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While Talea and her abductors were wandering the streets, Xena and Gabrielle were on the outskirts of the city of Tempolis.
"Should we split up to look for her, Xena?"
"No, I think we should stick together. Tempolis is a big city, I dont want either of us to get lost."
"Okay. Then where should we start looking?
"We should start with the inns. Men would be hungry after a long journey, they probably went somewhere to eat."
At that moment they were distracted by a man being hurtled through the air above them. He landed with a loud thud on the soft grass and let out a scream. It was clear from the way that his leg was twisted that it was broken. Xena and Gabrielle ignored him and stared transfixed at the forest from where he had flown. They both knew that there was only one man in the known world that could throw a person that far! As they expected, Hercules and his best friend Iolaus strolled through the forest and walked over towards the two women. They both looked very pleased with themselves.
"Hercules. Iolaus," Xena shook their hands. Gabrielle, always the one who showed her emotions more readily than her friend, enclosed both of them in an affectionate embrace.
"We heard the woods around here could use a bit of cleaning up so we came to do the job. Had we known that the warrior princess was already here, we wouldnt have bothered!" Xena smiled, pleased with the compliment from the son of Zeus.
"Well, Hercules, Gabrielle and I didnt come here to clean out the forest. Actually we are looking for a friend of ours, Talea. She has been abducted by some thieves that we had a run in with yesterday afternoon."
"Xena and I suspect that she was kidnapped deliberately to get to Xena. The thing is we cant figure out which one of her enemies it is." This comment brought a smile to both of the mens faces.
"I can see your problem," Iolaus laughed. "Maybe this guy can help." They all turned their attentions to the man moaning behind them. Xena turned and walked purposely over to him. He saw her coming and cringed away, attempting to get away from her by crawling. She had no mercy for any man who may have been involved in the disappearance of Talea. She kicked him over onto his back and knelt down and grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulling him up till he was only inches from her face.
"Did you help men kidnap a sick woman from the forest last night?" The mans only response was a terrified whimper. His lack of cooperation showed Xena that he had indeed been part of the plan. This angered her and a dangerous, icy glint came into her blue eyes.
"Did you help men kidnap my friend?" The hardness in her voice and the almost mad look in Xenas eyes elicited a hesitant nod from the terrified man.
"Why did you take her? Who are you working for?"
"I... I- I dont know why we did it. Truly! We were approached by a hooded man an- and he offered us money if we kidnapped a red-headed girl from the forest. It was enough to feed my family for a month! I had to do it!" When Xena heard the mans motives for his actions the icy glint left her eyes and her voice softened.
"Where were you supposed to take her?"
"I dont know! My part of the deal was only to help take her. When I went to collect my money it wasnt there! I was fighting with my partner when they ran into us and Jonas picked a fight. Now I have a broken leg. Thats all I know and its the truth."
Xena put his head back on the ground and Gabrielle came over to help her set his broken bone. When they finished they walked back over to Hercules and Iolaus.
"Do we all agree on whos behind all this?" Xena did not really have to ask.
"Ares. You think he kidnapped her to get to you?"
"Why else would he want to hurt someone that close to me. He knows what good friends we are. He knows the way she moves, the way she thinks. Theres something else about Talea that you dont know yet -"
"Talea! Why does that name sound familiar?"
"Oh, I know! Hercules, do you remember that war we fought at Naxos when I was wounded?" Hercules nodded in recognition. "Well, Talea was working in the hospital, she nursed me. She told me stories to take my mind off the pain. Remember, she told me she knew Xena, The Destroyer of Nations. I didnt believe her, of course. She seemed too gentle to have been in that kind of business."
"Yes, I remember now. I thanked her, she seemed really nice. I remember you telling me about her connection with Xena, after meeting her I didnt believe it either. And shes the one whose been kidnapped?"
"Shes also dying."
"I dont know what it is thats made her sick but she has been bleeding. What ever it is it has prevented her being able to fight off her kidnappers."
"But you can make her better, right?" Iolauss voice was hopeful. Xenas solemn shake of the head told him that there was no hope.
"She came here to pray in Hades temple. She knew there was nothing that could be done for her. We have to find her, fast!"
"Well, he said she was taken to Tempolis, so I guess we should get there quickly. Where would they have taken her?"
"If Ares was behind this, my guess is hes taken her to his temple. Hes using her as bait, so he knows that is where we would go first because its the obvious place."
"Good idea. Now we just have to find it." The four took off at a brisk jog down the road with Xena and Hercules setting the pace.
The thief they left behind watched the four hurry off down the road. He smiled as he remembered their conversation. Then he ripped off the bandages and the splint that Xena and Gabrielle had carefully applied then twisted his knee back into place. Laughing to himself he got up and as he walked away he disappeared in a blast of blue light.
Talea and her captors were still walking the streets aimlessly. They opted to walk down one of the side streets. It was full of vagrants and tramps. At the end of the lane three pock-marked and skinny women walked up to the party and hooked their arms around Taleas captors. She could not believe her good luck, obviously these women were desperate. As the women fawned sickeningly over the men their hold gradually loosened on Talea. She knew that any movement from her would tighten their grip, so she very carefully readied herself to run.
"How much will you pay us to take these men off your hands, Lady?" One of the women asked her in, what Talea supposed she meant to be, a seductive voice. Talea smiled at her.
"Anything you ask for." Talea heard a wagon barreling across the lane in front of them. Talea saw her chance and broke free of the men. They yelled at her to come back and attempted to run after her but were hindered by the women that were groping them, then by the wagon that got in their way. By the time they made it into the lane they could not see her anywhere.
Talea did not once look behind her, she just kept running without direction. Twice she was almost run over by a horse and once by a cart. She could feel the energy drain out of her. A gust of wind blew her hair into her face and she was running blind. She pushed it away just as she bumped into the hard, muscular body in front of her. She nearly fell but was caught and held by strong hands.
The four heroes entered the city, only to find it was a dizzying confusion of people dancing, parades and stalls that lined the streets. Xena looked at Gabrielle with concern in her eyes.
"How are we going to find anything with all this going on?"
"Lets just ask someone," Gabrielle suggested and walked up to a man at a stall. "Excuse me but could you tell me where I could find the Temple of Ares?"
"How, in the name of Zeus, should I know? I dont live here, Im just here for the fair."
"Oh. Thanks anyway." Before admitting defeat Gabrielle asked five more people, each claiming not to know where to find the temple. With resignation in her eyes, Gabrielle looked up at Xena to say,
"well just have to walk the streets to find it." Xena chose a direction and they all followed her, stopping people on the way to find someone who would know where the temple was.
Talea was held tight in the strong arms that had prevented her fall. She was gasping and she could feel a tingling in her chest and she knew she did not have enough strength to run any further.
"Talea!" Talea looked up into the face of the taller man and was shocked to find that she knew him.
"What are you doing here?" Sera seemed to be just as surprised to see her.
"Theres no time! I need your help, I cant make it on my own and theyre coming!"
"Wait, what do you mean, whos coming?"
"The people who kidnapped me! Please believe me! I need you to take me somewhere safe. Please!" The desperation in her voice and the sagging of her body against him convinced him of the truth of her words. He quickly looked around.
"Quick! Lets go in here!" Talea saw where they were headed and stopped their flight into the building in front of them.
"No! I cant go in there!"
"We have to, Talea. Youll be safe in there!"
"No!" Talea still protested but she could feel her strength seeping out of her body. Sera was right, she had no choice. They ran through the door and suddenly her mind went numb, inside the temple her telepathic powers were useless!
"Come on! It must be around here somewhere!" Desperation was beginning to creep into Xenas voice.
"Its hopeless. Well never find it! Theres too many people here with the fair and the war going on in the next province. We need to find a local and someone willing to talk to us." Hercules shared Xenas concern, he could see how much this friend meant to Xena. He and Iolaus were also indebted to Talea for her assistance during the war. "We have to split up."
"No! We have to stay together. I need your help!" This admission from Xena was unusual in Hercules experience and surprised him a little. "The temple must be around here somewhere, we have to find it! Come on!"
"My head!" Talea stumbled through the door of the temple of Ares and put her head in her hands. Sera turned around and saw her kneeling on the floor. He quickly knelt beside her and pressed her head to his chest and gently put his arms around her shoulders.
"Whats wrong? A headache, what?"
"No, its nothing."
"Talea, are you sure?"
"Yes. What are we going to do now that were here?"
"Maybe we should light a candle."
"Why would we want to do that?" There was a certain degree of disgust in Taleas voice as she said this. Sera laughed as if she had made a joke.
"To show respect, of course."
"I dont respect him."
"You dont respect the God of War?"
"The God of destruction, death and suffering? Why should I?" Talea could not hide the bitterness in her voice.
"Well I am going to light a candle. I need Ares on my side. I am going to join the war."
"Why would you want to join a war?"
"For adventure and excitement! Why else?"
"I cant believe you said that! If war is anything it is definitely not adventure and excitement. Hah! Thats such a naive thing for a grown man to say."
"You have never known war, Sera, you dont know what its like. The suffering and the pain is so extreme and death surrounds you on all sides. You dont know what it feels like to cause such suffering."
"Oh, and you do? A woman? You have to be joking!"
"I am not. I was in Xenas army. You must have heard of her. I left her side because I know firsthand the anguish war causes. I will never be able to make up for the horrors that I helped cause, that I made. Never. You have no idea what that feels like. You should never have to go through that."
"Wars are inevitable, Talea. There is always someone who will cause one and people who are willing to join the fight. You cant put the sins of every soldier and every man who ever picked up a sword on your shoulders."
"You dont know what its like to look evil straight in the eye. I have. War made Xena evil, it gave her the bloodlust, the craving for power. He made her evil. And I was on the verge of joining her. I can never forgive myself for that."
"It was not your fault that Xena chose her dark side." Sera calmed Taleas rising tension by gently stroking her head with his hand. "There is so much I have done in my life that I regret. I have been the cause of much pain and suffering, more than you have. But I cant change what I have done. There is so much I would do over if I had the chance. Im not saying that Im never going to think about the past and my part in it but I have to accept what I have done and hope that I have learned my lessons well enough to make myself a better person. Someday youre going to have to accept your place in history and realise that you are a better person because of the lessons life has taught you."
"I dont know why but I feel like I know you from somewhere. Have we met before?"
"Yeah, yesterday afternoon, silly! I saved your life, remember?" He laughed off her confusion.
"I know it sounds silly, but I cant help feeling like I know you from somewhere else. I just cant shake the feeling." His face slowly inclined towards hers and he drew her on to his lap. Taleas already shallow breaths came faster as his lips drew nearer.
"Maybe we knew each other in another lifetime." Talea let out a deep sigh at his words and quickly pushed him away before he could touch her lips.
"Why not, Talea?"
"I cant kiss you... because Im dying. If you touch me like that, you will die like I will."
"It would be a sweet death."
"No, it would painful. Please, let me go." Talea struggled out of his embrace and stood. Sera followed her example but took her hands in his.
"The fates have been unkind to me. I have only just found you and now I must let you go." He looked truly hurt by their circumstances. Overwhelmed by this thought and distracted by a sound only he could hear, Sera walked away, down a passage and out of Taleas sight.
"This is it!" Iolaus exclaimed as they came upon the building that was clearly one of Ares temples. It was like a fortress, the walls made of an impenetrable metal. As Hercules found by banging on the door, to no avail.
"Its no good trying to force the door Hercules, its made of Haephestian metal. Not even you can break through that," said a voice behind them.
"Ares! Where is Talea? What have you done with her?" Xena looked like she was ready to pound him flat!
"She is safe in the temple, as you already know. She will remain there while you do a little job for me."
"I wont bargain for her, Ares! Let her go, now!" A familiar icy glint entered Xenas eyes as she spoke and her tone held a deadly intensity.
"Once you have delivered to me the Promethium Ice Stone, shell be all yours. Its being guarded by acolytes, and as you know, Prometheus has never been fond of me. Otherwise he would have gladly given me the stone. Circumstances as they are, I need you to get it for me."
"Youre kidding? We dont have time for this."
"Youre right, you dont. Talea is worsening quickly and she is in a lot of pain. At the most she has a few days left, at the least, hours. You had better get going. The stone is being held in the caves just over that rise." Ares pointed into the distance in the direction they must go. "If you hurry, it wont take you three days to get there and back."
"Youll pay for this, Ares!" Hercules let him see just how much with the look in his eyes.
"Im sure I will, but that doesnt improve your present situation. You should leave as soon as you can if you want to get there before dawn." With that Ares disappeared.
"Lets go, then. It looks as if we dont have any choice. We have to get back as soon as we can." Xena led the others back in the direction of the gate.
"O.K. Xena, well stop here for the night." Hercules stated as they walked into a small clearing. Just beyond the trees was the Temple caves of Prometheus.
"We cant! You heard Ares, Talea may only have a few hours left! We have to get that stone and head back now!"" Xena' voice clearly displayed her desperation and grief over her friend.
"Xena, listen to Hercules," Gabrielle soothed. "There is really nothing more we can do tonight. We have reached the temple but its too late to see anything and we have no idea how many people we are up against. Remember, you always say never attack your opponent until you know their weaknesses. Well, we wont know anything until daylight. You have to try to rest." Gabrielle put her arms around her best friend and they both sank to the ground. That night they all slept on the hard ground without a fire.
"I found some skins and cushions for us to sleep on. Here you go!" Sera threw a cushion to Talea which she easily caught. "Oh, I also found the storeroom back there with some food in it. Would you get some?"
"Sure." Talea walked in the direction he had pointed in. "The second door?"
"No, that room is full of scrolls, the first one."
"Wow! Does a God really need to eat all this? Dont they have to eat that special stuff?"
"Ambrosia? Yeah, but I guess they like the variety of mortal foods!" Sera grinned at his own joke. Talea walked out of the storeroom carrying a large bowl of fruits, bread and cheese wrapped in a cloth, also smiling.
"All this must have been put in there this morning because it is all very fresh! Do you think Ares would be angry that we are going to eat his food?"
"Considering the circumstances, I dont think he would mind."
"Im sure youre right! Wow! I dont think Ive ever slept in a bed that looked so luxurious!"
"Luxurious! What kind of bed do you normally sleep in? Thats just a bunch of cushions and blankets."
"Here have some bread. The grapes are really nice, too. I dont usually sleep in a bed. I have a couple of blankets and I sleep wherever I am at the end of the day."
"Really? So you just travel all the time?"
"Yep! I just keep going and stop whenever someone needs me. I go home occasionally to see my parents and my sister, my brother died when he was very young. My mother sent for me when he got sick to see if I could help him but he was dying of the same disease as me. Thats how I got sick. I havent been home since I became worse. I didnt want to worry them. What about your family?"
"I dont have any, now. They died a year ago, I sold the farm last week and decided to join the army. Theres nothing left for me back there."
"Sera, you should have stayed."
"Ill never regret my decision," Sera picked a grape off the stalk and placed it in Taleas mouth, looking deep into her eyes, on his mouth was a wry smile, "it brought me to you." Talea broke the eye contact and lowered her eyes, however, she did smile at his words. Silently she chewed her grape.
Later, after they had eaten their fill, Talea told Sera that she was exhausted. He led her over to the blankets and she lay down. The cushion was so soft that it took no time at all before she was sleeping soundly. Sera cleaned up their plates and then knelt beside Talea and watched her sleeping body tenderly. It made him feel good to know that she had felt so safe in his presence that she had only once expressed an interest as to why her friends had not found her yet. He had told her that in the morning they would leave the safety of the temple and go and find Xena and Gabrielle. However, Sera had a feeling that, in her worsening state, Talea would not wake until late morning and by that time her friends would be back. At the thought of her illness, his brows creased with worry. Every time Talea had felt the onset of a coughing attack, she had left the room, each time returning weaker than when she had left. Feeling his own tiredness, Sera walked over to the other side of the blankets and lay beside Talea, covering them both with a blanket. Sera closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep as he enfolded her in a gentle embrace.
At dawn Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules and Iolaus were awake. Now they were peering through the trees at the temple in the distance. The temples facade was carved into the cliff face that surrounded the opening of the cave. At the rising of the sun, many of the acolytes had left the temple, heading for the fair in town.
"From what I have heard of this temple, there is a centaur guarding the stone. He is supposed to be very strong, a great warrior. He was hand-picked by Prometheus himself."
"Hercules, do you know anything of the actual stone? Why would Ares want it?"
"Its called an Ice stone because it is a brilliant blue. I think it is a Lapis. Its supposed to give the holder the ability to control peoples minds, make them sort of like zombies. Zeus gave it to Prometheus to guard to keep Hera away from it. I dont think he ever anticipated Ares wanting it."
"Hey, that means the centaur can turn us into zombies if we go in there!" Gabrielle didnt like the idea of anyone controlling her mind!
"No, the stone can only be used by a God. It can enhance a telepaths abilities but only a god can turn someone into a zombie."
"So Ares wants to lead an army of zombies that will do his every bidding. Hell never be short of soldiers! Hercules, we cant let Ares get his hands on the stone, but we have to have it so that we can get to Talea. Lets just get it from the temple then figure out how to get it back when I see Talea again. Lets go."
Inside the temple it was very dark, the only light coming from torches on the wall. Hercules and Xena each took one and walked in front down the corridor. Suddenly a priest rounded a corner and upon seeing them was so stunned he couldnt move, or even yell. Xena, moving quickly, handed Gabrielle her torch, grabbed him and put a hand over his mouth.
"Where can we find the Ice Stone?" She moved her hand slightly so that he could talk.
"Down the corridor to the left."
"Thanks. Hercules." Hercules hit the priest on the head, knocking him out. Xena let him fall to the ground.
The four turned left and continued down the long passage. They could see that it led to a cavern that was lit by braziers, in the centre was a platform, on which stood the stone. Seeing it, they all grinned at each other. Suddenly a loud groaning snort echoed through the cavern and made all four jump, even the unshakable Hercules and Xena! This made all their grins wider. When they peered into the cavern they saw in the wall, a very large centaur sleeping on a bed. Another snore erupted from his throat and the four heroes had to fight down their laughter.
Xena nudged Gabrielle and nodded her head in the direction of the stone. Gabrielle nodded in reply and tiptoed over to the stone. Just as she picked it up, footsteps were heard racing down the corridor.
"Meneus! Meneus! Wake up! Theyre after the stone! Meneus!" The priests voice was high pitched with fear. Xena met him at the opening with a hard punch that again knocked him out cold.
"Hercules, you didnt hit him hard enough! Look!" Meneus was roused from his sleep by the priests shouts and as he stood to his full height, he was at least a head taller than Hercules.
"Oh-oh!" Meneus made straight for Gabrielle, the one holding the stone. "Xena!"
Xena let out her battle cry as she flipped over to Meneus. She hit his head with her feet, and then flipped over to the other side of him. Gabrielle ran over to the opening and stood with Iolaus, who was watching Hercules close in on the centaur. Meneus looked in both directions, and charged at Xena. Seeing the speed of his flight, Xena flipped over him and let him hit the wall. She ran over to Hercules and they stood together, waiting for the his next attempt to recover the stone. Hercules was sure Prometheus did not pick Meneus for his intelligence, but for his brute strength. However, Meneus strength had dealt him a severe blow as he backed away from the wall shaking his head to clear his vision. Meneus was not used to being bested by a woman and as before he lunged straight for them. Hercules and Xena just let him come and when Meneus came close enough they let fly with two strong punches, one under the chin and the other in the ribs to wind the centaur. It worked and Hercules, Xena, Iolaus and Gabrielle were racing out of the cavern before Meneus fell to the ground. With renewed strength and determination, the four raced towards Tempolis to liberate Talea.
When Talea woke late that morning, she found Sera preparing a washing bowl and tearing up scraps of cloth he had found in the storeroom.
"What are you doing?"
"So, youre finally awake!" Sera looked over and grinned at her, his smile was reciprocated. "Just getting some water ready so that you can wash your hands and face, theyre still looking a little dirty from the other night."
"Why didnt you tell me earlier?" Talea blushed and suddenly became very self-conscious about her appearance.
"It never came up - and it would it would have spoiled several moments if I had told you earlier! There is some more fruit over here for breakfast. Im afraid I got so bored while I was waiting for you to wake up that I ate most of it!"
"Thats O.K. Im not hungry." Talea got up and walked over to Sera. She picked up one of the scraps of cloth and dipped it in the water, she wrung it out and then unfolded it. Talea was about to wipe her face when Sera, who had been watching her intently, took her hand.
"Here, let me do it. You cant see where all the dirt is." Talea let him have the damp cloth and she closed her eyes. Sera gently ran the cloth over her skin, clearing away the patches of dirt and drops of dried blood around her mouth, she had coughed in her sleep. He took his hand away when he had finished and put the cloth back in the bowl.
"Thank you," Talea said quietly to break the electric charged silence.
She could still feel the tingle she had felt when he had touched her lips. Sera smiled faintly in reply. He walked over to where the fruit lay and put a selection on a plate for Talea. As she watched his movements, Talea washed her hands. Sera returned and handed her the plate of fruit that she did not feel she had the strength to eat.
"I was thinking. Would you mind, Sera, going to look for my friends for me? It still may not be safe for me to go out and I really dont have the strength to walk far today." Talea looked at Sera pleadingly and tiredly.
"Of course. Ill get you settled in here then Ill go. Xena and Gabrielle might find us first though." Sera was reluctant to leave her.
"No, this is the last place they would look for me. Under more normal circumstances I would never end up in the Temple of Ares!"
"I guess so. Let me help you back to bed."
Sera was about to pick her up when Talea burst into an intense fit of coughing. She grabbed the nearest cloth and held it over her mouth. When the coughing subsided she would have slumped to the floor but Sera came around behind her and held her. She rested her head on the crook of his arm, drained of energy. She opened the fist that held the cloth, it was soaked with blood. The amount of blood scared Sera and his face turned pale. Talea dropped it in the bowl of water, turning it a deep scarlet.
"Talea, theres something I need to tell you, well a few things." He lifted her up so that they were both standing. Talea was supported in the circle of his arms and she looked deep into his eyes, disturbed by the confusion; and another hidden emotion she could not discern; that she saw in them. "The first thing is, I think... I know... I love you."
"You hardly know me!"
"Thats not true! He knows you very well."
"Xena! You found me!" Talea was overcome with happiness that her friend had found her but was also very confused by her hostile attitude towards Sera.
"It wasnt so hard. He wanted us to." She lifted her chin in the direction of Sera. "He made his trail too easy. Sera wanted us to find him. We got your precious stone." Talea finally registered that Gabrielle, Hercules and Iolaus were also with her.
"Its so good to see you guys. But, Xena, I dont understand what you mean. Wha..." Talea suddenly doubled over and broke into a coughing fit. The pain was unbearable, it blinded her, it choked her. All Talea could feel was the pain that was so intense it numbed her to everything around her. The sight of her dear friend collapsing and in such pain broke Xenas heart.
Taleas head was held gently by a large, soft, male hand. His other hand was covering her mouth, only when the coughing fit subsided did he remove his hand, which lightly brushed her lips as he pulled away.
"Blood. Hand me a cloth." Gabrielle, dazed, bent to the floor and retrieved a cloth which she handed to Sera. Xena recognised the symptoms, Taleas lungs were rotting away, there was absolutely nothing that could be done for her. Too many years in war treating soldiers that were dying of all different diseases, Xena surmised. Sera calmly wiped his hand and then folded the stained side inwards and gently, he cupped her chin and wiped the blood off her mouth. Slowly recognition flowed into Taleas mind as the pain receded.
"You!" She recoiled from his touch as if his fingers burned her skin. "Who are you? What do you want from me?" Sera stood up and backed away from them. There was a grim smile of resignation on his face.
"Youre right, it was me." Suddenly the man before them changed slightly to become the handsome God of War. Talea was amazed, and a little excited, to see the man that had led her away from Xenas camp so many years before. Xena threw the stone to him. "Was it the name that gave me away, Xena, or just my fantastic act as the poor peasant my dear brother threw out of the forest? The leg was a nice touch, wasnt it?"
"His name is Ares, God of War, Talea. You remember my advocate? You never saw his face, he kept it covered with a hood." Xenas voice was thick with sarcasm and anger.
"How could you do this? What has Talea ever done to you? You really are a heartless bastard!"
"Hercules! I see you still carry a grudge over Serena, dont you? Even though your marriage never took place!" Hercules moved to strike Ares and it took all three heroes to forcibly hold him back. "Im sorry, that was out of line. I shouldnt say things like that. I know its impossible to believe but, I know how you feel. To love someone and know there is no way you could ever be together."
"You dont know what love is! All you know is pain and hate and suffering. You cant feel anything in your heart because its made of stone."
"I know you find it hard to believe me, but it is true. I dont expect anything from you when I tell you the truth. I dont even expect you to believe me, why should you?" Ares voice grew soft and seemed to carry a sorrowful tone. He looked at Talea as if she were the only person in the room. "The truth is this whole situation began as a scam to get Xena back on my side but it got way out of control. I remembered the way I used to feel when I was around you but I thought I was over it. It must have begun the first moment I touched you. I could feel the pain in your body, I knew you were dying. It must have been your mortality that touched me, changed me. Your calm acceptance of death. I could sense a courageous spirit inside you and an inner peace that I can only dream about. When I sent Xena and Hercules to get the stone, it was only so that we would have more time to be alone. So many feelings flashed through my mind when I touched you. There were the regrets and the memories of your past that had caused you pain; I know that much of that suffering was my fault. My first impulse was to try and make it all go away, to take away your suffering. Then I remembered what I had set out to do and for the first time in my existence I felt guilt. Talea, I have felt for you ever since that day you left Xena and thought of you many, many times. I realised that I actually had a conscience and it was you, Talea, that made it grow. And this plan came into my head. I thought if I could get Xena out of the picture for a while I would win you. I didnt really want the stone, it was just a distraction. I was going to tell you the truth just now but I ran out of time and Xena came back sooner than I had anticipated. Once you four got back I wanted us to talk, to tell you how I feel about Talea." Hercules temper was rising, as was Xenas. That Ares would use Talea in such a way angered them greatly.
"Talk, you want us to talk!" Hercules was ready to punch something, namely his half-brother. Gathering her strength, Talea stood and put her hand on his arm. The gesture was enough to stop his furious pacing.
"Please, let him finish."
"Let him finish? Talea, have you been listening to him? He is the one who did this to you!"
"I was listening to every word, Xena. I would like to give him a chance. I have once before. Ares helped me leave your camp that day. For reasons of his own, I know, but also to help me get my life back." Talea turned to look at Ares. "Please continue."
"Oh, for the love of Zeus!" Xena muttered under her breath.
"I wanted you all here, Talea most of all, because... Talea!" Talea suddenly fell to the floor wheezing, not getting enough air into her lungs. Xena and Ares rushed to her side. Xena held her in her arms while Ares squeezed her hand. Taleas eyelids fluttered as she fought to keep them open but it was useless and they closed and the violent heaving of her chest suddenly changed to small, almost imperceptible, shallow breaths.
The room was dead silent and they all knew that Talea was near the end. Xena slowly began to rock her and tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks. There was also a never before seen glistening in the eyes of the hardened God beside her.
"Gabrielle, hand me that cushion over there and get me some blankets. Hurry!" Gabrielle returned quickly with the wanted objects and could only stand back and watch with concern with Hercules and Iolaus. The cushion was placed under Taleas head and the blankets quickly placed over the cooling body. Xena looked over at the owner of the hand that clutched at Taleas and watched the single tear that slid down the familiar cheek and splatter on the entwined fingers. She felt an uncontrollable rage towards the being that she irrationally held responsible for her impending loss. She gathered all of her strength and shoved Ares away from Talea with all of her might. He fell backward as he slid across the floor. The surprise move stunned the God and he stared at Xena, dumbfounded.
"You bastard! You did this, didnt you? Didnt you!"
The realisation of what she meant winded him momentarily.
"No! I would never hurt her! Talea was sick for a long time before I even thought of her. I would never make her suffer like this!"
"Oh, I think you would. Why not? She means nothing to you! Nothing!"
"She means everything to me! I love her!" Ares stunned himself as the anguished words escaped his mouth. The room fell again into silence except for Taleas faltering breathing. Xena looked directly into Ares eyes and they pierced him like a dagger. Her voice was quiet but very intense.
"Then do something!"
"I cant Xena! You know there is only one solution. She must become immortal. She would have to be with me forever. I need her consent." His voice cracked with self hatred. "Do you really think she would want to spend all eternity with me? There just isnt enough time..."
"Why dont you ask her, brother?" Hercules had seen that Talea had opened her eyes to show that she had heard what had been said. Hercules knew that Talea was the only key to his half-brothers salvation. Ares looked over at Talea and crawled over to kneel beside her like a moth to a flame. He took her hand and looked down at her, his love for her showing clearly in his eyes. His soft, soothing voice was tender.
"I love you, Talea. If you died you would break all our hearts." Her friends could discern a faint smile on her lips. He pressed the Promethium stone into Taleas hand. She could see clearly into the depth of his very soul and was touched by the amount of love that existed in there for her. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. Ares voice was filled with doubt but he was compelled to ask, "Will you be my wife, Talea? Will you be with me forever?"
As she nodded as best she could, another spasm of pain seized her chest, making it impossible to breathe. Her vision became foggy and Talea could feel herself slipping away. It was too late... for all his power, the God of War could not give a person back the gift of life. As Talea died, so did the other half of his soul. The stone Ares held in his hand fell to the floor and shattered into a million shimmering splinters, like a heart full of tears.
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