Payment in Kind
"You would have consigned us all to oblivion to safeguard your own power." Zeus'
words were softly spoken, but his voice held enough ice to put a shiver down the backs of all those Olympians who heard it; the god who stood before them in judgement, manacled hand and foot in the chains of Hephaestos, was the only one who appeared unaffected. "Did you really think I would overlook this?"
"Of course he didn't, father," said Apollo contemptuously. "The crafty slimeball just assumed we'd all be dead before we knew anything about his part in our destruction."
"He never was very bright," Athena added with a curl of her lip.
"I'm not such a crafty slimeball as Apollo, that's for sure," taunted the subject of their mutual loathing. "He helped Mother try and take you down too, Zeus, remember? So how come golden boy winds up at your side and I wind up like this?" He raised his manacled hands and his dark eyes flashed fierily up at the ten Olympians who sat in judgement on him.
"Apollo didn't turn on his own kind and join with Dahak!" Zeus thundered back. "You did that all on your own, Ares. And that's why you're down there in chains."
"You just didn't play fair, Ares!" Aphrodite protested. "I kinda feel like I oughta say something in your defense, but ..." she bit her full lip and pouted prettily. "How *can* I? You were willing to let that monster *destroy* me!"
"Try not to take it so personally," Ares sneered in response.
"Oh but we all take it personally, Ares," Zeus said. "You went way too far this time. And now you will pay the price for what you tried to do."
"Kill him," said Apollo, his eyes gleaming harder than the gold he favoured.
"I can arrange it," hissed Artemis, leveling her bow at Ares' heart. Such was the loathing in her voice that he took an involuntary step backwards. He was used to being loathed, of course - it went with the territory - but on a measure of one to ten this leapt right off the scale.
"No," Athena interposed quickly. "Why should we show him that much mercy?"
"Mercy?" Hades echoed in disbelief and then scowled. "Do you seriously think I'd give him any mercy in Tartarus?"
Ares had managed to rebuild a working relationship with his uncle - he did, after all, play a large part in furnishing the Elysian Fields with all those essential dead Heroes - but if Dahak had triumphed then Hades would have perished. And so too would his great love, Persephone, which probably explained why Hades was looking even more grim than usual.
Zeus smiled thinly. "No, I don't for a moment think you would, Hades. I know that your heart is as ours in this matter. But Athena is right. Let Ares start paying the price now. He shall be stripped of his powers and then we will let his replacement arrange a suitable retribution. Will that satisfy you, Apollo."
Apollo grinned. "Yeah. Discord is one twisted sister. I'll go right along with whatever she suggests."
"So I stand condemned without ever having spoken a word in my own defense?" Ares stormed, throwing back his head and glaring at them with the kind of wrath only a god of war could muster.
"Hey, what possible defense could you offer?" Hermes inquired with genuine interest. "You did make that pact with Dahak to save your own skin, didn't you?"
Ares' lips curved in the devastatingly arrogant smile that made mortals kneel at his feet in either adoration or sheer terror, depending on their sensibilities. "I warned you about Dahak and none of you listened or were willing to help me stop him. If I'd been stupid enough to go up against him alone, I'd have been dead - and so would the rest of you, no matter how deep the hole you all crawled into. I'm not into pointless heroics so I did the only thing I could: I went with the flow. That *doesn't* mean I planned on playing lapdog to Dahak for the rest of my days. First opportunity I got that miserable excuse for a god would've found himself in pieces all over Greece. *That's* my defense." His dark eyes raked them scornfully. "Had Dahak made any of you the same offer you'd have snatched at the chance with both hands. Admit it."
"As if!" Aphrodite stamped one dainty foot.
"Don't judge the rest of us by your own rock bottom standards, Ares!" Apollo flared. "We have responsibilities -"
"Oh that's neat, coming from the golden playboy of Olympus!" Ares snarled back. "You wouldn't know a responsibility if it upped and bit your - "
"Peace!" Zeus commanded and held up a hand. A lightning bolt seared across the heavens and when the roar had faded there was silence on Olympus. Ares still stared upwards, his face as unrepentant as ever.
"I have made my decision," Zeus said. "And your words give me no reason to reverse it. From now on you are no longer the God of War."
Zeus raised his hand and spread his fingers. A dazzling blue light leapt downwards enveloping Ares in its heart. The great sword that hung sheathed at his side vanished and reappeared a split second later in Zeus' hand.
"That honour I give now to Discord who shall become War Goddess."
There was a bright flash of light and Discord appeared next to Zeus, her greedy little hands taking the sword he offered, her eyes sparkling with glee. But for several long seconds her ascent to power was ignored by the other Olympians; their attention remained locked on Ares in macabre fascination.
Ares was writhing in the eerie brilliance unleashed by the King of the Gods, his face contorted as the energy blast rippled through every fibre of his being and tore his godhood from him. Then the light gathered itself and shot upwards to be absorbed once more by Zeus. Ares sank to his knees, shuddering and struggling for breath. At an unvoiced command from Zeus the chains slithered free from his wrists and ankles. They were no longer necessary.
All of the Olympians knew that Zeus had made good his promise, and every single one of them felt a flicker of fear. If it could be done to Ares then it could be done to them. The ensuing silence could have been cut with a knife until Discord broke it with a girlish giggle of devilry.
"So now Ares is mine. You promised me, Zeus."
"Yes, I promised you," he agreed heavily. "You may take him, but remember - I don't want him killed. Not yet."
"Oh, I'll remember," Discord promised. "Where would be the fun in killing him before he feels sorry he's alive?" She stepped down from Zeus' side, thrusting the great sword into its new sheath as she did so. Then she stooped and put her hand on Ares' bowed head in a deliberately proprietary fashion. "And believe me, I've got a very long account that needs settling before I'm willing to let him go to Hades," she hissed, hooking her long fingers in his dark hair and jerking his head upright so that everyone could see the look of bitter fury and humiliation in his eyes. Then Discord stepped off the Olympian stage and took Ares with her.
Discord's and Ares' departure sent a collective and almost audible wave of relief amongst the ten deities still gathered on Olympus. It had been a distressing few moments - none of them cared to be reminded that they could
be reduced to mortality with just the slightest wave of Zeus' hand - but now it was over and they could go back to their own Temples and Halls with a lighter step.
"There is just one more thing." Zeus said in a deceptively soft voice as the Olympians prepared to disperse. "Let Ares' punishment be a warning to the rest of you." He paused to let the import of his words sink in and watched as the gods and goddesses exchanged uncomfortable glances amongst themselves. "Because Ares was speaking the truth. I suspect you would all have responded in a similar way, given the choice of joining Dahak or dying. Don't bother denying it," he added as they began an uneasy protest. "I know your hearts all too well, believe me."
Athena stared down at the spot from which Ares had vanished. "Some truths are better not spoken," she murmured, "But, like I said, he never was very bright."
The War Goddess formerly known as Discord appeared in the heart of one of Ares' temples like she owned the place. Which, technically, she now did. Ares, still reeling from the sudden removal of his immortality, was dragged unceremoniously in her wake. As she let him go he staggered to his feet, leaning against the nearest pillar. His expression was murderous.
"You scheming little bitch!" he snarled at Discord. "You had this all planned, didn't you?"
"If you mean was I hanging around waiting for you to make a mistake then yes, I had it all planned. I just knew that sooner or later you'd screw up big time and that'd be my ticket to Goddess of War." Discord put her hands on her hips and grinned at him. "You blew it, Ares!"
"You'll be sorry you crossed me!"
"No, you've got that backwards, lover. *You're* going to be sorry you crossed *me*. But first, I think you're just a little over-dressed for the occasion." She flicked her fingers at him. "There you go."
Ares' clothing vanished. He stared at Discord in fresh outrage, then turned as the doors to the temple swung open. A warlord of indeterminate age, surrounded by a scruffy retinue of four or five men, strode in through the door and stopped dead at the unexpected tableau that presented itself.
"Who in Tartarus are you?" the warlord demanded, giving Discord the once over.
"There's been a change of management," Discord told him, her hand dropping meaningfully to the hilt of her sword. "See? I'm your War Goddess. And as for *that* - " she gestured at Ares. "He's just a pathetic has-been. You can have him to play with, but just make sure he's still alive - and not permanently damaged - when you've finished with him." She paused and fixed the warlord with a sweetly poisonous smile. "Disobey me on this and, believe me, you'll live to regret it." She flicked out of time and space with a snap of lightning.
The warlord was silent for long moments as if sorting through all he'd been told and arranging it into some kind of order. Ares knew him well enough: Metion, slow of thought but unfailingly brutish and power-hungry. Once he got a idea lodged in his head there was no shifting it - although he'd usually embellish it in his own twisted way. And right now he was deciding exactly what these commands from the new Goddess of War meant. Ares was not inclined to wait it out while Metion reached a conclusion. He was conscious not so much of his nudity but of his complete lack of a sword with which to fight his way out of the situation. The temple - *his* temple, damn it! - had become a trap and the only intelligent thing to do was to make his escape from it as quickly as possible.
He was halfway to the door, Metion's disreputable band of men eyeing him cautiously but making no attempt to stop him without a direct order from their leader, when Metion's brain finally arrived at a course of action. His head snapped round.
"Bring him!" he barked. His men went into action, swift and obedient as dogs. Had he been immortal, Ares would have thrown them off with effortless contempt; mortal Ares went down under their combined assault with an ease that horrified him, his head colliding with the stone floor with enough force to daze him. Before many more minutes had passed he was wishing he'd been struck harder. He was dragged back to Metion and forced onto his knees in front of the warlord.
"So you're Ares, eh?" Metion stuck his fingers in his belt and grinned down at him.
"You know exactly who I am," Ares snapped, horribly aware that his voice now lacked that whip-crack of godly authority but hoping to bluff his way out of trouble. "You've seen me often enough."
"But not like this." Metion chuckled and, behind Ares, his men followed suit, obviously sharing his amusement at this dramatic reversal of fortune.
"You don't want to pay attention to anything that bitch Discord says." Ares chose his words carefully, investing them with a confidence and certainty he was actually far from feeling. "Before long I'll have my godhood back and she'll be nothing."
"Is that right?" Metion didn't sound entirely convinced. In fact he didn't sound convinced at all. He laughed some more. "You're still an arrogant bastard, aren't you? Even when Zeus has kicked you out and you're as mortal as the rest of us you still try to play the god. Ten out of ten for trying, but it ain't gonna work." He grabbed a handful of Ares' hair, pulling his head forward. Then he reached out and touched the silver dagger that still swung from Ares' left earlobe. "What's this, then? Earbob? Might be worth a few dinars. I'd better take that seeing as you haven't got anything else worth having." Metion closed his fingers round the earring and with one brutal movement tore it free. Literally.
Ares was shocked into a scream as the cold metal ripped through soft flesh. He didn't do pain well as a mortal. It was distressing to remember that unwelcome fact in full force only now - when he could see it coming but was powerless to avoid it.
"Stop howling. You don't know the first thing about pain. Not yet. But you will." Metion pulled the fastenings of his tunic apart, displaying his well-muscled but not over-clean chest. "See these scars? I got them in your service. Got 'em all over my body. And look at you - " he stepped back so he could take a better look. "Not a mark on that beautiful skin of yours. In fact you've got the body of a Greek God, did you know that?" The warlord laughed at his own wit and his men joined in with sycophantic sniggers of their own. "So perfect ... so ready to be spoiled, eh lads?"
"I'll remember this, Metion. And one day you'll pay for it!" Ares' voice sounded powerless even to his own ears, his threat as empty as his words.
"Oh, we'll give you something to remember us by all right!" Metion chuckled. He dipped his fingers in the blood dripping from Ares' torn earlobe, smearing it idly over his hands, and then gave a wide grin as if anticipating the pleasures of pain yet to be inflicted. "I've heard of how you like the scent of blood, Ares, and I reckon it's time we found out if you're still so keen on it when *you're* the one doing all the bleeding. Don't you?"
Xena was leading Argo on a long, slack rein. The mare's head was down, and she appeared every bit as tired and dispirited as Xena herself. Iolaus suspected that he and Hercules didn't look in much better condition. The last few days had turned Xena's world inside out which such thoroughness that right now sharing her misery was the only lifeline they could offer her. Courses of action - other than the ones she'd already taken - were slow in coming to mind. Iolaus tried to shake off the bleak thought that this was because there *were* no other courses of action left to pursue. He glanced up at the sky and then touched Hercules' arm lightly to get his attention. Hercules was shaken enough out of his introspection to look at him, and Iolaus jerked his eyes meaningfully towards the ominously dark clouds piling up on the horizon.
"Looks like the mother of all storms is heading this way, Herc. We ought to find some shelter." As Hercules nodded, Iolaus added, "I think there's a temple a little way ahead just off the road."
"Whose temple?" It was Xena's voice, and with a dangerous edge to it that suggested she already knew precisely whose temple it was. It wasn't unlikely. No doubt Xena and Gabrielle had travelled this way before.
"A temple of Ares," Iolaus admitted, then ploughed doggedly on, "but you know what's being said: Zeus has thrown him out of Olympus. I don't think Ares is going to bother us any."
"No?" Xena looked far from convinced.
"Ares is old history, Xena," Iolaus assured her. "And that means his temples will be abandoned for the time being. I know the memories will be painful for you, but - "
"You don't know anything!" Xena rounded on him, her eyes suddenly bright with pain and anger. Then she caught hold of her turbulent emotions and drew them back under control with a catch of her breath. "I'm sorry, Iolaus. That wasn't fair. I know you cared for Gabrielle too."
"Xena." Hercules touched her shoulder, clearly wishing he could find something to say that would help her. "We can find some other place to wait out the storm."
Xena shook her head, common-sense asserting itself. "No we can't. I know this road, too, and there isn't anywhere else we could reach in time. Come on."
Iolaus had been right; the temple wasn't far away and, given the dramatic turn for the worse in the weather, it was just as well. As they walked, quickening their pace, the wind rose suddenly, whipping angrily at the treetops and throwing a veritable barrage of twigs and branches at them. Argo was not happy and it took all of Xena's skill to persuade the mare to stay with them on their chosen route. But once Argo saw the temple come into view she put her head down and pressed on towards it. All of them ducked inside the temple's portals just as the rain started to spill down from the sky in stinging sheets.
Argo's hooves echoed on a bare stone; temples dedicated to Ares didn't go in for much by way of decoration - unless you counted weaponry and blood offerings as adornments. Iolaus pushed the heavy wooden doors closed and there was sudden silence as the wind and rain were shut out. Hercules, who'd had enough forethought to gather up a large armful of the branches thrown at them by the wind, set some of them in a pile in a draught-free part of the temple. Once Xena had unsaddled Argo and satisfied herself that the mare was as comfortable and settled as was possible she came over to help him light a fire.
Iolaus began to wander round the temple - partly out of curiosity and partly in case anything had been left there that they could eat. He didn't hold out much hope for the latter: devotees of Ares didn't tend to leave anything as wholesome as gifts of bread, fruit or fish. Iolaus' nostrils began to twitch in faint distaste as he drew closer to the altar. A burnt smell tainted the air there as if someone had been making an offering recently, although that didn't seem likely given the circumstances. Then, as Hercules quickened the fire into bright life, Iolaus was suddenly able to see quite clearly what lay at the foot of the altar. His usually good-humoured features turned grim.
The man before him was lying curled on his side, and Iolaus winced as he took in the details of the injuries. It was quite obvious that the wounds he bore had not been gained in battle: this damage had been inflicted deliberately and systematically. Beneath the ugly mosaic of bloody and blistered skin it was still possible to see that this had been a powerful man, his body well-nourished and cared for, but that fact hadn't prevented him from falling victim to a bunch of sick bastards with a twisted idea of pleasure. With pity in his eyes Iolaus crouched down beside the body, his fingers seeking any trace of a pulse in the throat. Much against his expectations he not only found a pulse, he found one that was still beating strongly.
"Hercules! Xena! Over here! I thought it was some sort of sacrifice, but the guy's still alive."
They hurried across to him. Iolaus gently turned the man's head towards the light, pushing aside the hair that screened his face, and then fell back in complete and utter shock. The face was almost completely unmarked - and its features were utterly unmistakable.
"What is it, Iolaus?" Hercules demanded. Then, as he and Xena looked down at the man, he answered his own question with a shocked exclamation: "*Ares*!"
"There must be some mistake." Iolaus tried to reason with himself. "This guy just looks like him, right? It can't actually *be* Ares, can it? I mean, who would do *this* to the God of War in his own temple?"
There was a short silence. Hercules' lips tightened, but Xena's expression remained devoid of all compassion. "But it seems rumour was right, and he isn't the God of War any more," she said curtly. "And given all the stunts he's pulled I doubt that we're the only ones with good reason to hate him."
"It's one thing to hate him for who he is and what he's done," Iolaus remonstrated, "but to do this - "
"You mean torture him." Xena cut across him with as much pitiless accuracy as her chakram. "That's what happens in war, Iolaus. People lose control and behave like savages. You know it as well as I do. Ares has waded hip-high all his life in just this kind of bloody slaughter and atrocity, so you'll forgive me if I don't feel like weeping because someone's finally paid him back in kind. He deserves everything he gets." She turned away and stalked back to the fire, leaving Iolaus feeling more than slightly disturbed by her vengeful mood. He couldn't deny her allegations, and her hatred for Ares was understandable given how the god had put Gabrielle into a position where she felt she must sacrifice her life for Xena's, but even so ....
"Are you sure it's him?" he asked Hercules.
"I'm sure." Hercules had listened to Xena's tirade in silence. Now, as he traced his hand along Ares' strong, bearded jawline, his expression was one of both regret and anger. "I know my own brother, Iolaus."
"Is he mortal, d'you think?"
"Can you see anyone being able to damage him like this if he wasn't?"
"No. So what are we gonna do?"
"We're going to help him." Hercules sounded as if the issue wasn't in doubt. Maybe it wasn't as far as he was concerned, but Iolaus was willing to bet that Xena would have doubts a-plenty and no qualms about airing them. "Whatever crimes Ares has committed - and I'll be the first to admit he's guilty of plenty - he's still my brother. I can't just leave him to die, Iolaus."
"What about Xena? Sounded like she wasn't feeling quite so merciful - and I can't say I blame her."
"I'll talk to her. Stay with him, Iolaus."
"Sure." Maybe Hercules could persuade Xena to help, but Iolaus didn't rate his chances all that highly. Xena was still hurting badly, masking her pain in a passion of ice and fire that brought her way too close for comfort to the Warrior Princess she'd once been. She'd been prepared to storm the gates of Hades himself to win Gabrielle back from death, only she'd found every entrance closed against her. Fury at her enforced helplessness was burning her up, and a conflict with Hercules over the former god of war was the last thing she needed. Even in this sorry condition Ares still had the power to cause trouble, Iolaus thought resignedly. So much for his prophecy that Ares wasn't going to bother them any. He stared down at the darkly bearded face with a heavy sigh. "Of all the temples in all the world ..." he muttered.
"Xena, I have to help him." Hercules didn't waste words but cut straight to the heart of the matter. Xena wasn't one for small talk at the best of times, which this certainly wasn't. "I understand how you feel about res - "
"Do you really?" Xena returned with deceptive calm. She was busying herself unpacking Argo's saddlebags. She refused to look at Hercules, her movements all brisk efficiency, but he had the feeling that both her words and actions served only to give her a thin veneer of control over her fierce emotions. Nonetheless he pressed his point, knowing that he had no choice but to force this confrontation.
"Yes, I do. Look, I'm not going to defend Ares. I know who he was and I know what he did. He's caused a good deal of grief to people I care about. But I'm still not prepared to stand by and do nothing here." For a brief moment Hercules gave way to his own anger, putting his hands on Xena's shoulders and spinning her round to make her face him. "Nobody deserves to be brutalized like that. Do you understand me? *Nobody*!"
"Gabrielle burned to death in a pool of red-hot lava. Nobody deserves that either." Xena's voice was suddenly raw, as if Hercules' fury had momentarily stripped away the mask she'd forged to hide her pain.
"No, you're right," he said softly, " they don't. Xena, there's no need for you to forgive Ares for his part in it - "
"Well, that's good because I don't intend to." Xena's voice had altered abruptly, becoming thick with hate as she hefted the dagger she'd just taken from her pack; an ugly red stain still smeared the blade.
Hercules caught his breath at the sight of it, but fought back the instinctive urge to release his grip on her. "Xena, no. This isn't the way."
"I'm going to finish Ares just like I did Callisto. Don't try and stop me, Hercules. Ares is unconscious. He won't suffer if that's what you're worried about. And the Hind's Blood will make doubly sure that he doesn't wake up again."
The balance between grief and rage was always a fragile one, and Hercules knew from bitter experience how much easier it was to take refuge in hate rather than give in to sorrow. It would be better by far if Xena could weep for her loss, but tears did not come easily to her. And hate was always waiting, eager to fill those empty spaces in her heart. "Are you telling me you intend to just walk over there and cut the throat of a helpless man?"
"Ares isn't a man at all! He's a monster!" Lithe as a cat, Xena twisted suddenly out of Hercules' grip, and out of his reach. "This isn't personal any more, Hercules. I think the world has taken as much as it should have to from Ares, and now that I have a chance to put an end to him once and for all I intend to use it!"
"You think." Hercules shadowed her as she began stalking towards the altar, gesturing at Iolaus to get out of her way. There was a murderous look in Xena's eyes that Hercules had hoped never to see again. Iolaus saw it too, and his face reflected his dismay. He hesitated only a moment, then stepped back, his eyes begging Hercules to do something. "So you've appointed yourself his personal Nemesis, is that it?"
"Yes! This is justice, Hercules. For everything he's done, and for everything he was prepared to do, Ares has forfeited the right to live."
"Forfeited the right to live? Maybe he has, but it doesn't follow that it's your right to execute him. And it's not justice to slay the helpless - that has a much uglier name: it's called murder. So stop lying to yourself, Xena. It's not justice you're after at all: what you want is vengeance, pure and simple."
"I have a right to vengeance."
"Yes, you do," Hercules said, and then added with deliberate harshness: "And it will bring you exactly the same joy that Callisto got when her vengeance on you was played out."
Xena drew in her breath sharply, and for the first time Hercules held out a faint hope that she was really listening to him. "Don't you dare try and -
"Xena, *think*! Murdering Ares is not going to heal your pain any more than the murder of Solan healed Callisto's! It just doesn't work that way. Giving in to hate won't ease your suffering, it'll only make it worse. And in the end hate will take control of your life just like it did before. Is that what Gabrielle would want from you? For you to resurrect the Warrior Princess on her behalf? *Would she?*"
"*No!*" Xena's denial was swift and passionate, and then her voice went flat and empty as if she was deliberately clamping down on her emotions. "But it doesn't make any difference. This is something I have to do."
She moved quickly as she always did when she chose a course of action. Crouching down by Ares, she wrapped her free hand in his hair and dragged his head up in a series of movements so smooth and fast they blurred into one. He was still unconscious, as limp and boneless in her grip as a dead animal. Xena's eyes glittered up at Hercules, night-dark and terrible. In the face of her almost fevered intensity he stopped and stayed where he was, almost close enough to touch her. Almost, but not quite close enough. The dagger flashed bright in Xena's hand.
"Xena - no!" Iolaus cried desperately. "Please don't do this ..."
Xena laid the blade of the dagger against Ares' exposed throat. One swift movement of her hand and it would all be over, Hercules thought numbly, feeling the full horror of his helplessness. Words hadn't been enough to sway her. Now Ares would die, and Xena ... gods help her ... what would this do to Xena?
Xena dipped her head to look down at Ares, and for a moment her entire concentration was locked on his face as if she was seeing it for the first time. Had it not been for the faint throb of a pulse in his neck, Ares could already have been dead. His eyes were closed, the long dark lashes lying curved on high cheek bones, his mouth slack, the full lips slightly parted. It was strange to see him so still, Hercules thought, with all that power and energy quenched as thoroughly as a dowsed flame. He watched in an agony of expectation as Xena altered her hold so that first her hand was cupped under Ares' head, supporting the dead weight, and then she was kneeling down on the floor, cradling him like a child. She gripped the dagger tightly, her knuckles rigid and white around the hilt, and then hurled it violently from her with a sound of choked despair.
"I can't kill him," she said thickly. "*Damn him*!"
Xena's voice came as close to breaking then as Hercules had ever heard it. He stepped forward and crouched down, putting his arms round her. She didn't try and push him away, but he could feel resistance in every taut line of her body.
"You were right to let go, Xena. Killing Ares wouldn't have freed you from his influence; it would just have chained you forever to everything he represents. And that's not who you are, not any more."
He drew Xena closer, wrapping his strength and warmth round her like a cloak, and wishing desperately that there was some way he could lessen her pain. She let him hold her even as she continued to hold Ares, so that the three of them were locked in a strange triple embrace. Each breath she drew was ragged and harsh, her body shuddering as she struggled to win back some control over her emotions. Hercules could feel the rigidity of bone far too easily under the soft flesh and, newly reminded of the gaunt and haggard look to her lately, guessed that grief wasn't all that had caused it. He wondered if she'd taken food at all since Gabrielle's death. His eyes met Iolaus', and the other man nodded a fraction in understanding as he turned to retrieve the dagger and stow it somewhere safe.
Eventually Hercules' patience was rewarded. He felt the dreadful tension in Xena's body begin to slacken, and her breathing slowly steadied and became easier. Then she pulled away, laying Ares carefully back down on the stone and deliberately removing herself from the comfort Hercules would still have given her.
"I know I'm not that person any more," she muttered, her voice husky with strain. "But sometimes it feels like it would be so much easier to go back to what I was, rather than to go forward on my own. Only if I do that then Gabrielle will have sacrificed her life for nothing." Xena's shoulders straightened, as if she was being tugged upwards by invisible strings. Maybe she was, thought Hercules. The ties of love that bound Xena to Gabrielle were not the kind that could be severed by death.
"We won't let that happen," Iolaus told her as he joined them. "You'll find a different way through this, Xena. I know you will."
"Yeah, well, I guess this is as good place to start as any. If I can let go of my hate enough to actually help Ares, then just maybe I'll be able to move on." Xena said it without much conviction, but the fact that she was saying it at all was a breakthrough.
"I admire your courage," Hercules said quietly, "but I'm not asking you to treat Ares yourself, Xena. I'll take care of him. Just tell me what to do."
"You?" Xena arched an eyebrow in a valiant attempt to reclaim some of her old poise. "You're no healer, Hercules. I have some skill but it's not an art I can teach you in a few minutes. I don't know yet how badly he's been hurt, and you might make matters worse." She sighed, then set her shoulders squarely as if her mind was made up. "I'll need hot water. You can see to that while I take a look at Ares."
Ares did not want to go back.
He lay raw and bleeding in a secret chamber of his own mind, a safe, secure place where he could still dream that nothing had the power to touch him. But in the end the voices penetrated even that last refuge, ripping him out of unconsciousness and pitching him back into ugly reality. A choked sound of misery escaped through a mouth suddenly drawn tight with pain. He hurt more than he'd realized was possible.
And what hurt most were the memories. They took him back to places he didn't want to be, and then made him relive every dreadful moment of his ordeal. He could see quite clearly the scarlet brightness of his blood smeared wet and warm on their hands, and smell the acrid stink of his own flesh as it bubbled and blistered under their heated blades. This temple - his own temple - echoed with his shrieks of agony, and with the laughter of Metion and his followers as they took their pleasure from inflicting torment. And he could hear their voices taunting him for his weakness, sniggering in sick amusement at his pain and fury as they shamed him into begging to be spared more of their attentions.
Ares took hold of his memories with almost his last reserves of mental strength and deliberately banished them, even though they fought this summary exile every step of the way. He was terrifyingly aware of his own vulnerability at this point, knowing that if he didn't exert some control over his reactions now then he risked being overwhelmed by them. He was War. It was all the existence he'd ever really known. To be forced to accept the complete ruin of what he was and look at what lay beyond it was a prospect that filled him with terror. The only other course of action he could think of was to lock the memories in a distant corner of his mind and simply refuse to hear them. That act of denial might at least give him a little space in which to reconstruct something out of what had been shattered.
"I think he's coming round." Some remnant of Ares that remained as a detached observer vaguely recognized the voice. "But it doesn't look like he's any too eager to open his eyes."
"Do you blame him?" That voice, too, was familiar, although Ares didn't care to place it any more than he had the first; he vaguely recalled that the owners of both voices bore him no good will so what would be the point in dredging up names for them?
"Leave him to me," a third voice said. This one was utterly different for it was female, but like the other two voices it tugged so uneasily at his memory that Ares quite simply refused to follow where it went. "Just go. Get that water heated like I asked."
Ares listened as the footsteps of the two men retreated to a reasonable distance. The woman remained where she was. He could hear her light breathing and feel her body warmth as she knelt next to him, but she made no attempt to touch him.
"Ares, I know you can hear me," she said at last, her voice remote and dispassionate. "And I know you want to pretend that none of this is happening. But it's time to get real." She paused a moment as if to weigh up the effect her next words would have. "You know who I am. It's Xena."
*Xena*. Recognition swept back through Ares with the all the daunting fury of a tidal wave, slamming him face to face with a new and painful present. Not content with reducing him to a victim in his own temple, Discord had arranged as a kind of after dinner treat for him to be thrown upon the tender mercies of no less than the holy triumvirate of Xena, Hercules and Iolaus. Immortal Ares would have applauded her style; as her mortal plaything he could only rail uselessly at her inventive cruelty in giving him into the hands of those who had most cause to hate him.
"Open your eyes."
Unwillingly Ares complied. He was forced to angle up his head to see Xena even though she was crouched beside him. She'd aged, he thought abstractly. There were small fine lines now at the corners of her eyes and round her mouth. Her hair had lost much of its glossy midnight sheen, hanging limp and lifeless round her gaunt cheeks, and her expression was one of cold antipathy. Discomforted by this hard-eyed stare Ares tried to manoeuvre his body into a less vulnerable position, bitterly regretting it seconds later when the movement jarred his broken, useless arm. He gave a sharp hiss of pain.
"Stay still. You'll just make it worse. Your right arm is broken."
Ares was thrown back to the brief moment when he actually thought he'd succeeded in breaking free of Metion and his men. Too dizzy with pain to drag himself upright, he'd been reduced to crawling on his hands and knees to try and escape them. They'd watched him a little while - just long enough to give him hope that they were bored with their games and would permit him to leave. But then Metion had snapped an order and they'd dragged him back to the altar. When they'd finished exacting a prolonged and painful retribution for his audacity, Metion had amused himself by slowly and sadistically wrenching Ares' arm back at an impossible angle until the bone had simply snapped under the pressure. The vicious nature of the punishment the warlord chose to inflict had at least allowed Ares to find a means of escape; he'd given himself up to the mercy of oblivion without any struggle at all.
"I need to take a look at your other injuries," Xena said as Ares attempted to slam a lid on the rogue memory she'd summoned before it undid him completely.
"Why bother?" Ares finally managed to speak. His voice sounded rough to his own ears, his throat still sore and aching. "You've got me right where you want me now, haven't you?"
"Ares, what makes you think I want to see you like this?"
"Oh Xena, *please* don't tell me that the sight of my poor abused body has turned your hatred into pity!" Ares made a desperate attempt to infuse his voice with as much of his old mockery as he could. He'd never tried to do this before when he was mortal, but the look in Xena's eyes suggested he was being quite convincing. That was all to the good. Pity - from Xena, of all people! - would be a whole lot more than he could handle right now.
"I suppose that really would be putting the boot in right where it hurts most, wouldn't it? The former God of War reduced to such a pathetic wreck that even his worst enemy feels sorry for him?" Xena didn't mince her words, but then she never had. "Well, you can relax because you're not going to get any sympathy from *me*. I don't forgive and I don't forget. But I am going to treat your injuries, the same as I would anyone else I found like this." She drew an impatient breath. "Enough talk, Ares. Lie still."
Ares flinched away instinctively as she touched him but she handled his body with a skill that was completely impersonal. Although it was unavoidable that she should at times hurt him he had no sense of her doing so from sheer callousness. The sad irony of his situation wasn't lost on Ares; at last Xena herself - body and spirit united - was becoming familiar with every inch of his body, yet her long-desired touch sent no shockwaves of lust flooding through him, only distaste. For all the care she took this was simply another assault that he wanted over.
"Your arm will need splinting, but the break is clean." Xena began enumerating his injuries unemotionally. "As for the rest - none of the wounds are deep enough to be life-threatening, and the bruising doesn't look to be hiding any internal injuries. There's nothing been done to you that shouldn't heal properly given the right treatment."
"Which you're going to supply."
"Try not to sound so grateful, Ares. I don't like this any more than you do." Xena's voice was laced with every bit as much resentment as his. She stood up. "Let's just get it over with."
"How is he?" Hercules looked up, his face concerned, as Xena came back to the fire where he and Iolaus awaited her verdict. Xena didn't fool herself that the concern was purely for his half-brother, either.
"It could've been a lot worse," she said shortly, crossing over to her pack and rummaging through it for the herbs she would need. "I'll need your help to set the bone in his arm; it's going to hurt and he won't be any too cooperative. With any luck the pain'll knock him out and then I can clean him up before he's conscious again."
Whether she wanted that grace for Ares' benefit or for her own wasn't a matter that Xena felt like investigating. Her mind was still haunted by that moment of blinding clarity when she'd looked into his face and known she couldn't kill him; had known that for good or ill he was part of her and that if she destroyed him she would only succeed in crippling herself. But the realization didn't stop her hating him - for what he was, for what he'd done - and she had no intention of ever letting him get close enough again to do her damage. Right now Ares might be painfully vulnerable, but so was she. She couldn't allow herself to forget *that* truth either, not even for a moment.
"Can I do anything?" Iolaus asked, forcing her out of her dark reverie.
"Yeah. I'll need a stick to use as a splint. And I'll need bandages." Hercules obediently started tearing the linen shift she threw at him into long strips while Iolaus searched through the pile of unburnt wood. Xena focused her own attention back on her own preparations. Tipping a careful measure of crushed herbs into an earthenware pot, she poured some of the heated water on top and sealed the infusion with a lid. Then she tossed some yarrow leaves into the remaining water and left it above the fire to simmer.
They all completed their allotted tasks with the minimum of talk and then crossed over the temple, returning to the foot of the altar. Ares, unsurprisingly, hadn't moved. He flinched as Hercules draped a blanket gently over the lower half of his body.
"Shall I turn him onto his back?" Hercules asked Xena.
"No need," she said. Her job would be made easier if Ares was face-up, that was true, but that would also mean putting him into a position where he was quite unable to hide his wretchedness from their eyes. Xena had no taste left for such unnecessary cruelties. "Ares," she said. "I'm going to set that broken bone. It will hurt. Hercules is going to have to hold you still because if you struggle you'll make the injuries worse."
"And you'll need this." Iolaus put a piece of wood next to Ares' mouth and was glared at for his trouble. "You put it between your teeth, like this," Iolaus mimed. "Stops you from biting through your tongue if the pain gets
"How fascinating!" Ares snarled. "What a shame you weren't around earlier with your handy hints to surviving life as a mortal."
"Ares, this isn't my idea of fun, either," Iolaus pointed out with admirable patience. "So how about you do as I say and then we can get it over with." Ares did as he was told, albeit with a very poor grace.
Hercules knelt down, looking for some place where he could get a firm grip on Ares without hurting him further; several of the bruises on his arms were beginning to show up clearly as bluish fingerprints. Ares winced as Hercules took a careful hold of him, but Xena had no way of knowing whether he did so in memory of his ordeal or in anticipation of fresh pain.
Hercules exchanged quick glances with Xena, and she could tell by the sudden tightening of his lips that he was imagining what had taken place here just as she was. The picture painted in both their minds was an ugly one. Whoever had instigated this assault had to have been accompanied by several others of like mind. Even when mortal Ares was of a powerful build and wouldn't have made it easy for the average man either to take him or hold him down. So that meant his assailants were most probably trained soldiers, commanded by a leader who took pleasure in cruelty and conquest. This was inflicted by someone who knew precisely who Ares was, Xena realized; most likely it had been a warlord, proclaiming his own superiority by torturing the former god of war at the foot of his own altar. The bitter irony of that wouldn't have been lost on Ares either.
As Xena cautiously took hold of his arm Ares shuddered and twisted his head away so that dark, tangled hair fell forward to hide his face. But only when she began to realign the broken bone did the pain finally prove too much for him, and then he gave up his hold on consciousness with a soft sigh almost as if of relief. It was a feeling they all shared.
Once Xena finished splinting the arm she turned her attention to Ares' other injuries. Dipping a soft cloth into the herbal infusion she began to wash his injuries free of blood and dirt. She'd not lied to Ares when she'd told him that none of the wounds were life-threatening - unless left untreated - but each of them had been inflicted with a deliberate cruelty that disgusted Xena. Whatever his failings - and they were legion - Ares the God had been possessed of a kind of wild animal splendour; a renegade part of her couldn't help finding it offensive that he'd been humbled in such a brutal way. A renegade part of her? Hercules would say it was her better part that was affronted at Ares' treatment. Maybe he was right, but that didn't mean she was any more comfortable with the feeling.
When she'd finished, Hercules and Iolaus wrapped Ares loosely in the blanket and carried him over to the fire; the temple was a cool shell of a building at the best of times and with the weather deteriorating outside the temperature was dropping still further. A newly-made mortal would be likely to find adjusting to cold a difficult task particularly if already in a shocked and weakened state.
Given that it looked like they might be trapped in the temple's confines for some time, Hercules proposed a foraging expedition to see if the temple outbuildings contained any fodder for Argo, and to find out if there was a functioning well. As she prepared to accompany Hercules, Xena noticed wryly that Iolaus didn't look too concerned at staying dry inside and keeping a watchful eye on the still unconscious Ares: she gave Iolaus a few last minute instructions for dealing with her patient should he make a recovery in her absence.
Outside there had not been any noticeable improvement in the weather. The chill wind still seethed angrily through the trees and the grey skies added hail to the rain that pelted down on them the minute they emerged from the temple - hard icy pebbles that stung their exposed flesh. Of mutual accord Xena and Hercules raced each other for the nearest of the outbuildings and took hasty cover in there.
"This," commented Hercules as he brushed melting ice crystals out of his soaked hair, "is not part of the natural weather patterns."
"Freak storm?" Xena didn't believe it for a moment, but she was interested in whether Hercules' assessment of their situation matched her own. She shoved her dripping hair off her face and glanced around the stable they'd fetched up in. Spying the fodder bins she removed the lid of the nearest one remaining upright and noted in approval that it was still half full.
"More likely something conjured up by the gods." Hercules returned, his view affirming Xena's own suspicions. "You know, I get the distinct feeling that someone doesn't want us to leave this party just yet."
"This whole thing's been set up." Xena was moving towards the far door of the building as she spoke. Like the door they'd just used to enter this one also stood gaping open, battered back and forth at the wind's whim. Everything about the scene suggested a hasty departure by the temple acolytes on hearing of the fall of their god; no-one seemed yet to have had the courage to come looting. "Ares should be dead by now, or at least hurt a lot worse than he actually is. The fact he was left alive suggests that he's under someone's protection."
"And now he's under ours." Hercules stooped and gathered up a couple of empty buckets lying at the entrance to a stall.
"Whoever arranged that was taking a lot of chances," Xena said grimly. "I nearly killed him."
"But you didn't."
"Hold that thought, eh?" Xena quirked her lips. "So who do you think is responsible for all this?"
Hercules had obviously been giving the matter some consideration. "I would guess it's Zeus who's taken Ares' powers - after the business with Hera and Dahak, he's got reason enough - and I wouldn't put it past him to arrange this storm to trap us here. But setting his own son up for that kind of assault? I don't know." He shook his head doubtfully. "It doesn't feel right to me. Zeus has his faults, but I don't think he'd come up something as sick as this ... "
"But he was okay about standing by and doing nothing while it happened," Xena pointed out. "All right. So maybe what went on here was someone else' s idea of a punishment. Which other Olympians has Ares ticked off lately?" Xena's question wasn't intended as a serious query, but Hercules treated it as such.
"You won't need to make a list. They all hate him, Xena." Hercules gave a short unamused laugh. "Ares the God doesn't do anything to endear himself to anyone."
"It wouldn't make any difference if he tried. They're all afraid of him. Hercules. The other Olympians know his sword is two-edged, and the very nature of war means that that same power could be used against them at any time if he wanted. They've got good reason to fear Ares, Hercules, and that 's enough to make them hate him."
"I guess you're right. You know, sometimes I wonder what Ares would've been like if he hadn't been the God of War. I can figure that he's not going to be at his best right now, but you've seen him in mortal form before this. Did it change him any?"
"Oh yeah, it changed him all right ... he became full of self-pity, with a likeness for drink."
Hercules mustered a faint smile. "Sounds like Zeus when he had to surrender his powers to Hera. Though Zeus wasn't full of self-pity when I found him. In fact he seemed quite happy with the situation."
"Ares improved once he began to get his head round being mortal," Xena conceded. "In fact he became almost likable." She allowed herself a slight smile at Hercules' look of disbelief, and then threw off the memory. Ares hadn't just become mortal; he'd become human. And that was a fact it was better *not* to keep in mind lest it distract her from her earlier resolve. Better instead to remember how no lasting change had been wrought in Ares as a result of his experience, and how in the end he'd reverted to type once his godhood was regained. "So tell me, Hercules, what's it like being a god? Did that change *you* any?"
"I think in the end it would have done, and in ways I didn't particularly want. It's a strange feeling, Xena, being possessed of such power. It's intoxicating in some ways, and frightening in others. You feel utterly invulnerable, and knowing that you can do anything you want has a way of warping your perspective. Maybe if I'd had all the power of a god at my command from the moment I was born - " Hercules paused, silent for a moment, as if trying to visualise the very different life he would have led. Then he shrugged, dismissing it. "But all the power in the world just doesn't begin to compare with the human warmth and companionship I have back here."
"I understand," Xena said, aware that the desolate look in her eyes betrayed her grief far more than her words. "You still have Iolaus."
Hercules flashed her a quick look of understanding. "And you still have us, Xena."
It wasn't enough, they both knew that, but Xena did him the courtesy of pretending that it helped. And maybe it did - a little. She thrust aside her pain, aching with the guilt of shutting out Gabrielle, but knowing that at this moment she simply couldn't cope with the flotsam and jetsam that were washed up alongside even the sweetest of memories. Every instinct in her body told her that the situation they were in was likely to get worse before it got better; she couldn't afford distractions of any sort. "There's a well in the courtyard." She pointed through the far doorway, deliberately bringing them both back to the matter in hand. "With all this rain it should be brimful."
Hercules had a resigned expression as he hefted the buckets he'd appropriated and stared out at the driving rain. "Guess I'd best go check it out then."
Iolaus had been fussing over Argo for lack of anything more useful to do. The mare was appreciative of his courtesies, nudging him gently with her warm, velvety nose as he tried to comb out a few tangles from her damp creamy mane. Then he heard Ares groan and immediately he turned his attention from the mare, hurrying back over to where the patient lay huddled by the fire. Not that 'patient' was the first word that came to mind to describe Ares at any time, and certainly not now. Ares' dark mane of hair was in a far worse state than Argo's, and his mood was much less sweet.
"You'd be better off keeping still," Iolaus advised him as Ares tried to shift position on the stone floor, and then winced. "Xena's done the best she can for you; her treatments should help if you give them time."
"I didn't ask for any help." Ares hissed. His eyes glared up at Iolaus, as if daring him to express sympathy.
"Wise up, Ares. You need all the help you can get." Iolaus proffered a flask. "Xena said you had to drink this."
Ares eyed it suspiciously. "Why?"
"She's put some herbs in it, said it would help the pain."
Ares' sullen resentment warred briefly with good sense and the latter, surprisingly, won out. "All right."
He didn't ask for help but he damn well expected it, Iolaus noted ruefully as he knelt down beside Ares and put his arms under his shoulders, trying to manoeuvre him into something resembling a sitting position. It wasn't Ares' fault that he couldn't do much for himself, but Iolaus wished he was less of a dead weight, or of a lighter build; the former god had almost as much height and perhaps even more breadth than his half brother. Iolaus managed it in the end and then held the flask to Ares' lips. He drank the liquid without a murmur, but with a grimace of distaste. Iolaus remembered that the water had been infused with yarrow; he knew from personal experience how bitter-tasting that particular herb was.
Drinking the concoction seemed to temporarily drain Ares of whatever strength he possessed. He slumped forward with a sigh, his face drawn. For a fleeting moment all attempt at bravado was wiped from his expression leaving it strangely vulnerable. Iolaus shifted position so that he was supporting Ares' body weight on his arms; it brought him into much closer proximity with the former god than he'd ever imagined being. The movement had been impulsive and he thought better of it the moment he'd made it, but to his surprise Ares didn't physically resist although he did offer a protest.
"I don't want your pity."
"Tough luck, Ares." Iolaus' voice was without heat. "I mean, it's not like I really *want* to find myself feeling sorry for you, but it looks like I'm stuck with it. You see, we mortals don't always get what we want. And you're going to have to live with it just like the rest of us."
"Live like *this*? Prey to any petty warlord who fancies his chances at fame? I don't think so."
"It doesn't have to be like this." Ares had a positively warped perspective on life as a mortal, Iolaus thought. Could he really envisage no kind of existence beyond that of god and victim? "You could learn - "
"What? To be a noble do-gooder like your beloved Hercules?" The naked antipathy in Ares' voice shouldn't really have come as any surprise to Iolaus. The god of war's campaign against his half-brother had been predicated on jealousy ever since Iolaus could remember.
"Hercules is a good man. If you stick around long enough even you might begin to appreciate that."
"You're missing the point, Iolaus. I don't *want* to learn to appreciate Hercules. I want my life back the way it was before. And if I can't have that, then I'd rather have *nothing*."
"I don't exactly think it would be 'nothing'. If you die don't you have an eternity of suffering with your Uncle Hades to look forward to?"
"Hades has no imagination. Anything he dreamed up would be light relief compared to that bitch Discord's idea of *fun*." Ares' expression was momentarily unguarded. His eyes held no trace of any of his usual fire and fury, only a look of misery that Iolaus would never have expected to see on that arrogant face and he had a quick glimpse of what this cruel reversal of fortune might have done to Ares' sense of identity. Accustomed to having all the power of a god at his complete disposal Ares had suddenly and shockingly found himself turned into the helpless prey of mere mortals. If his mind was seesawing between these two extremes, Iolaus decided it was no wonder that Ares' perspective on life was warped.
As if he was aware that he'd revealed far more of himself than he intended Ares drew himself away from Iolaus. Iolaus made no attempt to restrain him. Across the temple Argo shifted her weight from hoof to hoof uneasily, her tail flicking fretfully at her sleek flanks. It was almost as if she was responding to Ares' disorientation.
"You say Discord arranged this?" Iolaus kept his tone conversational. "You taught her too well, Ares."
Then the massive temple doors began to groan open and drew the attention of both men in that direction. Iolaus was anticipating Xena and Hercules' return, but the look of nightmare recognition on Ares' face left him in no doubt as the identity of the newcomers who actually stepped inside. The temple seemed to change in the space of a heartbeat from a empty, echoing place to a small and claustrophobic trap. Too late Iolaus realized that Argo's restlessness had been nothing to do with Ares; the mare had sensed approaching trouble with the uncanny instinct of her kind. But while Xena might have had sufficient skill in reading her mare's moods to understand the equine warning Iolaus was unfortunately possessed of no such talent.
Even as Iolaus leapt up, swiftly drawing his sword, Ares was trying with a strength clearly born of sheer desperation to struggle to his own feet. Iolaus daren't turn his back for even a second to help him. Instead he opted to position himself in front of Ares, shielding him as best he could. The fire to the right of them offered some flanking rotection that Iolaus would make use of if the opportunity presented itself, but he was under no illusions about the precariousness of the situation. These men weren't village thugs; they knew their business, and their business was self-evidently torture and butchery. Where in Tartarus were Xena and Hercules?
All the newcomers were slick with rain, and the drenching had done nothing to improve their appearance. Their clothing and armour consisted of grubby mismatched pieces, no doubt looted from previous victims, and their personal hygiene left a lot to be desired; right now, they had the rank aroma of dirty wet dogs. But for all that they were well-fed, strong-looking men and they moved with the arrogant assurance of habitual predators. None more so than their leader - who eyed Iolaus like he was some new bug whose wings he had a fancy to pull off.
"Who are you?" Iolaus demanded.
"Didn't he tell you?" A finger jerked towards Ares, and the man's face slid into an unsavoury grin. "My name's Metion." The grin widened. "I see you found our little toy. Thought we'd come back here and shelter from the storm, and have ourselves a bit more fun while we were at it."
"Fun?" Iolaus didn't trouble to keep the disgust from his voice. "I don't call what you did here 'fun'."
"What's the matter? Ain't you got no sense of humour? Look, I've got no quarrel with you, blondie. You're free to go any time you want." Metion's voice had suddenly become quite pleasant and jocular. Listening to the hollowness of the words made Iolaus' skin crawl. "All I'm after is the Greek god behind you. Give him to me, and you can leave this place in peace."
"*No*!" Ares' voice was a hoarse whisper. Rage, fear and remembered pain were so tightly woven through it that Iolaus couldn't begin to separate out one emotion from the other.
"If you want, you can join us and try your own fancy tricks to make him squeal." Metion offered Ares to Iolaus with a casual lordliness that turned his stomach. "I reckon he's good for a lot more sport yet."
"Rot in Tartarus, you sick son of a bitch!" Iolaus' eyes blazed and his face was stony with anger.
Metion merely grinned, not one whit bothered by Iolaus' reaction. "Less of the flattery. You do know who that miserable coward is, don't you? He's none other than the late, unlamented God of War - and you should've how the noise he made when he screamed for mercy. Pathetic!"
"The only thing I see round here that's pathetic is you," Iolaus threw back in revulsion, "thinking what you did to him is actually something to boast about."
"I couldn't have put that better myself, Iolaus." Hercules' voice. At last. Iolaus was sure something of his relief must have shown in his face. He'd not often heard that tone of voice from Hercules, but when he did, it never failed to chill. Hercules sounded positively murderous - something he rarely did. Iolaus turned his head a fraction and saw both Xena and Hercules framed in the open doorway, their very immobility full of ominous threat.
"You do know who that is, don't you, Metion?" Iolaus said, matching the warlord's affable insincerity almost word for word. "That's Hercules, and he's the late, unlamented God of War's brother. Oh, and she's Xena. No doubt you've heard of the Warrior Princess. Ares was responsible for everything she knows about killing and destruction, and you'd better believe she remembers every damn lesson."
Xena and Hercules, their senses numbed by the constant battery from the wind and rain, hadn't detected anything amiss until they'd exited the stable and seen that the temple doors had been opened in their absence. Then they had paused for only the briefest exchange of glances before dropping both grain and water buckets and sprinting back towards the temple. They'd arrived in time to witness the last part of Metion's and Iolaus' exchange of words. It had been more than enough.
The sight of Iolaus facing down a vicious pack of seasoned warriors in order to defend someone he had no cause at all to like - and plenty of good reasons to loathe - provoked an intensity of emotion in Hercules that left him momentarily shaken. Disgust at the vile mentality of the warlord and love and pride at Iolaus' courage filled him - along with a sudden, terrible fear for his friend's safety. It was as if Xena's loss of Gabrielle had sharpened every sense that Hercules owned, bringing the possibility of losing Iolaus permanently into sharp and frightening focus. For one brief moment Hercules tasted the blinding rage that Xena the warrior knew all too well, and he found it utterly intoxicating. The heat of blood pulsed through every vein in his body until he felt he would explode with the tension inside him. He fought it back with all the strength at his disposal.
Metion spared Hercules no more than a split-second glance over his shoulder, and in that one look showed neither fear nor remorse but only the brutal cunning Hercules would have expected from one of Ares' most proficient war lords. Then Metion moved without warning, his sword swinging free in a bright arc of metal and thrusting at Iolaus.
"Iolaus!" Hercules leapt forward and shoved himself between the nearest two of the warlord's pack, brushing them aside like flies in his frantic efforts to reach his friend's side. If anything happened to Iolaus, Ares would not be responsible for it: the guilt would be on Hercules' own head for not being quick enough to save him.
He heard Xena's war cry as she launched herself at the two men as they leapt back to their feet. With her to cover his advance he knew he need have no fear of any attack coming from behind him. Then the other three men were moving to intercept him. Hercules felled them all with a swift battery of punishing blows to stomach and groin that made up for what it lacked in finesse by sheer efficiency. The men were dropped one by one into groaning heaps on the floor but, as fast as Hercules took them out, every move delayed him a fraction more, and he knew full well that any delay could be costly.
Iolaus hadn't had time to bring his own sword up to defend himself, but his swift reflexes saved him as they'd done on more than one occasion in the past. He ducked to avoid the slashing blow aimed at his head but was unable to simultaneously backpedal his way out of trouble without stumbling over Ares, who had either failed to anticipate the turn of events or was simply unable to move fast enough to get out of the way. The two crashed down to the ground together; by good fortune it was in the opposite direction to the fire. The force of the impact sent Iolaus' sword skimming loose from his jarred hand. Metion raised his own sword with a malicious grin, angling it down at Iolaus' prostrate body, and then staggered back with an oath as Xena 's chakram slammed into his blade in a flurry of sparks, knocking his intended deathblow wide of the mark.
Iolaus was ready to take immediate advantage of the turn of events. He hooked his legs round Metion's and pulled with all his strength, toppling the warlord over onto the floor. Before Metion could make any move to regain his footing, Hercules was there. His fist slammed into Metion's face and knocked him senseless.
"Iolaus!" Hercules turned to help his friend to his feet. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." Shrugging off any concern, Iolaus took the proffered hand and let himself be hauled back up to his feet. "Does Xena need any help?"
"It doesn't look like it." Relieved beyond words to find Iolaus unscathed, Hercules was able to manage something approximating a smile as he watched Xena dive under one sword thrust and then disarm a second assailant with a cunning kick to the elbow. The man dropped his weapon with a howl of pain, clutching at his arm. Xena chased up the nearest temple wall with a shriek like a scalded cat, somersaulted and landed with her usual grace and precision to knock the living daylights out of both men with two well-aimed punches to their jaws.
"Nice," said Iolaus in unfeigned admiration. "She's so damned *quick*. Half the time they don't even know what's hit them."
"Ares!" Xena yelled, jerking her head in their direction.
Hercules and Iolaus both spun round, neither entirely sure what Xena's warning call meant but ready to take whatever action was necessary.
Unheeded by anyone Ares had somehow managed to get hold of Iolaus' sword, gripping it as best he could in his left hand. Now he knelt over Metion's body, the tip of the sword pressed against the warlord's heart. Obviously intent on thrusting the blade home, Ares was trying to bring his full weight to bear on the sword without losing his balance.
"What the - " Hercules was able to snatch the sword away from his half-brother's grasp without any difficulty whatsoever, and the warlord's thick leather armour had ensured that he wasn't even so much as scratched. Hercules handed the sword back to Iolaus while Ares slumped back to the floor with a snarl of disappointed fury.
"I want him *dead*. Is that so hard to understand?"
"No, it's not hard to understand." Hercules felt a stab of guilt. In his concern for Iolaus' well-being, it had been all too easy to forget the ordeal that Ares had been through, and the ugly memories this fresh encounter must have revived in him. "But murdering Metion like this isn't the way to put right a wrong, Ares."
"Metion and the rest will stand trial for their crimes," Xena said as she came forward to join them, clipping her chakram back onto her belt. "I'm willing to bet that the one they committed against you was just the last in a long line of them."
"Let me handle this," Hercules said. "You and Iolaus take care of Metion and his men."
As Iolaus dragged Metion's unconscious form off towards the far corner of the temple, Hercules crouched lightly on the balls of his feet next to his half-brother. Ares' expression was still sullen, his features twisted in a dark scowl. "Were you hurt when you fell?" Hercules asked quietly.
"Oh please don't pretend you actually *care*, Hercules," Ares sneered at him. "Hypocrisy doesn't suit you, so you can save all your concern for that miserable little runt you're so fond of."
Hercules knew he should have ignored this barb, but because his sense of injustice on Iolaus' behalf was momentarily stronger than his good judgement he found himself responding to it. "It appears you have a selective memory where *some* events are concerned, Ares," he rebuked, making a strenuous effort to keep his voice level. "Iolaus was prepared to die to protect you. I think you should remember that."
"Why should I? Believe me, it's no fun at all knowing I'm now so helpless that I have to rely on the likes of Iolaus to defend me."
"The likes of ... ?" Defying his best efforts to keep a lid on it, Hercules' anger flared in both his face and his voice. "Iolaus is worth *ten* of you, Ares, immortal or otherwise! After all you've done to him - to all of us - he was still willing to sacrifice his life for you. Doesn't that mean *anything* to you?"
Ares appeared to consider this seriously for a moment. Then he gave one of his trademark smirks. "Not really."
"You don't change any, do you, Ares?" Hercules knew he was crazy to have expected anything else but he'd unconsciously been clinging to the hope that Ares' experience would've altered him somehow, that it might just have left him a little sadder and a little wiser. "You're still the same callous, manipulative, smug - "
"Smug? Surely you're confusing me with your good self, there, Hercules."
"Oh, I don't think so."
There was a moment's pause, and then Ares' eyes narrowed speculatively. "We were talking about sacrifices, Hercules - and there's one you've overlooked. Or is that deliberate?" It was deliberate, of course, and Ares knew it full well. "So what's wrong? Why aren't you throwing the sad fate of the late, lamented Gabrielle in my face?"
"I don't think that's necessary," Hercules said as evenly as he could. Ares was as persistent as a wasp round a bruised apple; once he tasted the sweetness of someone's pain he'd sting indiscriminately until he was drunk on his own venom. And Gabrielle's death had opened the most hurtful of wounds in all their hearts, most agonizingly in Xena's. Damn Ares for bringing up the one subject Hercules was hoping to avoid. "We all know where the guilt lies, so unless you've got some apology to make - "
"Apology?" Ares laughed. He actually sounded amused, damn him. "For what? You wouldn't believe me if I said I was sorry the girl died. Anyway it was her choice. I didn't force her to take the long leap into the lava."
Hercules' expression was stony. "Didn't you? If you'd have been less wrapped up in your own sordid villainy you'd have known that the choice you gave her was no choice at all."
Ares shrugged with apparent disinterest. "So you say." There was a moment's pause and then he added almost negligently, "And how is Xena taking the loss of her little friend? Still mad at me?"
"What do you think?" Hercules wasn't going to be drawn that easily, but he was pretty sure that Ares knew Xena well enough to make a damn good guess about her feelings towards him.
"I figure she still wants payment in kind." Ares' expression suddenly assumed a fake coziness that Hercules found quite sickening. "Between you and me, Herc, I'm amazed she didn't skewer me earlier, but I suppose you talked her out of it."
"I didn't need to. Xena's not your creature any more, Ares. You lost her a long time ago."
"Are you so sure?"
"You're alive, aren't you? What more proof do you need?"
Unexpectedly Ares laughed softly at that. "And I'm supposed to be grateful. You don't get it, do you? This isn't what I call living. Xena would've done me a favour putting me put of my misery."
Hercules didn't take that remark any more seriously than he imagined Ares had made it, but it did serve to focus his anger in a new direction. "*Your* misery? What about those people who lost their lives opposing Dahak? And those others you were prepared to sacrifice for your new master? Doesn't *their* misery count for anything?"
"Why should it? Their little mortal lives mean nothing to me."
"But now you're one of the 'little mortals' yourself. And you don't like it quite so much when the gods play fast and loose with *you*, do you, Ares?" So it was a low blow, but it didn't stop Hercules feeling good when he struck it - for a few seconds at least. Something flickered in Ares' eyes, but it was gone so fast that Hercules had no idea what emotion he'd just witnessed. "But that's the whole problem, Ares. You don't give a damn about anybody except yourself."
"You see that as a problem? Me, I see it as good sense."
"You're impossible," Hercules said, shaking his head as he got to his feet. In spite of all his good intentions he'd had more than he could stomach of Ares' company. "I'm sorry about what happened to you, Ares. And I'll see that Metion and his men are brought to justice - for that and for all the other crimes they've committed. But you - your attitudes, your behaviour - disgust me. And no amount of suffering on your part is going to alter that - unless you change your ways."
"Oh *please*!" Ares laughed in his face, producing that high-pitched almost girlish giggling that unfailingly grated on Hercules' nerves. "Like, that's supposed to bother me? Give me a break and get out of here!"
"With pleasure," Hercules said through gritted teeth.
"You let him get to you," Xena observed as Hercules came over to join her and Iolaus as they finished tying up the last of Metion's men; all were alive and all were now securely bound and gagged. Hercules guessed that the scowl on his face was more eloquent than words. "Ares is good at needling people to get what he wants," Xena added. "Guess it must have taken him centuries of practice to perfect the art."
"To get what he wants?" Hercules repeated with a frown which suddenly cleared as he recalled Ares' last words. "I see. You mean he wanted me to leave him alone."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I reckon so. I know something of how his mind works ... for my sins."
Iolaus pulled a face. "Lucky you."
"Ares is one sorry individual, even by Olympian standards," Hercules said darkly, exasperated both with Ares and with himself - for not seeing how he was being manipulated.
"They have *standards* on Olympus?" Iolaus didn't look too convinced. "Oh yeah, I remember. Those would be the kind of standards you find way down at rock bottom, right?"
"Right." Iolaus' opinion of the Olympians was one with which Xena had a lot of sympathy. "So was Ares hurt any?" she asked Hercules as she finished arranging the bodies of their assailants to her satisfaction.
"Ah ...we never actually got round to that .... Ares changed the subject on me and, well ... you were right first time, Xena. I let him get to me."
"Then I'd better go and take a look, see how he's doing. I don't want all my handiwork going to waste."
"Xena, I don't know if that would be wise," Hercules cautioned. "Right now Ares' mood is pretty savage, and he's not taking any prisoners." If Xena was going to insist on a confrontation she at least deserved to know what she was likely to have to deal with.
Xena considered this a moment. "And Gabrielle is fair game, is she?"
"Yes, I'm afraid she is." Hercules was grateful for her quick understanding which saved him from having to clumsily spell it out.
"Maybe you should let me - " Iolaus began but Xena shook her head, and the look she gave him was so resolute that in the face of it he didn't even bother to finish his well-intentioned offer.
"No. This has to be settled between us, one way or another," she said grimly. "Now is as good a time as any."
Ares was cold. He was seething with rage and helplessness. And he hurt. Apart from the rage none of these were sensations he was accustomed to having to deal with - and he wasn't eager to *get* accustomed to them, either. Xena's treatments might be helping his body heal, but his mind was still as bruised and bleeding as the moment he'd awakened after his assault, and Ares was beginning to realize that not only was this a hurt which had the horrifying ability to exist quite independently of his physical injuries, it was one that wouldn't just go away.
As a god he was used to putting things from his mind, and finding that they stayed put until he chose to look upon them again. As a mortal no such mercy seemed to be granted to him. No matter how hard he tried to slam a lid on the memories and the terrible feelings they evoked in him, they kept sliding back, creeping round the edge of his mind, soft and insistent as water. He'd been on the receiving end of violence as a mortal before, but never like this. Never had anyone held him helpless and deliberately inflicted pain on him and the memory of that experience was one he wished desperately to forget.
Finding his holier than thou half-brother staring at him with pity in his heroic eyes had seemed to be the frosting on a particularly unpalatable cake. However driving him off hadn't brought about any noticeable uplifting of Ares' spirits, other than the brief satisfaction to be gained at getting under Hercules' skin. In fact, as far as Ares was concerned, the whole exchange had only served to cruelly highlight the differences between the all-powerful god he'd once been and the pitiful wreck he now was. Hercules hadn't seemed to notice, though. Maybe Ares' act had been more convincing than he realized, or perhaps he'd just made Hercules too angry to see the truth of it.
Ares manoeuvred himself as close to the fire as was safe, but with the gale blowing through the open temple door - which no-one had thought to close - gained little benefit from it. He groped for the discarded blanket, but although he could get hold of it with one hand he couldn't actually do anything constructive with it like wrap it round himself. The misery of his current situation made him long for another diversion. *Any* diversion. Even Hercules. He shouldn't have been in such a hurry to drive his brother away; anything would have been better than being left alone with the bitter memories of how completely his world had been torn apart.
From god to helpless victim in a matter of minutes. Ares knew that under similar circumstances a mortal would have wept; he'd seen them do it often enough, and from his position of godly superiority had despised them for their weakness. But now ... just how *did* you deal with pain when it wouldn't go away on your command?
The sound of footsteps echoed close by him, and Ares looked up. Xena.
She paused to check Argo before crouching down next to Ares, deftly drawing the blanket up over his shoulders. Then she turned his splinted and bandaged arm towards the firelight and began examining it for signs of fresh damage.
"You're quite a piece of work, Ares, d'you know that?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know exactly what I mean."
"Hercules." Ares stared across at the temple doors and watched as the object of their discussion, accompanied by Iolaus, exited through them. Then he shrugged. "So he brings out the worst in me."
"And let's face it, that's not too difficult. It's not like you try and fight your nastier impulses, is it?"
"I just tell it the way I see it, Xena. You should know by now I find it hard to be nice."
"All I know is that your view of the world is so distorted and twisted that I will never again see the way you do."
"What a loss, Xena, when my world view has so *much* to recommend it," Ares chided her. His first instinct was still to goad her in the way he'd always done, striving to push her to her limits and beyond. Hercules had worried that he'd do precisely that, of course, and Xena must have been prepared for it. Ares felt it would be a shame to disappoint such an expectant audience, and he had nothing better to do at present than to play along. It might even serve to redirect his mind away from the more immediate past. "Don't forget that I could see Dahak coming when you pitiful mortals were blind to it."
"You don't want to go there, Ares," Xena warned softly, her expression unreadable.
"You mean *you* don't want to go there, Xena," Ares amended her statement with a mocking smile, beginning to revel in the opportunity she offered for a little verbal sparring. For a moment he felt almost his old self again. Almost. "You screwed up in a big way, didn't you? I'd guess you're carrying a whole load of guilt about not listening to my warnings back in Britannia, because if you had, then your irritating little - "
"*Don't*." Xena's hand closed suddenly about his left wrist, tight enough to make him wince. The composure with which she'd cloaked her emotions was thrown aside on that instant, and the violence of her thoughts lay naked to him. Like slivers of blue ice, her eyes speared his, and her face wore a look of utter hatred.
The darkness in Xena hovered so close then that Ares could sense it with every fibre of his being. The scent of it was so intoxicating he could have laughed out loud, drunk on the possibilities it presented. Xena didn't know how easily she betrayed herself to him, or maybe she thought a fallen god of war no longer had any power over her. Well, she was wrong. And he would enjoy showing her exactly how fatally mistaken she was. It would be the matter of a moment for him to plunge a knife into the bleeding wounds he'd just exposed. And then ... Ares caught his breath, imagining the delicious moment when he finally broke Xena to his will. He would twist the blade in her very soul until she screamed, until her self-control was left in shreds and all her hatred and fury was freed from the chains in which she'd bound them. Then she would destroy him for what he had done, and he would see that glorious fire blaze one last time in her eyes - before it consumed him utterly.
To finally resurrect the Warrior Princess would be Ares' greatest victory, if also his last. Yet on the brink of triumph he hesitated, and couldn't understand why he did so. In confusion he snatched at explanations: maybe he wasn't ready to give up on this life after all, even if it was only a pathetic mortal existence; maybe even now he truly doubted his ability to break Xena; or maybe .... In the space of a moment Ares dared a little deeper beneath the surface of his own thoughts and came up hard against something that at first he only dimly recognized for what it was.
Pity. He had feared to find it in Xena; he had never expected to find it in himself. For the very first time Ares looked full into the face of Xena' s distress, and began to see it for what it was - a distorted reflection of his own. And at the moment he did so all the clamour for blood and for conquest simply died inside him. In the sudden stillness that followed he could hear only the voice of pity, and it mourned Xena's loss in a soft, insistent threnody that resonated through every part of his mind. Shocked by this new understanding of his confusion, Ares was reduced to staring at the floor in silence. The pulse in his wrist throbbed against Xena's strong fingers, and for a moment it almost seemed to him that she held his very lifeblood in her hands. It was a potent image, and one he found strangely reassuring.
Xena clearly took his silence for submission and released her hold on him with a quick flick of her fingers as if she found the feel of him distasteful. Only a few moments ago he would have found her action amusing. Now, in the space of a heartbeat, everything had changed.
"I'm *not* going to let you pull my strings, Ares, Not any more. So whatever little game you're playing you can stop it. Right now."
"I'm not playing any game, Xena. For what it's worth, I didn't mean for Gabrielle to die. I never figured she'd stop you from killing Hope *that* way."
"Nice try, Ares."
"I'm telling the truth, Xena." It mattered very much that she believed him.
She didn't. "You never know when to quit, do you? Why *should* I believe you? You're the god of lies, the god of deception ... I wouldn't trust you if you told me grass was green. Your being mortal doesn't change any of that."
"This time's it's different."
"Oh you'd like me to believe that, wouldn't you? But I don't fool so easily these days. I know you for what you really are, Ares. And I don't like what I see. Underneath all the noise and bluster you're just a coward with no stomach for reality. Right now I think you've had a belly-full of mortality and you don't know how to handle it. You want my sympathy? Is that it? I've already told you, you won't get it."
"I need your *help*, Xena." Ares closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "It hurts inside me. I don't like it. I don't *want* it! *Help me make it go away!*" He couldn't remember ever asking for help of anyone like this, and the clumsy, unfamiliar words left a bitter taste in his mouth. Only the fear of what he was feeling had forced this desperate and terrifying step at all, and he clung now to the hope that if Xena really knew him as well as she claimed, then she would understand everything that he hadn't the words for. Ares lifted his head. He forced himself to meet her eyes and saw -
Nothing. Xena's expression was completely empty now as she stared back at him, and her face was composed once again into a cool, remote mask.
"I can't help you," she said flatly. "Live with it, Ares. Like I have to."
Do you think it's okay to leave them together?" Iolaus swept a handful of wet hair out his eyes as he stood up with the water bucket Hercules had dropped earlier. He shivered. The hail had stopped, but the rain that had replaced it was just as icy and unpleasant.
"I have to trust her, Iolaus," Hercules answered simply, his tone that of someone who's made up his mind and isn't going to be swayed by arguments to the contrary. "And she has to *know* that I trust her."
"I just wish this wasn't so hard on her. Xena's been through enough already."
"Agreed, but given the mood Ares was in, he's unlikely to make it any easier for her."
"Yeah well, I guess if we were in Ares' place we wouldn't be feeling so good either," Iolaus found himself feeling obliged to point out, recollecting the moment of vulnerability he'd witnessed in the ex-god. Having now had a run-in with Metion himself he had a better idea of how much the warlord must have relished the opportunity to torment the former god and break him to his will. And being humbled in such a painful way must have sent shockwaves through the mind of that once proud immortal.
"I guess not," Hercules admitted. "But somehow it's a whole lot easier to feel sympathy for him when he's out cold."
"And not bitching in your ear. Yeah, I know what you mean," Iolaus allowed. "He's not what you'd call easy to love."
"That's my brother." Hercules' expression was rueful. "He's never going to win any awards for congeniality."
Iolaus tried to drag his thoughts back to the practicalities of the present and stared down at the grain mired into the mud. "Is there any more fodder in the outbuildings? I can't see Argo being persuaded to eat this now."
"There's some in the stables." Hercules gestured towards the outbuildings. "And the well's in the courtyard over there. Give me the bucket and I'll get that. You see to the grain."
Iolaus tossed the bucket to Hercules and then followed him into the buildings, relieved to be out of the rain. As Hercules headed for the courtyard, Iolaus cast around him for the fodder bins. Once he'd located them he began filling the bucket, spinning round defensively when he heard a soft movement behind him and relaxing when he saw it was Xena.
"So how'd it go?"
"About as well as you'd expect." Even given the low levels of light in the stable he could see that Xena looked even more haggard and exhausted than she had done previously. The dark circles under her eyes were deeper, and her shoulders were slumped as if she'd just fought some soul-destroying battle. Maybe that comparison wasn't so wide of the mark, either, Iolaus thought.
"He gave you a hard time?"
"He tried being *nice*."
"That's a toughie."
"Yeah. I wasn't prepared for that. I'll say this much for Ares - he's inventive. He even made a shot for my sympathy."
Iolaus whistled. "That took some nerve. Was it genuine?" He cast his mind back to his own experience with Ares. "I mean, it's not like this sort of thing happens to him every day. When I was alone with him there was a moment when it seemed like it had really got to him. Like he didn't know how to handle it."
Xena shook her head fiercely, her eyes hard. "Iolaus, *don't*. I can't afford to see that - not even for a moment. If I let Ares get back into my head, he's won. I'm not going there again." There was an uneasy pause as Iolaus tried to think of the best response to this impassioned declaration, and then they both turned in relief as Hercules came through the back entrance to the stables.
"It's stopped raining," he said.
"Stopped raining?" Iolaus echoed, wondering why Hercules suddenly thought it of vital importance to deliver a weather report.
"The sun is shining, and there's not a cloud in the sky."
"Isn't that just a little too sudden to be natural?" Iolaus caught on.
"Way too sudden," said Xena grimly. "Something's happening."
A god once again stood centre-stage in this particular temple of war, but it was not the god of war. If Xena hadn't already been absolutely sure of this particular god's identity, she need only have looked at Hercules' expression for confirmation. For all this god might choose to appear in the guise of an older man, there was nothing remotely feeble about his expression; his eyes were razor-sharp and unclouded. A slight dip of the head acknowledged their arrival before his gaze returned to Ares.
"Zeus ..." Iolaus muttered behind her. "Great. Just the guy we needed for a real cozy family reunion ..."
To Xena's thinking the cozy family reunion didn't look to be going all that well. Argo's eyes rolled and her tail switched across her rump, clearly not happy with the atmosphere created by Zeus' arrival. Ares looked even less contented. He was in almost exactly the same position as Xena had left him earlier, hunched up by the fire like a wounded, trapped animal. There was black bitterness in his expression but he met Zeus' gaze without flinching, seeming not in the least mindful of his mortality. "I might have guessed you'd come here to gloat after you'd let Discord throw me to her dogs!"
"Discord didn't arrange any of this, Ares," Zeus said calmly. "She merely brought you here on my instructions. Metion and his men are your creatures, not hers. And if she hadn't commanded otherwise, they'd have killed you. Hadn't you realized that yet? I merely made you mortal; I didn't take your intelligence along with your godhood. Think!"
"Oh, I'm thinking all right, and I don't much like the thoughts I'm having. *Your* instructions, right? So you *let* this happen to me."
"As usual you're not listening. As usual you're reasoning with only half your brain." Zeus began to pace impatiently up and down the Temple. "I repeat, Metion and his men are your creatures. You created them, and you rewarded them with your favour when they destroyed lives in your name.
Ares didn't seem to hear the lecture. "How could you do this to me?" he raged. "I'm your *son*!"
Zeus stopped pacing and eyed him, his lips curved in distaste. "Unfortunately."
Hercules, Iolaus and Xena exchanged troubled glances. Bitterness and fury they had expected from Ares, but that last impassioned cry had sounded uncomfortably like one of distress rather than anger. Zeus' contemptuous dismissal of it made them all feel uneasy. With hindsight, Xena regretted the harsh conclusion to her own conversation with Ares, and yet what else could she have said to him? She knew full well that Ares' insights gained in mortal form would not last once he was back on the immortal plane, therefore it was pointless to offer him succour. And that Ares *would* eventually be returned to something resembling his former state was something Xena had no doubt about at all. He wouldn't be alive now - let alone have had her, Hercules and Iolaus assigned as protectors - if Zeus hadn't intended that he eventually be reinstated.
"Couldn't you have found another way to make your point?" Hercules addressed his father, an edge of anger in his voice. "Was all this really necessary?"
"Do you think I'd do it if it wasn't?" Zeus countered sharply, then turned his attention back to the object of their discussion. "Ares, I know what you think, but I'm not here to gloat. I'm here to see if you have learned your lesson. Now you know at first hand how it feels to be a victim my hope is that you'll understand why it is necessary for you learn to temper your behaviour - "
"Temper my behaviour? You sanctimonious old fool!" Ares snarled back, suddenly on the attack. "What gives you the right to lecture me about *my* behaviour?"
"It is my right as your father, and your king."
"So you're the spineless king of a bunch of spoiled cretins who squealed and ran for cover when Dahak threatened their authority!" Ares sneered. "Am I supposed to be impressed by *that*?"
"I hate to say it, but he's got a point," Hercules muttered into the ominous silence that followed this accusation. "The gods *were* conspicuous by their absence right when they were most needed."
"That's gods for you - a bunch of shiftless bastards far more interested in saving themselves than helping mere mortals," Iolaus hissed back.
The stale air around them seemed to crackle with a sudden surge of power. Argo responded with a high-pitched squeal and the stamp of a hoof. Xena understood the mare's reaction completely; she felt like doing pretty much the same thing herself.
"Don't you dare set yourself up in judgement on *me*! Zeus found his voice with an explosion of fury that shook the temple to its foundations. "*You* deserted us to serve Dahak! You threw aside the allegiance you owed to the Gods of Olympus, and innocent mortals died because of your treachery!"
"You pathetic old hypocrite! You've spent your entire life playing petty games with the lives of mortals, so don't try and pretend you actually *care* about what happens to them. If you were that concerned, you'd have been out there trying to protect them - not running away and saving your own sorry hide!"
"*Your* behaviour is at issue here, not mine!" Zeus took a deep breath and released it slowly, making a visible attempt to control his rage. "You try my patience too far, Ares! You have forced me to take this action because of your inability to control yourself, to behave like a true warrior!"
"And you seriously think you can teach me *that*? Oh, I've learned plenty from you - lessons you didn't even know you were teaching - but how to follow the way of honour? Never that! Want to know what was the best lesson you ever taught me? Let's see - how did it go? Oh yes: it's in the nature of gods to destroy their fathers. Remember that one? I bet Chronos does. And I tried so hard to follow in your illustrious footsteps, Father - you should be proud of me!"
"Nothing you've ever done has made me proud." Zeus' eyes glittered with hostility, but his voice took on a gloss of authority and composure as he saw an opportunity to reclaim the moral high ground. "How careless of you not to remember that lesson yourself before rutting with Dahak's daughter. You served your purpose like any stallion brought to stud, Ares, and that abomination you spawned will most likely try to kill *you* if it gets the chance. If you think you're wretched now just imagine for a moment how short and painful your life expectancy would be under Dahak."
"Give me credit for a little sense! Do you really think I'd be so stupid as to sow the seeds of my own destruction? The Destroyer would have been something a little different from what Dahak had in mind. In any case, it doesn't matter now. Dahak is finished. Hope is dead, and the Destroyer died with her. I saw it happen."
"Finished? I wish *I* could be so certain of that. Though perhaps you should be grateful that I'm not. If I truly thought Dahak's bid for power had been ended, then I might leave you exactly as you are at this moment. As it is, you may eventually be needed to help stop him."
"So all of *this* was designed to make me more inclined to help you, is that what you're telling me? Forget it! I wouldn't lift a finger to help the Olympians now if the end of the world was here!"
"You're all Hera's child," Zeus said with disgust. "You have no care for any but yourself, Ares."
"I am what *you* made me, and it's too late to try and change me now." For a long moment Ares stared at Zeus, almost as if silently willing some belated recognition from his father. It never came. Zeus stared back, utterly implacable in his silent condemnation. Only then did the strength Ares had summoned up from his injured, mortal body finally fail him. He turned away from his father, the fire in his eyes dulled with the bitterness of defeat.
"I can't be other than what I am," he said wearily. "And you revile me for it. Does that sound like fair to you? I'm your scapegoat, Zeus. The scapegoat of all the gods. Why *should* I have any loyalty to you? What loyalty have any of you ever shown to *me*?"
"Good point," Xena said, stepping forward from the shadows. "You created a god of war, Zeus. You needed someone who was strong, quick, fierce, devious and powerful because that's what it takes. And that's what Ares delivered. You may not like him for it, but you could at least show him some respect."
"Xena?" Hercules said uncertainly, obviously not at all sure where she was headed with this.
Xena flashed him a quick look that insisted that he hear her out. "Oh, don't get me wrong. I don't like Ares, or the atrocities done in his name. But I understand him. Perhaps more than I want to. We all hate what he represents and we want to see him brought down. We want to hurt him, to punish him - the way he punishes us. Maybe we even think we'd be better off if we destroyed him completely and fashioned our lives without him. It sounds appealing, doesn't it? A world without war, a world without destruction ... but it would also be a world without creation, without fire and energy because Ares is our life force: he's what drives us. And we need him. All of us. We just have to find a way to live with him, because if we deny him his due he will turn on us. Ares tried to warn me about Dahak, and no doubt he tried to warn you too. Maybe in the end it wasn't so much that Ares deserted you; more that *you* deserted *him*. Your inactivity gave him no choice but to play Dahak's game to ensure his own survival."
Zeus' expression darkened, and Xena knew she was treading on some very dangerous ground. She could have left it there, but she'd never been one to walk away from a fight before she felt it was over. It made no difference whether her opponent was a vicious warlord, or the King of the Gods himself.
"You shouldn't ever forget what war is, what it means." Xena went back on the attack with barely a pause for breath. "And Ares exists to ensure that you don't. At least now you've been shaken out of your complacency. And if you truly think we haven't seen the last of Dahak, maybe you should be thanking Ares."
"Thanking Ares," Zeus repeated, finally finding his voice. The short burst of laughter that followed his words was mirthless, but he eyed Xena with a certain respect. She didn't fool herself for a minute that this meant he accepted any of her argument; it merely signified that he admired the courage of a mortal daring to make it. "And I thought the Warrior Princess had turned her back on Ares."
"Anyone who turns their back on Ares is a fool." Xena met Zeus' gaze and held it without flinching. "I'm no fool. Ares exists. I can't afford to ignore that, and neither can you."
"Oh, with that I *can* agree with you. I can't afford to ignore Ares, or what he has become. His arrogance and disloyalty meant that I had to teach him a lesson."
"Like I said, was there no other way to make your point?" Hercules repeated more forcefully. "I think I understand what Xena means even if you don't. What you've done here isn't going to improve matters between you and Ares; it's just going to make matters worse. Can't you see that?"
"Zeus never was that hot at parenting skills," Iolaus muttered under his breath to no-one in particular. "Just ask Herc. And Zeus *likes* Herc."
"And what exactly *were* you trying to achieve here, Zeus?" Xena asked him. "Make Ares understand what it's like to hurt? He understands: I can bear witness to that. But we both know that this understanding won't last once he's immortal again. It can't because the knowledge would drive him insane. Ares can be human. Or he can be the God of War. To try and be both would destroy him."
"He'll retain enough understanding to remember how much he hated the experience, and he'll try to avoid it happening again. That was all my intention"
"It's a cruel way to teach a lesson," Xena shot back. "Ignore your son, despise him for being what you made him, and then punish him because he behaves in the only way he knows how. Ares is right: I don't call that fair either. Next time find another way, King of the Gods. And keep us out of it. I, for one, are tired of playing your little games."
"Yeah, me too," Iolaus muttered.
"They said it." Hercules stared straight at his father, the clipped tone of his voice revealing his anger at the way Zeus had manipulated them. "I've nothing more to add. Except to ask you to end this. Now."
"It is ended," Zeus said. "I have accomplished what I set out to do and to continue along this path would serve no purpose." He stretched out one arm and as the great Sword of War appeared in his hand, Ares raised his head. Xena didn't know how much he'd registered of her argument on his behalf - he'd appeared sunk in exhaustion for the majority of it - but now there was a light in his eyes that Xena recognized; it was the light of hope, the light of desire.
Wielding the sword as if it weighed no more than a feather, Zeus sliced the blade through the air so swiftly that it seemed to cut a visible path in the half-light. Xena fancied she heard a woman's scream of rage rippling impotently through the aether in its wake. Discord? Judging by what Ares had said she'd played her part in Zeus' game to perfection and this abrupt dismissal of her services wasn't going to win Zeus any favours.
"You witnessed Ares' humiliation," Zeus cautioned them. "He won't forgive that easily."
"And you caused his humiliation," Xena couldn't resist adding. "How easily do you think Ares will forgive *that*?"
"Don't underestimate me, Warrior Princess." There was a distinct edge to Zeus' voice now, sharp as the sword he held tight in his grip. Xena stood her ground, but recognized that the lenience bought by her sheer audacity in challenging the King of the Gods was fast disappearing. "Ares' powers will be ... restricted for a while. During that time he can think of how best he should serve me."
Or how best he can be revenged on the whole pack of you, Xena thought sceptically. She exchanged covert looks with Hercules and Iolaus as Zeus stepped towards Ares and knew they had exactly the same idea.
"One moment," Hercules said, his voice no less forceful for being quiet Zeus halted and turned, questioningly. "I take it you were aware of the great sacrifice Xena's friend, Gabrielle, made to ensure that Dahak's evil was destroyed."
Xena caught her breath in shock, her gaze flashing between Hercules and Zeus, unable to believe what Hercules was about to do for her. With some stray shred of detachment she knew that the wild hope that flickered in her eyes now was the twin to the look she'd caught in Ares' expression such a short time before. But Ares' hope was for war and power restored; hers was for love and friendship renewed.
"Gabrielle?" Zeus frowned. "Oh yes. The girl that brought Dahak's evil into the world. Her sacrifice was fitting."
Xena's eyes glittered with rage at this offhand dismissal of Gabrielle's death, but she managed to control herself enough to spit back a response: "She was an innocent girl, Zeus, and she was used. By Dahak - and by Ares."
"She didn't deserve to die," Iolaus said, angrily.
"Maybe not. But she chose to," Zeus said with a finality that seemed to close the discussion and kill Xena's hope stillborn.
Quite unexpectedly the voice of protest belonged to Ares.
All of them turned to stare at him. Ares met their joint gazes with a trace of his old insolent arrogance, but the words he spoke were for his father. "Play fair, Zeus. The choice I gave Gabrielle was no choice at all."
Zeus eyed him warily, obviously suspecting some subterfuge. "What exactly does this girl mean to you?"
Ares' lips twisted in something that could have been amusement, disparagement, or possibly both. "She doesn't mean anything to me. But she means something to Xena ... to *them*. And surely they're owed something for playing their part in your game with such ... *committment*."
Zeus was silent, as if considering this. Xena held her breath. She could feel Hercules' growing impatience as he stood at her side, and wondered briefly if her own emotions were as tangible as his. The hope rising in her heart now was so fierce and violent she could scarcely contain it.
"I can't interfere with the Fates," Zeus said at length. "But this case is .... " He looked at Xena and sighed. "Very well. Seek out Hades."
"I've tried," Xena said stonily. "He doesn't answer."
"He will now."
"Thank you." Xena's words fell soft as a prayer. They were intended for Zeus, but her eyes were on Ares. He met her gaze with a faint twitch of his lips, his expression momentarily softened as if he knew he'd handed her the greatest gift it was possible to give; not only knew but was gratified to have done so.
Then Zeus stepped forward and held out the Sword of War to Ares. "Take it," he said.
Ares' expression abruptly altered, becoming hard and covetous. Like a greedy child finally granted a favourite toy that's been withheld he snatched at the sword, then clasped it with his left hand and held it up to his chest. Xena had witnessed this transformation of Ares from mortal to immortal before, although Hercules and Iolaus never had. Because of Ares' weakened and injured state, this time the change was even more dramatic.
The wounds glazed with pale light as a halo of power enveloped him and then they faded, replaced by smooth unblemished flesh. The bandage and sling vanished from his right arm, the bones and sinews visibly knitting together, the skin closing over the wound like the most perfect of gloves. Ares stood up and straightened, and the blanket slipped from his shoulders. For a long moment he stood, naked and glorious in the blazing light, golden-skinned, black-maned, the sword now held upraised in both his hands; vital, alive and utterly magnificent. Then the black leather slid across the flesh, masking muscle and skin. The dark hair tamed, the beard trimmed to neatness as he took hold of the power that surged through him. The light died.
Ares stared at them for a few long seconds, still holding the sword two handed. Slowly he lowered the tip so that it touched the floor. Then he threw back his head and laughed. There was no joy in the sound, only a dark mirthless fury. The hollow echo of it lingered long after Ares had snapped himself out of their time and place in the space of a heart beat. Zeus followed a second later, his expression utterly unreadable.
"Oh boy," Iolaus muttered as Xena moved across to reassure Argo, whose laid-back ears suggested she was not at all impressed by these godly comings and goings. "Ares is one mad god. This is not good, not good at all ..."
Hercules sighed. "Somehow I don't think Zeus has done himself any favours here today."
"But maybe *we* have," Xena said.
The sky above the temple was a brilliant blue, cloudless and beautiful, and the sun felt warm on their backs. If it hadn't been for the storm debris littering the ground the violent unseasonable weather of the last few hours might never have happened, Iolaus thought. Xena shaded her eyes and stared into the distance. One hand rested on her chakram, fingers flexing slightly as if the need for action was growing in her. The other hand lay gently on Argo's neck as the mare lowered her head and began to champ greedily at the sodden clumps of grass. Hercules watched Xena in silence, letting her think things through.
"I guess we'd better see about getting Metion and his men to the nearest village to face justice," Iolaus said when neither Hercules nor Xena showed any sign of volunteering a course of action. "If Ares lets them live long enough to actually stand trial, that is. And then what?"
"You two have your own path," Xena said, reaching a decision. "And I have mine."
"You're going to seek Hades again." Hercules said. It was more statement than question.
"On your own?" Iolaus' face reflected his concern about the wisdom of that.
"On my own," Xena affirmed in a voice that brooked no argument. "This time I think I'll be heard." She smiled then for the first time since Gabrielle's death. It wasn't much of smile as smiles went, Iolaus thought, but nonetheless it transformed Xena's face. The lost defeated look in her eyes had been replaced by the bright light of battle as if she was readying herself for the fight to bring Gabrielle back to the land of the living.
"If I hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed that Ares would demand payback for you like that, Xena," Iolaus said, forbearing to comment that only a few short hours ago the likelihood of Xena waging verbal warfare with Zeus on Ares' behalf would also have seemed utterly unthinkable. A lot could happen in a few short hours. "I guess he was learning more than we gave him credit for. You know, it kinda makes me sorry he had to go back to
being a god just when he was figuring out how to be a human being."
"Like Xena said, he can't be both," Hercules sounded regretfully resigned to the fact.
Xena swung herself up onto Argo's back and stared down at both Hercules and Iolaus. Her eyes were momentarily shadowed, as if she was lost in some dark thought of her own. "Ares is what he is, for good or ill," she said. "We just have to find a way to live with it."