See Chapter 1 for disclaimers.
Xena was now awake and back in control of her own body, and Gabrielle was safely asleep. She could feel the evil slowly getting stronger with every step along the path towards the Temple. It knew it was coming home.
She tried to protect her partner from the brunt of the attack, wrapping herself around the core of her partner's spirit. Even though Gabrielle wanted to help, she was going to spare her young partner as much of the pain and desolation as she could. She could feel it worming its way into her own darkness, stirring long forgotten memories of past campaigns and the joy and lust for conquest. Memories she thought she had left far behind.
Xena could sense Ares behind her but she chose to ignore him. Her anger still stirred within her, and she suspected the entity was feeding off that dark emotion. He picked up the pace until he was along side her. Still she said nothing.
"Xena." She refused to reply.
He grabbed her arm and they stopped dead, Aphrodite nearly running into the back of her brother. Angry glares passed between God and disciple. The goddess quickly scampered away, not wanting to get caught in the middle of the angry confrontation. Xena's eyes looked to the immortal's hand then rose to his face. "Let go." Her voice had dropped to a deadly whisper.
"No. Talk to me."
"Why should I?"
"Because you owe me that."
"I owe you nothing, Ares."
"After all that I gave you?"
Xena swiftly grabbed his lapels and slammed him back against a tree trunk. "You gave me? How arrogant can you be? What did you ever give me that you didn't want something in return?"
"You came to me, as I recall, all those years ago."
"Even when it was about me, Ares, it was always about what you could get in return. Everything came at a price, everything! You have never done an unselfish thing in your whole damn immortal life! Look what you've done to us because of your selfishness. You know very well that the chances of Gabrielle and I coming out of this alive are slim at best."
"You could have chosen not to take the Chakram, you know?"
Xena nearly laughed hysterically. "You're kidding, right? I had no choice. You took my choices away from me. I was going home with my family and you wouldn't even let me do that. I'm nearly tempted to let this evil take me over so that I can be rid of you."
A slim dagger slid silently out of its sheath in her boot, finding its way to Ares' throat. "Or maybe I should just be rid of you now."
The War God's adam's apple bobbed several times, a bead of sweat trickling down his temple as he awaited Xena's next move. She gently traced the blade across his throat in imitation of the genuine act, feeling the slight tremble in his body. It would be so easy...
Her darkness rose up looking for a kill, but she resisted the urge. Breathing deeply, she re-sheathed the blade, saving it for another day when she had more control over her dark side.
Aphrodite stood back, letting the confrontation play itself out, glad that Xena had seen reason. Not that she could blame her. She was secretly very disappointed with her brother for so shamelessly manipulating the poor woman to get what he wanted, and she silently cheered Xena on for outsmarting him again. Besides, they were her project, not his. It would have been a hard thing to tell her father that he would need to look for a new God of War.
Xena stepped back and walked away, grabbing a waterskin and sitting down, leaning against a nearby tree. Her stomach swirled with pent-up emotion, making her feel slightly ill at the thought of what had nearly happened. She grabbed her head in her hands, trying to stop the dizziness that assaulted her.
Gabrielle awoke to the dark wash that swept over her. It nearly felt like she was back on the boat again, with a swaying that left her feeling ill. What? Xena?
Go back to sleep, Gabrielle.
She could hear the defeat in Xena's voice. What's wrong?
Nothing. Xena sounded flat and emotionless. Nothing's wrong. Go back to sleep.
Not until you tell me what's going on.
She mentally sighed. Not much. I nearly killed Ares, that's all.
If Gabrielle had a hairline, her eyebrows would have disappeared into them. You what?
Never mind. It's over now.
No, you tell me. You just don't go trying to kill someone without reason.
How do you know, eh? How do you know? You don't know me at all! Xena's anger flared again, this time at the one person who didn't deserve it.
Hang on. Hang on. Where is this coming from?
Just leave me alone, alright? Just... arggh, never mind. Xena withdrew herself from her partner, finding some quiet corner of her mind to contemplate what nearly took place.
Gabrielle had nowhere to go. Xena had never talked to her like this, had never sounded so angry and disoriented. What could she do to mend this? Xena was content to sit back, so she wrestled control and took Xena's body over to Aphrodite.
"What just went on?"
It took the goddess a few moments to realize that the spirits had changed. "Ares pushed her and she pushed back. She drew a blade and held it to his neck. Gabby, I think it's getting to her. You're gonna have to watch her."
The young woman was beginning to realize that perhaps the greatest danger was not out in the wilderness but within Xena herself. She extended her senses toward her lover and could feel the roiling emotion there, dark and dangerous, swirling around with no solid form for the present. It had grown in strength just in the few candlemarks since leaving the village.
"How about we set up camp here tonight? I don't think any of us are up to travelling any more today. Can you see if you can find something for the pot tonight?" Blue eyes looked up in expectation, hoping the goddess could put her bow to some use. Hesitantly, she nodded and disappeared into the brush.
"Ares!" He looked over, not sure who he was talking to. Gabrielle could see the uncertainty in his eyes. "It's me, Gabrielle." She watched him relax at the news. "Can you get a fire started?" He pointed his finger but nothing happened. "The old fashioned way, Ares."
"How do I do that?"
"Oh, for goodness sake..." Gabrielle muttered under her breath. "Just collect some wood, OK?" Gods...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"C'mon 'Ditie, you can do this. Artie taught you well. Just paint a target on those cute little bunny rabbits," she murmured to herself, trying to build the confidence to actually shoot at something. The light was still good and she had no trouble seeing anything that came across her path. She nocked an arrow, slowly stepping through the undergrowth in search of prey. For about the hundredth time, she wished she had her godly powers then she could just snap up a meal, but then she wouldn't have needed to eat either. At least she wouldn't have to kill anything.
She pulled up, listening as Artemis had taught her, waiting for something to move. Several moments passed without success, and she continued her search. Half a candlemark passed before a target finally presented itself to her. C'mon 'Ditie, do it!Just do it! Make Artie proud. She hesitated and tried again. We need to eat. Gabby isrelying on you. C'mon, NOW! She fired before her courage left her once again, closing her eyes so she didn't have to watch the arrow spit the rabbit. Ewww...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle knew she was going to have to go looking for her partner. None of them knew what to do next and they needed Xena's expertise to set up camp. Aphrodite had turned up with a good size rabbit, tears rolling down her face. She understood the goddess's distress only too well.
Xena's body stayed at rest against a tree while Gabrielle went in search of the taller woman. Xena? She used the uneasiness as a guide and found her lover's spirit sitting in a dark corner, away from where she had resided earlier.
C'mon, we need you out there.
I don't know if I'm up to facing him right now, Gabrielle.
I don't care about him, Xena. I care about you. I need you. We need you.
She could hear the sigh in the older woman's thoughts. Give me a moment.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Xena again took control and a fire was quickly blazing away, chasing away the shadows that had begun to form. Without a word, she prepared the rabbit for Gabrielle who took over momentarily to combine the ingredients to make a nice hot rabbit stew.
Dinner was a sombre affair. Not a word was spoken, but eyes flickered from one companion to the next, waiting for Xena to say something. The tall warrior took out her sword and proceeded to sharpen it, the sound of the whetstone sliding down the blade breaking the silence. Several minutes passed before Xena finally spoke. "Why?"
Both gods looked up, wondering who the tall woman spoke to. Shadowed blue eyes looked over to the God of War and repeated her question. "Why?"
"Why did you steal the Chakram in the first place? Didn't you know it was going to be trouble? It's called the Chakram of Darkness, for crying out loud!" Xena's volume steadily rose, her anger getting the better of her.
Xena, calm down.
Gabrielle, stay out of this.
"I wanted it. End of story."
"There you go again. It's always about you, you, you. You are such an arrogant, pig-headed, self-centred..." Xena's sputtered in frustration. She felt a ghostly hand on her shoulder, the love of her partner flowing through her and restoring her calm. I'm sorry, I don't know what's wrong with me lately.
I do. It's that thing in you. It's making you mad.
I thought I had better control over myself than that.
That's what I'm here for.
Yes, you are, Xena replied with a hint of affection.
Her eyes focused on the man opposite her, returning from her inner reflection. She again asked, "Why?"
"Why should I tell you?"
"Ares!" Aphrodite stepped in. "Enough of this. Just answer her question."
"It's none of her business."
"Oh, yes it is, Ares, very much my business. I want to know why I'm gonna die for this."
He picked up a stick and proceeded to poke the fire with it, watching as the end caught alight. He pulled it out and lifted it up, studying the small flame flickering in front of his face. His eyes returned to the face that had haunted him for so many of his waking hours.
"Kal was talking about finding someone to use this weapon. I just beat him to it, that's all. I was saving it for someone worthy enough to wield it."
He hesitated. "Maybe."
"I got some warlord wannabe to get it for me a long, long time ago. He thought it would get him into my good favour by doing so. What none of us knew then was the extent of the power within the Chakram. What a weak-minded fool he was."
"Boy, was Dad ever pissed off over having to clean that up." Aphrodite's body shivered over the close call that caused. "Anyway, he thought he'd made sure no one would ever find it." Her eyes wandered over to her brother. "But someone just couldn't help himself when he found out you were coming home."
"Why didn't you try to give it to me earlier?"
"Xena, you were a kid - a strong-willed, clever kid - but still a kid nonetheless. I thought I'd let you grow up a little before leading you to it."
"And knowing what you knew then, you were going to give it to me?"
"I knew you could take it. After all, you were my Chosen, not some run-of-the-mill hick warlord who couldn't scratch his butt if he had a map to it. You were smart, you were strong and you were single-minded in your thirst for power. You were just like me."
"I am NOTHING like you. Nothing." Xena wasn't sure whether she was trying to convince the God of War or herself with that statement. A gentle hand scratched her back, wisps of thought floating through her brain in comfort.
"So this weapon was for me all along?"
"Well, no, not back then but I was hoping someday to find someone who would be worthy of it. I knew from the moment you strode into my Temple and demanded to see me that you were special. Someone who could grab hold of the world and mould it into my image of it. We could have had it all, Xena, but that damn Roman spoiled it."
"Why didn't you just take the Chakram yourself?"
Ares stared into the heart of the fire, thinking for a moment before answering. "We saw what that power did to a mortal. Could you imagine what would have happened if one of us carried it? As much as I would like all that power, Xena, I would not be able to control it. Not even Zeus would consider trying to take it. That's why he hid it."
"And we're going to the Temple because..."
"We destroyed the carrier but not the Chakram. Zeus is hoping that it is vulnerable at the Temple."
"And I'm the unwitting carrier of this? What made you think I'd be any more successful than anyone else?"
"I wanted you to have it all, Xena. You were my greatest pupil. I've never seen such a strong will. If anyone could fight it, you could."
"I think you've over-estimated my abilities there, Ares."
Not at all, Xena. I agree with him. If anyone could control this, you could.
Please, Gabrielle. One argument at a time.
"Stop trying to be so modest, Xena. You're the best and you know it."
"I'm trying to be humble here. Stop appealing to my ego." Eyes darkened to near black looked up at the vulnerable god sitting opposite her. "This is a risky game your father is playing, Ares. We may very well be taking this thing to the one place it wants to go. Did you ever think of that?"
"Yeah, but the other possibility is not much better. He is relying on your strength of will to get it there, Xena. Can you do that?"
She took in everything the God of War was telling her, trying to form some sort of plan that could be useful in this situation. Most of the outcomes led to one conclusion, one which was not good for both her and Gabrielle. She could feel the anxiety from her partner and steered the conversation away from its logical conclusion. "So who has been causing havoc while I've been away. Anyone special?"
"Oh, someone has come to my attention. She's pretty special too, but not in your league."
"Do I know her?"
"You two have met, but I don't think you would remember her."
"What's her name, so I know to steer clear of her."
"Callisto. She's my new Chosen, but I'd drop her in an instant if you would come back to me. She likes the macabre, but you had that special fire."
Xena felt that stirring in her blood that had drawn her to Ares all those years ago. The entity magnified the attraction, and she felt that pull all over again, but without the god's power, the thought was fleeting and left only a sad reminder of what she had been.
"It's not gonna happen, Ares. Especially now. If we, by some miracle, get out of this alive, we are through. Don't go coming to me for any favours, Ares."
"No, this ends it. Go back to your other bimbo, what's-her-name. Let her kill and maim for you. I'm done."
Aphrodite sat quietly while Xena ranted and raved, giving Ares an earful. She silently cheered on the taller woman, glad to see someone finally putting him in his place. The only one who had ever done that was Zeus, but that was because Ares feared him. She glanced over to her brother, who looked suitably humbled, and knew that he understood her perfectly. He had overstepped the mark once too often and she meant what she said. Now she could get on with her business with them.
"Now, if you don't mind, it's time for sleep. Everyone get some rest. It'll be a long day tomorrow." End of discussion.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Are you OK?
No. Damn it, Gabrielle! Why does he always affect me like that?
Because he's an arrogant, self-rightous son of a...
Hey! No foul language out of that sweet mouth, please!
Am I right?
She sighed. Yeah, you're right. I gotta relax.
But we also need some sleep. You get some rest and I'll wake you in a few candlemarks to take over.
Hey... I would love to, but I'm snapping at everyone. If we don't get some rest, I'm gonna start taking off heads.
OK. But Xena could hear the hurt in her partner's voice. Oh, Hades! Her soul reached out to its other half and entwined itself around it in comfort. I love you, you know that, but rest is more important at the moment. I have a feeling that something is going to happen tomorrow, and it's not gonna be good.
Continued in Chapter 15
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