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Chapter 31, by Wishes
Lord Caicus glared at the insolent old woman. "You have great powers, crone, but I AM the power in Arcanae. And, with all your desire to undo the Warrior Princess, you have forgotten the obvious solution."
"And that is?"
"Return to Xena that which belongs to her alone."
"Don't tell me that you don't have it. I know that you went to the cave as soon as Xena was whipped and imprisoned. For what other purpose would you go? Except to reclaim the Treasure?" He studied the ancient one for any sign of denial. None was forthcoming. Suddenly, an awful thought comes to him. "Her body? Her corporeal substance of the original time line. You didn't. . . .destroy it?"
She shook her head. "That would be against my . . . .ultimate purpose."
"And that is?"
"To destroy that which makes her everything she strives to be. And to make the rest. . . .my own. This body she now inhabits is little more than a phantom, as red as it may bleed. It alone will not support my ambitions. But I know Xena and her capacity for guilt. Whatever evil is done by this Warrior Princess, she will accept as her own." Margola's wicked knowledge shone through her aged eyes. Caicus shivered at the sight of what passed for her smile.
"And that's how you will destroy her. . . .goodness?"
"She will destroy it herself as soon as she destroys the girl called Gabrielle."
Caicus drew himself up to tower, at least physically, over the ancient one. "Meanwhile, my city is a cauldron of dissension. Hate has replaced the people's peaceful ways. And the countryside around is a vision out of Tartarus. I warn you, Margola, our agreement will be observed, and all will be restored out of this nightmare, or. . . .else."
Margola shot him a look that was at least half-challenge. "And you remember who has allowed your peaceful paradise to exist in a world of war, like a lamb in the midst of hungry wolves." Then, placatingly, "My Lord, all will be restored and, when I fully possess the Treasure and the instrument that wields it, all you value will be forever safe. You have my word."
Chapter 32, by JayBird
As the day wore on, the vast Army of the Great Warrior Princess pressed on to Arcanae. First the scouts, followed by a line of pickets and skirmishers that protected the main body of mounted troops, with Marcus' men at the center, Tracus' at the right flank, Gabrielle's Amazons on the left flank and Darfus and his troops at the rearguard.
They rode at a steady canter, not wanting to wear out their horses. Xena planned to make camp and attack Arcanae at dawn. That is, if they didn't meet up with the other warlords and their forces before then.
Marcus rode with his column, watching Xena riding up ahead with Hercules at her side. The two had been nearly inseparable since the half-god had entered the camp. Marcus was so intent on watching them he didn't even notice when Tracus rode up beside him.
"Sleeping on the job, Marcus?" Tracus laughed.
Marcus smiled. The real Tracus had been a fine soldier and able leader. He had no doubt Xena's "vision" would be the same. "Just... keeping an eye in things."
"Indeed," Tracus frowned. "It seems the Son of Zeus has designs on our Warrior Princess. It doesn't have to be that way."
Marcus looked at him. "What are you talking about?"
"You love Xena, don't you?" Tracus said. "Wouldn't you like to spend eternity with her... as a General in the New World?"
"Who are you?"
Tracus smiled, and Marcus saw a sudden shifting of features that he recognized just as the face of Tracus morphed back.
"Please, not so loud!" he said. "Not everyone here is a fan."
Marcus looked about. The soldiers riding about him seemed too tired and too hot to care about what was going on around them.
"What do you want?" Marcus hissed. "Besides Xena."
"This isn't about Xena," Ares/Tracus replied. "This is about destiny. The Magic of Arcanae has been a thorn in the side of Olympus for... well, a very long time. We have a chance here to destroy it all in one fell swoop." He smiled. "And then there is Xena. As destroyer of Arcanae, a grateful Olympus would bestow on her certain rights and privileges." He looked to Marcus. "And as my avatar, she would have the power to rule... for all time."
"She wouldn't want..."
"Look at her, Marcus!" Ares said. "Look at her face as she commands a conquering army! Have you ever seen her happier? This is her life! This is what was meant to be!"
Marcus was silent.
"We have a great opportunity, my friend," Ares said. "To destroy an ancient evil, to rule this world forever... and even get rid of a certain Son of Zeus in the bargain!"
"And what's in it for me?" Marcus asked tonelessly.
"Xena," Ares said. "You know that even if you made it to the Elysian Fields that Xena never will. You two will be separated for eternity... but it doesn't have to be. As one of the Destroyers of Arcanae, you can name your price! And ride beside your immortal beloved... forever."
Marcus was silent.
"Think about it," Ares said. "But don't think too long!"
Laughing, Ares rode back to his troops.
Chapter 33, by Raye Dene
Xena straightened in the saddle,feeling the pull of her still healing back. She glanced once more at her diminuative traveling companion,who showed no signs of fatigue despite being on foot. What is it about her, Xena pondered, that makes me feel as though she knows me better than I know myself? Gabrielle would creep into her mind at odd moments, such as when she was planning her attack. Or something too vague to be called memory, yet to fresh to be a dream, would tease her consciousness. A brief vision of happier times,laughing and traveling with this one who is an Amazon princess, would intrude. The golden mare picked up on her anxiety and danced restively beneath her. She automatically soothed the prancing horse, somehow knowing the horse's name was Argo. Argo? She shook off the thought and forced herself to think of the battle ahead.
Gabrielle was lost to her own thoughts. How can I stop this blood bath? What sign am I supposed to look for? She jumped as Hercules spoke beside her.
"Troublesome thoughts,Gabrielle?" asked Hercules.
With a shuddering breath,Gabrielle dropped back to talk to him where Xena couldn't overhear. "Hercules, how are we going to save Arcanae and restore the world to the way it was?" wondered Gabrielle. "And what treasure is so great that all these people are after it?"
"Not all these people,Gabrielle.One person,Margola.She has been trying for years to avenge a blood oath against Xena. This is the first chance she's had to try to satisfy her thirst for vengence. Zeus has kept her restrained till now, but when Xena went back to Arcanae...." his voice faded.
"All bets were off?" guessed Gabrielle.
"You got it," replied Hercules.
"I hesitate to tell you this now,but Zeus did give me one piece of advice."
"Oh yeah,what was that?" Gabrielle asked.
"To protect you at all costs. You're the key," stated Hercules.
"Great," muttered Gabrielle. "It's not enough that I worry about Xena and the whole world as we know it being wiped out. Now I have to worry about someone offing me!"
"You just worry about Xena. The rest of this leave up to me."
"I'll give my life for hers, you know that!" she exclaimed.
"Don't make such sweeping statements," cautioned Hercules. "You may be called on to make good on them!"
Gabrielle looked him square in the eye. "This is not a promise; it's a vow," she swore. She noticed Xena glaring at her impatiently. "We'll talk more later...."
"Well, that seemed like a cozy....." Xena started to say.
A deep bellowing roar ripped through the air, causing the ground to tremble."What in Hades name was that?" Xena exclaimed.
"I don't know," replied Gabrielle, "but it sounded hungry!"
"Tell your amazons that they and Marcus's troops are to flank left. "We'll trap whatever that was and destroy it." Before Gabrielle could protest,Xena had spurred Argo over and was talking to Darfus.
Then, ever so faintly, she heard Caicus whisper, "Don't give up Gabrielle. The treasure is worth what comes next. Just remember 'one soul.' " Gabrielle took a firm grip on her courage and went to find Marcus.
Chapter 34, by JayBird
"I heard," Marcus said as Gabrielle approached. "Circle your forces around and bring them in behind my troops!"
Gabrielle nodded. She was glad somebody knew what they were doing.
"Marcus?" she asked.
"Wrong?" Marcus laughed bitterly. "What could possibly be wrong?!"
He galloped off as Ephiny and and another Amazon approached with Gabrielle's palomino. Before mounting, Gabrielle stroked the silky white mane. "You look like a miniature Argo," she said. "Maybe that's why Xena chose you for me." She shook off the thought-or hope.
"Okay," Gabrielle said, carefully mounting. "Follow Marcus' forces..."
"What!" Ephiny said incredulously. "An Amazon force has never fought alongside... alongside... MEN! Much less followed their lead like children..."
"Look, I don't have time to argue," Gabrielle said. "Just do it. After we destroy the big thingie that's making the noise... then you can challenge me or whatever."
"I... I never said I would challenge you, my Princess," Ephiny said. "I would follow you to my death..."
"Don't say that!" Gabrielle shouted. "Don't ever say that! Now please, do as I ask."
"Yes, my Princess."
Xena and her main body of forces continued to press forward. On the flat red-tinged plains of this land, she could see Marcus' mounted troops and the Amazons making good time as they circled around. Another frightful bellow filled the air, and again the ground shook beneath their feet.
"Xena," Hercules said. "It might be a good time to..."
"Leave the strategies to me, Hercules," Xena replied. "I..."
The ground shifted under the Argo's hooves. Around her, horses reared up and threw their riders. Suddenly the ground exploded under Xena as a creature at least six stories high erupted from the earth. Its leathery skin was black and shiny, and it appeared to have no eyes, not that it needed any with hundreds of waving tentacles that ran the length of its grotesque form.
Xena tumbled to the ground, the shattered body of thegolden mare landing beside her, spraying her in blood. Around her the men of her army screamed as the tentacles started reaching out and grabbing them, tossing them up into thegigantic maw lined with hundreds of razor sharp teeth.
"Herc!" Iolaus yelled as a tentacle wrapped itself around his middle and pulled him off his feet. "I could use some help here!"
"On my way!" Hercules answered as he ripped apart the tentacle that was trying to get him. He made it to Iolaus and dug his hands deep into the muscled tissue, finally rending it with a spray of greenish goo. Herc and Iolaus tumbled safely to the ground.
Xena seemed dazed, just staring as her mighty army was torn to shreds before her eyes. Memories and faces of other times and other places flooded her head.
Meanwhile, Marcus brought his troops to a halt as he watched the beast continue to tear apart the forces of Xena.
"Marcus!" Gabrielle rode up beside him. "Should we attack?"
"No," Marcus replied. "There's only one person here who can end this!" And with that he rode off to find Ares.
"You're right," Gabrielle muttered. And with that she rode off to find Callisto.
Chapter 35, by Xenaaddict
....Xena stood looking in horror at Argo's shattered remains lying at her feet. She felt the warm droplets of blood on her arms and face, but theimplications had not yet registered. All around her the scream of the men and women dying at the Guardian's hands was nothing more than white noise.
Until one voice broke through her nightmare.
"XENA! IT'S GOT ME! HELP! XENA HELP!"
Xena looked up, snatched the chakram from her belt and hurled it in one fluid movement. The disk-like object sailed through the air slicing the tentacle that was holding Gabrielle, spraying her with its green blood and sending her plummeting to the ground-thirty feet below.
'Another wasted death...' a voice flittered through her mind. Xena would not be able to reach her in time to break her fall.
"NO!" she cried as she ran.
She didn't see the creature react to her assault by bringing another appendage up behind her and sending her smashing into a tree with its impact. Groggy and dazed, she looked up to see Gabrielle's unconscious form a few feet away. She looked on in fear as the Guardian renewed its interest in Gabrielle, picking up the Amazon princess and preparing to make a tasty morsel of her.
"No..." Xena whispered, unheeding of her own wounds. Argo's blood mingled with her own made her seem like she was bathed in blood. Xena groped for the chakram, but it was not on her belt. She growled a curse and unsheathed her sword, screaming her battle cry as she charged. Subconsciously she knew the young girl was the key to this madness. But beyond that, she knew she must try and save her, or die trying. She just didn't know why.
Holding on with both hands, she reversed her hold on the weapon, preparing to stab at the tentacle that was rising higher with every passing second. But it was already beyond her reach....
"TAKE ME!!" she screamed.
Gabrielle was now only a few feet away from the monstrer's gaping jaws, when suddenly a volley of Amazon arrows whistled through the air, their staccato sounds filling Xena with hope. The assault weakened the Guardian and the tentacle wavered back and forth as it reacted to the pain, but still it did not let go. Gabrielle's body was limp in its gasp, like a rag doll, and Xena's heart sank, as she detected no movement from her friend.
"DAMN YOU TO TARTARUS!" Xena challenged. "TAKE ME AND LET THE GIRL GO!" The creature seemed to take delight in Xena's dilemma and once again began to move Gabrielle towards its mouth. Its jaws chomped in anticipation.
....Suddenly, out of nowhere, the chakram appeared and cut cleanly through the tentacle. Gabrielle once again fell from its clutches, but this time Xena was there to catch her. Cradling Gabrielle in her arms she spun around to see who could throw her weapon with such deadly accuracy.
"I've always wanted one of these." Callisto said as caught the chakram.
Chapter 36, by JayBird
There was no time to think, only to run as the Guardian bellowed in rage and pain. Xena carried Gabrielle in her arms as her men died around her. There was a deep gulley maybe two hundred paces away. Xena centered her mind on this and kept running.
Another tentacle grabbed her around an ankle, throwing her to the ground. She let go of Gabrielle as she was lifted feet first into the air... only to have Gabrielle grab at her arm and hold on tight.
Xena looked down. Gabrielle was barely conscious, but she had one arm wrapped around a dead tree trunk while she held onto Xena, her bloody face a mask of pain.
"Leggo!" Xena screamed.
"Never!" Gabrielle's shout disolved into her own scream as she felt the tree trunk giving way just as her arm began to pull from her shoulder.
A single sword stroke sliced through the tentacle, and Xena and Gabrielle both hit the ground. Gabrielle looked up through a red haze to see Ephiny standing there, sword in hand... just before another tentacle grabbed theAmazon warrior and hauled her up into the sky.
Gabrielle screamed as Xena held onto her. She watched her friend tumble into the mouth of the creature. She was still sobbing as Xena gathered her up again and headed for the gulley.
>From a safe distance away, Ares watched the battle with detached amusement. As Tracus he had ordered his "men" in only to see them die. Hercules and that runt friend of his were doing quite well actually. But his dinars were on the creature.
"Ares!" Marcus rode up beside him. "You have the power! You must end this now!"
Ares laughed. "I'll let you in on a little secret, Marcus. There isn't a whole lot a God of War 'must' do. But I'll consider your request. If you pledge your alliegence to me, and help Xena realize her rightful place in history."
"Damn you!" Marcus shouted. "You say you care for her... she's gonna die if you don't kill that thing!"
"Quite possibly," Ares said. "But if I can't have her... then nobody else will either." He grinned. "Am I a selfish bastard or what?"
"You're a piece of work, all right," Marcus muttered as he drew his sword and took off at a hard gallop towards the creature and certain death. Ares laughed again. Zeus was right about one thing. Humans were infinitely amusing!
The gulley loomed before her, deep and safe, even as she half carried, half dragged Gabrielle with her. Xena heard another roar and looked behind. She instantly wished she hadn't. The creature was coiled up and getting ready to strike. Right at her.
As the creature lunged, something grabbed Xena and Gabrielle, and then they were tumbling over the steep bank and down into the gulley, even as the creature slammed into the earth and got a mouthful of dirt.
Still holding tight to Gabrielle, Xena looked up to see Iolaus beside her.
"Hi, Xena!" he said.
"Y-you're Hercules' servant..."
"Gods," Iolaus muttered. "Is somebody ever gonna cut me a break!"
A beat later, the creature again slammed into the earth, looking for the prey that eluded it. Hercules slid down the side of the gulley and came to a stop beside the others.
"That was a nice move," Herc said to Iolaus.
"Yeah, well... Good help is hard to find these days."
The four of them looked up to see the creature poised overhead. It was a bloody mess, festooned with arrows and hundreds of wounds. But it still seemed more angry than hurt.
Wordlessly, the three warriors rose to their feet, standing in front of the wounded Gabrielle. Swords at the ready.
"Hercules, in case I don't get a chance to tell you later..." Xena said.
"It's been a pleasure doing business with you."
And that's when the creature struck.
Chapter 37, by Xenaaddict
....The Guardian lashed out hitting the spot they stood on moments before, sending a spray of dirt into the air. Gabrielle, hiding in the gulley, winced as she was showered in a mixture of dirt, stones and grass.
"I'll be back, Gabrielle!" Xena promised, as they tried to distract the creature by spreading out, running in different directions.
"You'd better," Gabrielle admonished, smiling weakly, her face smeared with dirt and blood.
Hercules and Iolaus were already gone, yelling and screaming at the Guardian to follow them. Xena risked a glance back, and a look of understanding passed between them.
"One soul," Gabrielle mouthed silently.
Xena nodded and smiled back swearing under her breath; "With Hades as my witness, I'll be back...I won't leave you again."
....The creature had Hercules; a thick corded tentacle wrapped tightly around the demigod's waist. Hercules was grimacing as he struggled to release himself. As strong as he was, the Guardian was ten times stronger. No matter how much he pried at the appendage it refused to give. Then it dawned on him; taking a deep breath, he bellowed,"FIRE!"
Startled, the few remaining archers exchanged looks of confusion. They had but spent all their arrows to little or no effect on the mammoth beast. But they once again loaded their bows and took aim.
....Hercules grunted as an arrow grazed his arm and imbedded itself into the creature's slimy hide. He was weakening, and the beast only tightened its grip after the last attack, determined not to let go.
....Iolaus ran to Xena, ducking and weaving, narrowly missing another tentacle that would have surely crushed his skull if it made contact. "Is he trying to get himself killed?" snapped Iolaus angrily.
"No, I'm sure he was only asking for a little more light to fight in," Xena sneered.
"Very funny. Herc is getting squashed like a bug because of you and you're making jokes."
Then it struck her, "... fire... light..." Ignoring the little man's last statement, she ran to the nearest barrel containing oil for their lamps and torches, grabbed it and hurled it at the creature. "Help me..." she urged to those around her. She again grabbed a lamp and threw it at the Guardian. Soon all those left standing joined in, throwing anything remotely flammable at it.
....Taking a bow from a fallen soldier, Xena set fire to an arrow. And with grim determination, she notched it, took aim and let it fly. The arrow flew straight and true landing in a spot drenched with oil, and slowly that spot of skin began to burn. Spreading quickly, the flames traveled in every direction and soon the whole creature seemed to be on fire. It screamed. For the first time since this battle began, its cry had changed to one of fear and hurt. It released Hercules, its tentacles withering up, drawing back into itself and retreating to the safety of the earth from whence it came.
Hercules fell heavily as Iolaus arrived at his side seconds later.
"I'm getting too old for this. I have to retire."
"Yeah, but think about all the fun you'd be missing."
Hercules shook his head as he laughed, then winced as a sharp pain shot through his shoulder.
As the cries of victory rose around them Xena accepted the congratulatory slaps on the back with little or no response. She made her way back to the gulley and Gabrielle. She slumped wearily next to her friend and rubbed her forehead in fatigue. Gabrielle opened one eye and took in Xena's haggard look.
"What took you so long?"
"Sorry. Off day."
Chapter 38, by JayBird
"Tell me about it, " Gabrielle muttered.
"Can you walk?"
"I think I can limp."
Together they made it back up the side of the gulley with Gabrielle holding on tight to Xena for support. Gabrielle gasped at the carnage that greeted them.
The Mighty Army of Xena was history. Those that hadn't been consumed by the Guardian had been crushed under its mass. Xena did a quick head count and realized she had maybe... a hundred troops and forty or so horses.
Not that it mattered.
"None of this matters," Xena whispered.
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"This." Xena swept her arm over the panarama of suffering and death. "It means nothing."
"You're right, Xena," Hercules said as he and Iolaus approached.
"Leading this army into battle seemed so... important." Sheturned to Gabrielle. "But when I saw you about to be killed... I had to save you. Protect you. Because nothing else matters."
"And why is that?" Gabrielle asked, feeling hope rise up in her breast.
"Because we're... friends," Xena said. "Two... T-Two..."
"Say it, Xena."
"Interwined..." Gabrielle continued.
"Forever." They spoke as one. Xena turned in a circle, feeling her eyes welling up as she saw, "Hercules... the man who saw good in a warlord... and let her see there was more to life than hatred and death." She smiled at his partner. "And Iolaus. Not a servant, but a man with a big enough heart to forgive a betrayal... and become my friend." And last. "Gabrielle. My Gabrielle. Amazon Princess. No, Amazon Queen. Bard of Poteidia. My best friend."
For a long second they stood there grinning at each other like idiots, until Hercules turned and noticed that the dead and wounded were vanishing. Just... seeping into the dirt. The others noticed as well as the survivors started vanishing into thin air, along with horses, wagons and everything else that had been part of the Army of Xena.
Callisto giggled as an Amazon she had been talking to vanished. She twirled Xena's chakram and started toward her.
Ares frowned as the horse he had been sitting on dissolved under him.
Hercules scratched his head. Except for the deep gouges left in the earth where the creature had struck, there was no evidence that the Army of Xena had ever existed or that a battle had even taken place. Not so much as a bloodtrail was left.
"Bet that shoulder hurts," Xena said to Herc.
"Well, yes it..." Hercules yelped as Xena slammed her fist into his arm and gave it a vicious twist.
"Dislocated," Xena said.
"Owww..." Herc said. "That really... feels...much better."
"Xena!" Gabrielle said. "You're back! Your memories... who you are..."
"Everything." Xena said, hugging Gabrielle.
"And everybody?" Callisto said as she approached.
"Even you. Callisto," Xena replied, walking toward her. "I think you have something of mine?"
"This toy?" Callisto chuckled as she held out the chakram. "Come and get..."
Xena decked Callisto with one punch. While she was still flat on her back Xena stood over her, stepped on her wrist and yanked the chakram from her grasp.
"You bitch!" Callisto snarled as she got up. "I'll fry your ass for that!"
"Go ahead and try," Xena said. "But last I heard goddesses don't bleed."
Gasping, Callisto touched her nose. Her eyes widened at the sight of her own blood.
"W-What have you done to me!" she shrieked.
"Not me," Xena said. "Arcanae. Once I broke the hold Margola had on me, the rules of the game changed ever so slightly. No more phantom armies. Just the souls of the living. Including you, Callisto."
"And Marcus," Gabrielle said.
Xena looked up to see Marcus running toward her across the empty plain.
Laughing, she started towards him as well.
Herc, Iolaus and Gabrielle watched as they met and kissed.
Callisto was sobbing, digging at the ground with her fingers.
"She doesn't seem to be taking mortality well at all," Iolaus observed.
"Yeah..." Herc said. "But she's not the only one."
Herc nodded out across the plain at a lone figure walking toward them, screaming and cursing Xena's very existence.
"Ares?" Gabrielle asked. "A mortal?"
"For now," Herc replied. "As long as we're here on Arcanae's turf... we play by their rules."
"He looks really... upset," Iolaus said with a grin.
"Breaks my heart," Herc answered.
Chapter 39, by Xenaaddict
"It's all your fault!" Callisto hissed.
"My fault?" Ares snarled "How do you figure that?"
Sauntering up to him, she cocked her head and ran a provocative finger over his collarbone. "If you hadn't deserted me," she pouted, "Xena would be dead, and we wouldn't be in this mess now."
"If you weren't so Tartarusbent on revenge all the time, I wouldn't have
left, would I? I said, 'wait a day, then the world will be yours for the
taking'.... But did you listen to me? Nooooooooooo..."
He brushed her hand away, her touch sending a cold shiver up his spine. There was no telling what she was capable of, and he didn't have his immortality to protect him anymore.
Callisto laughed at his reaction.
"What's the matter love? Not in the mood?" Grabbing his goatee, she yanked it roughly . "Or do you just prefer brunettes? First Xena dumped you, then Serena." She clucked disapproval. "Must be hell on the... ego."
"Why you ungrateful witch!" Ares growled, lunging at her.
Iolaus stifled a chuckle and glanced askance at Hercules. Hercules rolled his eyes, stepping between them toprevent them from strangling each other.
"Now hold on a minute you two!"
"Get out of my way, Hercules, let me get rid of this garbage once and for
"This is not a time for community service, Ares."
"You tell him big guy!"
"Don't start," he warned Callisto, "or I'll shut you up myself!"
.... Disembodied laughter filled the air, and they all looked around in puzzlement. Slowly Hades materialized, removing his helmet of invisibility.
"Xena, Hercules..." Hades acknowledged as he walked towards them.
Hades bowed, kissing her hand. "I know my dear, we've met."
"Hey, hey, cut that out." Iolaus interrupted. "You're a married man."
"Ah, yes, Iolaus. Unfortunately we've met too."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Forget I spoke. Now, Marcus, let's go."
"Wait a minute!" Xena laughed nervously . "Marcus is part of this."
"Not anymore, Xena. He was sent here because of the danger to the mortal plane. Now that you have regained your memory of your real life and your dreamwarriors and all that went with them have been destroyed, that danger has passed. Besides, Marcus has been here too long already. By working for the greater good in spite of what he himself might wish, he has proved himself worthy... again. His work here is done."
Marcus put a gentle hand on her shoulder forcing her to look at him. "He's right, Xena. Every day I spend away from the underworld weakens me. I begged him to let me help you. But I can't do any more. The rest is up to you." He looked around at the motley group and added, "All of you." "I came because I knew you needed my strength, my love."
"I still do" she whispered softly.
He smiled, "You have others here who love you just as much. They will guide you now. I will wait for you."
Leaning over, he kissed her deeply with every last bit of humanity he could muster. "Forever, if I have to. Don't let me down."
Blinking away a tear, he turned to join Hades. Ares, seeing a chance to escape this mess, rushed forth to block their way.
"What about me uncle?"
"What about you?" asked Hades.
Ares dropped on his knees and grabbed Hades' hand.
"Don't leave me here.." he whimpered, "with them!" Peeking out, he glanced at Callisto, who was tapping her fingers impatiently against her thigh.
"With her," he whispered urgently.
Clearly disgusted, Hades pushed Ares away.
"Lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas." And, with those words, Hades and Marcus vanished.
"Well," Hercules summed up, "like it or not, it looks like we're stuck with each other till the bitter end."
Chapter 40, by JayBird
"Well, Margola," Lord Caicus said as he squinted into the shifting orb. "I think I see the problem. This was supposed to be a challenge between you and the Warrior Princess... Instead, I see... two, three... no, five others with her! Including a God of Olympus, a lunatic Goddess and the half-breed Son of Zeus! Quite a crowd!"
"Spare me your sarcasm," Margola muttered. "I will deal with them all."
Caicus shook his head. "End it, Margola. Give Xena back that which is hers and let them go on their way."
Margola looked at Caicus like he was quite insane.
"Give up? After all that has happened? Our Guardian is dying as we speak... and if one soul makes it to the mortal plane, they will spread the word that the Magic of Arcanae is weak. No, we must end it. Kill them all!"
"'Kill them all?'" Caicus smiled. "You hoped to take over the soul of Xena and instead she has infected you." He shook his head. "Do as you will, Margola. But you will receive no help from me. If you die... then the magic of Arcanae will die with you. Perhaps it is for the best."
He started to walk away.
"Father..." Margola whispered, reaching out to him... But he was already gone.
"This is it?" Callisto sneered. "What a dump!"
The group of six started down the slope into the village of Arcanae. The 'City of Peace', or rather Xena's 'City of Revenge' was deserted.
"So do we just wander aimlessly about, or what?" Ares muttered.
"I know exactly where to go." Xena said, leading the way.
They ended up in the public square at the center of town, where the whipping post still stood, and Margola was waiting for them.
"Greetings, Xena," she said. "Did you have fun playing soldier? One... last time?"
"I've had enough of your talk, Margola," Xena said, drawing her sword.
"Return the Treasure to me. Now."
"And what Treasure would that be?"
"And why would your soul be... a Treasure? To anyone?"
"I could care less why anyone else would want it," Xena replied. "But it's dear to me. And it's not for you to take or bargain for."
"Seems a shame," Margola said. "When in just a few years it will be rotting in Tartarus for all eternity..."
"If that's my fate, then I accept it." Xena smiled. "But it's not for you to say, Margola. Not anymore."
"As you wish." Margola bowed her head and a sudden wind filled the square. When she looked up again, her eyes glowed like burning coals. There was a sudden -Whump!- of sound that startled everyone. They looked and saw a swirling portal had opened up behind them.
"My fight is with Xena," Margola said, her voice seemingly filling the square. "If any of you others wish to leave... then do so." She looked to Gabrielle. "Little girl, you have finally seen the evil that resides in your so-called friend. What say you?"
Gabrielle wordlessly took a step closer to Xena, standing at her side.
"And you, Son of Zeus? The danger to the mortal plane is over. You have completed your work here."
"Not quite yet," Hercules answered, moving to stand behind Xena.
"Sorry, lady," Iolaus said, also moving to stand behind Xena. "Xena is my friend too. Besides, the Big Guy and I are kinda a boxed set."
"Ares, God of War," Margola intoned. "Now mortal and quite susceptible to death... My battle is not with Olympus today. And I have no desire to see Zeus mourn for two sons. Leave, and you will be returned to him with your powers intact."
"Well," Ares sneered. "That's big talk for a little old lady with a case of the glow-eyes." He drew his sword and moved next to Xena. "As God of War, I do as I please. And right now, it pleases me to fight on Xena's side."
"Callisto," Margola said kindly. "Great wrongs have been done to you... Please, leave now and I promise I will address those wrongs, and make Xena pay for them."
"Sorry," Callisto said as she walked to the other side of Gabrielle. "But if anybody is gonna make Xena pay for her crimes... it's gonna be me."
"Foolish girl! I'm offering you your freedom! As a Goddess!"
"I will only be free when I am triumphant over Xena," she replied. Glancing past Gabrielle to look at her long-time enemy, she drew her sword. "I am Callisto of Cirra! Goddess of Rage! And on this day... I fight for Xena!"
Margola chuckled. "My compliments to you, Xena. It is said that a warrior is known not only by the friends they keep, but also by the enemies they make! It seems your enemies are as loyal to you as your friends."
"I guess I'm that kinda girl," Xena said with a shrug.
"The time for words is over," Margola said. "Let the battle begin..."
Chapter 41, by JayBird
The five warriors stood at the ready, trying to prepare for whatever Margola might throw at them.
It happened in the blink of an eye.
Xena found herself... suddenly nowhere. She couldn't see or hear or feel anything. Everything was a white-on-white nothingness that seemed forever. And she was alone.Gabrielle?- She's not here, Xena-
MargolaIt's just the two of us now. That's the way it should've been from the beginning. Two warrioresses of a single mind. More alike than you know...
But enough of that. Let your torment begin...-
Pain. White hot and unforgiving, it seemed to fill every strata of her being. Pain beyond pain.Ah.... Xena. Your friends -and enemies- were wise to turn down my offer of escape. That portal led only to the underworld of my Gods. The Old Ones who ruled before Zeus. But at least there they would have found eventual release and death. After I finish with you, I shall come to them one at a time and enter their minds... the pain you feel will be the pain they feel... for eternity.-
The pain which could not get any worse suddenly became ten times worse.
Xena tried to hold on, trying to think of something or someone...Gabrielle-
As thoughts and images flooded her mind, the pain seemed to lessen ever so slightly.That won't do you any good, Xena. Others have tried. You are alone. You have no one.- That's where you're wrong, Margola. You've been immortal for so long, you've forgotten what it feels like to be human. I found out... that once you let someone in your heart... that you're NEVER alone...-
"Why are you still folowing me?" Xena asks.
"I told you back at my village," Gabrielle replies. "I've always wanted to be part of a great adventure. And if I travel with you..."
"You aren't traveling with me," Xena says. "Look, I saved your village, and I saved your life. You wanna show some gratitude? Then leave me alone."
"What fun is it to be alone?" Gabrielle asks as she catches up to her.
"Besides, you might need me sometime."
Xena felt something warm and soft enter her mind. Something that started absorbing some of the pain as it intertwined within her essence.Gabrielle.-
Xena let her thoughts drift to another time of pain.
"And what are you thinking about?" Hercules asks.
Xena smiles. The two lovers are lying together in a camp deep in the forest. Xena looks to the heavens. On this day she has renounced her evil ways and started down a new path... with the help of a friend.
"I'm thinking that I've never felt as safe as I do now. In your arms..."
A second presence, strong and solid -yet warm and loving- entered her mind and settled in next to Gabrielle.
And not far behind...
"Look, Iolaus, I don't expect you to trust me, or even to like me..."
Iolaus sighs. It's late, they're both drunk and the tavern is about to close. But still, it's important to him that Xena knows that... "What's past is past, okay? I'm... just trying to tell you that as far as I'm concerned we're starting off new. Clean slate." Xena stares at his extended hand. "Friends?"
Margola realized that something had gone wrong. The three others now protected Xena. Xena was getting stronger, even as she felt herself getting weaker.
She increased the pain.Ares?- Who else, my princess?- Get outta my head. I don't want you... don't need you.- Oh, you need me. This bitch is still strong enough to tear your mind apart, and destroy not only you, but also your Gabby, Herc and the runt... now let me in.- I'll never... go back.- We shall see...-
Margola swirled about them now. The God of War was a formidible opponent even as a mortal. But she could still realize her victory if she struck one final blow, giving everything she had to destroy them all...
Xena feels the final entity slip into her. It feels sharp and jagged to the touch... A collection of lost hopes and broken dreams.Callisto...- Don't say a word.- But...- I can take anything you can dish at me Xena... Anything but your pity.- I understand.- When next we meet... I will make you suffer so...-
Margola screamed as she unleashed her final assault, only to have it reflected back on her. The terrible madness of the last entity magnified her pain ten fold.No... it cannot end like this...- Father...-
Xena woke up, finding herself back in the cave under the ghostly glow of the natural light with Gabrielle by her side, snoring.
"Gabrielle." Xena poked her. "Com'n. Wake up."
"Ummmm... Five more minutes..."
A harder poke had her sitting up, blinking her eyes as the pieces fell into place.
"Xena." They hugged each other for long minutes. Once again the two friends found comfort in each other. The cuts and bruises and injuries of the dreamscape were gone. They were back in their old clothes, with Xena's chakram still in her hand. Only the memories remained.
"C'mon," Xena said. "Let's get the Tartarus outta here."
They followed the same path back to the entrance of the cave, where Hercules and Iolaus were waiting for them. There were more hugs and laughter as Xena squinted into the light of a new morning.
Reluctantly, Xena looked toward the valley, then blinked. Arcanae was totally deserted, now nothing more than a collection of stones and fallen ruins.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked. "It looks like nobody's lived here for centuries!"
"Nobody has," Hercules replied.
"But years ago, when I raided the village. . . ." Xena began.
"Even then," he assured her. "Nothing was here. . . .except the old magic."
"Where's Ares?" Xena asked.
"He said he had business elsewhere." Herc smiled grimly. "He said you'd understand."
"And Callisto?" Gabrielle wondered.
"Back in the lava with Velasca," Xena said tonelessly. "In a way, she never left."
"Say!" Iolaus said. "I've got a great idea! What say we got off this damned mountan and find ourselves a village tavern and..."
"I think I can figure out the rest," Xena said.
The four friends left Arcanae and were only a short ways down the mountain trail when they came across Peleus and his brigands.
Xena counted about forty soldiers strung out along the trail, all well-armed. Peleus himself was at the lead, looking important and full of himself as he drew his sword.
"I am Peleus, Warlord of the Ages!!!" he shouted. "Tell me your names, so I'll know what to put on your graves!!!"
Xena drew her own sword. "I am Xena... Warrior Princess."
A serious rumble of discontent went through the ranks of Peleus' men.
"And I'm Hercules," the Big Guy said. "Y'know, Son of Zeus?"
Some of the soldiers started climbing the side of the moutain.
"Yeah," Iolaus said, stepping forward. "And I'm... with him."
"Hi! I'm Gabrielle, Amazon Princess!" She stepped forward as well. "Look, I think I can save us all a lot of time and trouble. If you guys are here for Arcanae... well, you can have it. Really!"
Peleus frowned as the others nodded in confirmation. Finally regaining some of his bravado, he motioned his troops forward. They carefully eased their way past the four, giving Xena and Herc an extra wide berth.
"Boy," Iolaus said as they continued on their way. "Are those guys in for a surprise!"
Yeah..." Gabrielle turned and cupped her hands to her mouth. "YOO-HOO!!!
HEY, YOU GUYS!!! WHATEVER YOU DO, STAY AWAY FROM THE MUSHROOMS!!!!"