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This story contains "G" rated action and some slightly graphic descriptions of a head wound sustained by one of the main characters. Use your discretion, and enjoy the story.
LOVE, VALOUR AND DISCOVERY
Xena and Gabrielle were walking Argo along a wooded path when they came across a small child about five years old lying on the side of the path. Gabrielle stopped Xena and said, "Hey, look over there."
Xena said, "It's a child, so what?"
"What do you mean, so what? This world is dangerous, and this little guy is all alone."
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Oh no. You're getting that happy ending look again."
"Just until we reach the next village. They'll know something about him there, I'm sure of it."
"And what if they don't? He'll be no better off than he is now."
"They will, Xena, I'm sure of it."
Xena sighed. "All right, you can put him on Argo."
"Thanks, Xena." Gabrielle picked the child up and carried him over to Argo while Xena stroked Argo's nose.
"I don't know why I let her talk me into these things." Argo neighed in response.
"Xena, come here. Doesn't this boy look familiar to you?"
Xena walked over to Gabrielle. "Actually, yes, he does look familiar. There's something about the ears."
"And the nose."
The boy picked that moment to wake up. He looked at the two women and spoke.
"Hi, Xena. Hi, Gabby."
The two women exchanged looks, then Gabrielle said, "Joxer?" No one else called Gabrielle Gabby. But it couldn't be--could it?
"Yep, it's me, Joxer the mighty!"
"What is going on here?" asked Xena. "Joxer, what are you doing here? And what happened to you? I thought that you were going on a vacation."
"Ithaca is closed--some sort of power coup. So when I heard you two were coming this way, I thought I'd come here and meet you, see what you were doing. So I came to this village, right, and there's just a bunch of children playing dress-up with their parent's clothes, see, so I just went into the village to look for some adults to see if you had passed through yet. But the oldest person there was about fourteen or so, and there were no adults. Then next thing I know, I've shrunk to about five years old. So I left the village looking for you, and I fell asleep by the path. You're lucky that I found you."
"That's Joxer, all right," said Gabrielle. "Missed what was right in front of him."
"Hey, I heard that!"
"No, he didn't miss it, he just misinterpreted it. He saw children playing dress-up in adult clothes. He didn't see adults that were turned into children."
"But how? I mean, people just don't start to age backwards do they?" asked Gabrielle, confused.
"No. Backwards.... Joxer, did any of the people in the village mention anyone strange coming through there lately?"
"Not really. No, wait, they did mention something about a crazy old man who walked backwards everywhere, but never seemed to run into anything. Like he had--"
"--eyes in the back of his head," finished Xena.
"Yeah. How did you know?"
"A lucky guess. And I'd be willing to bet it's Janus they're talking about."
"Janus?" asked Joxer and Gabrielle together.
"Janus. He's one of the lesser gods. He's got two faces, but one is usually covered by his hair. He's the god of beginnings and endings. But I've never heard of anything like this happening before where he's been, or of him walking backwards. Joxer, did they say any-thing else about him?"
Xena thought for a moment, and then said, "Joxer, take us back to the village you
came from. I want to talk to some of the people there for myself."
"But you can't. If you come into the village, you'll be turned into a child yourself, and then where will we be?"
"With you here, I won't have to go into the village. I can send you back in, and you can tell the oldest children, which I am assuming are the oldest people in the village, to get together whatever ruling thing they have together and bring them to the edge of the village."
"Trouble is, we don't know where the edge is, Xena. We could hit the edge of it before we know it and be kids again."
Xena said, "Not necessarily. Joxer, you ride Argo on ahead, and we'll catch up with you in a moment." Joxer and Argo trotted off ahead while Xena lingered back to talk with Gabrielle. "Normally, you're right. But I've got a feeling about this. Since this is possibly connected to Janus, this spell or whatever probably has a dual nature, just like he does. I figure that when we get near the village, Argo will stop. Joxer, like the kid he is normally, will jump down and try to pull Argo in. Argo won't go, and Joxer will either fall into the village's threshold or walk into it of his own accord. And I'll bet the spell will be reversed."
"You mean Joxer will be Joxer again? I don't know if I like that or not. I kind of like him as a kid, you know? He's kind of cute."
"I know, I know." Xena and Gabrielle caught up with Joxer and Argo, and Joxer started chatting with Gabrielle while Xena went up to lead Argo.
"You know, I liked being a kid the first time around. That's where I learned a lot of my fighting skills."
Gabrielle snickered. "What fighting skills?"
"My mighty fighting skills. When I was a kid, all the kids used to pick on me. I mean, look at me. I was--am--puny, weak, and funny-looking. Not at all like I am now. I didn't have any grace. So all I could do was fight when the other kids picked fights with me."
"That explains a lot."
"Gabrielle, be nice," said Xena from ahead.
"Yeah, be nice, Gabrielle. I'm still Joxer, even though I'm just a kid."
"I know, Joxer."
"So you think I'm cute, huh?"
"You heard that? I swear, Joxer, I didn't mean it, and if you repeat it, I'll deny it." Gabrielle blushed furiously while Xena rolled her eyes.
"Fine, right, but I know what I heard." Suddenly, Argo stopped and refused to go another step. Gabrielle and Xena traded looks while Joxer said, "Hey, Argo, let's go." When Argo wouldn't go, Joxer tried climbing off the horse, tripped, and landed on his face. "Ow. That hurts," Joxer said, and he started crying.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and went over to where he was. "Come on, Joxer, you're a mighty warrior, remember? This is nothing." She looked around for a second. "Look, there's a stream over there. Let's go wash your face, and we'll see how bad you're really hurt." Gabrielle put her arm around Joxer and led him over to the stream and splashed some water on his face. "See, now, that's--" Suddenly, Joxer stood up and shoved Gabrielle over to where Xena was. "Hey, what did you do that for?" She grabbed her staff and then she got a look at Joxer. "Oh."
Xena and Gabrielle watched as Joxer grew up before their eyes. They watched him go from kid to teenager to the man they knew. When he was all grown back up, he said, "Sorry, Gabrielle. I just felt something strange happening, and I didn't want you to get caught in it. Please don't beat me up."
"Joxer, I won't. And thanks. Xena, you were right. How did you know the effect would reverse?"
"I didn't. I just guessed. Now, the bad thing is that Joxer is trapped in the village until we find out what happened and how to fix it. Now, Joxer, what I need you to do is to look around and find the older kids in the village. Bring them here to the outskirts of the village so I can talk to them." Xena watched Joxer walk back to the village and turned to Gabrielle just as Gabrielle asked her a question.
"What if we can't reverse this? What then? What'll happen to Joxer? What'll happen to all those people? They'll all be trapped in there forever."
"You can't think that way, Gabrielle. We'll find a way. Not just for Joxer, but for all those people in that village. There is a way, and we are going to find it."
"If you say so." Gabrielle sat down with her back to a tree and started peeling bark off a twig.
"What is it, Gabrielle? What's wrong? Are you worried about Joxer?"
"Kind of. But I was also thinking of something else. Why didn't Joxer grow back up when he left the village? I mean, wouldn't it make sense that when you leave the village, you leave the sphere of influence of the spell?"
"That's the way that Janus's magic normally works. And it's not usually permanent like this, nor is it this far reaching. Both of which troubles me. Janus usually doesn't have strong magic. It's basically tricks, like turning a chicken into an egg, or an egg into a chicken, depending on which of his faces is uncovered. For example, if he's using his beginning face, he turns the chicken into an egg, but when the egg leaves his hands and goes into the audience, it turns back into a chicken. It's the same with people. When people are close to him with his beginning face, they look a few years younger, but when they leave him, they revert to normal. But they don't turn into children and stay that way when he's nowhere to be seen."
"Xena, I can see the beginnings of an idea with you. What is it?"
"Aphrodite's belt. Aphrodite's belt works that way. Hephaestus gave it to her and it makes her more irresistible, and the man that's around her falls in love with her forever, no matter where she is."
"So you think that Janus stole Aphrodite's belt and it's fouled up his magic?"
"I'm back!" sang out Joxer. "And here's Trocalus, the leader of Mynar's Council of Eight."
"I'm Xena, and this is Gabrielle, and you've met Joxer."
"We know who you are, Xena, and we thank the gods that you're here."
"Trocalus, you've got to be able to tell us what's going on here. All we've got is what Joxer's been able to tell us, which isn't a lot, and a whole lot of supposition."
"Well, Janus came through our village several days ago. It wasn't unusual; he comes through here a lot when he comes down from Olympus. But this time, something was wrong--he was different. He was disoriented, and he didn't seem to know who any of us were. He frightened the children. And then that's when we noticed that neither of his faces were covered. But he was careful to keep only the beginning face to the village while he staggered around. One of the younger children in the village came in behind him and covered his ending face with a cloth, and was aged almost instantly. He is watching the youngest of the children now in a hut in our village. He's no more than three or four, yet he's got the body of a sixty year old man. And it's like that with the rest of us. We're all children. And it's not just us. It's lingering in the village. Like with your friend Joxer here. If an adult comes into the village, they're instantly rendered into a child. And if a child comes in here, they're instantly rendered into adulthood."
"At least we can help you with that. Joxer, get all of the villagers here together." Joxer left to do as Xena asked, and Gabrielle explained while Xena went to one of Argo's saddlebags.
"Joxer was a child when he found us in the woods, but when he came back into your village he became his right age again. What we want you to do is to walk out of the village, to this tree, and then walk back in."
"Are you sure?" asked Trocalus.
"Trust us," said Gabrielle. "We've seen it happen."
Trocalus did as Gabrielle instructed. He walked out to the tree where she was standing, and then re-entered the village. Just as Joxer had done, Trocalus grew into his correct age. "Amazing. Xena, how can we thank you?"
"Don't, yet. I haven't solved the problem. All I've done is reset the clock. Now, Trocalus, did you personally see Janus when he came through?"
"Yes, but not up close. My wife, Lycene, spoke to him when he came in."
"Get her. I need to speak with her and anyone else who saw Janus when he came down."
Trocalus left to gather the villagers, while Gabrielle asked, "Xena, what are you doing?"
"I've got a drawing here that a temple artist did of Aphrodite wearing the belt, and I want to ask these people if Janus was wearing it."
"Well, here comes Joxer with a girl, and Trocalus."
"Xena, this is Lycene. Lycene, this is Xena. She needs to speak with you."
"Lycene, come out here a moment. I need you to look at something very closely, because I need to ask you something very important."
"Okay." Lycene came out to stand between Xena and Gabrielle.
"Lycene, I want you to look very hard at this drawing and tell me if you recognize anything in it."
"The belt. Janus was wearing one like it when he came in through the village."
"That's what I needed to hear." Xena sent Lycene back into the village and watched her embrace Trocalus. "That answers that question, but how did Janus get the belt?"
Joxer was trying to get Xena's attention, but she didn't notice him. Finally, he called, "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!"
"Xena, Xena! Joxer wants to talk to you."
Xena walked over to where Joxer was shifting impatiently at the edge of the village. "What is it, Joxer?"
"The woman that was in charge of the well says that Janus was muttering something over and over again."
"What was it?"
"She said it sounded like 'this board' or something."
"'This board'?" repeated Gabrielle, puzzled. "What does that mean, 'this board?'"
"Discord," said Xena. "Discord. This sounds like something that she'd do."
"I thought that her animosity was aimed at Hercules at the moment."
"No, it's wherever Ares says it is."
"But how would Discord get Aphrodite's belt, and how would Janus get it?"
"Aphrodite probably gave it to her. Remember, Discord tossed the Golden Apple 'to the fairest' and that was Aphrodite. She'd probably give it to Discord to repay the favor."
"That still doesn't explain why Janus has it."
"Of course it does. Janus was the man that spoke to Zeus on behalf of Hephaestus for Aphrodite's hand instead of Ares. So he'd want revenge on Janus for ruining his chance to wed Aphrodite. So he's using Aphrodite's belt to skew Janus's magic and to make Janus responsible for a series of terrible things so he wouldn't be allowed back on Olympus to spy for Hephaestus. That would give Ares a chance to woo Aphrodite away from Hephaestus, without anyone knowing about it."
"So how do we stop this?"
"We get the belt away from Janus. And then we get Aphrodite to destroy it, so something like this won't happen again."
"But won't Ares try to stop us?"
"Probably. But that's why we need to call out the cavalry."
"The cavalry. And who would that be? The centaurs?"
"No. A demigod." Xena turned back to the village. "Trocalus!"
Trocalus walked over to the edge of the magic. "Yes?"
"When was the last time Hercules came through here?"
"Hercules? About a month ago. He was passing through here on his way to visit his godson Bartok, and we had a child fall in a well. Hercules and Iolaus rescued her and went on their way."
"I'm leaving you in charge of this operation. Gabrielle and I are leaving. We're going to need Hercules' help, so we're going to find him, and then we'll be back as soon as we can. I promise." Xena mounted Argo and led him down the trail.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Well, goodbye, then, Joxer."
"Be careful. I'm not going to be there to protect you."
"We'll be back soon, Joxer. Everything's going to work out, you'll see." Gabrielle hurried down the path to catch up to Xena, who pulled her up on Argo behind her.
"We don't have a lot of time, Gabrielle. If Hercules isn't still at Bartok's, I don't know how we're going to find him."
"Joxer looked so sad to be left behind."
"I know. He wanted to help so badly."
"We've got to help him, Xena. All of them."
"We will." Xena and Gabrielle rode Argo until they got to the farmhouse where young Bartok lived with his aunt and uncle. "Is Hercules still here?"
"No, he left about a day ago, going south."
"Can we ask you to stay the night? You look tired, Xena. Is there something we can
do to help?"
"No, thank you. We've got to find Hercules. But thank you so much." Xena spurred Argo on down the path they'd indicated. It was nightfall by the time that they caught up with Hercules and Iolaus.
"Xena! Didn't expect to see you here."
"Hercules, Iolaus, we need your help. We've got a problem."
"With who?" asked Iolaus.
"Ares had Discord get Aphrodite's belt and give it to Janus to wear and now Janus's magic is out of control and he's turned one village that we know of into a whole village of children. We found a way to turn them back into adults, but our friend Joxer and all the other people are trapped in the village now, and they can't get out. So now we've got to find Janus, get the belt from him, defeat Ares and Discord because you know they're going to show up now that we've got this figured out, get Aphrodite to destroy the belt, and hope that with the destruction of the belt comes the nullification of the magic," explained Xena
"Whoa, whoa, slow down. How--how do you know all of this?"
"Well, a lot of it was supposition that has been proven by the villagers. For example, we knew something was wrong when Joxer found us, but I didn't know what was going on until I got him talking. When he mentioned that the villagers had seen a strange man that was walking like he had eyes in the back of his head, I guessed it was Janus. That was verified when I spoke to Trocalus, the leader of Mynar."
"Mynar?" broke in Iolaus. "We were just in Mynar a month or so ago. A little girl fell in a dry well there, and me and Herc helped to get her out."
"That's how we found you. Trocalus said that you were visiting your godson Bartok."
"Okay," Hercules said, "I can understand that. How did you get to the rest of it?"
"Talking it out with Gabrielle. I was trying to think of something that had a long lasting magical effect on people, and Aphrodite's belt was the first thing that came to mind. I mean, Janus certainly doesn't have that kind of magic, and that's the only thing that I can think of that would have that kind of enhancing effect on his magic," explained Xena.
"How do you know that it was Aphrodite's belt?" Iolaus asked.
"I had a woman from the village to identify it in a temple drawing I have with me."
"Okay, so what do Discord and my brother have to do with this?"
"Well, this is where the supposition comes in. The only way I can see that Janus got the belt was through a third party, and especially one that Aphrodite was partial to."
"And Aphrodite doesn't like Janus, that's where you're going with this," said Hercules.
"Right. And neither does Ares. Janus interceded with Zeus on behalf of Hephaestus, not Ares, and it caused Zeus to choose Hephaestus for Aphrodite instead of Ares."
"It makes sense. So Ares would've had Discord steal Aphrodite's belt, but how did it get to Janus?" mused Hercules.
"I haven't figured that out yet," replied Xena.
"And you're not going to, either," said a nasally new voice.
"Discord." said Xena.
"Yes, it's me. You're not ever going to be able to stop me, Xena," and she turned around, "and neither will you, Hercules."
"That remains to be seen."
"Well, well, my brother, what have we here? Has Xena dragged you into my business yet again? Haven't you learned to stay out of it yet?"
"Well, glad to know that we all know each other's names, but the question is, what are you going to do now?" Ares pulled him arm back and tossed a fireball toward Xena.
With a whoop, Xena backflipped out of the way and the fireball flew by her and ignited the tree behind her. "Gabrielle!"
"I'm on it!" Gabrielle snatched one of the blankets from Hercules and Iolaus's camp and began using it to beat at the flames.
Hercules and Xena concentrated their attack on Ares, and Iolaus had his hands full keeping Discord out of it.
"Get out of my way," she snarled to Iolaus.
"Sorry, can't do that," he said as he ducked the blue bolt she tossed his way. Dipping under it, he raced toward her and bowled her over. She rolled away, spinning a cloud of dust.
While Iolaus was distracting Discord, Hercules and Ares were scuffling hand to hand while Xena was circling. Ares threw Hercules stumbling backward, but before he had a chance to follow him, Xena was flying through the air to land in front of him. Xena's sword was in her hand and she was striking sparks from Ares's sword with every blow.
Iolaus had caught Discord but she vanished, and appeared on the other side of the
clearing where the camp was, beside Gabrielle, who was still fighting the fire Ares's first fireball attack had caused. "Gabrielle!" Then when she didn't hear, Iolaus called, "Xena!"
Hercules took in the situation and immediately said "I'll take him."
Xena whirled and her chakram seemed to fly into her hand. She let it fly with a whoop and it sailed across the air and hit Discord in the chest, knocking her backwards, and allowing Gabrielle to take her staff and push her the rest of the way down before returning to the fire. Hercules had Ares over his head and was ready to throw him across the clearing when both he and Discord vanished.
Bruised and tired, the four warriors gathered around the remnants of Hercules's campsite. "Well, that certainly proves what you've said about Ares and Discord being in on this, Xena, and it's almost proof positive that he doesn't want you or us stopping whatever's going on. And for me, that's reason enough to do it," said Hercules. "So, since you're the one that figured out what's going on, I think you're the one who ought to decide what's the next step going to be."
"I think that we need to stop for a second, and try to fill in the missing part of this puzzle, " said Iolaus.
"Missing piece? What are you talking about, Iolaus?" asked Gabrielle. "We've got all the pieces."
"No, we don't," said Iolaus. He turned to Xena. "Now, Xena, you said that you thought that Ares had Discord get the belt from Aphrodite. And that Janus has the belt and is wearing it."
"That's right," she said, a little bemused, but starting to see what Iolaus saw.
"So, there's actually two things that we don't know, but we must have been close to finding out because Discord and Ares chose just that moment to show up. That wasn't coincidence. With those two, it never is."
"I see," said Xena.
"Well, I don't," complained Gabrielle.
"Neither do I, at the moment," said Hercules, "but I think that I know where this is going. Iolaus, you're saying that we had hit on a question that Ares and Discord didn't want us to know the answer to."
"That's right. Hercules had just asked it, and that's when those two showed up. Herc had just asked, how did Janus get the belt, and the other question is--" Iolaus was interrupted here by Xena.
"Why is he wearing it when he can see the kind of trouble the thing is causing?"
"Right. Now, I've got a feeling that there's something important that we're missing here, but I don't know what it is," said Iolaus.
Gabrielle piped up. "Would Janus have accepted it from Discord?"
"No. Janus doesn't like Ares or Discord, and the feeling's more than mutual. Janus would no more accept something from Discord than I would, " said Hercules. "Xena, when you talked to the people in Mynar, did they notice that anything was amiss with Janus?"
"Well, yes, they said he seemed disoriented, and that he didn't recognize any of the people of the village, which is strange since he comes there often. And he didn't have either of his faces covered. But they also said that he was careful to keep his beginning face to the village."
"Doesn't that seem a little odd to you?" asked Hercules
"What do you mean?"
"What Hercules means is that after the visit from Ares and Discord we had just now, these things sound a lot more suspicious. For example, he was disoriented, but he was careful and aware enough to keep his beginning face to the village. Which means that everyone in the village would be turned into children."
"But one man wasn't. He was one of the younger children. Trocalus said that when Janus was stumbling around the village, the boy came up behind him to cover his ending face, and the boy was instantly aged to sixty or so," said Gabrielle.
"You're right, Gabrielle. I had forgotten about that," said Xena, who fell deep in thought.
"There's another thing that's bothering me," said Iolaus. "You said that Janus was careful to keep his beginning face to the village, but also that he didn't recognize anyone."
"That's right," said Gabrielle.
"So why would he do that?" asked Hercules. "If he didn't recognize anyone, he wouldn't have been careful about which face was shown and if he was careful about which face was shown, that would mean that he did recognize someone in the village. Either way, there are parts of this story that just don't fit."
Xena had a terrible thought. She looked at Hercules and saw the look on his face. "Hercules, are you thinking the same thing that I am?"
"I'm afraid so. Proteus?"
"The old sea god?" asked Iolaus. "What does he have to do with this?"
"Proteus is also a shape changer. He can assume any form that he wants to. And he doesn't like any of the Olympian gods."
"Now wait, just a minute here," protested Gabrielle. "In one conversation we've gone from Janus and Aphrodite to Ares and Discord and Proteus?"
"Excuse us just a moment," Xena said as she pulled Gabrielle to the side. "Look, Gabrielle, I know you're worried about Joxer, and you want to get back to him as fast as you can. But Hercules and Iolaus are right. There are parts of this story that don't make any sense. And we're not going to be able to help Joxer or anyone else if we don't understand them and don't know where to start."
"But Xena, how are we going to understand what's going on and fix it if we don't even know who's doing it anymore? I mean, it's like we've jumped into something so totally different from what we began with that I don't know what you all are talking about anymore. I just want to get back and make sure that...."
"I know what you want, Gabrielle. I'm just telling you that there's things that we have to do first."
"But we can't do them here!" Gabrielle walked back over to Hercules and Iolaus. Xena merely stood where she was for a moment, and then followed Gabrielle back. "Look, there are too many questions that we don't know the answers to. Do we at least all agree on that?" All three nodded consent. "Okay. Now, unless anyone else has a better idea at the moment, I say we go back to Mynar and now that everyone is back to normal, talk to them as adults about who and what they saw. Maybe now that we've got a little more information, we can get a better sense of what's going on there."
Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other and Iolaus shrugged. "I haven't got any ideas, Herc."
"Me, neither," admitted Hercules. "I think that Gabrielle is right. I think that we need to go back to the source and see what's going on."
Xena didn't say anything. She just looked at Gabrielle, shook her head, and turned to Argo, who had been waiting in the bushes since they arrived. "Come on, Argo. Let's go."
Hercules and Iolaus followed Xena and Gabrielle as they led the way to Mynar. Once when Gabrielle heard a noise in the woods, she fell back to the rear but could see nothing. Iolaus noticed her lagging behind and slowed down to allow her to catch up with him. When she did, he fell into step with her. He didn't speak for a long while, just walked beside her in silence. When he did speak, Gabrielle didn't expect to hear what he said.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Surprised, Gabrielle asked, "About what?"
"Whatever's bothering you. And don't lie to me, Gabrielle, we know each other too well for that. I know that something is bothering you, I just don't know what it is. I noticed that you and Xena weren't talking about it, either, not since she dragged you off for that little conference. So if you want to talk about it, I've got an ear and a shoulder."
Gabrielle just looked at Iolaus for a long while. She thought and considered and mulled. She couldn't get it straight in her own mind, so what made her think that she could talk about it?
"Let me wager a guess. It's about someone in the village," Iolaus said, while Gabrielle was still ordering her thoughts.
"How did you know?"
"Gabrielle, it's not that far a stretch. That's the big thing that's preoccupying everyone right now. So what's the story? Is it the friend Xena mentioned earlier, Boxer?"
"Joxer. Yeah. It's Joxer."
"Don't you worry about your friend. Between Hercules, Xena, you and me, we're going to make sure your friend gets out and everything gets back to normal."
Gabrielle decided to confide something to Iolaus that she hadn't told Xena. Of course, she thought, Xena probably had known it before Gabrielle herself did. "Iolaus, I'm going to tell you something, and you have to swear to the gods that you're not going to repeat this or tell anyone else that I've said this."
"I swear," swore Iolaus solemnly.
"Joxer loves me, Iolaus. He hasn't said anything to me, but it's written across his face plainly enough. He's annoying, he's foolish, bumbling, and probably one of the most irritating people I've ever known. But he's also sweet, Iolaus, and a lot of other nice things, like thoughtful and caring. A lot of the time, I make him think that he's gotten on my nerves and that I don't want him around when the truth is I'm glad that he's there. I mean, yes, he makes me want to kill him sometimes, but other times I'm really glad that he's there. And I don't know why. But I can't stand the thought of something really bad happening to him. Every time that it comes up, I get this lump in my throat and a rock in my chest. Like when we had to leave him in Mynar. I thought that I was going to cry when I had to leave him behind. And he wants so bad to help, Iolaus, but all he ever does is end up getting in the way. or getting himself in trouble. It broke my heart seeing the look on his face when Xena and I rode off to look for you and Hercules. He wanted so bad to come along. He told me to be careful because he wouldn't be there to protect me. I promised him that we'd find a way to fix things, but I'm so afraid that we won't be able to. I'm afraid that he's going to be stuck in that village for the rest of his life, because we can't seem to figure out what's going on. I don't want that to happen, Iolaus. I'll tell you another secret, Iolaus, but you can't tell this one either. I think that I love Joxer, too. Of all the people in the world, it had to be him. And just between us, he's the only person that's ever called me Gabby. If it were anyone else, I'd kill them."
"Do you know, I think that's the most I think I've ever heard you say?"
"Be serious, Iolaus."
"I am. I don't think that I've ever heard you say so many things before. Anyway, let me address one thing right now--I don't care if we have to go to the depths of Tartarus, we will find a way to fix this thing. Hercules and Xena will see to that, if for no other reason than to annoy Ares. But we both know they'll also do it for the people in Mynar, which includes your friend. As for Joxer, well, don't you think that you ought to tell him how you feel about him? Before he decides that you don't really want him around?"
"He's not like that, Iolaus. He's not. He stays around whether you want him around or not. I'll give you an example. Recently, Xena found out that there's another look-alike for her--a Hestian Virgin Priestess named Lia."
"I bet she just loved that."
"Oh, yeah. Anyway, it's a long story, but it ended up that they got Meg, another Xena look-alike, to take Lia's place in the temple, and Lia, with my help, went back to run Meg's business, which is a tavern, complete with working girls. Joxer frequents this place, to see Meg, I think. Anyway, he sees me there, makes the absurd assumption that I'm working there, and begins to tell me that no matter what happened in my life to bring me there, that kind of place is not for me."
"That's beside the point. He doesn't have a right to tell me anything. I told him to go away, but he wouldn't. He ended up going to the temple to try and save Meg, getting captured, and being rescued by Xena."
"Aren't you glad, though, that he didn't go away?"
"Not at first, but then I realized that he was right where he needed to be so that I could keep an eye on him. So he wouldn't get into too much trouble. Didn't work."
By this time, night had fallen and they made a camp for the night. Xena couldn't sleep, and found Hercules still awake.
"Can't sleep?" she asked him.
"No. I can't get this out of my mind. I can't help feeling that we're missing one huge crucial part of this, and that if we only had that, everything would fall into place. Iolaus brought up an interesting point earlier, though, with the contradictions."
"But what does that really mean? Even if he didn't recognize the individuals in the village, he surely knew that only one face would do far less damage than two, and was doing his best to save people in general, and not individuals he did or didn't recognize."
Hercules sighed. "You've got a good point there. There is so much about this thing that we just don't know."
"And so many ways to interpret what we know, or think we know. Let's look at what we do know. 1) Ares and Discord are involved--the altercation earlier I think proved that; 2) we are dealing with Aphrodite's belt--one of the Mynarian women identified it; 3) we are dealing with Janus or someone using Janus's form--Trocalus identified him; 4) people in Mynar have had drastic age reversals, and it's lingering--Gabrielle and I have seen it, but we have also seen it reversed. Now, as Gabrielle said, the people in the village should be all back to normal now, and there are a couple we should speak with when we get there. We won't be able to go into the village, nor will they be able to leave it. We can speak at the edge of the magic, but go no further. We should speak with Trocalus again, and his wife, Lycene. And there was also mention of a young child who covered the ending face on the back of Janus's head with a cloth--we should also talk to that young man. There was also a woman tending the village well, whom Joxer spoke with. She is the one who heard him muttering something like 'this board' over and over again. If she heard that, I wonder if she overheard anything else--we should speak to her, too," said Xena.
"If it weren't for the belt this Mynarian woman identified, I'd say it's just Ares and Discord up to their old tricks, trying to plague mortals, that sort of thing. This is something mean enough for them to have done it. The answer lies with them, I'm sure of it."
"I hope not only with them, because if it is, Mynar and everyone in it is doomed. But Hercules, do not mention this around Gabrielle. She must remain hopeful that a way can be found to repair this damage."
"Yeah, I saw her and Iolaus talking together all afternoon and evening. I wonder what they were talking about."
"I don't know, but I'd be willing to be that it's got something to do with the friend we left in the village. It's nothing important, but I worry about Gabrielle, especially if we can't find a way to fix this. I don't know how she'd take it."
The next morning, it was Hercules and Iolaus who led the way, and Xena stayed near the rear to talk to Gabrielle.
"I saw you talking to Iolaus yesterday. Do you feel any better?"
"Not really. You didn't get much sleep last night, did you? I woke up a time or two and heard you and Hercules talking."
"No, I couldn't sleep."
"Xena, are we really going to find a way to help these people?"
"That's what we're working on now. I think that after we talk to these people again, things are going to make more sense."
Xena couldn't dispute that. "We hope."
"None of us really know what's going on, do we? Not me, not you, not Iolaus, not Hercules."
Xena couldn't lie. "Not for sure, no. But we've got some ideas."
"But they've all got more holes than Joxer's head."
"The Mynarians will fill those holes in."
"I wish I'd never seen Joxer in the woods."
"Gabrielle, you don't mean that."
"Yes, I do. If we hadn't--"
Xena hardened. "If we hadn't, what then? Joxer would've been left there, a child, a defenseless child in a dangerous world, not knowing where we were, wandering around, looking for us, and ultimately getting lost. Meanwhile, we'd have gone on never knowing that it was Joxer we left there, and as time went by, we'd wonder where he'd gone and why he wasn't coming with us anymore. We'd be glad at first and then we'd start to miss him. Meanwhile--"
"All right, Xena!!! You've made your point!"
"Have I? Jut wishing won't make what's happened just go away." Xena felt a hand
on her arm. Iolaus was standing beside her.
"It's not the time, Xena. We're almost to Mynar. Let it be," he said softly.
Xena shook her head in resignation and sprinted to catch up with Hercules and Argo. Iolaus looked at Gabrielle and didn't say anything for a long moment. "We're almost to Mynar."
"I heard," answered Gabrielle. "And thanks."
Iolaus just smiled and walked back to the head of the line.
When they got to Mynar, Xena stopped at the edge of the village, near the stream they had visited before. She called out, "Joxer! Trocalus! It's Xena, we're back." About the time she finished calling, Joxer came out of one of the village huts.
"Xena! Gabrielle! Hercules! Iolaus!" Joxer turned back into the village and bellowed, "They're back!"
People started streaming toward the edge of the village. Xena called out to Joxer. "Joxer, we need to speak with Trocalus. And Lycene."
Trocalus and Lycene stepped out of the mass and closer to Xena and the rest of the heroes. "Yes?"
"We have some more questions to ask you, Trocalus. But first, we also need to gather some of the others to speak to also," said Hercules.
"Certainly, Hercules. Who do you want to talk to?"
"Well, we need to talk to you, and to your wife. We also want to talk to the woman that was minding the well when Janus came. And Xena said that you mentioned something about a child who might have seen Janus's other face, we need to speak to him also."
"Of course, Hercules," said Trocalus, and motioned to several people to come to him. "This is Thyria, the woman who was tending the well. And this is Crios, with his mother, Pirithia."
"Hello." Hercules nodded to each as they were being introduced. "Trocalus, can we move over here where we won't be in anyone's way?"
"By all means."
Hercules, Xena and Iolaus moved the group of villagers farther over to the stream. "Trocalus, you said it was Janus who came through here?" asked Xena.
"Yes, it was."
"How did you know it was him?" asked Iolaus.
"Because he's the only one that we know of who has two faces," answered Trocalus.
"And several of we women saw him up close, and tried to speak to him." Suddenly, everyone's attention was riveted to Lycene. "We were on our way to the village hall to pick up some materials we needed for a playhouse for the children when we saw him stumbling through the village. We hailed him, tried to speak to him, but he didn't recognize us and ignored us."
"So you're sure it was him?" questioned Hercules.
"Without a doubt," replied Lycene.
Xena turned to Crios. "Crios, my name is Xena. I have something very important to ask you. I want to you tell me everything that you can about it, okay?"
"Okay." The child's face turned from awe to solemnity.
"Now, Crios, when you saw Janus, what was the first thing that you thought?"
"That he might be drunk."
"Why is that?"
"Because he was walking funny, like he couldn't stay straight or something."
"Would you show us how he was walking?" asked Iolaus.
Crios started weaving around drunkenly. "He was walking like this."
"Now let me ask you something else. Why did you bring the cloth to throw over his head?" continued Iolaus.
"I don't know. At first, I thought I heard somebody tell me to do it, but when I looked there wasn't anyone there. But I went ahead and did it."
"Was it a boy or a girl?"
"A girl. It was a girl. But it wasn't my mother, or anyone else in the village, like Aunt Lycene or anyone. I didn't know who it was."
"That's okay. That's just fine. What did the face you covered up look like? Did it look like his other one, or was it different?'
"It was different. It had a bigger nose."
"Thank you, Crios, you've been a big help." Crios walked back over to Pirithia, while the three conferred among themselves.
"It was definitely Janus, if the faces were different," said Iolaus. "Proteus can't make two faces at one time."
"No argument there. And the women are convinced that it was him. So we discard Proteus, and we're back to the same old questions we had before," said Hercules.
"Not quite. We've got a new question to go along with the old ones, now. Who was the woman that Crios said told him to cover Janus that he didn't recognize but obeyed anyway?" added Xena.
"We need to talk to Thyria, see if she overheard anything that can help us add this stuff together."
"Thyria, could you come here, please?"
"Thyria, you were tending the well when Janus came through?"
"You said he was mumbling something over and over again. You said it sounded like 'this board.' Do you think that he could have been saying 'Discord?'"
"Discord? Yes, Discord, I think that was it. As I said, he was mumbling, but Discord sounds much more like what he said than 'this board.'"
"Did he say anything else?"
"Actually, he did say something once--two things that didn't make sense at all."
"What did he say?"
"He said first 'got to stop this' and then kept mumbling Discord. Then the second time he said 'she didn't know' then 'got to stop this.' That was all I heard him say--the rest of the time was his Discord mumbling."
While Xena and the others were questioning Trocalus and his friends, Gabrielle was trying to calm everyone. "Look, Xena and Hercules are working as hard as they can to find out what's going on around here and for a way to stop it."
The crowd continued yelling incoherently for a while, then quieted enough for someone to yell, "So why did they come back here if they're so busy looking?"
"They needed to talk to Trocalus again about some things they needed to know, that's
"How long are we going to be like this?" yelled someone else from the back of the crowd.
"Only for as long as it takes for Xena to find the cure."
The crowds dispersed back to the village square, leaving Joxer with Gabrielle.
"I see you kept things well under control while we were gone," said Gabrielle.
"Did you expect anything less from Joxer the Mighty?" asked Joxer. "Don't answer
that." He paused for a moment, and then said something with un-Joxer-like insight. "They really don't have a clue, do they? That's really why they're back here."
"Of course they know what they're doing," Gabrielle lied. "They're just here to clear up a few things that were a little fuzzy." That, at least, wasn't a lie.
"You look like you've been in a fight."
"We were. Ares and Discord showed up while we were talking to Hercules and Iolaus."
"Are you okay?"
"Fine. You should have been there. I could've used your help putting out fires."
Joxer gulped. "Ares? Fire? Uh, I think that I was better off here, making sure that nothing out of the ordinary happened here while you were gone."
Gabrielle had to smile at that. That was so Joxer-ish. "Really, Joxer, you've got nothing to worry about. Xena's on it, and she's not going to give up."
"Worry? Who, me? No, I'm not worried, not a bit. I'm just fine here, thanks."
A hand fell on Gabrielle's shoulder. She turned. "Iolaus."
"Can I talk to you over here for a moment?"
"Sure. I'll be right back." Gabrielle followed Iolaus out of Joxer's earshot. "So what did you find out?"
"Well, we found out that we are definitely ruling out Proteus, that it's definitely Janus we're dealing with. We also found out that 'Discord' wasn't the only thing he was saying, that he was also saying 'she didn't know' and 'got to stop this'. There is something else, though. The child, Crios, the one they say covered the second face of Janus, said that he heard a woman's voice telling him to do that. He says that he didn't recognize the voice but that he obeyed it anyway."
"So who was this mysterious voice?"
"We don't know--the boy was the only one that seemed to hear it. That's why Xena sent me over--she wanted to see if Joxer had heard anyone talking in the village the last couple of days about who it might have been."
"O--okay, sure." Iolaus walked Gabrielle back to where Joxer was standing. "Joxer, we need to talk to you about something."
'Oh, no,' Joxer thought. 'But if it's what she wants...' "Look, Gabrielle,--"
"No, just listen. Iolaus and I need to ask you something. Have you heard anyone mention hearing voices when there's no one around?"
"Whatever you want to do--huh?"
"Have you heard of anyone in the village talking about hearing voices when there's no one around?" asked Iolaus.
"Uh, yeah, I have. It's nothing that out of the ordinary for them. Most of the people of Mynar are scholars. They collect scholarly works, like histories, poems, charts of the sky, things like that. Whenever they find something that they can't identify, I've heard them say that it's not unusual for them to say a prayer to one of the Muses and they whisper the answer in the ear of the asker."
Gabrielle looked at Iolaus and she said, "Joxer, wait here a minute." She and Iolaus walked over to where Xena and Hercules were still chatting with Trocalus and the other Mynarians.
"It's not like I've got anywhere else to go," Joxer said as they left.
"Xena, Hercules, we've got to talk to you," said Gabrielle.
"Okay, what is it?"
"We just talked to Joxer, and he says that Mynar is a village of scholars, and that it's not unusual for the Muses to whisper answers to prayers in the ears of the villagers."
"That is correct," said Trocalus. "We mostly deal with history, poetry, and astronomy, so it's usually Clio, Calliope, or Urania that we pray to most often, and who answer our prayers. But at one time or another, we've had dealings with all of them, though we've never seen them."
The heroes looked at each other. They needed to regroup, to think and try to make sense of all this new information. "Trocalus, we need some time to talk these things out, but could you stay close by? There are questions that we may need you to answer," asked Hercules.
"Of course," Trocalus moved toward the center of town and the four sat down together and put their heads together.
"Wait, before we start, we need to move closer. Joxer, as much as I hate to say this, needs to be listening at the very least, because he's been here a while, and knows a bit more about the background of these people than we do," said Xena. "Joxer! Come over here!"
Joxer joined the group, and they began to talk. "Okay, let's work with the assumption that it was one of the Muses that spoke to Crios. Which one, and why?" Hercules asked.
"It might have something to do with the new scroll they found," said Joxer.
All four heads turned to look at Joxer. "What scroll?"
"They just found a new scroll a day or two before this happened."
"What else?" asked Gabrielle.
"I don't know, they were just talking about it in passing one day."
"Trocalus!" called out Iolaus. "Could you come here? Could you tell us about a new scroll that you recently found?"
"What does it have to do with this situation?"
"I don't know, yet. But could you tell us about it, please?" asked Xena.
"Well, we found it about two days before Janus came through here. We were digging in the Arean Caverns--"
"Wait, wait--the Arean Caverns?" asked Hercules.
"Well, yes. That's what we called the caverns we recently found near the village--they're inside the radius of the spell or I would take you down into them. On the walls and the scrolls we could read were pictures and stories of Ares, but none that we'd ever heard before. There was a wealth of information in those scrolls, but there were several that we could not read. Four, in fact. Three of them Clio helped us with--they were histories of Ares, of how he came to be, of his victories, things of that nature. The fourth scroll none of the Muses could tell us about."
"They said that it was something they didn't understand--they couldn't read it to tell us what it was or what it said."
"Can we see that scroll, please?" asked Hercules.
"Certainly." Trocalus went off to retrieve the scroll while the rest of them talked.
"We've got to find out what's on that scroll," Iolaus said.
"I think that I do know," says Hercules, "if it's what I think that it is."
"What is it?" Iolaus asked.
"It's something that the first priest of every temple writes, and it's direct from the god or goddess. It's then sealed in a certain type of clay jar, with certain symbols on it, and only another priest from the same worship can read it. For example, if this scroll was written by an Arean priest, only another of Ares's priests can read it."
"I don't understand," said Xena.
"Each of the gods and goddesses have their own temples with their own priests or
priestesses. Each group of worshippers, say the Ares worshippers, have their own written language, sort of like a code, to keep other worshippers from knowing the secrets of Ares. No two languages are alike. These caves sound like early temples to my brother. It would be my guess that the first priest of Ares wrote something on that last scroll and Ares doesn't want us to know what it is."
"What could it be?" asked Gabrielle.
"It depends on the kind of jar it was found in, and what symbols are on the outside. Based on what Trocalus told us of the reaction of the Muses, I'd guess that it was the First Scroll, or the Scroll of All Power."
"That's the scroll that tells of the secrets of the god's powers, and the one supreme weakness of the god, isn't it?" asked Iolaus. At Hercules's nod, he went on. "I've heard stories about these. When Cronus was overthrown by Zeus, Zeus made a law that if one of his siblings wanted to become a god, he first had to write down the thing that he or she wished to be god of, where their power comes from, and the one weakness that would allow them to be defeated by another god. When Zeus had them do this, each of the gods went down from Olympus and went to the head priest of the newly formed temples. The priest was either dedicated to that god, or killed on the spot so the secret would go no further. Once the priest was sworn to secrecy, the god imparted the knowledge of the secret language to him, and after that, the other information. It was then sealed by the god, and hidden somewhere in the earth. If the scroll was needed, it would be unearthed and it would be translated and publicized. This was done to keep all the gods from becoming so power-hungry that one would try to overthrow the others."
"So now, if this is the Scroll of All Power, we have our weapon," exclaimed Gabrielle. "All we have to do is demand that Ares stop what he's doing or to fix what he's done, or else we'll read the scroll."
"One problem with that. No one of us knows how to read Arean script," said Hercules. "Besides, we don't know that's what this is, yet. That's just my guess."
Just then, Trocalus came back with a scroll held in his hands. "Here you go, Hercules. Please, be careful that you don't damage it. Your strength--"
"Is not going to damage this at all. This is it. This is the Scroll of All Power," said Hercules, recognizing the symbols on the outside.
"The Scroll of All Power?" asked Trocalus.
"The Scroll of All Power," confirmed a new musical voice. "That is what we could not tell you. We are not allowed." The woman held up her hand to forestall the question that was coming. "Nor are we allowed to translate it, nor would we if we could. That is a dangerous document you hold, Hercules."
"No more dangerous than the god to whom it belongs. No more dangerous than what he's caused here."
"My sisters and I keep watch over this village. We know all things that go on in it. We answer what questions we are able. We, too, mourn the tragedy that has befallen it, and I have come to help if I can. I am Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy. My brother, that scroll you hold will give you the advantage over Ares."
"Only if we can translate it, which we can't."
"One among you can. The offspring of Ares can read the script. It is in the blood."
Everyone looked at each other, trying to figure out who it was.
"Xena!" Joxer cried. "It's Xena."
"What?" came from Gabrielle and Xena both.
"It makes sense to me," Joxer says.
"Then it's wrong," said Gabrielle. "It has to be wrong."
"No, listen, it makes a lot of sense. Who is the best fighter? Xena. Who can do things that no one else can? Xena. She's got some innate ability combined with years of training and stuff. Who is Ares always messing with? Xena. You too, Hercules, but that's because you're related. And that works also with Xena, that he only messes with people he's related to," insisted Joxer.
"Xena, you have to give it a try, please," said Gabrielle. "I don't believe it for a moment, but if there is the slightest chance--"
"There isn't. But I'll try." Xena took the scroll from Hercules. It opened itself to her, revealing lines of ornate looking script. She looked at it, then rolled it back up. "I can't do this."
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm. "You can. If you can, you will."
Steeling herself with a deep breath, Xena unrolled the scroll and stared long at the script on the parchment. Closing her eyes, Xena began to speak. "I am the son of the queen of the gods. I am Ares. By this birth I claim the right to be the God of War, of Discord and Strife, of Pain, Famine, Pestilence, Oblivion. With this I claim also dominion over--"
"STOP!!!" Ares's voice rolled like thunder across the village. "How dare you profane the Scroll of All Power? Give it to me at once and I may spare your lives."
Seemingly entranced, Xena moved to hand it over to Ares but Gabrielle stepped in her path. "Don't do it, Xena. He wants this. He doesn't want you to finish translating that scroll for us. He doesn't want us to find out what his weakness is. If you hand that scroll over, you also hand over the only chance we have to find out once and for all what is going on in Mynar and how to stop it."
Melpomene stepped forward. "Let Xena do what she must--everything will be as it will be."
"Gabrielle." Gabrielle stepped to the side and allowed Xena to pass her and stop in front of Ares.
"Now give me that scroll, Xena, before I am forced to destroy you."
"Of course. But I already know what your secret is, Ares. And if you don't want me revealing it to everyone from here to Hades, you will tell me what you've done and tell me how to stop it."
"You think that you can fool me with your lies?"
"I am not lying, Ares. Let me prove it to you." Xena drew her sword and drew a set of the ornate symbols on the dirt.
Snarling, Ares kicked the signs from the dirt. "All right. Discord took the belt from Aphrodite and delivered it to Janus, leaving an unsigned note that it was a gift from an admirer. He put it on, and it enhanced his magic. But it also made it erratic. You've seen the results yourself. All you must do is to remove the belt from Janus and return it to Aphrodite. When the belt is returned to it's rightful owner, the errant magic will be gone, having been used correctly by the correct owner. You will regret the day that you crossed me, Warrior Princess." Ares disappeared with the scroll in a furious flash.
Xena walked away from the scorched earth and back to Argo. Swinging herself into the saddle, Xena turned to her comrades. "Well, are you coming or not?"
"Coming? To where?" asked Gabrielle.
"Athena's temple," Xena replied.
"Athena's temple? What for?" asked Iolaus.
"I need her help," said Xena simply.
"I'll go with you," Hercules said. "But I think that Gabrielle and Iolaus should stay behind in case Ares or Discord decide to come back and try to attack the village in revenge."
"Good idea, Herc," Iolaus said as Hercules swung into the saddle behind Xena. Gabrielle and Iolaus watched them ride off together. "They make a cute couple, don't they?"
"Don't make me laugh, Iolaus. It hurts right now."
"Are you all right? You haven't gotten hurt, have you?"
"No, I just mean that I'm worried about Xena. She didn't seem herself."
"Well, how would you feel if you found out that your father's been trying to kill you?" asked Joxer.
"I guess you're right," Gabrielle sighed. "Still, her going off alone like that..."
"She's not alone, Gabrielle. Herc's with her--he'll keep her on track, don't you worry."
"What do you think is on that scroll, Iolaus?"
"His weakness, whatever that is."
"I wonder what it is."
"I don't know. But it's something important. And from Ares's reaction, I'd say he didn't want Xena to know."
"Probably that his children can kill him," said Joxer.
Iolaus and Gabrielle looked stunned when Joxer said that. "Are you nuts?" asked Gabrielle.
"No, no, he's probably right. I mean, think about it," said Iolaus. "Hercules he merely annoys. Xena's he most times out to kill. To get her out of the way, so she wouldn't be a threat to his power."
Gabrielle was stunned. "What--how--never mind. Xena knows this, and she's still going up against him? And Joxer--since when do you know everything?"
"I don't know everything--things are just starting to make sense to me when I say them."
Meanwhile, Xena is racing Argo as fast as he'd run.
"We don't have to fly there, you know." Hercules didn't get an answer. "Okay. Uh, Xena, you want to talk about whatever you're trying to outrun?"
"I'm not trying to outrun anything. I want to get to the temple and back to Mynar as fast as I can. I don't trust Ares very much--I don't trust him enough to leave Mynar alone. And I'm not sure that Gabrielle and Iolaus are up to taking on Ares alone."
"Right. Are you sure you're okay? And you don't have to worry. Ares isn't coming back to the village. He's got what he wants. He's got the Scroll. That's why he shut off the village, so no one could find it. And that's why he told you how to stop it, because he's got no more reason to shut it off. Okay?"
" Okay. I'm fine."
"What was Ares's secret?"
"I can't tell you?"
"I can't tell anyone. It's part of the deal we made. In exchange for my silence, he gave me what I wanted--a way to stop what's happening in Mynar. All in all, a fair exchange, I'd say."
"And you think he's telling the truth? All of it?"
"Yes, I do."
"He could've told you anything to get the Scroll and you gave it to him. He's got what he wanted--how do you know he's not sending you on a fool's errand."
"Because the Scroll doesn't matter, not when I already know what it said."
"So what did it say?"
"I can't tell you. But I know what was on it. You remember that I wrote something in the dirt? I wrote, with different symbols, what was in the Scroll. Ares knows that I know. And I won't tell. He has my word on it."
"Fair enough, I suppose. So what do you think Athena can do for you?"
"The same thing that she did for Perseus."
"The shield. I'm hoping that I can use it to shield myself while I take the belt from Janus."
"Oh, great plan. So what do I do?"
"Hold the horse while I'm taking care of Janus."
"Hold the horse. I didn't come along just to hold the horse, you know."
"Of course you did. You didn't think that I was going to let you risk your life doing this, did you?"
"I'm not Gabrielle, Xena. I can take care of myself."
Xena stopped Argo. "Look, Hercules, it's nothing personal. This is my fight, all right? I don't know why I was brought into this, and I don't want to. I've got enough to deal with knowing that I've got the blood of Ares in my veins. Now on top of that, I have the secret that could destroy my--Ares, and I can't share it. Finally, I've got the fate of an entire village resting on my shoulders, and the gods help me if I fail. Because if I can't get this right, I'm going to strand a whole lot of people in that village for the rest of their lives, or force them to live their lives again to get out if it, not to mention the fact Joxer will be stuck in there, which will kill Gabrielle. So please, don't get upset if I can't think of something more heroic for you to do than hold Argo."
Hercules was beginning to feel frustrated. "Xena, you don't have to do this alone. You're not the first person to get surprise news about your parentage, and you won't be the last. You have friends. You have people who love you. Let us help you."
"No. I won't have you risking yourself for something that I have to do. Hercules, you are a good friend. I know that I can count on you, and that's when I came to you when I needed help before. The best way that you help me now is to stay out of my way."
"I can't do that. I can't let you do something like this alone. I'm going to help you whether you like it or not. And not because I don't think that you can do it, but because we're family. I don't let my family down."
Xena stopped arguing and rode Argo to the temple of Athena. When she got to the city, Xena stopped Argo outside and entered the city on foot, with Hercules by her side. She entered the temple and knelt in front of the altar. Hercules came in behind her. "Wise Athena, I ask your assistance in this my time of need. Without your help, innocent people will suffer for no reason, for the whim of--of my father. I ask not for myself but for all of the people of the village of Mynar, and for my friends."
Athena appeared in front of Xena. "What is it you would ask of me, Xena, Warrior Princess?"
"Ares has caused a magic spell to cover the village of Mynar. We made a bargain, and in return for my silence, he has told me the way that I may abate the spell on the village and free the people. But I cannot do it without your help, Athena."
"So you say. Very well, Xena, I will help you. In return, you will tell me the secret of Ares's downfall."
"I can't do that. I gave him my word that I would not reveal what I know. He has honored his word--I can do no less."
"And you believe him?"
"Yes. You've raised questions that I've pondered, and have come to terms with. I will not dishonor my word by breaking my silence."
"What if it means that everyone in the village will be sacrificed if I don't help you?"
"I will find another way. The cost of your help is too high." Xena turned to leave the temple when Hercules spoke.
"I can't believe this, Athena. You are the one goddess that I thought would help us. You are the one who fights on the side of the just and honorable, and now you are taking a situation like this and trying to use it to your advantage."
"Hold your peace, Hercules. Xena--you shall have the aid you have requested."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"You were once a very powerful and ruthless warlord under the tutelage of Ares. Now you come to me asking help to defeat him. You'll forgive me for making sure that you were sincere."
"It was a test?" asked Hercules.
"Of course. And you passed. Here," Athena said, extending her arm. A polished silver shield appeared and Xena took it. "Success to you in what you do, and may the spirit of Victory smile upon you."
"Thank you, Athena." Xena and Hercules left the temple and began searching for Janus.
While Xena and Hercules were petitioning Athena for help, Iolaus and Gabrielle were watching over the village of Mynar.
"Iolaus, are you sure that she's going to be okay?"
"Of course she's going to be okay, Gabrielle. This is Xena we're talking about here. When has she never not been okay?"
"I guess you're right."
"Hey, I know. Why don't you write something for us, give your mind a break from all this stuff," suggested Iolaus while they were sitting near the glow of the fire.
"I don't feel like writing. I think I'm going to try to get some rest. I didn't get much last night."
"Neither did I, but I bet we got more than Xena and Herc. I heard them talking several times last night." Iolaus and Gabrielle bedded down near the fire.
Joxer sat in the shadows at the edge of the village watching Gabrielle. So it happened that Joxer was the first one to see Discord appear quietly beside the sleeping figures. Joxer saw the dying firelight glint off a knife she held, and without another second to waste, Joxer launched himself at Discord, tripping over his own feet in the process. And as soon as he crossed the line, he felt himself shrinking again, but it was enough to send Discord stumbling back in the darkness. Joxer, again a child, ran over to Discord and grabbed her arm. Gabrielle woke to see a child hanging onto Discord's arm, being shaken like a rag.
Joxer lost his grip and was flung against a tree, on which he hit his head with a sickening crack. Gabrielle heard that crack and went after Discord with her staff, while Iolaus went to see about Joxer. Iolaus picked Joxer up and took him to the fire. When he took his hand away from the back of his head, there was blood on it. Gabrielle landed blow after blow on Discord, until Iolaus came up behind her and pulled her away. She shook him off, but then she saw Joxer lying beside of the fire, and went back for Discord. She had vanished in the time that she'd turned her head.
"Oh, no, Iolaus--is it--"
Iolaus nodded his head. "Yeah." Gabrielle noticed then there was blood on her arm and Iolaus's hand.
"He's not--he can't be--" Gabrielle ran over to the fire. "You jerk," she said, crying. "What were you thinking?" She picked him up, and felt the sticky warmth of the blood flowing from the back of his head. "Iolaus!! Call for Trocalus. Ask for a waterskin, and some clean rags. Hurry." And as an afterthought, "Also some thread, and a needle." She turned her attention to Joxer. "Joxer, Joxer, come on now. You can't be hurt. Your head is too hard. Please, Joxer." She looked at his face. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing. "This is no time to take a nap." Joxer didn't stir.
Iolaus came running back. "Here."
"Thanks." Gabrielle took the waterskin and soaked one of the rags in cold water. Carefully, she bent Joxer over so he seemed to be sitting with his back to her, and she looked at the place where his head had hit the tree. Joxer's black hair was matted with blood, and there looked to be a raw spot where the skin had been torn off. Gently, Gabrielle took the rag and cleaned as much of the spot as she could. "Iolaus, I need more water. No--don't go to the stream," she said as he started there. "It's inside the magic. Tell Trocalus to bring the largest waterskin he has filled with water, and a long length of rope." Iolaus was gone for a moment, then brought the items back to Gabrielle. She poured the water through Joxer's hair, washing the blood out so she could get a look at the injury. When the large skin was empty, she gave it to Iolaus. "Tie the end of the rope around it, and make sure it won't come loose."
"I see. Throw it into the stream and pull it back out."
"That's the idea, yeah." With the matted hair clean, Gabrielle could see the injury. It wasn't as bad as she'd first thought. Iolaus brought the water back to Gabrielle. She washed off the blood where it had crusted on the rest of his body, and then used another of the clean rags to wrap a bandage around the back of his head to protect the injured place. Still Joxer didn't awake. Gabrielle laid Joxer down on the ground with the bag of rags for a pillow. She sat down beside him and held his hand. "This is my fault, Iolaus."
"How do you figure that?"
"If I wasn't always making him feel like he's nothing and that he has to prove himself all the time, he wouldn't do stupid things like this." Suddenly, Gabrielle felt Joxer's hand twitch and she forgot all about her conversation with Iolaus. "Joxer? Can you hear me? It's me, Gabrielle. Joxer, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand." Agonizing moments passed before Gabrielle felt a slight tightening of Joxer's grip on her hand. Gabrielle smiled up at Iolaus. "He can hear me! He's all right!" Then she looked back down at Joxer. His eyes were still closed. "Joxer, can you still hear me? Open your eyes. Open your eyes and look at me. Come on, Joxer, you can do it." Slowly, Joxer opened his eyes, but he couldn't focus them on anything.
Joxer whispered, "Gabrielle."
Instantly, she leaned down and put her ear close to his lips.
"Gabrielle. I heard you, but I can't see you. Why can't I see you?"
Gabrielle looked at Iolaus with a look of horror on her face. "He can't see," she whispered. "Ye gods, he can't see." She patted Joxer's arm. "Don't worry, Joxer, it's okay. We don't have a fire and there are no stars out tonight. It's dark all around, that's why you can't see. But see, I'm right here beside you."
"I'm scared, Gabrielle," Joxer whispered.
Gabrielle hugged the child as she never would the man. "I know you are, Joxer. I know you are." So am I, she thought, so am I. Joxer fell into a real sleep while Gabrielle rocked him. When she was sure that he was asleep, she spoke to Iolaus. "He can't see, Iolaus."
"I don't know what to do. I've done all that I can, but this I don't know how to deal with. And what do I tell him when he wakes up? That he's blind? I can't keep telling him that it's a cloudy night without a campfire."
"Gabrielle, right now the important thing is that he's alive and so are you."
"And I wouldn't be if not for him. He saved my life, Iolaus. Discord was going to kill us. Kill me, and Joxer stopped her. He left the village, knowing that he would be turned into a helpless child again, risking his life, to save me from her. And he didn't give up. He kept on attacking until she almost killed him. If he doesn't get his sight back, I don't know what I'm going to do." Gabrielle laid Joxer down on the rag pillow again. Just then, she heard hoofbeats thundering through the woods. Gabrielle sprang to her feet and grabbed her staff in her hands. She took a defensive position in front of Joxer while Iolaus jumped to his feet and looked out into the darkness. But Gabrielle relaxed when Argo rode into the circle of firelight. "Xena."
"Gabrielle. We got the shield, but we couldn't find Janus. We need you and Iolaus to help us fan out and search--"
Xena was interrupted when she heard a boy's voice cry out, "Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle dropped to her knees by Joxer. "I'm here, Joxer, what is it?"
"I had a dream. It was terrible. You and Xena and Hercules and Iolaus were looking for someone and all of you were turned into children like me, but you couldn't find each other again and you were all killed by animals!"
"It was just a dream." While Gabrielle was soothing Joxer by the fire, Xena started firing questions at Iolaus.
"What happened here? And who is that by the fire? And where is Joxer?"
"Okay. After you guys left, everything was quiet for a while. Gabrielle was feeling kind of low so I suggested that she write something. She said that she didn't feel like writing, so she laid down and went to sleep, and so did I. Next thing I know, Gabrielle is awake and fighting with Discord, who's got a kid hanging off her arm. She tosses the kid off into a tree, and when I go to look at him, I see that it's Joxer. And he's bleeding in the back of his head. I stop Gabrielle to get her to check on Joxer while I take care of Discord, but Discord is gone by the time that we turn back around. So Gabrielle cleans him up, washes the blood off, and bandages the gash. So when he wakes up, we find out that he's blind, and Gabrielle's told him that it's a cloudy night and we don't have a campfire and that's why he can't see. That's worked for now, but it won't for long. He saved Gabrielle's life. Discord had a knife--it's embedded in the same tree Joxer hit--and she was going to kill Gabrielle first and then me, I'm sure. He saw her, and he came charging out of the village."
"I knew that I should never have left him here." Xena knelt beside Gabrielle. "How is he?" she whispered.
"He's sleeping, and the gash on his head has stopped bleeding, but he can't see, Xena. He's blind."
"I know. Iolaus told me. Gabrielle, listen to me. I know how you feel about Joxer, but I need you to clear your mind for a moment. Can you do that?"
"No," she said. "I can't."
Xena embraced Gabrielle. Gabrielle started crying on Xena. "Go ahead, Gabrielle."
"It's my fault, Xena. If he weren't always trying to impress me--"
Xena pulled back and took Gabrielle's face in her hands. "Don't do that to yourself. It doesn't help." She looked at Hercules over Gabrielle's shoulder. "Someone recently pointed out to me that I was doing more harm than good by taking everything onto myself when I had friends and family that could help me. The same thing goes for you. You can't take all the blame in this--none of this is your fault. Punishing yourself does no good at all. I need you to help me right now, Gabrielle. Can you help me?"
Gabrielle wiped the tears from her eyes. "Yes. I can. But I'm not doing it without Joxer. I won't leave him alone."
"Fair enough. You take Joxer, put him on Argo. We need to find Janus, and find him now. We're running out of time. Hercules and I came from the north, and he wasn't there. Gabrielle and I are going south, and Hercules, you and Iolaus go east. They said he left the village on this path, and right ahead the path branches off. There's about a day's travel between the paths, so when one group locates Janus, get the other one before taking action."
The group split up and searched for two days. On the third day, Hercules and Iolaus found Janus wandering in the woods. Carefully shielding themselves, Hercules stayed to keep watch while Iolaus went to find Xena and Gabrielle. "Xena! We found Janus," said Iolaus, breathlessly. "He's on the east path, about a day and a half from here. Herc's keeping an eye on him. He's just wandering like he doesn't know what's going on. He's just wandering, that's all. Come on," Iolaus said. Xena and Gabrielle mounted Argo, and Gabrielle held Joxer on her lap between her and Xena. Iolaus tied two long branches together and made a sled to hitch to Argo. Argo galloped over the path and through the woods to where Hercules was waiting. Xena jumped down off Argo and moved over to where Hercules was crouched. Iolaus helped Gabrielle move Joxer off the horse and onto the ground.
"Any change?" asked Iolaus.
"No. He's adjusting to the fact that he can't see, though, but that's something. I've been thinking, Iolaus. If this works, Joxer is going to grow back into the man that he is. But a blind man can't be a warrior. And that's what Joxer is, more than anything in the world, is a warrior at heart. He just doesn't have the stomach for it."
"Let's just burn that bridge when we get there, Gabrielle. Right now we've got to worry about Janus.
Xena looked at Hercules. "How do you want to do this?"
"You still have the shield?"
Xena took it off the straps across her back. "It's right here."
"Okay. Here's what we need to do. Take your sword in one hand and put the shield on backwards over the other arm. That way you can walk backward and see things in the reflection of the shield. Also, the magic in the shield should protect you from the magic, but if it doesn't, just toss the shield down and go straight for Janus. Once you get within range of him, take your sword and slice the belt in two so that it falls to the ground. Once you've done that, take the sword and toss me the belt. Then you toss me the shield. Once I've got the shield, I'll put the belt in it and call Athena to get the shield. She'll make sure that the belt gets back to Aphrodite."
"Hercules, are you sure that you want to do this? I can do this myself."
"No. I'm sure. I want to help you, Xena. I'm your friend. Friends help each other. I'd like to think that you'd do the same for me."
"Of course I would." Xena pulled her sword out and positioned the shield. "Hercules, I'll need you to help me direct myself. I'll be walking backward, and the curve of the shield throws off my directions."
"No problem. Good luck."
"Thanks." Xena began walking backwards toward Janus.
"A little more to the left. Good. Keep going, no, two steps to the right. Now, there's a root behind you, don't trip on it." Slowly Xena made her way across the clearing to where Janus was, with Hercules calling out directions to her. When she got to Janus, she raised the sword and cut the knot in the back of the belt. It fell to the ground, and Xena picked it up with the tip of the sword and flipped it to Hercules. Then she threw the shield to Hercules, who plucked it out of the air. She dropped her sword in just enough time to catch Janus as he wavered and fell, but then straightened up.
"What happened to me? Where am I? Who are you?"
"I'm Xena. You're in the woods outside of the village of Mynar. And you were a part of a plot by Ares."
Athena appeared beside Hercules. "Oh, here, Athena, I believe this belongs to you," said Hercules, handing her the shield.
"Yes, thank you. And I'll make sure that this," and she picked up the belt, "gets back to the proper owner." Athena disappeared and Hercules went over to where Xena was still steadying Janus and helping the man get his balance.
"Looks like you did a pretty good day's work, Xena," said Hercules. "Janus is back to normal, the shield is back in Athena's possession, and she's returning the belt to Aphrodite. That means the spell should be broken soon."
"I hope so," she said, as she let go of Janus. "There you go," she said to him. "How are you feeling?"
"Better, thank you. Did I hear you mention a spell?"
"I'm afraid so. Hercules, would you fill Janus in on what's going on while I go talk to Gabrielle for a moment?" Hercules nodded and began to talk as Xena walked over to the place where Gabrielle was waiting with Iolaus and Joxer. "How is he doing?"
"The same. Still sleeping. "
"Well, the belt should be back in the hands of it's rightful owner soon, so the magic should be wearing off."
"How long do you think it will take?"
"I don't know." Xena hated saying that. "I don't know."
"There has to be something that we can do to find out."
"Gabrielle, the only thing that we can do is to keep an eye on Joxer and when he starts to change back into a man, we'll know that things are turning back to the right."
Janus and Hercules came over to join them. "Xena, I must thank all of you for stopping me. If you hadn't stopped me, I don't know how long this would have gone on and how many lives I might have destroyed," said Janus. "I only wish that there was something that I could do to help you as much as you helped me." Then he saw Joxer lying on the horse. "What's the matter with this young man?"
"He was injured in a fight that we had with Discord. He hit his head on a tree and he's lost his sight because of that."
"Well, I think that at the least I can take care of this youngster after all that you've done for me. Would you happen to have another one of those cloths you used to bind his head?" Janus asked.
"Right here," said Iolaus, who handed him one.
Janus took the cloth and wet it with some liquid out of a vial he pulled from a pocket in his clothing.
"What is that?" Gabrielle asked.
"This, my friend, is a distillation of Ichor, the ointment of the gods. It heals any wound that it's applied to." Janus moved to stand by Joxer. "If I could get one of you to help me hold his head up, I can apply the salve to the head wound. It should heal the wound and return his sight to him." Gabrielle moved to Janus's side and gently lifted his head and pulled the bandage away. Janus laid the dampened cloth on the wound, and placed the old bandage over top of it to keep it in place. "That should do it. He'll sleep until the wound is healed, but when he wakes, he should be as good as new. Now, if you don't mind, I think that it's time that I leave. I believe I've spent enough time here and caused enough trouble here." Janus left them in the clearing and walked off toward the sunset.
"Hercules, Iolaus, thank you for your help."
Hercules extended his hand to Xena. "It was no problem. Any time you need us, we'll be here." Xena clasped his hand warmly. Iolaus was bidding Gabrielle farewell when he saw something.
"Gabrielle--look at Joxer." Joxer was returning to his proper form. Xena and Gabrielle ran to his side when he threatened to topple off Argo. They caught him and lowered him to the dirt. Joxer was coming around when they heard the people of the village fanning out through the woods, calling their names. They were being led by a beautiful woman playing a lyre. The woman brought them to a stop before the group.
"Everything is as it is supposed to be. Thanks to you, Xena, and the heroism of your friends."
"Calliope!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "That's Calliope! That means that everything is going to be all right!"
"Xena, the deeds you have done this day shall live on in the songs of the Muses and the memories of mortals."
"I couldn't have done these things without my friends. Or without my father."
"Your father? He caused all this to happen!" said Gabrielle.
"Yes, but he also gave me the way to end it. Without Ares's help, I could never have ended this."
"So they shall be remembered with you, Xena," said Calliope. She vanished, and the villagers led the heroes back to the village where they would be honored with a feast. Xena and Hercules led the way, and Iolaus followed behind them. Gabrielle stayed behind after the ranks closed behind them and helped Joxer to his feet.
"Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah, of course. I've got a hard head, you know." Then he blinked. "It's good to see you. Literally."
"I know. Joxer, what in Tartarus were you thinking about to come after Discord like you did?"
"I--well, um, ah, I uh--I didn't want you getting hurt. I saw her standing there and it was killing me that there's nothing that I can do to stop her. And then when I saw her with the knife, I couldn't just stand there."
Gabrielle realized then how much Joxer loved her. But she didn't say anything. She just started singing. "He's Joxer the Mighty, he's very tidy, and if you're in jeopardy, don't call the cavalry, there's a better remedy, although he doesn't work for free, he's every man's trustee, he's this woman's fantasy, he's Joxer-- Joxer the Mighty..."
Joxer stared at her for a minute. "That's not how the lyrics go."
"I'm a bard, remember? Poetic license and all that? I changed 'em. Come on, let's go before all the food is gone." Gabrielle linked arms with Joxer and they slowly walked back to the village's main hall, Joxer's armor clanging in the distance.
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