Iolaus watched the island disappearing in the ever-increasing mists that hid its contours with a blanket of fog. Harmonia was sobbing in the background. They hadn't been able to get much sense out of her except for some disjointed sentences about Hestia. Athena was still out cold in the captain's cabin. The vision of Joxer disappearing down the fissure haunted him. He started when he was joined at the rail.
The captain peered intently over the side, watching the water with a gleam of apprehension in his eyes. Muttering under his breath, he sighed. "Too late."
Iolaus felt his stomach clench. "What do you see that I don't?"
The dark eyes met his. "Nothing. I just know how it should be and this ..." he gestured at the waves that tossed the boat to and fro, "is a sign that something is going on deep beneath us. The water is boiling and that mist is full of foul gas. Look to our east beyond the island."
Iolaus gazed on piebald clouds, alternating white and black, that towered about the island and pressed down upon the land. He gulped. "Not a normal storm?"
"No. Something from the pit of Tartarus is brewing over there and I just hope that we got out in time." He turned and went back to the wheel.
Iolaus was clutching at the wooden railing when Hercules joined him. A comforting hand quieted his and he looked up at the center of his universe. That worry crease was back between the wide spaced blue eyes.
"What was it you saw back there that has you so down?" Hercules asked softly.
Iolaus told him in short pithy phrases that left the demigod wincing. Forgetting the others, he gathered the warrior into a warm hug that soothed all the painful edges with love.
"I've felt each death like an echo from Zeus. There wasn't anything while we were scrambling down that mountain. Ares must have saved him." Hercules put all his conviction into his words.
"Maybe." Iolaus sighed then remembered there hadn't been time to tell his friend of Joxer's new status. Leaning back a little, he regarded Herc. "But then he might have discovered some new powers of his own." And he proceeded to tell what had been revealed by Bacchus' death.
Hercules was chuckling by the time he was done. "I could almost feel sorry for Ate. She really has no idea who she's messing with."
"But she's on her home turf." Iolaus pointed out and turned to look at the island, now ten miles behind them. The sight caught his breath. The clouds had collected into a single crown of white and black. Lightning stabbed in lurid flashes from the ever-expanding ring of turbulence.
Faint pings impinged on their ears and looking down, they saw little splashes of black fragments of rock. These were soon followed by glowing arcs of burning cinders. The water surged and bubbled and Iolaus wondered if seaquakes were rumbling across the seabed. A strong current appeared to be driving them from the area.
Looking up, he saw Bax in the sails, whirling at dizzying speed. The canvas billowed with energy, Iolaus wondered if their slight glow was the product of his imagination or just an effect of white against a darkening sky. The sun had disappeared and the wind moaned in a suddenly silent world. His ears popped and he noticed Hercules shake his head to relieve the pressure.
He saw Athena stumble onto the deck, her eyes unfocused with pain. Harmonia went to her but she didn't seem to see her, all her attention was focused behind them. They both looked back to the island in time to see it explode.
Joxer coughed again and wiped his streaming eyes. Ares was helping Zephyrus fight Kratos with a whirlwind of fire that sucked the air right out of his lungs and allowed Artemis to skewer him to the ground for the final disassembling. The resulting pain flowed through them all with an almost familiar echo of despair.
Zeus was still fighting Ate but the fight had stilled to an exchange of energies that painted the air in lurid colors of green, purple, gold and aqua. The number of gods had halved. The conditions had deteriorated to the point that only the most committed remained. His thoughts were broken by a continuous rumble below the earth that escalated to a roar and shook apart the belligerents like dolls, flinging them to the ground with bruising force.
He found himself in a stunned heap near Apollo. Where is Ares? He pushed himself up and tried to see through the fog of smoke and mist. The golden god vanished in a flurry of sparks and the light of his departure showed Ares face down a few feet away. Crawling over the heaving earth, Joxer pulled the dark god into his arms and cradled him gently.
Probing with his mind, he checked for damage. Keeping one eye on the others, he tried to wipe off a stream of blood from Ares' forehead. A low moan echoed from under his hand.
//Lover. Come back to me. An earthquake just shook the whole island.// Joxer stroked the dark hair against his shoulder.
//Ouch.// Ares opened his eyes and focused blearily on Joxer's worried gaze. //More than just the island, love. I'll bet they felt that one back on the mainland.//
//Apollo disappeared.// Joxer took a quick look around and saw Zeus get determinedly to his feet.
//This darkness would have sapped his strength, especially after killing Kratos.// Ares kissed Joxer's fingers and sat up. //Ate is down to two allies but we're down to only six of us. I wonder where Mother went?//
//What about your energy levels? How long before you're depleted?// Joxer asked hesitantly.
//Not to worry, Joxer. Gaea has something planned. She told me to remember how Ate killed you. I'm guessing that she has a plan that involves me getting steel into Ate to act as a conductor.// Ares picked up his sword and drew the dagger from his boot.
Joxer followed suit and they stood side by side watching the others find their feet. They were a pretty bedraggled lot, Joxer decided. If they were half as tired as he was, it was a miracle they were standing. He coughed again and wondered if he'd ever be able to breathe without the memory of stinking sulfur.
//Ares, get ready. Get your father out of there and send the others away.// Hera's cool accents decisively cleaved through the tired fog of their linked minds.
//Not now. Kill her and leave.// Her mind was gone as quickly as it had come.
Ares shook his head and headed for his father. //Joxer, remind me when this is over to never take the women of this family for granted again. Go tell Artemis and Zephyrus to leave. Ask Zeph to head for the ship and make sure they're out of range of whatever happens.//
Joxer nodded and made his way to where Ino and Artemis traded blows while Zephyrus circled them slowly looking for an opening. The huntress dazzled the dark warrior with a flurry of blows that blurred in the yellow mist and culminated in Ino falling on her sword. Joxer felt Ares reach back and link with his family to blast her back to the elements.
Zephyrus just nodded and disappeared at Joxer's news. Artemis hesitated for a long moment before scowling and vanishing. The dark warrior turned around in time to block a blow from the remaining ally, Gyges. His tiredness burned away in a burst of adrenaline while he fought with all his strength and the skills he'd practiced with Ares.
Long moments went by but he held his own with an ease that surprised him. I guess all those mock battles really did do some good. He moved in a complicated dance that flowed back and forth, countering every move that Gyges made. With a shock, he realized that he hadn't practiced any of these movements, he was tapping into Ares' mind and executing the maneuvers.
//Back him up, Joxer.// Ares' voice caressed his mind with approval.
A flurry of blows sent Gyges backward onto Ares' sword and Joxer felt the combined Zeus/Ares' killing blow from within the link. He could actually see the god dissolve into smaller and smaller particles until there was nothing left.
While he was still panting, Ares hugged him and sent him reeling into his father's arms. //Sorry, love. I need to do this knowing your safe.//
The last thing Joxer saw on the island was his lover turning to face the enemy.
Ares felt Joxer's despairing 'no' when he vanished. Facing Ate across the scorched and cracking earth, he saw her appraising him.
"Now that your father's gone, we could join forces and rule the gods together." Her eyes were cold and calculating and she smiled. "I'd even let you keep your little boy-toy. By the way, just how did he escape death?"
"Someone fed him one of the Hesperidian apples."
"Ah-h-h-h." She nodded. "That explains it. He's very resourceful. You do know that I've got untapped reserves that could fry you where you stand?"
"Home ground advantage." Ares smiled and gestured with his right hand while throwing his dagger with his left.
She flicked it aside contemptuously. A faint aura of gold surrounded her body and he realized that she had created a moving shield of energy. This could be difficult. How do I break through to get steel into her?
"Clumsy, Ares. Very clumsy. I expected better from you, really I did." She chided him and the earth moved beneath their feet again. "I'm beginning to wonder about the stability of this island. I may have to move my storage." She smiled mockingly. "But, of course, I could just move it to Olympus. Plenty of room there now."
//Ares, there's a pocket of Chaos Energy six feet to your left. If you have to ...// Hera's voice broke with a sob in his mind.
The god of war let out a sigh and coughed. The air was rapidly growing fouler and the mist that eddied about them stung his eyes. He moved a step in that direction. //Not a good place to die.//
//Don't you dare, lover.// Joxer's voice came fiercely. //Zeus explained why you sent me away but that doesn't give you the right to get yourself killed.//
He could feel Joxer tighten the link and he protested gently. //If I die, I could take you with me.//
//Too late. Where you go, I go. I remember what you said about surviving the Chaos energy before.// Joxer was adamant. //Just follow the link home to me.//
Ares smiled tenderly and moved another step towards the waiting energy. "You know, Ate. You really are a heavy-handed cow. All that killing and torturing over the death of a kid, a whining infant who was totally expendable." He shrugged and managed two more steps, gesturing his disgust at her heavy-handed-ness. "You could always have another one or two to take its place. They're a dime a dozen."
"I wouldn't expect a man to understand." Ate took a step towards him, her voice icy. "You don't have to carry them inside yourself."
"What ever." He shrugged and took the last step. "At the very least, you should have chosen one of the gods to father it. Then it wouldn't have died on you."
"You have no idea what you're talking about." She hefted her sword in one hand and squeezed the hilt spasmodically. "Demos was a good man and would have been a fine father. Not like you. You play the part of the cuckoo, laying your seed in someone else's nest. I doubt you've even seen Harmonia more than a dozen times in her short life."
He waved his hand dismissively. "She's only a girl, for Zeus' sake. I never pretended to be a father to any of the brats. You know it's our duty to give as many offspring to the mortals as we can. It doesn't mean anything."
Ate seemed to grow bigger and she took another step towards him. "You really are a cold hearted bastard, Ares. It's all just a game to you, isn't it? Well, this is one game that I intend to win and you're going to lose."
Ares brought his sword up before him, admiring the sharp blade liberally speckled with blood. He smiled his best predator smile and waved her forward. "I never lose, Ate. You're no match for me."
She smiled back and moved like lightning to the attack. They traded blows for a few moments but the golden aura kept all of Ares' blows from reaching her. He was already bleeding from a slash to the arm and she wasn't even breathing hard. Pretending to stumble when the ground shook again beneath their feet, he went down on one knee and blocked a blow with an over-the-head thrust.
"Ha, Ares. Not so cocky now, are you?" She smiled a death's head grin. "Enough playing around. With your power in me, I'll be able to finish off Zeus and take my rightful place as head of all the gods. Well, what's left of them."
Another flurry of blows and Ares felt his energy levels falling rapidly. //Damn! She's sucking me dry. Time to end this.//
A major tremor shook the ground and Ares fell on his back, watching her sword stab down like a giant pin. The pain of the wound paled at the rush of energy that surged from the pocket of Chaos energy and flowed through him. He let go all his controls and let it escape straight to Ate.
"No-o-o-o-o!" She shrieked and jerked the sword from his body, energy arcing about her like a miniature lightning storm.
Hestia floated in space, surrounded by the essence of her sisters. Cradled in their caring, she felt at the edges of her consciousness the link to Ate. When the Chaos Energy surged into the link, three actions occurred simultaneously.
Gaea removed the plug in the central vent. Tethys broke open the underwater channel. Hera lowered the air pressure around the island. And Hestia fell like a spark to a flame into the upsurging magma that shot upwards through the old steam vent.
Grimly, she held to the link with Ate, accepting the Chaos Energy and using her body as the conduit for the element of pure fire to sweep through the goddess above. She felt rather than heard the scream as Ate became a living torch.
Then, she let go and let her beloved fire consume her.
Joxer screamed. Zeus held him upright on one side while Harmonia propped him up on the other. Bax hovered above them in a small whirling cloud. The dark warrior's whole body convulsed as if lightning struck. Iolaus had never felt so helpless while before his disbelieving eyes, the island exploded in a fury of fire and smoke.
Then, in a flash, Ares was there before them surrounded by a mist of golden sparkles. Joxer broke free of the others and caught the god of war as he began the slow collapse towards the deck. He clasped Ares in his arms while they both sank to the wooden boards. The mist swirled about them in an ever-widening spiral that spun out to encompass the ship and all its inhabitants.
Iolaus felt a tingle sweep up his spine, flushing him with an exhilarating rush of well being. It felt as if his hair was standing on end. Each breath he took was like a sip of fine wine. He turned to see if Hercules was feeling the same way and saw Athena holding her head in agony before disappearing.
Zeus seemed to be fighting the same reaction as he struggled to take a step towards the fallen gods while holding up a fainting Harmonia. Bax had grown another foot and vanished. A woman appeared at Zeus' side and Iolaus realized with a start that he was finally seeing Hera. Tears streamed down her face and she leaned heavily against Zeus, whose arm had come up around her.
Xena had moved forward against the thickened air to the side of her father. "What ... is ... this?"
"Chaos ... Energy." Zeus managed to get out. "Take care ... of them."
And the three gods disappeared.
Hercules joined Xena and they looked at each other. Iolaus felt the air grow a bit thinner and was finally able to move forward.
"Do you think we could touch them? Have you ever heard of Chaos Energy?" Xena crouched beside the pale men who lay so silently in each other's arms.
Gabrielle joined her and said anxiously. "I don't think we have a choice. We need to get them under cover. There is going to be one nasty rain of debris very shortly."
As if on cue, flaming stones began to rain down upon their section of sea. Hercules bent and tried to separate the two but not even his strength was great enough. So, he and Xena took their shoulders while Iolaus and Gabrielle took their feet and they headed for cover.
"Hercules, we're going to need you soon to help us keep on an even keel. The mother of all waves will be headed our way all too soon." The captain called down to them while the crew began putting out fires.
"I'll be right up." Hercules agreed while they maneuvered the limp bodies through the hatch. Iolaus opened the captain's door with one hand while they threaded their way through the furniture and finally deposited them on the bunk.
"I don't think they're breathing." Gabrielle's whisper was anguished. She brushed the dark hair from Joxer's forehead with a tender gesture. "He's so cold."
Xena pulled a blanket up over them brusquely. "Ares' vest is bloodstained but I don't see a wound. Maybe he healed it. The gods react differently than we do. I expect they'll be fine."
Iolaus thought privately that Xena sounded just a little uncertain of that blunt statement. When Hercules touched his arm, he followed him above.
"We could still lose, Iolaus." Hercules frowned. "Sea quakes have been known to cause tremendous waves like the one that destroyed the village on Rhodes. The captain is right about what's coming. We'll need to batten down everything or risk losing it when the waves hit."
Iolaus nodded. "I wish there was a way to warn the islands and the coastal towns."
Hercules sighed and clasped his shoulder. "I know. Hopefully, some of them are looking at the sky and recognizing the danger. Ate is going to take a lot of good people with her in her death throes."
They joined the crew in securing the ship while the look out in the crow's nest watched for the first signs of the swell that would presage the killer waves. Xena joined them after a while and shook her head at their unspoken question.
"Still out. Not breathing and both of them are cold as ice. I hope ..." She sighed ruefully. "It feels very strange to be worried if Ares is going to be all right."
The wind howled around them while the crew finished bringing the canvas sails in, leaving a single sail in place. They joined the captain at the wheel where Hercules took the place of two sailors.
"There she comes!" The faint shout echoed down from the crow's nest.
Iolaus moved to the rail to see if he could spot the wave. The towering wall of water raced across the horizon towards them, dwarfing the ship. He gulped and rejoined Hercules at the wheel.
"A prayer to Poseidon would be appropriate right about now." Hercules said wryly.
"Heck no, I'm praying to Tethys. She is one formidable lady." Iolaus joked.
The captain laughed over his shoulder while he clung to the wheel. "You're both right. Sailors are equal opportunity pray-ers. It's called hedging your bets."
It was almost beautiful, that solid wall of green-blue water. Iolaus shrugged and hung on. If only it wasn't a killer wave. Mesmerized by the roaring sound, he watched it come ever closer. When it was close enough to feel the spray, it split in two and raced around their ship.
"YES!" The captain shouted and pumped one fist in the air.
"You're very welcome, Captain Adad." Tethys appeared by the wheel and accepted his bow with a nod. "My nephew?"
Hercules released the wheel to the captain's care. "We took them below. They're not breathing."
Tethys nodded again and disappeared. Iolaus and Hercules exchanged a look and followed her by ladder and hall. They arrived to see Xena and Gabrielle stand aside and let the silver haired goddess touch them both. A low keening came from her throat while she pressed a hand to each of their temples.
Iolaus held his breath and watched her sigh and move back, shaking her hands in front of her. Xena offered her a chair and she sank down, keeping her eyes on the pair.
"The Chaos energy burned through them like lightning. They should be dead." Her voice held just a touch of wonder. "But they still live. Not aware as yet but their hearts are beating. Very, very slowly. It will take time for them to heal."
"The ship is headed back to the mainland." Hercules volunteered.
"None of us have much energy left after the effects of the Chaos Energy was multiplied by the release of the River of Fire." Tethys sighed. "Picture your worst headache multiplied by ten. Or a hangover of gigantic proportions. We call it backlash and it hurts like one."
"Is there anything we can do for them?" Iolaus ventured.
Her ice blue eyes met his appraisingly. "You're not far from the island where they waited for you to come. I suggest that you have Captain Adad drop all of you off. It may be a week or two before you see any improvement in their conditions. They'll need your protection while the energy works through their system. Right now, they're achingly vulnerable."
"We can do that." Xena nodded after exchanging a look with Gabrielle. "Will you let the others know?"
"Yes." Tethys rose slowly and clutched the table for a moment. Iolaus contrasted the spry woman who'd popped in so confidently earlier with this one who was obviously tired and in pain.
"Is Ate dead?" Hercules asked.
She nodded and another sigh escaped her thin lips. "Yes. She dissolved in the River of Fire while her defenses were lowered by the blast of Chaos Energy that Ares tricked her into."
"That's our Ares." Iolaus smiled gently.
"It still wouldn't have worked if Hestia hadn't been linked to her when we gave her to the River." Tethys shook her head, her voice a mere whisper. "The price was too high, younglings."
Iolaus watched her disappear in a subdued flash of blue. He'd never met the goddess of hearth fires but he felt a flash of dismay. He knew she was well beloved of the gods and mortals alike. He watched while Gabrielle fussed over the still figures. When she burst into tears, he felt instant sympathy and he watched while Xena gathered her into a comforting hug.
It was going to be a long couple of weeks.
The small figure floated on a comforting sea of fire. Warmth. . . softness... light encompassed her world. She had no memory of how she came to be here or who she was but it felt fine just floating down the River. One with the fire. Such a comfortable place. And she was so tired.
So very tired.
End part 24