by Hank Wyckoff and Eileen Quinn
"I'll tell you what, Gabrielle," Xena began, using her most charming voice.
Right away Gabrielle was suspicious. "Why don't you head back towards the village - just in case he doubled back on us again. I'll go on ahead, and see what I can find."
"You don't want me around," Gabrielle reasoned. "What? Am I too much like your conscience? You don't want me there when you go after him? Why? Are you afraid I'll try to stop you?"
"Stop asking so many damned questions!" Xena snapped.
Something was definitely wrong with Xena. Her emotions shifted haphazardly.
Perhaps Xena had been right. Perhaps Ares did have something to do with her strange behavior after all.
There was no way Gabrielle would leave her friend like this. Still, the mad look in Xena's eyes was not unknown to her. Once before Xena was like this.
Gabrielle did not back down then, but that was different. This time Gabrielle decided, it was wiser to back away - observe Xena from a distance.
Gabrielle headed back in the woods, careful to keep her friend in sight.
But Gabrielle was not yet the warrior she would one day be. She did not possess the skills of a Xena - or even a Callistro. And in little time she lost track of Xena on the trail.
"Damn!" Gabrielle cursed. If only they had brought Argo instead of leaving her at the village. Argo's saddlebag was loaded with cheese. Oh well, at least she could work on her manuscript.
Gabrielle pulled out her papyrus and quill, and began tooling around with a poem. "I think that I shall never see... see... what rhymes with see? Bee? Fee? Tee-hee?"
Meanwhile, Xena caught up with Axer. He was standing in a clearing just outside of Delphi. He held his sword at his side, totally relaxed, and his eyes staring off into nowhere as he sniffed the air.
"No more magic, barbarian," Xena said aloud, "today you meet Hades."
And with that she dashed at him - her battle cry roaring from her throat.
Axer, having been given more than sufficient warning, even had time to shake his head as he dropped to his knees with his back to her, moving a little to the right as well. He slammed his left elbow backwards. That's when she reached him, her blade passing through the space where his neck would have been, making a 'swoosh!' sound. At the same time, she had charged right into that elbow, and so doubled over with an 'oomph!'
He rose, turning enough to give her an upward swing with his own blade that would have sliced through most of her neck, if not all. However, Xena's blade flicked up by unconscious reflex. It was a good thing she hit the blade with the flat of her own, otherwise the back edge of her sword would have been knocked into her own throat by the force of Axer's swing.
Xena's eyes grew wide in shock. He was indeed fast, but not fast enough, she resolved. Twirling around, she thought to deal a powerful blow, but instead was knocked to the ground at the brief instant that she'd faced away from him. It turned out that he'd stomp kicked her in the rear as she reached terminal velocity.
Okay, not only was he was more than fast: he was clever, which was a polite way to say that Xena really hated this man now. She brought herself to her feet just as he had sprinted off. Cursing, she sprinted after him, and with a short hop, she flipped through the air, sailing over the man's head, and landed square on her feet with a twist so that she could face him.
To her surprise the man was not only immediately upon her, but also showed a complete lack of surprise.
Axer would not be fooled twice. This woman moved like no mortal he had ever known, but he had studied her movements. He could anticipate what she would do next. Or so he thought...
"I have no desire to kill you, woman!" he spat, as their swords clashed once more. This time Xena used her own momentum and flipped off to the side. Axer turned quickly, scarcely able to follow the movement. But when she landed he was ready for her.
Xena grinned at him contemptuously. "I have no desire to die!" she spat.
"Then cease this nonsense!"
"You'd wish that, wouldn't you?" She leapt at him once more, knocking him back with an airborne kick to the chest. Axer only stumbled, bending his knees and twisting his torso to redirect the force. Perhaps Xena should have been thrown to the ground in an embarrassing manner -- as she was prepared to meet resistance, and suddenly found none -- but Xena recovered in mid-air and landed on her feet, twirling to face him.
"Good thing it won't be my blood shed," she continued. Even if she hadn't bested him, she wanted to keep a psychological advantage. And besides, she hadn't used every trick against him yet.
Xena swung back, the sword raising above her head and descending in a very obvious and exaggerated manner. She figured that since even a child should be able to deal with so obvious a move, that he would too. That was the trap: while she made that obvious swing, her left hand pulled out a throwing knife that she kept hidden in each gauntlet.
The sword was parried, as she expected it would be, but he couldn't have expected to see the knife that she threw.
Expectations don't always match reality: his blade flicked through the air, slapping the knife to the ground. He didn't, however, follow through while Xena was momentarily off balance.
"You're good," she noted, holding back and catching her breath.
"Thanks for noticing," he replied smartly panting as well. "I was beginning to think you were so full of yourself that you might have missed it."
Xena gritted her teeth. This cocky bastard had nothing on her, she was certain. She didn't know why the words hurt her so, but they stung more than his blade would have - if it could touch her.
The Warrior Princess wrapped her sword around in her hand, and closed in on the stranger. Forgetting her own advice she reacted to his verbal jibes, rather than acting with her mind. With this man Xena lost hold of her wits.
//There will be no more toying with him!// she told herself. But this time it was not Xena who was toying.
Axer jumped to his feet, and met her sword once more with his own, meeting it with the flat of his blade, the other blade diverted. It was more like gently guiding the other blade than forcefully diverting it. He smiled as he heard the metals scrape. //Who knew women are fun for other things as well?// he mused. But then, Axer had never met a woman like Xena.
He brought his sword slashing across her chest. Xena lunged in time to miss the blow, but stumbled a bit as she tried to regain her balance. That was it. Now she was beyond angry. She was furious. Xena's eyes blazed with rage as she tore off after the barbarian. She forgot all she knew of style and grace, and lunged after him. The strike grazed his shoulder.
"First blood!" Xena cried, a note of madness masking her voice. This was the Xena of yore - the fearless warlord, who led her army into many a victorious yet hollow battle.
Again the victory held little meaning. Although she had wounded Axer she had accomplished nothing. The blow had little debilitating effect. In fact, it seemed only to gall him. Now he was all the more adamant.
"You many have drawn first blood," he admitted, "but it won't be my head laying in the dirt when this is finished."
Axer's sword flashed quickly before her eyes. Xena saw a light catch the blade, as it whipped over his head. Closing her eyes, Xena judged the sound of the swipe. She spun round a fraction of a second before the blade could hit its mark.
Although it did not draw blood, the swing did have an impact on the woman.
Realizing that once again she had brushed the shoulder of death Xena came to her senses. She quelled her blood-lust and focused on the reasons behind the battle. They were what was important, not the glory of the fight.
She had thought she was past this point, that she didn't need to remind herself anymore. But perhaps it was a battle that she would always have to fight - a battle against herself.
//Focus!// Xena reminded herself, not quite thinking aloud. Things were going so fast that only the essence of the words ran through her mind. //He is the warlord, not you. He is the destroyer of innocent villages. This is not about revenge. This is about justice.//
With renewed energy Xena momentarily held back her sword. She may not be able to best him on that battleground, so she would try another tactic.
Xena charged the warlord, swinging her legs high into the air. Her feet connected with his face. Blow after blow after blow landed on the target. Without wasting a second, she returned to her feet, swung her body around, and kicked him again. She knocked Axer from his feet with a kick to his knees.
Once he was safely on the ground Xena drew her sword again. She moved in on him, took a swipe at his neck, and watched her sword slice the earth. //He moved so fast!// Xena was amazed. She knew he could run nearly as fast as Hermes, but his reflexes were that of a god. Yet until this point she was certain she could best him. Could he have been holding back?
This woman was no immortal, and yet she seemed determined to have his head. //But why?// Axer wondered. //What have I ever done to her?//
Axer had no time for questions. He could sense the immortal nearby. Perhaps he was watching them now. Another slice of the woman's sword, and Axer knew it was time to end it. While it amused him, this battle had gone on too long. He had work to do.
"Sorry, my sweet," he chirped. "But this is for your own good."
Axer's blade fell fast, and it fell next to Xena's head, slicing off the smallest lock of hair. He was about to dismiss her with that, but the woman was resolute. (He should have known not to go for the hair. These Greek women were so vain!)
"That does it!" Xena shrieked. Her eyes were wild, but this time it was not madness which drove her. She had all her senses, and was well-prepared for the fight. She would see it end one way or another. There was no way in Hades she would permit this poor excuse for a warlord smite her and get away with it. She dashed after the man, forgetting her battle cry, but yelling curses in his ears instead.
Axer was a blur of gaudy fabric as he made his way through the wood. Xena caught up with him at the edge of the trees, and was about to draw her chakram, when Axer stopped on a dinar. She was more than willing to engage him again, but he had already placed his glaive back in his scabbard.
"Running away?" Xena smirked. "I don't think so." It disturbed her that he had no fear in his eyes. It was like they were to friendly strangers met on the street, for all he cared. He didn't even have hate or anger in his eyes. Maybe a bit of concern... but not for himself.
She made a movement towards him, but this time he merely raised his hand. "Wait!" he called.
She did stop. "Are you ready to surrender?"
"We cannot fight here," the man said quietly. "This is holy ground."
Xena looked up. Holy ground indeed. They were at the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi. Xena saw the amphitheater not ten meters before them. Her eyes widened at the sight.
So, he had respect for the gods after all. But which god was his patron? Ares? Or perhaps one more... innocuous. Xena would find out. She stayed close to the man's side as they entered the Oracle.
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