The war had been fast and bloody. Both sides had been eager to wipe the Other off the face of the Earth. In the end, both sides lost as the men lay dead or dying on the bloody field of war. The battle had taken place in a large valley situated between Rome and the Amazon Lands. The valley had once been beautiful, filled with sweet grasses and wild flowers. Now the ground was torn up and smoke drifted skyward off the broken bodies of the slain men. The once fresh air was filled with the overpowering stench of rotting corpses.
Ares walked through the field. He had never felt this powerful before. Both sides had worshipped him. He had lost many worshippers during his time as a mortal and so he had been forced to do something major to get them back. True, most of them were dead now but he knew there would always be more Now that people knew he was around again. The power flowed into his body and he felt great. Ares knew that this war would be one for the history scrolls. Never before had there been such a large and deadly battle. Just as Ares walked past, a root twisted out of the ground and brushed against his boot. Before it could get a hold, Ares had moved on. In a flash of bluish-white light, Ares popped off to Olympus.
Xena and Gabrielle entered a small town on horseback. After riding for several minutes through the empty streets, Gabrielle reined in her horse and stopped. She glanced at the shuttered windows and the tightly closed doors. "Where is everyone, Xena? It's noon. The streets should be filled with busy people, shouting children and barking dogs. But I don't see anyone."
"I don't know. Maybe they're scared of the war in the nearby valley." Xena guessed. The two friends had heard of the big war between the Amazons and Rome. The news had reached them about two weeks ago and they had traveled as quickly as they could towards the warzone. After that, though, news had been very sketchy or missing all together. "But I've seen towns under attack before and they don't act like this. And there are no signs of troops in the area."
"Do you think everyone left?" Gabrielle asked as she jumped off her horse. She led the chestnut mare over to the town's inn and tied the lead rope to a wooden post.
"I don't know. Let's find out." Xena jumped off Argo and stepped up to the inn's door. The sign above the inn's door read The Black Kettle. Xena tried the door and discovered it was locked. She tried peering in through the window next to the door but it was covered with a big board. Lifting her fist, Xena pounded on the door. "Anyone in there?"
They heard footsteps inside and a voice floated out to them. "Who's there?"
"Two hungry travelers." Gabrielle replied. She and Xena exchanged a confused look when the person did not open the door. "This is Xena and I'm Gabrielle. We've traveled a long way to get here and we'd like to know what's going on."
"Xena the Warrior Princess?" the voice asked from the other side of the door.
"Yes, that's me." Xena replied.
The door creaked open and they saw the innkeeper. He was a plump man with a bald head. He wore a grease-splattered apron and his sleeves were rolled up. The man's frightened eyes darted around and as soon as they were inside he slammed the door shut and locked it. "Did you see any of those horrible things? They're out there, you know."
"What things?" Gabrielle asked. "We didn't see anything. Do you have any news of the war? We haven't heard any news lately and it's very odd. We're worried because many of the Amazons are our friends."
The main room of the inn was dark as all of the windows were covered with thick boards. The room was lit by dozens of candles. The innkeeper Walked over to the bar and picked up a white rag. He started to wipe the empty tables although they were already so clean they even shone in the weak candle light. "If you really are Xena, maybe you can stop the evil thing. We've prayed to the Gods every day to send someone who could kill the thing. Finally they have answered our prayers. And you haven't heard any news because no one can't go outside without getting killed. The Gods have smiled on you that you reached my inn alive."
"I doubt that." Xena muttered. She pulled out a chair and sat down. "Look, why don't you sit down and start from the beginning. We'll be glad to help your town, but we need to know more. We can eat while you tell us what's going on here."
The innkeeper hurried into the back room and came back with fresh bread, cheese, some roasted pork and a few vegetables. He pulled out a chair and sat down across from them. "It all started with that war, the one between Rome and those Amazons. We were frightened it might overrun our town but they stayed in the valley. In a few days it was over. As far as we know, everyone died. It was terrible. On windy days, when the wind blew from that direction, we had to stay indoors and close the windows. The smell was terrible, like rotten meat. It made you want to gag."
"Are you sure everyone died?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes sad. "Surely there's always survivors."
"If there were, they didn't come this way." He said. "Then those things started to appear. The first one got Magnes, the baker. I didn't see it, but I heard the tale from others. It was a bloated gray head that floated in the air. The evil thing had that same stink as the valley, of rotten meat. It killed him. Others tried to fight the head but they died, too. A few managed to escape and that's how we know what had happened."
"I never heard of anything like that." Xena admitted. "Are you sure this head creature is tied to the valley?"
"One of our men had managed to sneak over to the valley," the innkeeper explained. "That was after we had saw the evil floating head. Thanis is a hunter and very clever. That's how he managed to get there and back alive. He didn't go into the valley but stayed in the foothills above it. He reported seeing an evil twisted tree in the valley's center. We don't know where it came from, as there were no trees there before. We think the place is cursed from so much death."
"We'll stay the night here to rest and then set off in the morning." Xena told him. "Maybe we can kill that tree for you."
"We don't have much but we will give you whatever you need if we have it." The innkeeper said as he showed them to a room upstairs. The innkeeper closed the door and left.
"Xena, what do you think that tree is?" Gabrielle asked as she sat down on one of the two beds in the room. This room, like the common room downstairs, was lit by candlelight as the window was covered by boards. "And how are we going to kill it? Fire?"
"I don't know." Xena replied as she sat down on the other bed. "But I know you're staying here. This is too dangerous for you. I can't risk that you might get hurt."
"Xena!" Gabrielle jumped to her feet, her hands on her hips. "You can't go out there all by yourself! You need my help. Besides, I'm a warrior now, you know that!"
"It's dangerous." Xena said.
"And I've been in dangerous situations before." Gabrielle replied. "I've been in wars before. You know that. If we're going to beat this thing we need to stay together."
"All right. We'll leave together tomorrow at first light. But I wish I had more information on what this might be." Xena said. She was quite for a while as she thought. Then her blue eyes lit up as she got an idea. "And I think I know where to get it."
"ARES!" Xena called loudly. She waited for Ares to appear. She didn't know if he would, but she figured he could never pass up an opportunity to see her. She knew him all too well.
A bluish-white flash filled the room and Ares tumbled out of the air. He crashed onto Gabrielle's bed right next to where she was sitting. Gabrielle shrieked and leaped off the bed. Ares had almost landed right on top of her. The blonde bard turned to face him. She was about to yell at him for scaring her like that but stopped when she saw the look on his face. His dark eyes were open wide and sweat poured down his face. Gabrielle sat back down on the bed next to him, one hand on his shoulder. "Ares, what's wrong?"
"Xena! You got to do something about that tree." Ares said to her. "Or whatever the heck it is."
"That's what I was going to ask you about." Xena stated as she watched him. "Are you having problems with your powers?"
"Sort of." Ares replied as he straightened his black leather vest. "I went through all that trouble to get worshippers and now some freaky tree is stealing my powers! It isn't fair, Xena! And I want you to put a stop to it."
"The tree is stealing your powers?" Gabrielle asked, surprised. "How can it do that? And what did you mean, a tree or whatever it is. Is it a tree or not?"
"Well, it looks like a tree, a tree out of someone's twisted nightmares." Ares replied. "I'm not sure if it IS a tree though. It grew too quickly And it seems to be supernatural. It has those ghastly floating heads growing On it. And now it's stealing my powers."
"Well, Ares." Gabrielle said as she patted his shoulder. "Maybe this is nature's way of saying it doesn't like what you did. How could you do that, Ares? So many innocent people are dead. I thought you had learned better than that."
"Contrary to popular belief, I wasn't going to live the rest of my life on that farm." Ares told her. He stared into the bard's blue eyes. "Look, I'm the God of War. How can I do my job without having wars? That would be Like having a boat without water. And if you noticed, people still had wars when I was mortal, didn't they? Of course they did. It's caused by man's natural aggression. I'm not the cause of that."
"No, but you caused *this* war!" Gabrielle accused. She had liked him better when he had been a mortal. She remembered how funny it had been watching him chase after chickens on the farm, the three of them living together. True, Ares didn't want to do any work but something about him had been different. He had behaved better. "How many people lost their sons, their fathers, their brothers because of this war? How many Amazons are dead? I'm their Queen, or did you forget? Is there anything left for me to be a Queen of?"
"And I told you I needed worshippers!" Ares shouted at Gabrielle, his face twisting up in anger. "What else was I supposed to do? Huh? I gave up my Godhood for you and what did I get? Nothing. They were warriors, Gabrielle. They understood they might be killed."
"Maybe this is our fault." Gabrielle said as she sat on the bed next to Ares. "We didn't spend enough time with you when you were mortal. We didn't try hard enough. We risked so much to save Eve that maybe we forgot about you. It wasn't right that we just rode away and left you after you had sacrificed so much for us. I'm sorry, Ares. We just weren’t thinking straight. But we'll see this problem to the end together!"
"We will?" he asked, surprised.
"Of course!" Gabrielle threw her arms around Ares' neck and hugged him. He blinked his dark eyes and quite didn't know what to do. He decided to hug her back and wrapped his strong arms around her slender waist. After all, he had a beautiful woman hugging him. How could he complain?
"Are you two done yet?" Xena asked. She sat on the edge of her bed and watched the two of them.
"What?" asked Ares, an innocent look on his face. He still had his arms wrapped around Gabrielle. "Can't I hug anyone?"
"We don't have time for this! We need to find out what that tree is and why it's there." Xena reminded them. She stared at them with her piercing blue eyes until Gabrielle pulled away from Ares. The bard settled down, her hands folded in her lap. Ares just glared at her, but Xena was used to that. "We need information and it's clear you're in the dark just as much as we are."
"It's a tree, right?" Gabrielle said as she glanced from Ares to Xena. "Why don't we go ask Gaia? At least you didn't kill her."
"You'll have to go outside if you want to summon Auntie Gaia." Ares told Xena. "And after all the Gods you killed I don't know if she'll come. But it's worth a try."
"Can't you pop us to one of her temples?" Gabrielle asked.
"Are you kidding? After that entrance I made? I barely had enough power to pop here." Ares frowned as he thought about it. He hated feeling weak like this, it was so...mortal! His eyes darkened and an inner fire appeared in them. "When I find out what that thing is, I'll tear it out of the ground with my bare hand! I'll chop it to bits with my sword, blast it with fireballs!"
"Some of that stuff might not work. That's why we need to find out exactly what it is. We'll only have one chance to kill this thing and we need to do it right." Xena got off the bed and headed for the door. "Come on, let's go see Gaia."
Gabrielle jumped off the bed and turned to face Ares. She gripped his hand and pulled him to his feet. Together they followed Xena out of the room.
They unlocked the door to the inn and stepped outside. After they went out, the innkeeper locked the door behind them, promising to let them back in after they were finished talking with Gaia. They headed towards a small garden in the back of the inn. Gabrielle smiled when she saw it. It was beautiful with a colorful stone path winding between blooming rose bushes and lilies. Clematis vines with big purple flowers twined themselves around the white trunks of birch trees and along arbors. In the center of the garden they found a dainty white gazebo. Xena started for it.
About halfway to the gazebo, an awful stench filled their nostrils. A bloated gray head floated over the rose bushes and hovered in front of them, blocking the way to the gazebo. It's eyes bulged out and the part of the eye that should be white was yellow. The thing's mouth dropped open and a foul gas spewed forth. Flies buzzed around the head and tiny white objects crawled all over its putrid flesh. Greasy hair sprouted from its head and hung unevenly around the head.
Gabrielle covered her nose and mouth with her hand. It was without doubt the most terrible thing she had ever smelled in her entire life! The awful stench made her want to gag. She seriously wondered if she would be able to fight under the circumstances. She could barely breath! She reached into her boot and pulled out one of her sais.
Xena didn't hesitate. Her war cry ripped through the garden as she leaped into the air, her sword out and ready. She spun around three times and landed right in front of the head. The head opened its mouth to attack and Xena swung her sword at it. The sword struck the head and it exploded like a rotten melon. Foul-smelling slop sprayed all over the area, including on Xena. The Warrior Princess frowned as she wiped off her face. "That was easy, if a bit messy. And disgusting."
"Ow!" Gabrielle slapped her arm. Something had stung her. She looked at her arm and saw a tiny red mark, like a mosquito bite. Had it been one of the flies? Whatever it was, it was gone now.
Xena turned around to see if Gabrielle was OK. Her blue eyes widened when she saw another head floating behind Ares and Gabrielle. "Behind you!"
Ares spun around and was face to face with the evil thing. It started to open its mouth to attack and Ares tossed a fireball at it. The head screamed as flames surrounded it and it burst in a sick popping sound. The burnt remains tumbled to the stone path where they continued to sizzle.
"Are you all right?" Xena asked Gabrielle.
"I think a fly bit me. It's just a little mosquito bite, see?" Gabrielle showed Xena her arm and Xena peered at it. It did look like a mosquito bite.
"You sure it wasn't that head?" Xena asked.
"Xena, I think I would know if that thing would have bit me! Besides, Ares would have saw it, right?" Gabrielle said.
"Yeah. I'll look at it later." Xena replied as she headed towards the gazebo. "Let's just summon Gaia and get back inside."
They reached the gazebo and climbed the few steps to the center. Once inside, they decided it would be best for Ares to call Gaia. The War God called his Aunt and soon she appeared. She was an older heavyset woman but it was clear she was powerful.
"Why have you summoned me, Ares?" Gaia asked him.
"We wish to know of the tree that grows in the nearby valley, the one with the heads growing on it." Ares replied respectfully. The last thing he wanted to do was offend her!
"The Death's Head tree grows where too much blood has been spilt. You have caused this tree to sprout, Nephew. It is your creation." Gaia informed them. "Furthernore, anyone killed by the tree or one of it's heads will sprout a new tree."
"Oh no!" Gabrielle cried as she remembered the innkeeper's story. The heads had already killed several people. She wondered what had been done with the bodies. What was this town's customs, burning, burring or entombing?
"How can we kill the tree?" Xena asked. "Can we burn it?"
"The tree is immune to all forms of fire, natural and magical. You must use a different method." Gaia replied calmly. The tree wasn't her problem, so she wasn't worried about it. To her, it was just another tree. "I must go now. I have duties to attend to."
Xena glared at Ares. "This is all your fault!" She stomped down the stairs and headed back towards the inn. She didn't wait to see if they were following or not.
"I had wars before and no stupid trees didn't sprout!" Ares called after her. He turned as Gabrielle placed her hand on his arm.
"It'll be OK. Let's go back to the inn. We need to find out what happened to those bodies." Gabrielle said as she started to follow Xena.
"The bodies?" The innkeeper asked Xena. "Well, normally we'd bury them but with those heads out there we couldn't. So we put them inside of this empty shed. It's the best we could do. Why?"
"Gaia said more evil trees will sprout from those bodies." Xena replied. She had taken the time to wash the slime off herself and had cleaned her weapons. Even though she was clean, a faint lingering odor of decay surrounded her. She figured it would take several baths to totally remove the smell. "We better go to that shed now and have a look."
The three headed out the door once more. By this time it was evening and the sun had started to set. Xena followed the directions and soon found the shed.
Xena cautiously opened the door to the shed and peered inside. She lifted her torch high and filled the small room with flickering light. The light revealed the slender trunks of five young trees. The tops of the trees almost reached the shed's roof. Each tree had several twisted gray branches. She silently noticed the absence of any type of leaf; instead odd growths and grooves deformed the trunk and branches. An awful stench filled the air but Xena narrowed her blue eyes and ignored it. She studied the heap of odds and ends piled against the shed's far wall. It would make a perfect hiding spot for an ambush. Her eyes flickered upward briefly towards the rafters before she stepped inside but her torchlight didn't extend that far. Xena held out her arm to caution her companions. She scanned the branches but didn't see any of the ghastly heads yet. "Careful. The trees already sprouted."
Gabrielle moved inside the shed and stood against the nearest wall. She looked at the trees and turned to Xena. "They just look like regular trees. Maybe we can just chop them down? I guess they're too young to grow those heads."
"I'm not sure about that." Xena stated as she stood still and listened for the slightest sound. She stepped closer to the trees in the center of the room and the odor grew stronger. She could now see the dark lumps at the bottom of the trees. She hardened herself against the terrible sight and wished Gabrielle wouldn't have to see this. Her friend had already seen too much death because of her and the Warrior Princess regretted that. She hated to expose Gabrielle to more. As a warlord, she had been the cause ofmany deaths but even then she had never seen anything so unnatural. Each tree grew from the chest of a corpse. She wondered briefly what the heads did to the people they killed to grow more evil trees. "Well, how ever you do it you're not going to reproduce."
"That's it, Xena! Let's kill these things!" Ares pulled out his sword and moved towards a tree.
"Wait. I need both hands to chop on them." Xena told Ares. "Gabrielle, come and hold the torch for us."
"All right." Gabrielle took the torch from Xena's hand and tried to ignore the stink but it was overpowering. It got up inside her nostrils and she wished for clean air. She stared at the horrible sight before her and her stomach heaved. The corpses had already started to decay, their skin discolored. She watched in horrid fascination, as the skin seemed to move and shift before her very eyes. As Xena stepped up to one of the trees, Gabrielle gasped as the "skin" parted and flowed over the Warrior Princess's boots. Gabrielle shrieked and jumped backward as the swarm of beetles headed Towards her.
Ares stared at Gabrielle, one eyebrow raised. "Gabrielle, it's only bugs."
"I know. It just startled me, that's all." Gabrielle smiled sheepishly at the War God. She hoped the firelight hid the heat she felt in her face. She watched as the beetles fled past her towards the open doorway. A few climbed onto her boots and she brushed them off. The last thing she wanted was for them to be crawling up her legs. Gabrielle tried not to think of what they had been feeding on. It was too horrible.
"This has everyone spooked and on edge." Xena said as she swung her sword at the base of the tree. It connected solidly and Xena pulled her sword free for another blow. "It just isn't natural. And this seems too easy if you ask me. Killing those heads was too easy, too."
"Well, we were warned." Gabrielle reminded Xena as she moved closer to her two friends. She watched as Ares swung his sword at another tree and took a big chunk out of it. "The townspeople had no warning and no training. That makes a big difference."
"The element of surprise is very valuable in an attack." Ares agreed. His arm muscles rippled as he chopped at the tree again. "And so is skill. And this is a lot of physical work."
"Ares, stop complaining and get back to work." Xena straightened and pushed the hair from her eyes. She glared at Ares for a moment and then resumed her work on the tree.
Gabrielle jerked her head upward. She thought she had seen movement out of the corner of her eye. The top of the tree Xena was chopping on shivered. Gabrielle started to relax as she figured vibrations traveling up the narrow trunk caused the movement. Her blue eyes opened wide as the pointed tip of a branch flew down at her. It twisted it self around her neck and she was hoisted up into the air. Gabrielle dropped the torch and clawed at the tightening piece of flexible wood around her throat. She kicked at the tree but she was rapidly growing tired as her air was cut off. Gabrielle tried to scream but only a gurgle emerged from between her lips.
"Gabrielle!" Xena cried as she saw her friend being choked by the evil tree. Before Xena could move, Ares leaped high into the air and swiftly cut the branch with his sword. Gabrielle tumbled to the ground and Xena caught her. Ares landed a moment later after doing a summersault in midair. Even though the branch was no longer attached to the tree, it still wiggled as it tightened itself. Xena watched as Gabrielle's eyes rolled up in her head and her body went limp in her friend's arms.
Xena quickly carried Gabrielle farther away from the clump of trees and placed her on the ground. Before she could pull the chakrom from her belt, Ares dug his fingers under the branch on both sides of her neck. He pulled and the branch snapped in half. Xena was relieved to see she was still breathing, her chest rising and falling. Xena coughed and realized the shed was filled with smoke. The torch Gabrielle had dropped must have caught the place on fire. Ares gathered the unconscious bard in his arms as they escaped into the fresh air outside the burning building.
Gabrielle stirred and slowly opened her blue eyes. She clung weakly to Ares' neck with her arms and coughed. Her throat ached terribly and her eyes watered. He lowered her feet to the ground and she leaned against him, resting her head on his chest. She felt his arms circle around her and she felt safe.
"We'll let it burn itself out." Xena said as she glanced around the nearby area. Luckily, the shed had been a distance from the other buildings and it was a calm night. "There's little chance of the fire spreading, so we'll just wait. And then we can find out if these trees really are fire proof. And the fire provides plenty of light to see those things if they come floating around."
Xena turned around and walked over to Gabrielle, a frown on her face. It looked as if Ares' arms around her waist were the only things keeping the blonde bard on her feet. Her eyes were closed, her head pressed back against Ares' broad chest. Xena gripped Gabrielle's chin and lifted it up. An angry red line circled her throat where the branch had tried to choke her. And bruises were forming on each side of her neck, no doubt from the War God's fingers. "Are you feeling OK? You don't look too good."
"I'm fine, Xena. I'm just tired." Gabrielle blinked and sleepily opened her eyes. She glanced at her friend wearily.
"Well, I still say you don't look too good." Xena stated. She placed her hand on Gabrielle's forehead. Xena's frown deepened. "You have a fever."
"Xena. A tree just choked me! I think it's a bit normal to feel lousy after that, don't you?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. She realized that her entire body ached, not only her neck, plus it hurted when she swallowed. Her mind wandered as she watched the flames on the burning shed leap and dance in the air. They looked pretty. She decided she could watch them for hours. She leaned more against Ares and she felt his arms tighten around her in response. She didn't think she could stand on her own. Her legs felt too heavy, as if someone had tied iron weights to her boots. Funny, she hadn't seen anyone do that. Maybe it had been that laughing face in the fire....
"Gabrielle!" Xena called her name and slapped her lightly on the face.
"Huh?" Gabrielle blinked and focused on Xena. She noted Xena looked concerned about something, but she had no idea what. Oh well. Xena was always worried about something. That's just how Xena was. "What?"
Xena gripped Gabrielle's arm and twisted it so the firelight fell on it. She pressed her finger against the tiny red bump on Gabrielle's arm. "I think one of those heads must have injected you with something, maybe a seed to grow those threes. It's making you sick. Being choked doesn't give you a fever. And you're starting to hallucinate."
"Oh, I forgot all about that bite." Gabrielle admitted. She stared at it dumbly for a moment, trying to remember where it had came from. The answer floated to the top of her mind and she giggled. "Xena, that's a fly bite! Maybe that fly carried some disease or something."
"I don't think so." Xena replied. She reached into Gabrielle's boot and pulled out one of her sais. She examined the sharp tip and nodded in satisfaction. It would be perfect for what she had to do. She jammed the blade into the roaring fire for a few moments to sterilize it. Then she walked back over to Gabrielle. She exchanged a silent understanding with Ares. "Hold her."
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide as she stared at the red-hot sais in Xena's hand. Her stomach lurched nervously. "Xena, what are you doing?"
"This is only going to take a second. Relax. I need to get that seed out of your arm." Xena gripped Gabrielle's arm again and stuck the tip of the sais into her skin by the red bump. She hated to see the pain on her friend's face, but she had to get that seed or whatever it was out. It was clear to Xena that Gabrielle was very sick and it had just been a few hours since she had been stung. The more Xena thought about it, the more sense it made. Those heads didn't open their mouths to bite, they had been spitting out seeds. Xena figured what she was looking for was something small and sharp, like a splinter. It should hopefully be just under the skin, unless that thing had dug itself deeper. Since she had been stung on the forearm, Xena hoped it's depth was limited. Blood flowed out of the fresh wound and dripped down Gabrielle's hand.
Gabrielle closed her eyes against the sharp pain and pressed her face against Ares. The leather of his black vest felt warm against her cheek and she could smell his male scent. The pain cleared her mind temporarily and she could think logically. Maybe Xena was right. Maybe that head had injected something into her arm, something small like a miniature dart. The idea terrified her. She didn't want to end up like the corpses in the shed. The thing probably wanted her to collapse right here on the soft earth so it could sink its roots into the ground. Well, she wasn't about to let some rotten head win! "If there's something in there, Xena, you have to get it out."
"Oh, I will." Xena assured her. Xena dug deeper and finally spotted something that didn't belong. It was gray, thin and twisted. It reminded Xena of a narrow root. Xena reached for it and pulled. The thing didn't move. Xena pulled harder but her fingers slipped off its bloody surface. The Warrior Princess frowned. This was going to be harder than she had thought and more complicated. The seed had apparently already sprouted and was growing inside her friend's arm. The roots had split to grow in different directions. Some traveled up the arm towards the bard's body; other sections grew further inward towards the bone. Xena knew she had to remove it all before it reached the body. Once there, it would spread too quickly. But that meant exploratory surgery and even then it would be almost impossible to remove it all. If she missed even a little piece Xena suspected it would start to regrow.
Gabrielle lifted her head and looked at Xena. "Did you find anything?"
"Yes, it already sprouted and growing throughout your arm." Xena explained softly. She saw the fear in Gabrielle's eyes before her friend closed them. "But don't worry. I'll do surgery and remove it. It'll just take a lot longer."
"And totally butcher her arm in the process." Ares glared at Xena. "And there's no guarantee you'll get all of it. Look, let's just go kill that main tree right now and I'll cure her after I get my full powers back. Wouldn't that be a lot better?"
"I don't know, Ares. We don't have a lot of time." Xena stared at her bloody hands. She knew Ares was right. The surgery would butcher Gabrielle's arm. And there was no telling how far it had already traveled.
"Look, Xena. Gabrielle was right. That war was my fault." Ares swung Gabrielle back up into his arms and started to carry her towards the inn. Xena was forced to follow him. "And because of the war, that tree sprouted and infected her, so it's my fault she's sick. It's only right that I cure her. I already feel guilty about this. Believe it or not, but I do care about Gabrielle. I haven't forgotten everything I learned as a mortal. OK, maybe I got sidetracked a bit and even went backwards, but I learned my lesson. I never meant for Gabrielle or anyone else to get hurt. The warriors in the war, they knew what they were getting into but this is different. Gabrielle didn't ask for this. None of the townspeople did."
"But was the war worth all of those lives?" Xena asked as she hurried after him.
Ares stopped in front of Gabrielle's horse and lifted the bard up onto it. Then he jumped up behind her. She leaned back against his chest and knew Ares wouldn't let her fall off. He gripped the reins and glanced down at Xena. "So, are you going to help me save her or not? You know this is the only real chance she has."
"Fine. We'll do it your way." Xena untied the two horses and leaped onto Argo. She looked at the darkening sky and knew they didn't have much time. She didn't want to fight the tree in the dark, but if she had to she would. She dug a torch out of a saddle bag and lighted it with the fire from the shed. She turned Argo towards the valley and cued her into a gallop.
They galloped through town and headed off towards the valley where an uncertain fate awaited them. Evening darkened into night as the last rays of the sun faded from the sky. A pale glow rose before them as Selene the Goddess of the Moon rose before them in all her glory. The full moon provided much needed light as the two horses pounded the hard earth with their hooves. The finally reached the wide rim of the valley and they paused for a moment at the lip. Down below in the center of the large valley waited a single tree. Even from this height it was visible, which attested to its enormous size. Xena's heart skipped a beat as she stared at it for the first time. Her face hardened and she leaned forward slightly in the saddle, sending Argo over the edge. The two horses carefully made their way down the steep incline but soon reached the safety of the valley floor.
During the descent to the valley, Ares had tightened his grip around Gabrielle's waist so she wouldn't fall. Now Gabrielle lifted her head and wearily gazed around. The once beautiful valley was now one of the most terrible places on Earth. The soft grass had been churned up from the fierce fighting and bloodstained lumps of uneven mud covered the ground. Everywhere she looked she saw broken weapons and pieces of armor. The smoke from the war had cleared but Gabrielle half wished it was still there. It would have helped to hide the hundreds of scattered bodies. The air was thick with the buzzing of carrion flies. Their constant droning was enough to drive one deaf as they flew around in huge black swarms that sometimes obscured the moon itself. She noticed movement and realized other carrion eaters were here, too, birds, insects and several types of small mammals. There had been so much death here that there was enough for everyone to feed on. It sickened her that none of these brave warriors, many them her Amazons, had never been given a proper burial. She vowed to herself if she ever survived this infection, she would see that all of the dead here were properly buried.
"We should leave Gabrielle here, with the horses." Xena said as she broke the silence that had descended on them. She had noticed those heads had never bothered the horses at all. She suspected they only wanted humans. Xena slid off Argo and led her over to the steep hill they had just come down. The grass here was still clean and sweet, although it was choked with an aggressive flowering vine. She helped Gabrielle off her horse and laid her on the sweet cushion of white flowers. "You'll be safe here. We'll be back as soon as we destroy that tree."
"Be careful." Gabrielle told them as she watched Xena make her way towards the distant tree. She stopped and waited impatiently for Ares, a hand on her hip.
"I promise you, Gabrielle, I will destroy that tree and cure you. Nothing can stop me from my goal. You just rest here and I'll be back before you know it." Ares knelt down next to her and kissed her lightly on the lips. A warm tingle spread throughout her body and for a few seconds the constant ache vanished. He pulled away slightly and gazed down at her with his dark eyes, smiling. "I'll be your prince in black leather going off to slay a monster for his fair Queen."
Gabrielle watched Ares join Xena and the two soon disappeared from sight. She had no idea what had possessed Ares to kiss her, but she had enjoyed it. She had to admit she had always liked Ares, but she had thought he had loved Xena. Well, there had been a few times when she had been angry at him or had not approved of things he had done, but that was pretty normal. And sometimes didn't she feel the same way about Xena, when her dark side got in control? She would think about Ares and that kiss later. Right now she was too exhausted to try and figure it out. But something Ares had said stirred her mind and wouldn't let her rest. What was it, a prince in leather? Hmmm...that didn't sound right. What should it be, a prince in shining armor? Gabrielle smiled as she drifted off to sleep, the idea for a new story tumbling around in her brain.
Xena and Ares dashed through the field of dead warriors, jumping over obstacles in their path. Xena carried the torch in one hand, her sword ready in the other. She didn't have a plan and it bothered her. If they had more time, she could have thought up a foolproof plan to destroy the tree once and for all. But Gabrielle was weakening too fast and they were forced to act now. Hacking with their swords seemed to be working on the young saplings in the shed, but this tree was older. Plus that would force them to get within choking range of its branches. Xena was determined. If that was the only way to kill it, so be it. She would gladly give her life to save Gabrielle. And she had a feeling Ares would, too. She had been shocked when he had kissed her friend. Where had that come from? Did he do it out of guilt? Or did he love Gabrielle? Xena forced the thoughts out of her head as she totally focused on her mission.
They had reached the center of the valley and the two stopped. The Death's Head tree rose before them, a grotesque silhouette against the full moon that hung in the night sky behind it. It's main trunk was fat, thick and squat. Xena estimated it to be as big around as some wagon wheels. It wouldn't be easy chopping through that with their swords. Higher up, the trunk split into several twisted branches. The branches curved this way and that, sometimes folding back on itself. Odd bumps and growths covered the gray bark and Xena could have sworn she saw them pulse. Several heads hung from the branches, the tree's ghastly fruit. To her utter horror, she realized the heads were speaking!
"Help me! Help me!" they cried steadily.
"Those evil things!" Xena cried angrily, her eyes taking on that steely gaze. "It's trying to lure more victims to it! I'm going to kill you! Do you hear me?"
"What's our plan?" Ares asked Xena.
"We take out those heads first." Xena pulled the chakrom off her belt and threw it towards the tree. The air whistled as the chakrom sped towards one of the evil gray heads. The head busted like a rotten melon as the circular metal weapon sliced through it. Next it chopped off the narrow branch near the tip of the tree before destroying three more swollen heads. By the time the chakrom clobbered the last head, it was shrieking in terror. The weapon flew back to Xena and she caught it. The Warrior Princess stared down at her goo-covered chakrom in disgust. The gray-green goop was cold and slimy and stunk so bad she bet they could smell it up on Olympus! Between all the goo, Xena noticed a trace of bright red and she wondered where it had come from.
"Nice! The heads are all gone. Just the tree remained. Any ideas?" Ares asked as he wrinkled his nose. By Zeus, that stuff really stunk!
"Not really. I guess we just rush in and start hacking away." Xena replied as she got her sword ready.
"Violent and straight to the point. I like it!" Ares pulled his sword out and rushed the tree. He yelled a fierce battle cry and leaped high into the air. He somersaulted twice before landing on a thick but crooked branch. Instantly several branches reached for him and Ares swung his sword at the nearest one. He gritted his teeth as the metal blade collided with the wood, but his sword was stronger and blade passed through. As soon as the branch was severed, red blood pumped out of the wound and sprayed all over Ares. Shocked, the God of War stumbled backwards two steps and slipped on the now slick branch. He landed hard on his butt on the branch and the two other branches passed harmlessly over his head. He wrapped his legs around the branch he was sitting on and heaved his sword straight up in the air, putting all of his strength into it. The sword sliced the two overlapping branches and they tumbled down onto his head and shoulders. Blood poured onto his head from the fresh wounds and Ares jumped to the ground.
"This is one weird tree!" Ares remarked as he took a second to look at himself. His hair, his leather clothes, everything was covered in a red sticky substance that looked like blood. He wasn't too sure if it really was blood. He supposed it could be possible, collected from the dead warriors scattered all over the valley. He glanced up at his handiwork and grinned. This side of the tree had been trimmed. The branches were now just stubs, too short to reach a person on the ground standing next to the trunk. "Now to trim the other side."
Ares leaped up into the air and landed on a branch on the other side of the tree, his sword ready. Below him, Xena rushed in and started hacking on the tree trunk itself. Her sword hit one of those odd lumps and it exploded on impact, splattering her with the tree's blood. Xena dully noted that it smelled just as bad as the goo, if not worse. Since she didn't have to worry about branches attacking her, Xena could totally concentrate on her sword swings. She gripped her sword tightly and chopped the same spot over and over. The crack in the trunk grew wider and wider as the red liquid started to pool around her boots.
By this time Ares had cleared all the branches from the top. The tree trembled under his feet and suddenly tipped sideways. A loud CRACK filled the air and Ares leaped free of the falling tree. He landed safely just as the tree crashed to the ground. A white glow surrounded him as his full powers returned. With a flash of bluish-white light, Ares popped off to save Gabrielle.
Ares reappeared next to Gabrielle perfectly clean and once again looking like a God. The blonde bard was lying on the bed of soft flowers, her hands curled up under her head. Ares took a moment to enjoy her beauty as she slept, her chest rising and falling softly. He snapped out of his reverie and knelt down by her side. Placing his hands on her arm, Ares sent healing waves of warmth into her infected body. He concentrated and felt the root tendrils dry up and vanish into nothingness. After they were gone, Ares closed his eyes and searched to make sure every one had been destroyed. This went on for several long minutes until he was satisfied she was one hundred percent cured.
He leaned back as Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes and blinked at Ares in the darkness, the silver moonlight falling on his black curls. She wondered for a moment where she was and why Ares was with her, where was Xena? She spotted the two horses standing nearby, sleeping on their feet and behind them the awful sight of the field filled with bodies. Then it all came flooding back into her mind and panic gripped her heart.
"It's all right." Ares reassured her with a gentle touch on her arm. "I cured you. You'll be fine."
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked as she sat up. She looked up at Ares with concern.
"Xena is fine. I'm sure she'll be along any minute." Ares replied as he climbed to his feet. He turned around and stared at the destroyed valley in silence, his face an unreadable mask. A slight frown tugged at the corners of his lips as he took in all the rotting corpses before him.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called as she appeared in the distance. The Warrior Princess leaped over bodies and hurried over to her friend.
"I'm fine, Xena!" Gabrielle assured her as she backed away rapidly. Xena was just covered in some horrid red stuff that looked like too much like blood. It was times like these that Gabrielle remembered Xena's warlord past and all the people she had killed. The thought chilled her that her friend was capable of such horrid deeds and had actually enjoyed doing them. Xena was so different from her, sometimes it amazed her that they got along at all. "Look, Ares healed me! I don't need a hug or anything. Really!"
Xena stopped and glanced down at herself. "Oh, sorry. I forgot I was covered in this stuff. Kind of got used to it, I guess. We still need to destroy the roots of that tree. We may have chopped it down but I don't know if it's dead for good. Any ideas how we can kill the roots? All of them? Digging them up would be an awfully big job."
"And don't forget about those other trees." Gabrielle said. "The ones that were in the shed. The fire probably didn't kill them."
"Yeah. We'll have to chop those down, too." Xena replied, a plan already clicking inside her head on how to deal with them. "But the roots got me stumped."
"I think I know how we can solve that." Ares stated as he turned to face his two companions. "This is my fault, so it's only fair I solve it. I'll just go back in time and prevent this entire mess from happening. It should be simple enough."
"Can you do that?" Gabrielle asked.
"Of course! I'm a God, am I not?" Without another word, Ares flashed out. He reappeared earlier in time and changed a few minor events. First he made sure Eve was sent on a peace mission to the Amazons. Second, he made sure a wounded Roman soldier crossed paths with Xena and Gabrielle. Then he sat back and watched as events unfolded. For a while it looked as if in this new timeline Eve would loose her life but Xena came through, just as he knew she would. Her brain was just too crafty for anyone to out think. His only regret was that Gabrielle would not remember how he saved her life or the kiss they had shared. Ares faded out and watched Xena and Gabrielle from the comfort of his temple. At least his God TV still worked even if he had less worshipers then before.
"Look, Mother, I need to do this by myself." Eve told Xena as she started to walk away, on her way towards Chin.
Xena and Gabrielle watched Eve until she vanished from site. They were standing in the middle of the Amazon camp. They had just adverted a major war, beat Ares' plan and saved Eve's life, yet Xena was said. Her daughter had just left and she didn't know if she'd ever see her again. Xena started walking and Gabrielle walked along side her.
"You know, Xena." Gabrielle said as she slowly strolled past the Amazon's huts. "I just had the most oddest ideas for a story!"
"Really?" Xena glanced at Gabrielle in surprise. "You mean you're going to write about something else besides me?"
"Yeah, I think I am!" Gabrielle waved her arms around as she described her story idea to Xena. "It'll be about this girl, I think I'll make her a blonde. And she'll be in danger. Let's say she's sick. Yeah, that'll work good. Not normal sick but like a magical disease. And this dashing Prince will have to save her. He'll have to risk everything to save her."
"A Prince, huh? So what's this Prince going to look like?" Xena asked curiously as she walked backward down the path. She wanted to watch Gabrielle. It was always interesting to hear her new ideas. Gabrielle didn't know it, but it often gave Xena insights into what the bard was thinking and feeling.
"Well...." Gabrielle rubbed her chin for a moment as she thought. What should her Prince look like? "I guess he should look Princely. Tall, well built with strong muscles to slay monsters, dark hair with neatly trimmed facial hair, dark eyes, a gleaming sword, some armor I guess..."
"What?" Xena cried in shock. Her blue eyes widened as she stared at Gabrielle. The bard had just described Ares! Gabrielle couldn't be attracted to Ares, could she? She had expected her to describe someone else, maybe Hercules or Iolaus but never Ares!
Gabrielle walked past Xena without seeing her. "...and intelligence. Yes, he most definitely has to be smart! Hmmm...I better write this down before I forget it!"
Xena watched in amazement as Gabrielle plopped down next to a big flat rock and pulled out a scroll. Her friend's hand flew across the paper as she poured her idea out onto parchment. The Warrior Princess started to search for a willow tree. She had a banging headache and needed some willow bark to chew. How did these things happen to her?
In his temple, Ares laughed. Soon he would have to pay Gabrielle a visit.