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VIOLENCE WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
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Arrows of Disaster
(An 'Agents of the Balance' crossover)
Xena and Gabrielle came over the top of the hill. For a change, both women were walking, enjoying the scenery as well as the quiet.
"I can hardly wait to drop these scrolls at the Academy, Xena. I can hardly believe they take them, much less keep them."
"Your stories are wonderful, Gabrielle. You have a gift for them. Be proud of it." Gabrielle smiled, surprised at the comment by her friend, but extremely pleased by it.
"Thanks, Xena. I...." She quieted as she saw Xena lift her hand and stopped Argo. "What is it?" she whispered.
"Battle sounds." was the reply. Xena vaulted up into the saddle. "Gabrielle..."
"Stay here. I know, I know. Go!" As she watched Xena rode off disappearing around the hill, she thought, "You can't protect me forever, my friend." She started off at a run after Xena.
Xena came around the bend at a gallop. She saw a man wearing a black cloak, in a circle of seven or eight thugs. Four others lay on the ground, and the cloaked man took a fifth down with his blade. She turned as a movement caught her eye away from the battle. An archer stepped from behind a tree up on the hill in front of her, bow drawn. Xena grabbed and threw her chakram in almost the same motion. The disk flew to its target, striking the bow at almost the same moment as the archer released the string. The bow shattered and the chakram arced its path back to its mistress, leaving one very surprised (and unarmed) archer. Xena tapped Argo to a gallop, catching the deadly ring in mid-flight.
The arrow caught the cloaked figure in the shoulder, driving him to his knees. The remaining men moved in to take advantage, when Xena's war cry sounded.
"Aiyiyiyiyi!" She stood and executed a perfect forward somersault from Argo's saddle as she galloped by. Landing cat-like behind them, she smiled as they turned to face her, eyes widened in surprise. "Care to party, boys?" she asked, drawing her sword. Two of the men decided they would, they died just as quickly, joining their friends on the ground. The remaining four decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and beat a hasty retreat.
The man stood up, right arm hanging at his side. His left hand held a long, slender sword, of a kind Xena had never seen before. His hair was black, with bits of gray beginning to show. Standing eye to eye with Xena, he spoke. "I thank you, lady. May I ask your name?"
"Xena." she replied shortly. The man's eyebrows rose a bit.
"Xena? Well that answers....." He grabbed his shoulder in sudden pain, and fell to his knees again. "Damn this hurts!"
Xena was at his side in a second. "That's going to have to come out." she said. The man gritted his teeth and nodded. They lifted their heads to see Gabrielle come jogging around the hill.
"Looks like I missed the fun again." she grumbled. She smiled to take the edge off of her words. Concern crossed her face as she saw the arrow protruding from the man's shoulder.
"Can you walk?" Xena asked the man, who nodded. "Good. We'll set up over there by those trees, and see about getting that arrow out."
"Sounds good to me!" the man groaned, rising to his feet with Xena's help. Together they walked to the small copse of trees where Xena had dispatched the archer.
"If you can remove the cloak from the arrow, it will suffice as a blanket, Gabrielle." the man said. Xena, in the meantime, had set up a small fire and was heating a pot of water into which she was dropping herbs.
"Conscious or not?" Xena turned and asked.
"Conscious, I guess." the man replied.
"Your choice." Xena put a finger on his neck, and one on his back close to the kidney, and pushed both firmly and quickly. The man felt his arm and part of his chest go numb.
"No pain. That's good."
"Yes." Xena replied. "However, it also slows the heart, which could be dangerous after too long. Are you ready?"
"As I'll ever be." he said. "Do it."
"Hold him, Gabrielle." The bard move quickly and decisively and Xena grabbed the arrow, giving it a slight tug.
"I felt that!" the man called out.
"The arrow seems to be hooked in somehow." Xena said. "I can't pull it out without causing major damage."
"Then push it through." He looked over at Gabrielle, whose eyes had gotten a bit wide. "You can't leave it in, and if it's what I think it is, it'll do damage just by sitting there." The man's eyes began to roll in his head.
"Gabrielle! Get some cloths ready, it will bleed a lot when it comes through." She did as Xena said, and with one quick thrust, Xena shoved the arrow through. The man's body gave a jerk, then Xena broke the head off and removed the arrow. Gabrielle padded both sides of the wound, then tied it with some strips of cloth she had ready. Xena released pressure points, and the man awoke with a gasp. "Gabrielle, check that tea I was brewing." Xena examined the arrowhead, which was like no arrow she'd ever seen. It had four blades instead of two, and they were thinner than most metalwork. Each blade could expand from the center, so that when it entered its target it would open, making it nearly impossible to pull out.
"Xena? Xena!" Xena looked up to see Gabrielle taking the pot from the fire. "How much of the tea?" Gabrielle asked.
"Half a cup. Make sure he drinks it all."
"I'll drink it myself, if you don't mind, ladies."
The sun was beginning to set. Xena had remained quiet while the man drank the tea, although Gabrielle chuckled quietly at the look on his face. Xena stood and whistled, and Argo came trotting up to the campsite. She dug an apple out of one of the saddlebags, and fed it to the horse. The man looked from her to Gabrielle. Her eyes twinkled with unanswered questions. "Go ahead, Gabrielle. Ask away. I can see you're dying to."
"All right. For starters, what's your name?"
"How did you end up in the middle of that fight?"
"I came through the trees over there, and walked directly into their camp."
"Not very smart." Xena commented.
"I'd have to agree." Lee said. "Anyway, I took off running, hoping to avoid a fight. I'd made it down the hill, and ran into another group of the same guys. I had no choice but to fight. I guess that arrow would have killed me, if not for you."
Xena nodded. "Speaking of that," and she dropped the arrowhead on Lee's chest. "I've never seen anything like this. Do you know anything about it?"
Lee picked up the arrowhead and looked at it. His eyes darkened, and a scowl crossed his face. "Well, I guess I know why I'm here." he mumbled.
Gabrielle looked at him questioningly. "What does that mean?"
"That's a story in itself, Gabrielle. I'll start with this, though." He held up the arrowhead. "I need to find the archer that fired this. It doesn't belong here."
Xena raised her eyebrows. "Where does it belong?"
"Are we going to be here for a while, Xena?" Gabrielle interrupted.
"At least for tonight. Why?" Gabrielle pointed up to the sky, at the darkening clouds. "Damn! Let's move and find some shelter."
"If you take my cloak, it will stretch out to cover all of us, and your horse too, if you have some poles. If she can stand still all night, the horse could serve as a support." Lee sat up and removed his cloak, handing an end to Gabrielle and one to Xena.
"Trust me." Lee said. "It will stretch.
The warrior and the bard looked at each other and shrugged. They pulled and stretched it out, then Xena cut two lengths of wood from a tree. Between those, Gabrielle's staff, and Argo, the shelter took shape, covering them all. They heard the first drops of rain fall as they finished.
"That's amazing!" Gabrielle said. "Is it magic?"
"Sort of." Lee replied. "It's a natural property of the cloak. It was a gift from my .....mentor."
"Was this a gift too?" Xena asked, handing Lee back his sword.
"No. I found it on a quest. Forged by Vulcan himself."
"Vulcan? Who's that?"
"Sorry, Xena. I forgot. To you he would be called Hephaestus."
"I've never seen a blade so fine or sharp, save this." She patted the chakram at her side. "God-metal, he called it. Can't be broken or dulled. It cost a friend of mine her life for me to have it."
Lee shook his head as if to rid himself of the memory. "Tell you what. To thank you for your kindness, I'll prepare dinner, and then tell you my story."
"Sounds good, but how are you going to make dinner? That arm has to rest. Besides, it's Gabrielle's turn." Xena looked over at her with a half-smile.
"Hey! I cooked last night. Besides, how are we going to hunt? The best we have is bread and cheese, and maybe some dried beef."
"Ladies, allow me. After all, it is part of the story."
Lee waved his good arm, and a cloth appeared on the ground, laden with plates of fresh fruits and vegetables, steaming bread, meats, and decanters of wine and water. Gabrielle's eyes went wide, and she sat back. Xena's eyes narrowed, and her hand went to her sword.
"I take it this magic isn't common?" Lee asked.
"Common enough." Xena replied. "But the ones who use it usually have intentions beyond the obvious."
"Please. I only want to repay your kindness. I would have died without your help, Xena. Please, eat." He looked over to Argo. "Ah. Mustn't forget your horse." Another gesture, and a small trough with oats and a couple of apples appeared in front of the horse.
"You'll spoil her, and she'll get lazy." Xena said. Argo snorted, and began to eat the oats.
"Well, it smells too good to resist." Gabrielle said, and took some meat. "I'm eating." Xena refused to remove her gaze from Lee's. Lee looked away first.
"Xena, Gabrielle, I don't use my power frivolously. I would have used it to save my life, but the arrow got me first. If you hadn't shown up........" He reached down and picked up a round orange fruit. "You two have got to try this! I don't believe they grow here." Holding it in his injured hand, he peeled the rind off and broke it into pieces. He handed a piece to Gabrielle and one to Xena, who reluctantly took it. Lee put one into his mouth, while the women each took a bite of theirs. Juice squirted all over their faces, and both Lee and Gabrielle laughed at the expression on Xena's face. Her eyes darkened for a second, then she began to laugh too. Lee poured some water into a bowl, then handed it to Xena. She took it and a napkin and cleaned herself off, then handed the water to Gabrielle. "The fruit is called an orange, and it's best to eat the pieces whole." Lee said with a smile.
"Thanks." Xena said wryly.
The three set to the meal, eating until there was almost nothing left. Gabrielle stoked up the fire, realizing that although they were inside a tent, there was no smoke from the fire bothering them. She shrugged and sat back. She looked over at Xena, who seemed to be relaxing a bit as well.
"All right, Lee. Tell us your story." She laid down on her bedroll to listen.
"Well, it all started in a cemetery, what seems like a hundred years ago. I was ready to kill myself after the death of someone I loved. I was just ready to end it all, when Tao showed up." As he spoke, images began to appear over the fire. Xena and Gabrielle could see Lee standing among many graves, and a gray-cloaked figure appeared. As Lee continued the story, different images appeared. Lee running through a forest, standing before a flashing crystal, fighting through a horde of dead-looking people, a huge battle with Lee wielding a huge black sword, later throwing the sword from a cliff, and all throughout, the gray-cloaked individual Lee kept referring to as Tao. When he finished, Gabrielle looked at him.
"If I had those images, I'd be the best bard in the world."
"From everything I understand, you already have that gift. You can do with your voice what I have to use magic for. You could very well be the best bard of this time."
Gabrielle blushed deeply. "You've never heard me. How could you know that?"
Xena looked over at her with the half-smile. "I told you. You have the gift." Gabrielle turned even a brighter shade of red.
"Well, I think I'll go to sleep now." She covered herself with a blanket and turned away.
"She doesn't handle praise well." Xena said.
"I heard that!" came the voice from under the blanket. Xena and Lee laughed, then Xena sobered and looked over at Lee.
"So, why do you need to find the archer with these arrows?"
"Because these arrows aren't meant to be here. They won't be made for a very long time. It changes things, and causes events to happen that shouldn't. Somebody is trying to change time here. And it's my job to stop them. I know it's a lot to ask, but will you help me?"
"You need us to help you? Why?"
"You know the area, the people. You know things that it would take me too long to find out. Not to mention, I seem to be slightly incapacitated." Smiling, he pointed at his shoulder.
"You do at that." Xena smiled back. "Let's get some sleep and discuss it in the morning."
Lee lay back, trying to be careful of his shoulder. Listening to the rain outside, he thought, "Those arrows could win any battle. They'll penetrate any armor of this time, and they'd be nearly impossible to remove. Twenty archers with those arrows could decimate an army ten times that size, and never need swordsmen...."
A loud clap of thunder sounded nearby, startling Argo and Lee. Xena was immediately up, soothing the horse with calming sounds. Lee looked over at Gabrielle, who was still sleeping, and laughed. "Ow!" he grabbed his shoulder.
"What's so funny?" Xena asked. Lee pointed at Gabrielle, who was still softly snoring away. Xena smiled.
"Yes, sometimes I think she'd sleep through an earthquake, if I'd let her."
Lee chuckled again, and adjusted his position. "Sleep well, Xena." He drifted off to sleep, thinking of arrowheads and green and blue eyes.
Xena's thoughts as she drifted off were of what those arrowheads could do in the wrong hands......and what they could have done in hers.
Lee awoke to a strange whistling sound. looking around, he saw that Xena was no longer in the tent. Scooting over to Gabrielle, he attempted to wake her up.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle!" He shook her gently.
"Hmmm? Wha?" Lee put a finger to his lips.
"Do you hear that?" he asked.
Gabrielle listened. "It sounds like Xena's practicing." She rubbed her eyes. "You woke me up for that?"
"Well," Lee said with a grin, "how was I supposed to know? Besides, it's time to wake up anyway." He chuckled at the look on her face, and stepped out of the tent, picking up his sword as he left. He walked into the trees, enjoying the scent of the morning air. The rain had left everything looking fresh and clean. Coming into a small clearing, he saw Xena practicing with her sword. The sword was a blur of motion, and Lee was fascinated. He walked toward her, and she turned her motions so that she was facing him. As she wound down, Lee approached.
"May I spar with you?" he asked.
"Sure. Is your shoulder up to it?"
Lee pulled aside his shirt and removed the bandage. The hole where the arrow had gone through was closed, although the scar was a very angry red.
"Another 'gift' from my mentor. I heal quickly, as long as it's not a mortal wound."
"I guess so. Are you ready?"
Lee nodded and offered Xena a slight bow, then raised his sword in both hands. Xena smiled and raised her sword as well. Lee figured he would have to make the first move, so he did a basic thrust Xena would be sure to recognize. She parried and struck back, a simple overhand strike. Lee parried and countered, and suddenly they were into it, a warriors' dance, as deadly as it was beautiful.
Gabrielle ran toward the sound of clashing swords. Her eyes widened in awe at the sight before her. Xena and Lee were moving around, swords weaving deadly patterns and sparks flying as the blades came together. Gabrielle had never seen Xena move so fast against a single opponent. As for Lee, he knew he wouldn't be able to continue much longer. His concentration would waver, and someone would get hurt, most likely himself. He made a final parry and jumped back. lowering his sword. Xena lowered hers as well, and offered her arm. Lee took it in the warrior's grip.
"I'll fight by you any time." Lee said with respect.
"And I you." she replied.
"My god, Xena. You are the best I've ever seen. I've seen some of the best warriors ever, and you're better. Better than the war god himself, I'd imagine." Gabrielle came up in time to actually see Xena blush.
"What did he say?" she thought. "That was incredible! I could make a story just out of that practice alone. Amazing!" Xena smiled at her friend's exuberance.
"Come on. Let's clean up and get ready to go. We've got an archer to find." She started back to the camp. Lee smiled and put his hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"She's the best, you know?"
"Yeah, she is. In more ways than one."
"I couldn't agree more." He slipped his arm around her shoulders, and they walked back to the campsite.
When Gabrielle and Lee returned to the camp, Xena had most of the equipment packed onto Argo.
"Well, well." Gabrielle said. "Aren't you the busy one today? Usually you're telling me I haven't done it fast enough for you."
"All the more reason for me to do it then." she replied. Gabrielle stuck out her tongue at Xena, who gave her a smile. She handed Lee his cloak, which was back to its normal size again. He fastened it around his shoulders, and put the sword in a scabbard and fastened it to his side.
"Xena, do you have any idea where that archer might have gone?"
"The nearest town is about an hour's walk. We should be able to find out more when we get there."
"Good." said Gabrielle. "There are some things I need to get for us."
The three started off walking toward the town, Gabrielle keeping up a continuous stream of chatter, mostly about the things Xena had done, and Hercules and Ioalus.
"So, is Hercules all they've said? He and Ioalus are kind of like you two, yes? Lee asked.
"Hercules is all that and more. Big, blonde, dreamy. Right, Xena?"
There was no answer, just Gabrielle saying "Hey!" after a small stone bounced off the top of her head. Lee laughed.
"Yes? Go on."
"Ioalus is, well, Ioalus. He fights like a tornado, and always has something to say to make you smile. He's great, too"
"Sounds like they're good friends." Lee said.
"The best." Xena said from Argo's other side. Gabrielle's eyes rose slightly as she looked to Lee. After a while they crested a small rise and were able to look down on the town. It appeared there was a small festival going on, from the streamers and merchants they could see. They walked down to the town.
"Weapons dealer first, Xena?" Lee asked.
"That'd be my first guess." she replied.
"Well, I'm going to resupply some things while you do that."
"Be careful, Gabrielle. These people may be upset about being found."
"Xena, they never even saw me. You were done before I got there."
"Well, be careful anyway." Xena grumbled.
"As careful as you." she replied and walked toward a produce seller.
Xena and Lee walked over to a booth where there were swords and daggers. Xena looked at Lee. "Subtle or direct?" she asked.
"Direct. No time for subtlety." Lee dropped the arrowhead on the table. Xena grabbed the seller by the shirt and pulled him forward.
"Seen those before?" She was smiling, but her tone of voice was pure business.
The merchant' s eyes widened, but he stammered out, "N-n-no, can't say that I have."
"I hope you haggle better than you lie, or you won't be in business very long. Now, care to try again?" Xena tightened her grip slightly.
"I suggest you stop trying to anger the lady and give her a straight answer. She might decide to try out your weapons.....on you."
"All right! All right!" the poor merchant nearly screamed. "A fletcher I work with made a hundred shafts for arrowheads like those. A white haired man picked them up here yesterday."
"Where was he going?" Lee asked.
"I heard they were on their way to Torus to meet someone."
"They?" Xena asked.
"Some twenty guys he said would travel with him. They supplied up right over there." The merchant gestured with a shaking hand toward the food sellers. Xena let him go, and he fell across his table with a clatter.
"See? Now that wasn't so difficult, was it?" Lee picked up the arrowhead, and they started to walk over to where Gabrielle was making some purchases.
"Excuse me a second, Xena. I need to buy something myself."
"Sure." Xena walked up to Gabrielle. "Having fun yet?" she asked with that half-smile.
"Sort of." came the response. "I've found everything we need to travel for a week, but I'm coming up short in dinars. I could have sworn we had more than this."
"Put some back, then. We'll manage." Xena replied.
"Don't worry about it, Gabrielle." came Lee's voice. "Get whatever you think you need. I've got it covered."
"Got it covered?" she asked.
"I'll pay for it. I have plenty of money."
Xena was looking over Lee's shoulder at the booth he had gone to. There was a small crowd gathered there, and they were talking animatedly and pointing over at Lee. Xena scowled.
"What did you do, Lee?"
"That?" Lee glanced back over his shoulder. "I bought his booth and then sold it back to him." Gabrielle was having the food seller pack up her purchases, but turned to look at the gathering crowd behind him.
"How did you manage that, Lee?" she asked him.
"Well, apparently these are worth much more than I thought." he said, pulling a gold coin from his pouch. Gabrielle gasped, and Xena took the coin and put it back in Lee's pouch.
"How many more of those do you have, Lee?" she asked.
"About nineteen more. Why?"
"Every brigand between here and Torus will be looking for you. Gabrielle, we're gone. Now." She spoke in a tone that brooked no resistance. "We need to get you a horse, Lee. The sooner we get to Torus, the better."
"My apologies, Xena. I hadn't even thought of the complications. Stupid."
"Forty dinars." the merchant called out. Lee paid him, and the merchant handed Gabrielle a stuffed travel pack. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.
"Come on, Gabrielle." Xena took her arm. "Let's see what poor excuses they have for horses here."
They walked toward the livestock, catching glances all the way. The word was passing faster than Xena would have liked. Lee was mentally kicking himself for the error. A bump from Xena brought him back.
"Keep sharp. Kick yourself later." she told him with that half-smile.
As they approached a tavern, five grimy mercenaries came out. No badges, no marks, not very well kept. The leader was enormous, sporting a gut the size of a small horse. They stepped in front of the three as they tried to pass. Xena sighed, knowing they wouldn't get out of here without trouble. Lee held up his hand.
"My fault, Xena. Allow me?" he said softly. He walked directly up to the leader. "Something I can do for you?"
"Yeah. Hand over that sack of money at yer hip, and you can be on your way." Lee mumbled something under his breath. Gabrielle could have sworn she saw the air around him shimmer, but then it was gone.
"Xena? Shouldn't you, I mean we...."
"Not yet." she whispered back. "Let's see what he's going to do."
"Not like you, Xena. To wait, that is." Gabrielle was smiling.
"Tell you what, fat boy." Lee said. "Two-hit contest. Each of us takes one shot. You take me down, I don't let her kill you. I take you down, you get your fat ass out of here, along with your stinky friends there."
"You won't let your woman kill me?!?" the fat one roared. "Who in Hades do you think you are? No woman will take me down!"
By this time, a crowd had gathered around, staying back far enough to not be involved, but close enough to see the spectacle.
"Obviously you're as dumb as you look. Allow me to introduce Gabrielle," he said, pointing over his right shoulder. Gabrielle smiled at him. "and Xena." He pointed over his left shoulder. The mercenary's eyes widened. Lee took the pouch off his belt and handed it back to Gabrielle, never taking his eyes off of the mercenary in front of him. Lee took a step closer. "You can even go first, fatso."
"I'm tired of your insults, strapling." The mercenary stepped forward also. He stood a head taller, and weighed probably three times more than the man in front of him. Xena or no Xena, this arrogant 'boy' was going down. He brought his arm back and swung, catching Lee across the side of the head with a resounding 'CRACK!' Lee's head snapped sideways, but he didn't move. Gabrielle could see a slight trickle of blood over Lee's eye, but other than that, nothing. He had the blank look on his face she'd seen on Xena right before a combat. The mercenary was holding his hand in obvious pain.
"My turn." Lee said with a smile. The mercenary looked over in time to see a fist heading for his jaw. The crack was almost as loud as the mercenary's hit. The big man's head snapped back, then he looked at Lee and smiled back. His eyes rolled back in his head, then he toppled over backwards. His men moved quickly out of the way, letting him fall to the ground with a crash. Lee looked over at them. "Just remember, boys. You know Xena's reputation. You don't know me from Jason. Now get lard-butt there and get out of here!" The other mercenaries hastened to comply.
"Let's get that horse." Xena said. Gabrielle could tell she was impressed, it just wasn't Xena's way to show it. The trio walked to a stable where there were horses for sale. Xena looked at them and chose the one she thought was best, a sturdy black one. Lee paid the merchant, then they purchased a saddle and bridle for the horse, as well as a couple of saddlebags. They walked the horse out of town, and Xena raised her fingers to her mouth and whistled. Argo came running up at a gallop, stopping next to Xena. She moved her head from side to side, looking for apples. "Showoff." Xena said, pulling one from the saddlebag and giving it to her.
"How far is it to Torus, Xena?" Lee asked.
"Half a day's hard ride, not counting stopping to eat."
"Oh my poor....." Xena glanced over at Gabrielle. "..disposition." she said with a smile. "I guess we'd better get on with it then." Lee wasn't looking forward to the ride any more than Gabrielle, but damned if he was going to say so. Xena vaulted up into her saddle, and reached an arm down to Gabrielle. When she grabbed it, Xena pulled her effortlessly up behind her.
"Why are they always black?" Lee muttered as he mounted.
"What's wrong, Lee? I think he's cute." Gabrielle said.
"Another story, another time! Hyaaa!" Lee kicked the horse into action.
"Hold on, Gabrielle! And I mean tight!" Xena kicked Argo, and she fairly leaped after Lee.
"Like I'd do anything else!" Gabrielle yelled back.
Argo quickly caught up to the black horse.
"Good girl, Argo." Xena told her. Argo snorted, as if saying, "That was nothing." They rode together in silence for a while, each with their own thoughts.
Xena: An interesting quest this is. Something even the gods wouldn't understand. What a happy thought.
Gabrielle: This should make an interesting story. Maybe I'll even get to be a part of it. Warriors. Humph! How did Lee stand that hit? Hercules maybe, but Lee is kind of scrawny compared to him. That reminds me.....
Lee: Nexus jumpers. How do I explain that to them? Of course, being in this timeline makes it interesting. Who would want to change this timeline so badly? And why?
"Lee!" Gabrielle called. "Lee!"
"What?" he called back, snapping out of his reverie.
"Your head!" She touched her temple. "How is it?" Lee brought his hand up and touched where the mercenary had hit him. It came away slightly sticky.
"I've had worse."
Xena called over, "We'll stop and bandage it up. It won't take but a few minutes."
"You're the boss!"
They pulled off to the side of the road, and Xena took what she needed from the saddlebags. Gabrielle surreptitiously rubbed her rear end. Xena looked the cut over, and poured some water over it. She placed a compress on it for a few seconds, then removed it.
"Not bad. So tell us. How did you manage to stand up to that blow? I'm curious."
"Me, too!" piped in Gabrielle. "I mean, that guy was HUGE! Even Xena wouldn't have just stood there."
"Well, you wouldn't have."
"Let him tell us, ok?"
"Oh, sorry. So, Lee. How did you do it?"
"Magic." Lee looked a little sheepish.
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"Magic. I used magic to keep him from knocking me over."
"You don't sound too happy about it." Xena observed.
"I'm not. I don't like to use magic that way, and it attracts attention of the wrong kind sometimes."
"Not a good thing, then."
"Depends on who's watching."
"Can we eat?"
"We've only been on the road for a couple of hours."
"But I didn't get to eat in the town."
"Nice to know some things don't change." Xena grumbled. Lee and Gabrielle laughed as Xena opened her saddlebags.
The white haired man stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Damn him!" he thought. "It should have been so simple to disrupt this timeline. A few of these arrows at the right battle, and poof! But no....that idiot has to get himself shot by one. That stupid archer." He thought of the man whose throat he'd crushed. "I never will understand this 'friendship' thing. Oh well. One can always find another archer." He began to laugh, a cold, chilling thing that caused those who heard it to give the tent a wide berth. "Oh my. Whatever should I do?" He said, walking to the entrance of his tent and throwing the flap open. "You!" he yelled at the first soldier to pass.
"Where do I find the nearest temple......of Ares?"
"How does she do it, Xena?"
"She's always like that. I've seen warriors three times her size who couldn't eat as much."
"Knock it off, you guys. I just have a healthy appetite."
"Any healthier," Xena said with a smirk, "and all of our money would go for food." Gabrielle stuck her tongue out at Xena, making them all laugh. They packaged up their lunch and remounted the horses.
"Here we go again." Gabrielle sighed, holding her arm up to Xena, who pulled her up behind her on Argo.
"Hold on tight, Gabrielle. Let's try to make up some time." With that, she spurred Argo into a gallop, followed closely by Lee. Aside from loud screams from Gabrielle every time Argo made a jump, the rest of the journey to Torus was uneventful.
As they rode in, Xena noticed that people would move aside to let them pass. Not that this was unusual in itself, but conversations would stop, people would pull others into shops, and other things like that.
"Xena, what's with these people? They act as if we had diseases or something."
"I was noticing the same thing, Gabrielle. Maybe it's just my reputation."
"We need some answers, huh Lee?"
"You said it, Gabrielle. Would you care to try first?"
The three dismounted in front of a small tavern. They tied the horses loosely and walked in. The conversation stopped almost immediately. The three looked around at the people, most of whom looked away rather than meet their gazes. Xena walked up to the bar.
"Two ports and a cider, please." The bartender poured the drinks and set them in front of her. Xena put down some money, which the bartender ignored. She rejoined Lee and Gabrielle, who were seated at a table near the wall.
"I don't get it? Why are the people so distant?" Gabrielle asked as Xena sat down.
"I'm not sure. Lee?"
"Something's going on here. Someone heard we were coming. I think we're being set up."
Xena looked around. "You're right. People are leaving."
Gabrielle watched the door for a second. "They're scared of something. Hey! Hey!"
"Bartender's gone too." Lee remarked.
"Gabrielle, down!" Xena commanded. The bard was already halfway out of the chair toward the floor. Lee barely saw Xena's hand move, but she was holding an arrow between them, close to the fletching.
"These arrows are faster, too." she said.
"So how do we handle this one?" came the voice from the floor.
"My guess," said Lee, "is that they were trying to get us mad enough to charge. Killing Gabrielle would have made you do that, wouldn't it, Xena?"
Her voice was low and dangerous. "Yes."
"Xena..." Gabrielle stayed behind the chair.
"No, Gabrielle. They tried to kill you first. That makes this personal."
"Well, if their first try didn't work, what might be next?" Lee asked.
Gabrielle looked around at the walls of the tavern. "I'd burn us out." she said. Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Guess I've been hanging around with you too long, Xena." She gave her a fond smile. Xena chuckled wryly.
"She's right. That's what I would do."
Just then, a voice came from outside. "Burn it down!", followed by echoes of the same. A torch came flying through the door and flaming arrowheads punctured the wooden walls of the building. The flames began to rapidly spread.
"They'll have archers covering every exit, including whichever one the bartender used. If we try to get out, well be downed without a chance. Even Xena can't catch that many arrows."
The fire was spreading quickly, and smoke was beginning to fill the top of the tavern, slowly coming distressingly lower.
"We'll just have to take our chances, then." Xena said, drawing her sword.
"Xena." Lee said softly.
"We don't have to do it that way. I can get us out of here."
"Magic. But when I do, every being that can sense magic within a mile will know it. And I'll be in poor shape at the end."
The flames were moving faster now, eating at the walls with the smoke getting thicker all the time.
"Do it!" Xena said.
Gabrielle coughed. "And hurry!"
"Come and stand next to me." The women moved next to Lee, who put an arm around each of them. "Take my cloak and wrap it around you." They did as he asked.
"Yes." they both replied.
The flames were close to them, and the ceiling was beginning to crack. Lee snapped his fingers, and the three of them disappeared. The tavern collapsed, and the archers outside lowered their bows, amazed that they didn't have to fire. They couldn't understand the cursing of the white-haired man who had given them the arrows.
The trio appeared outside of town, near where they had first seen the town coming in. Lee collapsed, and would have fallen had Xena and Gabrielle not held him up. Gabrielle noticed with some alarm that his hair had turned completely white.
"We need to lay him down, Gabrielle. Somewhere safe, and then I need to get the horses back. And before you say anything, you need to stay with him until I can bring the supplies from Argo."
"I wasn't going to argue with you, Xena."
"Now, that's a first!"
"Just do it, Xena, and hurry. Oh, and Xena?"
"As careful as you, my friend."
"Another first." Gabrielle quipped back. Xena couldn't help but chuckle. They moved into the forest, and Xena started back to Torus. Gabrielle set about to making Lee comfortable. She noticed that in addition to his white hair, he appeared to have aged from a young man to well past middle age. Putting her back to a tree, she pillowed his head in her lap and began to hum softly. She kept her staff close by, just in case.
After a little while, Lee's eyes opened. They seemed unfocused, but he soon looked up into Gabrielle's smiling face.
"You have a beautiful voice." He told her.
"Do we have any water?"
"Xena went to get Argo. The water is with her."
"Ok. I'll just rest then."
"Lee, what happened to you? You're old!"
"For a bard, Gabrielle, you have a rare talent for stating the obvious. It's a side effect of using a large amount of my magic. It'll pass."
"What do you mean, 'It'll pass'? You're...old!"
"I told you I'd be in poor shape." Lee joked. He sat up, and Gabrielle saw that Lee's hair had brown in it again. As the minutes passed, his appearance changed back to what it had been when they first met him. Gabrielle looked up suddenly, then stood and raised her staff. Lee stood shakily and drew his sword.
"What?" he whispered.
"Someone's coming." she whispered back.
After a few seconds, Xena came into the clearing, leading Argo and the black horse they'd picked up before. She looked at Gabrielle and gave a look of approval, then looked over to Lee.
"You're looking better." she said.
"Magic takes a lot to use, depending on where you're at. What does it look like back in town?"
"Chaotic. It looked like the men were surprised we hadn't come out. Their commander came in yelling and screaming, absolutely furious. He was grabbing men and throwing them like toys. It's as if he was throwing a tantrum."
"Did you know him, Xena?" Gabrielle asked. "Another warlord, maybe?"
"No. Never seen this one. Taller than me, white hair about the same length as mine. Very strong, although he doesn't look it."
"Nexus." Lee said, venom in his voice.
"You know him." It was a statement, not a question.
"Oh, you could say that. We go back a long way. Remember I told you those arrows didn't belong here, and that someone was trying to change things?" Xena and Gabrielle both nodded.
"Well, he's the one. He takes things from future times, and brings them to the past, or to worlds that have never seen them. If they're not found, the timeline changes, and......well, things change, and not for the better." Lee realized that his audience was uncomprehending. "Let me put it this way. Who would benefit from an unstoppable army in this place?"
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. "Ares." they said together.
"The god of war?"
"None other." A smooth sardonic voice came from behind Xena. "Although I prefer a bit more emphasis on the word, 'God'." There was a shimmer of light, and a handsome man stepped forward, placing an arm around Xena and Gabrielle, who visibly shuddered.
"What do you want, Ares?" Xena asked. "You weren't invited here."
"On the contrary, my dear Warrior Princess." Xena winced at the use of the title. "I am always welcome at a war council."
"There's no war here, Ares." Gabrielle told him.
"No? True. But there will be, very soon." Ares removed his arms from the women and stepped forward to Lee. "Your friend Nexus was VERY unhappy that you fled his little party."
"Nexus is NOT my friend." Lee spat at the war god.
"No, I suppose not. Seems he forgot you could teleport away like you did. Madder than a harpy, let me tell you. I didn't know mortals could be that strong. Except for you, Xena. And my brother, of course. Ah, well. Your friend," Ares needled Lee, "will provide someone here with an unbeatable army. It could be yours, Xena. All you have to do is say the word."
"I have two words for you, Ares. Get...."
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted.
"....lost." Xena finished.
Ares' eyes darkened for a second, then he smiled. "Doesn't matter, Xena. I'll have you one day, in spite of....interference." He cast a pointed look at Gabrielle.
"You know," Lee started, "if there's one thing I hate, it's being ignored. You never asked me if I'd take the army, Ares."
"You?" Ares asked in surprise. "Why? Do you want it?"
"No, but it would have been nice if you had asked."
Gabrielle's look of shock changed to a chuckle she tried to cover. Ares looked back, but chose to ignore her.
"Well, another time, folks." he said with a grin. "I'll see you sooner than you think!" With a golden flash of light, he disappeared.
"What was that supposed to mean?" Lee asked.
"With Ares, there's no way to tell."
"Xena, what about this army? We know it'll be near by, but if you were in command, where would you be?"
"Well, you can't truly hide an army of any size. Not if you want encampments, and everyone afraid of your coming. Ares is boasting too much for this to be hidden. I'd say the plains outside Malagar. It's a couple of hours this side of Torus." She looked over at Gabrielle.
"Don't even think it, Xena! Besides, who'd tell the story better than me?"
Xena sighed. "All right, but if you get yourself killed, I'll never speak to you again."
"Now we both know that's not true, Xena." Gabrielle looked at her friend with a sad little smile. Lee had the feeling he'd just missed something, but decided not to ask.
"Hope your bottom is in good shape, Gabrielle." he quipped with a laugh. "It's another hard ride!"
"Did you have to remind me?" she grumbled as Xena pulled her up on to Argo. Lee laughed as he spurred the black into motion, Gabrielle holding on for dear life and closing her eyes as Xena did the same and they galloped away.
The ride was even faster than before, with Gabrielle grumbling every time Argo hit a dip or a jump. Lee finally waved to Xena to call a halt.
"What's the problem?" she asked.
"Horse picked up a stone, or something. She's good, but not that good."
They stopped along the trail, and Lee dismounted to check the hooves of his horse. Sure enough, a small stone had lodged in one of the shoes. He pulled out a knife and began to dig it out. He looked up at hearing the sound of hoofbeats, Xena and Gabrielle looking as well. Over a small rise came a large group of riders, raising dust behind them.
"She can't do it, Xena." Lee said, earning him a dark look from Gabrielle. "My horse, Gabrielle. I wouldn't presume on your abilities."
"I can handle four or five, Gabrielle two or three, but not from horseback." Gabrielle dismounted from Argo, and looked fondly up at her best friend.
"I've got a new trick for you and your staff, Gabrielle." Lee told her. "But first...." Lee threw his arm out, and balls of light flew from his fingers, striking down four of the riders. The others continued their charge. Xena spurred Argo forward, giving her war cry as she went. She pulled the chakram from her belt and let it fly. Two more riders went down, and the chakram flew back to Xena. She caught it, hung it, and drew her sword in virtually the same motion. Four riders passed Xena toward Lee and Gabrielle, four more slowed to engage Xena.
"So, what's the new trick, Lee?" Gabrielle asked.
"Use your staff as a lever, throw the rider over the horse. Try to plant it in his hip, and follow the motion of the horse, driving the bottom of the staff to the road. It'll catapult him off the horse. Or, just duck and swing." Lee said the last with a grin. "Now get ready." Lee drew his sword and Gabrielle readied her staff as the three riders came on.
Xena met the attackers with a flurry of swordplay, testing them. She had a grin on her face, feeling the joy of combat only another warrior truly understands. Her sword was a blur, and two men were down before they could parry her blade. She whirled Argo around to face the others, who tried to do the same.
Gabrielle was terrified. Standing and waiting for charging horses was not what she wanted to be doing. "What would Xena do?" she thought. The horses were almost upon them. She gave a yell and ran forward, surprising Lee. She planted one end of the staff into the rider's gut, slamming the other end into the ground. The rider shot back out of his saddle, landing on the ground with a thump where he lay unmoving. She yelled again, and looked to a second rider bearing down on her. She brought her staff to a ready position, and was pleased to see the rider hesitate.
Lee, after getting over his surprise at Gabrielle's sudden move, readied his sword. Whirling it in a figure-eight around his body, letting his mind go blank. He blocked the strikes against him as the two riders made their pass. He spun to watch them as they turned around. Instead of waiting, he charged the riders, dodging to the side at the last minute. He brought his sword up to meet an attacker's, causing it to shatter against the shining 'god-metal'. He turned to face the riders once more. One had turned quickly, the other gazing at his broken sword as he slowed. Lee pointed his finger, and another ball of light flew from his hand to the rider coming on, knocking him off of the horse on to his back. He then looked over to Xena.
Xena had taken down a third rider and spared a glance toward Gabrielle. She saw the horse bearing down on the bard, prepared to yell a warning, and took a slice across her left arm. She turned back to her opponent, cracked his head with the pommel of her sword, and kicked him off his horse. She turned back to see that Gabrielle had disposed of one opponent and was holding another at bay. She smiled and turned Argo in that direction.
The rider with the broken sword glance over at Lee, who was crooking his finger at him in a 'come here' gesture. The man looked and saw only one of his companions mounted and conscious. He decided that he'd had enough of this battle and galloped away. The final rider looked at the small woman with the staff. She appeared ready to meet him if he charged. The white-haired commander had warned them about the Warrior Princess, and the sorcerer in the black cloak, but the bard was supposed to be an easy target. Right now, she looked anything but easy.
"Are you just going to sit there, or what?" Gabrielle asked the rider.
"Good question." Xena said, her voice low and calm.
"I'd like to know that myself." Lee said from the other side. The rider looked at his situation, and raised his hands.
"Can I just surrender now?" he asked.
"Gabrielle." Xena said. "Up to you."
"Me? Well, um, yes. You can surrender. Drop your weapons and get down off your horse." The rider did as he was told.
"Now," Xena said. "we can do this the easy way or the hard way." She gestured at his fallen companions.
"I'm not stupid." the rider replied. "What do you want to know?"
"How many in the army?"
"Ten groups like this one."
"How many archers?"
"I suggest you take up a new profession." Xena's voice was soft and deadly. The soldier ran. "It'd better not be as a bard, either!" Gabrielle yelled after him as he ran away.
"Good for you, Gabrielle!" Lee shouted. "That move was as nice as I've ever seen it!"
"Yes, very well done." Xena told her. Gabrielle was glowing with the praise until she saw the blood running down Xena's arm into her bracer.
"Xena! You're hurt. Get down from there and let me take care of it."
"All right, Gabrielle. But it's only a scratch."
"You'd say that if it was about to fall off!" Gabrielle scolded. "Now no arguments!" Xena got down from Argo, who moved to the side of the road to graze. She sat down and let Gabrielle bandage her arm.
"Maybe not if it was about to fall off." She gave Gabrielle the familiar half-smile. Gabrielle tried to look serious, but as the rare joke settled in, she snickered. Hearing a thump, they looked over to see Lee sitting on his butt next to the horses. He couldn't hold back any longer, and laughed loudly. Gabrielle started to laugh too, and finally Xena joined in as well.
They sat there laughing while Gabrielle bandaged Xena's arm, laughing as if there were no army just a short ride away. An army that could conquer the world.
The three companions found themselves on a hilltop looking down on a large plain. They could see a number of tents, men and horses. Occasionally there was a flash of white hair, but never long enough to catch a clear view.
"Xena?" Lee asked.
"Any ideas on how to take on a hundred and fifty men, without an army of our own?"
"No, but you'll be the second to know."
"Two jokes in one day, Xena?" Gabrielle said. "What's happening to you?"
"Guess I've been hanging around with you too long. What about you, Lee? Got any ideas up there?" She tapped him on the forehead.
"Well, we could charge in, hope for surprise, and fight Ôtil we die, but I'm not too fond of that idea."
"Neither am I!" said Gabrielle. Xena smiled.
"There are three magical options I can see." Xena frowned, but Lee continued. "First, a swarm. Either insects, or a poison gas. The problem with those is that they don't discriminate, and they won't necessarily stop after the army was finished. A lot of people could get killed."
"No." Xena stated flatly. "Indiscriminate killing isn't my style....anymore." Gabrielle put a hand briefly on Xena's shoulder. "What else?"
"Illusion. I could feasibly make them see anything I wanted. The more believable, the better."
"I like the sound of that one." Gabrielle spoke up. "We could just have an army or something, right?"
"The problem is, Nexus would figure it out, probably sooner than would be useful to us. And, if Ares is around, it wouldn't fool him at all. I have a friend whose gift is illusion. She could make one that could fool Zeus himself, if she were here."
"So that gives us a few minutes, maybe?"
"If that, Xena."
"Well, what's the third option, then?"
"Metamorphosis. Actually changing into something powerful enough to stop the army, like a dragon or a huge monster of some sort."
"A dragon?" Gabrielle asked.
"A giant flying lizard that breathes fire." Lee replied, not noticing Xena and Gabrielle rolling their eyes at each other. "Scales that are proof against most weapons, and large enough that a few arrows won't bother it." Lee saw the smile on Gabrielle's face, and looked sheepish. He shrugged.
"What's the problem with that one?" asked Xena.
"Changing forms completely means you become whatever it is you change into. The longer you stay in the form, the more your mind becomes what like what you've changed into, to the point where you've become what you became, mind and soul."
"How long before that happens?"
"Depends on the form." replied Lee. "Something that big and powerful, could be a very short time. I've never tried anything that size before. My wife could do it easy, that's her gift."
"Wife?" Gabrielle looked over at him. "Well, what about Hercules?" she put in. "I'm sure he and Ioalus would help."
"I'm sure you're right, Gabrielle." Xena told her. "They're supposed to be in Phraceus. Half a days' ride away."
"We could get them and come back here."
"No, Gabrielle. YOU could."
"Me? Ride? All that way? Ride? By myself?"
"Yep. And the sooner you start, the sooner you can bring them back." Xena had a smile on her face.
"It was your idea."
"Oh. I guess it was. All right, I'll go." Xena helped Gabrielle up on to Argo.
"Be nice to her." she said.
"Are you talking to me or to Argo?"
"Both. Now get! I'll see you when you return."
"All right, Xena. I'll be back with Hercules and Ioalus."
Xena and Lee watched Gabrielle ride off. After a moment, Lee turned to Xena, who continued until Gabrielle disappeared over the horizon.
"Xena?" Lee spoke up. The beautiful warrior blinked, and turned to Lee.
"She's going to be mad as a wet cat when she figures out what you just did."
"What did I 'just do'?"
"Sent her to get Hercules. This'll be done before they get back."
"I know, but I didn't want to take the chance of her getting hurt."
"Understandable." Lee unhooked his cloak, setting it down on the ground. "When's a good time to strike?"
"Near dusk. The army should be settling down before their meal. We should scout a bit, see where the best place to attack from is."
"Dusk, huh? Then with the best luck, Gabrielle could be back with Hercules and Ioalus by moonrise."
"She'll do the best she can."
"Let's separate, check the camp, and meet back here in an hour."
"All right. Let's go." They moved down opposite sides of the encampment, to check out the activity below.
Gabrielle was furious. At first she had just held on for dear life as Argo galloped away. As she settled into the routine, she started thinking about what she would tell Hercules. She stopped to give Argo a drink, when it dawned on her.
"Damn it, Xena! I can't believe....yes I can, too. Just for that, I'll get Hercules and Ioalus back there in time!" She climbed back onto the horse. "C'mon, girl." she said out loud. "Fast as you can." She kicked Argo's side, who immediately sped to a gallop. "Whoooooooaaaaaaaa!" she screamed as she grabbed the reins as tight as she could. After a while, she could see the outskirts of Phraceus. "Argo, I knew you were fast, but I didn't know how fast!"
Argo snorted and slowed as they approached the town. Gabrielle got down and rubbed her sore behind. "I can't believe I have to do that again!" Leading Argo by the reins, she approached the first person she saw.
"Excuse me sir, but I need to find Hercules."
"You and everyone else, lady."
Gabrielle sighed. "Very funny. Where can I find him?"
"Helping at the well in the center of town."
"Thank you." She walked quickly toward the man had said. Looking around, she saw a familiar burgundy shirt.
"Ioalus!" she yelled. "Ioalus!" The blonde man turned at the sound of his name.
"Gabrielle!" He shouted back. He jogged over to where she was standing. He did a small double-take when he saw her standing alone with Argo.
"That's why I'm here. There's big trouble, and she needs you guys. She sent me to get you. Now."
"Um, sure. But what about...."
"If you think I RODE all this way as fast as I could, just to wait....."
"Oh, ok. I'll just.." he pointed back over his shoulder.
"You do that."
Ioalus ran over to the well. "Herc."
The big man dropped the shovel he was holding and grabbed a ladle of water. After taking a sip and dumping the rest over his head, he looked over to where Ioalus was pointing. He waved at Gabrielle.
"Xena says there's trouble."
"Well, where is she?" Hercules asked.
"She sent Gabrielle for us."
"Sent Gabrielle? By herself. On a horse? It must be pretty serious. Let's go find out what it's all about." Hercules explained to the people that he had a friend in trouble and was needed. He also promised to return as soon as he was able. He joined Ioalus and Gabrielle, a concerned look on his face. "Now, what's this all about?" he asked.
"I'll tell you on our way to Torus."
"Torus?" Ioalus asked. "You rode here all the way from Torus?"
"Yes, and I'm in a hurry to get back, if you catch my meaning." Gabrielle turned her head to glare at him.
"Okay, okay. I get it." He held his hands up in mock surrender.
"Good. Now do you guys have horses?"
"Well? What are you waiting for?"
Gabrielle used some of the money in Lee's bag to pay for a couple of horses Ioalus thought could go the distance. They got back on the road shortly after the sun was highest.
"We should make it back to Xena close to sunset, if we make just the briefest stops." Gabrielle said.
"What time did you leave?" Hercules asked.
"Early morning. A couple of hours past sunrise."
"How did you get to us so fast?"
"I don't know. It's as if something made Argo even faster than she is."
"Well, let's hope we have the same fortune for our return." The three rode quickly, each hoping that they wouldn't be too late.
"It all started with these strange arrows...." Gabrielle began, shouting to make herself heard.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Xena met Lee back at the spot they had left.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"Men in squads, squads together. Not the most professional arrangement, considering that Ares is involved. He must have something in mind."
"Showing you how inefficient their commander is. Making you think about what you would do...."
"I don't think that way anymore."
"Not as a warlord, maybe. But as a warrior, you do. That's the first step. Even I think like that sometimes. So, do you think I should trample down a row and flame the rest?"
"What do you mean, you?"
"Who'd you think would become the dragon, Xena? Gabrielle? You? I'd rather face a god than a dragon with your mind."
"I don't know whether to take that as a compliment or not."
"It's a compliment."
"When do you want to do this?"
"You said dusk. I guess that means we wait." After a while, two horsemen came riding into the encampment. The white-haired man came out of his tent to meet them. He started gesturing and pointing. A group of soldiers gathered together, then ran for their horses and galloped off.
"What do you make of that, Xena?"
"Just guessing, I'd say they were going after Gabrielle." Her voice was carefully neutral.
"They'll never catch her. She must be almost there by now."
"Unless Ares interferes."
"I think he'll be busy here soon enough, don't you?"
"We can hope." They sat back to wait some more. They relaxed as much as they could while watching the sun go by. Finally, Lee unbuckled his sword. He handed it to Xena.
"Xena, take this. If I lose control, I expect you to take me down. A rampaging dragon is not a pleasant thing." Xena frowned, but she nodded and took the sword. "Behind the ear, where the neck and skull meet. That's where you want to strike."
"All right. Are you ready?"
"No, but let's do it anyway." Lee started to walk down the hill. He stopped and turned around. "Xena, if I fail, you have to destroy those arrows, no matter what."
"Don't fail." she replied. Lee nodded and started back down the hill. He got about halfway down, stopped, and raised his arms. The air around him shimmered, and his body began to change. He grew, and scales began to form. Wings grew from his back, and he grew a long, sinuous tail. His head grew and showed long, very sharp teeth. He expanded until his body was twice as tall as Xena, with a broad body, four clawed feet, and a very long neck. He then flew up into the air with a loud cry.
Xena watched in awe. She'd never seen magic like this before. She'd heard storied of Zeus changing to come to the mortal realm, but had never seen it before now. She shook her head and looked down at the camp, which was beginning to show alarm at the dragon which had seemingly appeared from nowhere. Lee took to the air, feeling the warmth building inside for flame. "This is power!" he thought. He flapped his powerful wings and hovered above the camp. "Now," he thought again, "burn!" He opened his mouth, and a huge gout of flame burst forth, setting tents and men afire. They ran screaming away, trying to escape the wrath of the monster above them. Nexus charged out of his tent, white hair streaming behind him.
"Damn you, sorcerer!" he yelled out. "Archers, come together and fire!" A small group of archers obeyed, and fired at the dragon. The arrows bounced off its scales, and attracted its attention. As it turned, Nexus grabbed a bow and one of the futuristic arrows.
Xena had moved down toward the camp, sword drawn. None of the men she came across were interested in fighting. She made it down into the camp itself, where some of the commanders were trying to get the men they had left together. From her position she saw Nexus raise the bow. She reached for the chakram.
Gabrielle, Hercules, and Ioalus galloped down the road toward Torus. Gabrielle had explained the situation, and after that the ride was mostly silent. Gabrielle kept watching the sun, hoping to make it back in time. They stopped to give their horses a breather at a small stream. As the horses drank, Ioalus looked around.
"You know, we're making really good time."
Gabrielle looked up. "I felt the same way coming to get you. I was sure I wouldn't make it, but I got to you in half the time I thought I would."
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Hercules said as he remounted. The others mounted up, and they were off again. As the sun began to set, they heard a loud, screaming roar.
"Would that be the dragon?" Ioalus asked.
"I'd say so. I've heard something like it before." replied Hercules.
"Then we're running behind!" shouted Gabrielle. "Hyaaa!" She kicked Argo to an even faster gallop. Hercules and Ioalus caught up to her.
"You're getting pretty good at this, Gab!" Ioalus called over.
"Don't remind me! I still have to move tomorrow!"
They rode and soon encountered a large number of men riding toward them. They prepared to fight, but the men just rode on by, looks of fear on their faces.
"Guess they met the dragon." Gabrielle said. "We'd better get to Xena!" The three companions spurred their horses on once again.
Xena prepared to throw the chakram, when a fleeing soldier crashed into her. She saw Nexus release the arrow as she threw. She turned her eyes to follow the flight of the arrow. It flew true, and struck the dragon across the eyelid. The dragon roared and threw his head backwards. "This is going well." Lee thought, when the arrow struck him. The pain was intense, and the last thing Lee remembered as the world turned red. The dragon whipped its head around, and blew a great cloud of flame at the white-haired man it saw. Xena saw Nexus disappear in a burst of flame as her chakram struck his bow and started its return flight. As she caught it, the flame faded away, and Nexus was still standing. His clothing was gone, but the rest of him was untouched by the flame.
"You win this round, sorcerer. But perhaps I've caused enough disruption here for now." At the end of the clearing, Gabrielle, Hercules and Ioalus were approaching. Xena looked over at the same time as Nexus, a look of surprised happiness on her face. The dragon moved to attack Nexus, who waggled his finger. "No, no. Not this time." He disappeared, and faded out in a sparkly haze. The dragon's jaws closed on empty air, causing it to growl in fury. Xena ran toward her three friends, who dismounted as they saw her coming. Xena put away the chakram, and drew the thin sword Lee had given her. "We need to take him down." she said bluntly.
The dragon, realizing that his prey had vanished, started to look around for something to attack. He spotted the foursome on the other side of the clearing, and roared a challenge.
"This is not good." Hercules said.
"You have a grand gift for understatemnent, Herc." Ioalus told him.
The dragon lowered his head and moved forward slowly. Suddenly, he raised up and spewed forth another ball of flame. The foursome scattered in two directions. Ioalus found himself next to Xena.
"And Gabrielle says this thing's a friend?" Ioalus said incredulously.
"Yes. So don't forget it." She studied the dragon, looking for an opportunity to strike.
Hercules looked over to Gabrielle. "I have a plan, so when I say 'down', you get down. Understand?"
"On three. One......two......three! Get down!" Gabrielle flattened herself on the ground, and Hercules took off running for the trees. The dragon saw this, and leaped into the air, flapping his wings. Gabrielle covered her head as the air blew the dirt around her. She stood in time to see the dragon about to grab Hercules. She took a deep breath and yelled.
"Hercules, duck!" He dove and rolled in time to avoid being grabbed. The dragon flew by, and Hercules continued toward the trees. Xena and Ioalus ran up to Gabrielle.
"Are you all right?" Xena asked.
"Fine, Xena. Just a little dirty. What are we going to do about Lee?"
"What he asked me to do." Xena replied sadly, showing her Lee's sword.
"You mean?" she asked.
"Oh, yes. Isn't it wonderful?" came a voice from behind them. They turned to see the white-haired man standing there. "After all this time trying to get rid of him, and you're going to do it for me!" he continued, then threw his head back and laughed. Xena and Ioalus stepped in front of Gabrielle.
"Oh, please." snarled the white-haired man. Ioalus jumped forward, planting a kick and two solid punches into Nexus, who just stood there. Nexus backhanded Ioalus, knocking him to the ground. Xena stepped forward and swung the sword. It bounced off as if she had struck a metal bar. She swung again, and a look of surprise crossed her face as he caught the sword in his hand. He pulled it forward and brought his fist down on her head, dropping her like a stone. Gabrielle looked at her, then back to Nexus. Anger crossed her delicate features.
"You! You're responsible for this. It's all your fault!" Nexus merely looked at her, bored amusement on his face. Gabrielle stepped forward and swung her staff into his midsection, doubling him over. She brought the other end up into his face, knocking him backwards onto the ground. He reached up and touched his face, looking in amazement at the blood on his hand. Gabrielle brought the staff up for another strike, but Nexus was fading away.
"No one is innocent forever, little girl. I won't forget this!" And then he was gone. Gabrielle bent down to Xena, who was trying to clear her head and stand up.
"Wha....where did he go, Gabrielle?"
"I don't know, Xena. I hit him twice, and he faded away." They both turned as Ioalus groaned on the ground.
Hercules made it to the trees, and was trying to watch both the dragon, and the fight his friends had entered.
"Good for you, Gabrielle." He thought as he saw the end of the fight. He looked up and saw the dragon circling, as if unsure where to attack. Searching until he found a tree he could reach all the way around, he braced himself and started to pull. The muscles in his arms and back strained as the tree came out of the ground. With a loud yell, he pulled the tree from the earth. The dragon heard this, and dove toward Hercules with a loud cry. He tightened his grip, knowing he'd only get one try at this.
The others turned at the dragon's cry, watching in horror as it dove at their friend, knowing there was nothing they could do.
Waiting until the last possible second, Hercules swung the tree with all of his strength. It caught the dragon in the side of the head, causing it to barrel into the ground. It landed and rolled, causing the ground to shake. Hercules dropped the tree and ran up to the dragon's head. He drew back a fist and punched it in the side of the head. It turned its head toward Hercules, then dropped to the ground unconscious.
Gabrielle, Xena, and Ioalus ran up to join Hercules.
"Nice shot." Xena told him.
"It's all in the wrist." he replied.
"Now comes the hard part." Xena said. "Now I have to kill him."
"Can you do it, Xena?" Ioalus asked her. "Gabrielle said he was a friend."
"I promised." she told him, although sadness was in her eyes and etched in her face. She walked up and placed the sword behind the ear of the dragon, ready to thrust it through as Lee had told her. She closed her eyes and tensed her muscles.
"Xena, wait!" cried Gabrielle.
"I need to do this now, Gabrielle." She saw the tears in her friend's eyes, and relaxed.
"I want to talk to him first." Gabrielle said.
"What good will that do, Gabrielle?" Ioalus asked. She turned and glared at him.
"He's still in there somewhere, and I want a chance to reach him!" she yelled.
"Give it a try, Gabrielle." Xena said softly. Gabrielle looked at Xena in gratitude. She walked up to the dragon's ear and began to speak softly.
"Lee, I know you're in there. You guys did it. The army is gone, but we still need to destroy the arrows. Come on, Lee. Change back. Hey! Nexus is gone. Xena hit him with your sword and nothing happened. he just caught it. I hit him with my staff and knocked him on his butt! You should have seen the look on his face!" The dragon rumbled, then the body began to shimmer. It shrank down, losing its mass until Lee lay on the ground.
"I wish I had!" he rasped. "Does anyone have some water? My throat is killing me!" He looked up into four laughing faces, a confused look on his own.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"You should have seen it, Hercules. The guy was huge! I mean, he made you look small!" Gabrielle was animatedly telling Hercules and Ioalus about their adventure. Xena and Lee were standing by a pile of all the arrows they had found. Lee gestured, and the pile turned into dust. He turned toward Xena.
"Thank you." he said.
"For not killing me, but being willing to if you had to."
"Comes with the territory." she told him, although she looked slightly uncomfortable.
"Come on. I have something for Gabrielle." They walked away from the dust of what had began the whole thing, as a gentle breeze scattered it all away. They came up to where the others were.
"It's nice to actually meet you, Hercules." Lee said, offering his hand. Hercules took it. "And you as well, Ioalus. Gabrielle told me quite a bit about you."
"Well Gabrielle has been telling me some stories about you, too." Ioalus extended his hand with a smile. Lee took it, returning the smile.
"That reminds me, Gabrielle. I have something for you."
"Yeah. It's kind of what started the mess back in that little town we were in."
"You mean that what you bought was for me?"
"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time." He reached into a pouch at his belt and pulled out a roll of parchment, which he handed to Gabrielle.
"How nice. I needed some new scrolls."
"I'm not done." He reached back into the pouch, and came out with a beautifully carved wooden box. He gave this to Gabrielle as well. When she opened it, her eyes grew wide, and a huge smile crossed her face.
"A stylus and ink! In a travel case. How wonderful!" She stepped forward and gave Lee a big hug. He returned it happily.
"A good bard should have the proper tools, right?"
"Thank you so much! I don't know what to say."
"Another first." Xena said. Gabrielle tried to glare at her, but started to giggle instead.
"Xena, I have something for you as well." Lee reached under his shirt and removed a necklace he was wearing. The pendant was a black sword surrounded by an infinity symbol. "Should you ever need help, hold this and think my name. I'll come. A little bit of passive magic."
"Thank you. I'll remember." Lee moved forward and hugged her, giving her a light kiss on the cheek. "I hope we can fight together again sometime." he said.
"Well, well. Isn't this nice and cozy." came a voice from behind Lee.
"You're just mad because you lost, Ares." Xena replied. Lee turned around to face the god of war, and Hercules and Ioalus came up to stand beside Xena and Gabrielle.
"Yes, Xena. I lost. Now your little sorcerer friend can leave." Lee looked down at his wrist, then shook his head.
"I'll just keep this as a souvenir." Ares continued, holding up one of the arrows Nexus had brought.
"That would explain things." Lee said. "You see, as long as there's a disruption, I can't leave. That arrow is a disruption. If you give it to me, I'll leave and be out of your hair."
"No, I don't think so. Although if you leave, I'll think about not making more of them."
Hercules stepped forward. "You don't have anything to gain from this, Ares."
"Oh but I do, brother. Personal satisfaction."
"That's beneath even you, Ares." Xena told him.
"Hey, I've got to take my victories where I can, Xena. Of course, I'd accomplish so much more if you were with me."
"Precisely why I'm not." she replied. Lee took off his cloak and handed it to Gabrielle.
"Consider it a gift if this doesn't work." He winked at her. "Perhaps I can give you that satisfaction, Ares." Xena grabbed Lee's arm.
"You're good Lee, but not that good. You can't beat him."
"I don't need to beat him, Xena. I just need to hurt him a little. It's all fifty-fifty, Xena. I will or I won't, but I can't leave that arrow."
He looked down at her hand, and she let go. Lee took his sword, and stood before the god of war. Ares snickered derisively, looking at the man before him with contempt.
"You're kidding, right?"
"'Fraid not." Lee replied and swung at Ares. He stepped back, and suddenly his sword was in his hand. Ares parried the next three attacks, then began his own. Lee found himself hard pressed to parry the god's attacks, and he soon realized he was no match for Ares. "Maybe I can use that against him." Lee thought.
Gabrielle moved up next to Xena. "Aren't we going to do something?" she asked.
"We could stop this, Xena." Hercules said.
"I hate it when you argue with Ares." Gabrielle and Ioalus said at the same time.
"Not yet." Xena told them. "I won't let Ares kill him though, if I can help it." Meanwhile, Lee was exaggerating a block to his left. Ares increased the pressure to that side, until Lee's side was wide open. Ares made a straight killing thrust, which Lee spun away from, bringing his sword up in a quick slice at Ares' head. Ares ducked, but not quickly enough to avoid a small cut to his face. He put a hand up, and it came away with a golden-red fluid.
"So gods can bleed." Xena said.
"I bleed." said Hercules.
"Yeah, but you're only half a god." Ioalus told him with a smile. Are stepped back, a surprised look on his face.
"You hurt me." he said.
"I told you. Now give me the arrow, or I give the sword to Xena. She's better than me."
"Fine. Take it." Ares threw the arrow to the ground, then disappeared. Lee picked up the arrow and disintegrated it. The bracer on his left wrist started beeping.
"That's the signal for me to leave." Lee turned to the foursome. "You don't know how proud I am to have met all of you. I hope to see you again sometime." He shook hands again with Hercules and Ioalus, hugged Gabrielle, then stood before Xena. "Goodbye, Xena. Thank you."
"You don't have to thank me. Annoying Ares is good enough." She smiled and extended her arm. Lee took it, then turned to go. He gestured and a doorway of light appeared in front of him. He turned and waved to the others, then stepped through. They could see an explosion and darkness, then the doorway closed.
"Where do you think he went, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
Fingering the amulet Lee had given her, she responded, "I don't know, Gabrielle."
"I have a well to finish in Phraceus." Hercules told them. "Care to come along?"
"Sure. We could use the relaxation." Xena said.
"So, Gabrielle. This should make quite a story, huh?" Ioalus said. "You could compose it on the ride back to Phraceus."
"Ride? Ride? You want me to ride?" Gabrielle frowned as her friends began to laugh, then started to laugh with them. As they mounted, she began to recite. "It all started with an arrow...."
Copyright August 1997 by Martin Tucker