Standing outside the gates of Corinth, Joxer watched the dozens of well-armed fighters that had already gathered. When he had heard of the impending invasion, and of how King Iphicles was massing an army to counter the threat, he knew he had to be part of it. Screwing up his courage he walked briskly through the city gates. There was so much activity, people rushing about getting ready for the coming battle, anticipation and fear filled the air in a way that was oddly exciting.
It had taken a long time for him to figure out that he would never be a hero of legend like Xena or Hercules, but he wanted to prove to himself that he was a true warrior. The first thing he had done was to examine his motivations, and found many of them had to do with unrequited love.
A love he had finally realized was never going to be; at Aphrodite's temple he had made an offering and prayed to the goddess to help him find a new focus for his feelings. To his surprise his feelings did change; he still liked the Bard but he no longer felt compelled to please her.
Ever since then, even though he sometimes still traveled with Xena and Gabrielle, he felt content to be a loner, traveling across Greece taking jobs helping guard caravans or taking messages from one town to the next. He had a better appreciation for the life Jett lived, he'd always worked alone. But Joxer also felt adrift, as though he had no true purpose in his life any more. He didn't even visit Meg's place any more, not feeling any desire to bed the eager young women or men that were under her employ.
He felt a little self-conscious as he walked through the town, many of the soldiers he passed gave him odd looks. He heard several rude remarks about his hat, and more than a few crude comments about his armor, but he didn't let that deter him. He knew that his armor was a little strange compared to many, but it was all he had and he refused to abandon it.
He nearly made it to the castle, when a familiar voice called out to him. "Joxer! What are you doing here?"
Closing his eyes in disbelief, the would-be warrior turned to see the woman that had held his heart for many years. He managed a sincere smile as he greeted Gabrielle of Potadia. "Gabby! What a surprise. I was just on my way to the castle."
The Amazon Bard blinked at him for a moment, then smiled incredulously. "You're joining Iphicles' army?"
Joxer straightened his back and hardened his expression. "Of course! I've got as much right to defend Corinth or Athens or any Grecian city as you do."
"Of course, you do," Gabrielle replied dismissively. "I was just thinking that you'd be better off not interrupting them right now. Hercules and Xena are both coordinating efforts with the king. I've been sent down here to shop for some things while they keep working. They kept telling me that I was under foot, so I can only imagine what their reaction to seeing you would be like."
With a sinking heart, Joxer nodded, knowing from experience that Hercules didn't like him very much. Xena would probably welcome him, but he had never met King Iphicles, so there was no knowing what kind of reception he would get. "What do you suggest then?"
Gabrielle became thoughtful. "If I were you, I'd find one of the supply tents, they are looking for people to help distribute weapons and armor for the recruits."
"Okay, thanks, I'll do that," Joxer smiled and headed in the opposite direction that he had seen the warrior bard headed. He looked around, trying to find one of the supply tents, but he didn't seem to be able to locate any. Wandering aimlessly, he wondered how he could have been so foolish as to think of coming to Corinth. Certainly he should have remembered that Hercules was Iphicles' half brother. Naturally the son of Zeus would come to help him defend the kingdom. He might as well try traveling to one of the other cities, for all the good his meager skill would do here.
He turned a corner and saw a young girl playing in a muddy patch in the street. Down the far end of the alley a fast moving cart horse team thundered toward her, either unaware or unconcerned that someone was in the way. Acting with barely a moment's thought Joxer rushed forward determined to save the girl. He slipped in the gooy mud as he reached her, sprawling on the ground. Ignoring the rumble of the on-coming cart, he grabbed her and by the waist and searched for a way to safety. He heard a scream and looked up to see a frantic woman running toward them. Off balance and still slipping he tossed the girl into the waiting arms of her mother.
His relief of having saved the girl was replaced by terror as the horse screamed mere feet from him. He rolled forward, desperate to get out of the way and got clipped by the cart hard enough to send him hurtling into the side of a building. He must have blacked out, for the next thing he knew he was laying in on the ground, pain in his right shoulder and side screaming at him. He focused enough to see the horse and cart were gone. Breathlessly, he hauled himself back to his feet wincing each time he tried to move his right arm at the shoulder; it even hurt to breathe. He looked around but saw no trace of the child or her mother; the people about were completely ignoring him.
The crowded streets seemed even more densely packed as Joxer tried to continue on his way. Each bump and jostle sent white-hot pokers of pain shooting though him. At the end of his strength he ducked into a dimmly lit doorway and entered the small building, hoping for a reprieve from the press of people. He had to find a healer, he decided, even if he couldn't afford the expense
He stumbled to a stone bench and sat down wearily, shrugging off his travel pack as carefully as he could. But he still gasped when the straps from the pack pulled his hurt shoulder. Moments later an elderly man in black robes entered the room, eyeing him curiously. "Are you hurt, young man?"
Joxer nodded reluctantly, trying to wipe the mud off his face with his good hand. "I nearly got run over by a horse cart."
"Looks like more than a near miss," the old man observed. "Come inside then, I know a bit about the healing arts. I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you," Joxer breathed gratefully, carefully standing. "I don't know if I could have made it to a healer in those crowds. By the way, I'm Joxer."
"It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Klytus, welcome to my home," he said, as he lead the way into a larger room with well cushioned seats and a small indoor fountain of black marble. "Now lets see about getting that armor off you."
Joxer grimaced as he was seated on a long couch. "I think that's going to be a problem." He pointed to the strapping that meant his armor was put on via his injured side.
Klytus smiled reassuringly. "It's not a problem. I'll be right back." The elderly man disappeared deeper into the building and came back a few moments later carrying a very sharp looking knife. "Now hold still while I cut the straps."
"Hey!" Joxer protested. "If you do that it'll fall to pieces."
"Of course, how else are we going to get a look at you?"' Klytus replied. "Besides, leather straps are easily replaced, flesh and bone are not." With a speed that belied his age, he cut the strapping that held Joxer's armor together and peeled the pieces off. Trying to avoid injuring Joxer any further, he soon had him down to nothing but his cloth tunic and breeches. Klytus tsked as he examined the vivid bruising that was already beginning to appear along Joxer's upper arm and shoulder. "I'd say you've managed to dislocate your shoulder. We'll have to get it back into place before it swells too much. Are you sure that horse didn't run you over?"
"It did clip me, but only just." Joxer explained. "I saved a little girl who was going to get trampled."
"That was very brave of you," Klytus replied with a warm smile. "Now be just as brave now, because this is going to hurt a bit."
It took about ten minutes, but Klytus did manage to get Joxer's shoulder back into place, while how he was injured was explained in detail, but without Joxer's usual embellishments. He also found numerous other smaller injuries, all were from the rescue of the little girl. "It's an honorable man that puts the lives of others above his own," the old man praised. "I dare say you won't be rescuing anyone for quite some time. That shoulder needs time to heal and, though I didn't find any breaks, I'm quite sure you have a cracked rib or two."
"How am I going to join Iphicles' army like this?" Joxer moaned, lying down dejectedly.
"You won't be," Klytus shrugged. "Is that so important to you?"
"You wouldn't understand," Joxer replied sadly.
"I think I understand well enough," he chuckled. "A young warrior like yourself only gets a few chances to fight for the defense of your homeland. I know all about the fires of youth, even if those fires have long been turned into glowing embers in me."
"How can you be so calm when an invading horde is on its way?" Joxer asked.
"The invaders are no great threat to the assembling forces here. The tales of their size and strength have been exaggerated somewhat." Klytus waved his hand unconcerned. "If the king wishes to listen to wild speculation and panicked scouts, then so be it."
"How do you know?" Joxer asked trying to sit up.
Klytus gave him a glass of wine, which Joxer swallowed most of in one gulp. The old man gently pushed him down with one hand and taking the goblet from him with the other. "Because, my dear Joxer, I'm a priest and my god had told me the truth of this invasion. Not that anyone here would listen to me, especially the king."
"Why not? I thought King Iphicles was looking for all manner of information about the invasion force. Who are you?" Joxer's head began to swim and he realized dimmly that he had been drugged. His eyes took on a hint of panic and his struggles increased despite the fact that he was loosing ground fast.
" I drugged the wine so that you would sleep for a while, your body is still in shock and you need your rest." Klytus smiled reassuringly. Joxer stopped fighting him, but was desperate for answers. "But I see you won't rest easy until you know the truth. I am a High Priest to Ares, God of War. Iphicles had forbidden worship of Ares within the city walls, but this was my lord's first temple in Corinth and I shall not abandon it. Now sleep, I'll explain it all to you when you awaken."
Klytus tucked Joxer in and watched him for a while to make sure he wasn't going to aggravate his injury as he slept.
"He is lovely to look at when he sleeps, isn't he?" Ares said as he appeared next to his high priest.
"Yes, Lord Ares," Klytus agreed. "I'm surprised to see you here, I thought you weren't going to influence this fiasco."
"I'm still not. King Iphicles needs to be taught a lesson about the advantages of having an active War temple in his city, and the way he is going, they'll have half the country in a panic before they realize the true nature of the 'dreaded army' that approaches their gates." Ares gently cupped Joxer's chin in his left hand, while his right gently carded through the short dark hair.. "But I don't want Joxer in the middle of it."
"He is special to you, my lord." Klytus smiled in understanding.
"Yes," Ares' hand drifted down to the injured shoulder and his palm glowed briefly, he then did it again at Joxer's ribs. "They aren't completely healed, just enough that he'll be up to full strength in a few days, rather than the weeks it normally takes." He turned to face his priest. "You are my most dedicated and selfless servant. You have suffered greatly in the past few years keeping this temple alive and for that I thank you. Now I have a new task for you, teach Joxer how to fight. Offensive, defensive, and multiple opponent tactics. He has never had a proper teacher in his whole life. He needs skill and strength that comes from practice and hard work, and he's going to need them soon. Work on his endurance, he needs staying power too."
"I live to serve you, Lord Ares." Klytus bowed and Ares nodded and left in a quiet flash of power. The old priest looked down on Joxer once more and wondered what Destiny had in store for the young man.
Ares was surprised to find that instead of reappearing in the Hall of War on Olympus, he materialized in the Cavern of the Fates. The ageless women and their great tapestry stood before him.
"Greetings Ares, God of War," they said in unison.
"Why have you brought me here?" He asked, though his tone was arrogant, he was very unnerved.
"The tapestry is faltering in its design," the youngest said. "Interference from Zeus has caused it."
"Zeus knows better than to do that." Ares replied, though his father's actions lately had begun to make him wonder what the old coot was up to.
"As the tapestry stands now, the mortal son of Zeus will openly challenge Ares before the solstice," the eldest of the fates said. "Without a champion to willingly defend him, the God of War will be forced to relinquish his sword of power to Hercules and the mortal son of Zeus shall take up the mantle of War."
Ares remembered in that instant a decree Zeus had made at the winter solstice meeting on Olympus. No one had really thought anything of it, except Ares. But he didn't see it as a problem as long as he kept his actions far away from his interfering half brother. Now he wished he had taken it more seriously.
The middle aged Fate continued. "Without an understanding of War, its power will consume him and he shall destroy all of Olympus in his madness."
"How can this be stopped?" Ares asked.
"A mortal, with no blood ties to Olympus, must take up your standard willingly and defend you. Only then shall the tapestry return to its proper weave."
The cave faded and Ares found himself standing in his own Hall on Olympus. He sat down heavily on his black throne, more worried than he had been in centuries. He knew exactly what would cause Hercules to challenge him in the next few days, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
King Iphicles sat back on his throne, surrounded by his most trusted friends, as the newest reports of enemy moments and number were brought in. "You're saying this force is over ten thousand men strong?" Iolaus asked the messenger.
"That was what I was told." The man was covered with dirt and sweat from his long journey.
"What I don't understand is how an army that massive could have snuck into Greece without someone noticing." Xena commented, crossing her arms thoughtfully.
"They probably had help," Hercules said darkly. "Ares is probably behind this whole thing."
Xena shook her head. "I don't see why. He's the Greek God of War, working with warriors that don't even worship him doesn't make any sense."
"No offense, Xena, but when has anything he ever did made any sense?" Iolaus replied.
The warrior princess shrugged. "I won't attempt to justify the things he does. I used to think that all the wars he inspired me to wage were for his glory and to increase my own power. However, many of the side effects of my campaigns were the organization of the local towns into tighter communities. Better communication between towns helped not only in times of war, but in times of drought and famine."
"So, you're saying war is a good thing?" Gabrielle stared at her best friend in horror. "I can't believe you're saying that."
"Death and destruction are never a good thing," Xena replied calmly. "War should be avoided when ever possible. But sometimes, there is no alternative."
"Xena is right, you know." A voice spoke from behind them.
All turned to see the former king of Corinth standing in the doorway. "Jason!" Hercules exclaimed happily, as he strode forward and clasped Jason's hand. "I didn't know you were coming."
Jason returned his stepson's smile sadly. "Since Alcmene died I've been at loose ends. I heard about the army coming, and thought I could lend a hand." He turned to Iphicles and smiled. "With the King's permission of course."
"You're always welcome here, Jason." The young king replied tiredly. The rest of those gathered greeted the former king warmly.
"I can't help wondering how you could advocate war," Gabrielle finally said.
"Wars are a part of who we are, Gabrielle," Jason said. "Each time there is a conflict between communities larger than a hundred people, there is always a chance that one side or the other will pick up arms to get their way."
"It wouldn't be like that if Ares wasn't around," she replied heatedly.
"Gabrielle, have you already forgotten what happened when Ares became mortal?" Xena asked gently. "With no one guiding the natural hostility, it runs wildly out of control."
"But why? I refuse to accept that people can't be peaceful."
Jason shook his head and sighed. "In the entire history of man, I doubt there was ever a time when some one wasn't fighting over something. It doesn't matter why, what matters is how you respond."
"And we are responding by defending our lands and people." Iphicles added. "That we are using an army to do it, doesn't mean we're advocating war. We're simply protecting those that can't protect themselves."
"Okay, okay. I get the point." The warrior bard finally conceded. "Sorry, I've been a little peevish ever since Joxer showed up."
"Joxer's here?" Xena was surprised. "Why didn't you say something sooner."
"Joxer?" Iolaus smiled. "It's been a while since we saw him, right Herc?"
"Oh man," Hercules groaned in dismay.
"Who's Joxer?" Jason asked, curious that a single name could create so many varying reactions in his friends.
"A friend," Xena replied.
"A pain in the neck, you mean." Gabrielle retorted, then quieted at Xena's scathing look.
"Joxer is a man on a quest to be a hero," Xena said to Jason. "He isn't a very good fighter-"
"Or a good walker." Gabrielle muttered then yelped when Xena stepped on her foot.
"But his heart is in the right place. He has helped us out quite a few times." Xena turned to her best friend. "I'm still waiting for an answer."
"He showed up a few days ago. I sent him off to the supply tents to help out there. I figured it would be better than having him under foot." Gabrielle grumped.
Xena sighed and gathered her things. "I'm going to go look for him, he tends to get into trouble without even trying."
"I'll go with you." Iolaus offered, much to Hercules' dismay. "I need to stretch my legs after being stuck in here all day."
Joxer woke slowly, feeling more rested than he had in weeks. The first thing he noticed was that there were no rocks under his back and there were none of the usual sounds he was accustomed to from sleeping outside. The bed he was in was warm and soft, as was the blanket covering him. He made an attempt to stretch and was rewarded with stinging pain in his chest and shoulders. "Ow!"
"Carefully now, don't make any sudden moves. Those bones aren't quite done healing," Klytus said with a look of concern.
Joxer looked at him with surprise and apprehension. "So, you're a priest of Ares?"
Klytus smiled and nodded "I'm surprised you remember. I dosed you pretty well with that wine."
"Not that I'm not grateful to you, but I have to ask. Why are you helping me?" Joxer asked.
"I am who I am, High Priest to Ares. I am bound to assist any warrior that enters this holy place."
"But I don't worship him," Joxer insisted. "In fact I've done more to stop conflict than to fight in one."
Klytus regarded him steadily. "Perhaps, but when you do fight, who do you pray to for skill and strength? What god do you speak to, even if it is in only in your mind."
Joxer blinked and thought back. His face turned a deep crimson when he realized that he almost always asked Ares for assistance when he was in battle. His blush deepened when he remembered some of the more interesting, though less battle oriented, thoughts that had crossed his mind after having met the God of War the first time. "I guess you're right. I never realized... "
"Don't worry about it," Klytus said evenly. "Come, let's get you cleaned up and see about getting you something to eat."
Joxer stood slowly, his arm protecting his sore ribs. "Are you a healer as well as a priest?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Well, one time I got kicked by my father's horse and got a few cracked ribs, it hurt for what must have been weeks." He took a deep breath. "These don't hurt nearly as bad they did that time."
The old priest shrugged. "Perhaps it was a gift from the gods for your selfless act of courage."
"If that's the case it's certainly better than the last 'gift' a god bestowed on me." Joxer grumped.
"Do you encounter the gods often?" Klytus asked.
"More often then I ever thought I would," Joxer said sheepishly. "I think it's the company I keep."
"Tell me, did you make your armor all by yourself?" Klytus changed the subject. Though he was curious why the gods seemed so interested in this young man, he decided that it would be better not to ask.
"Yeah, I did." Joxer beamed. "Do you like it?"
"It certainly provides you with a lot of protection." Klytus hedged, trying to be diplomatic. "However, I think perhaps it makes a bit too much noise."
"Well, I did, sort of, make it out of the scraps left over from my father's armory." And my mother's kitchen, he added silently.
"Well, considering the source of materials, I think you did an excellent job." The priest led him over to a small bathing room with a marble tub filled with steaming hot water. "You wash up. I'll see to our lunch. Then later we could spar a little, if you feel up to it."
"You want to spar with me?" Joxer couldn't believe his ears.
"Just a little, to get your muscles limbered up. We can't have you getting all stiff now, can we."
"Okay!" Joxer smiled and started to strip while the priest went off to make lunch.
Ares stepped out of his Hall on Mt. Olympus and looked around. None of the other gods were within sensing range, many off to listen to mid-day petitioners. The eternal blue sky shone brilliantly over head, but as much as the God of War might want to take a moment to enjoy it, he had things he needed to do.
He crossed the prefect garden path that lead to his mother's Hall. Hera always had plants of all sorts growing. It was one of her great treasures, and her priests, knowing her love of unusual plants, often set cuttings on the alters for her to collect. She would often be found adding a new plant to her collection, using only minimal amounts of her vast powers to assure the plants grew.
That was where he found her now, kneeling down in the warm soil, getting her hands dirty. "You know, my first memories are of watching you tend this garden," he said with a kind smile.
"Your father would be less than pleased to know that," Hera said without inflection, keeping her attention on the flower that was just now taking root. "What brings you here to see me, my son."
Ares tried to ignore the flare of hurt at her lack of emotion. It wasn't too difficult, he'd been doing it for years. "I've come to ask a favor of you."
Hera looked up at that, though her expression didn't change. "A favor. That is a rare thing indeed. You have never asked one of me before." She stood and brushed the soil from her hands. "Very well, ask. Though I do not guarantee that I will grant this favor."
"Something is going to happen, something that will cause Hercules a serious blow to his ego. When it happens, I'm pretty sure all parties concerned are going to blame me for it." Ares spoke softly, his eyes never leaving those of his mother.
"Surely this is no worse than anything that has happened before," Hera said, finally showing some concern.
"It wouldn't be, except that Zeus' decree will still be in force, and you know what that means."
"That decree was only allowed because it ends at the solstice." Hera replied. "We all agreed this was a way to keep any of the gods from interfering with Hercules for a while. Surely you haven't been foolish enough to do anything around him."
"Mother, I've gone out of my way to avoid him," Ares said angrily. "We both know this was more than just a ploy to keep us away from Hercules."
Hera's eyes flashed with fire. "Zeus is supremely selfish at times, but he was never stupid. The pantheon will never accept Hercules as War."
"They won't have a choice," Ares said firmly. "The solstice is less than a week away. I need time to train my champion."
"Why not simply imbue your champion with the skills required?" Hera asked.
"Because that happened to him once already. I'm not going to put him through that again." Ares replied. "I need a pocket of space, where time goes faster, a month for each day in normal time. One that only I and those I choose can go in and out of."
Hera regarded her son curiously. "That's all?"
"Yes, I'm not going to push it any farther than that." Ares took his mother's hand and kissed it. "Also, you must not interfere, no matter what happens this has to be a fair fight form my side."
"Even if it means certain defeat?" Hera gazed into his eyes and saw his conviction.
"Yes," Ares replied.
"As you wish, my son." Hera brushed her fingers lightly through his dark hair for a moment and Ares closed his eyes trying to capture that brief touch in his heart. Then she was gone, and he stood alone in Hera's garden.
He swallowed hard and shook off the lump that had begun to form in his throat. "Thank you, Mother," he said, then flashed out of Olympus.
Ares entered the Corinthian temple moments later to see Joxer and Klytus going at it with fighting staffs. The two had stripped down to loin cloths, Joxer's bruises clearly visible on his alabaster skin. As he watched he recognized that all of Joxer's moves were stiff and defensive, as the priest tried to push him out of the training ring with a flurry of attacks. Much to Ares' pride, Joxer was holding his ground, not giving an inch except when the counter move called for it. After another few minutes of this, Klytus called a halt, allowing Joxer to rest. Ares used that moment to make himself visible to both of them.
"That was very impressive, Joxer," Ares said. The man in question stared in stunned silence, his eyes wide with apprehension.
"Lord Ares." Klytus bowed to him at the waist. "You honor us with your presence."
"I-I guess, I should go..." Joxer stammered looking for a way out.
"You have nothing to fear from me, Joxer." Ares assured him. "All true followers have the right to be here. They also have the right to ask for training from the priests."
Joxer, if anything, looked even more stunned. "You mean you're not going to kill me? After everything that I've done."
"Believe it or not," Ares smiled. "Your helping Xena is something I'm rather fond of seeing. If you hadn't joined with her, I might have never seen what a noble soul you have."
Joxer blushed slightly, not sure how to take a compliment from the God of War. Here he was wearing nothing more than a loin cloth, covered in sweat, and panting like he'd just run to Marathon. Then the other part of what Ares said filtered through his scrambled brain. "Wait, I could have gotten training at *any* temple?"
"Of course, it's part of our duties as priests to Ares," Klytus said. "All those who wish to serve may request training in any of the martial arts."
"I didn't know," Joxer said, leaning against his fighting staff tiredly. "I guess no one ever thought it was worth mentioning to me."
"Of course, the training does come with a price," Ares said, determined not to let Joxer become depressed. "Those trained at my temples must serve me for one year."
"What kind of service?" Joxer asked warily.
"I require one years service at a temple. Either as a guard or as a acolyte to the priests," Ares replied. "Occasionally I'll send those in service off to join an army, but never as a mere foot soldier. They must serve *me*, not their own interests."
"Some who serve become priests, as I did," Klytus said proudly. "Others become Warlords and commanders of armies, but many are men who wanted to be able to survive and return to their loved ones after a battle."
Joxer seemed torn, his expression one of longing and pain. Ares carefully probed his mind and recognized the conflict for what it was. The God of War stepped up to the young mortal until they were inches apart, and lifted his chin so that their eyes met. "You're worried that I might send you against Xena."
"Yes, I don't want to hurt them, they're my friends," Joxer said, defiantly. He shook just a little from his nearness to Ares. He couldn't help but feel drawn to the handsome god and it was all he could do not to lean into Ares' powerful frame.
"I won't ask that of you." Ares promised. "Maybe Discord would do that, just because that is her job, but it's not mine. But what if they raised their swords against me?"
Joxer licked his suddenly dry lips, he knew what Ares was waiting for him to say, and he almost said it without thinking. The War God's body gave off heat like a bonfire and his eyes shone with expectation that was undeniable. Did he really want to do this? Was he willing to risk the friendships he'd created over the past few years, just for the ability to hold his own in a fight?
"If they raise their swords against you," Joxer began, slowly going to his knees before the god, "I pledge to champion you and defend you."
Ares couldn't have been more stunned if he tried. "Arise, Joxer, my Champion." Even though he was pleased that Joxer took it upon himself to be his champion, the God of War felt a growing sense of apprehension. If he couldn't learn enough to hold out against Hercules, there was a very real chance that the young man would die in his attempt to serve his god.
Klytus was pleased, as he quickly gathered the items needed to mark Joxer as Ares' Champion. Joxer was a fine man and had the potential to be an excellent warrior. That Joxer pledged as he did, without prompting showed true devotion, but there was more to it than simple loyalty. He couldn't help notice the attraction that both god and mortal felt toward each other.
Klytus hadn't seen that kind of interest in his lord since Ares had fallen in love with the now mortal Nemesis. Ares had told him afterward how she had betrayed him, by claiming that Hercules was the father of the child they had created. As if he would raise his hand to hurt his own child. Klytus hoped that this time his god would have a chance to find some happiness.
As Joxer came to his feet, he noticed Klytus standing before them with a small bowl and a knife. "Hold out your hand, Joxer." As they young man did as asked Klytus swiftly sliced open Joxer's palm, then did the same to Ares, who didn't even flinch. Ares took Joxer's bleeding hand in his and held it over the bowl, allowing several drops of their combined blood to mix. Joxer felt power flow into his hand as the cut was healed; when Ares released his grip, all that remained was a small scar.
Klytus held the bowl up to Ares, who coated his hand in the mixture. He placed his bloody hand over Joxer's heart. "May the Fates bear witness that my champion has been chosen." His hand glowed, and the remaining injuries faded from Joxer's body. He removed his hand and instead of a bloody hand print, the image of Ares' sword of power appeared.
A moment later, the three Fates appeared out of thin air. "So witnessed, Ares," they said in unison and vanished again from whence they came.
"Klytus shall now begin your training in earnest," Ares said. "I shall be watching."
"Yes, my lord," Joxer replied, still in shock. "Thank you."
Ares flashed out of sight, but remained in the temple. "No Joxer, it is I who must thank you. " He felt Hera's time bubble form around them a few moments later and silently prayed that it would be enough.
Xena and Iolaus entered the supply depot to see half a dozen men and women running around doing all manner of jobs. The main tent was open and they could see Killian, the quartermaster, giving orders to some of his workers.
"Killian, could I have a word with you." Xena called over the bustle of activity.
"Very well, Xena, but make it quick. I'm very busy." The gruff voiced mountain of a man replied. He was a head taller that Xena and twice as wide, none of that bulk had to do with excess fat.
"We're looking for a friend about so tall." Xena raised her hand to Joxer's height. "Goes by the name of Joxer."
"Sorry, can't help you." Killian replied. "No one by that name has been around here."
"Are you sure?" Iolaus asked. "We were told he was directed here to help."
"Well if he was, he never made it. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a lot of work that needs my attention."
Confused and concerned the two heroes exited the tent. "What do you think happened?" Iolaus asked watching the myriad of people around them.
"Anything is possible where Joxer is concerned. I think we had better start searching for him on foot." Xena's eyes took on a hard edged worried expression.
After covering half the city Iolaus called a halt to their search. "Come on Xena, I know you're worried, but both of us are exhausted. Let's go back to the castle and call it a night. No one is going to willingly answer questions at this time of night."
Xena stopped at looked around, her blue eyes searching with a determination that suggested that she could make him appear by will alone. Finally her eyes settled on the blonde hunter. "I know, but I'm worried. It's not like Joxer to be this inconspicuous."
The hunter smiled. "With his armor you can't miss him. Look we'll start fresh tomorrow, we're both so tired he could walk past us and we'd probably never notice."
"You've got a point." Xena conceded, stifling a yawn.
"You want to tell me what's really driving you to find him?" Iolaus asked gently as they headed back to the castle.
Xena paused for a moment, then continued walking. "Am I that transparent?"
"No," the hunter replied. "It's just that Herc has a tendency to become overly focused when he's upset."
"It's Gabrielle," Xena admitted. "She found out a few months ago that Joxer was in love with her, and ever since then she has gone out of her way to keep her distance from him."
"That's rather cold," Iolaus said. "I take it Joxer didn't get the hint."
"Actually, he figured it out pretty quick. The thing is, he still considers both of us friends."
"So he puts up with the abuse like a good little punching bag." Iolaus shook his head sadly. "That's horrible."
"It gets worse. He wants to be a warrior, but no one has been willing to train him." Xena said. "If I could teach him I would, but I'm a lousy instructor and I'm reluctant to tell him the one option he has left because it might drive the last wedge between us and I'd lose that man's friendship."
"And that option being?" Iolaus was the one to halt their progress this time.
"The same way I learned, by training with the priests of Ares," Xena replied. "After all that has happened I don't know how he would react to my suggesting it."
"I gotta admit, you encouraging someone to serve Ares is strange," Iolaus said. "You really think he needs that sort of influence?"
They started walking again. Xena said nothing until they had reached the castle gate. "If he is going to walk the road he's insisting on walking and live? Then, yes, he needs it, desperately. He has a good heart; he doesn't have the same drive for blood and vengeance that I had when I began my training. He wouldn't go down the same destructive path I did."
"I wouldn't tell Herc you feel that way," Iolaus replied. "He's a little... set in his ways when it comes to Ares."
"So is Gabrielle," Xena said with full understanding.
"Come on, they are probably going to serve dinner soon," Iolaus said. "I'm starving."
Two weeks had gone by inside Ares' temple, and the God of War was amazed at Joxer's progress. Ares' Champion had a remarkable ability to learn a move after seeing it only a few times, but what had hampered his skills was an correspondingly atrocious sense of balance. After this discovery, Klytus had spent time just teaching him how to sense his own center of gravity in order to maintain his balance.
After that things went a lot smoother; Klytus was still teaching him offensive staff moves, first showing the move slowly so that Joxer could see the way his body should move, and then at full speed using a pell as a target..
"Lord Ares," Klytus began during their lunch break. "He is quiet good with the staff, he has good aptitude for it. I know you wish to move him on to edge weapons soon, but he needs more practice against different opponents."
"I'll see what I can do." Ares replied and flashed out of the temple back into real time. He appeared just outside the Temple of Love and quickly stepped inside. He tried to ignore the slightly nauseating combination of pinks, reds and whites that were his sister's favorite colors. "'Dite," he called softly.
"Hey Arry." Aphrodite greeted him with a smile. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm looking for Cupid, is he here or is he with Psyche?" .
"He should be here," she replied, silently calling for her son.
Cupid flashed into sight a moment later, holding a giggling Bliss in his arms. "You called, Mom?" He saw Ares and frowned. "Oh, hi Dad, it's been a while."
"Cupid, I need your help," Ares said quickly.
"Whoa, let me write this down, my father needs my help," Cupid said with mock astonishment. "What's the matter, one of your warlords fell in love and you want me to stop it?"
"Okay, I deserved that," Ares said, ignoring his sister's shocked expression. "But I don't have a lot to time on this end. If you come with me you can hurl all the insults at me that you want, but I need your help."
"What's so urgent?" Cupid asked, not sure how to take his father's actions. He handed Bliss off to his mother.
"The solstice is in a few days," Ares said.
Both gods of Love blinked in confusion for a moment, then Aphrodite's' eyes widened in comprehension. "The challenge decree? You don't actually think something is going to happen do you?"
"I had a visit from the Fates," Ares replied. "Hercules is going to challenge me and, without a champion who can best him, my days as the God of War are numbered."
"Why would he challenge you?" Cupid asked.
"If they are right it's a case of him jumping to conclusions, everything I've done these past six months has been away from him and anyone he knows, just so that he *won't* have a reason," Ares said angrily. "But since when have they been wrong?"
"And if your champion loses, Uncle Hercules becomes War?" Cupid felt a dawning realization that the pantheon may just well have been duped by Zeus into giving him exactly what he wanted.
"Yes," Ares replied, feeling a glimmer of hope.
"Oh, no," Cupid said, aghast. "No way. I've plans riding on him. Whole romances that hinge on him showing up at certain places. He can't do this to me!" His last outburst wasn't directed at the demigod, but at said demigod's father.
"Then you'll help me?" Ares asked.
"Damn straight, Dad," Cupid said. "Lead the way."
"Thank you. I'll explain everything while we go. Dite, I'll see you later," Ares said and he and Cupid flashed out of the hall.
"Good luck guys." She said. "Now, Bliss, we're going to find out what all the hubbub is about." The Goddess of Love flashed out of her hall as well.
The next morning found Xena and Iolaus sitting with their friends eating breakfast. The meal was wonderful, but neither of them really tasted it in their haste to finish and get moving. Iolaus shoveled his food into his mouth like it was going out of style, trying not to notice Hercules' curious glance. Xena was also avoiding Gabrielle's gaze, knowing that a fight between them would prolong the search for Joxer.
Jason and Iphicles sat on opposite sides of the large table watching the tension between their friends. It wasn't hard to see what the problem was, although neither of them could understand why one man could cause such conflict.
"So, I guess you are going back out to find your friend?" Jason said.
Both Iolaus and Xena froze for a moment, then Xena swallowed her mouthful of food and answered, "Yes, we covered most of the merchant's quarter and all the areas where the soldiers are being housed. We haven't checked the residential area, and that's a large area to cover."
"I think this is a waste of time," Gabrielle muttered.
"Until that army actually shows up there isn't much else to do, and hanging around here is just going to drive me stir crazy," Iolaus replied testily. "No offense Iphicles."
"None taken," the king replied. "Jason, why don't you go with them, I'm sure you'd like to see the changes that I've made since you left."
"That sounds like an excellent idea," Jason agreed. "Let me finish my breakfast and we'll be off."
In no time the three of them were headed out of the castle, leaving one amused and two frustrated friends behind to deal with the crisis., such as it was.
It was nearly lunchtime and Jason was getting tired. He had forgotten how tiring running with heroes on a mission could be. "I'm getting too old for this," he muttered softly.
"I think we can rest a few minutes, Jason." Xena said. "Next time just let me know I'm moving too fast. I didn't mean to set such a break-neck pace."
Iolaus slumped gratefully against the wall next to a hanging plant holder. "Don't feel bad, Jason. Xena has stamina to spare. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear she was related to Hercules." Xena gave him a sheepish smile that sent prickles down his spine. "Wait, you're not related to him, are you?"
Xena sighed and leaned against the wall next to him. "There is some speculation about who my father is. I accused Ares, he denied it. We fought, I beat him in open combat. He didn't use any of his powers and to those who witnessed it, it was enough to have me added to the rolls of the demigods." She pushed the planter out of the way with a casual brush. "But am I really a daughter of Ares? I don't know."
"That's funny," Jason said suddenly. "I've never seen a helmet used as a planter before."
"What do you mean?" Iolaus asked, turning his attention to the hanging plant. "Wait, isn't that-"
"Joxer's helmet." Xena confirmed grabbing it and nearly up-ending the freshly potted plant in the process. "Come on, let's go find out where this 'planter' came from."
The searched for a minute and found the entrance to the building. Jason went first and knocked on the door, a few moments later a young woman with dark hair appeared. "Can I help you?" she asked.
"Yes, we saw this hanging on the side of your building," Jason began kindly. "We were wondering where it came from."
The woman looked a little frightened. "I found it on the street a few days ago. I thought it would make a nice planter."
"That helmet belonged to a friend of ours, we'd only just heard he was in town, but we can't find him. Have you seen him?" Xena said with more force than Jason had used.
"There was a man, he saved my daughter from getting hit by a horse cart. He looked like he was injured, so I ran to get a healer." She said quickly. "But it took so long to find anyone who would come, that when I got back he was gone. I found the helmet a little while later nearly buried in the mud."
"And you didn't think to inform anyone?" Iolaus asked.
"Inform who about what?" she retorted. "A man I don't know and barely saw for more than a minute that *might* have gotten hurt? I have a four-year-old that I'm trying to raise on my own. I'm grateful for his help, but I don't have time for this. Now if you'll excuse me."
"Wait," Xena grabbed her arm. "Where did this happen?"
"Down the next block, where I work in the laundry, about three buildings down from where Ares' Temple used to be." The woman ducked back into her home and locked the door against them.
"I hate to say this," Iolaus said, staring at the closed door. "But if he was hurt and he didn't make it to a healer..." They made their way quickly to the next block, searching for any sign of where Joxer may have gone.
"Dammit!" Xena fumed. "Why couldn't Gabrielle say something sooner?"
"Maybe she thought he wasn't worth mentioning," a voice said behind them. All three of them turned to see Ares appear in a shower of sparks.
"Ares." Xena growled his name with venom. "I guess I was wrong when I thought you weren't involved here."
Ares laughed. "You think I'd have anything to do with this mess? Please, my time is very valuable and I have much more important things to do."
"Then exactly why are you here?" Jason asked, silently grateful that Hercules was back at the castle; he didn't think this run down section of the city could handle a battle between those two. That relief was tempered by the knowledge that if he wanted to, Ares could kill them all before they could even try to run.
"Joxer." Ares said seriously.
Xena drew her sword in a lightning quick move. "If you've hurt him."
"Relax," Ares said in a calm voice. He raised his hands to forestall any action. "He's fine, no thanks to Blondie. He was hurt, but he's in good hands now."
"So he was injured." Iolaus said worriedly.
"Not too bad, but he's made a remarkable recovery." Ares smiled to himself.
"Where is he?" Xena demanded, though her voice was less harsh than it had been a few moments before.
"Actually, at the moment I believe Klytus is sparring with him." Ares said thoughtfully.
"Klytus?" Jason asked in surprise. "He's still alive?"
"And kicking." Ares grinned. "I figured someone should know and, since you were always respectful to all the temples when you were king, I'll tell you. Klytus still maintains my temple here. No one actually knows it is here, but that's not a bad thing at the moment."
"Wait, isn't Klytus the priest that helped you outfit the Argo with weapons before you set sail to find the Golden Fleece?" Iolaus asked Jason.
"Yes, he was very... insightful when it came to my needs." Jason replied. He turned his gaze back to Ares, to see the god being studied intently by the warrior princess. "If Joxer is sparring with Klytus, does that mean he's under your tutelage?"
"Yes, for the moment he is getting weapons instruction." Ares replied. "You'll see him again when he feels he is ready."
"What's really going on here, Ares?" Xena asked, her eyes widened. "You're worried about something. What is so bad that it's got you being honest."
"I noticed you were concerned about him and decided to put your minds at ease." Ares replied evenly. "However, I have to inform you that the, ahem, 'army' that you were waiting for, just came over the hill."
"What?" Iolaus spun at the sound of the alert trumpets sounding at the city's gates. "The city is being attacked!"
"Dammit!" Xena muttered as she turned and ran for the city gates with Iolaus hot on her heels, leaving Jason in the dust. "This isn't over, Ares!" She called back.
The former king turned to follow them, but was still close enough to hear the God of War's parting remark. "No, my dearest daughter, it hasn't even begun."
Joxer stood in the middle of the training room, sweat pouring down his face. He wore a thick leather tunic, matching leggings, and the best fitting boots he'd ever had in his life. In each hand he held a short sword; they were practice weapons that had been deliberately forged to be dull. His opponent also had a dulled weapon, a long sword with at least six inches more reach than he had, and it showed. Even though the blade didn't cut, he felt bruises forming at each place the sword slipped though his defense.
He saw a flash of white from Cupid's wings out of the corner of his eye; it gave him about a second to bring his swords up to block the next blow. He barely made it, the clash of steel on steel sang through the air, his arms vibrating painfully from the strength of the blow. The attack was far from over, as Cupid spun out of the block and came at him from his open side. Again he managed to move one sword in to block, his hands moving as fast as humanly possible. Suddenly he saw an opening and sliced with the sword in his left hand, the dull blade hit it's target, the inside of Cupid's left thigh, coming less than an inch from a very tender area on man and god alike. "Okay, I think that's enough practice for one day," the God of Love said with a squeak. "Joxer why don't you cool down and I'll see to dinner."
For Joxer every day of the past month and a half it was the same routine, wake up and have breakfast, then do stretching exercises. This was followed by two hours of staff drills and an hour of knife throwing. After lunch Klytus would bring out the practice weapons and explain the strengths and weaknesses of each fighting style as well as what armor was most useful in what kind of battle. Afterward Klytus would choose a weapon for Joxer to learn the basic defensive and offensive moves until dinner.
Dinner was often in the company of Ares and as of last week Cupid had joined them as well. While Joxer was becoming more comfortable being around the gods, he found he had another problem. Ares was the most attractive person he had ever met. Dark, brooding, and dangerous, just as you would expect in a war god, but behind that was something that Joxer could only label as a terrible loneliness.
After dinner was even harder on him. After the first few weeks it was obvious that Klytus was getting too old to take care of all his training needs on his own. The old priest had been giving him rub-downs after dinner each night, to keep his stiff muscles from cramping, but he often grew too tired to do a thorough job. Ares, seeing the problem took up the task of giving him the massage himself.
Every time Ares touched him, Joxer felt himself grow hard. At first he was terrified that Ares would become offended. But Ares just smiled and said, "Lets not worry about it until your training is done, okay?" Joxer agreed to that and thought he saw more than a little interest in Ares' eyes. Most of the time the massage would leave him feeling like a wet noodle and he would promptly fall asleep when Ares was finished. Then the cycle would begin again the next morning.
"How are things going?" Ares asked as he appeared in the temple, having just left Xena and her friends.
"Good," Cupid said. "If I can be any judge of a fighter."
"Cupid, as my son, you are more than qualified to judge someone's ability to fight."
"Listen," Cupid began cautiously. "It's not as if I don't think Joxer can't handle himself or anything. But I was thinking that maybe I could go to Hercules, you know, warn him off."
"No," Ares replied tiredly. "He would wonder why you were warning him off and probably assume the worst."
"Dad, Hercules can be a bit narrow minded at times, but he isn't a *total* jerk." Cupid felt a certain level of loyalty to his uncle since he had managed to get him and Psyche together, which had brought him Bliss.
"No, but he still blames me personally for what happened to his wife, the Hind." Ares said. "Zeus ordered me to kill all the Hindes, the only reason he allowed her to live was because she was an acolyte. I had no choice but to kill her once she left my service. Hercules refused to admit that his insistence that she didn't need my protection is what got her killed."
"She was his wife, can you blame him for being angry?" Cupid said.
"Nemesis was my lover, she bore my child," Ares retorted. "And because of him, I can't see my own son. Yet he got to beat the crap out of me, while I had no choice but to let my son go. Do you have any idea how it feels to be denied the chance to raise a child, not just once, but twice?"
"I can't imagine what you're going though," Cupid placed a comforting hand on his father's shoulder. "Now that I have Bliss, I can't even imagine how you managed to stay away when I was little."
"I became very focused on my work." Ares looked away from his son to stare at Joxer, who was being measured by Klytus for a new suit of armor. Once again the young man was nearly naked, and Ares let his eyes wander down the pale, muscular body appreciatively.
Cupid studied his father for a moment and nearly fell over in surprise. Ares was falling in love with his champion, it was little more than a glimmer of emotion, since he was still very wrapped up in all the unresolved issues of the coming challenge but, it was growing steadily.
"So there is no army heading for Corinth?" Cupid asked, not having paid much attention to that city lately.
"Nope, no army," Ares smiled. "And you'll never guess what is on its way."
Hercules stared over the city wall, not really sure what to make of what he saw. This wasn't at all what he was expecting when the warning horn sounded. There was no sign of the approaching army, just several dozen brightly painted wagons all coming in to view as they came over the hill. There were bells on all the horses and several of the wagons held caged animals. The lead wagon stopped about a hundred yards from the gates and a man in very bright, flowing robes climbed down and walked toward them. Behind him Hercules heard Iolaus and Xena coming up the wall. Gabrielle greeted them both warmly and got out of their way so they could see what was going on.
"I say, have we come at a bad time?" the man approaching called. He was dressed in bright silks and bells on his ankles jangled with every step.
"You could say that," replied Iphicles. "What is your business here at Corinth?"
"I'm so sorry, I thought that my messenger would have arrived a long time ago." The man bowed at the waist with a flourish. "I am Tenious Thowan, and this is my troop of performers. We're here to bring entertainers from across the world, right into your fair city for the solstice."
"Tenious Thowan's troop of performers?" Iolaus said, blinking several times and looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh.
"I had heard that you were already expecting us," Tenious added. "Although I'm guessing that perhaps there has been some sort of miscommunication."
"What's wrong Iolaus?" Hercules asked in confusion. Several soldiers who were in earshot of the conversation started to chuckle and the noise level began to rise as the information at the gate was spread. Gabrielle was out right laughing and Xena couldn't help but chuckle.
Jason was actually smiling with suppressed mirth by the time he made it to the gate. "Hercules, you look a little confused."
"I am. Why is everyone laughing?" he demanded. That sent several soldiers laughing harder.
"Tenious Thowan sounds like 'ten thousand'," Jason replied. "We were wrong; there was no army, it was just a bunch of performers coming to entertain the city."
Stunned, Hercules started laughing as well, realizing that there really was no danger.
"Excuse me," Tenious called. "But would you mind telling me what is so funny?"
Iphicles leaned over the wall and said, "I think you had better come in, it's a bit of a complicated story."
Klytus circled Joxer slowly, checking the fit of each piece of the new armor that he was now wearing. It consisted of a thick leather chest plate that had the image of Ares' sword on it's front as a metal accent. He had fully articulated leather arms and gauntlets that covered his hands to the knuckles in Hephestion metal. The leg armor covered him from ankle to just above the knees, with leather skirting covering him from the waist to mid-thigh. Klytus added one more piece to Joxer's new armor, a helmet that covered most of his face so that only his eyes and mouth were easily seen.
"How does it feel?" Ares asked, his eyes wandering down the now intimidating figure, admiring the way the armor fit.
"A lot lighter than my old armor." Joxer said, flexing his arms and rotating his shoulders. "I've never worn a suit this well made in my life."
"Thank Klytus for the armor, it was his when he was a brash young man," Ares said. "I had Hephestus fix it up and fit it for you."
Joxer impulsively hugged the old priest. "Thank you. You can't know what that means to me."
"Don't thank me yet." Klytus said with a smile. "Now, comes the hard part, learning to do all those moves again, with the added weight of this armor." He picked up his fighting staff and tapped Joxer on the head with it. "Now lets get to work."
"Aw, man..." Joxer's armor clad shoulders slumped.
The general relief at learning that there wasn't going to be a battle turned into a celebration as wine casks were opened and drinks were imbibed with gusto. The troop of performers set up just outside the gates in a large ring that they made with banner poles and a fence to block the view when changing costumes.
Iphicles, Hercules, Xena and their friends sat together to one side of the ring watching the spectacle and drinking merrily. Hercules was a little more drunk than he usually allowed himself to get and his good mood was tempered by the occasional laughter that seemed directed at him. He had been so sure that the army was coming, he had personally believed the exhausted messenger who, after further questioning this evening, turned out to have gotten his information second hand.
Tenious sat between Iphicles and Jason, explaining the finer points of the short play that was being performed. He was as flamboyant close up as he was from a distance, even more with the subtle shades of makeup on his face. He also had no qualms about showing his interest in any muscular male that walked by. "I hope I don't offend you but, I have to ask," he began. "Didn't you think to double check the reports of this army?"
"We trusted the information we had." Iphicles said with a shrug. "It was as reliable as we could hope to get at this point."
"Yeah, we were so sure that it was really an army, we had half the country in a panic," Iolaus said with a drunken laugh. "It wasn't until Ares showed up that I had any doubts at about it."
Hercules lifted his head, his drink fogged mind picking up on Iolaus' words. "Ares? What about Ares?"
"We saw him while we were looking for Joxer, he laughed about the army." He sighed. "I guess it isn't hard to realize that War would know if an army was on the way."
"Ares..." Hercules downed another glass of wine. "I should have known he had something to do with this."
"Herc, lighten up," Iolaus smiled. "No one died and the solstice is tomorrow."
"And Ares is laughing at all of us." Hercules growled.
"So we got a little egg on our faces," Xena said, as she listened nearby with Gabrielle sleeping next to her. "It won't be the last time, and it certainly isn't the first."
"He made fools of us in front of the whole kingdom." Hercules insisted. "And I'm not going to let him get away with it."
"Don't you think you are over reacting just a little?" Jason suggested standing to face his long time friend. "When Ares showed up there was no indication that he had any concerns what so ever about what was going on."
"Right, and I'm sure he was in this city just to check out the local harvest levels," Hercules scoffed. "Ares has been trying to destroy me for years, of course he was behind this."
"To what end?" Xena stood as well, her movements waking Gabrielle.
"To make me a laughing stock, to discredit me in the eyes of the people," Hercules replied heatedly.
"No offense," Jason began. "But I think you're doing a good job of that right now, without his help. Get a grip Hercules."
"Calm down, Hercules." Iolaus said sternly, tired of his best friend acting like a spoiled five year old. "What are you going to do? Pick a fight?"
"Exactly," Hercules stated. He turned his eyes to the heavens and shouted, "Ares! Come down here and face me you coward!"
Lightning flashed across the cloudless sky, sending the hundred or so spectators scurrying for cover. Tenious and his troop ran for the wagons, not wanting anything to do the demigod and his family problems.
Iolaus grabbed at Hercules arm. "What are you doing? Have you lost your mind? There is no reason for this!"
"Ares will never stop tormenting me. I'm going to put an end to this once and for all." Hercules brushed off Iolaus' frantic attempts to stop him. "Ares, I challenge you, come fight me, if you dare!"
The world seemed to explode with light, so bright everyone was forced to shield their eyes. When they could see again, they saw Hermes standing in the center of the ring. He worn his full regalia; winged boots on his feet, golden helmet on his head and a caduceus in his left hand. When he was sure he had everyone's attention, he pulled out a scroll from his belt, unrolled it and read it aloud.
"By decree of the King of the Gods of Olympus, any god challenged by a mortal, between the winter and spring solstice of this year, must bring forth a willing mortal champion to defend them. If the challenger should win, then the defeated god's powers are forfeit to the victor. Only if the challenger retracts the challenge will the combat not occur."
Ares, eating a light lunch with Joxer, felt the time bubble drop an instant before his mother appeared before him. "Ares, the Fates were correct, Hercules has challenged you before the solstice," Hera said, her normally cold eyes bright with worry. "You and your champion have been summoned."
Joxer felt like the ground had just dropped out from under him when he heard what was said. "Hercules? Why would he do that?"
Ares sighed and turned to his champion. "He just found out that there was no real army to fight and he lost face because of it. He blames me, because there is no way that he could possibly have been wrong."
"But that is ridiculous, everyone is wrong once in a while." Joxer said, pulling on his armor.
Klytus and Cupid appeared from the other side of the temple at a run; the old priest was out of breath and looked worried. "Hermes is setting up the field of combat in the performance ring," Cupid said. "I think we need to get out there."
Ares knelt in front of Joxer and helped him strap on his leg armor. "I know you had no idea you would ever actually have to face one of your friends," he said apologetically. "I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to back out."
Joxer smiled down at his god. "We don't always pick our battles. I swore to defend you and I'm going to do just that."
"You understand I won't be able to help you." Ares warned, as he rose to his feet. He took the helmet into his hands and raised it over Joxer's head.
"I know." On impulse, Joxer stood on his toes and touched his lips to his god. For a moment there was no reaction, then Ares dropped the helmet and gripped his champion's shoulders to pull him closer and seal their kiss. Both were breathless when they finally pulled away from each other. "That was a promise. We'll finish it when the challenge is over."
"You bet your ass we will." Ares said with a grin. He then picked the helmet back up and set it firmly over Joxer's head. "Alright, lets go." With a flash of power the gods and mortals disappeared from the temple.
The heroes of Greece watched with horrified fascination as Hermes created two racks of weapons, one at each side of the ring. There was a flash of light as Ares, Cupid and two others appeared at the far end of the ring.
"I don't understand," Gabrielle said, watching the man in armor. "Hercules has to fight him? If he's mortal, the guy hasn't got a chance."
"Wait a minute," Hercules called to Hermes. "I didn't know anything about this decree. My grievance is with Ares, not one of his flunkies."
"If you will not fight Ares' defender," Hermes replied calmly, "then you are admitting Ares is innocent in this matter. Do you wish the challenge retracted?"
"Not a chance," Hercules growled. "If this guy sides with Ares, then it's his funeral."
Cupid stepped close to Joxer, having no problem feeling the tension vibrating off the young man. "Are you ready?"
Joxer met his eyes evenly. "Honestly? I'm terrified, what happens if I lose?"
"You won't, as long as you fight with your heart, like you've always done," the God of Love replied. "No one can ask more than that of anyone."
Joxer nodded and turned to his god. "Any suggestions?"
"Just one." Ares smiled at him. "Hercules is used to being attacked. Don't attack first, make him come to you."
"Yes, my lord." Joxer bowed deeply, then turned and entered the arena. He took a fighting staff from the weapons rack and walked out to meet Hercules.
Seeing his choice of weapons, Hercules also chose a staff and entered the arena. "You'll regret following an evil god like Ares."
Joxer didn't reply, except to test the balance of his staff and make ready to fight. The two combatants circled each other slowly, the sand and sawdust covered ground was soft and dusty under their feet.
"Let the combat begin!" Hermes declared and teleported to the edge of the ring to watch.
Hercules charged forward, swinging his staff in high arch, obviously trying to mow his opponent down with a quick blow to the head. Joxer ducked and rolled away, his momentum taking him behind the demigod. He swung his staff as he came up into a crouch, hitting Hercules on back of his legs, driving him to his knees.
Joxer surged fully to his feet and attacked even as Hercules was regaining his footing. They traded shots for several minutes, Joxer took a solid hit to his left calf and tumbled to the ground. Hercules swung his staff at the fallen man, and Joxer raised his staff over his head to block the blow. Hercules' strength broke Joxer's staff in two.
Without pausing, Joxer shifted his grip and swung the two pieces inward, slamming Hercules in the ribs. Not waiting to see if the shot had any effect, he ran to the weapons rack and grabbed two short swords. Joxer turned to see Hercules coming at him, his staff over his head. He charged as well, side stepping the staff as it swung down to crush his skull, using his forward momentum he tumbled into a handspring and kicked Hercules in the head as they passed each other.
Hercules spun in place and swung with the staff again, this time it connected with Joxer's side, sending him flying ten feet, he landed in a heap face down in the dirt. Hercules went to the weapons rack himself and picked up a long sword, advancing on the still prone figure.
On the side-lines, Xena watched the fight intently. Her eyes riveted on Ares' defender, there was something about him that she just couldn't put her finger on. His fighting style wasn't like anything she had seen before, flowing like quicksilver across the ground, dodging most of Hercules' blows and landing more than she expected. With his face covered by the helmet, there was no way to identify him.
Jason wasn't really watching the fight, he was watching the perimeter. Where, as the fight continued, one by one, the gods of Olympus began to appear as silent witnesses to the battle. One of the gods, Aphrodite, looked absolutely frantic, but like the rest of the pantheon all she did was watch.
"We have to stop this," Iolaus said. "There is no reason for this fight!"
"Ares started this," Gabrielle countered. "Maybe if he stopped interfering then Hercules wouldn't have such a strong grievance against him."
"Are you crazy? Don't you understand what will happen if Hercules wins?" Iolaus said. "He'll become War. He has always believed that wars are wrong, if he becomes the personification of everything he hates he could go insane."
"But if he loses, then everyone will think he was wrong," Gabrielle replied, worriedly. "How can any of this end well?" All the mortals winced when they saw Hercules' opponent go down.
"NO!" The cry from across the field broke the chatter of the crowd. Mortal and god alike turned to see Cupid struggling to hold Ares back from entering the arena.
"Ares, you can't! If you go out there, you'll forfeit." Cupid shouted.
"Hercules can have it, he can have anything he wants," Ares pleaded with his son. "Please, I can't lose him too."
Aphrodite joined Cupid, holding Ares back, her eye bright with tears. "It's not over yet, Arry. You have to believe in him."
Joxer knew he was in trouble, his side felt like it had been hit with a boulder, his ribs hurt worse than he could ever remember them hurting before, far beyond what it had felt like all those years ago when his father's horse had kicked him. It hurt just thinking about moving. "Don't think, just move," he muttered, hearing Hercules' soft footsteps coming closer. "Move, move, move..." He pulled himself to his knees and crawled for his sword which lay a few feet away. He wrapped his hand around the handle, only to have it stepped on and held down. He cried out as he felt the bones in his hand grind against each other.
"Give it up!" Hercules demanded. "You are beaten."
"Not so long as I breathe." Joxer grated through clenched teeth.
"Your choice." Even as Hercules raised his sword for a death blow, Joxer moved. With his right hand still trapped under the demigod's foot, Joxer reached with his left hand into the gap in his leg armor and pulled out a long thin dagger. Ignoring the burning pain in his chest, he pulled against the weight holding his hand down and deliberately dislocated his shoulder again. With a cry of pain and determination he twisted and thrust the dagger into Hercules' abdomen to the hilt.
A hush fell over the crowd as the sword dropped from Hercules' hand and he fell to his knees then rolled onto his back. Blood poured out from around the dagger staining his leathers and was absorbed by the sand. He stared at the knife in his gut, unable to believe that he had lost. The point of a sword touched his sternum forcing him to look away from his wound. "You've... killed me. Who are you?" he asked weakly staring up into the masked face.
"You aren't dead yet, son of Zeus," Joxer rasped as blood dripped slowly from his mouth and nose. It took everything he had left to keep his left hand from shaking as he held the sword up. "Yield and I'll let you live."
Hercules felt the world darken around him. "I... yield..."
"Hercules has been defeated." Hermes declared for all to hear. "Ares has proven innocent in the charges set against him." Lightning flashed across the sky as the host of gods departed. Jason, Xena and the rest of Hercules' friends ran forward to help the fallen hero.
Joxer staggered toward the edge of the arena, his eyes searching blindly. "Ares..." he whispered as he collapsed.
"No!" Ares teleported to his side and gathered Joxer's bloodied and battered body into his arms. "I have you. I have you. Don't leave me, please."
"I'm not... going anywhere," Joxer replied with a groan.
Klytus was beside them moments later and carefully removed the helmet. Even with the armor, Joxer was a mess. "We have to take him somewhere safe, my lord. He is gravely wounded."
Jason had watched as Hercules was tended to with emergency field surgery, thanks to a quick call for one of Iphicles' healers. Now he turned his attention to the other side of the arena, where he saw a priest of War and Ares cradling the victor with Cupid and Aphrodite guarding them. "Klytus?" Jason called.
Xena turned at Jason's question and recognized Joxer the moment the helmet came off. "Joxer?" She said in disbelief. Her surprise turned to fear when she saw his condition. "Joxer!" She knew Hercules was in good hands and raced to her other friend's side. "Why, Ares? Why did you make him fight?" She demanded.
"Ares couldn't force anyone to be his champion," Cupid replied. "Only a willing mortal could defend him."
"He wanted to," Ares said, his voice breaking. "After everything he'd been through, how could I deny him?"
"Xena..." Joxer's eyes fluttered open. "I did good, didn't I?"
Xena stared at him for a moment, remembering what Iolaus had said about what would happen if Hercules had won, and smiled sadly. "Yes, Joxer, you did great."
"My lord," Klytus said, noticing a gathering crowd. "We need to move him."
"I'll take him to Aesclepius," Ares said, lifting Joxer into his arms. "Klytus, stay here and explain what happened to King Iphicles. He has a right to know, since it happened here."
"Ares, I know we haven't been on good terms, but I was hoping I could come with you." Xena said.
Ares didn't seem to know how to answer that. He was saved from having to decide when Aphrodite came to his rescue. "I'll bring her, Ares. Just go." The Goddess of Love sighed with relief as he flashed out.
"Was that really your friend?" Jason asked Xena.
"Yes, it was," Klytus said. "Joxer is Ares' defender and champion by his own free will."
"I've never seen someone match Hercules in battle like that." Jason said. "At least no one mortal."
"That's because I helped him train," Cupid said with pride. "He's as good if not better than Iolaus in some respects."
"Xena, I'll let our friends know what is happening," Jason said. "You go on, that young man needs a friend by him."
"Thank you, Jason." Xena said, giving him a quick hug. She stepped close to the two love gods and the three of them vanished.
"It has been a long time, Jason," Klytus said cautiously. "You look well."
"Klytus," Jason greeted him with a smile. "I wish I'd known you were still around, I would have visited."
"It's okay, Jason," Klytus replied. "We both had our duty, you as king, I as high priest. Still friends?"
"Always. Now, let's get going," Jason said. "It's a long walk and these old bones don't move as fast s they used to."
Klytus chuckled in agreement. "I thought it was just me."
Iolaus paced outside the room where the healers were working on Hercules. He couldn't believe how much blood his friend had lost in the first few minutes. Strangely, he was more relieved than anything else. Having lost, Hercules wouldn't become a god and Iolaus wouldn't lose him to Olympus. Gabrielle sat nearby chewing on her fingernails, thoughtfully. She hadn't said much since the battle had ended and for that Iolaus was grateful.
Jason entered the room at a brisk pace; he looked as tired and wrung out as the rest of them. "Hercules?"
"He's going to make it," Iolaus said. "Most of the bleeding had stopped by the time we got here. The healers are still stitching him up."
"Well thank the gods," Jason sighed and sat down.
"What happened to the other guy?" Gabrielle asked bitterly. "Probably gloating about having bested Hercules, who ever he is."
"The 'other guy', as you put it, was also seriously wounded in the fight. Ares took him to Aesclepius and Xena left with Cupid and Aphrodite to make sure he had at least one mortal friend at his side." Jason spoke to her like he was talking to a child.
"Xena knows that guy?" Gabrielle was less than pleased. "Who is he?"
"You know him as well," Jason replied. "He's the young man Xena and Iolaus have been trying to find over the past few days."
"That was Joxer?" Iolaus was shocked and relieved all at once.
"Oh right, Joxer The Mighty beat Hercules." Gabrielle laughed. "I beat the stuffing out of him the first day we met. Tell me another one."
"I'm not joking, Gabrielle," Jason chided her. "He entered into Ares service in return for training as a warrior."
"Do you know if he is going to make it?" Iolaus asked, ignoring the bard's stunned silence.
"I spoke with Klytus, he seemed hopeful," Jason said. "But I have to tell you, Hercules didn't hold back on that last shot. The fact that Joxer was even conscious afterward is amazing."
The door opened, cutting off conversation. The healer stepped out, wiping blood off his hands. "You can see him now."
"How is he?" Iolaus asked.
"Resting, he lost a lot of blood," the healer said. "But the blade was very sharp and cut cleanly. I repaired the damage and closed the wound. He'll need bed rest for a while so that he heals properly. And I mean rest, no trying to save the world for a least a month."
"Of course." Iolaus smiled. "He'll get the rest he needs, even if it means tying him to the bed."
Ares flashed into the Hall of Healing and carefully lowered Joxer, who was now unconscious, onto a long stone table that was covered in soft furs. He willed away the armor Joxer was still wearing. "Aesclepius, I need your help," he called. Ares took Joxer's left hand in his. "Just hang on for a little while longer."
"I'm here, Ares." Aesclepius said, as he approached. "Let me look at him." Ares moved back a step, but was reluctant to let go. The God of Healing passed his hands over Joxer's body, slowly assessing his injuries. "It's a good thing you brought him to me quickly. I doubt he would have much of a chance with a mortal healer, no matter how skilled."
"Is he that bad?" Ares asked fearfully, having noticed how shallow Joxer's breathing had become.
Aesclepius placed both of his hands on Joxer's right side. "I'm attempting to heal the most sever damage now. Hercules didn't pull that last shot like he normally would with a mortal. Hercules managed to shatter Joxer's lower rib cage. If he had stayed perfectly still it wouldn't have been so bad. Because he didn't, the jagged pieces of bone punctured his lung and perforated his liver. I'm surprised he lasted this long."
"He promised he wouldn't leave me," Ares whispered.
Aesclepius smiled knowingly at the distracted war god. "And with my help, he'll be able to keep that promise for some time to come. Though I dare say, if I only heal the life threatening injuries, he will still be out of commission for a while."
Xena, Cupid and Aphrodite watched quietly from nearby. "He has it bad doesn't he?" Cupid said.
"You better believe it, Cupid." Aphrodite whispered back. "The best part is, they did it all on their own."
"What are you two talking about?" Xena asked.
"Can't you see? Ares is in love with Joxer," Aphrodite said with a grin.
"And vice versa," Cupid added with a smirk.
Xena's eyes widened in surprise then she smiled. "Why do I get the feeling life just got a whole lot more interesting."
"Just a bit." Aphrodite's grin vanished. "Oh, I have to go. There is something I need to take care of, I'll be back soon."
Zeus paced his private chamber, furious at his failure. He couldn't believe Hercules had lost against a mere mortal. Even now he could feel Aesclepius working on the man. "How dare Ares bring him here, when my son lies injured on Earth?" he said to himself.
"Talking to yourself, Husband?" Hera said as she entered the room. "You know what the mortals say about that."
"What do you want, Hera?" Zeus demanded. "Have you come to gloat?"
"No, Zeus," Hera said. "I've come to warn you. Our children will not look kindly upon you for what you tried to do."
"Hercules-" Zeus began.
"Is a demigod!" Hera cut him off. "In the fullness of time he *will* take his place amongst the pantheon. But he will *not* be the God of War."
"Was destined to be what he is," Hera refused to let Zeus start an unproductive tirade. "And, unless you have forgotten, he is *also* your son. Our son."
"But that's the point isn't it, Dad?" Aphrodite appeared in the room. "Ares is your first born son, the first child you and Hera had. So naturally, the feud between you would spill over onto him."
"Leave, Aphrodite; this has nothing to do with you," Zeus commanded.
"Oh, no way," she replied, anger radiating off her. "I did a little research in the Halls of Time and I thought I'd share it with you. It's just a bonus that Hera is here to hear it too."
Hera quirked an eyebrow. She hadn't seen the Goddess of Love this upset in a long time.
"If you two don't stop this feud, you're going to destroy Ares." She said. "Not just kill him, destroy him. The chaos when Hades helped Sisyphus steal his sword was bad enough, this would have been ten times worse. Hercules wouldn't have been able to control that power, not in a century."
"I had nothing to do with Zeus' plottings." Hera said.
"Not this time," the love goddess retorted. "But what you two have been doing to him over the centuries is unforgivable."
"What do you mean?" Hera demanded.
"Ares is the God of War, but that isn't all that he is. However that is all you will allow him to be," Aphrodite said. "He has had maybe four true lovers in his entire existence, most of whom left him because you two interfered. Do you know he sleeps with his warlord's wives occasionally? Not because he is rewarding the women but, because he needs to feel loved, no matter how briefly. There is no way to know how many children he has made by those unions," she continued. "Even if he knew, he wouldn't acknowledge them, because he is afraid they would be used against him."
"I would never use a child against someone," Zeus denied.
"Not directly, not intentionally, but you have done it. Both of you have and it stops now," Aphrodite said.
"Are you ordering us to kiss and make up?" Hera asked, amused and impressed by the love goddesses' bravado.
"Essentially, yes," she replied.
"And if we don't?" Zeus asked, also rather impressed.
"Then I'll make sure that the two of you experience the way the other half lives." Aphrodite grinned evilly.
"You wouldn't!" Zeus was horrified.
"Try me," she shot back. "I hear about one scheme, one plot and I'll do it. Zeus, you won't be able or interested in getting it up and Hera, you'll be trying to climb into the pants of anyone and everything that has a dick for the rest of eternity. Got it?"
The King and Queen of the gods stared in shock at the goddess that they had both, long ago, written off as a bubble head. Zeus turned to his wife and offered his hand. "Perhaps we *have* taken this feud of ours too far?"
Hera shrugged and took his hand in hers. "Perhaps. Maybe we need to start again? For the sake of our children."
"For the sake of us all." Zeus replied. Aphrodite smiled as they sat down on the couch nearby and for the first time in centuries, began to talk.
Aesclepius finally lifted his hands from his patient's body with a tired sigh. "That is all I'm going to do for now. I've reset his shoulder and his hand and the bones are knitting at twice normal speed. His internal organs are completely healed but there will be some residual tenderness for a while."
"Thank you," Ares said as he petted Joxer's hair. "You don't know what this means to me."
"You didn't deserve what Zeus did, it was obvious that you were the target of the decree," Asclepius replied. "I'm not done healing him, but his body needs rest from this as much as I do." He turned to Cupid and Xena. "You can come over now. I'll be back after I've rested."
Cupid came over first and hugged his father tightly. "See, everything is going to be okay. Listen, I need to go check in on Psyche and Bliss. I'll be back in a little while." He smiled again, then vanished in a flash of light.
"He really cares about you, Ares." Xena said thoughtfully coming to stand next to him.
"I guess it's easier for a god of love to show love than it is for a god of war," Ares replied his eyes wandering back to Joxer.
"I don't know about that." Xena touched Joxer's cheek with the back of her hand. "You show how much you care for Joxer pretty easily."
"I haven't loved a lot of people and had it returned in kind," Ares said. "I'm woefully out of practice in that respect but I'll be damned if I'll let that keep me from trying."
"Ares, I know this probably isn't the best time to ask," Xena began. "But ever since that day, with the Furies, I've wondered."
"You're wondering if I'm your father." Ares looked away for a moment, a small smile creeping onto his worry haggard face. "Of all the women I visited while their husbands were away, you are the only one I know of for certain. Yes, Xena, I am your father."
Xena let that revelation roll around in her head for a moment. "That's why I can do what I can do, because I'm a demigod?"
"No." Ares shook his head. "You can do what you do because you've trained for years. My blood gives you a slight advantage in speed and agility. Hercules has amazing strength but, because of it, he never had anyone that could truly match him in the mortal world. Even if he didn't fight for five years his strength would still allow him to come out on top against most mortals. You must maintain your skills or they'll get rusty."
"Darn, I thought I could laze about for a while." Xena grinned. Ares just shook his head and chuckled.
Joxer woke slowly, reluctant to climb out of the darkness that had wrapped itself around him like a blanket. He could hear soft voices talking nearby but he couldn't make out any words. He thought he could hear Ares speaking and occasionally someone who sounded like Xena. Then he remembered everything that had happened and awoke instantly. He tried to sit up and gasped from a sharp pain in his side.
"Joxer, don't try to move yet," Ares scolded gently. "You'll ruin all of Aesclepius' hard work."
"Listen to him, Joxer," Xena said. "Those injuries aren't anything to fool around with."
"Okay." Joxer said laying back down. "But why do I keep getting hit in the ribs? You'd think I'd learn to protect them better."
Xena couldn't suppress a chuckle. "Spoken like a true warrior. It doesn't matter that you just defeated Hercules in fair combat, you still have to complain that someone got through your defenses."
"Do you think they'll ever forgive me?" Joxer asked, closing his eyes..
"There is nothing to forgive," Xena promised. "If people can't see that, then they are the ones with the problem." She clasped Joxer's left hand. "In fact, I should be asking for your forgiveness."
"Why?" Joxer asked. "You've never been anything but supportive of me."
"I never went out of my way to stop Gabrielle from hurting your feelings. I should have said something and I'm sorry I didn't."
"Okay, that is enough with the mutual apology party," Ares said with disgust. "I won't have you two grasping for forgiveness when none is needed."
"Okay," Joxer sighed.
"Yes, Dad," Xena replied cheekily.
"Dad?" Joxer looked from Xena to Ares several times.
"Yes, I'm her father," Ares confirmed. "Which means she gets to call you Uncle Joxer, since your going to be my consort."
Joxer gaped at him, ignoring Xena's broad smile. "Consort? I thought I was your champion."
"You are," Ares beamed. "There is nothing written that says you can't be both. That is, if you're at all interested in the latter?"
Heedless of his still healing body Joxer grabbed the back of Ares' head and pulled him down into a long, deep, passionate kiss. The two men lost themselves in their mutual heat until an embarrassed cough from nearby pulled them back to reality. "How was that for an answer?" Joxer said finally, grinning.
"I'll take that as a yes." Ares grinned back.
"So, ahem, *Uncle* Joxer, since you have these new important roles to play, am I ever going to have the pleasure of your company in my travels again?" Xena asked, her face was pink and her blue eyes bright with amusement.
"Assuming I even let Ares out of bed..." Joxer leered at his god. "I'd love to travel with you now and again." He tried to sit up again, but was stopped by more pain. "Ow."
"Okay, that's enough," Aesclepius said, coming back into the room. "He needs his rest before I can finish healing him. Now let him sleep."
Ares reluctantly agreed. "I'll be a call away if you need anything." He kissed Joxer's hand and backed away.
"I should really get back," Xena admitted reluctantly. "Gabrielle is probably frantic by now."
"Probably a good idea," Ares agreed. "I'll take you myself."
"Don't you think that's asking for trouble?" Xena asked.
"No more than usual." Ares grinned. "Besides, the sun has risen, the solstice has begun and Zeus' decree just expired."
"Oh, great," Xena groaned. "I've been gone for nearly a day. She's going to think you're brain washing me or something."
"Sorry about that." Ares shrugged. "Time tends to move a little differently here than on Earth."
"Let's just go, before she thinks she needs to rescue me." Xena sighed.
"I don't get it," Gabrielle grumbled sitting on a large couch in the great hall of the castle. "Why is Iphicles letting that War priest hang around? He should have kicked him out of here hours ago."
Iolaus rubbed his face in his hands, Gabrielle had been on a low volume gripe fest ever since Jason told them about Joxer; it didn't help matters that Xena hadn't returned. The warrior princess had a way of getting the bard to shut up, a talent that Iolaus obviously lacked.
Jason had been no help since he had been talking with Klytus most of the day. The two men hadn't seen each other in nearly ten years and they had a lot of catching up to do. Which meant they stayed away from Gabrielle's hateful gaze as much as possible. Iphicles was dealing with having to pay many of the soldiers and sending them home without the promised extra combat pay.
"I'm going to check on Hercules," Iolaus said, getting up from the chair he had been sitting in.
"Want some company?" Gabrielle asked with a flirty smile.
"No! Um, I mean, no thanks. I think I can handle this on my own." He retreated up the stairs to the bedrooms. That was the other problem he was having with her. At one time he and Gabrielle had felt an intense attraction. That was no longer the case for him, especially after seeing her narrow mindedness the past few days. However, the same couldn't be said for the bard. When she wasn't focused on how unfair the world was, Gabrielle was trying to fit herself inside his pants while he was still wearing them.
He opened the door to Hercules' bedroom and smiled at seeing his best friend sleeping comfortably. Entering the room quietly, Iolaus crawled into the large bed and lay next to the sleeping man. "Heal up fast, Herc," he said. "So we can get out of here." He watched Hercules sleep for a while, checked his bandages, then retired to the bathing room to scrub off the day's grime.
Xena and Ares appeared in the middle of the great hall, startling Gabrielle into tripping over the head of the large lion skin rug she had been walking over. "Xena!" She exclaimed pulling herself off the floor. "Are you okay?"
"Everything is fine Gabrielle." Xena said with a reassuring smile. "Joxer is on the road to recovery and since the decree has expired we don't have to worry about a repeat performance any time soon."
"I'll leave you two to talk, I have a few things I need to take care of." Ares said. "You take care of yourself, Xena. I'll be watching."
"I know." Xena grinned. "Now go on, before the guards show up."
"What was that about?" Gabrielle asked as Ares flashed out of sight.
"You remember that thing I said to the Furies about who my father might be?" Xena asked.
"Yeah, what about it?"
Xena sighed. "Well you see, it's like this..."
Ares reappeared in Hercules bedroom. He sent his awareness out to see if anyone was planning to come check on the demigod soon. Sensing that all was clear, Ares approached his sleeping brother. He could feel the heat from a fever beginning to build inside Hercules' wounded body. He carefully sat down on the bed and touched Hercules' shoulder, using a small amount of power to wake him.
Hercules opened his eyes slowly and froze when he recognized who was sitting next to him. "Ares," he groaned weakly. "Come to finish the job you champion started?"
"You amaze me Hercules." Ares shook his head. "If I honestly had wanted you dead, I would have killed you a long time ago. My champion was more than capable of killing you, but he chose to be merciful. I'm quite proud of his restraint; he gave you a chance to yield. Me, I would have just knocked you out and have been done with it."
"Get to the point," Hercules growled.
"The point is, I'm not your enemy," Ares said. "War is not your enemy. Those that wage war for the sake of oppression, violence and sadistic pleasure are your enemy. They would destroy other human lives even if they didn't command armies."
"You just give them the means to do it, right?" Hercules shook his head in disgust. "You're as responsible for every death due to war as the warlords themselves."
Ares folded his arms and shrugged. "I'm the God of War, it's my job. Do you know what would happen if there were no wars? Do you have any idea the level of destruction that would occur if there was no focus for the natural aggressiveness of mortals?"
Hercules tried to sit up but was held down by Ares' superior strength. "Don't. You'll pull your stitches and start bleeding internally."
"Don't pretend that you care." Hercules retorted tiredly, as he lay back down.
"Actually, I care more than you might think," Ares replied. "I'm here to offer a truce."
Hercules stared at his brother in disbelief. "A truce?"
"Yes," Ares replied. "I, the God of War, wish to negotiate a truce with you, Hercules."
"I'm listening," Hercules said cautiously.
"I'm tired of fighting you, I'm tired of you blaming me for everything and I'm tired of being forced to deal with you every time Zeus and Hera have a spat," Ares said. "So here is what I'm offering, I'll pledge on my word as an Olympian god, not to target you or any of your friends or family for as long as you live; if you will pledge that neither you nor any of your family or friends will try to take revenge on my champion for defeating you."
"That's it? As long as I leave your champion alone you won't target me or my family?" Hercules wasn't sure he had heard that correctly. "What if he raises an army and tries to conquer all of Greece?"
"He won't," Ares said with a smile. "Joxer isn't the kind of person that cares about power and glory. He is my champion, my defender and that is his duty to me. The only one I expect and the only one I'll ever ask of him."
"Joxer?!" Hercules was horrified. "That was Joxer?"
"Amazing what can happen when someone is properly trained isn't it?" Ares grinned.
Hercules thought back to the last moments of the battle and guilt welled up in him. "Is he okay? No one told me what happened after I passed out."
"He was in pretty bad shape," Ares replied, pleased that Hercules was showing concern. "But with the help of Aesclepius, Joxer will make a full recovery."
Hercules breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't like the idea of making a bargain with Ares. There wasn't really anything to stop the god from reneging. But there seemed to be honest concern for Joxer in Ares' eyes, something that Hercules hadn't seen in his half brother in a long time. If the price of peace with the War God was leaving Joxer alone, he could live with that. "Okay, Ares, you have a deal."
"Let's seal the bargain then." Ares shook Hercules hand, then placed their clasped hands over Hercules' wound. The demigod gasped as he felt a surge of power run through his body. He tried to pull away instinctively, thinking that he had been deceived, but Ares' next words calmed him. "The healers here are very good, but you're getting an infection. Peritonitis is what Asclepius calls it, when the acids your body uses to digest food leak from your intestines. It eats away at you from the inside; I've seen its effects many times on wounded soldiers. I'm correcting that problem, before it gets serious."
Hercules rode the waves of energy flowing through him as if he were floating on the surface of a lake. Slowly the energy lessened until Hercules was left with a lethargic feeling that was bone deep. He felt much better than he had since the fight, the low grade burning in his stomach had stopped and he no longer felt as though he were lying in a cold draft. "Thank you," he whispered tiredly.
"Sleep, brother. You'll feel better when you wake up," Ares promised. He waited until he was sure Hercules had drifted off to sleep, then transported himself back to Olympus.
"But that's insane!" Gabrielle shouted as soon as Xena finished her story.
"Insane or not, it is the truth," Xena replied calmly.
"But he's Ares," Gabrielle insisted. "You know, the god that keeps trying to turn you back into a blood thirsty killer. How can you just accept what he says without question?"
"It isn't what he said, but how he said things and how he treated Joxer that convinced me of his sincerity," Xena affirmed.
"What, so all of a sudden Ares is a good guy?" Gabrielle retorted bitterly. "I don't think so. He probably caused this whole thing by spreading misinformation."
"Riiiiight." Xena grunted in disgust. "Listen, I'm tired, I haven't slept since before the battle, so I'm going to get some rest."
"Would you like some company?" Gabrielle offered, her eyes bright with expectation.
"No thanks," Xena replied heading for their room. "I need *sleep*, not another few rounds with the 'we hate Ares' cheering squad. Good night, Gabrielle."
"*Good night*, Gabrielle." Xena called again, refusing to turn and face her.
Gabrielle stood in the great hall, now empty save for a servant cleaning the tables away. She looked around in confusion, not able to understand how everything had gotten so turned around. On one of the tables she spied Joxer's old helmet which Iolaus had gone back and retrieved from somewhere in the city earlier that day. It was covered in dirt and looked more rumpled and dented than she ever remembered it being. Gabrielle picked up the helmet and stared at it. In her minds eye she saw the goofy warrior wanna-be that had tried to capture her at Calisto's instruction. She thought of the times he annoyed her and got in the way, of how he was so hopelessly out-classed but never backed down from any fight. Suddenly Gabrielle was struck by a flare of blinding rage and hurled the helmet across the room. It hit a tapestry covered wall and landed on the floor without making much noise.
Unsatisfied Gabrielle grabbed her staff and headed for the training yard. She took out her rage on the wooden practice dummies that the castle guards trained with, striking again and again, not even feeling the reverberations from each blow. In her mind she saw the sweet but annoying Joxer interposed with the warrior that had beaten Hercules. Her dark thoughts coalesced into a plan, one that would put an end to the insanity that seemed to have infected all of her friends.
Ares had entered the Hall of Healing expecting to see Joxer still asleep. He was surprised and pleased to see him sitting up eating a bowl of soup. Joxer's complexion, while normally almost alabaster white, was a much healthier shade of pale than it had been.
"I see you're feeling better." He said as he approached.
"Yeah, Aesclepius has given me a clean bill of health." Joxer smiled at him. "I've been wondering when you would come back."
"As you see, I'm back now." Ares sat next to Joxer, eyeing him thoughtfully.
"Do you have anything planned for the day?" Joxer asked, waggling his eyebrows.
Ares sighed. "As much as I would love to take you home and ravish you, the solstice is one of the few times a year that I actually listen to petitioners in person. Winter solstice I go to Sparta and at the summer solstice I go to Thrace."
"Oh, okay." Joxer didn't quite hide his disappointment. He braced himself for a lonely day, the first in a long time.
"Let's get you dressed then," Ares said hopping to his feet.
"Dressed?" Joxer was confused.
"You didn't actually think I would go off without you, did you?" Ares said.
"Really?" Joxer's face lit up.
"Are you not my champion?" Ares asked, smiling back. "Are you not my chosen consort?"
"I am those things." Joxer replied with pride.
"And don't you forget it. When I appear to mortals in an official capacity I want you at my side." Ares pulled him to his feet and they kissed for a long moment. When they pulled apart, Joxer found himself fully clothed and in his armor, his twin swords in sheaths behind his back. Ares held out his helmet for him, which he took and set on his head and secured with his chin strap.
"Are you ready?"
"Yes, my lord." Joxer bowed solemnly.
"Then let's go." Ares placed his hand on Joxer's shoulder and they flashed out.
The War Temple of Thrace was one of the largest in all of Greece. Thought it was by no means as large as some of the temples dedicated to Zeus, it was big enough to house half a dozen priests and a score of acolytes comfortably. The outside was constructed out of local carved marble. But instead of it being white, the stone was an inky black with veins of white and green all through it. The walls were covered with mosaics depicting the greatest battles won by the armies of Thrace over the centuries.
For Joxer, who had never actually been inside this particular temple, it was interesting to see. However, the novelty of the architecture only lasted so long. He often found himself listening to the petitioners and wondering what it was that made Ares grant some requests while denying others. Several known warlords had already made personal petitions; a few were granted while others left in fear for their lives.
A young woman in peasant's clothes knelt before him, she couldn't have been more than sixteen years old. "Ares, God of War. My father has promised me to the head of a local farming family in return for stud services for the horses that he wishes to breed. I don't want to do this; it would be different if I were to be married to him, but there is no promise of marriage, just my services in exchange."
Joxer wasn't surprised by this, disgusted yes, but not surprised. He had seen his father make similar deals when approached for his war horse's stud services. Very few refused, since the going stud fee for a horse as fine as that stallion was usually more than local people could afford.
"My family has no money, only land which my father refuses to even consider selling as trade. And since I am the youngest of five sisters, I have no dowry to speak of, so no prospects for marriage," she continued.
"And why should this matter to me?" Ares asked evenly. He knew this girl, she had prayed to him on occasion looking for the courage to look for a better life.
"I wish to enter your service," she said quickly, she turned scarlet with shame at how desperate she sounded.
"Do you understand what it means to enter into War's service?" Ares asked seriously.
"Only that I must serve you at the temple for at least a year," she replied.
Ares looked at her thoughtfully. "Does your family have any previous obligations to any other gods?"
The young woman thought for a moment. "No, Lord Ares." She bowed her head not able to meet his intense gaze.
"What is your name, girl?"
Her head shot up at his question. She was scared, but there was a glimmer of hope in her eyes. "Vessna, my lord."
"Very well, Vessna," Ares said grimly. He motioned to one of his black robed priests standing close by. "This is Laurina, she will show you to your new living area and give you the full details of your service to me." Stunned beyond the ability to speak Vessna stood on shaking legs and followed the priestess out of the main hall.
Ares leaned back in his throne and whispered to Joxer, "We'll see how well she handles the standard training. She seems to have the potential for it."
"I didn't think you were going to grant her request." Joxer whispered back.
"If this had been a spur of the moment thing, I wouldn't have," Ares replied. "But she has been praying about this for a while. She has a great uncle that fought in the Athenian army about fifty years ago. I'll tell you about it later." He turned back to listen to the next petitioner
"Oh, great Ares, God of War. I come to you bearing a gift of my devotion to you." The petitioner, a gruff unkempt blond haired warrior in stained leather armor knelt before Ares and held a squirming bundle of cloth in his hands. He placed the bundle at Ares' feet and pulled a dagger that was pitted with rust. "I, Wintus son of Vartus, give you this small life for the glory of your name." The bundle came unwrapped slightly as the man his lifted dagger to reveal the tiny, pale arm of a new born baby.
Ares moved without even thinking, he leapt his feet and grabbed Wintus and threw him across the room, his eyes blazing with fury. "What kind of man are you?" he demanded.
"My lord," Wintus coward before him. "I only sought to please you."
"Please me?" Ares stalked toward the man slowly. The waiting petitioners stared in shock while others scrambled to get out of the way. The priests moved quickly to get everyone out of the temple, while Joxer bent down and picked up the tiny child.
"What would make you think that I would welcome the sacrifice of a helpless baby?" Ares shot a ball of fire out of his hand, scorching the stunned man.
"My wife was unfaithful to me while I was in battle," Wintus said quickly. "This little bastard was born nine months to the day, it was hard on her and still she lays in bed a week later. I'd yet to squeeze a son out of her, but one night with some stranger and she bears his fruit. I thought you would be pleased that the fruits of her deception would be given up to you."
"You thought wrong!" Ares grabbed Wintus by the neck and raised him off his feet. "Before I kill you for you insolence, I must know, how do you know the child isn't yours?"
The doomed warrior's eyes widened with fear. "We both have fair hair, the boy's is as dark as night."
Ares twisted his hand and snapped the man's neck an instant later. Everyone still in the temple cringed as the war god threw the corpse across the room where it landed with a sickening crunch. He turned to see his stunned priests staring at him. "Brennan, find out where that scum lived see if the woman is still alive." The young priest bowed and ran out of the temple. "Clear away this garbage and let's get back to the petitioners before the *next* solstice." He ordered the rest of his priests.
"Ares," Joxer called softly. "I think you need to come here."
Ares turned and saw his consort holding the small baby in his arms. The child had been very quiet the whole time but was now starting to fuss. He looked down at the small bundle and froze; the child truly looked nothing like the man Ares had just sent to Tartarous. The dark hair and facial features were unmistakable, even in a baby of only a few days old. "Can it be?" Ares asked softly, carefully taking the baby into his arms. The moment he touched the little boy he knew. There was an unmistakable thrumming that he had also felt in Hercules, something that could only come from a demigod.
"He's beautiful." Joxer said smiling, "He looks like his father."
"Hello, little one." Ares said softly, not quite believing it.
"My lord, the petitioners are ready to continue," High Priest Stephiles said. "We could simply send them away, if you wish."
Ares looked up from the precious bundle in his arms and sighed. "No, we'll continue. You'll find a crib and some other things in my chamber." He handed the baby over to the high priest. "Send an acolyte to find a woman willing to be a wet nurse until we know how his mother is doing." Stephiles bowed and headed to his god's private quarters.
Joxer took Ares' hand in his and squeezed tightly. "Are you okay?"
"I will be," Ares replied. "It's just a surprise." He sat back down on his throne, still holding Joxer's hand, and motioned for the priests to let the faithful in. The two settled back into the routine of listening to the petitioners until late in the evening. Finally, with the priests exhausted and Joxer nearly asleep on his feet, Ares called an end to the solstice petitions. Joxer pulled his helmet off with a sigh of relief and casually sat on the arm of Ares throne.
Brennan returned shortly afterward, breathless from running. "My lord, the child's mother lives, though she is very ill. The healer says there should be no problem nursing her back to health. Her name is Tanista, she was very relieved to hear her little boy was safe."
Ares nodded, pleased to here the news. "Did you happen to learn the baby's name?"
Brennan shook his head. "Tanista told me her husband refused to allow her to name the boy."
"I see." Ares growled. "I killed that man to quickly."
"Maybe, but better he is dead than have him still a threat," Joxer replied mildly.
"I think I'll have a little talk with Hades about his placement." Ares said absently, then realized Brennan was still standing before him. "Go get some rest, you have done well. Tomorrow, tell the healers that any expenses will be paid by the temple."
"Yes my lord." He bowed and left the room.
"Stephiles," Ares called then waited for the priest to appear. "If Tanista has any problems staying where she is, I want her moved to more suitable housing."
"And the child, my lord?" Stephiles asked.
"Yes..." Ares closed his eyes. "Would it be a burden on you if the temple cared for him until his mother is well?"
"No, my lord. If that is your wish, it would be an honor."
"It is my wish, please make the arrangements." Ares stood and motioned Joxer to follow him as he went to check on the baby.
"He does look an awful lot like you." Joxer said. "So what are you going to name him?"
"Name him?" Ares grinned suddenly. "That's right, I can name him can't I." He lifted the baby into his arms and thought for a moment. "I can't think of anything. What do you think I should call him?"
"Me?" Joxer was surprised. "Well, I always thought that if I had a son, some day, that I'd name him Virgil."
"Wasn't that the name of your first lover?" Ares asked gently.
"You knew about him?"
"Yes, he was your father's second in command. He died during a battle to protect your town," Ares replied.
"Father didn't know about us," Joxer said, the pain of loss had long faded into loving remembrance. "He was off chasing some other warlord, that had stolen some of his prized horses. Virgil thought it was a decoy, but Father wouldn't listen. There was a skeleton force guarding the town when the attack came. I wasn't a trained fighter, father didn't think I was worth training. Virgil died protecting the children, I think I cried for a whole day afterward. I guess everyone figured it was from the shock of being in battle for the first time."
"I think Virgil is a fine name for my son, don't you?" Ares asked. Shocked, Joxer could only nod. "Very well then, welcome to the world, Virgil." Ares kissed his newly named son on the forehead, then placed him back into the crib. "Come now, Joxer. It has been a very long day, let's go to bed."
Iolaus woke the next morning and stretched his arms over his head. His first thought was that it had been a while since he had slept in a real bed from more than a few days at a time. The castle had very nice expensive furnishings that could really spoil him to the realities of an adventurer's life. He climbed out of bed and went to check on Hercules. He had gone to sleep last night without doing more that looking in on his sleeping friend due to sheer exhaustion.
He was shocked when he opened the door to Hercules' room and found the demigod in the process of getting out of bed. "Hercules, what are you doing?"
"Going to use the chamber pot, what does it look like?" Hercules replied, starting to undo his loin cloth - the only thing covering his body aside from the bandages.
"Are you nuts?" Iolaus ran forward to stop him, afraid that Hercules was delirious. "You're going to pull your stitches out."
"Will you relax, I'm fine," Hercules said exasperated. "Look, I'm really okay. See?" He proved his words by removing the bandages from around his stomach.
"How-?" Iolaus began, staring at the newly healed skin.
"Just let me relieve myself and I'll tell you everything, okay?"
"Okay..." Iolaus stood there for a moment until Hercules' pointed look sent him back out into the hall.
"Good morning, Iolaus," Gabrielle said with a cheery smile as she passed him in the hall.
"G'morning, Gabrielle." Iolaus returned. "You look chipper this morning."
"Oh, I'm feeling much better after a good nights sleep," she replied. "I'm going to see what's for breakfast."
"I'll see you down there in a few minutes then," Iolaus replied with a smile. He was relieved to see the bard in better spirits; he had been getting concerned at her temper the last day and a half.
"Okay, I'll make sure the kitchen knows." She headed off down the hall humming to herself.
"You can come in now." Hercules called.
Iolaus entered the room to find Hercules still standing, but now he had a dark velvet robe on, tied at his waist. "So what happened? I know you heal fast, but not *that* fast."
"You won't believe it," Hercules warned before he explained the strange visit he'd had the previous night.
"I don't believe it." Iolaus said several minutes later. "I mean, okay, I believe it happened because the proof is right there, but... Wow."
"Yeah, wow," Hercules agreed.
"So, what now?" Iolaus asked.
"I was thinking breakfast." Hercules grinned when Iolaus slapped him on the arm.
"You know what I mean."
"Personally, I'm all for a truce," Xena said stepping into the room. "Sorry for eavesdropping, but you left the door open."
"It's okay, Xena," Hercules said. "I was hoping to talk to you."
"Really?" Xena quirked an eyebrow.
"I wanted to apologize."
"There is no need," Xena cut in. "I think what happened out there in that arena was enough blood-letting for everyone. Don't you?"
"Ares told me Joxer was going to be fine." Hercules said after a long pause, having had the wind taken out of his sails when he tried to apologize.
"Well that's good to hear," Iolaus said happily. "I hadn't heard anything yet."
"Sorry about that," Xena said. "I was wiped out and crashed as soon as I got into bed yesterday. I haven't slept that long in ages."
"That's okay," Iolaus replied. "I was a little distracted myself yesterday. I never realized Gabrielle had such a vindictive streak in her."
"What was she doing?" Hercules and Xena asked in unison.
"Basically she was worried about both of you, but it was like she was looking to blame Ares for everything," Iolaus explained.
"That's not really like her," Xena said thoughtfully. "I'll admit that when Calisto killed Perticus, she went a little nuts for vengeance, but I haven't seen her act that way in a long time."
"Maybe we should just give her some time." Hercules suggested.
"Maybe," Xena agreed tentatively.
"Come on, I can smell breakfast cooking from here, and I for one am starving." Hercules ushered his friends down the hall.
Joxer awoke to the feeling of a warm hand caressing his naked hip. It took him a moment to remember where he was, then a soft sated grin spread across his face. "Ares..." They had made love half the night in a dance as old as man. He couldn't ever remember feeling so cherished as when he had been taken by his god.
"Good morning." Ares whispered into his ear from behind him. "Sleep well?"
"The best." Joxer turned in Ares' arms and kissed his lips. "I love you, you know."
"I know," Ares replied. "And I love you too."
They cuddled together for some time, just enjoying each other's company. "I'm curious about something," Joxer said finally.
"Do gods sleep?" Joxer asked.
"Do we sleep?" Ares blinked at the question. "Well, yes we do, sort of. Just not the same way that mortals do. As a god I can shut down most of my awareness of the world, then allow my energy to merge with the cosmos. Only if the need is great would I even notice a followers prayer in that state."
"Did you sleep last night?" Joxer asked, wondering how often Ares managed to achieve that state.
"A little," Ares admitted. "It's been a very trying time for me lately. I haven't had much time to rest. Maybe I'll get a chance to rest later this month, after the skirmish in Sparta is over."
Concerned, Joxer sat up. "It isn't wise to neglect yourself. Can't you let Discord or Strife deal with Sparta and get some sleep?"
Ares sighed. "No. As much as they help me create wars, I have to deal with the real conflict personally."
"So you don't trust them?" Joxer asked.
"Actually, I do trust them," Ares replied. "But each god has their own agenda. Discord could take a simple war and turn the armies against themselves through in-fighting. Strife, he could make it so that a battle spread into a nearby town, killing the civilian population and destroying crops and livestock to the point that the towns people will starve when winter hits. Both of them have their places, but *I* am War."
Joxer nodded slowly. "I think I understand. So, when was the last time you had a proper rest?"
"A long time ago, too long actually," Ares admitted, allowing the fatigue that he had been feeling lately to show briefly on his face. It looked as though he was going to say more, but just then the baby began to cry. "Come on, let's get dressed. It sounds like Virgil is hungry."
Joxer climbed out of the bed, amazed to find himself clean and dressed the moment he was upright. The clothing was similar to Ares' clothes; black leather pants and vest with silver accents, only Joxer had a white silk shirt on under the vest. "That's a handy trick."
"It sure beats having to bathe," Ares replied.
"Oh, I don't know," Joxer said in a husky voice. "I can think of quite a few benefits to a shared bath."
Ares licked his lips in anticipation. "You can demonstrate them to me later."
Apollo stood before his scrying mirror and shook his head in disgust. Ares had been acting weird ever since he had chosen a champion to fight for himself and now he knew why. "The moron fell in love," he muttered. "And with a mortal. Unbelievable."
"Well we certainly can't have that, can we dear brother," Discord said appearing nearby, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "I mean, what self respecting god would ever do that?"
"What do you want?" he hissed.
"I want the same things you want," Discord replied, leaning in close. "The balance of power on Olympus is a delicate thing. Now with this sudden mutual admiration society going on between Love and War there will be less attention focused on them."
"Oh, I see," Apollo snorted. "You don't like the idea that your little schemes might suddenly be noticed."
"Exactly, Golden Boy," Discord smiled. "You can't tell me the same thoughts aren't running through your head. How many schemes have you pulled off because Daddy and Mommy were too busy fighting with each other to notice?"
"You're cooking up something." Apollo watched her intently as she circled him. "Tell me."
Discord grinned maliciously. "I hear that Ares has made a bargain with a certain demigod in order to protect his new lover. Wouldn't it be tragic if something untoward were to happen and one of Hercules' companions were to blame?"
"I'm listening." Apollo was intrigued.
"The bard, Gabrielle, is rather focused on her hatred of Ares," Discord said. "As one of your followers it should be rather easy to persuade her to act on that rage."
"And what is to stop Ares from finding out the truth?" Apollo asked. The thought of having an enraged War God after him was not a pleasant one.
"We provide the bard with the means to act on her anger, but make sure it has no real ties back to either of us," Discord said. "I was thinking a bit of a fast acting poison, something she could slip into his drink."
"Not all that difficult at all," Apollo agreed. "And then, after an appropriate time of mourning and vengeance, Ares' focus will go back were it belongs."
"Exactly," Discord practically purred. She had been Ares' bed companion on and off for centuries, but he had refused her every advance since she had tried to kill Evander. She had thought the baby was Hercules', but, regardless of who the father of the baby was, if it's death caused Hercules pain then it was a good thing. She didn't expect Ares to take things so personally. The idea of getting him back was thrilling; she expected a mindlessly grief stricken War God would be rather entertaining. Perhaps she would be able to persuade him to play some of her games for once.
"Discord, focus please," Apollo said. "I need you to get the poison while I work on Gabrielle. She isn't to trusting of gods, so I need to go carefully."
"You got it, Golden Boy. But don't take too long," Discord said as she vanished from sight.
A week later:
Gabrielle glanced around cautiously as she approached Apollo's temple. She couldn't understand why she felt compelled to worship her patron god today, but it was as though she were afraid she might get caught. It had been nearly two weeks since the duel, since Hercules had been defeated by Ares' defender, Joxer the Mighty.
The hero's defeat had left a bubbling cauldron of anger in her gut that over flowed into her dreams. Sometimes she would dream that Hercules had killed his opponent and she would watch as Ares became mortal and Hercules became War, bringing a thousand years of peace to the world. She sometimes saw herself rushing into the arena and killing Joxer before he could force Hercules to yield. Hercules would then thank her by marrying her and they would life a happy live with half a dozen well educated kids. One time she dreamt that Ares had cheated in some way, controlling Joxer like a puppet and forcing him to kill Hercules. Every morning Gabrielle would wake from her dreams and remember what really happened and want to scream in denial.
To make things even stranger for her, each time she tried to write down a factual account of what had happened, she found herself trying to rewrite the events to make herself feel better. After Jason explained to her how Joxer had arrived at the war temple, she had trouble comprehending that her own actions had allowed him to fall into Ares' clutches.
She entered the temple and approached the altar, bearing a small offering of an expensive oil that the priests used in their lamps. The temple was empty save for the priests going about their work. She stood before the altar and gracefully dropped to her knees. "Apollo, god of bards and musicians. I've come to honor you and to ask for guidance." Slowly, in hushed tones, she told her story; when she finished a voice spoke behind her.
"Such a confusing thing isn't it," Apollo said, leaning casually against one of the support pillar. "How is it that the very beliefs you hold dear to you could be wrong?"
"Lord Apollo," Gabrielle was stunned.
"Please, stand warrior bard. I like my followers to face me." He walked over to her and held her gaze. "You must feel terribly humiliated having had a hand in Hercules' first defeat in battle."
Gabrielle flushed a deep crimson. "I didn't know that would happen."
"No, mortals rarely do, but I can see it is affecting your ability to write, not a good thing." Apollo scolded gently. "You need to do something to bring your focus back to your art."
"But what? I've tried everything, but I can't seem to get back into it," Gabrielle complained.
"Well what is it that is holding you back?" Apollo asked. "Find a way to either eliminate or get past that and you should be able to return to your craft." Gabrielle started to protest but the god's fingers touched her lips, gently halting her. "Now before you get upset, just think about it." Instead of a flashy exit, Apollo faded from her sight. Her lips still tingling from his touch.
Gabrielle left the temple in a bit of a daze, she walked down the streets of the small town trying to clear her head and somehow managed to trip and fall in front of a small shop. As she picked herself up, she saw that it was an apothecary. Thinking she could resupply the small cache of healing herbs that she often had, Gabrielle entered the shop.
The shop had dozens of different herbs to chose from, as well as some exotic inks for writing, something not often seen in these shops. As she wandered the store a small glass vial caught her eye. She picked it up and brought it to the counter. "Excuse me, but I was wondering what was in this bottle," she said.
"Ah, a very rare potion indeed." The apothecary said with a smile. "It's called Cupid's Tears. It can break the spell of love on anyone. Even those that have been struck by one of the love god's arrows."
"How does it do that?" Gabrielle asked, turning the vial in her hand thoughtfully.
"Simply put a drop or two into something, a glass of wine is best, but it'll work with water too." The man seemed unconcerned. "It has to be a spell, not true love, nothing can overcome that. I've seen it work before."
"Hmmm," Gabrielle turned the vial over in her hand. "What would happen if it was true love?"
"I don't know," he said. "I've heard tell that the effect could be painful."
Gabrielle remained skeptical. "How much?"
"For you, ten dinars," he said. "And I'll throw in one of those ink pots for free. Just remember, the potion is quite strong, too much could kill."
"You have a deal," Gabrielle said. She paid for her purchases and headed back out to the street, the small vial clutched protectively in her hand.
Xena had grown more and more concerned about her friend over the past week. Gabrielle's behavior was nothing short of erratic. She had thought that putting a little time and distance between themselves and Corinth might help the bard shake her odd obsession, but every night Xena heard her friend talking in her sleep, mumbling about Joxer, Ares and Hercules.
It was with a heavy heart that Xena considered her options carefully. Foremost in her mind was the understanding that Ares' acknowledgment of her as his daughter had created a rift between Gabrielle and herself. Xena could see that she was trying hard not to show it, but her disdain for Ares was bleeding through. Gabrielle would pull back slightly every time Xena tried to get close. That rejection hurt more than she ever wanted to admit. It now seemed that the unconditional acceptance that Xena had always been grateful for wasn't so unconditional after all.
Xena knew that time and distance was probably the best solution, but it seemed as though that wasn't working yet. She wanted to give Gabrielle more time but a scroll had just arrived, delivered to her by a priest of Ares. She read the scroll and couldn't help but smile.
I would greatly appreciate it if you could let Joxer travel with you for a while. I'm going to be very busy for the next week or so. He is complaining that living as my champion and full time lover is going to make his fighting skills rusty since very few would be so foolish as to challenge me. I hope that you don't mind. Just say the word and I'll transport him to you.
"Let me tell Gabrielle first, okay," Xena said aloud.
"Tell me what?" Gabrielle asked, coming into view, several packages tucked under her arm.
Xena waved the scroll toward her. "Ares wants to know if we'd allow Joxer to travel with us."
"Oh," Gabrielle said with no emotion, then suddenly brightened. "I guess that would be okay."
Xena had been expecting a full out refusal, this sudden change of heart was unsettling. "Okay, if you're sure you don't mind."
"No, I'm looking forward to talking with Joxer." Xena thought she saw a strange light in Gabrielle's eyes, but it was gone so fast that, for once, she doubted her perceptions.
"Joxer can come," Xena said in a normal tone of voice.
There was a bright flash only a few feet from where the two women stood and then Joxer was standing before them. He wore the armor that he had worn during the battle with Hercules and carried a well provisioned pack. "Hi guys!" He said with a huge grin. "Wow, it's good to see you both, I've really missed you."
Xena smiled and gave him a quick hug. "It's good to see you too, Joxer."
"Gabrielle," Joxer turned to her with a more serious expression. "Still friends?"
The bard smiled. "Of course," she said as she hugged him, her eyes hardened with determination while no one could see her face, when she pulled away she was all smiles again.
"You look good," Xena commented looking him over. His skin was still pale as ever, but he was flush with health and vigor. "Your new life is agreeing with you then?"
"I've never been happier." Joxer admitted, blushing slightly.
"Are you hungry?" Xena asked. "I was thinking of grabbing something to eat."
"That sounds great," Joxer agreed. "Let me just grab my pack." He hefted the bag over one shoulder and followed the two women into the nearest tavern.
Hercules had been trying to work through the mixed feelings he had about his brother, Ares. A part of him was appalled that he had made that truce, but he was so relieved that he didn't have to fear for Iolaus' safety any longer that he almost didn't care about any possible consequences. Even now his best friend was off visiting his relatives alone; Iolaus had claimed that he needed some time away to think about what had happened. The most amazing thing was, ever since the truce, he hadn't encountered any of his other relatives. It was as if the gods were all honoring Ares' bargain and decided to give Hercules a wide berth. He had to admit, he was enjoying the quiet.
He stood in a small clearing inside a grove of trees, where ancient stones covered with patches of moss stood. He slid off his back pack and carefully took out each item. When his small altar was finished he cast a circle as he had been taught and called upon Hera to hear his prayer.
"Hera, Queen of the gods, I know I never pray to you, I guess I've never felt I needed to, or that you deserved it," he began slowly. "I wanted to say... that is, I wanted to ask you... Ares and I have come to an understanding of sorts. One that I hope will lead to us becoming, if not friends, then not enemies. I wanted to ask if you would leave Ares out of your grudge against me."
Much to his surprise, Hera appeared to him just outside the protective ring of stones. "You're very cautious these days Hercules," she commented coldly. "Not many mortals know about the protection rituals."
"I've learned to be careful after all this years." Hercules did not rise from his knees, since he knew well the protocols for the ritual he had invoked. "I didn't mean to bring you here."
"When the hero of Greece is calling, all gods pay attention." She replied seriously, though there was a hint of humor in her voice. "You're request is an intriguing one. I've rarely heard of a prayer on behalf of another god."
"I don't want him hurt by this bargain we've made," Hercules replied cautiously. He never knew what might anger Hera and he wasn't used to dealing with her on such a personal level.
"Your actions are selfless, though your motivations are somewhat less so," Hera said. She raised her hand to ward off his protest. "You don't want an injury to him on your conscience, because you do not want to think of how a bargain of the magnitude that the two of you made could hurt him." Hercules realized that she was right. He hadn't been motivated by any real concern for Ares, but for himself. "However," Hera continued. "I am pleased that you would concern yourself at all about him. In this we agree, Ares has suffered enough, as you have suffered enough for the sins of your father. Zeus and I are working out our differences and while we are far from congenial, we have agreed that the quarrel between us should never again fall upon the shoulders of our children."
"Thank you," Hercules sighed with relief.
"Don't be so hasty to thank me," Hera warned. "There are forces in the pantheon that will not take kindly to this sudden peace. I would not let down my guard if I were you."
Hercules' eyes widened in alarm. "Do you know what is going to happen?"
"No, only Destiny and the Fates know those things," Hera replied. "But think, son of my husband; of all those caught up in this tangled web, whose loss would cause the most pain to the most people?" Hera flashed away to leave Hercules alone with his thoughts.
Hercules carefully broke the protective circle, his mind on the question that Hera had left him with. The last of the ritual items were safely stowed in the bottom of his pack and he stepped out of the ring. It was at that moment that it hit him. "Joxer. They're going to go after Joxer. Oh no. Ares!" He took off at a run, hoping that he would be able to get Ares' attention in time. "Ares!"
He ran for nearly five miles to the closest road, calling out Ares' name with every few breaths. "Dammit. He must be in a battle somewhere." Herc thought frantically for a moment. "Aphrodite!"
Aphrodite danced though her hall with Bliss giggling in her arms. She was so happy that she almost didn't know what to do with herself. Ares' being in love gave her such a charge of energy that she felt giddy most days. That energy was a little dampened today since he was off fighting with the Spartan army against some army somewhere.
Cupid was off to play match maker in Corinth, trying to find someone to marry Iphicles to so that there will be an actually heir to the throne rather than a free-for-all in thirty or so years. Psyche was working with the Muses at the moment, inspiring sonnets about Ares' love for his champion. The two of them being so busy, Aphrodite agreed to watch Bliss for a while. It wasn't any harder than when she had raised Cupid and it was so much more fun to spoil a grandchild.
The Goddess of Love nearly dropped Bliss as Hercules' frantic call reached her. She had never heard him so panicked in all the years he had been alive. The power of his plea shook her down to her toes. "Coming, little brother," she said. "Hang on, Bliss. We're going to see your Uncle Hercules."
She transported them to Hercules' side, surprised to see him sweaty, disheveled and frantic looking. "What's wrong?" she asked seriously.
"Do you know where Ares and Joxer are?" Hercules asked, trying to catch his breath.
"Not off hand," Aphrodite said in confusion. "Ares is off at a battle and I know Joxie is with Xena. Why do you ask?"
"I think someone is going to try and kill Joxer." Hercules replied.
"What?" Aphrodite was horrified. "Who?"
"I don't know," Hercules confessed and explained how he came to the conclusion he had.
"Oh Tartarus." Aphrodite hugged Bliss to her. "And neither Hera nor Zeus will take an active role in stopping it, because the truce they've set up is so fragile at the moment, any interference with the younger gods could be considered favoritism. All the gods are rather evenly divided between those that side with Zeus or Hera, plus there is a small group that has steadfastly remained neutral."
"Can you tell him then?" Hercules asked.
"I'll have Klytus contact him," she replied thoughtfully. "I don't dare risk going to Ares directly."
"When Ares is in a battle, he becomes one with it. He absorbs the aggression and bloodlust that is created in the same way that I absorb sexual energy from love-play," she explained. "He can become unreasoningly violent at times like this. He'll attack anyone and anything that approaches him."
"Then how will Klytus be able to help?" Hercules asked.
"As a high priest Klytus should be able to contact him, even in a battle," Aphrodite said. "I'll send you to Xena, then go find Klytus. Which shouldn't be hard, since the last time I looked in, he and Jason where still together. " She saw Hercules' surprised expression. "What?"
"Nothing, just lets go." Hercules blinked furiously trying to get rid the image that flashed in his mind.
Xena and company entered a local tavern, it was one that had only recently been rebuilt after a fight between Hercules and some of Hera's minions had leveled it. The newly restored building was clean and the warm smells of rich and hearty foods filled the air. There was a sign over the door asked that all weapons be turreted before entering.
"I think that's a first for us," Gabrielle said, deciding to leave he fighting staff outside strapped to Argo's saddle.
"It makes sense though," Joxer replied. "If anyone picks a fight, it'll be fists instead of weapons."
"That wouldn't stop anyone from using the silverware though," Xena quipped.
"My brother Jett made his first kill with a butter knife," Joxer supplied as he tired his weapons to their sheaths. "Funny, I'd just remembered that."
Gabrielle shuddered inwardly at the thought of Joxer's assassin brother. She had at first wondered how a man as ruthless as Jett could be related to an inept warrior like Joxer. Now seeing him as Ares' Champion and lover, she realized that they had a lot in common.
A waitress in a crisp, clean tunic and skirt lead them to one of the empty tables and gave each one of them a scroll with the menu written on it. The tables were clean, sanded smooth and coated with a glossy finish. Small smokeless oil lamps illuminated each table. "Can I get you anything to drink before you order?"
"An ale and a glass of water." Joxer replied for himself.
Xena smiles with delight at the choices on the menu. "I'll have the same."
"Just water thank you." Gabrielle said. The waitress smiled and headed off to get their drinks.
"Oh, they have my favorite!" Joxer grinned. "Venison steak grilled with mushrooms and garlic with fried turnip slices on the side."
"I think I'll just get the house special," Gabrielle said as she looked at the prices.
Xena had to agree that the prices were a bit steeper than she was used to, but since the place was so nice, she wasn't going to begrudge a few extra coins. The waitress came back a few minutes later with their drinks and a basket of freshly baked bread. "Are you ready to order?"
Joxer happily made his selection without hesitation. Gabrielle also ordered, surprised when it turned out the special actually sounded pretty good. Xena ordered a beef steak with a salad on the side. Gabrielle gaped at her, the steak one of the most expensive items on the menu. Xena smiled at her sweetly. "Do you know how long it's been since I had a decent steak? If the food is even half as nice as the decor, then it'll be worth it."
"Oh sure, when you want something pricey, no problem," Gabrielle griped. "But when I want to buy something that's a little expensive, you jump all over me about the price."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Don't start on that again. You know perfectly well why I wouldn't let you by that box."
"It wasn't just a box, Xena. It was a travel case for scrolls and inks, I could be using it now instead of that old sack I've always used," Gabrielle continued. "But, no, you had to insist that we spend all the money we had on new boots."
"Look, we didn't have much choice." Xena pointed out. "Our shoes were unsalvageable. I wasn't about to go walking around in shoes that smelled like a week old carcass."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the thought. "I guess you do have a point. Maybe we'll have enough money the next time we're in that area."
"Maybe, but I still think it's a waste of money." Xena took a long drink from her ale. "Now, a new set of saddle bags, that would be a good investment. "
"Hey, we just got Argo's saddle retooled," Gabrielle complained good naturedly.
Joxer leaned back and smiled as the two women bickered happily over more than one subject. It was the one thing that he had truly missed when he had been training with Ares and Klytus. The companionship between Xena and Gabrielle just radiated off them, when they were in sync it was a privilege to be near them. He hoped that as time went by he and Ares would be able to talk like that to each other.
"Dinar for your thoughts, Joxer," Xena called, breaking him out of his thoughts.
"Just thinking about the future." Joxer lifted his ale in a salute to his lover and drank it.
"Good thoughts?" she asked.
"Hopeful ones." he replied standing. "I'll be right back, nature call."
"Okay." Xena waved as he walked out the door. She looked at her hands and noticed how dusty they were. "Gabrielle, I'm going to wash up."
"Okay," the bard said. "I'll wait for the food." Gabrielle waited until Xena had stepped out of sight, then pulled out the vial of Cupid's Tears and quickly poured it into Joxer's ale. A few moments later the waitress arrived with their food. When both Joxer and Xena returned Gabrielle was busily eating her lunch.
"Oh if that tastes even half as good as it smells, I'll be very happy." Joxer said happily digging into his streak.
Gabrielle watched Joxer eat out of the corner of her eye. A lingering thread of doubt flittered in her mind but she pushed it away. This was the only way to free Joxer of the hold Ares had on him. She knew it couldn't be real love, Ares wasn't capable of it and Joxer was foolish enough not to recognize it for what it was. Once he drank the potion, everything would go back to the way it was supposed to be.
Joxer raised his mug of ale to his lips just as a flash of pink sparks heralded Hercules' sudden appearance.
Aphrodite appeared inside the Corinthian War Temple and looked around quickly for the high priest. She found him playing chess with Jason only a few yards away. "Klytus!" She ran up to him and pulled him to his feet. "You have to call Ares."
"Aphrodite?" Klytus was astonished. "What's wrong?"
"Ares is in a battle and Joxer is in danger. You have to call him and get him to come here fast. There is no telling what could happen." Aphrodite knew she was acting a little hysterical, but she had waited far to long to see her brother happy and there was nothing she wouldn't do to keep him that way.
"Okay, okay." Klytus winced at the goddess' tight grip. "Let me go and I'll do the ritual."
Aphrodite seemed to realize she was impeding him and let go. "Sorry."
Jason stepped up and placed a hand on the love goddess' shoulder. "While Klytus gets ready, why don't you tell me what you know."
It took several minutes but she was able to recount what she had learned and the steps she had already taken to help. "I don't dare go to Ares directly. Hermes did once when we were younger. It took him weeks to rebuild his corporeal body."
"Dite, you did the right thing," Jason said with a warm smile.
Over at the altar, Klytus was finished with his preparations and placed himself in a light trance. He reached deep into himself to the roots of his faith and devotion to Ares, calling him to the temple. "Great Ares, your humble servant calls to you. With unwavering devotion I beseech you. Appear before me in this time of need." He felt a surge of violent power emanate from the connection he had with his god, the only times that the energy was this powerful was when Ares was in the midst of a victorious battle.
Ares stood amidst the carnage of the battle field, dozens of dead and dying men lay at his feet. The fighting was nearly over and the Spartans were victorious and even now were in pursuit of the remnants of the opposing army. It had been a good battle from the start, evenly matched in men and weapons, but very few could match Spartans in skill. The energy that came from the battle as lives were lost and both sides were emersed in the tide of blood, pain, fear, solidarity and courage sang through him like nothing else he knew.
He looked down at his hands and saw the blood dripping from them. He rarely participated in battles of this magnitude, he could lose himself in the bloody conflict and not come back to himself for days, but the opposing army had done the one thing he never encouraged; attacking helpless children. A small group had made it's way around the battle and into the Spartan's supply area. Many young boys worked to keep armor fixed and the army fed, in return they were trained to be soldiers. It was considered cowardice to attack them and was expressly forbidden by Ares' Law also known as the Law of Arms.
Ares had joined the battle at the first cry of fear, none of the Spartan soldiers had even considered setting a guard on the wagons, since they would have never done something like that. Even with his godly speed, he could not keep all of the children safe and witnessed several fall to the enemy's weapons. His appearance scattered the men in panic, for they knew a god when they saw one. Not one of those that entered the supply area made it out alive.
A small boy, he could have been no more than ten years old, carefully approached Ares, his eyes full of fear and wonder. He was dragging something behind him that was obviously too heavy for him. "Are you a god?" he asked.
Ares turned and met the boy's eyes, the heat of the battle still burned in his eyes. "Yes."
"Are you Ares?" He asked with wide eyed wonder.
Ares smiled viciously. "Yes, I am."
"I think this is yours then." He pulled Ares' sword out from behind him. "You left it over there." He pointed to a small pile of bodies.
"Thank you," Ares replied. He lifted the sword from the boy's hands and slid it into the sheath at his side.
"No. Thank you, Ares." The boy smiled. "You saved me and all the other boys, I'll never forget that."
"What is your name?" Ares asked, thinking to keep an eye on this one in the future.
"Perseus," he smiled. "My mother thinks I'm off visiting relatives, she doesn't know I snuck off to learn about fighting."
Ares nearly lost all composure, Perseus was one of Zeus' bastard sons. "I think it is well past time for you to return home, young Perseus." He created a scroll and a small sack of coins and gave them to the boy. "Give this to the commander when you see him."
He felt a sudden pull as one of his priests urgently called to him. Ares knew immediately it was Klytus, but not what he was needed for. He looked around a moment, to be sure that everything was in order at the battle field, then focused deeply on his loyal priest's call.
"Hercules?" Joxer dropped his mug back onto the table, its contents untasted.
"Who sent you?" Xena asked warily. The pink sparks were a sure signature of Aphrodite, but there was always a chance it was someone else. It was always bad news when the demigod accepted a ride from any of his divine family members.
"I convinced Aphrodite to send me here," Hercules said. He looked from Xena to Gabrielle to Joxer, and held the man's gaze. "You're in danger."
"What do you mean?" Xena demanded. "Who is threatening him?"
"I was warned that certain members of the pantheon might take exception to Ares being happy and in love." Hercules said, still looking at Joxer. "I'm here to make sure nothing happens to you until Ares can come."
"Wait." Gabrielle held up a hand. "Why would the other gods even care?" It was very hard not to let her eyes drift to Joxer's drink.
"The God of War is in love, for the first time in ages," Xena said. "What better way to hurt him than to kill his lover?"
"We have to find some way to keep you safe until we learn which gods are after you," Hercules told Joxer.
"Um, don't you think I might want a say in this?" Joxer replied. "I'm a trained warrior now, Ares' Champion. I *can* handle myself."
"Believe me, I know," Hercules replied in a voice that spoke of past experience. "But you have very little chance against a full god."
Joxer knew that if he let these heroes get their way, he would never be out of Ares sight again. Not that it was really a bad thing, but he wasn't going to go running to his lover any time the gods might decide to do something. "Besides, don't you think it would be really stupid for a god to kill me? I'd think that Ares would know the moment something like that happened and who did it." He picked up his mug of ale again.
"True," Hercules admitted. "But that doesn't mean they won't try and kill you some other way."
"The gods aren't stupid Joxer, if they want someone dead, they don't have to do it personally," Xena said.
"An acolyte or follower could try to take you out just as easily," Hercules agreed. "And there is no knowing which god or gods are involved, so there is no way to judge by either occupation or devotion which people to be wary of."
"Okay, fine." Joxer sighed in defeat. "I'll do as you ask, but can I at least finish my lunch first?" He gestured to the cooling steak on his plate with the mug in his hand.
For the first time since he appeared, Hercules smiled. "I don't see any harm in that, I guess."
"Good," Joxer said as he sat down again. He put down his mug and dug in to his meal, humming happily as it really was an excellent steak. He brought the mug to his lips and took a drink, promptly spitting out most of the contents of his mouth at the taste. "What the hell is in this? It tastes awful!"
Xena grabbed the mug and sniffed it carefully then angled the cup to let the light reflect off of the liquid. There was a barely discernible oily film across the top of the ale. "There is something in the drink. Did you swallow any of it?" she asked, her eyes wide with horror.
Joxer's eyes widened. "Not much."
"Let's get out of here, before anything else happens," Hercules said, looking around him suspiciously.
None of them had to be told twice. Xena considered taking the mug with her, to try and discover what was in the ale, but there were hundreds of poisons that it could be. Unfortunately it didn't resemble any of the poisons that she was familiar with.
Ten yards from the tavern Hercules' worst fear was realized. Joxer suddenly doubled over, clutching his stomach and fell to the ground in pain. Both Xena and Hercules moved to help him. "Oh gods what was in that drink." Joxer grunted in pain. "It feels like my guts are all twisted up inside."
"Easy there, Joxer, we've got you," Xena soothed. "Hercules, we need to find something to counter act the poison."
"But what?" Hercules asked. "There are dozens of things it could be."
"Not necessarily," Xena replied. "There are only a few that work this fast."
A crack of thunder and a flash of pure white lightning heralded Ares' arrival. "What happened?" he demanded, his eyes dark with barely controlled rage.
"Joxer's drink was poisoned," Hercules explained. "It happened before I got here."
Ares gathered Joxer in his arms. "We can't seem to cut a break, can we?"
"Where does it hurt the most?" Xena asked her fallen friend. "If might help us figure out what it is."
Joxer opened his eyes, they were filled with bright tears of pain. "My chest and stomach. Ares, it feels like my heart is breaking. I feel so alone, like I've lost you, but you're here. I love you, you know."
"I know, Joxer." Ares tightened his grip. He turned to Xena. "Did you see anyone nearby, anyone that was watching you?"
"No, and Gabrielle was at the table when Joxer and I left to clean up. There was no way for anyone to poison the drink, unless they did it at the bar." Xena said.
"And this tavern wouldn't," Hercules said. "I know the people who work there, they aren't the type to poison someone, even if it was commanded by the gods. Their reputation as a trust worthy place of business would be ruined."
"That only leaves one conclusion." Ares gaze shot to the bard, who was standing a few yards away. Her eyes widened at the all consuming anger in his eyes. "You did this."
"What? No, no I would never try to kill Joxer, he's my friend." Gabrielle stammered, backing away.
"Then what was it you gave him, if it wasn't poison." Ares flexed his power, a red aura appeared around Gabrielle and she was lifted off the ground several feet.
She gasped for breath as a great pressure began to squeeze the air out of her chest. "Xe-na... help"
"Ares, wait," Xena pleaded, not wanting to fight her father again, but also unwilling to see her friend harmed.
"What you're feeling is nothing compared to what you'll feel in ten seconds if you don't tell me what you did!" Ares stood, letting Joxer rest at his feet. He extended his hand, palm open and slowly began to close it into a fist.
Gabrielle screamed as the force around her contracted more. Spots appeared before her eyes and she knew she only had seconds. In that moment, her eyes met those of Xena and pleaded for forgiveness. "Cupid's Tears," she gasped out as the world went black.
"Fuck!" Ares released her and let her body fall to the ground in a lump. Xena ran over to check on Gabrielle and wondered how she could have missed this.
"What is Cupid's Tears?" Hercules asked.
"It's a potion to counteract the effects of Cupid's Arrows." Ares explained. "Literally it is a few tears shed by Cupid and mixed with holy oils at his temple. It's for emergencies, like what happened when Bliss got loose. If it's given to someone that isn't under the influence of a love spell, it's a deadly poison. There is no known antidote."
"There has to be something." Hercules looked down at Joxer, who had gone deathly pale.
"Nothing in the mortal world," Ares said, then his eye lit up. "But one of the golden apples or ambrosia might work."
"Then you have to get some, Ares," Xena said coming back to stand next to him.
"It'll have to be ambrosia," Hercules said. "The tree with the golden apples was destroyed by my battle with Calisto."
"That wasn't the only golden apple tree, but you're right. I don't have time to go asking Hera's permission to gain access to her orchard." Ares knelt and kissed Joxer lightly on the lips. "I'll be back." Then he flashed out of sight.
Ares appeared inside the Hall of War and knew instantly that someone else was there. He ignored the presence in favor of getting to his personal supply of ambrosia. The red gelatinous mass made gods out of men, sustained the gods during times when they had few worshipers, but in small quantities healed the sick and sometimes brought the dead back to life. He broke off a hand full, gathered power to exit, but was stopped by a slender, pale hand on his arm.
"Going somewhere, Ares?" Discord asked with a 'come hither' smile.
"Yes, now move the hand before you lose it at the shoulder," he replied with a growl.
"Oh, come on." Discord pouted sexily. "You used to like it when I came around."
"Yes, but that was a long time ago." Ares' expression darkened further. "I have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with you."
"Deal with me?" Discord growled, she hated being dismissed like some lackey. She had once been Ares' right hand, to be dismissed so readily just because she had nearly killed his brat Evander was bad enough. But to be replaced by that weakling joke of a mortal, Joxer, was too much. Even now it seemed her scheme to rid the world of Ares' little boy toy wasn't working out as she had hoped. "Deal with this brother!"
Ares felt the energy blast coming and for the first time, he was surprised by his sister's actions. Even with the speed of a god, he had just barely enough time to transport the piece of ambrosia to Hercules before he was thrown across the room. He picked himself up and brushed off the bits of marble from the shattered pillar he had hit. Insults he could always ignore, but a direct attack could not go unanswered "Not bad, Discord. If I didn't know you so well, I'd almost be offended by this attack."
"Not Bad?!" Discord screamed and sent another energy blast at him.
Ares had fought gods before and each time it was a new experience. Discord's energy blasts were like being hit with raw hatred, it clung to him making him feel dirty. He used his will to slough off the residue of her blast even as he was yet again forced against the black marble walls. "You think you can beat me, Eris? You think you can just come in here and attack me without paying the consequences?" Ares wiped away a small trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth as he stood. He gathered his power into a ball of energy that crackled before him. "My turn."
Discord was hit by the blast and was thrown back so hard that she left an imprint on the wall she hit. Ares walked over to her as she struggled to stand, he grabbed her by the hair and wrenched her head up to face him. "Are you quite finished?" he asked.
"She may be, but I've barely started," a voice said behind him.
The blast from behind sent Ares sprawling to the floor, his leathers singed from the heat. Not prepared for the sneak attack, his corporeal form took most of the damage, leaving him weakened. He looked up and stared in disbelief. "Apollo?"
"Hey there brother, I see you weren't expecting me." The Shining God grinned down at him. As always he was the image of physical male perfection, his golden blond hair shone with its own light.
"Why?" Ares slowly picked himself up, gathering his power around him like a shield again.
"Simple. You're not playing the game the way you're supposed to," Apollo said. "You changed the rules, so we decided to even the playing field again."
"By killing Joxer?" Ares shot a lightning bolt out.
"That was only a side effect," Apollo said. "What we wanted was you out of control and gunning for Hercules again."
"Shut up, Apollo. He doesn't need to know anything." Discord growled as she dusted herself off.
"Why not, Eris? We're caught, might as well get a few licks in while we've got the chance. Besides, it's not like Mom and Dad are going to do anything to stop us." Apollo pulled back his right hand and threw an energy ball at Ares, knocking him back several feet. Discord shot a blast as well, keeping Ares off balance, forcing him back several feet with each step.
"You think I need their help?" Ares snarled, pain was something he had come to know and understand in the time that he had become mortal, now he used it to fuel his own attack. He summoned his sword and fired a twin forked lightning bolt at his attackers. It wasn't enough to knock them down, but it did give him a moment to collect himself.
Discord created chains of pure force and wrapped them around Ares body, pinning his upper arms, while his forearms still had some mobility. Apollo called his own weapon, a bow and a quiver full of arrows, and shot two in quick succession. One Ares caught just barely, the other he tried to deflect with his sword, but it only split the arrow in half down the center. One half hit him in the leg, the other in the shoulder. Ares fell to his knees as he concentrated on breaking the bands of force around him, suddenly he felt the bonds on him transform into real chains of Hephestian metal and strengthened by godly power.
Walking with a swagger of arrogance, Apollo came forward and kicked Ares' sword from his hand. "What's the matter, Ares? Can't break free?"
"Release me," Ares demanded. He was now officially worried, the chains that bound him also held him to the floor, effectively grounding his power. Until this moment he was evenly matched against these two gods, but now he was helpless. "Where did you get these chains?"
Discord grinned maliciously. "Amazing what you find lying around when certain gods are distracted by 'true love'. Old Heph probably never even noticed they were gone." She sauntered over to where the Sword lay and picked it up. "You know, I always wondered what would happen if you were ever stabbed with this. After all, it is a part of you, the symbol of your power."
"Have you lost your mind, Discord?" Ares pulled at the chains in a futile attempt to free himself. "You know what would happen."
"No, we know what we've been told will happen." Discord laughed, it was not a pleasant sound. "I'm of a mind to find out if it's true." She placed the tip of the sword at Ares chest. "I'm sure Artemis will have no objections to being the only war god, if it turns out to be true."
Hercules held on to Joxer as he writhed in pain. He rarely saw the effects of a poisoning and hoped it would be a very long time before he saw it again. Joxer was pale as a morning fog and seemed about as reachable as he whispered for Ares in his fevered state. It had only been a few minutes, but Hercules was already wondering what could taking the war god so long.
Thunder rumbled in the clear blue sky, an instant later a piece of ambrosia appeared next to Hercules. At once relieved by the appearance of the godly food and concerned that Ares had not returned; the demigod lifted Joxer's head to help him eat.
"How much of this stuff brought you back to life Xena?" Hercules asked.
"Not much, but then I was already dead. Joxer has poison in him." Xena left her still unconscious partner's side. "There's no telling how much would simply cure him and how much will tip the scale and make him a god."
Hercules looked down at Joxer again, he knew the man was kind and good. Kinder than you would expect when you looked at what life had dealt him. He wondered how that would translate into a godly form. "I'm not going to worry about that," he said finally. "He doesn't deserve to die like this, not when someone loves him as much as Ares does."
Xena nodded and looked into the sky warily as another crack of thunder sounded. "That's no storm."
Hercules looked up at the sky as well once he finished coaxing Joxer into eating the last of the ambrosia. "No it's not. That is the sound of gods in battle."
Joxer opened his eyes and cried out as the power of the ambrosia coursed through his body. All the light around him seemed to be drawn into his body and in a flash of blinding light Joxer was suddenly standing. He looked the same as always, except that he wore all his armor, including his mask-like helmet. He looked radiant in a way that even gods rarely managed.
"Joxer, are you all right?" Xena asked carefully.
"I'm much better now." Joxer grinned staring at his own hands in disbelief. "Where is Ares?"
"I don't know," Hercules replied as the thunder rolled yet again. "He didn't come back."
"I don't like this," Xena said.
"Ares is in trouble," Joxer said suddenly. "I have to go to him." With very little understanding of his new power, Joxer transported not only himself, but Xena and Hercules to Ares' side.
They appeared in the Hall of War in time to see Discord touch the tip of Ares sword to his chest. Then, as if changing her mind, she pulled away, only to thrust the sword's tip deep into Ares' leg. She laughed as Ares screamed in pain, blood and energy flowed freely from the wound. Apollo stood to the side, watching the entire thing with glee.
"Stop, Discord!" Joxer shouted.
"Well if it isn't the pretty boy toy." She glared at him. "Seems you've had a bit of an upgrade."
"Leave him alone," Joxer demanded. "I am Ares' Champion. You want him, you have to go through me first."
"Well little godling, if it's a fight you want," she ripped the sword out of Ares' leg, "then it's a fight you are going to get."
Joxer flexed his newly acquired power, bringing his twin swords to his hands. Discord screamed a battle cry and launched herself at him a split second later the battle was joined.
Hercules ran to Apollo and grabbed him by the arms. "Let Ares go, Apollo," he shouted over the clash of steel.
Apollo laughed as he saw Xena try to undo the chains around her father. "I didn't chain him up, Discord did. She's the one you need to talk to about that. Although I have to admit, it has been fun to watch."
"You sick bastard." Hercules pushed Apollo away.
"Takes one to know one," Apollo said childishly. His smile faded when it felt like the whole of Olympus shook. "Oh dear, I think Mom and Dad are a little pissed."
A flash of light heralded the entrance of the King and Queen of the Gods, they looked around at the damage to the Hall of War and the situation as it stood. "What in Tartarus," Zeus cursed. "Discord! Apollo! Have you completely lost your minds?" Hera didn't bother with words, she simply flexed her power and made it impossible for either god to teleport out.
Discord glanced over from her hand to hand combat with Joxer, she was barely able to hold off his attacks, though she couldn't understand why. Her distraction cost her dearly as Joxer kicked her legs out from under her and she ended up flat on her back. Joxer crossed his swords and planted them tips first into the floor at her neck, effectively pinning her to the ground. He wrenched Ares sword from her hand and ran over to his lover's side.
"I'll get you out," Joxer promised.
"Do not worry, Joxer," Hera said with a wistful smile. "I shall free him." With a wave of her hand the chains broke and vanished from the room.
Ares slumped to the floor, hurting more than he had when he'd been mortal. He smiled with relief when Joxer handed him his sword. It would take a little while to heal all the damage, but he wasn't too worried. He didn't even bother to protest when Joxer offered a hand up. As he leaned onto him, Ares realized there was something different about his love. "You're a..."
"A god," Hera interrupted him. She looked at Hercules with mild reproof. "Your brother didn't know how much ambrosia to give him."
Hercules shrugged and managed to look sheepish. "Um, I didn't really have a choice."
"True, quite true," Zeus agreed, his eyes on his unrepentant children. "You did what you thought was right."
"So, what are you going to do with them?" Xena asked.
"As you know there is little that can be done to punish a god, short of stripping their powers from them," Hera said bitterly. "However, I think what they planned for Ares is a more than fitting punishment for each of them."
"No!" Apollo protested. "Please, Mother, I just wanted to put things back the way they were. Was that so wrong?"
"You tried to have Joxer killed," Ares spat. "You're lucky I'm so tired otherwise you'd be wishing for mortality, just so your suffering would end."
"Don't be so dramatic, Ares," Zeus countered. "Discord and Apollo with be confined to their Halls for one solar year.
"If either of them attempts to leave, they will be stripped of there powers and left to fend for themselves for what ever amount of time remains," Hera added. Zeus turned and nodded to her in agreement. Both exerted their power and sent the still protesting younger gods to their halls to being their punishment.
"Now there is one small matter left for us to attend to," Zeus said his eyes resting on Joxer.
Ares moved to stand in front of him. Joxer touched his shoulder and shook his head. "I was kind of expecting this."
Zeus admired Joxer's bravery, not many were willing to stand before him and not tremble. "You were given ambrosia, the food of the gods, enough to make you a god in your own right. Many would forget themselves in the first moments of power and go on a rampage, but your only thought was to rescue your love. You have shown true courage and loyalty as well as amazing skill in defeating not only Hercules in combat as a mortal, but Discord as well. For that reason, I grant you the title God of Combat. Your realm is all matters involving martial arts."
Ares let out a sigh of relief, Joxer was accepted into the pantheon by Zeus and Hera, therefore he would be safe from the other gods. As the God of Combat he would also stay a part of War's group of gods.
"Thank you, Lord Zeus, Lady Hera," Joxer said with a slight bow of respect. "If I may, since many know my real name, might I take a new one to be used in my duties?" Ares was glad Joxer knew well enough to show respect, he'd winced when Strife had nearly gotten blown to pieces when he didn't show proper respect to Zeus one time.
"Yes, young Joxer. You may even create a hall if you wish," Hera said, "or stay in the Hall of War."
Curiosity got the better of him as Hercules asked, "What name do you want to call yourself?"
Joxer smiled and looked at Ares. "Melee." The God of War laughed and hugged him.
"But you'll always be Joxer to me," Ares said softly.
Zeus took Hera's hand in his. "Now we must go, we still have much to talk about." They vanished from the hall leaving the remaining four.
"So, now that you're a god," Xena said. "I guess we won't be seeing very much of you."
"More than you might think," Joxer said with a smile. Ares wrapped his arms around his waist and kissed his neck. "As the God of Combat, most of your battles will probably gain my attention."
"Mine as well I bet," Hercules said with a wry grin.
"Definitely," Ares replied. "But Joxer needs to learn how to use his abilities and that may take a while. However there is one more thing that must be done before this day is over."
A moment later they all found themselves back at the tavern, Gabrielle had returned to consciousness and was still sitting under a large tree. She looked up at their appearance and stood slowly, it was obvious that she was still hurting from Ares' method of interrogation.
"J-Joxer," she began softly. "I'm so sorry. I know it can't be enough for what I did to you. I hope you forgive me."
Joxer smiled in a way that was reassuring, but also unnerving. "Actually, in a way, I should thank you. If you hadn't poisoned me Ares wouldn't have had to save me by giving me ambrosia and I never would have become a god."
"A god?" Gabrielle's eyes widened with fear.
"Joxer is now Melee, God of Combat," Xena said. She was truly afraid for her friend, but in this instance, she couldn't bring herself to interfere.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you." Joxer's grin turned malicious. "However, Ares does want to have a few words with you."
"Gabrielle, warrior bard, Queen of the Amazons," Ares said calmly. "From this day forth, when ever you feel the urge to practice your bardic talents before a group, you will be compelled to tell the story of how Zeus' decree brought about the greatest love of War's life."
Gabrielle's body glowed for a moment, then she fainted again. Ares turned to Hercules and Xena. "She'll sleep for a while, when she wakes up she'll be fine."
"Don't you think that was a little cruel?" Hercules asked, though there was no censure in his tone.
"I think it's rather fitting," Joxer said with a shrug. "She obviously became obsessed with the idea that I was somehow under Ares' power. Eventually, she'll actually believe that we really are in love."
"And when that happens, the spell on her will be broken," Ares said.
"That's quite merciful of you, Ares," Hercules said. "And I can't find fault with it at all."
"Thank you for not hurting her," Xena said. "I do love her you know, even if she can be a pain in the neck at times."
"I know, which is why I didn't hurt her." Ares grinned evilly. "Besides, it'll drive her nuts not being able to tell other stories or embellish the truth like she often seems to."
"Good luck, Joxer," Hercules said, shaking his hand. "I hope to see you again some time."
"I think that won't be a problem." Joxer smiled.
"Ares," Hercules held out his hand. "I hope our truce is still in place."
"More than a truce, Hercules." Ares took his hand and pulled his brother into a hug. "There is a peace between us, one I hope will never be broken."
"Joxer." Xena held open her arms and was gratified when Joxer joined her in a hug. "I'm so very proud of you."
"Thank you." Joxer was surprised to find his vision blurring with tears. "You're the best friend I've ever had."
"I know." Xena found her own eyes moist. "Be good, okay?"
"I'll try." Joxer pulled away and went to stand with Ares.
"Until we meet again," Ares said. He took a hold of Joxer's hand and with a flash of bright light they vanished from sight.
**melee (màlée) n. hand-to-hand fight among several combatants**