Ares stared at the spot where moments before Hope and Gabrielle had stood. Now that were both gone, burned alive in a pit of fiery magma. This was not what was supposed to happen!
Months ago, when he had first became aware of the new dark presence now know as Dahok, he had gone to the other Olympian Gods for help. He had tried to explain the threat Dahok was, but no one had listened to him. They were all caught up in their own little petty disputes and games. Worse, they didn't believe Dahok could actually do them anything. Their attitude had been all wrong. Athena had patiently explained to him that Dahok couldn't do them anything because he wasn't part of their pantheon. The way she had said it was condescending, like he was a five-year-old child and not the God of War.
So he had gritted his teeth and popped off.
Next he had visited the other pantheons of Gods seeking allies for the upcoming battle with Dahok. But they, too, had seen Dahok as nothing more than a harmless Godling. He watched as they exchanged glances with each other, smirking. No doubt they thought he was jumping at shadows, getting paranoid. It was obvious by now he was on his own.
His heart heavy with despair, Ares returned to Olympus. He entered a room he hadn't been in for ages: the Olympus Library. Here shelves were full of arcane knowledge known only to the Gods. By the heavy layers of dust over all the ancient scrolls, it was clear none of the other Gods ever came here, either. Ares had no idea what he was looking for, but he hoped he would
recognize it when he found it. He was thinking along the lines of a powerful artifact, like a Demon-Slaying Sword that might be still lying around somewhere totally forgotten. Artifacts were not easy to make, even for the Gods. But what he did find surprised him.
Ares heart had sunk even lower. He had gone through almost all of the scrolls and found them useless. His black clothes were covered in dust, as were his hands. He felt ready to give up, convinced there was nothing interesting in this unused room. Deciding to look at one more scroll, he opened it and saw it was about dragons. Reading further, he grew excited. If he could find a dragon, a real dragon, he might have a very powerful ally. His heart swelled with excitement as he popped off to see Zeus.
"Father," Ares had asked. "Where can I find a real dragon? Not one of those large lizard beasts that mortals call dragons, but a true fire-breathing dragon? This old scroll says the dragon is War's chosen animal, yet I have never seen a real dragon. If I could find one, we could defeat Dahok."
Zeus had rolled his eyes and sighed. "Are you with that Dahok stuff again? Why are you so obsessed with this Godling? And as for dragons, be glad there are none. They are a worse threat than this Dahok."
But Ares would not give up. "Just tell me where they are."
"They lived during the Age of the Titans. A true dragon is more powerful then we are. They lust for power and would surely destroy us if they were around. Be glad they are extinct. I destroyed many dragon eggs in my youth before I married your mother. It was very...messy. Trust me, Ares, you would not want to see a real dragon. Go do your war duties."
"But surely they can't all be extinct! This scroll claims dragons are immortal, although they may be killed. And if they are, why in the world did you give me an extinct animal for my chosen beast?"
"Because they love death and destruction, why else? A perfect companion for War. Now go, Ares, and don't bother me any more about this Dahok nonsense."
Ares had popped off to his favorite temple to think. He had gotten his hopes up only to have them crash at his feet. If dragons were truly extinct, as Zeus had said, then there was nothing else left. He knew he couldn't fight Dahok by himself. Dahok was just too powerful and he was growing stronger every day. So he had cooperated with Dahok, stalling for time as he racked his brain for other ideas. He thought he might be on to something when he had told Xena to destroy Dahok's temple, but she didn't. In fact from then on, matters had grown only worse.
Xena didn't understand his partnership with Dahok. The first rule of war is to know thy enemy. And the best way to learn about Dahok was to work with him. Besides, what other choice did he have?
Ares blinked his eyes and snapped back to the present. He watched as Xena stabbed Callisto with the hind's blood dagger. The life fled from her wide eyes as she slumped to the floor lifeless. The temple began to shake and rattle. He wasn't too sure what was the real cause of the shaking: Dahok or the active volcano outside. Last he saw it, it was belching huge amounts of
black sooty smoke from its cone.
He saw despair fill Xena's eyes as she stared down into the pit. He had never meant for Gabrielle to die or even get injured! An odd tightness filled his chest as he thought of the blonde bard. How warm and solid she had felt against his chest when he had grabbed her from behind just a few hours ago. Was it really hours? It felt like years. No one deserved to be burnt alive in
hot magma, certainly not the innocent bard. Only Hope was supposed to die, along with her demon spawn.....
He knew Dahok expected Xena to try and kill Hope. But they would never expect the bard to do it. He knew they both wanted Hope dead. He himself had heard Gabrielle agree with Xena that Hope had to die. He thought it was the perfect plan. All the bard had to do was give Hope a push. The magma would do the rest. Even if it didn't kill her, it might give them more time. But Gabrielle had sacrificed her own life. He never expected her to do that.
Realizing he would never feel her soft, honeysuckle-scented hair against his cheek ever again, Ares throat tightened and he popped out.
Ares paced up and back in his temple. He didn't understand this odd tightness in his chest and throat. It was a totally new feeling for him. He was surprised that the little blonde bard had affected him to such a degree. Of course, he had seen how she had wrapped Xena around her little finger. Instead of leading his armies, Gabrielle had turned Xena into a do-gooder. Well, Hercules had had his finger in there, but it was Gabrielle that kept Xena good. He had thought he was immune to her effects. But it was obvious now he wasn't. She had gotten into his head somehow, doing to him whatever she did to Xena. In fact, he had no idea how Gabrielle did it. He was pretty sure that she didn't even know she was doing it, yet she kept on changing
people wherever she went.
Well, no more. There wouldn't even be any ashes left.
Ares froze in his tracks as a cold presence entered his temple. He could sense it hovering in the air like a snake ready to strike. Then it did just that. It wrapped itself in a vice-like grip around his chest. His bare flesh burned where the invisible sub-zero thing touched him. He gasped through his mouth, struggling to breath as he was yanked through the ether. Unceremoniously he was dumped onto a rough stone floor. He landed on his hands and knees in front of a circular stone base. The base was about
knee-high and a tall column of flickering flame leaped from it into the air. Ares raised his head to look at the flame, his wavy dark hair hanging in his eyes. "What do you want?"
The fire twisted angrily as Dahok spoke. "You were supposed to protect my daughter! You have failed and now Hope is dead."
"Yeah, well, there was nothing I could do about it." Ares climbed to his feet and smoothed back his hair. He saw he was in a dark cavern. Except for the flickering flame and the dark stone walls, the cave was featureless. "I was pinned against a wall by that crazy, Callisto. I real wacko if you ever saw one."
"But the Betrayer lives. She will take on Hope's duties and bring forth the Destroyers. And you will do your job. This time I will make certain no one interferes."
"What?" Ares stared at Dahok, totally confused. "Are you saying Gabrielle is alive?"
The column of flame took on a bluish cast and the floor trembled under Ares' feet. The shaking grew worse. Pebbles jumped and rattled across the cavern. Cracks zigzagged across the ceiling and large chunks began to rain down. The air filled with dust and dirt, causing Ares to cough. He pin wheeled his arms, trying to keep his balance. He stumbled around like a drunk and tripped over a large boulder he had not seen in the gloom.
"I SAID THE BETRAYER LIVES!" Dahok screamed.
"Ok, so she's alive." Ares heart leaped with joy. He couldn't believe she was alive! How could she have survived when Hope, who was a Goddess, had died? Then a chill traveled down his spine. What shape was Gabrielle in? Was her body all burnt, her flesh blackened? How much of her body had the magma melted away? His stomach twisted as he thought about it. He realized he didn't want to think about it. It was too horrible to imagine. And he had seen a lot of horrible deaths on the battlefields of War. He was used to gruesome sights. He had seen so many different types over the centuries that he had grown somewhat numb to it all. But this made him want to retch all over the floor. "What do you want me to do about it?"
The cave became still again and the air cleared. Dahok spoke in a low, menacing voice. "I told you. Since she killed Hope, she will take Hope's place and bear the Destroyers. And you will keep your end of the deal."
Ares rolled his eyes and climbed to his feet. Had Dahok lost all his marbles? "Hello! This is Gabrielle we're talking about remember? She's a goody-goody. She's not going to agree to this. Besides, she's a mortal. How can she produce the Destroyers?"
"Do not be concerned about how she will produce Destroyers. Trust my word. Keep your end of the bargain."
"And I said she's not going to cooperate!" Ares was beginning to get annoyed. He swatted some of the dirt off his clothes angrily. He didn't like the way this conversation was heading. Gabrielle had already been through so much because of Dahok. He had wanted to kill Dahok when he had heard what had happened to her in Britainia, what the evil demon had done. He had dreamed of chopping Dahok into thousands of little pieces.
"Force her." The demon stated.
"Like you did?" Ares stood straight in front of Dahok in defiance. "I don't do rape. It's against my principles. Hope was different. She had agreed to the deal. Gabrielle has no choice. You're forcing her to do things against her will."
The flame took on a bluish tint again and Ares braced his legs for more trembling. But the room stayed quiet. Instead, the demon just spoke. Its voice was icy cold and Ares felt wind off a glacier touch his face. Red marks were still on his skin from when Dahok had first brought him here. "You will keep your end of the deal."
"All right." Ares agreed. A plan was already forming in the back of his mind. He'd agree and then find out where Dahok had the bard. Then he'd rescue her and, well, he didn't know what he was going to do after that. He supposed it depended on what shape she was in. But he certainly wasn't going to force her to do anything. He probably would take her back to Xena. He knew Gabrielle would want that anyway. But Dahok would be really pissed.
"Good." Dahok said as a tentacle of cold fire reached out toward Ares. "You will be in charge of the Betrayer. Use your powers to feed her and stuff. See nothing happens to her. And don't forget what you're supposed to do."
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Ares watched as the tentacle came closer. It suddenly leaped at him, wrapping itself around his body once more. Like before, he was pulled through the ether. He reappeared in midair and landed in a tangled heap of arms and legs on a cold stone floor. He rubbed at his burning skin to get blood circulating again to the frozen areas. Dahok's fire was so cold it actually burned.
Ares lifted his head as the voice called his name. Gabrielle stood before him, silhouetted in front of a large lake of bubbling magma.
Gabrielle woke with a start and screamed, throwing her arms in front of her face. Then she realized she was lying on a rough stone floor. She could feel the sharp bits of stone biting into her stomach and legs. Lifting her head, she saw she was in a huge cave. The only light came from a nearby bubbling lake of magma. She watched fascinated as large red bubbles formed and popped. Then the recent events rushed back into her head and she scrambled away from the lake.
Once her back was safely pressed against the warm but solid wall of the cave, she cried. The stress of the past few days had been too much. First finding out Hope was still alive and running some crazy cult. Then overhearing Ares had gone with Hope to create some soulless Destroyer. Next Ares had called in his debt, putting Xena's life in her hands. She couldn't let Xena die. She owed Xena so much. If it weren’t for Xena, she'd still be living a simple but boring life in Poteidia. So she had done the only thing she could: Threw herself and Hope down the lava pit. She had brought Hope's evil into the world, so it was only right that she was the one to remove it. She had been willing to pay with her life. But it seemed she was still alive.
She stopped crying and wiped her eyes. Slowly she examined herself. She didn't feel any pain nor was there a scorch mark anywhere on her body. Not even her hair was singed. Her clothes seemed OK, too. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to remember what had happened.
She remembered falling. She had felt the heat from the magma right away, even when she was quite a distance from it. Then the fumes had started to choke her. She couldn't breath. And the stink! Hope had been a bit below her. She remembered watching Hope hit the magma and disappear. By then she was very close. She could easily see individual bubbles on its surface; hear it sizzle like fat frying in a pan. She had closed her eyes tightly against the brilliant red glare. Then she had covered her face with her arms in a futile attempt at protection. She had screamed. Then .....
Her mind was a blank.
Gabrielle climbed to her feet and walked over to the lake of magma. Was this the same magma she had fallen in? But it couldn't be. What she had fallen in had been a rushing river of the molten rock. This was a bubbling lake. She rubbed her forehead with a hand. "How did I get here?"
There was a flash of light and an icy wind made her shiver. She turned around and saw Ares lying in a heap on the floor. He was covered in dust, both in his hair and on his clothes. It looked as if he had appeared in midair, not standing on the floor like he usually did.
She watched as he raised his head to look at her as he rubbed his left upper arm. He climbed to his feet and slowly approached her. Gently taking her chin in his hand, he pushed her head upward. He stared deep into her eyes. "Gabrielle, it is you. How did you survive?"
Gabrielle yanked her head away from him and stood with her hands on her hips. "How am I supposed to know, Ares? You're the god. Why don't you tell me? I woke up lying here. That's all I know."
"Well, Hope didn't survive it." Ares stared at the lake, his eyes loosing their focus. A coughing fit gripped him and he doubled over.
Gabrielle rushed to his side and put an arm around his shaking shoulders. "Are you all right?"
"How can you stand so close to that?" Ares pointed at the bubbling magma with a trembling arm. He covered his nose with one hand and gripped Gabrielle's wrist with the other. He started to drag her into the black recesses of the cave.
"Ares. Stop. Where are we going?" Gabrielle tried to pull out of his grasp, but his fingers were locked around her wrist. She wasn't entirely comfortable going into a totally dark cave with Ares. Well, technically she was in a dark cave with him. But the magma had given light so she could see him, and anything else that might be in the cave. But away from the lake was absolute
blackness. Never before in her life had she seen such total darkness. She felt as if she were blind. "Look, Ares. I can't see anything!"
A few moments later Ares stopped and made a fire. It was a magical fire and required no fuel to burn. It ran one hundred percent on his powers. Seeing the look on his face, Gabrielle wished she had the blackness back. He glared at her and pointed a finger back the way they had come. "I thought I lost you! You should have been killed! Some miracle had saved you and you risk your life by standing next to that...that lake!"
Gabrielle blinked. Why was Ares so angry? "Well, I wasn't going to fall in. I wasn't that close! I was just trying to figure out how I got here!"
"I meant the fumes!"
"Look, Ares. I didn't smell anything." Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair and started to pace up and back. She didn't know what she was doing here, how she had gotten here. "Maybe I had lain there too long and my nose had gotten used to the smell or something. I don't know!"
"Well, those fumes are poisonous." Ares watched her pace. "Look. I'm going to take you to Xena, OK? I'm sure her and Joxer will be very happy to see you. And so am I."
Gabrielle stopped and stared at Ares. "Since when are you happy to see me, Ares? I thought I was always the "annoying bard" that came between you and Xena. And the last time you saw me was because you wanted something. So what do you want this time? Will I owe you another favor for getting me out of here?"
"Look, I was worried! I'm not a monster, Gabrielle." Ares walked around the fire and stopped in front of the blonde bard. He held out his hand. "I never meant for you to get hurt. I honestly don't know how you survived, but I'm very glad that you did. Now take my hand and I'll get us out of here. No strings attached."
Something inside her stirred. She had to admit he looked very good with the flickering firelight dancing over his skin. It reflected off his silver earring and made his eyes shine. Gabrielle reached out and took his hand. His skin felt hot against hers. She could also see how much larger his hand was then hers. Besides, what choice did she truly have? Gabrielle saw the white sparks dance over his body and she closed her eyes, waiting for the odd feeling to grip her. Last time Ares had popped her; it had caused an odd sensation in her stomach. It wasn't unpleasant, just...odd. After awhile, Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at Ares. They were still in the cave. "Well, what are you waiting for?"
She saw his body stiffen. His hand tightened around hers and she cried out in pain. The sparks of light flew across his body several times, each time vanishing from sight. His eyes grew dark and his face twisted into any angry mask. He let go of her hand and shook his fists at the ceiling. "I don't believe this! He won't let me leave! I'm trapped!"
Gabrielle rubbed her aching hand as she watched Ares have a fit. He looked so angry she wouldn't be surprised if smoke came out of his ears! A few moments later he visibly cooled as he got his temper under control. "So? Your master won't let you leave?"
"He's NOT my master!" Ares moved close to Gabrielle until his face was just a few inches away from hers. She could feel his warm breath on her face. She had never been this close to Ares before. She felt her heart rate increase as a slight thrill raced through her body. Ares leaned even closer and whispered in her ear in a low voice. "Look. I didn't have any choice, OK? I can't fight him alone and none of the other gods would listen to me. I had gone to all the Pantheons on this stinking planet. They had laughed at me. I told Xena to destroy that temple, but she was more interested in revenge against Ceasar. So my only choice was to work with him. I had hoped this way I could learn something to destroy him."
"Xena used that tactic before." Gabrielle admitted. She had to concentrate on keeping her voice steady. He hadn't moved an inch. "Do you think he's listening to us?"
"Maybe. Does it really matter?" Ares backed away and sunk to the stone floor before the fire. He waved his hand and plates of food appeared. "Look, we might be here for awhile, so we might as well eat something. Then maybe we can figure a way out of this mess."
Gabrielle realized she was starving. She couldn't remember the last time she had eaten something. Sitting down next to Ares, she hungrily tore into a hunk of bread. Food had never tasted so good! And Ares had even remembered to supply water to drink. Hmmm...no cooking. She could really get used to this! And the food was delicious! "You know, maybe there's another way out of here. I mean, this cave has to go somewhere. But I don't understand. How can he stop you from leaving?"
"He's blocking me somehow. I can still use my powers, but I can't teleport." Ares frowned as he reached for the bread. "He wants me to do something I don't want to do, so he's keeping me a prisoner here with you. And I would think there is no other way out of here. I mean, would you put your prisoner someplace where they could just walk out of? Of course not."
"What does he want you to do?" Gabrielle was almost afraid to ask. But whatever it was, she was grateful that Ares had refused to do it. And since Ares had done many awful things in the past, it must be something truly dreadful. Her heart beat wildly as she waited for his reply.
"Look, it's not important what he wants me to do. But he's very angry that Hope's dead and he wants revenge." Ares gazed into the flickering fire.
Gabrielle noted that he had refused to look at her when he had answered her question. "I suppose he wants me dead."
"He didn't trap me here to guard a dead body, so no."
Gabrielle threw her arms up in the air. She was beginning to get frustrated. Ares was being tight lipped like usual. "Well why doesn't he do whatever it is himself? Hmmm? Is he scared of me? The big bad Dahok scared of a bard? So he sends you to do his dirty work?"
Ares focused his eyes on Gabrielle. He eyes bored into her with such intensity that she began to grow nervous. "You have a very good question. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer."
"You know, Ares. That's our problem. There's too many 'I don't knows'. Isn't there something we can do? Anything at all?" Gabrielle finished her meal and waited for a reply.
He leaned back against a large boulder and stretched his legs out in front of himself. "I did run across something in my research on Olympus," he admitted. "But it seems to be a dead end."
"Well, Ares, at this point we need some ideas. Anything." Gabrielle leaned forward to hear what his idea was.
"It seems that during the Age of the Titans, dragons flew the sky. They were powerful creatures but also very dangerous. I think if I could find one and convince it to help me, we might have a chance to defeat Dahok. The bad part is Zeus said they were extinct."
Gabrielle thought of dragons. She glanced around the dark cave and could easily imagine a huge red dragon lying there. Somehow she just knew that it would be red. Its huge head would be over there, near that pile of boulders. Tendrils of smoke would be lazily drifting upward from its nostrils. Its eyes would be a fiery yellow-orange, the pupils just curved black slits. Huge curved horns would stick out of its head and when it locked its gaze on you your heart would freeze with fear. You could see the cunning intelligence behind those glowing eyes. Its long body would stretch far back into the cave and its wings would be folded against its sides. The scales would be defense against all. Only the finest, enchanted weapons stood a chance and then even that was very slim. Would-be dragon slayers were often noble, but very foolish and stupid! Most times it didn't even have to use its breath weapon. A flick of its long tail or a stab of a huge claw worked just fine! And if the enemy was powerful, it had its magic powers.
This cave was big, but too dark. It was too far underground. Something up in the mountains would be much better, a lonesome cave high up on a mountain peak. From up there, she could survey her entire domain. She would dig her huge claws into the rock and spread her wings, letting the sun warm her scales. It would be glorious!
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide when she realized what she was thinking and her mouth formed an "O". A smile spread across her lips as she grinned at Ares.
"Ares. I think I know where you can find a dragon."
"What?" Ares stared at Gabrielle in shock, his mouth hanging open.
"I said I know where you can find a dragon." Gabrielle repeated. "But I don't think it's going to help you any."
"Just tell me where to find it and I'll decide if it can help me or not." Ares focused his eyes on her. "How can you know where a dragon is?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She counted to ten to calm herself, preparing for Ares' reaction to what she was about to say. When she was calm, she opened her eyes. "I know where the dragon is because I am the dragon."
"What?!" Ares was so shocked that he fell over sideways. It was a good thing he had been sitting down or he would have really embarrassed himself. He crawled to his knees and pointed a shaking finger at her. "If you were a dragon all this time, why didn't you say anything? And how can you be a dragon? You're a mortal!"
"I forgot I was a dragon, OK? I just remembered now." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around herself as she watched Ares. She could see he didn't believe her. Well, she didn't blame him, not really. It did sound crazy. She almost didn't believe it herself, but so much information had came rushing to the front of her mind. Even now it was making her head spin. She was trying to
sort it all out, but it wasn't easy. There was just so much.
"How in the heck do you forget something like that?" Ares asked. He was on his feet now, his legs spread apart for better balance. He looked very much a War God. "Look, Gabrielle, I'm looking for a real dragon, a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe you hit your head on something when you fell down that hole."
"I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. That's why I survived the magma." Gabrielle explained to him. "As a red dragon, I'm immune to all forms of fire and heat. That includes magma and lava. I guess being a half-breed wasn't enough protection for Hope and it killed her. I think I knew somewhere in the back of my mind the magma couldn't harm me. Call it intuition or
whatever. Of course, my logical mind wouldn't listen to it because it sounded crazy! I was willing to give up my life to stop her."
"So....you just, what? Swam through it?" Ares shifted from one leg to the other. "This is very hard for me to believe, Gabrielle. I just thought a dragon would be more....war like. And what do the Fates give me? A peace-loving Bard. Oh, this is just great!"
"You see, it's a long story."
"Oh, I bet it is! So why don't you explain to me how you are really a dragon. I'd love to hear it." Ares leaned back against the cavern wall, his muscular arms crossed over his chest. "Any time, Gabrielle. Any time."
"OK, it goes like this." Gabrielle shifted on the stone floor til she was comfortable. She knew it wasn't going to be easy telling Ares all this stuff. She would be admitting an awful lot to him, stuff she had never told anyone else. That meant she had to trust Ares. But being trapped here, what choice did she have? She cleared her throat a bit and began her long story. "Where I
came from there were lots of dragons. We reds love to make our homes on high mountain peaks, that way our lairs our safe from most humans. I'm sure you probably heard how we dragons love to collect treasure?"
"Yeah." Ares said. "The dragon's famous hoard."
"Well, humans love to steal our treasure. But that's not important. What's important is each dragon has to have a territory that he or she can rule. They depend on this area for all their needs. But dragons tend to live very long lives. We are almost immortal, you know. So the older wyrms tend to keep the best areas for themselves. After awhile, no good areas are left for
younger dragons. So I left home and came to this world."
"Wait a minute." Ares was standing now, looking directly at her. "You mean there's other worlds?"
Gabrielle smiled up at him. She saw she had his attention now. "Well of course there are, Ares! Other worlds with other gods. Surely you didn't think you're all alone, did you?"
"Well, I knew there were other pantheons....but worlds? Don't you think your stretching it a bit? Either you're telling the truth or your a lot better bard than I thought!"
"Anyway," Gabrielle continued. "I saw this world in my scrying crystal and it looked perfect! Wonderful mountains with no other dragons to compete with. So I used my magic and came here."
"Just like that? It was that easy?" Ares asked as he moved closer to the seated bard. Oh man. He had really misjudged the blonde! Why should he go run after Xena when he could have a dragon? And one that could turn into a beautiful woman, too!
"Of course. I'm a dragon, am I not?" she asked.
"Oh yeah." Ares knelt in front of Gabrielle. He had his nicest smile on his face. "So why don't you be a nice girl and turn into a dragon for me, hmmm?"
"I can't." Gabrielle said.
"What? I thought you said you were a dragon!" Ares eyes grew dark and his lips twisted. He grabbed her wrist and squeezed. "Don't be playing games with me, Gabrielle!"
"I'm not! If you'd let me finish I'll explain!"
"All right. But it better be good." Ares let her wrist go but stayed where he was.
"Dragons are creatures of magic." Gabrielle began as she rubbed at her wrist. The skin was red where he had squeezed it. "We need magic to survive. Well, this world doesn't have very much magic. I couldn't live as a dragon here, so I was forced to take a human form. I found some humans and paid them with part of my hoard to pretend they were my family. They were very grateful, as they were poor and didn't have much. They promised never to tell anyone my secret. They have pure hearts and that's why I chose them. So anyway, until I find a source of magic, I'm pretty much stuck in this human form."
"But if you had a source of magic, you could change back into the dragon?" Ares asked. He had watched Gabrielle's face very carefully while she told her dragon tale. He could see she believed every word she had said. Could it be true? Could it be the dragon he had been searching for all this time had been prancing around under his nose and he just never knew it? Oh, if only it was true!
"Yes, if it was strong enough." Gabrielle replied.
"And then could you get us out of this cave?" he asked.
"I think so, yes. All it would take is a teleportation spell. And if that doesn't work, I could use a magic doorway." Gabrielle looked up at Ares. "Why. What are you thinking?"
Ares didn't say anything. He reached for his sword and slowly pulled it from its scabbard. The only sound in the cave was the steady scrape of steel against leather. Once the sword was completely free, he turned it around and offered the hilt to her. Precious jewels sparkled among the metal and glowed in the firelight. "Take my sword. It should give you enough power to change."
Gabrielle looked at the offered sword and shook her head. "I can't. I'm sorry; Ares, but I can't take your Godly powers! It just wouldn't be right."
"Look, you wouldn't be taking my powers. I'd still be a God." Ares explained. "This sword is.....enchanted, if you will. I'll allow you to use its powers, borrow them. So you could say we'd be sharing."
"I still can't." Gabrielle hung her head, her face hidden by the long curtain of blonde hair.
"Well, why not?" Ares asked, demanded to know.
"I didn't like who I was as a dragon. How I behaved."
Hmmm. This was getting interesting! "So," Ares said with a grin. "You're saying you haven't always been the peaceful bard you pretend to be? That maybe somewhere under all that peacefulness there's a fierce warrior...er...dragon?"
"You know how Xena has her dark side? Well, the dragon is my dark side." She explained as she nervously wrung her hands together. Ares offer was very tempting. Too tempting. To be a dragon again would be great. She could soar through the air once again; feel the cold wind rushing past her horns. But how long would it be before her old bad habits returned? Would she have the will power not to do those things? Could she go against the very nature of being a dragon? "I did some horrible things as a dragon. At the time, I thought they were OK. That it was my right to do them just because I was a dragon and that I could. But since I've been stuck in this human form, I learned so much. I know now that what I did before was wrong. I've learned how humans live, as I've been forced to live as one."
"Look, Gabrielle. If you don't do this, a lot of those precious humans you care so much about are going to get slaughtered by Dahok. Many of them already were. The Gods will be next. I can't stop him by myself." Ares explained. "If you truly care so much about this world, then you'll help me stop him."
"OK, but there's a few things you should know about dragons." Gabrielle said as she gazed at the offered sword. She could already feel the power throbbing in it as if it were alive. It was like finding a cool drink after being lost in the desert for days. It was so close and she wanted it!
"What?" Ares asked as he rolled his eyes. "Look, can't we get on with this already? I hope you're not going to talk this much as a dragon, are you?"
"I feel it's my responsibility to tell you these things." Gabrielle forced herself to keep her hands in her lap, away from the offered sword. "Dragons are telepathic. You know that bond I have with Xena? How we are soul mates?"
"Yeah. I know all about that." Ares said. "It's what stops Xena from coming back to me."
"Well, I had always thought she was the one with the power. I mean, she always seems to know when I'm in danger and rescues me. When Xena had gone to Chin, she had learned this mysterious power from Lao Ma. I had thought it was this power that had created our strong bond. For you see, it was very hard at first living as a human, too hard. So I forced myself to forget I was a dragon. And it had worked. I truly had no idea! Yet I guess enough of my dragon powers had leaked out to create a telepathic bond with Xena. But everything that has happened recently has caused me to remember."
"So, you're saying you might form a telepathic bond with me?" Ares asked. He had not known dragons were telepathic. The old scroll had not mentioned that. But then again, this dragon was from a different world. "You know, I'm not too sure if I like the idea of you snooping around inside my head. Besides, after awhile I might end up like Xena, doing all sorts of good deeds and rescuing you all the time. And what would that do to my image?"
"Well, you could not form a bond and maybe end up dead." Gabrielle smiled at Ares. She could see his face grow pale. Then she got more serious. "Look, Ares. As a dragon I can be quite dangerous. You know that. I would have to be dangerous to take Dahok on and win. But I could be dangerous to you, too."
"All right. We'll do the bond thing." Ares grinned. At first he didn't like the idea of her snooping in his head, but then he realized something. It also meant the dragon couldn't leave him. None of the other Gods would dare plot against him if he had a powerful dragon! "What's the other thing?"
"Have you ever seen a dragon?" Asked Gabrielle.
"Of course not! I just told you before Zues told me they were extinct."
"Well, I can be very scary looking as a dragon."
"Oh, please!" Ares threw his head back and laughed. "I'm Ares, God of War, remember? I've had giant snakes and huge lizards for pets! I love giant reptiles! Besides, I've always wanted a dragon. I've dreamed of that for centuries. I just never really needed one until now. Besides, dear old Dad made the dragon War's chosen beast. So I guess you and me just belong
Gabrielle felt her face become red. Ares had emphasized the word "belong". He had lowered his voice and had said it slowly, drawing it out. His face had been just a few inches from hers. Her heart was beating rapidly again.
"Come on, take it." Ares offered her the hilt of his sword again. "Just think how much fun we could have! I always wanted to get that show-off Apollo. He's always flying around on that stupid gold board of his, zooming through the sky. The way he acts, you'd think he owns all the air! Wouldn't you just love to see the look on his face when we fly past him?"
Gabrielle sighed. She could see the only way to get out of this was to change into a dragon and bond with Ares. How was she going to explain all this to Xena? Oddly enough, the dragon part would be easy. The bond with Ares would be the difficult part!
With a shaking hand, Gabrielle reached for the sword and took it from Ares. Instantly she could feel the power rushing through her body, filling every cell with magic. It was the most intense feeling she had ever felt. The power collected in her chest and began to build. All the arcane knowledge trapped in her mind for so long opened to her. She remembered facts, spells, names,
ancient languages and so much more. She could instantly see Dahok's invisible shield surrounding the cave that had prevented Ares from popping out. It was a strongly woven spell, but Gabrielle saw she could easily get around it with a magic doorway. She let the power build more and then she began to change.
Ares backed up as Gabrielle began to change. He had never seen anything like this before and it was a bit unsettling. He had only half believed her story, although he had wished it were true. But now, he was unsure if he had done the right thing in giving her his sword. He was being forced back further and further as her expanding body demanded more room. If he did not move fast enough, he would be crushed under heavy dragon flesh.
At first Ares hadn't noticed anything really significant. She had taken his sword and he had felt the power drain as she shared his link to Olympus. But he had expected that, so he was ready for it. Then the drain had increased as she had begun to physically change.
First her skin had changed to a brilliant red and took on a scaly appearance. Her fingers grew longer and curved black claws sprouted from the tips. Then her face started to push out into a long snout. A snout Ares noticed was filled with dozens of razor sharp teeth! Huge bat-like wings began to grow from her back. They grew larger and larger until they seemed to fill the
cavern. Long curved horns extended from the top of her head and there was a smaller horn on her nose. When the glowing red light from the bubbling magma lake fell on her back, Ares noticed several pointed ridges. The ridges ran down the center of her back all the way to the end of her tail. And by now her tail was very long!
Ares pressed his back flat against the cave wall. The dragon lowered its huge head. The tip of its snout was right in front of his chest. Hot puffs of gray smoke rose from its nostrils and blew into his face. He coughed from the sickening scent of sulfur and his eyes watered. Through the veil of smoke, he could see two huge balls of fire: the dragon's eyes. They stared at him and
he shivered with fear. He felt too frightened to do anything. Gabrielle had warned him it would be dangerous, but he had been so convinced that there was nothing to be scared of. But he had never seen a creature like this! Its head alone was between twenty-five to thirty feet long! And its body was at least another hundred feet of hard-muscled flesh. Add another hundred or so for the tail and you had a beast that even the mighty Zeus would have nightmares of!
The dragon snuffled at him and he felt an odd sensation inside his head. He didn't quite know what to make of it. The next second he heard Gabrielle's voice and the fear vanished. It was like a great weight was lifted off his chest and he could breath again. The dragon still looked the same, but it wasn't as bad anymore.
"Ares?" Gabrielle said inside his head. "Are you OK?"
"Yeah. Of course." he replied. He didn't want to tell her that his knees felt weak and the wall was the only thing holding him upright. That would be bad for his image. And he wanted to impress her. He rested a few more moments and then stood up straight. His legs felt more solid now. "I'm just a bit surprised how large you are. I didn't realize dragons were that big."
He could hear Gabrielle's laughter in his head. "So, I guess we're bonded now?" he asked.
"Of course!" She answered. "You don't feel the dragon fear anymore, do you? Of course not! Well, let's see if we can get out of here."
Ares watched Gabrielle as she used her powers. He wasn't sure what she was going to do, but it didn't really matter, just as long as they got out of this stinking cave. He sniffed the air and frowned. He still smelled sulfur. It took him awhile before he realized it was coming off his leather vest. "Great. Just great."
Soon a portal appeared in the air. This portal was different than the other one he was familiar with. For one thing, it was not swirling around like a fierce storm. Nor was it sucking him inside with the force of a tornado. No, this portal appeared to be more stable. It looked like a golden doorway that floated a few feet above the cavern floor. He was very impressed by
Gabrielle's skill. Not even Zeus could create such a stable portal. Perhaps they really did have a chance to defeat Dahok.
He stepped through the portal and the dragon followed him. How she got that huge body through that little door he didn't know. But when he looked behind himself Gabrielle was there and the portal was gone. Maybe it stretched?
"So, where are we? I don't recognize this place." Ares asked as he looked at his new surroundings. It didn't look like the place between worlds where he had met the Sovereign. This place was....drab. The dry dust under his boots was gray. The flat wasteland stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see. Off in the far distance gray mountain ranges reached toward the gray sky, everything was the same flat color. He could see no trace of the sun anywhere.
"This is one of the other planes." Gabrielle explained. "We'll cross this plane far enough until we can enter our own world again. Think of it like climbing a ladder to the second floor. You cross part of the second floor and descend a different ladder back to the first floor. But you skipped over that part on the first floor."
"Yeah, but this is the most weirdest place I ever saw. I'll be glad when we're out of here." Ares began to walk and the dry gray dust was kicked up into the air. It soon coated the bottom half of his black leather pants and his boots. Ares was glad he didn't have to breath any of the stuff. Even the air felt dry in his throat and he soon was thirsty. "How much longer until we
can leave this freaky place?"
He had just asked the question when a black blob appeared on the far horizon in front of them. It zoomed toward them rapidly, its shape becoming more distinct the closer it came. Ares saw it was some bizarre creature and it didn't look friendly. Its body was a dark grayish-black cone. The bottom part of the cone had circles and circles of teeth. He could see at least
three rows. Its mouth was wide open and the teeth seemed to move up and back slightly, as if its lips were moving. A bunch of long tentacles waved around the mouth while it floated it the air. It didn't have any wings that Ares could see, it just hung there as if by magic. Nor did he see any eyes on the creature.
"What the heck is that?" Ares asked as he drew his sword. Gabrielle had given it back to him once they were bonded.
"It's a Plane Denizen." Gabrielle explained to Ares telepathically. "I had hoped we wouldn't meet any. They seek out unlucky travelers for sources of liquid."
"Great. The thing's a darn vampire." Ares took a warrior's stance and watched the thing to see what it would do. He had no idea what abilities it had. Maybe he wasn't a mortal, but his powers were a bit weaker than normal. He had to share them with Gabrielle. He was following it carefully with his eyes when the dragon used its breath weapon. The blast of it knocked Ares off his feet. He landed flat on his back in the dust. His mouth drooped open in shock at what he saw: a column of fire one hundred feet long and twenty feet wide. It made his fireballs look like the tiny flame on a candle. Even from here he could feel the intense blast of heat. And the roaring! He feared going deaf from the sound of it.
Ares climbed to his feet after Gabrielle stopped breathing fire. He dusted at his black leathers, but it was useless. The gray dust clung to him. It was everywhere, even in his hair. He walked over to the remains of the burnt creature and poked it with his boot. "Nice job."
"They're weak against fire because it's so dry here." Gabrielle explained. "We better leave before more show up. They can smell us from miles away."
Once again Gabrielle formed the golden doorway and they stepped through. Ares was glad to be back home in Greece. They needed to make plans on how to defeat Dahok. After that fire he saw her breathe, he had no doubt that she could win over the demon. If anyone could do it, it was his Gabrielle! "We need to make plans." He told her.
"Yes, I know." Gabrielle replied. She used her powers and a huge saddle appeared on the ground before Ares' feet. "Put it on my back."
Ares easily picked the saddle up and carried it to Gabrielle. But getting it on her was a lot harder than he thought. First of all, she was so big and long he wasn't sure where it was supposed to go! Luckily, she could twist her head around to watch what he was doing. After numerous attempts, he finally had the saddle strapped on the correct way. He had had to use his Godly
strength to get it tight enough. Gabrielle had insisted on it. She didn't want him to fall off!
The saddle wasn't an ordinary one like you put on a horse. It had sides and straps to go around the rider. Ares settled in the saddle and strapped himself in. He didn't need a bridle because he could communicate with his mount telepathically. Besides, a dragon was far better than a warhorse! It was even better than Pegasus!
Gabrielle leaped into the air and flapped her huge wings. Soon they were airborne, flying over fields, rivers and forests. She saw a village below. People were busy going here and there. She felt the urge to sweep down and breath fire, but fought it. She had to remind herself that those days were in the past. That this was not her old world. She could not demand that these
people give her their treasure. Most likely they didn't have any. Nor could she demand their maidens. At the thought, her stomach rumbled loudly. If she was going to stay in dragon form for long periods of time, she needed to eat. Her mouth began to fill with saliva as she imagined a nice juicy cow. Several cows.
Gabrielle was busy searching for a field of cows when something appeared in the sky before her. At first she thought it was a large bird flying toward her, but soon saw what it was.
"It's my show-off bro, Apollo." Ares said from Gabrielle's back. He was truly enjoying riding his dragon. The cool wind whipped past and blew through his wavy black hair. He had dreamed of riding a dragon for so long! "Oh! This is going to be so good! Scare him good!"
Apollo was flying right at her on his golden board. He was looking behind himself for some reason. She could see he was laughing. Gabrielle glanced down and saw a village was on fire. No doubt Apollo had done it from the safety of his flying board. Now he was making his escape. Hercules had told her similar tales of the Sun God. It mad her mad!
The Golden One must have sensed something, for he turned to look forward. His eyes grew huge and his mouth opened to scream. The huge face of the red dragon was just a few feet away. A loud shriek came out and Apollo tumbled off his golden board sideways. His arms waved helplessly like a bird as he plummeted through the sky toward an empty field far below. His board tumbled end over end and followed him. He popped out the last second before he would have hit the ground. His board, though, was not as lucky. It smashed into a rock and exploded in a white cloud of Godly energy.
"Yes! Oh, that was so good!" Ares cried from Gabrielle's back in excitement. "He is such a big JERK! He deserved that and a lot more."
Gabrielle wished they had not met Apollo. She had let the heat of the moment get the better of her. Perhaps she should have flown above him. But she had been angry and couldn't think straight. She would have to be more careful with Dahok.
On Olympus, Zeus listened to a frantic Apollo. He did not like what he had heard. As far as he could tell from Apollo's gibberish, Ares has gotten himself a dragon. He knew of his son's desire for his throne. Ares wanted to be the King of the Gods, and all dragons dream of power. Zeus' face twisted in hatred and rage toward his son. How dare he plot against his own father! He held up his hand and formed a round ball of lightning. Snarling, he flung it against the nearest wall. The wall exploded in a cloud of rock and dust.
It was time to go dragon slaying.
Xena had been on her way to the Amazon Lands in the far north. She was heart-broken over Gabrielle. It had all happened so fast. One moment she had been ready to kill Hope, the next she was helplessly watching her best friend and soul mate falling to her death. She had first journeyed to the Underworld to see Hades. She had been prepared to fight the God to get Gabrielle back. Or make a deal with him. Anything. But Hades had told her Gabrielle was not in his domain. Her spirit had not crossed over into his keeping. At first this had puzzled Xena, until it clicked in her head. Gabrielle had been the Queen of the Amazons. Her soul must have gone wherever Amazon souls went. So Xena had begun her trip alone.
Xena hung her head and cried. "Oh, Gabrielle, why did you do it? It should have been me. I'm the one who should have died, not you. You didn't deserve to fall to that fiery grave. If you would have just trusted me, I could have killed Hope for you. It was my fault you got involved in this mess. I failed you. But I promise you, Gabrielle, I'll find you wherever you are and rescue
A familiar spark blossomed inside Xena's soul and she lifted her head. She concentrated on it, blocking out all her other senses. Only the spark existed. Xena turned her horse around and urged it into a gallop. She didn't know how, but through some miracle Gabrielle was alive! She could sense her through the bond they shared. At the moment Gabrielle wasn't in any danger, but she was worried about something.
And there was something else. Xena frowned as she sensed it. It was familiar to her and yet strange. Whatever it was, Xena didn't like it. "Hang on, Gabrielle! I'm coming to get you!"
Hercules and Iolaus were strolling through the woods. "Boy! I'm glad you didn't want to stay a full God. I missed you, buddy!" Iolaus said.
"I didn't like the company up there." Hercules explained. "Not a very friendly atmosphere."
They both stopped when Zeus appeared in front of them.
"Look, Zeus, I'm not going back to being a full God so just forget it. We tried it and it didn't work."
"That's not why I'm here, Son. I need your help." Zeus explained. "It's Ares."
Hercules sighed. "What is Ares doing this time? I thought he'd lay low for a while. I whipped him pretty good in that tavern brawl we had."
"I'm afraid this is serious." Zeus said. "Since his plot with Hera failed to steal my throne, he has gone out on his own. He has acquired a dragon from somewhere. Not any dragon, but a fire-breathing dragon. They already attacked Apollo. Luckily Apollo managed to escape before he was killed."
"I thought dragons were extinct." Hercules said as he stared at Zeus. "If Ares really has a dragon, we have to stop him. There's no telling what he might do. He'd be invincible."
"But Herc, how are we going to stop a dragon?" Iolaus asked him. "I mean, Ares is one thing, but a dragon!"
"We'll think of something." Hercules replied. "We always do."
"I also thought dragons were extinct." Zeus told them. "But Ares will stop at nothing. He will not be satisfied until he's ruling the world from my throne."
"Don't worry. We'll stop him somehow." Hercules told his father. "We killed off his other pets, we'll get this one, too."
Zeus popped back to Olympus. Iolaus blinked and saw Hercules was already several feet down the forest trail. He hurried to catch up. He glanced up at his best friend, worry written all over his face. "What are we going to do? A dragon! Those things spit fire! And they're BIG! How are we going to kill something like that? I mean, sure we killed his big snake and that ugly
lizard dog, but a dragon!"
"Actually, Iolaus, it was Xena that killed Gragus." Hercules reminded him. "She's the one who tossed Darphus in front of the hungry beast. So in a way, she killed it."
"Oh, yeah. Right." Iolaus admitted as he raced to keep up with his friend. They came to the end of the forest and halted. Dark clouds of smoke billowed up into the air from a village. Fire leaped from rooftops and people scrambled around in all directions.
"Great! Ares and his dragon were busy already! Come on!" Hercules ran toward the village, Iolaus hot on his heels. After they had helped the villagers put out the remaining fires, they were both surprised to see Xena ride into town. The Warrior Princess quickly told them about Gabrielle and Hope. They told her about Ares and his new dragon.
"Gabrielle seems to be in the direction of Ares' temple, so I'll travel with you. I wouldn't be surprised if that worm is holding her prisoner." Xena jumped back on her horse and the three set off. The temple they were referring to was the one up in the mountains. "I don't like it that he has a dragon. I don't like dragons. What if he wants to feed her to the beast?"
Hercules frowned. Xena was right. Dragons did like to eat young maidens and Gabrielle probably qualified. "I don't like the sound of that. We better hurry before anything happens. Who knows what other sick ideas Ares might think up next? Look what he did to this poor village! They never even saw him. The coward!"
The three heroes made their way up the steep mountain pass. Soon they began to shiver from the cold. Several times Iolaus slipped on ice and would have tumbled headfirst down the mountain if Hercules had not grabbed him. At last they came to Ares' mountaintop retreat. The temple was an imposing structure of solid granite. It was surrounded on three sides by snowy mountain peaks.. Iolaus pointed and something and whistled. "Whoa! Look at that!"
Something had left deep slashes in the temple wall. It was like a giant had scraped his fingernails into the stone and left the marks. "That doesn't look good." Xena said. "Whatever made those marks is very big and very powerful. I'm afraid it might be our dragon. If it is, it's a lot bigger then we all feared."
"Herc, I don't like this." Iolaus said as he stared up at the marks. His entire body shivered, partly from cold but also partly from fear. "I got a feeling something bad is in there."
"Well, I'm going in." Xena marched toward the doors. "I know Gabrielle is inside. I can feel her. She seems to be OK for now. But we better rescue her before Ares' new pet wants a meal."
"I'm right behind you." Hercules said as he followed Xena. "Come on, Iolaus."
"I'm coming!" Iolaus said as he ran through the doors. Heat rushed over his frozen body and he happily closed the doors. "Boy, Ares sure has it hot in here!"
"Quiet!" Xena hissed at Iolaus. "Hear that?"
They could hear Ares talking and laughing with someone. Xena rushed into the next room and skidded to a halt. Her boots slid on the smooth floor and she fell on her bottom. She lay sprawled on the floor, her mouth hanging open. She kicked with her boot heels on the floor and crawled crab style backward until her back was against a wall. She began to hyperventilate and clung to her chest with one hand. She could not believe what she saw in front of her.
Ares was relaxing against the dragon. And it was HUGE! Its mouth alone was so big that it could easily swallow him in a single gulp. He wouldn't even rate as an appetizer to a creature this big. Little puffs of smoke lazily drifted upward from its nostrils, giving away the fact that it was a fire-breather. But then again, its bright red scales told you that. And those eyes: pools of
liquid fire with curved black slits. Those eyes focused on Xena and she shivered with intense, uncontrollable fear. She forced her eyes away and glanced at its talons. She figured that one extended talon alone was as tall as Ares! It could slice through solid rock as easily as her sword through soft flesh. Now she knew what had made those marks outside.
Hercules and Iolaus ran into the room and stopped dead in their tracks. Iolaus collapsed to the floor and whimpered. Sweat ran down his face as he huddled into a small ball. Hercules fared little better. The big hero was forced to his knees as the dragon fear swept over him. "Oh boy." Hercules muttered to himself. "No one said it was this big. How the heck am I supposed to kill that?"
Clinging to the wall, Xena forced herself to her feet. "Ares! I know you have Gabrielle. I demand you release her to me at once!"
"Xena, my dear, you're in a position to demand nothing." Ares laughed as he relaxed against the dragon's warm side. "And Gabrielle belongs to me now. So why don't you just go away and take your two bumbling boy toys with you. I'm in the middle of an important meeting here."
"Why you snake!" Xena hissed and took two steady steps forward. Her lips turned white but she remained standing. "Gabrielle will never belong to you! I'll kill you before I let you feed her to your evil beast!"
Ares busted out laughing and tears ran down his face. "Is that what you think? Trust me, Xena; I could never feed Gabrielle to my dragon. In fact, I need Gabrielle alive and well. I would never dream of hurting her."
Xena's face grew darker and her eyes focused on him. "What have you done to her? If you hurt her in any way, I'll kill you!"
"Oh, please!" Ares said as he swung his hand at Xena. "Can't you think of anything more original than that? You already said that. And anyway, Gabrielle wants to be with me. We share something you, quite frankly, could never understand or have. Admit it, Xena, you just don't have what it takes."
Xena snarled and leaped forward. She was almost on top of Ares when the dragon's tail came out of nowhere. Her stomach collided with the hard tail and she fell to the ground. She had the wind knocked out of her. Xena curled into a tight ball and moaned.
Hercules sensed it was his turn so he forced himself to his feet. "Ares! Why did you and your dragon attack that village? What did those poor people do to you? You must be awfully twisted and sick!"
"What village?" Ares asked. "We saw Apollo flaming a village while we were flying here. Maybe that's what you're babbling about. Look, little brother, you are interrupting an important meeting. So why don't you just LEAVE?"
Ares formed a white energy ball and flung it at Hercules. The energy ball hit him on his chest and carried him out of the room. The big hero landed on the hallway floor and slid until he crashed into the outer wall. Hercules shook his head and got to his feet. Then he raced back into the room.
What was more important? Slaying the dragon or rescuing Gabrielle? Deciding on the latter, Hercules took a few steps closer to Ares. He wondered if the dragon was casting some sort of fear spell on them. He had faced many terrible monsters before and none had caused this him to feel so frightened. Perhaps a more direct approach would work on his brother. "Ares! I demand to see Gabrielle. How do I know you did not harm her? We want to know that you are not holding her against her will."
Ares grinned. "And what if she tells you she wants to be with me? Will you then leave, little brother? Do I have your word?"
"No! Hercules, don't!" Iolaus cried from his spot on the floor. "He's trying to trick you!"
"When and if I'm convinced it's truly what she wants." Hercules finally answered. "And that you're not controlling her in any way. No mind tricks, Ares."
"If only you knew, little bro." Ares shook his head and chuckled. "If anyone's playing mind tricks, I think it's her! As I'm sure Xena knows, Gabrielle gets what Gabrielle wants."
"What do you mean by that, you rat?" Xena lifted her head off the floor and moved. Her stomach had finally stopped cramping, allowing her to sit up. She was so close to the dragon, she could almost reach out and touch it. Unfortunately, it was the head that she was close to. The dragon had its mouth slightly open. Xena could see strings of saliva dripping out from
between the teeth and pooling on the floor. Each white tooth was about the size of her sword. And at the very back of its throat was a yellow-orange glow. The Warrior Princess shivered as she imagined what it would be like to be trapped in those huge jaws. She hoped she would not find out. But she had to risk it if she was going to rescue Gabrielle. "Where is Gabrielle?"
Ares threw back his head and laughed. "Why Xena, don't you recognize her? Well, I guess she doesn't trust you if she never told you."
"Told me what?" Xena asked angrily. "What kind of sick game are you playing Ares? Just tell me where Gabrielle is!"
"OK! OK!" Ares said. His voice took on a more serious tone. "But before I tell you where Gabrielle is, tell me what you think of my dragon."
"Fine." Xena got to her feet. She reached behind her back and pulled out her sword. "I hate dragons. I always did. They're evil creatures. And I'm going to kill this one. So that I told you what you wanted to know, keep your end of the deal. Where's Gabrielle?"
Ares laughed and pointed at the dragon. "She's right here in front of you, Xena."
A white glow surrounded the dragon and it transformed into Gabrielle.
Xena gasped in shock. "Gabrielle?"
"Yes, Xena, it's me." Gabrielle admitted. "I'm the dragon."
"What? How can this be?" Xena stuttered. Her blue eyes narrowed and she pointed a finger at Ares. "What are you doing here with HIM?"
"Look, Xena, it's complicated but I can explain everything." Gabrielle told her friend. Ares moved to stand behind her and wrapped his strong arms around her slender waist.
"Get your filthy hands off her!" Xena's war cry ripped from her mouth and she flipped through the air. She landed quickly next to Ares and Gabrielle. "I'll be nice and give you to the count of three to let go of her. Believe me, you'll be sorry if you don't."
"Like I'm going to trust you with Gabrielle? I think NOT!" Ares clung tighter to Gabrielle and whispered in her ear. "Remember, a few seconds ago she wanted to kill you. You can't trust Xena. She's a cold-blooded killer. Maybe I gave her the skills, but the blood lust is all hers. Truthfully, I don't trust her myself."
"WHAT?!" Xena's face twisted up as she stared at Ares. "How dare you say those things! Gabrielle, don't listen to his lies! He's a slimy worm that crawled out from under a rock. He's trying to confuse you. I'm your soul mate."
Hercules and Iolaus climbed to their feet and moved closer to Xena. With Gabrielle back in her human form, the dragon fear had vanished. "Let her go, Ares." Hercules added.
"You're forgetting something, little brother." Ares reminded him with a grin. "You agreed to let Gabrielle decide if she wants to stay with me. And believe me, she's happy right here."
"You're lying!" Xena hissed at Ares. "Gabrielle hates you! She hates what you stand for, all the wars you start. Gabrielle would never choose to be with you, unless you have her under a spell!"
"Xena, I'm not under any spell!" Gabrielle told her friend. "You have to understand what happened. See, we were trapped in this cave and then I remembered I was a dragon. I can't change unless I have a source of magic, so Ares let me tap into his powers. So now we're bonded."
"WHAT?!" Xena cried again. "You mean you have a mental link with HIM? Gabrielle, how could you do that? That's disgusting!"
Ares rolled his eyes and laughed. "You know, Xena, you sure know a lot of words! That's the third time you said *what* in a few minutes."
"I want you to understand I'm NOT under any spell." Gabrielle told her friends. She gazed at each one in turn, looking them in the eyes. "If we're going to defeat Dahok, we all need to work together. And it's not going to be easy. Ares and I were planning the best way to defeat Dahok before you busted in here to rescue me. Well, I don't need any rescuing. And I really don't like dragon slayers. They get on my nerves. So if you want to keep breathing, I'd suggest you don't make me angry."
"That's fine with me." Hercules smiled at Gabrielle. "I prefer the non-killing methods of problem-solving anyway. I just never dreamed the dragon would turn out to be one of my friends. But you should be aware Zeus wants the dragon dead. He's the one that sent me after you."
"Oh, that's just great!" Ares said. He still had his arms around Gabrielle. Perhaps it was the bond, but he was beginning to feel very protective of her. And she looked beautiful, too. Why didn't he notice that before? "Dear old Dad found out and now he'll be ruining my plans!"
"Well, if he wants her dead he'll have to come through me first." Hercules told Ares. "And truthfully, I think he's too scared to do anything like that. That's why he sent me."
"We don't need HIM." Xena continued as she moved closer to Gabrielle. "We can get rid of Dahok without Ares help. We got along OK without his help before."
"Xena, Dahok is a powerful Demon. How are you going to defeat him by yourself?" Gabrielle asked. "Look, Xena. Ares is a full God and he can't defeat Dahok by himself! How in the world do you think you can? As a dragon, I'm very powerful. Even Zeus fears me."
"Gabrielle, listen to me." Xena said as she lifted her friend's chin to stare into her blue eyes. "You're the most pure thing I know. Being bonded to Ares is going to affect you. He's dark and will stain you; his evil will snuff out your goodness. If you're not careful, you'll end up just as bad as he is. He'll have you leading his armies and being his warlord. I know you don't want that. Now come away from him and we'll leave here together."
Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. "Why in the world would I lead an army when I can easily toast an entire village from the air? Besides, I wouldn't do that anyway. But you need to remember I AM a dragon. And I seem to remember you saying you hate dragons. Why?"
"Look, Gabrielle, I didn't mean....I mean I didn't know." Xena gave Ares that LOOK of hers. It was his fault! He had asked her what she had thought of dragons, full well knowing her reply would work in his favor! Now how was she going to get out of this mess? "Dragons are evil creatures. They eat people and burn towns."
"So, I'm evil then, right?" Gabrielle asked.
"NO! Of course not!" Xena answered quickly. "That's not what I meant."
"So what did you mean?" Gabrielle leaned back against Ares' wide chest. She closed her eyes and sighed. Sometimes Xena was just too closed-minded. Once she made up her mind about someone that was it. To make it worst, she had a grudge against Ares. She reached out mentally and was reassured by her strong bond with him. Yet she had a bond with Xena, too. She didn't know what she was going to do.
"I came here to rescue you. If you remember when I first came in the room, your safety was my only concern. I thought the dragon was going to eat you, so I was going to kill it to protect you." Xena's eyes darkened as she looked at Gabrielle. "Why are you leaning against him like that?"
Gabrielle opened her eyes half way and smiled at Xena. "Why? What's wrong with it? I kind of like it."
"Well, I don't like it. You're too close to him." Xena complained.
Ares pressed his check against Gabrielle's soft hair. "Well, I like having her close. This bond is the most incredible thing to happen to me. I wouldn't give it up for anything. I love her."
"You? You don't love anyone but yourself." Xena snarled with disgust. "Gabrielle is innocent and naive, so she might believe you. But I know how guys think. You'll say anything to get what you want. And I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen."
"You have no idea how I felt when she fell down that lava hole!" Ares eyes flashed as he glared at Xena. "I thought I lost her forever and it scared me. My throat got tight and I felt odd in my chest. I couldn't stand the thought of never seeing her again. Then my heart swelled with joy when I saw her alive and unharmed. And if it weren't for me, she'd still be stuck down in
that dark cave. And if there's a spell on anyone, she put a spell on me. I'd do anything to protect her. Besides, Gabrielle knows I love her. She can feel it through our bond."
"I, for one, think they make a cute couple." Hercules grinned as he put a hand on Xena's shoulder.
"Well I don't! He's lying. He always does."
"Xena, you of all people should know that people really do change!" Hercules threw his arms out wide and shook his head. "Come on, you know it was Gabrielle that helped to keep you on the right path. She has this incredible effect on people. Now we know why. I guess it was some of those incredible dragon powers leaking out or something. Why is it such a big surprise that it effects Ares, too?"
"Because he's a God." Xena said. "And Gods don't change."
"The Gods are people like anyone else, except they have powers." Hercules explained. "They have emotions, families, problems and they don't always do the right thing. And some of them aren't very bright. But they CAN change. They can use the fire of Hephaestus' Forge to change their hearts. I know because I used it once. It was years ago when I was attending Chiron's Academy. It wasn't the brightest thing I ever did. In fact, it was really stupid. I did a lot of stupid things in those days to get Zeus' attention. Now I know he doesn't care about any of his kids. But it's possible that she's affecting him the same way as the forge fire. I certainly know that Dragon Fear spell is real!"
"Well, I have to admit Gabrielle does have an effect on people." Xena shook her head. It was odd seeing the two together. "I guess I need some time to get used to this. I mean, I never thought she was a dragon. But maybe I should look on the bright side. She'll force you to behave. Just think, Ares. No more wars!" Xena laughed.
"In case you forgot, we're preparing to go to war against Dahok." Ares reminded Xena. "We were making plans when you butted in."
"Yeah. We do need to take care of him." Xena agreed. Then she laughed and wiggled a finger at Ares. Her eyes sparkled brightly. "And wait till you find out all the trouble she gets into. That scroll incident was only the beginning for you! I'm sure she'll get you into lots more problems in the future. Trust me, it's a full time job looking after her."
"That's because you never took care of her." Ares replied angrily. "This whole Dahok thing never would have happened if you destroyed that temple like I told you to. But did you? No! You were too busy plotting revenge on Caesar. And because of that, Gabrielle had to suffer. You put her through Tartarus and back. What did you gain? Nothing. And what about the time you lead her through the middle of a war because you wanted to take a shortcut? She almost died! Well, from now on I'M going to take care of her!"
"Now you just wait one minute!" Xena hissed.
"This meeting is over." Ares said. White sparkles raced over Ares and Gabrielle. The two vanished in a flash of bluish-white light.
"I can't believe it!" Xena hissed at no one in particular. She stomped around Ares' mountain top temple and banged her fist on a stone wall. "How could she be a dragon all this time and she never told me? Why could she tell HIM and not me? It's not fair!"
Hercules sighed. He saw Xena was going to be a problem. "Look, maybe Gabrielle is exactly what Ares needs. She'll straighten him out and keep him in line. Just have a little trust in her."
"And what was that wisecrack of me not taking care of Gabrielle? I always take care of her! It's all I ever do!" Xena scowled as she thought about it. "Yeah. That's right. That's all I ever do. I always got to be running and saving her butt from some monster or something. She doesn't have enough sense to keep herself out of trouble. She even creates trouble! She was the cause of all this Dahok trouble, not me!"
"Xena! How can you say that? She's your best friend!" Hercules stared at her, his mouth hanging open in shock. He glanced at Iolaus, who appeared equally shocked. "Gabrielle was raped by Dahok! How can you say it's her fault?"
"Well, it is!" Xena insisted as she glared angrily at the puddle of dragon saliva on the floor. Her face twisted up in disgust and she waved her hand in front of her face. The saliva had the awful stink of sulfur. "She should have known better than to go inside a strange temple to an unknown God! She had no business being in there! Besides, with her being a dragon now, I don't know if I want to hang around her anymore. Look at this mess she made on the floor. Yuck! I'm not going to be cleaning up dragon slobber. Let Ares deal with it."
"What? I don't believe this!" Hercules shook his head and watched Xena storm out of the room. The big hero quickly followed her. Iolaus trailed along silently behind the two. "Xena, you're being unreasonable! I thought Gabrielle was the most important thing in your life! How can you do this?"
"Easy. I just am." Xena pushed open the temple door and hurried outside into the cold. "And she better behave or else I might be forced to do something....bloody. You know the reputation dragons have, especially red ones. They're evil."
"It's Gabrielle! She's not evil!" Hercules yelled at the Warrior Princess's retreating back. He shook his head and went back inside, closing the heavy temple doors. He glanced at Iolaus sadly. "That's just great. Now I have to go tell Gabrielle her best friend just walked out on her. She'll be crushed."
"Yeah," Iolaus agreed glumly. "But that's Xena for you. There's not much you can do once she gets an idea stuck in her head."
"Don't remind me." Hercules walked back into the big room. "ARES!"
The War God appeared in a flash of blue light. Gabrielle was with him. "You rang, little brother?" Ares was unknowingly standing in the puddle of dragon slobber. He wrinkled his nose at the strong odor of sulfur and glanced down. Seeing the puddle, he waved his hand and it vanished. "I guess dragons are high maintenance, not that I mind."
"Yeah." Hercules took a deep breath and let it out. "Xena left. Seems she's angry and can't accept the recent changes. She even made a threat against Gabrielle, of all things! I can't believe she'd just throw a friendship away over this! It's so stupid!"
"She's jealous." Ares stated as he pulled Gabrielle close to him. She rested her head against his broad chest and sniffled. She couldn't believe Xena would leave her because of this. Did she really hate dragons so much? "Don't worry, my sweet, I won't leave you."
Gabrielle straightened up and wiped her eyes. It hurt to know that Xena, her best friend, had actually threatened to kill her. After she had given up so much for their friendship and in the end it had meant nothing to the Warrior Princess. Xena's heart was as cold as ice! "It's OK, Hercules. Maybe I'm better off without Xena anyway. I figured out the only reason she kept me
around was to cook and clean for her. Xena hates to do either one. She'd rather eat Joxer's cooking than cook something herself. Well, I'm tired of walking behind her horse for miles and miles while she rides! I'm tired of mending her torn leather. Heck, if I even look at her weapons she screams at me! I guess she wasn't really a good friend to begin with. She never really
wanted me around. But I needed her to protect me, but I guess that's over."
"Well, I hate to see a friendship break up over something like this." Hercules said. "Maybe she's just shocked. I know I certainly was!"
"Yeah! Me too!" Iolaus said, as he looked wide-eyed at Gabrielle. "I mean, when you're a dragon you're so big! And I mean BIG! Whoa! Who ever would have thought? Boy, you really fooled me! But I'm glad we're friends. I wouldn't want you mad at me!"
"Enough chitchat. We have strategy to plan." Ares told them. The four huddled together in a little group and listened to what Gabrielle told them. She explained she had already placed powerful spells on Ares' temple so Dahok couldn't spy on them. Nor could he break in. It turned out that Dahok wasn't entirely in this world - that's why he was appearing as a column of fire. But he had created a small rip in the material that separates the various Planes of existence. This tiny rip had allowed part of his essence to slip through. He needed a lot more before he could physically appear. Since he was an evil demon, he needed lots of bloody sacrifices. That's what Hope had been doing before she had stopped her evil forever. Now it was time to stop Dahok himself.
"The trick is to choose where we will fight him." Gabrielle explained to her friends. "We will summon him and fight him in a location of our choosing. It will be carefully warded with powerful spells that should hopefully render him powerless and stop him from escaping. It's best to use a strong room that can contain him in case he does manage to break my spells."
They quickly searched for a suitable room. Ares had the perfect spot: a very large room made by Hephaestus. Before he had used it to keep some of his more powerful and very large pets. It was big enough to hold the dragon easily and had room for her to maneuver. Of course, she wouldn't be able to fly in here but that wouldn't matter. This would be an all-out last battle.
Gabrielle added her powerful spells to the room's walls, floor, ceiling and door. She explained to the others that once they went inside and closed the door, only she would be able to open it. If by some chance Dahok killed her, they would be trapped in the room. They all said they understood and if that Dahok is powerful enough to kill the dragon, well, they were dead anyway. She was their only hope.
Hours passed as Gabrielle weaved her spells on the room. She put them on in layers, carefully adding them to the weaker wards of Hephaestus and Ares. When she was done, the room looked the same, as the wards were invisible. Her magic, added to that of the two Olympian Gods, made the room indestructible. Not even the most powerful earthquake could damage it.
Then Gabrielle flew them to her secret treasure cave. It was high on the top of a snow-covered mountain. This was her lair before she had lost her powers and was forced to change into a human. It was as she had left it years ago. Her lair was protected by the same powerful warding spells as she had placed on the room in Ares' temple. Inside, Gabrielle carefully examined her gleaming mountain of treasure. She instantly counted every single item with a spell and was pleased to discover not one coin was missing.
"WOW!" Iolaus stared in shock at the huge towering pile of treasure. He saw countless gold coins and sparkling gems. Sword hilts, covered in priceless jewels, stuck haphazardly out of the pile. He also saw pieces of armor, like gauntlets and breastplates. Plus there were other items, too. Spears, helms, long rods, and many things Iolaus did not recognize. There were many jewelry pieces, too, like rings, necklaces, bracelets and headpieces. The variety of items in the never-ending treasure pile was amazing.
Gabrielle quickly searched through the pile and found what she wanted. It appeared to the others as if she knew exactly where each item she wanted was in the haphazard mess - and she did! What should have taken days to find took only a half hour. She handed Ares, Hercules and Iolaus enchanted Demon Slaying swords, explaining the swords were especially created to kill demons. Each sword was a perfect specimen of its kind. Ares and Hercules received two-handed swords that were six feet long and weighed fifteen pounds. They tried the swords out in a mock battle with each other, easily swinging the immense weapons around. Iolaus received a long sword that weighed only four pounds and was three and a half feet long. Except for the varying sizes and weights, the three swords looked alike. Each sported a silver blade. The silver hilt had the snarling head of a demon on the end, complete with horns, large ears and dripping fangs. A set of rare bloodstones was used as the blazing eyes. When light hit the bloodstones, they glowed fiercely with an inner fire.
Next she gave them magic Rings of Protection. They each received two rings. The first ring was expertly carved from pure gold in the shape of a dragon. When they slipped the ring on, the dragon's body curled tightly around their fingers. Perfect red rubies gleamed as the dragon's eyes as it held its sinuous tale in its mouth. This ring would protect them from all fire-based attacks. And it would be needed. Gabrielle had explained that Dahok was a type of demon called a Pit Fiend. These were the most dreaded type of demons and often had lesser demons working for them, as they were the most powerful and feared. They loved fire and used it as their weapon of choice.
The second ring was a general type of Protection Ring. It was used for stuff like swords, spears, claws, punches and other normal, non-magical attacks. They could still be injured while wearing the ring, but the injuries would be smaller and not so serious as without the ring. And weaker attacks might not damage them at all. This ring was also made from solid gold and was designed like overlapping scales. A six-sided diamond sparkled in the center.
Gabrielle chewed on her bottom lip for a moment while she thought. She knew she was forgetting something, but what? "Oh! You guys better wear some armor, too. A Pit Fiend's claws are very poisonous. A single small scratch will kill you."
Iolaus stopped feinting with his new sword and frowned. "But I thought Dahok is just a column of fire. How can he scratch us with claws?"
"When I summon him, he will be flesh and bone." Gabrielle explained to Iolaus as she pulled something out of the pile. It was a shiny breastplate, one designed for a man. "See, I can't kill him as he currently is. I might be able to banish him to his own Plane and seal the rip he made, but he would just come back. Since he made a rip between the Planes once, he could do it
again. The only way to defeat him is to slay him. That's why the conjuring room has so many glyphs on it. Even if we're all killed, Dahok will be trapped for all eternity in the room."
Iolaus grimaced and a shiver traveled through his body. "A demon in the flesh, huh? Gee, Herc, why do we get all the juicy assignments? Like fighting a Pit Fiend is something I dreamed of as a boy."
"Well, Iolaus, I guess we're just lucky." Hercules picked up the breastplate and saw it was big enough for him. He normally didn't wear any armor besides his gauntlets, but perhaps in this case he better. He didn't want to end up dead if Dahok got close enough to claw him. The plan was for Gabrielle to attack Dahok in dragon form from a safe distance. They would only step in if needed.
Ares' eyes gleamed as he took in Gabrielle's hoard from her mysterious home world. He had never seen so many enchanted items and artifacts in one place before. Sure his brother Hephaestus had some stuff, but nothing like this! This was truly amazing! He wanted to search through the entire hoard and ask her about each weapon he found. He gingerly picked up a brass rod about three feet long that was as thick as his thumb and had ivory leaves carved into its surface. He had never seen anything like it before and wandered what it was for. It was too delicate to be a club or any other type of striking weapon. Yet he sensed it was not purely ornamental either. He could feel power and energy humming inside it with his Godly senses. He
searched the nearest section of the pile with his eyes and saw other rods similar to this one but with different designs on them. "Say, what are these things?"
Gabrielle glanced at what Ares held. "That's a magical wand. Normally wizards use them, but as a God you could use one." Gabrielle dug through the pile and soon pulled out a different wand, one that had lightning bolts racing down its sides. "Here, use this one. Lightning is strong against Pit Fiends. So is acid. Unfortunately, my breath weapon will be harmless against it, as they are one of the only creatures immune to dragon fire."
"Oh, that's just great!" Iolaus frowned as he swung his arm downward. "The bad guy is immune to our dragon's best weapon!"
"I'm sure everything will work out just fine Iolaus." Hercules reassured his friend.
After the guys had their breastplates on and Gabrielle had collected a few more lightning and acid wands, they flew back to Ares' mountain top temple. Inside the warded room, Gabrielle drew a complicated pattern on the floor using a special substance she had gotten from her cave. She ordered the guys to stay back along the wall while she was doing this. Each straight line and curve had to be perfect. If she made a single tiny mistake in the design, Dahok would be able to escape from the pattern. The design acted like a trap. Once he was summoned in the center of the design, he would not be allowed to leave without her permission - that is, if the design was drawn perfectly.
Finally she stepped back and examined the pattern carefully. It was on one side of the room, the corner farthest from the door. When she was satisfied it was OK, she transformed into the dragon. She locked the door and the three men gathered near her, their silver Demon Slaying swords drawn. Gabrielle performed the summoning spell, inserting Dahok's name in the appropriate locations.
Iolaus clutched his new sword tightly. He gulped as a red mist appeared in the center of the geometric drawing on the floor. The mist gathered together and a faint humanoid form could be seen. It solidified more and the remaining red fog settled around the Pit Fiend's twisted feet.
Dahok stood before them in the flesh.
Ares, Hercules and Iolaus gasped when they saw Dahok. He was the most hideous and frightening thing any of them had ever seen. The Pit Fiend stood twelve feet tall with red scaly skin. It's body; legs and arms were extremely thick and bulging with huge muscles. Each limb was as big as a tree trunk. The fingers on each hand were twisted with swollen knuckle joints and razor sharp claws, yet there was no doubt that the hands worked extremely well. A huge pair of bat-like wings grew out of his back and a muscular tale thrashed the area behind him. This in itself was frightening, but Dahok's face was the worst.
His glowing yellow-orange eyes were sunk in deep pits surrounded by ridges of bone. His widely flared nose was above a gaping mouth filled with pointed, tartar stained teeth. Most of his teeth were normal sized except for a set of tusk-like fangs. These curved outward and downward from his upper jaw all the way to the center of his chest. Green slime constantly dripped from the fang tips and when it splashed onto the stone floor, the floor sizzled and smoked. The fangs, like the other teeth, were stained yellow but also had dark brown streaks running down their entire length. His skin was not smooth but covered with a variety of bumps, warts and assorted bony ridges. A stout pair of horns grew from the top of his head as well as a large pair of pointed ears. The thick fleshy ears were not on the side of his head like human ears, but grew from the top and were located right behind his horns.
"WHO DARE SUMMON ME?" Dahok's voice boomed. It sounded like boulders grating against each other. His eyes locked onto Ares with murderous rage. "YOU! YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD! SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO RIP YOUR GUTS OUT. THEN OLYMPUS WOULD BE DEFENSELESS AGAINST ME."
Ares placed a hand on Gabrielle's warm dragon forearm. Now Dahok's order made a bit more sense. He wasn't after more Destroyers; he had wanted Gabrielle to kill him! So if he had attacked her, she would have ripped his guts out somehow. Perhaps she had had just enough power stored in her body to grow dragon claws in moments of extreme danger. And after falling down that pit and surviving the magma, her dragon abilities were more awakened then ever. Ares shivered at the thought. He still knew very little about her dragon abilities. "Hey. I told you I don't do that sort of thing."
Dahok screamed in rage and rushed forward. He collided with an invisible shield and hot sparks filled the air. He tested the wards for any mistakes hoping to escape from his invisible prison, but it was drawn perfectly. "HOW DARE YOU TRAP ME? I WILL KILL ALL OF YOU AND THEN ESCAPE. I AM FULLY ON YOUR PLANE NOW, FLESH AND BLOOD. I WILL SOON RULE OVER THIS WORLD!" He began speaking some words in a strange guttural language and a green mist soon hugged the floor.
"He's casting a spell!" Gabrielle warned the others. She held one of the lightning wands in her huge hand and let loose a bolt of electricity at Dahok. She wished she could use her breath weapon but he was immune to dragon fire. The electricity hit Dahok on his chest and zigzagged over his body. A moment later a lightning ball from Ares struck him in the same spot. Dahok shrieked, a terrible sound as loud as an avalanche, and doubled over in pain. But the Pit Fiend lifted his head and laughed. He had completed his spell before the attack had reached him.
The green mist collected into two pulsating balls that drifted five feet above the floor. The mist suddenly exploded outward and vanished, revealing two ugly creatures. Each stood seven feet tall and had a similar appearance to Dahok except they had green scaly skin. Their bodies were thinner and they didn't have the big tusk-like fangs. Instead they had long snouts filled with
sharp flesh tearing teeth. The claws on their hands and feet were three times as big as Dahok's and more curved. The demons' thrashed their longer, snakelike tails and focused their eyes on the humans.
"KILL THEM, MY ABASHII!" Dahok ordered.
The Abashii spread their wings and leaped toward the humans.
"Oh-oh. Here comes company." Hercules said as he readied his sword. One of the green Abashii dove at him, its huge claws fully extended. He ducked under the claw attack and spun around on one heel. Then he swung his sword at the demon's retreating back. The blade struck one of the wings and created a deep slash. A foul smelling black ichor dripped out of the wound and coated the sword blade.
The other Abashii leaped directly at Iolaus, perhaps sensing he was the most vulnerable of the lot. Iolaus gulped and leaped into the air above the charging creature. He was just about ready to go into a spin when red-hot pain bloomed in his right leg. The Abashii had clawed him. Iolaus crashed to the floor, landing on his back. Blood pumped out of the gash in his calf. He
looked upward and saw the Abashii was ready to leap on him again. He lifted his sword and pointed its tip at the creature, but the sword drooped. The intense pain was making it difficult to keep the sword upright.
Giant jaws swooped in above Iolaus and gripped the Abashii in mid-leap.
Iolaus' heart pounded crazily from sheer fright. A few moments later he realized it was not a new enemy but the dragon. He was mesmerized as he watched the strong jaws bite down on the green Abashii. The lesser demon screamed as the large teeth bit into it. The dragon thrashed its head sideways and Iolaus was sure he heard bones crunching.
Don't look! Don't look! Iolaus' brain screamed at him. He didn't want to watch but he couldn't tear his eyes away from the gristly sight. The dragon tipped its huge head upward and the demon's green scaly feet disappeared from sight. A fat bulge traveled down the dragon's long neck.
"I'm going to be sick." Iolaus moaned. He struggled to sit up and examined his wound. It was deep and still bleeding. In fact, there was already a small puddle of blood under his wounded leg.
"Iolaus!" Hercules spun around and saw that he best friend was wounded. He hurried over and took a quick look at the leg wound. "What happened? Did it scratch you?"
"Yeah." Iolaus moaned. It thumped like crazy! It felt like someone had poured liquid fire on his leg. "Don't let those things scratch you, Herc. It really hurts - bad."
"Iolaus, those claws are poisonous." Hercules frowned as he remembered what Gabrielle had told them about Dahok earlier. "A fatal poison."
"Oh, that's just great." Iolaus moaned. "No wonder it hurts so bad."
Hercules twisted around and watched Ares throw another lightning ball at Dahok. The lightning crackled over the Pit Fiend's body but Dahok ignored it and kept chanting. "Drat! He's casting another spell!" Hercules said.
"Herc! Watch out!" Iolaus called.
"Whoa!" Hercules ducked just in time as his Abashii flew at him once more. Its long tail wrapped itself around Hercules' neck and yanked him off his feet. Hercules clawed at the muscular tail and dropped his sword in the process. It clanged loudly as it hit the stone floor and was left behind. Hercules struggled for air as the tail tightened around his throat. The Abashii flapped its wings and dragged him across the floor toward Dahok. He felt a tiny prick as the tip of the tail brushed against his hand.
"Hey! Let go of my little brother!" Ares leaped forward, easily covering the distance in a single jump. He landed next to the Abashii and swung his silver Demon Slaying sword downward. The tail was sliced off the creature's body. Black ichor poured out and gushed onto the floor and Hercules' head. The demon howled in pain and turned toward Ares. It lunged forward, it's jaws wide open.
Hercules sputtered and tore the still twitching tail off his neck. Then he wiped the black goop off his face so he could see. He climbed to his feet and almost slipped in the pool of black demon blood. The stuff was extremely slippery! He turned to help Ares with the demon, but saw Ares yank his sword blade out of the creature's open mouth. It thudded onto the floor lifeless.
"Thanks." Hercules told Ares. It felt odd being saved by Ares. Before his brother had always tried to kill him. Now for a change they were both on the same side. He lifted his hand to pat Ares on the shoulder but saw his hand was coated in demon blood. Hercules knew how Ares worried about his appearance so he decided he better not get his brother's clothes dirty. He
wanted this peace between them to last longer.
Gabrielle, still in dragon form, used her lightning wand again on Dahok. The energy left a black scorch mark on the Pit Fiend's chest. A narrow stream of black blood began to drip from it. But once again it was too late as green mist floated above the floor.
"YOU ARE LOOSING AND NO ONE CAN SAVE YOU. YOU WILL ALL DIE AND I WILL WIN. I AM ALREADY WINNING. FIGHTING ME IS USELESS! I HAVE DOZENS OF LEGIONS OF ABASHII WAITING FOR MY SUMMONS. YOU CANNOT DEFEAT THEM ALL." Flames leaped off Dahok's body as he raised his hands in front of himself. Fire formed in his hands and rapidly focused into a ball. Dahok gripped the fireball in one twisted hand and threw it at Ares and Hercules. The fireball rapidly grew in size. It started out as large as a melon and a few seconds later easily dwarfed a wagon.
"Shit!" Hercules jumped onto Ares and knocked him to the floor. They were huddled together as the fireball passed by overhead still growing in size. Hercules felt the heat of it rush over him and he sweated heavily. They should have been burned from it, but the rings saved them. Neither of them had ever seen a fireball so large before. It was as large as a barn when it
finally hit the wall and exploded. Hercules lifted his head and saw the back wall was undamaged. Not even a streak marred its surface. "Whoa. She wasn't kidding when she said nothing could damage this room."
"Oh yeah." Ares got to his feet and yanked Hercules up. His dark eyes shifted to the green mist as it gathered into two large balls. "Look, we have to concentrate more on Dahok. If we don't, he'll just keep summoning these lesser demons to wear us down."
"You're right. Can you do anything about poison?" Hercules asked Ares as they hurried over to Iolaus. The Golden Hunter was pale-faced, his breath ragged. He was stretched out flat on the floor, his face twisted up with pain.
"I can heal his wound, but that's it. Apollo is the God of Healing and Medicine. And I'm not sure even he could cure that demon poison." Ares placed his hand on the gash in Iolaus's leg. As weak as he was, his whole body jerked from the light touch. A golden glow appeared under Ares' hand as he healed the injury. Ares straightened up and gripped his sword. "Company's coming."
Hercules picked up his sword and sliced at another demon. He had to protect Iolaus while his friend was still alive. His fingers tingled and his whole hand felt hot. Hercules switched the sword to his other hand and continued to slash at the green demon. He jumped backward as the Abashii's claws got past his sword and raked across his enchanted breastplate. "I must be getting too old for this or I'm a more tired than I thought."
Gabrielle swatted the two Abashii with her tail. She was getting annoyed. They crashed against the far wall with a sickening thud. She pressed her belly close to the floor and crouched. Her glowing eyes focused on Dahok. Gray smoke drifted up from her nostrils and her tail tip twitched. She had tried to hang onto her human half during the battle, but her control was rapidly slipping. If she slipped any further, she would be only the dragon. She didn't want that to happen, but she sensed she needed to be the dragon to defeat Dahok. Already his chest wound was healed and he was chanting again. It was time to finish this.
"Oh oh." Hercules moved backward. He suddenly found himself in the room with a very large predator. "I hope I'm not on the menu." He grabbed Ares and yanked him over by Iolaus.
"Oh, this is going to be good! I finally get to see my dragon in action!" Ares watched as Gabrielle opened her cavernous mouth. He didn't know what she had planned for Dahok, but he intended not to get in her way. He leaned against the wall and waited.
Gabrielle clicked off her options in her head. Her first weapon of choice, her dragon fire, was useless against Pit Fiends. Her second weapon of choice, spells, was pretty useless too. Most of her spells were fire-based anyway. And the wands were just scratching him. That only left physical attacks. Perhaps if she were quick enough, he wouldn't have a chance to bite or scratch
her. Perhaps she was being too cautious, but you don't become an ancient wyrm by being careless. But maybe her breath weapon could still be handy.
She opened her mouth and sent a jet of dragon fire at Dahok. The force of it flattened him out. He was crushed against the other side of the invisible barrier, unable to move. He blinked his eyes as he tried to see through the thick wall of flickering flame. Gabrielle pounced on him like a giant red jungle cat. Her huge hand pressed him into the floor as she chomped on him. She spitted the half in her mouth out against the far wall. The other half got crushed flat as she rested her entire weight on her one hand. Pit fiends tasted terrible! Ugh! It would take forever to get the horrible taste out of her mouth!
Well, at least the Abashii didn't taste too bad. She figured they were no worse than goblins and she had eaten plenty of those before. Not her favorite, but acceptable. In fact, her favorite meal was....Gabrielle shook her head to stop that train of thought. She did NOT want to go there. She was beginning to think like a dragon and that was bad. She glanced around and realized all the Abashii were gone. Well, at least she had a small snack. They didn't come anywhere near to filling her empty stomach though.
"Gabrielle. You were magnificent!" Ares told her as he stepped forward. "I knew you could beat that old Dahok!"
The dragon focused her blazing eyes on the small creature before her. She lowered her big head and rubbed against him. Ares almost fell over from the force of it, but he managed to stay on his feet. She rumbled loudly in her throat.
"Umm...can you do something? Iolaus is poisoned!" Hercules pointed at Iolaus. His buddy leaned against the wall but he was sitting up. A little of the color had returned to his face. "That demon scratched him."
Gabrielle blinked her fiery eyes. "The Abashii claws are not poisonous. Only Pit Fiends have poisonous claws and fangs. On the Abashii, it's the stinger on the end of the tail that has the poison."
Hercules swayed on his feet. He felt dizzy. He held his hand up and stared at it. He could just make out a tiny red bump. His vision blurred and he collapsed onto the floor.
"Hercules!" Ares shouted as he raced over to his brother. He had to admit at one time he would have been glad to see Hercules in this situation, but not any more. They had found a common ground by fighting against Dahok. And in that short period of time he had grown to care for Hercules. Perhaps he had always cared for him a little bit, somewhere deep inside but he had never admitted it to anyone, including himself. In the past, Hercules had never wanted to friend with him so he had behaved in a suitable manner, hardening himself against rejection and unkind words. But their fights had always been fun. Very few people could match Ares in strength and skill when it came to fighting and a suitable opponent was a rare find. After all, there is no challenge in fighting someone weaker them himself and if there's one thing he loves it's a challenge! But now his brother and long time sparring partner lay dying on the floor. He cradled Hercules' head in his arms and glanced up at Gabrielle. "Can you save him? Healing is not my thing, as you well know."
Gabrielle lowered her huge horned head, her golden eyes filled with sorrow. "I'm afraid healing isn't my thing, either. And I don't have any enchanted item that can cure this poison. Don't you have a God of Healing?"
"Apollo." Ares heart sank. Apollo hated both of them, him and Hercules. He hated Hercules because the Demigod had real friends, something Apollo never had. The Golden One always tried to control people through fear and intimidation and lied to himself, saying they stayed with him because they liked him. When Hercules had told Apollo the truth the God had gone crazy and attacked the Academy. And he hated Ares because of his job, the God of War. Many of his family members hated him because of that, claiming he was too bloodthirsty. Or maybe because he was first in line for the throne, being the only legitimate son of Hera and Zeus. He really wasn't sure what Apollo's reasons were. He just knew that from the start the Golden One had hated him. It was an old feud that went all the way back to their childhood. It would be worst now because of the recent incident, when Apollo had fallen off his board. Seeing the dragon had really scared him! Ares had enjoyed it at the time but now Hercules might have to pay for it with his life. "Apollo hates both of us. I don't know if he'll help."
"Well, what about Zeus?" Iolaus asked from his spot against the wall. He still was terribly weak but he felt a bit better. Worried lined his face as he watched his best buddy dying before his eyes. "Surely Zeus wouldn't let Hercules die! He could force Apollo to heal him, right?"
"Except for the little fact that Zeus wants my dragon dead. He's boiling mad at me right now. He might be mad at Hercules now, too, as Hercules disobeyed him." Ares reminded Iolaus. "He may not want to help."
"Oh. Right. I forgot about that." Iolaus was quiet for a moment as his brain raced frantically for an answer. There had to be something he was overlooking, something that would save his best friend! It appeared that Zeus was the problem. The golden haired hunter knew Zeus could easily control that wise guy Apollo. Heck, Herc had moped the floors with him enough times! "You know, you just need to stand up to the old coot! Show Zeus what a pig-headed baboon he's being, jumping at shadows and all. Convince him that she's no threat but above all don't loose your temper!"
Ares didn't relish the idea of facing Zeus, but he knew he had to do it sooner or later. He scooped Hercules up into his arms and carried him over to Gabrielle's back. Soon they were seated on the Dragon. Gabrielle released the wards she had placed on the room, as they were no longer needed. Ares helped Iolaus up onto the dragon, too, and then the four left for Olympus. Gabrielle flew as fast as she could and soon they were there. Ares could have teleported them there but he had expanded lots of his power during the fight and he felt drained. Plus Gabrielle still used him as her source of power as well. They landed on Olympus and Gabrielle changed into her regular human form. Together they walked into the Zeus' throne room.
They were probably the oddest group to ever enter Zeus' Throne Room: a bloodthirsty War God carrying his hated brother, a dragon in human form and one badly limping human male. Zeus' eyes fell on his beloved son and he automatically jumped to conclusions. "Ares! What have you done to your brother? If you and your new foul beast have killed him, I swear Tartarus
would be too good for you!"
"Father, I have done nothing to Hercules. I have brought him here to save his life. He has been poisoned by a demon." Ares gently placed Hercules on the floor before Zeus and stood guard over him. "Tell Apollo to come and heal him. Hurry, there isn't much time."
"And you're the one who has this demon, this dragon!" Zeus accused, his face turning red with anger. Zeus stood from his throne and stretched to his full height. Lightning crackled outside and thunder rumbled, the physical manifestations of his anger. "I told you they were dangerous! They can kill us all! And yet you disobey me and go into partnership with the foul beast
because of your own greed!"
Ares fumed. His father was not only blind and deaf but also prejudice. He forced his voice to be calm when he answered. "No, Father. My dragon has not harmed Hercules. In fact, she has saved us all from the demon known as Dahok. It was one of Dahok's minions that have poisoned Hercules. Now are you going to summon Apollo or must I drag him here myself?"
Something clicked inside Zeus' head and he realized his favorite son was dying before his eyes. Sadness appeared in his eyes and the storms outside grew still. He knelt on the floor next to his son and gathered him in his arms. He called Apollo and the Golden One appeared in a flash. "Heal Hercules. He has been poisoned."
"Poisoned?" Apollo knelt and examined the unconscious Demigod. He shook his head. "Oh, this is serious. I'll have to take him to my quarters for some serious treatments." Without another word, Apollo flashed out, taking Hercules with him.
Once he knew his son was being cared for, Zeus resumed the argument with his other son. "Ares! I order you to destroy this dragon of yours before it's too late! You don't realize just how dangerous they are, how power hungry. They, like the Golden Hind, have the power to kill us, that which is immortal. For the safety of all who live on Olympus, I can't allow you to keep this pet of yours. Since you have saved your brother, I will release you from your punishment if you do as I say."
"Father, I can't do that." Ares replied bravely. He wrapped his strong arms around Gabrielle and held her against his chest. He stared with defiance into his father's eyes. "I love her. We are bonded. And with or without your permission I will marry her. That is, if she will have me."
"Oh, Ares, of course I will!" Gabrielle smiled up at Ares, tears of happiness in her blue eyes. She could feel his love for her through the telepathic bond they shared.
Zeus ran a hand across his face and through his gray hair. "Look, son, I'm not talking about your mortal girlfriend here, I mean the dragon!"
"She IS the dragon, Father." Ares explained. "There are many things about them that we don't know, that are not in the old scrolls. She is from a different world, a world with a different set of Gods. Something had happened on that world and all of the magic had left. Their Gods had been forced to flee. I don't know to where. But Gabrielle had come here, to our world. She
has the ability to change into human form and for the past several years she has been traveling with Xena. You know of her Father, how she keeps Xena on the right path. Well, now I'm bonded with her, too. It's permanent. There's nothing I can do about it and I don't want to change it. If you kill her, you kill me and probably Xena, too."
Zeus sunk into his chair and stared at Gabrielle in shock. SHE was the dragon? He couldn't believe it! Then another thought occurred to him and Zeus moaned loudly. His son, the Heir to the Throne, was going to MARRY the dragon! No doubt they'd want to live up on Olympus. Soon there would be little beasts running around, ones that had sharp claws and teeth. Not
ordinary claws or teeth, but the deadly kind that could make a God bleed. How could Ares do this to him? The very thought was scandalous! Zeus forced himself to sit up straight and he leaned forward, his eyes weary. "Do you really love her?"
"Yes, I do. With all my heart." Ares answered him honestly. "I never have felt this way before in my immortal life. Now I understand why she means so much to Xena. I will never give her up."
"Tell me, Ares. Why did you save Hercules? I thought you hated him?" Perhaps he had misjudged this dragon. He knew of Gabrielle, the things she and that Xena woman had done. If she was able to actually get Ares and Hercules to act like real brothers, well, then perhaps she was exactly was his son needed. If only she wasn't a dragon! He just didn't trust dragons. But could it be that this dragon was a one-of-a-kind, a freak that didn't behave like a dragon? If what Ares said about Dahok was true, then the dragon had saved them. But saved them for who? Herself? Or was she just being helpful, helping them as she helped the mortals?
"I never really wished Hercules dead." Ares said to his father. "If you ever spent time with us you'd know this. But of course you ignored me just as you ignored Hercules. In fact, it's your fault this feud between us ever started. You manipulated both of us, constantly telling me Herc is your favorite son while you told Herc how evil I was. We never got a chance to really know each other. We were too busy fighting each other for your attention. Well, we put that behind us know. Or I hope we have."
"But you're always trying to kill Hercules!" Zeus protested loudly, his eyes filled with confusion. Could it be he didn't know anything about his oldest son? Had the distance between them grown so great? He hadn't realized it; there were so many battles with Hera. She never gave him a moment of peace.
"No, we are sparring partners." Ares explained calmly. "We both enjoy are fights with each other. We enjoy the challenge, to see who will win. If I really wanted to kill him I would have done so a long time ago, Protection Order or no Protection Order. Who else can match me in strength and fighting skills? The rest of you Gods are weaklings! You scream at your own shadows.
Only Hercules, my brother, is a worthy opponent for the God of War."
Zeus sunk back into his chair, his mind whirling. He realized he didn't know anything anymore. His world had just turned upside-down and there was nothing he could do about it.
A gold flash filled the room and Apollo appeared with Hercules. The Demigod looked tired but he was standing on his own feet. He slowly walked over to Iolaus and clasped hands with his buddy. "Boy, I really thought I was a goner for a moment there."
"Yeah, so did I." Iolaus told Hercules. The little hunter had remained quite all this time. He didn't know what to say with Zeus around. He may have talked bravely down in Ares' temple, but Zeus was right here! That made a big difference.
"Hercules." Zeus said. He waited until his son turned to face him. He didn't miss the fact that his son had totally ignored him. "It has come to my attention that I really don't know my sons, either of my sons. I would like to rectify that."
"Well, gee Dad. This is kind of late, don't you think?" Hercules said bitterly. "You never were there when I was growing up, when I needed you. The only one from this side of my family who ever paid any attention to me was Ares. I enjoyed that attention. It made me feel important! I mean, just think: I was so important that the God of War had to come down off Olympus to try and kill me himself! It's kind of funny if you think about it. Anyway, I enjoyed pounding him up and he provided great excuses for Chiron."
"I was hoping, Son, that you would stay on Olympus for your brother's wedding." Zeus sighed. There was no getting around it.
"Well, that's different." Hercules told Zeus as he put an arm around Iolaus' solder. "Me and Iolaus will be happy to stay, won't we, Iolaus?"
"Sure!" Iolaus said happily. He loved weddings. They always had a ton of food at them. "Say, do you have anything to eat? I'm starving!"
Zeus held his head in his hands and moaned louder. Dragons and mortals on Olympus, what was the world coming to?
Down at Ares’ temple, Xena had returned. She pushed open the double doors and hurried inside. She had made it all the way down the mountain before she realized the mistake she had made. How could she have abandoned Gabrielle when her friend had needed her the most? She just had been so shocked. She had never dreamed that Gabrielle was a dragon! And she was used to hating Ares, seeing him as the bad guy. She had to admit she was also a bit jealous. She hadn't liked the idea that Gabrielle and Ares was a couple. That meant she would be alone then and after spending the last years traveling with
Gabrielle she didn't want to be alone. What if her dark side won with Gabrielle gone? Who would be her guiding light?
"Gabrielle! Where are you?" Xena frantically searched and she feared Gabrielle was dead, this time for real. They were about to fight Dahok and she had selfishly ridden off because she was scared! Not scared of the fight but of loosing her best friend to Ares. "Gabrielle, please be alive! I didn't mean to leave you. Please forgive me."
"You're forgiven." Gabrielle said as she appeared in a flash of light. She walked forward and hugged Xena. "I know it was a big shock for you. It was a big shock for all of us, including me. Trust me, Xena, all these years I had no memory of being a dragon. If I had known, I would have told you. You're my best friend and nothing can change that."
"And Dahok?" Xena asked. "Did you fight him?"
"Yes, he's dead for now, his spirit sent back to the Abyss where he belongs." Gabrielle explained. Her face brightened as a wide grin spread across her face. "Come up to Olympus with me, Xena! I want you to be there when we start planning my wedding!"
"Your getting married?" Xena eyes widened and her jaw dropped. "To Ares?"
"Oh, don't worry, Xena! These things take lots of time to plan apparently!" Gabrielle laughed as she grabbed her friend's hand. "Just promise me you won't give Ares a hard time?"
"I'll try." Xena stated. "I'm just not used to trusting him."
"I know." Gabrielle said in understanding. Then they vanished as Gabrielle teleported them to Olympus.