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Chapter 21, by Wishes
"Now the world becomes what it was meant to be." Gabrielle turned to look into the handsome bearded face of a . . . .god.
"Ares," she breathed. "So you’re behind this."
He laughed and, walking closer, felt the softness of her leather dress.
"Smooth and soft as Xena’s skin," he commented. "But perhaps your skin is. . . .softer?" He would have discovered the answer to this question himself if Gabrielle hadn’t quickly stepped back. "I don’t know why you fight me like this, girl. We should be on the same side."
"What makes you think that?"
"We both love Xena, and we both want what’s best for her."
Gabrielle laughed. "YOU want what’s best for Xena?"
"You’ve seen her with her army, seen her really alive," the god said. "Can you see her like this and think she’s better off in YOUR world? The world where she tries to save a town from bandits and has the skin stripped from her back with a whip?"
"You won’t win, Ares," Gabrielle promised. "No matter what you have planned."
"That’s the beauty of this whole thing. It isn’t even my idea. It just. . . .happened." He stepped toward her again, and this time she stood her ground. "I’m just here to warn you not to get in my way. In Xena’s way. She has the last eight years back, and this time she can rule the world. My world." One moment he stood threatenly in front of Gabrielle, and thenext moment he was gone.
"Talking to yourself?"
Gabrielle realized that Xena had returned. "Thinking out loud."
"About what? Who you want me to spare in Arcanae?"
"No. About why you want to go back there at all." Gabrielle spoke softly and carefully, remembering Xena’s anger of a short while before. "There isn’t anything there. Nothing a great warlord like you would want. Why don’t you just let it go? Spend some time with Marcus." She sought Xena’s eyes before adding, "Or with me."
"Let it go?" Xena turned around and dropped her cloak. Gabrielle winced at the sight of Xena’s half-healed flesh between her armor and low back of her battle dress. "They bet on my pain, and now they’ll pay for every scar they put on my body."
"Then where will it end, Xena? You raided their town. They were wrong to treat you so cruelly. I was wrong to stand there the first time and. . . .and not at least try to interfere." Gabrielle stopped speaking at the look in Xena’s eyes.
"That hurt as much as the bite of the whip," the warrior said, "and I don’t even know why. It doesn’t make sense to me, you know, the way you threw yourself between me and the whip the second time when you watched so calmly the first."
Gabrielle dropped her gaze. "I explained that. I thought the people would be satisfied with that whipping. I thought they would let you go afterward."
"You don’t lie very well," the warlord told her. "Lack of practice? Or no natural talent for it?"
The younger woman’s eyes filled with tears.
"Tell me. Tell yourself. Why did you watch me being whipped without doing anything about it? When you claim to be my best friend." Xena’s voice was quiet but no less commanding.
Gabrielle couldn’t withstand it. Or her own honesty. "I thought you deserved it."
Chapter 22, by Xenaaddict
.......Xena digested Gabrielle’s explanation, running it over and over in her mind: ‘I_thought_you _deserved_it.’ She didn’t quite know why, but those five words—coming from Gabrielle—hurt her more than the whipping ever could. It pained her very soul, and it frightened her. Swallowing hard, her jaw tightened as she reined in her emotions.
"Then," she asked scornfully "what’s this nonsense about ‘ONE SOUL?’" This time her voice held a simmering anger that could not be masked. "If you hold me in such low esteem," she continued, "why do you care what happens to me?"
......Gabrielle ran her hands over the soft leather of her skirt, trying to use the motion to focus her thoughts, knowing what she said now would affect this Xena’s reality and undoubtedly her own. "Remember what you always told me?"
Xena raised an eyebrow questioningly, "No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me."
"Peace is peace, and the past is past." She scrambled closer to her friend. "It’s the only way to live." She reached out to touch Xena’s hand but drew back hesitantly. Xena pretended not to notice.
"I said that?"
"W..Well..." Gabrielle stuttered (there’s that damn honesty coming into play again), "you said, ‘Beauty is beauty’ and I added peace is peace......and that last part." She coughed, quickly rattling off the last sentence, her words running into each other. "But that’s besides the point."
Xena shook her head, bemused. "What IS the point?" She raised a preemptory finger before Gabrielle could continue. "Remember I’ve got a village to raze. Give me the digest version."
Gabrielle sighed. "What I’m trying to say is, if you don’t give up on your guilt and anger, it will eat away at you. I thought the whipping would purge you of the guilt of Arcanae. But instead it only led to more anger."
"I like anger, Gabrielle. It keeps me focused."
"It will destroy you."
Xena laughed humorlessly, "Fine. Then you stay here—after all I deserve my fate, right?. Like I said, what do you care?" Xena left without waiting for a reply, tired of trying to get a straight answer out of the young woman.
Gabrielle watched Xena leave, and she felt as though she had been punched in the stomach.
"Damn," she cursed quietly, why is it always so hard for me to explain what I feel for Xena? I’m a bard, for Zeus’ sake.
"I care, Xena," she said softly to the empty room, "because I love you."
......The sound of clapping made her spin around and she was frozen to the spot. The blond nemesis stepped forward, the leather studs adorning her garb reflecting the light like angry fireflies.
"I’m sorry. Was it a private party?" she asked innocently.
"In the flesh." She bowed mockingly. "If it’s a guilt trip Xena’s on... well you shouldn’t be so surprised to find me here."
"Oh joy." Gabrielle moaned, "..anymore of this and I’ll be ready for the asylum."
Chapter 23, by JayBird
As Callisto laughed, Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried not to scream.
"Awwww... poor lil’ Gabby!" Callisto said. "I’d say you were already in an asylum! A world made up of the dead and reflections of the living! It’s not such a bad place..." Her voice turned hard. "Sure beats a red hot lava bath!"
Gabrielle looked at her. The clear blue eyes tinged with madness and pain seemed too real.
"Callisto," Gabrielle whispered. "Tell me. Are you a Goddess? or just another reflection of Xena’s guilt? What is your part in this madness?"
Callisto chuckled. "That’s for me to know and you to find out." She tousled Gabrielle’s hair playfully and walked away. "Oh, I almost forgot! Perdicus says hi!"
And with that she vanished in a twinkling of an eye...
Gabrielle sat down and wept uncontrollably.
Meanwhile on Mount Olympus...
Ares took the steps of Olympus two at a time while he whistled a happy tune. He passed between two of the white columns that ringed the House of Zeus and passed Hermes, who was on his way out.
"Yo, Ares!" Hermes said as he floated around him in a circle. "Watch out for the Old Man! He’s in a piss-poor mood today!"
"Can’t say, I’m running late. Gotta fly!" And with that he took off into the clouds surrounding Olympus.
Ares sighed and continued on into Zeus’s private chambers. He found him on his throne, talking with Hades.
"Hello, Father," Ares said. He nodded at Hades. "Uncle." He looked to Zeus.
"You called for me?"
"I’ll take my leave now, Brother," Hades said. He looked contemptuously at Ares and strode off.
"Give my regards to Aunt Persephone!" Ares called. Again he lookd to Zeus.
"My son," Zeus said, not unkindly, as he left his throne to stand beside Ares. "Tell me. What do you know of the maelstrom that threatens the mortal plane?"
Ares shrugged. "Maelstrom? What maelstrom?"
Zeus whacked him on the back of his head. "Don’t play innocent with me, Ares! By Cronus, you’re acting more like your mother evry day!"
Zeus shook his head. "Something is happening down there. And while I don’t think you’re the cause of it, I have reason to believe you are ‘stoking the fire’, so to speak."
"I plead innocent."
Zeus laughed. "Ares, on the day you were born, you were bad to the bone! But that is neither here nor there. My brother tells me that this involves Xena. Surely you haven’t lost interest in Xena?"
Ares shrugged. "She’s a mortal."
"Any woman who could make the God of War so unmindful of his duties is more than a mere mortal," Zeus replied. "I just want an understanding between us. Here and now. There will be no interference from you in this matter. Am I making myself understood?"
A rumble of thunder punctuated his sentence.
"Like crystal, Father," Ares replied. "But your words cut both ways. I want no interference from you in this matter as well."
"Why, Ares!" Zeus said innocently. "Whatever do you mean?"
Meanwhile on the mortal plane...
Hercules and Iolaus ducked for cover as another lightning bolt slammed the earth. They were high on a mountain trail in Northern Greece, not far from the real city of Arcanae.
"Sounds like your dad is upset about something!" Iolaus shouted over the high winds.
"This isn’t Zeus’ doing!" Hercules shouted back. The skies were heavy with swirling black clouds as howling winds attempted to pick them off the mountain. "This is the magic of Arcanae gone bad!"
"Then all this is part of what’s happening to Xena?" Iolaus said in wonderment. "How can we battle something this strong?"
"We’ll find out when we get there, my friend!" Hercules shouted back.
"Arcanae is just over the next rise!"
Chapter 24, by Wishes
Gabrielle hastily wiped away her tears as she heard voices. Darfus, Marcus, and Xena entered the chamber. Darfus and Marcus were arguing loudly. "ENOUGH!" Xena commanded. "Each of you has your orders. Obey them!"
Darfus saluted. "Yes, Xena." With Xena’s attention turned toward Marcus, he shot Gabrielle an evil look. "Later," he mouthed silently and left.
"Marcus?" Xena prompted.
"It will be done." Marcus, too, left.
"Have you decided what else I deserve?" Xena asked the young woman. "If our attack fails or I’m captured again? Maybe drawing and quartering? Or would a simple beheading be more to your taste?"
"Xena, I didn’t mean it that way. I don’t want you hurt." Gabrielle struggled to explain to someone who wore skepticism like a badge of honor. "I didn’t think it was real. I thought we were still in the cave above Arcanae and that everything that was happening was part of our imaginings, a vision brought about by the mushrooms."
"Mushrooms? Was there anyone living under these mushrooms? Wood sprites perhaps? Or what do the Celts call them? Fairies?"
"Xena, please believe me." Gabrielle tried not to cry again. "I could watch calmly because I thought it was like a dream. We would awaken, and you would be fine, no worse for the wear. Then, afterwards, when I helped the healer see to your poor back, I knew that all this had some sort of reality. That’s when I swore to you that you wouldn’t be whipped again. Do you remember that?"
The warlord’s expression softened. "I remember something. Your voice, I guess. And I remember the crazy thing you did, coming between me and the whip." She walked to where Gabrielle sat and tenderly traced the red mark that marred the soft skin of her throat. "Does this hurt?" she asked.
"No," the small woman answered. "But I. . . .I was very frightened when you did it."
"Afraid I would kill you?" Xena guessed.
"That," Gabrielle admitted, "and afraid of what hurting me would do to you.
The tall woman shook her head. "You are a mystery. I could almost believe you came from another time, another place. . . ."
Darfus entered hurriedly. "Xena," he said. "Scouts have returned, and they have much to report. Do you want to see them personally?"
"No, give me the short version yourself."
"Two men are approaching on the road from Corinth." He paused to draw himself up to what he considered an important height. "If you wish, I can take a company of men to intercept them."
"A company?" Xena wondered. "For two men?"
"The scout was sure of their identity."
"Well?" Someday she planned to kill this man. Maybe today would be a good day.
"Hercules and Iolaus."
"Hercules?" Xena found herself interested in spite of her focus on Arcanae. "I’ve always wanted to meet the son of Zeus. And put an end to him. I don’t know this Iolaus. Is he half-god, too?"
"The scout said he’s just a little man, a servant or something to Hercules," Darfus replied. Gabrielle started to speak but thought better of it. Anything she said now could make the situation worse.
"You said there was much to report," Xena reminded her lieutenant.
"From the east there approaches a large army." Xena noticed that Darfus did not offer to go after this target with a company.
"As large as your own."
Impulsively, Gabrielle did speak. "It must be Peleus." She had almost forgotten the bandits that had brought Xena and her to Arcanae to begin with. To the so-called City of Peace.
"Who’s Peleus?" Xena asked suspiciously. "Is that who sent you here?
What do you know about this army?"
"Peleus is the leader of a band of bandits, Xena," Gabrielle said calmly. "He attacked your friend’s village and was going to attack Arcanae. We came here to prepare them."
"I came here with you to rescue those villagers from bandits?"
Xena shook her head and turned back to Darfus. "Did the scout know who was leading this army? Could it be this madwoman’s Peleus? Or is it a force coming to protect Arcanae from us?"
"Neither, Xena," Darfus answered. "The scout is from northern Greece, from near your own home city of Amphipolis. He said the army is led by several young warlords from that region. He called them Mezentius, Krykus, and Dagnine. They appear to be heading straight for Arcanae. They’re probably after the same treasure you’re set on possessing."
"Will you watch that loose tongue of yours?" Xena warned. "Before I decide to remove it?"
"Sorry," he apologized insincerely. "I thought the girl was with you."
"This news could change our plans." Xena considered for a few moments. "You take a company and intercept Hercules and this Eelos or whatever his name is. Intercept, not attack. Invite them to join me for a talk."
"If they don’t want to come?"
"Use persuasion," she said meaningfully.
"Just tell them Xena wants to see them," Gabrielle spoke up. "They’ll come peacefully."
Eyebrow raised, the warlord looked at this girl, friend or captive she wasn’t yet sure. Then she smiled and turned back to her subordinate. "Do as she says. ASK them. Dismissed."
Darfus gave Gabrielle another evil look, but he turned and left. There was no questioning Xena when she used that tone of voice. Not if you wanted to live. Intact. Xena yelled after him, "And send Marcus to me."
Not sure whether she was talking to the girl or to herself, Xena muttered, "The treasure of Arcanae must be greater than even I had thought. To be worth the protection of a great hero like Hercules. And to be the object of lust for so many warlords."
"What is the treasure?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena surprised her by admitting, "I don’t really know. But I have it on good authority that Arcanae holds a great treasure, one capable of changing the world."
Chapter 25, by JayBird
"Iolaus, I don’t think we’re in Greece anymore."
Hercules looked around as a blood red sun rose over a dead landscape of sand and rock, with a few dead trees here and there to break the monotony.
"Great!" Iolaus said. "I guess that big wind blew us all the way to one of those ‘unknown continents’ that Darcy is always talking about."
"I... don’t think so," Hercules replied. "From what Zeus told me, all this could be part of Xena’s dream. Part of her vision of reality."
"Ugh," Iolaus said as they passed a crucified corpse getting its eyes pecked out by a vulture. "You mean all this is from Xena’s head? I guess the lady still has some problems to work out."
"That’s what we’re here for."
"Y’know, we’ve been traveling for hours and so far we haven’t seen one living thing... unless you want to count the vultures."
"I... think our luck is about to change."
Iolaus squinted into the sun as he saw a squad of armed riders heading their way. Fast.
"What’s the plan?" Iolaus said as he pulled his sheathed sword off his back.
"Let’s try talking first," Hercules replied.
"Oh yeah," Iolaus said. "These guys look like suckers for a good conversation!"
Hercules and Iolaus stood together as the squad of riders stopped in front of them. The leader eased his horse forward.
"I am Darfus," the man said, "A soldier in the Army of Xena, the Great Warrior Princess. My Princess requests the company of the Mighty Hercules... and his servant."
"Herc," Iolaus whispered. "Isn’t Darfus..."
"Yeah," Herc replied. He smiled at Darfus. "We would be honored to meet with the Warrior Princess."
Darfus frowned. Herc couldn’t tell if he was surprised or disappointed by the answer. He motioned for two of his men to dismount and double up on other horses. Hercules and Iolaus quickly mounted.
"Excuse me," Iolaus said to Darfus. "But is there a young woman traveling with Xena?"
"The chatty one?" Darfus growled. "That interfering blonde..."
"That’s her!" Iolaus grinned.
Without another word, Darfus led his squad and the ‘guests’ back toward Xena’s camp.
Gabrielle yawned as she exited the cave where she had spent the night. Looking about at the dull gray skies and the washed out earth almost made her run back inside.
"Ah..." Xena sighed. "Another great day in the Xenaverse!" She smiled at Gabrielle. "After all, this is all in my head, right?"
"’Fraid so," Gabrielle replied.
A horn sounded, and then several more as a rider came into the camp at full gallop. His horse skidded to a halt in front of Xena, and he hopped off so fast he almost ran into her.
"My Princess!" he said breathlessly. "There’s a large force of mounted troops coming in from the south!"
"Give me numbers," Xena said.
"Mebbe... two or three hundred strong. They moved fast and stayed in the gulleys... I was lucky to see them at all."
"Damn," Xena muttered. She turned to Marcus. "Could it be the warlords Darfus reported to me?"
"Maybe," he replied. "Or it could be an independent force."
"Great!" She looked to Gabrielle. "For my own little world, I’m sure having a lot of company!"
"Riders," Marcus reported.
"Damn," one of Xena’s men said. "How’d they get through the pickets?"
There were three of them, the lead rider carrying a white flag of truce high on a staff. They appeared to be lean, dangerous looking sorts, wearing leathers and strange headdresses made of bone and feather.
A rumble of discontent rumbled through the camp as Xena’s men realized they were Amazons.
"By the Gods!" Xena whispered. "What are they doing here? I sure as Tartarus didn’t conjure up any Amazons!"
Maybe I did, Gabrielle thought, as she stepped forward and clasped her hands over head.
The riders reined their horses to a halt in front of Gabrielle. The lead rider pulled up her mask.
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle cried.
"My Princess!" Ephiny leaped down from her mount and hugged Gabrielle tightly. She then looked at Xena with hostile eyes.
"My name is Ephiny," she said. "And I have been dispatched to see to the safety of Princess Gabrielle of Amazonia!" She turned to Gabrielle. "My Princess, I have five hundred of our troops at your disposal. What are your orders?"
"Ah..." Gabrielle looked at Xena who despite her best efforts was doing a slow boil. "Lemme get back to ya on that, Ephiny."
Gabrielle walked over to Xena and grinned sheepishly.
"Why..." Xena growled, "didn’t you tell me you were an Amazon Prncess?’
"Uh... you didn’t ask?"
Chapter 26, by Xenaaddict
"I didn’t ask?" Xena repeated incredulously.
"Well, you didn’t." Gabrielleresponded sheepishly, wincing in expectation to Xena’s wrath.
"Is there anything else you’re not telling me because, ‘I didn’t ask?’"
Gabrielle’s brow crinkled with thought of her sudden and brief encounter with a certain blond psychotic passed through her mind. "Well uh..." Gabrielle stammered.
"I’m not going to like this am I?" wondered Xena out loud when Gabrielle still didn’t complete her sentence after a few hems and haws.
"What is it?!" They snapped in unison.
Xena shot Gabrielle a scowl and moved away as she realized the warrior was talking to the younger woman. It was an Amazon, a war headdress hiding most of her features. "My queen," she said as she bowed respectfully, "I beg your forgiveness, but we have a ‘situation’ that demands your immediate attention." Despite her words and demeanor there was nothing submissive about her.
"Can’t it wait?"
The Amazon shook her head.
"Fine," Gabrielle agreed reluctantly, "I’ll be right there." Again the Amazon bowed, but before she left she pulled her mask up just enough to reveal her grinning face and winked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle sighed, not really surprised at anything anymore. If Callisto wanted to be an Amazon, geeZeus, who was she to argue?
Meanwhile, Hercules and Iolaus rode along beside Xena’s lieutenant. Darfus kept looking at them contemptuously but held his tongue. Hercules ignored the looks, refusing to be baited. Iolaus, on the other hand, began to get irked until he couldn’t stand it anymore.
"Is there a problem, friend?"
Darfus grinned, showing his yellow stained teeth in all their glory. "Not with you, runt."
Iolaus bristled at the reply and would haveattacked Darfus if Hercules’ iron grip had not held him back. "We won’t play your games, Darfus," Hercules injected calmly. "Just lead us to your ‘mistress.’" The big man added emphasis to the last word to rub in the fact that, in spite all his pomp and circumstance, Darfus was still taking orders from a certain warrior princess.
Darfus spat between his horse and Hercules’ and laughed, urging his horse into a gallop.
"Why do I get the feeling he doesn’t like me?" asked Iolaus.
"It’s just your imagination," quipped Hercules, slapping him on the back.
"Like, just now, he didn’t mean to spit at us."
"Nope. He was just marking the spot so we won’t get lost."
"Oh. Silly me."
Chapter 27, by JayBird
The proud young Amazon looked up as Gabrielle strode up to her.
"Yes, my Princess!"
"Send word back to our troops to get ready to move. Also, give me my staff."
"With pleasure." Ephiny grinned as he handed her the warstaff. Gabrielle sighed. It felt good to have this length of wood back in her hands. It felt so real.
Gabrielle had noticed that her friend had been addressing her as Princess, not Queen, and she acted on a hunch. "Ephiny, how’s your son?"
"My what?!" Ephiny said in disbelief.
"Just kidding," Gabrielle smiled, now surethe Amazon time frame was one she herself had somehow created. "Stay frosty. I’ll be back."
"Yes, my Princess."
Gabrielle strode away. So much had changed so quickly. Now she had power. Now she was a warrior princess with an army to command as well. Still, it was a relief that Ephiny had no knowledge of her centaur husband or her son, Hoofy. That was the proof she had needed that Ephiny and all the Amazons were mere figments of her imagination.
Well, all but one...
Callisto was waiting for her on a lonely outcropping of stone, chewing on a loaf of bread. She spotted Gabrielle and grinned.
"Well, hello... ‘my Princess’." She held out the loaf of bread. "Care for a little nutbread? It’s gooooood! Just like mother used to make."
"I’m sure," Gabrielle said as she strode up and whacked Callisto in the face with her staff as hard as she could. Callisto tumbled off the rock and hit the dirt. Snorting, she got up and pulled her nose out of her face.
"Owwww... What’d you do that for?"
"I’m just trying to figure out the game you’re playing, Callisto," Gabrielle answered. "And you are Callisto. Not some phantom reflection... you are real."
"As real as I wanna be," Callisto replied. She looked Gabrielle in the face. "Is my nose on straight?"
"I don’t get it," Gabrielle whispered. "You’re here, but you’re not laying waste to this place..."
"Looks like this place is already wasted."
"And you’re not trying to kill Xena."
"Who said I ever wanted to kill Xena?" Callisto said. "Death is easy. I wanna make Xena suffer the tortures of the damned for all eternity!"
"Well, at least you have career goals," Gabrielle replied. "Are you saying that you will help me get Xena back to the real world?"
"Finally! Dawn’s early light!" Callisto said. "Do you think I want her to spend eternity running around in Xenaland playing soldier girl? Too much fun, Gabby. When I do bust out of that lava—and I will—I want Xena right where I can find her." She grinned. "So for now... we’re on the same side... My Princess."
Xena sat in her tent, mulling over the events of the morning. Right now there were too many irons in the fire. Other warlords... Amazon armies... Hercules... She shook her head. She fully expected a Trojan horse to rumble into camp any minute.
A young soldier came through the tent flap.
"P-Princess Gabrielle of Amazonia wishes to s-speak with you."
"Show her in."
He disappeared. A moment later, Gabrielle entered, now wearing an Amazon headdress and carrying a warstaff.
"You look every inch the Princess," Xena said, walking to her. "I’m surprised you’re still wearing the leathers I gave you."
"I wear them because you gave them to me," Gabrielle replied. "We have to talk."
Xena shook her head. "Why are you even still here? I would have thought you and your forces would be halfway to Amazonia by now."
"There is no Amazonia," Gabrielle replied. "The only thing that exists here is Arcanae. That’s where our futures lie."
"A prophet and a princess!" Xena smirked. "You have many talents!"
"I’m offering you my Amazons as allies to your cause," Gabrielle said.
"They will be commanded by me... but I will follow your orders."
Despite herself, Xena smiled. Five hundred Amazon warriors would make her force unstoppable...
"You have a deal," Xena said. "But what of Hercules?"
"When he gets here, he will offer his services to help you in your quest for Arcanae. If you’re smart, you’ll take him up on it."
Xena’s eyes narrowed. "And how do you know this?"
"Like you said,’ Gabrielle replied. "I have many talents."
Chapter 28, by Xenaaddict
...Gabrielle saw Hercules and Iolaus approaching the camp and ran to meet them, much to the dismay of Ephiny and her Amazon sisters. An Amazon Princess who showed so much affection toward males was unusual to say the least.
"She doesn’t act like an Amazon, does she?" the warrior beside her asked.
Ephiny glanced at her and then back at Gabrielle. "Gabrielle is the Princess and a true Amazon at heart," she stated flatly. "And I’ll kill anyone who says differently."
"Iolaus!" Gabrielle yelled, throwing her arms around his neck. "It’s so good to see you."
He returned her hug and gave Hercules a look that said. ‘what can I say?
Women love me.’
Hercules folded his arms and shrugged, grinning. Anything less and it wouldn’t be Iolaus. "Gabrielle, it’s good to see you too," he told her softly, but instead of being comforted, she only held on tighter and began to cry. "Gabrielle?" he questioned, gently pulling her away from him. "Gabrielle what’s wrong?"
Wiping away her tears, she bit her lip and looked ashamed at her behavior.
She looked up at both of them with tear stained cheeks. "It’s Xena..." she
said plaintively. "I don’t know what to do..."
"It’s okay. Everything will be okay," Iolaus assured her, taking a piece of cloth from his backpack and wiping her face dry . "That’s why Zeus sent us."
"Zeus sent you?"
"Of course. How else would Hercules and I know that you needed help."
"You’re real? You know what’s happening?"
They both nodded and smiled, encouraging a smile from her in return.
"My father has his good side..." Hercules acknowledged "... now and then. As long as it doesn’t involve Hera, he’s pretty good about helping out."
"Unfortunately, it almost always does involve Hera," Iolaus quipped.
"Trust me," Hercules promised "... whatever is happening to Xena we can handle."
"Mezentius, Dagnine and Krykus are here."
"Not a problem," Iolaus boasted. "... we eat their kind for breakfast everyday."
Hercules laughed at his friend’s attempt to cheer up the young woman and added, "... And dreamscapes are our specialty."
This time Gabrielle laughed and hugged Hercules, "I’m so glad you’re here."
After awhile, feeling the awkwardness of the situation, she pulled away.
"Well, come on, let’s not keep Xena waiting; she kinda cranky that way." Gabrielle broke into a sprint leaving them behind. They started to follow when a shrill voice called out to them over the field.
"Hello, boys." They turned to see an Amazon waving and blowing kisses at them. They waved back weakly, not knowing what else to do.
"Isn’t that..." Iolaus asked hiding a grimace.
"Callisto," Hercules confirmed.
"The one who POISONED all of us and then became immortal?"
"Come on," Hercules urged his friend as he saw Gabrielle motioning for them to hurry.
"Never rains but it pours.." Iolaus grumbled.
Chapter 29, by JayBird
"Will you guys come on?" Gabrielle shouted.
Herc and Iolaus broke into a jog and caught up with her. Hercules slowed her down with a gentle hand to the shoulder.
"First things first," Hercules said.
"Explain the blonde Amazon with the attitude problem," Iolaus finished.
"Oh, Callisto?" Gabrielle said as they continued walking. "Yeah, she’s for real. I mean, really real, if you get my drift. She says she’s on our side, but I trust her as far as I can heft a chariot!"
"Anybody else?" Hercules asked.
"See that man on the cliff directing troops? That’s Marcus. He was once a brigand like Xena. They worked together in the bad ol’ days. They loved each other very much. Two years ago—not long after you changed her heart—she tried to change his and succeeded. But he was killed by the Warlord Mezentius because of it. He came from the Elysian Fields to try to save her."
Iolaus studied the man as they walked. "You trust him?"
"With my life."
Herc nodded. "Anybody else?"
"Ares showed up."
Herc and Iolaus groaned.
"But he just dropped in, made his usual ‘... I shall have my Warrior Princess...’ spiel and then poofed outta here. Think he’ll be back?"
"Oh yeah," Herc said. "Ares is like a bad dinar. You just can’t get rid of him."
"Anyway, that’s it."
"That’s enough!" Iolaus muttered.
"One other thing," Gabrielle said. "Anybody who is... ‘real’, seems to affect this place, even though this is Xena’s dreamscape. When we were in the dream Arcanae, I started to influence townspeople who wanted to kill Xena. Those five hundred Amazons... are mine! Hercules, how is this happening?"
"We’re dealing with old magic, Gabrielle," Hercules said. "Magic that existed before Zeus and will probably be here long after he’s gone." He looked down at her. "But there seems to be... rules to this magic. Not everything is tilted against us. And that means we have a chance to win."
Gabrielle smiled as they approached Xena’s tent.
"I’d better do this by myself," Herc said. Gabrielle and Iolaus looked at each other knowingly. Herc rolled his eyes and went up to the guard.
"Can I help you?" the young guard asked.
"Yeah, Hercules to see Xena."
"One moment!" He turned and called. "There’s a Hercules to see you, my Princess!"
"Send him in."
The guard smiled at him and Herc entered.
She stood waiting for him, ready with hard questions and unwilling to take any guff... Son of Zeus or not. Until she saw him. Until she met his eyes.
"You’re Hercules." It was a statement of fact, not a question. She walked toward him until they were very close.
"Why are you here?" she whispered.
"To help a friend."
"You mean Gabrielle?"
"We..." She looked down. "Have met?"
"Then you believe in this nonsense that Amazon girl is spouting!" Xena turned her back and walked to a table where she poured two glasses of wine. "That this is all a dream... that none of this exists at all."
"You believe it, too," Hercules said. "In your heart. Otherwise you wouldn’t be going back to Arcanae."
She returned to him with the wine and handed him a jeweled goblet. "And what do you know of Arcanae?"
"I know that for better or for worse, the futures of a great many people depend on you reaching Arcanae and retrieving the Treasure that is held there."
"You know of the Treasure?"
He nodded, taking a sip of wine.
"Then you will help me!"
"Of course. What are friends for?"
She grimaced. "You talk like that crazy girl, Gabrielle. I have no friends, nor do I need any. All I need—all I’ll ever need—is the loyality of my troops."
"Your ‘troops’ are thieves and murderers," Hercules replied. "And given a chance they’ll betray you. You know it in your heart."
Xena looked up, a glint of fear in her eyes. "What in Tartarus do you know of my heart?"
"A great deal," Hercules said.
Xena sighed. "I have little time for these games. Will you help me?"
"I already said I would."
"And why would a man like you... want to help a woman like me?"
"Maybe one of us isn’t quite what they seem."
Xena turned like she was about to say something, and for a terrible instant Hercules saw the struggle that was raging within her soul. And then it was gone, and Xena was striding out of the tent, cape flairing. Hercules sighed and finished his wine, carefully putting the goblet on the table before he left.
"Sound the horns!" Xena commanded. "We ride for Arcanae!"
As the horns blared and the troops broke camp, Gabrielle and Marcus stood on the cliff together watching Xena. With a start, Gabrielle saw a familiar golden horse being led out for Xena to mount. "In Arcanae, she said she didn’t like ‘yellow’ horses," Gabrielle commented. "So why would she conjure Argo? Marcus?"
But Marcus’ attention was elsewhere. He watched Hercules mount a big black horse and ride to Xena’s side. "I’m glad he’s here," Marcus said. "Maybe with the Son of Zeus we have a real chance of saving our world... and Xena."
Gabrielle looked up at him, noticing the tear in one eye.
"Marcus, I’m sorry."
"For what?" And with that he turned and went to join his troops.
Chapter 30, by Xenaaddict
....Marcus and Darfus watched the Amazon army marching double file behinds Xena’s own. It was a formidable force that Arcanae would soon feel the fury of.
"I don’t trust the Amazons," Darfus declared.
"I don’t see why," Marcus answered. "After all, they have vowed to follow Gabrielle. And Xena trusts Gabrielle."
Darfus snorted; "Is that why she threatened to cut out my tongue when I spoke in front of the girl?"
Marcus shook his head. "You have a loose tongue, Darfus. It’s not what you say in front of her that has her concerned. It’s what you say behind her back."
"I’ve never been anything less than loyal to Xena," he grumbled.
"Come now," Marcus prodded, "you and I both know your loyalty will last as long as it suits your purpose. Your real allegiance is only to yourself."
"You’ll never prove that!" he challenged.
"I don’t need to" Marcus said smiling. "You already have."
.....Margola and Caicus stared at the orb and the advancing army within.
"Well this isn’t good."
Margola threw her head back and laughed. "You have such a knack for understatement, Caicus."
"Maybe so," he accepted, "but tell me that’s not a sheepload of trouble heading our way."
"Yes, it seems our warrior princess is quite a formidable opponent, in any reality." Margola agreed. "So, what are we going to do?"
"You should have let me whip her the second time."
"Oh, so now it’s my fault?"
Margola sighed. "No, I suppose not. It’s just that it’s not quite working out the way I planned."
"Nothing ever does, does it?"
"Still..." she confided "...they don’t know the full extent of my powers."
Caicus gasped at the implication of her words.
"You’re not planning on unleashing the Guardian, are you? It will not discriminate. There will be so many senseless deaths."
"Do you have a better suggestion? I’m listening"
Caicus shrugged and slumped into the closest chair, burying his face in his hands. "You realize of course, if they ‘die’ in here, they die out there."
"I know," she replied grimly, "but am I to stand idly by as they destroy my village? My home? Only I have the power. I must act now or all is lost."
To this, Caicus had no answer.
"There’s only one thing that still puzzles me..." Margola continued.
"Why," she wondered, "’sheepload?’"