront Xena. "We were just there - - in that place - - and now? Did he say anything to you?"
Xena's eyes narrowed. She drew a calming breath and adjusted her sword across her shoulders. She shook her head negatively once, shaken badly and not willing to let that frailty show. Not when she knew not what eyes might be watching.
"There was nothing to say."
"I'm really confused." Gabrielle whined. "I mean this whole thing was just odd. That woman. Ares bringing back Argo. I really think we're missing something integral here."
"Nothing I care to know."
"Xena, you've got to be just a little curious."
"No. I don't" She took hold of Argo's trailing reins and started down the road to Pisa. She hadn't been to Pisa in years. As far as she knew Gabrielle had never been.
"Let's talk about something other than War, okay?"
Grudgingly, Gabrielle nodded. "All right. But sooner or later, I want to know exactly what all that was about."
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