The newly-erected temple was a sufficiently impressive structure from
the outside, and all gleaming, bright surfaces within. There had been, to
the resident god's dismay, too little time for the appropriate rituals
sacrifices to properly bloody the walls and floors. But that would all
come in good time, he knew. Other work needed his attention first.
The diminutive god narrowed his eyes and critically studied the work
lined up for inspection. "No...no...definitely not...mmm, too
small...too ugly...so last week...no...no no NO!"
Each verdict was accompanied by a sharp explosion, the god casting
forth quick bolts of lightning at the unacceptable craftsmanship,
blowing the works to ashes. The artisans responsible for each rejected
statue or bust cowered in fear, expecting to face a similar fate as their
offerings had in short order.
As he approached and examined the final sculpture for a moment, his
expression lightened somewhat. "Well, this one's not bad. I suppose."
"T-thank you, m-my lord." The artist bowed deeply in relief.
"It could be better, though," Strife decided, destroying the marble
sculpture in his likeness with a final burst of lightning. As the ash and
rubble settled he told them all, "I want nothing but the best for my
temple, don't you idiots understand?!" After a pause to sufficiently
savor the terror he'd instilled in their hearts, he sighed and with a
of his hand said, "I'll give you losers one more shot and then you're
history if the goods ain't cool, you got that?"
They all bowed, mumbling their thanks for his consideration and
patience before making a quick exit to the outside world. The god of
war, exasperated at the artists' ineptitude and lack of anything
resembling talent, raised his hands towards Olympus and called out,
"Why is it so hard to find good help these days?"
Frustrated, he flashed over to his throne, and settled in for a good sulk
and to figure out what to do with himself for the rest of the day. He
could use a break, he decided. Maybe go terrorize his generals for a
while. Of course terrorizing the temple girls could be fun, too, but he'd
save that for the evening. He was still expecting some tapestries and
other offerings for his new home-away-from-Olympus this afternoon.
It was probably worth hanging around to see if any of it would be
better than the miserable work the sculptors had come up with. If not,
he could have a little fun punishing those who assumed he would
accept sub-par workmanship.
"Damn Uncle Ares anyway for trashing the old temple before he left,"
Strife pouted to himself. "The place was nice and lived-in, and he had
so much cool stuff..." It was hard work trying to make a name for
himself as the new war god--especially with Zeus and Hades trying to
tie his hands and keep him from doing the things he needed to do (lots
of pillaging, bloodshedding and all around nastiness among them).
Having to bother with the reconstruction of the main temple in Corinth
was a headache he really didn't want to be bothered with while in the
middle of trying to win the fear and loyalty of his uncle's old armies.
Nope, being a major god was no picnic in Elysia, that was for certain.
But it sure beat being Unc's little toadie, his personal punching bag
whenever he got pissed off and needed someone to take the blame for
everything that went wrong with his dumb plans. And it sure beat
being dead. Hades had been such a drag, always bitching whenever
Strife had tried to have a little fun playing with the other dead. So
gone and freed one of the Titans one day to stomp about Tartarus for a
while. As if the damned dead mortals didn't get a good chuckle out of
seeing some of Hades' torturers get ripped apart and roasted up for a
And so he'd let a really foul-tempered dragon spirit loose on the
Elysian plain another day to watch all the righteous, happy spirits get
a taste of how the other half of the dead had it. He'd tried to show
Hades he could keep things a little...livelier in the Underworld,
if he let Strife have some leeway. Instead, all he'd gotten out of it all
was punishment guard duty on the gates to Tartarus while Erinyes got
to take a holiday. What kind of gratitude was that?
"Eh well," he sighed, pulling out the sword that now belonged to
him, running his fingers lovingly along the blade. That was all behind
him now anyway, thanks to Uncle getting himself all wrapped up in
some stupid mortal and getting sloppy on the job. Of course, that was
exactly what Strife had been waiting for, all these years while taking
Ares' abuse--and rare affections. Unc could enjoy his brief time
wallowing in mortality with his precious Joxer. Strife had better things
to do than meddle in his life any longer...at least for the time being.
The god was drawn out of his ruminations as he noticed someone
entering the temple and looking around. A small boy, of all things.
What could he possibly want except a good dose of trouble, coming
in here? Strife watched, invisible to the young mortal's eyes, as the boy
took in the surroundings slowly with wide dark eyes that seemed
vaguely, uncomfortably familiar. Then, the boy started walking toward
the offering table.
"Try to take anything and you're toast, kid," Strife growled, almost
hoping the boy would so he could dole out some proper punishment.
Instead, the child fished out a small pouch from his pants pocket and
untied the laces at the top. He reached into the pouch, and then pulled
out a glowing gem almost as large as his palm.
"Well well well! This is getting interesting," Strife exclaimed, eyes
widening with curiosity. Still he waited and watched to see what the
boy was going to do next.
The child considered the stone for a moment, then lifted it up in both
his hands. In a loud, confident voice, he called, "Strife, god of war, I
upon you today to hear my prayer. Will you accept my offering?"
"Depends on what that shiny hunka rock is, little man," Strife
answered, flashing into view with a sufficiently dramatic burst of white
fire and snatching the gem from the boy's hand. "Pretty pretty, but I'm
not one for baubles. That's Aphrodite's department."
"It's not your ordinary gemstone, my Lord Strife," the boy told him.
"Listen to it."
"Listen? Listen to a rock?"
"Go on, close your hand around it and listen," the boy insisted in a
calm, confident voice.
Strife rolled his eyes, wondering where this little nutcase had come
Still, he gave it a shot. And after a moment, he was surprised to hear
what sounded like whispering voices coming from the gem as it glowed
brighter in his palm. Although he strained, he could not hear them
clearly, only making out the odd word here and there. "Hmm, a bauble
that babbles, but I can't understand a word it's saying. What good is
that? And why should I listen to what a rock has to say?"
"It is not just any 'rock', my lord. It is the gem from the Ring of
Strife blinked, and glanced back and forth between this suspect gem
and the increasingly suspect boy. This was getting more interesting by
the minute. "Coeus? The Titan?"
The boy nodded. "The Ring of Coeus is said to possess all knowledge
known to the Titans. The secrets of the Universe, of Creation...of the
laws that govern both gods and mortals. Unfortunately, without the
ring itself, the stone is useless--the setting frees the voices of
knowledge so they can be understood clearly by he who holds or wears
the ring. But I know where to find the setting, and many other
treasures of the Titans that were lost during their war with Zeus."
"Oh really? And where would that be?"
"The Caves of Nomea, of course."
Strife snorted. "No one goes to the Caves of Nomea, kid, unless you've
got a death wish. There's like, serious bad mojo for gods in that area.
And no mortal would be stupid enough to try to make his way through
the traps in there." During the late days of the war between Zeus and
the Titans, when the Titans knew they would be defeated, they had
gathered what they could of their treasure and weapons and hid them
within the Caves. If they would be denied their uses and pleasures,
they'd reasoned, Zeus and the other Olympians would not be given the
chance to use them, either.
"Many mortals have tried, and died trying to reach the treasure, but at
least one man did succeed, some time ago. He gave this stone to my
father and told him the way through the traps. My father, in turn, told
me. He would not enter the caves himself, being of Olympian blood--
and a coward. But he told me the way."
Strife had been wondering about this boy's heritage, having sensed the
strong mental blocks in place that kept the god from probing his mind
for the truth of his story. Only one with immortal blood in them,
someone who was part-god at least, could do that. The kid also seemed
way too articulate for the average boy of his apparent age. "Care to
spill the beans on who your father is?"
"Ares! Is that a fact..." Strife trailed off, his curiosity as well as
suspicions now rising. "Now what would a son of Ares be doing
coming to me, and offering me this? He and I, you know, aren't
exactly on the best of terms these days."
The boy stepped forward, his gaze intense as he insisted, "My father
is a coward, like I said. And weak. You proved that by defeating him.
I've come to you, Strife, because I want someone of strength to guide
me and teach me."
"Why?" Strife asked skeptically, pulling out his sword and pointing
the blade toward the child's chest. "Why should I do anything for you,
or teach you anything. So that you can someday defeat me? Revenge
your father and become the new god of war yourself? Give me a good
reason not to strike you down right here and now, boy."
The child held his ground and did not flinch in the face of the god's
doubt--nor his sword. "Besides the fact that I'm protected by Zeus?
Go ask him if you don't believe me. But I have no interest in usurping
your position, Lord Strife. I am not a full-god. I could never defeat one
as strong as yourself even if I wanted to. However, I do have
powers, and abilities, that I could use to serve you well. In some ways,
the fact that I'm half-mortal could make me a very useful ally."
Strife knew this was indeed true. Half-breeds didn't have to play by
Zeus' stifling rules and as such could get away with things that full-
gods couldn't. Things like...killing gods, for instance. Strife imagined
possibilities with growing enthusiasm. True, it was hard to find things
that would kill gods, even if you had a license to do as much--but
perhaps if he had that Ring of Knowledge, he might just be able to find
a thing or two to do the trick. Not to mention it might help him find
other little useful treasures hidden in the Caves. Lowering the sword,
Strife asked, "So you know the way around this cave, do ya, junior?"
He answered affirmatively, "Father told me, because he figured with
my mixed heritage, I could pass through the cave the easiest of all.
Stronger and more adept than a mortal, less likely to be affected by the
traps set for the gods."
"Interesting..." Yes, it sounded possible, Strife thought. He could see
Ares being too much of a coward to try to enter the Caves himself,
even if he knew the way, wanting to send his kid in instead. Strife
seriously wondered about how much of the mumbo-jumbo he'd heard
about the Caves was for real anyway. Maybe Zeus had made up a
bunch of lies about the place, not wanting any of the other gods to go
mucking about looking for the treasure they could use to overthrow
him. Bastard wanted to keep it all for himself if he needed it, more
likely. Most of the gods were too chicken to try to find out for
"So you're offering to run in and grab the goods for me, right? In
exchange for letting you hang around with me."
"Works for me. Only I'm coming, too. Who's to say you wouldn't go in
there and pocket something good for yourself? Or all of it?"
"It will be dangerous for you," the child warned.
"Yeah yeah, so I've heard. Think of it as a way of proving
how...useful...you can be for me. Who knows how much of that
nonsense about the place is true, anyway."
"All right," he agreed. "That shouldn't complicate things too much."
"Better not," Strife answered, carrying the stone with him as he
strolled back over towards his throne.
As he settled in, the boy asked him, "So...when shall we leave, my
"In a while. I can't just drop everything for ya, junior. I got other
to take care of first. We'll leave soon enough; you can chill out with
gals in the back 'till I'm ready to go."
"But first, a little test of your loyalty, just to make me happy." Strife
snapped his fingers and out of nowhere a bloodied, shackled man
appeared on the floor at the child's feet. "This here was one of your
father's favorite generals. He refused to give his allegiance to me for
some silly reason. I've been trying to explain to him the error of his
ways, but he just won't listen to reason! Ain't that the way it is,
The shackled man said nothing, merely glared at the god with his one
"You see? Won't even answer a simple question for me." Strife shook
his head sadly. Then, with another snap of his fingers, a dagger
appeared in the boy's right hand. It was small enough for the child to
hold, but its blade was still sharp and deadly. "You ever killed anyone
before...uh...what's the name, kid?"
"You ever kill anyone before, Evander?"
"Perfect!" Strife rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Then prove
to me you're not pulling my chain here, junior. Kill him for me. This
place needs an inaugural blood sacrifice, anyway."
The god waited in anticipation, hungry to feel the glory of not just the
sacrifice of the prisoner but of the boy's blood-innocence also--if
Evander was serious about wanting to serve him. A part of him wished
that he could have Ares here on the floor instead, to really put to the
test the boy's loyalty. But that blasted airhead Aphrodite had asked
for protection for Ares and Joxer and Zeus had granted as much. For
The boy stood before the wounded soldier a long time, his dark eyes
fixed upon the man though his face showed little fear or uncertainty.
Strife could hear that Hogarus was silently begging the boy to kill
him, no less, which slightly soured the mood for the god. It wasn't
quite as much fun when the sacrifice actually wanted to be dead.
"C'mon, boy, I haven't got all day. Do it or get outta my face," Strife
urged. He was almost certain that the boy wouldn't be able to do it, not
after taking so long. But then--
Oh, yes...Yes! Strife arched back in almost orgasmic delight as the
boy suddenly grabbed the man by his hair, pulling his head back and
then ripping the blade across his neck. Blood spurted and flowed
freely, over the spasming body and onto the marble floor. Evander let
go of the man's hair and the soldier fell to the ground, dead seconds
Blood still dripping from the dagger's blade, the boy stepped away
from the man's body and asked, "Have I passed your test, Lord
"You are a cold-hearted little bastard, aren't you?" Strife laughed,
stood up to clap the boy soundly on the back. "Very nice, junior.
Now, go run along and play with Alestra and the other priestesses 'till
I get back. Just don't hurt 'em, too much, you understand? Took me
a while to find a decent bunch of girls to keep this place amusing."
Strife was feeling so good right now, to Tartarus with waiting about to
see what stupid offerings those fool mortals brought in this afternoon.
He'd just received his best offering yet and wanted to hit the nearest
battlefield to go celebrate, crack a few skulls with his own hands. Then
he could check out these Caves with the boy. This turn of events, if it
played out, could prove even more beneficial toward cementing his
position and power on Olympus than the great war he'd been trying to
As Evander walked off towards the back chambers Strife pointed to,
the god cast one last look at the dead soldier on the floor before
blasting the body to ash.
Now the place was starting to look properly lived in.
Laughing in hysteric glee, Strife disappeared in a burst of white fire.
A short distance away from the temple, three woman sat watching and
waiting for any signs of activity or trouble within.
It had taken two days of hard riding to make it to Corinth this quickly;
Ares and Joxer were headed to Nomea and should have arrived already
to begin setting the trap. The roads to Corinth had been more
treacherous than usual, proving the former god had been wise to ask for
Xena's and Gabrielle's help to escort Evander up to this point of the
plan. They'd slipped past one army of men on the march south and
had to fight their way through another small band of warriors harassing
people on the road for "tribute", similar to the first group they'd
encountered days' before. Even though Evander could have helped
during the fights, Xena had insisted he stay out of sight and out of the
action, in case any of the soldiers reported back to Strife about what
had happened before they made it to the temple.
But now, much to Nemesis' chagrin in particular, the plan was up to
Evander and he had to go in alone. The women had barely spoken a
word to each other since he'd entered the temple, all too tense with
worry and apprehension. The tension only grew worse as time
stretched on, until by Xena's estimate they had been waiting at least an
hour. When she then saw several men enter the temple, and then leave
a short while later, she remarked, "It looks like Strife must have taken
the bait--Evander would have come out or sent the signal by now if he
didn't show or there was trouble."
"I suppose you're right," Nemesis said. "I just wish there was some
way we could know for certain."
"I'll go down to check things quickly. Then we've got to head on to
Nomea ourselves," Xena said, standing and leaving the others to wait
for her. Though the god could transport himself and Evander directly
to the Caves, by Ares' estimate it would take them at least a half-day
to make their way through the winding, tricky passageways. At top-
speed, the women could be there in time to meet them on their way out
of the Caves--Evander, with Ares and Joxer if the plan succeeded.
If not...well, they would be there to salvage what they could.
As they waited for Xena's return, Gabrielle tried to reassure Nemesis
with a gentle hand on the shoulder and a soft, "Evander's going to be
fine. You have to have faith in that."
"Faith in who? The gods?" Nemesis laughed. "I lost my faith in them a
long time ago, Gabrielle."
"No, faith in yourself, and your son. In all of us that we will
succeed, because with that faith nearly anything is possible."
"Learned that from Xena, did you?"
The bard smiled. "Yeah, I guess so. Traveling with Xena, you start to
see that nothing is impossible. Including defeating a god. Maybe on the
road I'll tell you about how we defeated Bacchus not too long ago."
A few minutes later, Xena rejoined them. Gabrielle immediately
noticed something in Xena's expression that worried her--something
subtle that only the bard would pick up on from knowing the warrior
woman as well as she did.
"Evander's not there, at least not in the main chambers. We'll have to
assume everything is going according to plan. Nemesis, get the horses.
We should leave immediately."
Nemesis nodded and took off to the nearby stables. Gabrielle reached
for Xena's arm and asked, "What's wrong? You saw something in there
you didn't like."
Xena frowned and in a soft voice answered, "There wasn't any sign of
Evander, or Strife, but...Gabrielle, there was a pool of blood before the
offering table. Freshly spilled."
"By the gods..." Gabrielle whispered, unconsciously gripping Xena's
arm tighter. "You don't think--"
"--I don't know what to think," Xena cut her off. "It could mean a lot
of things, and we can't make assumptions. I just don't want to say
anything to Nemesis about it."
"Of course," the bard agreed, trying to compose herself as Evander's
mother was already on her way back. Still, as they took up on their
horses and headed out on the road to Nomea, she couldn't rid herself of
the fear that this battle had already seen its first casualty--and if so,
more were perhaps soon to follow.
"So this is it?"
"Yes. The Caves of Nomea." Ares looked across to the gaping mouth
of the cavern, which was revealed now as they reached the edge of the
surrounding forest. A chill passed through him at the sight, thanks to
some part of him that still retained echoes of his Olympian heritage.
The stories were true about this place, he did not doubt--any
Olympian who set foot anywhere in the Caves' proximity knew he
was far from welcome here.
"Doesn't look like very much to me," Joxer commented.
"To you, it wouldn't. But none of my family would go near here
willingly unless they had a very good reason for it. The Caves are
filled with traps for both mortals and immortals. But together we
should be able to pass through unharmed, with the information I have
on how to avoid the worst of it."
"How did you find out how to get past all the traps, anyway?"
"One time, I offered generalship of my armies to the man who could
make his way past the traps and find out what treasures could be
found inside. Took about a hundred years or so and I don't know how
many men tried before one succeeded. He brought back the gem that I
gave Evander to prove he'd made it."
"And the soldier became the leader of your armies?" Joxer asked,
wondering if he would recognize the man's name. One thing every child
in his family had learned while growing up was the names and histories
of nearly every famous warlord or general in recent history.
"Certainly not. I killed him once he told me the way. I couldn't let a
man with that kind of knowledge run around on the loose," the former
god answered nonchalantly.
Ares started walking at a brisk pace across the clearing toward the
entrance, so Joxer picked up his pace to follow alongside. About
halfway across, however, Joxer froze, unable to continue. Somewhere
up above, he had just heard a familiar shriek...and the flapping of very
"Ares..." he managed to squeak out as he grabbed the other man's arm.
Not daring to look up to confirm he was right, he continued slowly,
"You...you didn't say anything about..."
"Don't worry about them, Joxer, they won't bother us," Ares tried to
assure him. "They serve their former masters to protect this place from
the Olympians only, not mortals. They just can't resist making a big
show whenever anyone approaches."
The shrieks grew louder, nearer. Whether or not they were interested
in the two of them, it certainly sounded that way to Joxer. "Ares, I
don't think I can do this..."
"Yes, you can. Ignore them. Come along before they decide we might
make good sport, immortal or not." In softer tones, and taking Joxer's
hand firmly in his own, Ares promised, "I'm here, this time. I won't let
them hurt you."
It took a few moments for those words of assurance to get past Joxer's
terror. It was true that in his dreams--nightmares--he was always alone
when they came for him. But Ares was here this time, telling him it
would be all right. Believing that, and holding tightly onto Ares' hand,
he somehow found the strength to continue on.
Still, the brisk-paced walk to the Caves was without a doubt the
longest few minutes of Joxer's life. Once they were inside, the strength
he'd found to get him this far completely left him and he collapsed
against the wall, shaking and trying to catch his breath.
"Easy, Joxer," Ares tried to soothe him.
"Easy. Easy for you to say." Joxer pushed away the hand that was
reaching to comfort him. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply,
trying to get his body and emotions back under his control. Could he
help it if he never wanted to have anything to do with Harpies for the
rest of his life? "Damn it, don't do something like that to me again,
all right? Give me some warning next time!" he shouted angrily.
He hadn't meant it to come out so harshly, but he was shaky and not
entirely in the best of moods at the moment. "Sorry," Ares apologized.
"I thought the best thing to do was not let you know so you wouldn't
be worrying about it the whole time. ...Can we go on, now? I have a
feeling that for you, at least, that was the worst of what we will have
to face here."
After a while, Joxer managed to find his feet again, his pulse finally
beginning to slow. From outside the mouth of the cave, he could still
hear the faint echoes of the Harpies' screams. The sound was enough to
make him ill. "Yeah, let's go. The faster I get away from those things,
the better I'll feel."
"All right. Follow right behind me. Step only where I step; this place is
riddled with traps," Ares instructed as he lit a pair of torches and
handed one to Joxer. With a smile he patted Joxer on the back and said,
"For what? Freaking out at the first sign of danger?"
"No, for yelling at me like you just did. It's the first time you've done
that. I was wondering how long it would take."
The passage through the Caves was slow and difficult to say the least.
All around them, the place was littered with the bones and other
remains of countless others who, over the centuries, had tried to claim
a portion of the Titans' treasures for themselves. Usually a pile of
bones was the only sign to Joxer's eyes, in the soft light of their
torches, that a particular trap lay ahead. Sometimes they had to step
only along the walls, to avoid tripwires that fired arrows or poisoned
needles from the ceiling of the cavern. Other times, they had to time
their steps just so, to avoid, Ares told him, the fate of having the
entire ground shift away and drop them into a near bottomless pit.
There were intersections that offered dizzying choices of paths to
follow and Joxer had long ago lost all sense of direction, but Ares
proceeded ahead though each one with no uncertainty. Joxer took
strength from the assurance of his lover's steps, and found that the
level of concentration he needed to follow Ares' instructions kept him
from panicking and thinking about how many times they were barely
avoiding assured death during this journey.
"Besides those...guys outside, what other traps are here specifically for
the gods?" Joxer asked when after a time they finally paused in what
Ares claimed was a safe spot. "Couldn't a god just, you know, pop
right in here past everything?"
Ares shook his head. "No. There's a kind of...energy field about the
place. Any god who tries to 'pop', as you put it, into here from outside
would find their atoms scattered from here to the moon. Getting
yourself together after something like that would not be pleasant."
"What's an atom?"
"Basically, the stuff that makes up everything--you, me, the Earth, the
stars--don't worry about it. Mankind is probably a few thousand years
away from understanding what atoms are and how to manipulate them.
But besides that, there are spirits about this place..." Ares paused, as
listening to something when Joxer could hear nothing but the far away
sound of running water. "...I can barely hear them. They don't like my
being here; they must be screaming to try to get my attention but now
it sounds like nothing more than a gnat buzzing at my ears. However a
god would hear them, oh yes. Voices screaming and whispering threats
and promises and lies... They are the spirits of many who served and
are still loyal to the Titans and they would just love the chance to try
to drive an Olympian mad if he dared pass through here."
"Not a pleasant place, all and all."
"No. Not a pleasant place. The energy field, it not only makes it
impossible for a god to 'pop' in here past the traps, but it weakens
their powers once inside its perimeter. No god likes to feel that
vulnerable, even if the effect is not strong enough to kill him. Zeus
basically declared this whole place off-limits. But if Evander played his
part right, Strife should be tempted enough to give it a try."
"When they get here, what do you want me to do?" Joxer asked.
"Besides staying out of my way? Make certain Evander is safe. I don't
want him caught in the crossfire--especially since he will be my way
out of here just as he escorted Strife in."
Joxer nodded in understanding. "It's quite a plan."
"I thought as much." Ares fell silent, and after a moment Joxer felt his
lover's hand lifting his chin, caressing his cheek softly with his thumb.
Ares' expression in the faint light was serious as he said, "Joxer, be
alert. Remember everything I taught you. If something were to happen
to you during this, defeating Strife and getting my godhood back will
mean nothing, you understand?"
Joxer said, "I know. I'll be careful."
"And if...anything should happen to me...don't do something stupid, all
right? You have to go on...as I said, make sure Evander gets home
safely. I did promise as much to Nemesis."
Joxer didn't particularly care for the way this conversation was going.
He knew that should something happen to Ares, there would be no
more reason for him to go on. No one to love, or to love him...no one to
be there when the nightmares came. But he did the only thing he could
that he knew would satisfy Ares which was to tell him, "All right. I
"Good." Ares stood up then and asked, "Ready to go? Not much
farther to the chamber now."
"Yeah, I'm ready," Joxer answered, though inside he felt little except
uncertainty and fear for what the near future had in store for them
The voices were really starting to piss him off.
/LITTLE GOD, LITTLE GOD, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE
/WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?/
/YOU'D BETTER LEAVE WHILE YOU CAN. THIS PLACE IS NOT
/DO YOU KNOW WHAT WE DO TO LITTLE GODS WHO DARE
DISTURB THIS PLACE? IT'S NOT PLEASANT. WOULD YOU LIKE
"Shut up!" Strife hollered, his voice echoing down the
"I didn't say anything," Evander said in a much
softer, damnably calm voice.
"I wasn't talking to you, junior. I was talking to
them. The voices. Don't you hear them?"
"No. I'm too busy watching where I'm going. Step here,
careful. Now to the right."
/HE LIES. THE BOY LIES TO YOU, LITTLE GOD. HE HEARS
US, ALL RIGHT./
You're the liar, Strife answered the voices in his
head. I've heard about you. Here to drive any god who
tries to take your treasure nutso. I don't believe a
word you say. Any of you!
/BELIEVE WHAT YOU WANT. IT WILL BE YOUR FUNERAL./
Go to Tartarus. Strife was so ready to kill
someone right now. It had been bad enough trying to
get past those stupid Harpies outside. Even with
Evander backing him up, using his albeit dampened
powers to hold them off, they'd barely made it to the
entryway without getting their eyes scratched out. If
he didn't need the damn boy to lead him through this
nightmarish place, he'd blast him to dust right now
for the small satisfaction of it.
/KILL THE BOY IF YOU WANT. GO ON. YOU'RE GOING TO DIE
ANYWAY BEFORE THE DAY IS THROUGH./ The laughter of a
thousand similar spirits echoed through his head.
/POOR LITTLE GOD,/ one of them taunted. /DIED ONCE
ALREADY, TIME TO DIE AGAIN. SHOULD HAVE BEEN HAPPY
WITH HIS FATE. SHOULDN'T HAVE TRIED TO BECOME A BIG
"Ungh!" He tore at his hair in frustration, which was
already standing more on end than usual. Maybe I
should kill the boy. Maybe he's the one putting
these voices in my head, Strife mused with growing
/THAT'S RIGHT, DO IT. WE'LL ENJOY IT. AND THEN WE'LL
ENJOY TORMENTING YOU THROUGH THESE CORRIDORS FOR, OH,
SAY A THOUSAND YEARS OR SO BEFORE LETTING YOU DIE.
/YES. WE COULD SO USE A SMALL...DIVERSION./
Damn it. What the Tartarus was he doing here, anyway?
Oh, that was right, he reminded himself: Greed.
Greed for power. If he could just stop letting the
voices get to him and follow Evander to the chamber,
he'd be in possession of the complete Ring of
Knowledge. He'd be smarter than Zeus and all the other
Olympians combined, no doubt. He wouldn't need the
blasted boy any longer, for the Ring could guide him
past all the traps to the other chambers of treasure
left here by the Titans. He'd not only be god of war,
but he could challenge Zeus and become King of the
Gods himself if he wanted to. Think big, wasn't that
what Ares had always said?
/SUCH BIG THOUGHTS FOR SOMEONE ABOUT TO DIE! UH OH,
BETTER WATCH YOUR STEP THERE.../
"Yaaah!" Strife jumped back a step, suddenly finding
that he walking through a river of thick, congealing
blood. It somehow was solidifying around his feet,
trying to trap him here... The more he struggled to
free himself, the worse his situation became until--
"Strife! Stop it! It's just an illusion!"
"Illusion?" The god blinked several times. The blood
was gone. His legs were free, though his stomping
seemed to have unsettled some of the rocks around them
and dirt and dust flew up into his face.
"You were going to cause a cave-in if you kept that
up," Evander warned. "Ignore what you see, unless I
tell you it's there."
/HE'LL LEAD YOU RIGHT INTO A TRAP IF YOU DO THAT.
DON'T LISTEN TO HIM./
Why aren't you bothering him? Strife whined.
/HE'S PART MORTAL. MORTALS ARE OKAY. BETTER THAN YOUR
KIND, AT LEAST./
He's still part god. A son of Ares!
/DOESN'T MATTER. YOU'RE MORE FUN TO BOTHER./
/BESIDES, HE'S HERE TO KILL YOU. LIKE US. LIKE THE
Others? What others?!
/THEY WAIT...WAITING FOR YOU. WAITING FOR THE KILL./
Who are they?!
/POOR LITTLE GOD./
Lies, Strife insisted to himself. There could be no
one waiting for him beyond more of these fucking
/THAT'S WHAT YOU THINK./
Then tell me who they are!
/OH NO, BECAUSE THE LITTLE GOD STRIFE DOESN'T BELIEVE
US. LITTLE GOD STRIFE IS GOING TO DIE./
/LITTLE GOD STRIFE IS GOING TO DIE.../
/LITTLE GOD STRIFE IS GOING TO DIE.../
The singsong chant picked up volume, echoing
repeatedly through his head. No no no! he silently
screamed back at them. Lies! All of it! He didn't
believe their taunts. He wasn't about to run away.
Still...he ran his hand lightly against the weight of
his sword in reassurance. Let someone be waiting.
After this torture I'll be looking forward to meeting
He had lost any sense of how long they had been
traveling through the winding corridors, how many
horrific visions and words of fear and terror the
spirits had tried to inflict upon him. All he knew was
that, now, finally, they had reached the opening into
a large chamber. It was illuminated eerily by large,
luminescent gemstones of many colors and shapes,
hanging from the ceiling or resting upon marble
podiums. The voices had suddenly, blessedly fallen
"Is this it? Are we there yet?" Strife asked
Evander nodded. "This is what I was told I would find-
-the Chamber of Coeus' fortunes. The ring, I think,
should be in that chest in the center, over there."
"It better be," Strife said, stepping forward past the
boy and ignoring the rest of the precious items
scattered about the room. He fixed his attention on
the simple-looking wooden chest in the middle of it
all. "No more tricks here, right?" he called back to
Evander before he dared to touch it. He didn't exactly
care for the idea of going through all of this to get
here and then slipping up at the last minute by
missing some secret lever or password or something.
"No more tricks, Strife," a voice answered him, but
not the one he was expecting.
Strife spun about in alarm and couldn't quite believe
his eyes. "Ares?! Well, you're the last person
I'd expect to see here. Or are you just another one of
those damn hallucinations?" He cast a quick look about
for the boy Evander, but could find him nowhere.
Ares smiled at him, but there was nothing except
menace in his grin. "Why don't you step over here and
find out?" he beckoned.
Strife couldn't help but laugh. "Pul-lease. Do you
really have a death wish, Unc?"
"No, but I do have this. Look familiar?" Ares reached
inside his vest and pulled out a dagger--the hind's
For a moment, fear seized the god as he remembered his
previous death thanks to that blade, but then he
forced himself to shake it off. "Oh, like I'm so
scared. You really think you've got a chance in
Tartarus of kicking my ass? C'mon, Ares, get real. I
was gonna leave you alone. Now you're gonna make me
get ugly. Even if this place messes with my powers, I
can still take you down."
"We'll see about that," Ares answered, stepping closer
and drawing a sword from his scabbard with his free
hand. "I've been waiting for this moment for a long
Strife shook his head and sighed. "I really hate these
family squabbles, ya know? But if that's the way it
has to be..." he trailed off, and a second later he
After the exchange of the first series of blows and
strikes, it was apparent that the match was quite
evenly met. Strife wielded the sword of war savagely,
but Ares blocked his blows with his own sword, grasped
in one hand while he kept hold of the dagger in the
other. Strife had two things working against him that
were keeping him off-balanced: the dampening of his
godly powers thanks to the cave, and having to
constantly keep an eye on the dagger. Even the
slightest prick by the blade would, he knew, send him
right back to Hades' doorstep.
"The boy was in on this all along, wasn't he?" Strife
asked, ducking a wide swing of Ares' blade. "Shouldn't
have trusted the little bastard at all. Don't worry
though, I'll make sure he's...properly taken care of
after I'm done with you."
"All he did was...lead you here...thanks to your own
greed. You never knew when enough was enough, Strife.
...Always wanted more. More than you deserved."
"Yeah, well...you had everything handed to you, Unc.
You never had to work to make a name for yourself.
Born into the sweetest position any of us could
have. Then you just wasted it!" Strife jumped over the
other's head, landing easily on the ground behind him
and then landing a hard blow to Ares' side. The former
god stumbled and grunted, but to his merit didn't
fall. He only glared back angrier than ever as Strife
taunted, "Wasted it all for your pretty boy Joxer. Is
he really that good of a fuck? Maybe I should give him
a ride to remember, once I'm done with you here
Ares could never handle his temper properly, and that
remark sent him right over the edge. He launched in at
Strife harder than before, putting all his weight
behind each blow, even managing several good ones that
sent Strife flying back and tumbling over a pile of
loose rocks on the ground. Nevertheless, as the fight
continued, Strife began to realize one thing he had on
his side. Even with his powers weakened, keeping him
from frying Ares with any lightning bolts or using any
other tricks, he still had more stamina than his
mortal opponent did. Ares was looking as enraged as
ever but as the fight continued and dragged on, he was
starting to obviously tire as well.
"You can't keep this up forever, Unc," Strife taunted,
managing an unblocked kick that sent Ares stumbling
back against the wall. "You can't win this fight. You
trained me, remember? I know all your moves." He
spotted an opening against his dazed opponent, spun
and kicked Ares' arm--the one holding the dagger.
There was a grunt of pain and the former god's grip
loosened, sending the dagger skittering across the
"Now," Strife sighed, "we can get this over with!"
From their hiding point behind a large chest in a dark
corner of the chamber, Joxer and Evander watched the
fight unfolding. Joxer's apprehension increased with
every passing minute. He sucked in his breath as he
saw Ares lose his grip on the dagger, the weapon
flying far from where the fighting men stood.
"No..." he protested under his breath, watching Ares
continue to struggle to hold his own in the fight but
only losing ground with each passing moment. Glancing
to Evander, he asked desperately, "Can't you do
something--anything!--to help him?"
Evander closed his eyes, obviously trying to call upon
his talents, but then he exhaled and shook his head.
"I can't...this place won't let me do much of
anything...I can't even move the dagger toward them."
Joxer saw the blade lying still on ground, for the
moment ignored by Strife and Ares as it was too far
out of reach. Not far, though, from where he and
Evander where hiding...if he dared step out from
behind the chest to try to retrieve it, and catch
He stopped himself from going for it. Ares had made
him promise to protect Evander above all else. Yet, he
reasoned, if Strife already knew Evander had betrayed
him, and if Strife won this fight...Joxer knew
his chances of getting out of here alive with the boy
in tow would be less than slim.
"C'mon, Ares, you can do it..." he urged softly, his
eyes darting back and forth between the still-raging
battle and the dagger. Ares had to win this
fight...the alternative was unthinkable, even though
it seemed to be growing more inevitable with each
passing minute. Maybe if Xena were here, he thought
morosely, maybe she would have been able to do
something to help...
Xena, however, was completely oblivious of the fight
going on inside of the Caves. Indeed, she was knee-
deep in a fight of her own on the road that led into
the small village at Nomea not far from the Caves.
"We really don't have time for this!" Gabrielle called
to her friend, as she jumped to avoid a soldier's low-
sweeping sword, then clunked him hard on the helmet
with her staff.
"Tell that to these guys!" Xena yelled back as she
tried to plan a chakrum throw that would take out a
few of their opponents. Spotting a nearby tree that
was at the proper angle from the warriors'
battlewagon, she let the round weapon fly. It hit the
tree, then ricocheted off on one warrior's chest
plate. Then it flew over to the battlewagon, hitting
the side and finally spinning around to lodge itself
in another man's throat.
"I'll take that back, thanks," Xena said as she pulled
the chakrum free and then tried to check on the other
two women. Another one of these damned roving bands of
soldiers had gotten between them and the Caves--not
only that but their wagon was full of women they'd
rounded up from the nearby villages to sell into
slavery or use for their own "pleasures". Though the
battle was costing them time, Xena couldn't let a
situation like that slide by without acting.
Gabrielle had subdued several of the men and was
heading to the back of the wagon to try to free the
women. Nemesis had climbed one of the trees and was
demonstrating to all that she had not lost her touch
for precision when it came to aiming an arrow with
Eventually the men--the ones who were still conscious
or alive, that is--realized that if they wanted to
stay that way, they had better turn and run. "The god
of war will punish you for this!" one of them shouted
before he fled. "You insult him with this attack!"
"I'll do more than insult him if I have to!" Xena
threatened the fleeing men. When all were subdued or
gone, she went over to join Gabrielle in freeing the
"Thank you for saving us! I thought we were all going
"I thought we were going to meet a fate worse than
death," another woman put in.
"Can you make your way back safely to your villages?"
Xena asked. They really didn't have time to play
escort for these women if they wanted to make sure to
be at the Caves to meet whoever would be leaving them.
"I...I think so," one of the other women answered. "I
doubt those men will be giving us any more trouble,
thanks to you and your friends."
"Good," Xena sighed. "Because I'd love to stay and make
sure you do, but we've got to be moving ourselves. You
can take the wagon, and there are probably some
weapons inside--in case you do need to defend
"Oh, b-but wouldn't the god of war be terribly angry
if we steal the weapons of his soldiers?" another
woman asked fearfully.
"Trust us," Gabrielle answered. "If all goes well, a
few stolen weapons are the last of the god of war's
troubles right now."
Xena hoped Gabrielle was right.
Ares could barely afford the quick glance to the
floor, trying to see where the dagger had landed.
Dammit! he cursed to himself, but then he had to
jump back to avoid Strife's sword as it passed a
little too close to his neck. Have to
concentrate...got to think...stay alert!
He had known this fight would be the worst battle he'd
ever face. He had expected that his rage, his
determination to avenge Joxer's murder, his knowledge
that he was supposed to win this fight, would carry
him through to victory. But perhaps in the end that
wasn't enough. Perhaps he had trained Strife better than he should have,
or the god had spent more time observing and scheming
against his "mentor" than Ares realized. He wasn't
simply a stronger opponent--he seemed able to predict
Ares' blows, his moves, and mirror some of them too
Ares' arms were growing heavy as the rest of his body
tired, one arm stinging incessantly thanks to the blow
from Strife's boot. He swung recklessly with his
sword, missing his target and only opening himself in
turn to Strife's attack. He managed to twist his body
away at the last second, but the tip of the sword
still glanced his side, the sharp pain making it even
harder to concentrate than before.
"Get with it and give it up, Unc. You can't win. And
you know, I really don't feel like killing you, and
it's gonna be a major pain in the ass dealing with the
other gods if I have to. We were good together...when
you'd actually let me have some fun." Strife paused to
duck a blow, but then one swing of his fist impacted
with the larger man hard enough to send him staggering
Ares tripped on a rock he hadn't seen was right behind
him. He fell to the ground, dazed, in pain, gasping to
catch his breath. It was particularly hard to do with
Strife's foot pressing down on his chest.
"This was all so uncool of you," Strife sighed,
shaking his head. "And you know what's worst of all?
Now you won't get the chance to see what I'm gonna do
to this world, with all you taught me. I was gonna
make you proud, Unc."
"The chance of that happening...died a long time ago."
"Oh well. Now it's your turn to die." With that, the
god raised his sword high, preparing for the final
blow and obviously savoring the prospect. His eyes
glistened in manic delight as he declared
triumphantly, "Say good-night, Uncle Ares. It was fun,
once. Now, I'm just doing my job. I'm sure you
Ares closed his eyes, too tired and beaten to even
attempt to struggle at this point. He'd risked
everything, and he'd lost. In the end, not even the
best plan had been able to succeed. With regret, he
thought sadly, Sorry, Joxer...let you down...let
Then he heard a gasp when he expected a cry of
triumph, and after a few moments dared to open his
eyes. Strife stood frozen in place in front of him,
his foot still pressing down on Ares' chest but not
with as much force as before. An expression of shock
and pain had replaced the triumph on his face. His arm
was still raised high but the sword was no longer
there, as if ripped from his grasp. Behind him
No... Ares couldn't believe it. He refused to
Strife staggered back and sideways...to reveal Joxer
standing behind him. One hand grasped the sword he'd
pulled from Strife's hand. The other hung empty before
Strife managed to turn around, slowly, to see who had
stabbed him, revealing to Ares the hind's blood dagger
lodged deeply in Strife's back.
"Of all the...oh...this SUCKS!" Strife struggled to
gasp out before then falling down to the ground.
"You'd better stay dead this time, you little prick,"
Ares managed with a sigh of relief. He was just
turning back toward Joxer when he noticed the sword in
the mortal's hand beginning to glow. The words he'd
not long before told Joxer echoed back through his
"If the seated god of war were ever to be killed, the
person who murders him inherits the position as
Oh, Tartarus. What trouble have I just gotten the
world into now? Ares thought, relief quickly turning
to dismay. This was about the last thing he'd been
prepared for, and there was nothing he could do to
Joxer seemed barely aware of what was happening,
unable to draw his eyes away from Strife's lifeless
body on the ground. The glow started at the tip of the
sword, accompanied by a soft, resonating hum. It
spread, with increasing speed, up the length of the
blade, then over Joxer's arm. At this point Joxer
finally seemed to notice that something was happening
and his eyes went wide in fear. He started to look
toward Ares, but then the glow enveloped his entire
body in a blinding flash, the light so bright it
momentarily blinded Ares.
When he could open his eyes again, it was over. The
transformation was complete.
Joxer was now...a god.
And not just any god--no, far from it.
He was Ares' latest replacement.
Ares was getting a headache just contemplating the
But then again, he realized, perhaps this was the best
revenge against Zeus and the others. It was simply
going to take a bit of time for him to get used to the
Probably a good hundred years or so, at least.
Joxer blinked and looked down at his hands, utterly
bewildered. He glanced at the weapon in his hand, the
weighty sword that Ares knew would now feel as light
as a feather in his grasp--as if it simply belonged
there. In effect, it did.
Joxer looked again at Strife, at the sword, and then
at Ares, who was just managing to get to his feet. "Uh
oh," Joxer said, seeming to finally get a clue as to
what had happened.
"Uh oh, indeed," Ares echoed. "Well. This is certainly
a turn of events I wasn't expecting."
"Am I...I'm not imagining this, right? I'm..."
"You're a god now, Joxer. I told you I'd see to that
happening someday. Though this wasn't exactly what I
had in mind."
Joxer protested, "Ares, you know I didn't mean to...I
don't want to be a god! At least, not the god of war.
"Utterly and completely insane?"
"Yes!" Joxer agreed. "You're the god of war, not me."
"No, I was the god of war. You killed Strife. I
didn't. The sword is yours now, whether you want it or
"I don't want it. I can't do this." His gaze fell upon
the dead body on the floor once more and he shivered.
"I can't do this," he repeated, his voice barely above
a whisper this time.
"You have to." Ares wrapped an arm around the shocked
man's body, taking a moment to study Strife's body as
well. Despite everything, he still felt a tinge of
regret at the death. There had been a time when he'd
thought of Strife as one of his few true friends,
companions... His first death had been painful enough.
His betrayal had been sickening. Now...now it all felt
like such a waste. Ares could barely summon up the
anger he'd felt earlier toward his nephew.
"Stay dead this time, Strife," he said softly. "It
will be best for all of us."
"I was only trying to protect you," Joxer started. "I
couldn't let him kill you. I...I saw the dagger lying
there...was going to try to get it to you, but then he
had you on the ground...I wasn't even thinking, I just
did it..." he trailed off, sounding utterly miserable
about it all.
Ares rested his hands on Joxer's tensed shoulders,
trying to find the words to say that would make any of
this easier. It was difficult, for this was certainly
never a position he thought he would find himself in:
trying to console someone after taking a life. He'd
watched and savored so many losing their innocence,
drawing their first blood. It had always been a cause
to celebrate...until now.
Now, he knew why he had protected Joxer from this
moment for so long. Though he knew the damage was done
and there was no turning back, he insisted, "Put it
behind you, Joxer. You did what you had to do, to save
my life. Would you rather you'd done nothing, and
let Strife kill me?"
"No, of course not!"
"Then don't punish yourself. You weren't even acting
out of revenge, to get back at him for what he did to
you--as had been my intention."
"I feel sick."
"It's the shock, perfectly normal reaction. After all,
you've just had your first kill and become immortal,
all in the span of a few minutes. Never mind the fact
that this place doesn't like immortals so you're
probably feeling the effect of that."
Joxer turned around in Ares' embrace and implored him,
"Take the sword, Ares, it's yours. It doesn't belong
to me. I can't be the god of war!"
Ares sighed, wishing--desperately--that he could do as
Joxer wished, but knowing he couldn't. "I can't take
it, Joxer. It's bonded to you now, become a part of
you. To enact a transfer would require the
intervention and approval of the other gods--and
they're not about to do that for my sake."
"You could kill me and take it," Joxer said with
"Never. Don't ever suggest such foolishness in my
"Sorry. I'm just...oh, I feel strange."
Joxer looked about ready to pass out so Ares increased
his grip around him and soothed, "It will pass. Give
it time. You have much to learn now. I'll be here to
help." Suddenly, his thoughts turned to alarm as he
remembered, "Evander! Where--"
"Here, father," the boy answered, stepping out from
the shadows where Ares remembered seeing Joxer lead
him to hide before the fight. "I'm fine."
"Thank the gods," Ares let out with relief, not even
flinching at the exclamation. He let go of Joxer to
sweep up his son into his arms and hug him tightly.
"Did I do all right?" Evander asked.
"You did fine, son. Just fine. Made me very proud."
"We should leave soon," Evander said. "The spirits
want us to go. They say they won't bother us, if we
leave the gem behind. I think Strife still has it.
Joxer isn't of Zeus' blood, so they don't mind him too
much. As long as we don't take any of the treasure
left here with us, they'll let us pass in peace."
Evander paused, as if listening for something. "I
think they're busy welcoming a new spirit into these
Caves right now anyway."
"We won't take anything. I just want to get out of
here in one piece," Ares said, looking towards Joxer.
For the first time, he really noticed the change
that had taken place through Joxer's transformation--
and how magnificent a god his lover made. His pale
skin seemed almost luminescent, the contrast sharp to
his dark attire, the fine warrior gear that now
covered his body. His hair, for once, was not standing
up in multiple directions but instead lying flat,
golden-tinged and perfect. He ached to touch him, kiss
him, to find out exactly what other changes he might
find in his now immortal lover...but there would be
time for that later, once they got out of here, out of
this place of death.
Still carrying Evander in his arms, Ares walked back
over to Joxer. "Shall we?" he asked.
Joxer cast one last pained look back at the body on
the ground, and then nodded his head. "Yeah. I'll be
glad to get out of here, too." After a pause, he
continued, "This is gonna be kinda interesting to
explain to the others, don't you think?"
Ares sighed and shook his head. "Interesting...that's one way to put it."
The journey out of the labyrinth of the caves was not as difficult and
slow as the way in had been. The traps were still there and they had
to proceed cautiously, but the three of them had made their way through
here once and knew what to expect.
Except for confirming directions and instructing each other which way
to move, they remained mostly silent. Ares had a great deal to say to
both Joxer and Evander, but this was neither the time nor the place for
it. His adrenaline had worn off some time ago, and the pain of his
bruises and injuries was intensifying. Getting out of the caves in one
piece was demanding most of his concentration.
Eventually the darkness around them began to lighten, the mouth of the
caves that led to the outside world in sight. Ares paused as they
approached the exit, turning back to Joxer to ask, "You do
"Like I'd forget them," Joxer replied, not looking pleased with the
prospect but quite aware there was no getting around another encounter
with the Harpies outside. "Well, I suppose I got past them once, I can
do it again...oh, but won't they be, like, really after me this time?" He
looked a paler shade of his normal pale as he realized this. "Now that
I'm a...a god?"
"They might not bother you, since you're not directly of Zeus' relation,"
Ares tried to reassure him, "if they're smart enough to realize that.
Besides, Evander, you held them off with Strife all right, didn't you?"
The boy nodded. "It was kind of hard, but I did it okay. The energy
field doesn't really affect my powers outside of the caves. But I think
the Harpies will leave Joxer alone, just like the spirits said they
"I hope so," Joxer added, and Ares shared the sentiment. He didn't
think any of them were up for a fight against a band of bloodthirsty
Harpies at the moment. Joxer was clearly still in shock from everything
that had happened, and Evander...Ares thought his son was starting to
show the strain of the past days' efforts also.
"Well, I guess there's nothing to do but go out there and find out. Hold
on to your torches, though," Ares advised. "The fire should help keep
them back if they do decide to attack."
Evander and Ares led the way outside, with Joxer waiting inside until
Ares could judge what sort of reception they were going to receive. The
ugly winged creatures descended from high above almost immediately.
Their screeches and calls were clearly aggressive, but the Harpies
hovered in a circle well above them, even when Ares cautiously waved
for Joxer to follow them. They shrieked a little louder than before at
this, but either Evander was putting all of his remaining energies into
trying to keep them away, or he was right that they had decided not to
attack Joxer because he was not seen as an "enemy". Ares glanced back
at Joxer as they crossed the clearing between the cave and the nearby
forest, to make sure he was holding out. Joxer seemed to be trying his
best to ignore the creatures above. He met Ares' eyes briefly and
attempted a weak smile to show he was all right.
As they made their way quickly away from the caves, Ares saw that
Xena, Gabrielle and Nemesis were there waiting for them,
according to plan. When the women, in turn, made out who was leaving
the cave, their expressions of relief were evident although they stayed
alert and ready to fight until the men were out of danger and the Harpies
had flown away.
"Evander!" Nemesis called out, her tears coming as she rushed to
embrace him. "Oh honey, I'm so glad you're all right. You are okay,
"I'm fine," the boy answered, squirming about in his mother's tight
embrace. With a yawn he added, "Sleepy, that's all."
Xena and Gabrielle were in turn focused on Joxer and Ares, quite
obviously realizing that something was not quite right from the men's
expressions. Ares figured that his disheveled, bloodied appearance had
to be clueing them in that something hadn't gone as planned.
"What happened?" Xena asked.
"Strife's dead," Ares answered, "but not at my hands."
"Then who..." Gabrielle started, then she stopped and took a good look
at Ares' companion. "You don't mean...Joxer?"
"I had to do it," Joxer answered plaintively.
"It was my fault. Strife was still too strong for me to handle alone,"
Ares explained. "Joxer did it to save my life--and Evander's."
"...And the one who kills the god of war..." Xena started but then
trailed off, looking only slightly less shocked than Gabrielle.
"...becomes the new god of war, yes. I think you're both getting the
picture," Ares finished.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Gabrielle interrupted. "You're not
saying that...you mean that Joxer is the...Joxer is the god of
war?!" The end of her question came out almost as a squeak.
"Frightening, isn't it?" Ares remarked.
Gabrielle focused her disbelieving eyes on the hapless wanna-be
warrior-turned-god-of-all-warriors. Shaking her head, she mumbled,
"Oh, whoa, I think I need to go sit down for a minute..."
Gabrielle stumbled over to where Evander and Nemesis were sitting and
catching up, while Xena recovered her composure with admirable speed
and asked, "Are you okay with this?"
Ares answered firmly, "Yes" just as Joxer answered even more firmly
Both the warrior princess and Ares turned to Joxer, who sighed
miserably, "But it's not like I have any choice in this, right? I killed
Strife, so now I have to take his place. That's what Ares says."
"Unfortunately he's right, Joxie," another voice confirmed. A bright
flash of golden light and rose petals then announced Aphrodite's
presence. The goddess stepped up to her brother and remarked with a
frown, "Jeez, Ar, you look like Tartarus warmed over."
"That's what tends to happen when you get your ass kicked, sis," he
Apologetically, she said, "I'm sorry, Ar, I know this isn't exactly what
"Strife is dead, and Joxer is all right--the rest can be settled later,"
dismissed. "The truth is, I wasn't sure that even if I did kill Strife
myself that the other gods wouldn't intervene and prevent me from
reclaiming my sword, calling up some loophole or other bullshit to stop
"I'm sure Hades would've tried...he's going to be cheesed off enough
to have to deal with Strife again! Serves him right, as far as I'm
concerned. Listen, boys, I'm real sorry to have to butt in at a time like
this, but you know how fast news spreads on Olympus. The death of a
god always makes serious waves. Zeus wants to speak to Joxie
"Z-Zeus?" Joxer stuttered.
"Get used to it," Ares sighed, patting him reassuringly on the shoulder.
"You're part of the family now. One more dysfunctional apple for the
Aphrodite added, "Don't worry, Joxie, you earned this position fair and
square. Dad can't take it away from you, not without violating his
precious rules. But a lot of responsibility comes with that thing," she
paused to waggle a finger at the sword he now carried, "and he wants to
make sure you understand that."
"Oh. Yeah. Of course."
The new god turned to Ares, who could only urge him, "Go ahead with
sis, I'll be fine."
'Dite slipped an arm around Joxer's shoulders and said, "You'll be fine,
too--I wouldn't bring you to Zeus if I didn't know that." She gave a
quick wave to everyone and before Joxer could say or do anything in
protest, they both disappeared.
Xena turned to Ares and remarked, "If you want to make sure you're
going to be fine, we're going to have to take a look at your injuries.
That gash on your side in particular. I'm sure if we head on to the
village near here we can find a healer."
"...And a place where we can all get some rest," Nemesis added,
nodding towards her boy, who already looked as if he was asleep.
"This is just too weird," Gabrielle insisted from where she sat on the
ground, still shaking her head in disbelief. "How can Joxer be the
god of war?! Joxer as the god of anything is scary enough, but
war?! Oh, I can see it now, and it's not a pretty picture." Looking to
Ares, she continued, "You can't tell me that Zeus is going to let this
Ares shrugged. "If Dad and I were on better terms, maybe he'd make an
exception here. But the way things are now...who knows? We'll just
have to wait and see."
How he'd gotten here he didn't quite understand; he'd done as
Aphrodite told him, focusing on the image she shared with him in his
mind and then picturing himself there. Ares had taken him places in the
past this way but he'd never had to actively participate in the act. It
stranger and seemed to take an awful lot longer than he remembered, but
suddenly he'd felt the world come back into focus around him, and he
stumbled, nearly falling before he regained his balance.
Aphrodite caught him and giggled, "Whoa, slow down, sugar! That
wasn't too hard, was it?"
"Uh, guess not. Don't know exactly what I did, but I'm here, so I
guess it worked."
"Just remember this--you can basically do whatever you want to now,
simply by thinking about it and imagining it happening. You don't have
to understand how that works, at least not yet."
"Oh. That's good. I think."
"Yeah, but it'll still take you a lot of practice to get the hang of
But look at it, Joxie, isn't it something?" Aphrodite was practically
bouncing up and down in her enthusiasm. Actually, certain parts of her
were bouncing quite nicely, Joxer noticed, but then mentally slapped
himself and tried to concentrate on what she was saying. "This is not
only Olympus, but the very heart of it all--Zeus' Temple. Pretty hot
stuff, wouldn't you say?"
Joxer looked all around and he had to agree: the vision before him was
enough to leave him breathless. He'd seen the interiors of some of the
richest kings' castles, and prayed in the largest temples in Greece, but
none could compare in the least to the amazing structure they now stood
within. Everything was marble and gold, and huge. He walked over
to the balcony and gazed out over lush gardens as far as his eye could
see. Here and there, other beautiful temples, spires, and structures
out from the greenery, places he guessed had to be the homes of the
"It's...it's really just...amazing!" was all he could say as Aphrodite
joined him to take in the view. "Ares tried to describe it to me...even
tried to recreate it once or twice, at least his chambers in his temple
-that one, over to the right, there, isn't it?"
"Wow. I never could imagine it was so...wow." He sighed, his
excitement passing as he thought sadly, "I wish I could take some time
to explore and see everything. I wish Ares could be here with me."
"I know how you must feel," she sympathized, "but there'll be plenty of
time to explore later. Make Zeus happy and get this little meeting over
with so he'll leave you alone for a while to get used to things." With
that, she put an arm around his shoulders and started leading him down
the long corridor.
"I don't suppose I'd get anywhere if I asked him to give Ares his
godhood back, that I really didn't want this?" he asked hopefully.
"You can try, but I doubt he's ready to admit he was wrong about
taking it away from Arry to begin with. Don't give up on that, though,
okay? You 'n me, we'll work on him and the other gods together," she
said with a warm smile and a wink. "I can be pretty persuasive when I
want to be, you know."
They eventually stopped in front of one doorway that was larger and
more elaborately decorated than the others they had passed. "Dad's
waiting inside. It's your show from here on, Joxie. I'll wait in the
atrium downstairs. You can come find me when you're done and we
can go over a few things before getting you back to Arry."
"Thanks, Aphrodite." She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and then
disappeared, leaving him alone to face Zeus.
"Okay, no problem," Joxer tried to convince himself, taking a few deep
breaths before proceeding. "We're just talking about meeting
the King of the Gods here, no big deal. Why should I be nervous?"
This was also, lest he forget, his lover's father, and the very person
who agreed to sending a band of Harpies after him and letting him die a
particularly painful death not that long ago. Of course, thinking about
such things really wasn't helping at the moment, and neither was
standing here, trying to delay the inevitable. Bracing himself, he gently
pushed open the door. He stepped inside, already too awed by the
opulent surroundings to gape much more at the sight of the King of the
Gods' private chambers.
Zeus was standing by a large window that looked out over the same
view Joxer had been admiring before from the balcony. He turned
around as he heard Joxer approach and greeted him with a completely
neutral voice, "Welcome, Joxer. Please, have a seat, make yourself
Oh, sure. I'm feeling perfectly comfortable here, Joxer thought.
Still, he did as he was told and took a seat in an ornate armchair near
window. He didn't speak, figuring silence was his best approach until
prompted to specifically say something. His mouth tended to have a
hard time stopping once it started, especially when he was nervous.
Zeus took a seat across from him, a soft sigh escaping the elderly god's
lips as he patted down the folds of his golden-trimmed, flowing robe.
Joxer felt the critical gaze of the god's eyes upon him, though Zeus'
expression was unreadable. After a brutally uncomfortable time under
the intense study, Zeus finally said, "Well, what...interesting
for me to finally meet and speak with the man who has had such an
influence on my son. Most unexpected. Of course," he continued after a
pause, "little that has happened since Ares became involved with you
has gone as I expected. Ares had never before revealed that he had the
capacity to love, or to even understand what love is. Certainly, he has
never shown anything beyond contempt--or at most a grudging
tolerance--toward his fellow gods. That he should finally have learned
to love through a relationship with a mortal...it has certainly been a
curious revelation to me. Very curious."
Zeus paused, still examining the increasingly anxious Joxer with his
cool gaze. "Well, none of that is particularly important at the moment. I
did not expect Ares to give up his godhood for your life, but he did. He
of course attempted to reclaim his sword...and failed. Now you, a
young mortal I am told was not even a particularly skilled fighter, are
rightfully the god of war. Joxer, do you understand the immense
responsibility you have taken upon yourself?"
Joxer figured he had nothing to lose by being completely honest. "Sir,"
he started carefully, "I only understand what I have learned from being
with Ares--the things I saw him do and what he told me about.
Becoming the god of war was never my intention; I only did what I did
to protect Ares...he should have been the one to kill Strife, not me,
"--but he didn't, and you did," Zeus interrupted. "There is no going
back to change what has happened. You must be prepared to take on
this responsibility, and to do so quickly and efficiently--or else you
meet the same fate Strife did. Be thankful, Joxer, that you have Ares to
guide you through what you will need to do now...but don't make the
same mistakes and enemies that he did."
"He's your son, how can you...how could you do all of this to him?"
Joxer asked before his brain could get into gear and stop the words from
coming out. But King of the Gods or not, Zeus was largely responsible
for everything that had happened to Ares and himself. He couldn't help
but feel angry, and that anger was demanding a voice.
Zeus responded calmly, "I did nothing but force my son to abide by our
rules. Ares was the one to abuse his power, not I. I tried for millennia
talk reason into him, to teach him to respect the other Olympians, yet he
always considered himself completely superior to everyone else--even
"But...you have to know that he's changed. He's changed so much,"
"I won't argue that fact. I realized that something had changed inside
him the moment he told me your life meant more to him than his
godhood. I have kept an eye on him since, and seen the way he has
learned not only how to love you but to begin to finally develop respect
for others, a sense of humbleness."
"Then if you know he's changed, why not let him have his godhood
back? He won't make the same mistakes he did before, I'm sure of it.
Even...even if he can't be the god of war again, couldn't he be the god
of something else?"
"It is a possibility. But not a decision I can make lightly--nor without
consent of the council of Olympus. And considering Ares' reputation
and the fact that many others are less willing than myself to consider
his 'changes' are indeed real and permanent...well, it would be a
difficult argument to make that he deserved any second chance."
"Oh," Joxer answered simply. He understood that what Zeus said made
sense...but it didn't make his and Ares' plight suck any less, as far as
he was concerned.
"I'm not saying it's impossible, Joxer. I just want to make sure you
properly understand the...complications inherent in this situation. Now,
if you prove capable of handling your position, then in time, I suspect
the council would be more willing to hear you plead Ares' case than
they would be today."
"In time..." Joxer repeated. "Like, what sort of time are we talking
about here? A few years? A few decades? Centuries?"
Zeus very nearly smiled. "I see you've learned quite a bit already from
Ares about the way we gods think."
"I know that what seems like a short amount of time to an immortal
could be nearly a lifetime to a mortal. Or several lifetimes." How long
Ares had to live as a mortal, Joxer had no way to judge...but he had a
feeling that compared to the amount of time a god like Hades might hold
a grudge against the fallen god, it would not be nearly enough time.
"I can understand your concern," Zeus said, seeming to have heard his
thoughts. Then he stood, and walked over to the window for a time,
appearing deep in thought. Turning back to face Joxer, Zeus declared,
"That concern, at least, can be dealt with without too much difficulty.
Ares is my son, and though he might not believe as much, I
do care about his fate. He gave up immortality and power just to grant
you another chance at life. You, in turn, sacrificed your innocence to
prevent his death and I believe you are willing to take on the
responsibility of your new godhood, even if reluctantly. I owe you both
something, because of the way I doubted the depth of your commitment
to each other."
Zeus then explained his offer to the new god. "It's not what you were
hoping for, I know," Zeus finished, "but it is all I can do for now."
"Oh, wow, I mean--no, that's great! Thank you," Joxer answered,
trying to contain his excitement. "That'll make things a little--a lot--
easier, I think."
"Good. Then it is done."
Joxer blinked. "Just like that?"
Zeus then, finally, granted him a full smile. "Yes. Just like that. I am
King of the Gods, after all, capable of at least the occasional small
Aphrodite was thrilled when she heard how the meeting with Zeus had
gone. "You see? I told you not to worry, Jox. You've already won
over dad; the rest of the fam'll be a piece of cake."
"I hope you're right," he answered. "I can't wait to tell Ares the news."
"I'll take that as a hint you're ready to blow this joint?"
"Yeah...I know I have a lot of stuff I should be learning about and
"...And Ares can probably help with that better than I can. Come on,
sweets, let's go find him and then I'll get out of your hair.
I'm the guest of honor at an orgy in Athens and I'm already late."
With that, the two gods left Olympus. Joxer was a little more prepared
for the experience this time and managed to land with less wooziness
than the first time. It was past sundown, and Aphrodite had
brought him to a small house on the outskirts of the village at Nomea. A
sign hanging near the door indicated it was home to the village healer,
and 'Dite explained, "I checked down here while you were busy with
Zeus. Xena and the gals are staying at the inn just down the road; they
brought Ares here and he's crashed out inside, looks like he'll be fine."
"No prob, I'll be around in a day or two to check up on how you're
doing. Now go on--I think you two have a little celebrating to get to."
She winked and stepped back, then disappeared in a brilliant burst of
Joxer stood outside the door for a minute to gather his thoughts. This
was the first moment he'd had to himself in what felt like ages, and so
much had happened in that time...he almost wanted to laugh, it seemed
so ridiculous. Somehow he was going to have to grip on himself and
get over the shock that was still dominating his thoughts; maybe then it
would start to feel real.
From somewhere in the back of his mind, a curse from the Chin that
Ares had once mentioned came to him: "May you live in interesting
times." He thought that he was finally starting to understand exactly
what that meant. But whether these interesting times of his life would
prove a curse or instead a blessing was something, he realized, would
probably only be revealed with time.
With that thought, he finally entered the house. Immediately he was
aware--though he wasn't sure how--that there were indeed two mortals
nearby. One's presence was unfamiliar to him, and he took that to be the
healer. The other...he couldn't quite explain it but as soon as his
had picked up this presence, he'd known it was Ares. He quickly made
his way to a room in the back of the house, curtained off from what
looked like the main treatment area. Inside the small room, he found
Ares sound asleep on the bed, and looking much better than he had
Joxer stood in the doorway a long time, simply watching, not wanting
to disturb Ares' no doubt much needed sleep. The moonlight was weak
that evening, barely casting the palest glow into the room, but Joxer
could see him just fine in the dim illumination. Ares lay dressed only in
his pants, a bandage wrapped securely about his waist. Other than that,
though, no signs of the bruises and cuts he should have been covered
with--and no doubt had been until only a short time before--remained.
Joxer silently thanked Zeus, taking this as a sign that the king had kept
his word and done as he'd promised.
Joxer could even, if he concentrated, hear the soft rhythm of Ares'
heartbeat from where he stood. It was a comforting sound...and one
that with its steady, droning beat, threatened to lull Joxer sound asleep
right where he stood. Well, Ares always said even gods need
their rest, he recalled, and it felt to him as if he hadn't slept for
He unfastened his scabbard and laid the sword carefully on the chest
near the bed. He decided to give making his clothes disappear a shot--
and sure enough, as soon as he visualized it all going away, he found
himself standing there completely naked.
Okay, that worked...sure is convenient. I hope I can remember how to
bring it all back when I need it again.
He slipped into the bed at Ares' side, still trying to be careful about
waking him. Joxer ran his fingers lightly through the long, thick hair as
he settled in close against the other man, breathing in the ebony
familiar, enticing scent. Emotion threatened to overcome him, the events
of the day--indeed, this whole journey--at last catching up with him.
The final confrontation in the cave replayed itself in his mind, as much
as he wished he could forget about it...watching Ares slowly lose the
fight, practically feeling every blow to his body as it he were the one
there battling Strife...the rage and desperation that had possessed him,
drawing him out to grab the dagger...giving him the strength to pull the
sword free from Strife's hand just as he thrust the dagger forward...
He shivered and closed his eyes, trying to force down the memory, the
nausea it made him feel. He slipped his arm around Ares' waist and held
him tightly, breathing in deep once more the scent of his hair, his skin,
feeling Ares' heartbeat against him, under his hands. This was what
I did it for, he reminded himself. I saved his life, cheated the Fates
one more time so we could stay together. He made his own sacrifices
once to keep me alive. Guess it was just my turn to repay
The tight embrace was finally enough to awaken the sleeping man, who
Joxer began to feel stirring under his touch. Ares turned around in his
embrace until his still-focusing, sleepy eyes found Joxer's.
"Hi," Joxer managed with a sheepish grin.
Ares raised an eyebrow and replied, "Hi? Gone to Olympus and back
and that's all you have to say for yourself?"
"Yeah, well, seen one kingdom of the gods, seen 'em all, right?"
"So it would seem." Ares appeared to notice the improved condition he
was in and commented, "Hmm, learning some tricks fast, are you?"
"Um, that wasn't me. Zeus took take of that."
"Really. How nice of him."
"That's not all he did, actually."
"I tried to talk him into letting you have your godhood back. He said
that could take some time to happen, since a lot of the other gods are
"Annoyed that I'm still alive at all?"
"Yeah, basically. But, since he didn't know how long it might take them
to change their minds...well, he couldn't give you godhood but he did
give you back your immortality," Joxer explained. "That's pretty good,
right? I mean, it's not as good as being a god, but at least it's better
being mortal. And now I don't have to worry now that I'm going to lose
you some day."
Ares looked surprised for a moment, then relief was evident as a smile
crept over his face. "I think, Joxer, it's safe to say you couldn't lose
me even if you wanted to."
"...And that will never happen," Joxer promised, running his palm over
Ares' cheek. His hand trembled as he realized he could feel echoes of
Ares' desire for him, his pleasure at the gentle touch, echoing and
mixing with his own building arousal. It was a dizzying sensation, and
all they were doing was touching...he wondered nervously if he was
ready to handle what might happen as a result of any more intimate
"Joxer?" Ares asked him with concern.
"Sorry...I'm just...tell me I'm stupid, but I feel...nervous."
"About being god of war? That's not stupid." Ares turned his head
slightly until his lips brushed against Joxer's fingertips.
Joxer closed his eyes, his head spinning thanks to the light but
incredibly erotic sensation. "No...I mean, yes, I'm nervous about
that but right now...I'm nervous about being a god, period. I want to
be with you, I want to make love to you... but everything I'm feeling
right now is just..."
"It will take time and practice to get used to it all. I can only guess
it is like for someone who has only known the limitations of mortality to
try to handle such powers unexpectedly. We'll take out time...I think
I'll enjoy watching you learn your way around."
With that, Ares leaned in to claim Joxer's lips, a gentle kiss to start
but one that still left the new god breathless. As soon as their lips met,
everything else seemed to fade away into nothingness--time, space,
everything but their bodies and dimly the bed beneath him. He could
feel the very pulse of Ares' life under his fingertips, through his lips;
he was aware, somehow, of how every movement he made quickened his
lover's heartbeat and heightened his desire. Every pleasurable sensation
he elicited with his hands or his mouth echoed back to him. Added to
his own delight as Ares' hands caressed his body, bringing him quickly
to full arousal, he was becoming positively lightheaded, losing all sense
"Ares..." he gasped out, needing to break away from the kiss that had
rapidly deepened and become more intense than he could endure. He
buried his head in the hollow of the other man's neck, drawing in slow,
heavy breaths to try to calm himself. Yet every breath brought with it
the musky scent of Ares' body...sweat and arousal, a faint hint of vanilla
soap in the silken strands of his hair...
"Too much too fast?"
"Mmmph..." was about all Joxer could manage in response. Finally
calming down, he continued, "You always seemed so in control and
everything when you were a god; why am I having a hard time with
this? I feel like I could drown in you..."
"It will get easier with time, I promise...remember, I was born with
these abilities and had thousands of years to learn how to use and
control them. You're just an infant, in a sense, right now," Ares
observed, gently stroking Joxer's back. "You have to learn to distance
yourself, not keep your senses fully open all the time."
"How can I do that?"
"Center yourself...I don't know if I can explain it in words..."
In words, he didn't, but Joxer could see the image, the ideas that Ares
was trying to show to him through his thoughts. It was a little difficult
to grasp the idea at first, but basically it seemed to involve imagining
an expanding series of "walls" between himself and everything else...each
one serving as an increasingly strong barrier between his mind and the
world around him.
"Do you understand that?"
"I think so...kind of strange...oh!" he exclaimed when he realized he
must have done it correctly because he felt the intense connection to his
lover's mind suddenly lessen. Of course the surprise that it had worked
was enough to disrupt the "wall" and he was back to where he'd started.
"Damn, I almost had it, I think."
"It takes practice, like everything. There's no need to rush. After nearly
losing everything today, I'd be happy just holding you all night if that's
all you're ready for."
"Of course, really. It's been a long day for both of us. No need to push
"Yeah, I mean, we've got lots of time to work things out, right?"
"All the time in the world, Joxer. All the time in the world."
They ended up falling asleep not much later, giving in to the combined
physical and emotional exhaustion of the past days' events. Joxer
awoke early the next morning to the sound of a rooster calling
somewhere outside the house. He felt significantly better than he had the
night before--a little more at ease now that he'd had some rest, and
perhaps some time to start to come to terms with everything that had
He could sense Ares beginning to finally wake up also, the rooster too
persistent to ignore. Testing the range of his senses, Joxer realized the
healer was awakening as well--and would probably be coming in to
check on Ares shortly, who would then have to come up with some sort
of explanation for his incredibly speedy recovery.
Joxer snuggled tightly against the larger man and sighed to himself, I'd
love to be home right now, in our own bed, and not have to worry
about anyone or anything else for a while.
He could just see the cozy, familiar bedroom in his mind, and feel the
silken sheets against their bare skin instead of this slightly scratchy
--and then most unexpectedly, everything flashed out of focus for a
moment, and when it came clear again...there they were. Home.
"Whoa, gotta be careful with that," he muttered aloud. "Wouldn't want
to accidentally think my way into a lava pit or something someday."
Panicking for a moment, he sat up, wondering where the sword had
...and he breathed a relieved sigh when he spotted it there on the floor
near the bed, the morning light glimmering softly down its length.
Apparently wherever he went, it went, which he supposed was a
good thing to know. He swore the thing had some sort of mind of its
own, because he could practically hear it saying smugly to him, /Didn't
think you could lose me that easily, did you?/
The sudden shift in surroundings was enough to fully awaken Ares.
"Where...?" he started, looking around, and then he smiled as he
recognized their surroundings. "Hmm, definitely an improvement.
Should have done that before we went to sleep though," he muttered,
rubbing the back of his neck. "Felt like there were rocks in that
"Stiff neck?" Joxer asked, settling back down against him.
"Mmm...not the only thing that's stiff," Ares answered, turning to meet
Joxer for a kiss.
"I can see what you mean...or at least I can feel it." Joxer slipped one
hand between them, rubbing the front of Ares pants, then with a
naughty thought making the pants disappear entirely.
"You're enjoying that, aren't you?" Ares smirked, though it was clear
he was enjoying it, too.
Joxer only grinned, and then leaned in for another kiss. He felt
remarkably more comfortable with his newfound powers this morning,
enough to begin to take pleasure from the degree to which he could
share in his lover's feelings and thoughts. This mental connection had
freaked him out last night, but now that he was rested he felt a little
more relaxed and in control of it. He could savor it and open his senses
to Ares as he wished, yet he could also pull back at will when it became
"Mmm, which stiffness should I take care of first?" Joxer asked,
continuing to play with the other man's erection.
"I don't have any complaints about what you're doing now...as long as
you're managing all right..."
"Yeah...I think I can handle it today."
Ares groaned both at the bad pun and at Joxer's increasingly stimulating
touch. Joxer silenced his protests with another kiss, this one unhurried
and deliberate. His tongue played against the full lips, tasting, sliding
within the welcoming warm of Ares' mouth. The most sensual mouth
he had ever seen, had ever felt against his flesh, Joxer thought dreamily.
That something as dark and destructive as war should have ever been
embodied within such a passionate, seductive form...Joxer didn't
understand the logic behind that, but could only eternally be thankful
that somehow this particular seductive form directed all of its passions
He took his time rediscovering Ares body with hands, lips, and tongue.
Every curve and muscle, every tender place he knew would elicit a sigh
when he touched, or a moan when he nipped it with his teeth. He
worked his way slowly lower, feeling Ares anticipation and need
building by the moment. "Remember the first time we were here,
together?" Joxer paused to wonder, the memory coming back to him
unexpectedly. "Remember the first time I did this for you?" He ran his
tongue down the length of Ares' hardness, feeling his own cock pulse
"I remember...oh yes, I remember."
"It feels like a lifetime ago."
"Yeah, guess so..." Joxer murmured in agreement, realizing how true
that comment was. But he could tell that Ares wasn't particularly in the
mood for an introspective conversation at the moment, and neither really
was he. He took Ares into his mouth without further teasing, loving the
way he felt against his lips and tongue, the tender, soft skin tight over
the steely hardness. Joxer's hands glided across the firm muscles of the
man's thighs, driven on by the growing sensations of delight he felt
radiating from Ares' body.
Usually Joxer found performing this act nearly as satisfying as being on
the receiving end of such attentions, being able to watch and hear how
his actions could so please the one he adored. However, it suddenly
was not enough. As his own desire intensified, as he felt the echoes of
Ares' response to his caresses, Joxer felt the need to not simply touch
be touched by Ares, but to claim him. He wanted to--had to--feel the
embrace of his lover's flesh. The mere thought of it made his cock throb
and threaten to spill itself out over the soft sheets beneath him. He
pulled back and looked up into Ares' eyes, his lover's gaze questioning
the sudden interruption at first. Then he seemed to recognize the need in
Joxer's eyes, and offered no resistance as Joxer urged him with his
hands to roll over onto his stomach.
The god tried to gain control this new hunger he felt, but it was a
he was helpless to win--not with the smooth, tanned skin of Ares' back
so appealing to his touch...and his firm, rounded ass so inviting to be
fucked. "Tell me you want me," Joxer ordered, as he spread the firm
cheeks with his hands and trailed his tongue down to the puckered, tight
Ares gasped, then answered between panting breaths, "I want you. Yes,
gods yes, I want you."
Joxer had sensed as much, but he'd wanted to hear the words.
He quickly slid up, over the welcoming body, until his cock rubbed
against Ares' ass. His saliva had moistened the entry slightly, but he
knew it would not be enough to ensure a pleasurable experience. He
tried to focus his lust-heavy thoughts for a moment, remembering how
Ares had always managed to prepare him without the need to fumble for
an always misplaced or near-empty vial of oil. He decided the trick had
worked when he heard Ares let out a low moan into his pillow. With a
strong, confident thrust Joxer pushed through the tight ring of muscle,
the feeling so incredible he nearly passed out when he found himself
completely sheathed within his lover's body.
He collapsed on top of Ares, too overwhelmed to support himself.
When his sense of balance finally returned, he grabbed Ares by the
shoulder and urged him to roll onto his side, never breaking the union
of their bodies as they shifted into the spoon-like position. Joxer ran
hand down his lover's side, only thrusting against him gently until he
found Ares' still firm erection and wrapped his fingers around it.
"Joxer..." Ares groaned as the young god began stroking him, matching
the movements of his hand with his thrusts into Ares' body. This was
not the first time Ares had let Joxer take him, but never had Joxer done
so with such aggression and force. The thrill of it was intoxicating,
Joxer was discovering--the feeling of complete control, of Ares
submitting to his will and needs, the slight tinge of...was that
fear?...beneath his lover's undeniable excitement and pleasure.
"Fuck!" Joxer exclaimed, panting heavily against Ares' shoulder. He
needed to come so hard it hurt, but pounding into Ares' ass felt so
good he never wanted to stop. "Fuck, Ares...!" He bit down in
frustration on the sweaty skin near his mouth, causing his lover to gasp
in pain. He didn't care. The metallic tang of blood hit his tongue, and
the taste of it was enough to push him over the edge. With one final,
deep thrust, the orgasm shuddered through his body. He clenched
harder on the other's cock and within moments Ares cried out as well,
coming all over Joxer's hand.
A long time passed before coherent thought returned to Joxer. His
softening phallus slipped out from Ares, whose breathing was still
heavy and ragged. Joxer then noticed the bruised skin near his mouth
and was shocked--had he done that? Then he remembered
everything he had just done, reviewing it with increasing distress.
What had just come over him?!
"Ares? Are you all right?" he asked with worry.
The other man managed a laugh and assured him. "It takes more than a
hard fuck to mess me up, Joxer."
"I'm sorry, I don't know what got into me."
"Don't be sorry," Ares told him, rolling over and smiling reassuringly at
the worried god. "It was...interesting, for a change. I told you, it's
going to take time for you to learn to control yourself. Your powers,
and your desires."
"So that was a god-thing, then?" Joxer asked. "It was so weird...all of a
sudden I just needed to take you...like it was, I don't know..."
"Yeah!" Joxer agreed. "Something like that."
"I know. I've been there before, remember?"
"Yeah, I know." Joxer sighed, falling back on the mattress. "This is all
so much to try to understand and get used to. It'd be one thing if I'd
wanted this...But how can you have a god of war who doesn't want
to be the god of war?"
"Actually, the more I think about it, the more I begin to think that maybe
that's the best kind of person for the position," Ares said. "I should
think it will be interesting to see what happens now that we have a god
of war who is nothing if not compassionate, human."
"But...what if..." Joxer paused, looking down to the sword where it
still lay on the ground near the bed. Even out of reach as it was, when
he thought of it, he almost thought he could hear it singing to him,
calling to him...and the song was potent and seductive... "What if I
forget those things, and become something else? Look at what happened
just now. These new feelings and everything, it totally overwhelmed
me." He looked to Ares and confessed, "So much has happened since I
became involved with you...you're right, it was another lifetime for
me. Am I at all the same person I was before? The person you fell in
"Yes, and no. But remember, I am not the same person you fell in love
with, either...yet that has not changed your feelings for me, has it?"
"And neither have my feelings changed, nor will they ever," Ares
assured him, silencing any further protests with a long kiss. Joxer
closed his eyes and let the warmth of his love's embrace flow through
him as they lay together, passion for the moment satisfied and allowing
for lazy, comforting caresses in its absence.
The worst of Joxer's doubts and fears faded away, lulling him nearly
back to sleep once more. Then a stray thought crossed his mind. "I bet
Xena and the others are wondering what happened with Zeus and where
"Mmm. Probably. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to Evander,
"And there are all those warlords out there running around terrorizing
people I should start setting straight soon, right? You said yourself, it
didn't look good for the god of war to be condoning that sort of thing."
"Definitely not. You want to build up a strong support base, I'll show
you how it's done. If you're going to be the god of war, you're going
to be a class act, right from the start."
Joxer sighed. "Sounds like a lot of things we should be doing instead of
laying around in bed all day."
"Mmm hmm," Ares agreed, pressing his mouth lightly against Joxer's
forehead. "Of course, as you yourself observed, you could use a little
more practice controlling your...powers. Might be a good idea to work
on that a bit in private before heading out to deal with anything else."
Joxer smiled, getting a very clear image in his mind of exactly what type
of practice Ares had in mind. "If we do that, we might not get out of
here for days!"
Ares smiled mischievously and assured him, "I'm up for it if you are."
"From birth, through death and renewal, you must put aside old things,
old fears, old lives.
This is your death, the death of flesh, the death of pain, the death of
Taste of it and be not afraid, for I am with you to the end of time...
And so it begins."
-- J. Michael Straczynski, "The Parliament of Dreams"