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From the Ashes of Disaster...
By
Brigid Doyle (a. k. a Gobinet)
LPDir@aol.com

 

Disclaimer: All characters belong to Universal/MCA and I claim no rights to them. I do claim, however, this story because I just canít wait until October.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen Sacrifice 1 & 2, this won't make much sense, so be sure to see both episodes before reading.

Violence Alert: Vivid descriptions of injuries, Xena reacts...well the way Xena reacts....violence is no more than a usualy episode might portray.

Subtext: None, zip, zero...there is such a thing as friendship, simple and pure

Dedication: To Bubble, Raine, and KC for editing and encouraging this work and especially to all of the great people at the Coliseum, especially Kiwi, Chak, Ciekan, Macer, Xeniteor, Fender, Ki, Nightwing, Meg, Radene, SP, CD and even the BM!




The girl lay still as her senses began to awaken. Smell first, assaulting her nostrils with the putrid scent of rotting eggs and acrid fumes. Taste awakened by smell, a mixture of those same sensations and that of a thick coppery tang. Sound, an angry humming roar accentuated by wet popping snaps and a strange crackling noise. The fumes and heat of the liquid fire, as she slowly allowed her eyes to flutter open, blurred sight. Her eyes closed again blocking the reality before her. Touch...touch was pain. Total engulfing pain caressed every inch of her body. The air taken into her lungs burned her nose, throat and chest. The mere rising and falling of that brought crushing pain to every broken rib. She tried to swallow and found new levels of agony with that action as bolts of anguish shot through her neck and head. The pounding unending roar in her ears was indistinguishable from that of the din below her. Through this blazing pain there were parts of her body she was unaware of, fingers that would not wiggle and legs that were hauntingly ghost-like. Perhaps they were no longer part of her. As she regained more of her consciousness, the pain flowed throughout her body. Blood streamed from her nose, ears and mouth, but she could not lift her head to rescue herself from the pool forming under her cheek. Moving was impossible, not even a thought. She opened her eyes again, daring to see what lay before her.

Once again the fumes stung her orbs and she squeezed them shut. Tears sprung from those closed eyes and helped to wash away some of that minor discomfort. Again she opened her eyes and was relieved to at least see her hand lying inches from her face, yet there was no feeling of a hand. Was this death? Was this punishment for all she had wrought on the human race? Was this her fate? Was this the realm of Tartarus?

Despite the pain, she sensed a presence. 'Hades', she thought, 'here to pass judgement...or inflict more punishment....' Her thoughts trailed away as she watched the dark boots move closer to her. She was powerless to escape.

"No, not Hades. Just me!"

She recognized that gloating sarcastic voice. Speech was not possible, her tongue would not cooperate, her broken jaw unable to form the name she thought. 'Ares...'

"Yeah!" The god of war smiled, full of himself. He squatted down and tilted his head to meet her gaze. "Me again! You are so very hard to get rid of, brat." He slid his arms under her broken body turning it to face him, then stood with her in his arms. The girl moaned as the movement jarred her pain-wracked form; there was no comfort in his embrace. "Just what does it take to kill you, anyway?" He smiled at her agony and walked to the edge of the precipice. The molten rock bubbled and gushed a few feet below. She could feel the heat against her skin as it intensified the pain. Her body was no more than a rag doll in his arms and she was defenseless in his grasp. Death would be a release, yet the promise of life was still beckoning her will. He looked into her wide eyes and smirked again. He made a quick tossing movement and just as quickly brought her back to the safety at his chest. Again he giggled gleefully at his teasing and at the gasps of fear and increased pain this action brought to the broken girl.

"Oh, don't fret, Gabrielle, I'm not here to toss you over. Seems you're not through yet." He whispered into her ear and lifted his eyebrows in a mocking gesture. He stepped from the edge and smiled again at the question in her eyes. "Ah, yes someone wants to talk to you, my dear little deceiver." He noticed the bard's blood beginning to stain his vest and grimaced at the condition of her body. "Hmm, well I guess we'll have to clean you up a bit first...make you more presentable." Again fear crossed the girl's expression. "Sorry, but you really are a mess. Broke every bone in your little body...well almost every one. The tip of your little finger on your right hand is just fine!" With that comment he broke into a fit of laughter, turned, and disappeared, taking the girl with him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 The warrior stood at the mouth of the fiery pit searching for feeling...something...anything...any feeling to replace the emptiness threatening to engulf her. She felt frozen in time and space; there was no air, no sound, nothing to ease the devastation she had failed to prevent. She found only the cold black cloud of despair that flooded her sense of being. Everything stopped...nothing existed outside her pain. Tears formed in her transfixed eyes yet would not fall as her last words repeated themselves over and over..."No more living for you..."

'No more living...no more living...for you...for me...for anything...nothing...no more...no'. Without warning, the dark part of her soul suddenly burst forward and her well-hidden shield of rage sprang forth to push back the indefinable pain. The scream of loss that escaped her lungs shook the already jolted temple to its core. She tore her sword from its sheath dropping the deadly hind's bloodied dagger to the floor. She swung the sword in a giant arc above her head and let lose a second ear-shattering shriek. The full force of her fury was now in complete control.

Her frantic movements became little more than a blur to the grief stricken man seated at the crater's edge. Lost in his own shock and disbelief, he jumped at the sound of her scream and backed away from the onset of her ire. He squeezed his form under a large ornamental shelf and watched wide-eyed and helpless as the warrior princess took out all of her grief and anger on the temple of Dahak.

Earthen vases smashed to bits as they met with the temple walls. Carved images plummeted to the stone floor splitting into thousands of pieces of gravel and spreading across the width of the room. Weapons, shields, and burnt offerings alike were flung in enraged choked actions of the broken warrior. Those priests and disciples that were able scrambled for exit and escape from this new danger. Those that could not run or at least crawl to safety fell victim to a new level of destruction. Their deaths were neither quick nor painless.

Her screaming continued yet seemed to lessen in volume as her energy was spent on the thrashing of the temple. Adrenaline pumped, accelerating her strength as she lifted the massive disk, which had so recently snuffed out the evil demon's flame, from it's perch and flung it much like her lethal chakrum at the oversized skull leering at her from his alter. The giant dome effectively split the visage diagonally becoming forcefully imbedded in the rock wall. Pedestals crumbled like matchsticks and candles buzzed through the air like so many crazed insects. Upright crypts fell to the floor sliding open and tossing their occupants to freedom. The skeletal remains scattered to the corners of the room intermixing in a jumbled mess that could never be sorted. Sparks flew as metal met with stone and small fires erupted in the piles of debris.

Joxer pulled his knees to his chest and alternately stared in awe at the incensed warrior and the body of the now dead goddess Callisto lying in the middle of the fray. Callisto's corpse seemed to shimmer and vibrate in the eerie light and strange fog of falling dust. Joxer blinked his eyes and wiped away tears to adjust his vision. He pulled his head back to avoid begin struck by a large metal bowl. Again he looked toward the dead goddess. Her form glowed with a soft light as it slowly dissolved and the image of the deranged warrior faded into transparency before falling into a fine powder that drifted away in the gust of Xena's wrath. His eyes followed the black grime as it drifted across the floor and away into nothingness. He turned his attention back to the screaming destroyer before him. His eyes met hers and what he saw was the beast that had escaped from the recesses of her being and taken over her soul. She smiled evilly and lifted a large stone pillar over her head as she advanced on the shaking man.

She walked slowly toward him amid the sparks and falling debris; dust fell on her ebony hair giving it a wild streaked gray appearance. Her cobalt eyes shot lightening bolts of terror in his direction. Joxer struggled to rise but could not extricate himself from the crawlspace he had squeezed under. He kicked his feet uselessly in the gravel that had collected before him. Instinctively he raised his arms in front of his face and waited for a quick death. Xena stood inches from his body, surely the heavy beam would crush this being before her. She raised it a bit higher giving it more momentum. She looked directly into the terrorized eyes of the victim before her. Her smile was feral as she threw back her head and once again allowed a horrendous howl to escape her lungs. Joxer squeezed his eyes shut knowing this was the last thing he would see and hear.

'No...no look you promise me, if something happens to me you will not become a monster...there's only one way to end this cycle of hatred and its through love...and forgiveness.' The warrior froze in place as that sweet voice repeated a plaintive plea inside her mind.

'Don't you go changing, Gabrielle, I like you just the way you are. Now, go get some sleep.' That part of her mind answered.

'No...no you promise me....' The bard's voice begged again.

"I promise." Xena whispered out loud as she released the huge weapon. It crashed to the ground behind her and rolled away in two pieces. Slowly she sank to her knees and as the anger left her unshielded she gave in to the insurmountable tide of grief. She sat back on her legs and covered her face with her hands overcome with heart wrenching sobs wracked with the trembling of ultimate despondency.

The oddly armored man opened his eyes slowly searching for the source of this new sound. He cocked his head slightly and released his breath. The woman before him was no longer a bizerk warrior but a shattered bit of tortured humanity. He got to his hands and knees and crawled toward the sobbing form, his own sadness streaming across his cheeks. He rested a hand on her shoulder and she raised her tear filled eyes to his. He wasn't sure what to do, what she would allow him to do, but he needed comfort and he needed to comfort her. For a moment they simply gazed at each other both understanding part of the other's pain. Without words they moved closer into each other's arms and allowed the overwhelming despair to escape their souls.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ares materialized in a small room and dropped the girl with very little concern for her condition onto a soft pallet. She groaned as he released her. "Oops, sorry...this healing thing...not in my job description. No, no you know me," he stood back and examined the blood across his arms and chest. "Yeah, blood and gore, pain and suffering, that's more in my league!" He laughed again and snapped the fingers on both hands. Immediately the stains disappeared and his black leather vest and gauntlets at once were spotless. He noticed the girl's breath was shallow and a bit watery. "Now don't you go giving up, just yet...no Xena here to pound on your chest and bring you back this time, eh little girl?" He sneered recalling how close he had come to being rid of the young Amazon just a few years back. He leaned over her, his face inches from hers and tapped a finger on her chest sending waves of pain through her body. "Good thing too, one more little thump and ...well, lets just say there wouldn't be much left to save...." His breath was hot on her face and she closed her eyes to avoid seeing his pleasure in her pain.

"ARES! That's enough!" A strange voice echoed in the hollow room and ended the mental torture the god of war was inflicting on the already traumatized girl. "You're in enough trouble as it is! Now, leave us before my sister hears of your interference!" With a huff that was almost a growl Ares disappeared, but not before throwing a final sarcastic smile at the girl and leaving her with a shudder that added to her pain.

The voice stayed well behind the girl, but spoke in a gentle comforting tone. "Don't worry, he won't be back. He has enough to deal with now. You will be safe here. There is one coming that will end your pain and repair all of the damage that was done. We owe you our thanks Gabrielle. You saved us all." With those last words the voice grew faint and faded to a whisper. Gabrielle knew she was alone. Alone in a strange place and filled with unbearable pain, she closed her eyes and struggled to take small short breaths.

A large soft hand fell across her forehead and eyes causing her to jump in response. Yet no pain accompanied the motion. "Fear not, little one. I am here to help. You must do exactly as I say. Time is not on our side." The warning seemed ominous, yet the voice was warm and full of compassion. "You are needed, greatly needed my young friend. Your time has not yet come, and you have been a bit overzealous in your bid to save your friend." The hand came away from her eyes and she blinked several times to refocus.

The man that sat next to her smiled a kind smile. He was dressed in a long white rob and carried a strange staff that resembled two snakes intertwined under a pair of wings and combined to create an odd symbol. He dipped his hand into a large bowl set on the edge of the bed and then rested that large hand against her throbbing jaw. Immediately a soft warm feeling flowed through her cheek and face relieving the pain and returning feeling to swollen torn muscle. He moved his hand away stopping with one finger on her lips.

"Shh, now. No talking, you need to rest. I have taken this pain, but there is much work to do. Do you understand?" He spoke again in that calm tone. Even his voice held healing power, the ringing in her ears stopped to listen to it. She nodded and was pleased to find the pain that had held her neck was gone. He smiled a warm friendly smile and nodded back. "Good. Then we can begin."

He turned and nodded again. A young girl quickly came to his side carrying a large urn. From it she poured a thick honey colored substance into the wooden bowl the older man held. The girl looked into Gabrielle's eyes and smiled the same smile the man had given her. Gabrielle sensed their relationship as father and daughter. Together the man and his daughter began to massage this warm oil on the bard's arms and legs. At first the pain was beyond description, but slowly the girl relaxed as the warmth penetrated her skin and brought sudden and welcome relief. All feeling disappeared as they continued their ministrations on her ribs and back, her hips and shoulders, even her fingers and toes, until her entire body relaxed and tingled under their skilled fingers. The girl took the bowl and the urn and moved away while the man once again placed his hand over her forehead and eyes.

"Now, little one, sleep. Sleep and let yourself heal. When you awaken you shall journey to the place you belong."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ares stood on the balcony of the Great Hall absently staring into the Abyss of Tartarus. Behind him he sensed his father's approach but in his usual arrogant defiance he refused to acknowledge it. This infuriated Zeus even more.

"ARES!" He commanded.

The younger god was unaffected by this bellow accompanied by a roll of distant thunder. He turned slowly and flashed his ever-present maniacal grin at the king of the gods. "Father, you wanted to see me..." he crooned with satirical innocence.

"YOU ARROGANT BASTARD!" Zeus roared, electric charges sparking in all directions around his essence.

"Now, Zeus!" The god of war mockingly replied. "You, above all, should know that I am one of the very few of your offspring that is not known by that singular title." The last of those words came out in a low chuckle.

"THAT IS NOT THE ISSUE HERE, ARES, AND YOU KNOW IT!" The lightening bolts surrounding the older god grew larger and stronger as his ire increased. "WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?" Even his voice crackled with electrical resonance. "DO YOU EVER THINK OF ANYTHING OTHER THAN YOUR OWN SELFISH DESIRES?!"

Ares shook his head and wiggled a finger in one ear, feigning a sharp pain. "Woo, you're really gonna have to tone it down if you want to continue this conversation, DAD." He turned from his father, daring him to act.

"DON'T YOU DARE WALK AWAY FROM ME!" This time the lightening bolts shot with deafening cracks landing in blue arcs around the war god. "I_AM_NOT_THROUGH!! AND I WILL DECIDE THE TONE OF THIS DISCUSSION!" Ares stopped short and for a second an actual look of fear crossed the god's chiseled features, he dared not show his father this reaction. He stood with his back to Zeus.

"YOUR ACTIONS WERE ALMOST THE END OF US ALL! AND FOR WHAT? WHAT, ARES, JUST WHAT WERE YOUR INTENTIONS?" Zeus demanded an answer. By now the king's anger was so intense the hall itself seemed to rattle with each crack of lightening and rumble of thunder. The din from these forces was so great it almost drown out Ares' answer.

"My INTENTIONS saved us all!" Ares sneered as he turned to face his father, his hands clenched into stone hard fists. Small sparks of red began to erupt at his feet as his own anger began to build.

For a moment the mighty Zeus froze, his eyes blazed with cold anger, but for the time he remained speechless. Ares returned his father's stare as time stood still in the Great Hall. Each gods' anger taking the form of sparks and volts until it slowly dissipated and faded into whispering crackles. The stench of electrical fire filled the large room.

"Your intentions were to serve yourself!" Zeus reminded his troublesome son. "You sought only to gain revenge against that insane heathen goddess that took Strife from this world and in doing so attempt to return the lioness to your fold. No, Ares, it was the girl who saved us. We owe her a great debt, and I will NOT have you meddling again."

Ares smirked and folded his arms across his chest, "Ah, yes but if it wasn't for me she wouldn't have been there at all, now would she?"

"IF IT WEREN'T FOR YOUR MEDDLING NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED!" Zeus bellowed.

"I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THAT DEMON OR ITS SPAWN!" Ares spat back, stepping forward to show his ultimate defiance.

Again the two gods faced each other with lightening crackling through the tense silence. Ares would never back down, Zeus knew his son well. The god of war was true to his nature, even when it came to dealing with authority. Zeus had more important matters to attend.

"It is only through some twisted bit of luck that you have come out of this unscathed, Ares. Somehow your selfish actions brought about the demise of this threat to our existence. But this demon, this evil will not be contained indefinitely. It is wrought of man's inhumanity to man and even I can not contain it for long."

Ares stared at the gray-haired god and pondered this bit of information. What did his father know of this demon?

"You will ask nothing more of this girl Ares, her debt to you is paid! While I do not condone the actions of your brother's son, I do believe it is a just reward for this young soul. Hades is not yet ready to welcome her into his realm. She has much to accomplish before her time is done."

Ares smirked again knowing he had been vindicated and that even his mighty father, Zeus had to admit that his 'meddling' had stopped the evil Dahak from collapsing all of Olympus. He waited for Zeus to justify his actions.

Zeus stared at his pompous son with a small degree of disgust. He was a necessary evil. "Leave me, Ares."

The god of war cocked his head in a silent question.

"Leave me, Ares. And mark my words. You have somehow come out of this without the blame you deserve, but there are others, other gods who are calling for justice and you will not be well received by any...now go!"

Ares smiled again and shrugged his shoulders, "So, everything is back to normal." He let out a hearty laugh as he dissolved and faded from Zeus' sight.

The mighty king of gods turned and walked slowly onto the balcony. He watched the many windows of the past that played before him. He sighed at the many evils the mortal race was capable of, but his heart warmed as he watched the young red-haired bard willingly throw herself into the pit of despair to save the woman warrior and the rest of the known world. This small girl had a large heart and a strength of spirit he had not seen in eons and the world needed this depth of vivacity now more than ever. He turned to view a different scene; a broken warrior and a distraught young man sought to comfort each other amidst the crumbling ruins of a demon's temple.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Consciousness crept slowly across the mantle of Gabrielle's awareness, like a morning fog clearing a hidden glen. Cautiously she opened her eyes and without a hint of motion tried to take in as much of her surroundings as possible. Her senses burned with remembered pain. She dared not move, dared not attempt speech or even a cleansing breath. What she could see of the room was homey and comfortable. It smelled of air fresh with a spring shower. The bed was soft and seemed to cradle her broken form. Her mind swirled with memories of recent events and with these memories tears began to run from the corners of her eyes. 'Xena...' she thought, 'I am so sorry. I know how you must feel.' Without thinking she breathed deeply in a useless attempt to contain a sob. Immediately and instinctively her hand went to cover her mouth as the tears overtook her mask of bravery.

When the pain did not come she turned on her side and pulled herself into a tight ball giving into the sorrow that now engulfed her soul. Surely she was dead. She remembered the long fall into the fiery pit; the heat as it scorched her flesh, the bone-crunching slam as her body met with the stone outcropping mere inches from the molten rock. She wept inconsolably at the memory of her beloved friend's shocked gasp as she slipped slowly over the edge of reality. The sound of Xena screaming her name echoed in her mind's ear and mingled with the sound of her own voice calling the warrior's name for the last time. Her heart had been broken knowing the warrior had planned to slay the demon's daughter and thereby forfeit her own life. Now the ache was intensified with the knowledge that she had yet again caused the same torment for Xena. Her body shook with the intensity of her grief and her sobbing grew deeper and more profound.

"Shhh, shhh, little one...this is but part of the journey you must now begin." A soft comforting voice accompanied the gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Even this did not console the girl. She looked to the woman seated at the edge of the bed. The woman looked barely older than the bard did; yet her eyes held a wisdom of many lives. She smiled a motherly smile and opened her arms to her weeping patient. At first Gabrielle hesitated to find comfort in those arms, but in her desperate need to find solace she allowed herself to be gathered to the woman's chest. Her sobs continued as she buried her face in the soft white robes the woman wore. The woman rocked in a soothing fashion smoothing the bard's hair and placing light kisses atop her head. "Shhh, shhh, let the healing continue little one, shhh." She began humming a long forgotten lullaby as she slowly took away the last of the young bard's pain.

Gradually Gabrielle's tears subsided and she sat back to see this compassionate woman. She had to accept her fate. Whatever was to come, she was ready to face it. The woman smiled as she brushed the back of her hand lightly across the girl's cheeks taking away the tears and with them the swollen redness such intense weeping always causes. "You have done well, little one." The woman, in her soft voice, smiled.

Gabrielle returned a weak smile, "Perhaps." She whispered mournfully.

The woman rose and held out a hand to the girl. The girl looked at the hand and hesitated, again remembering the pain. "It's all right, you are healed my sweet. There will be no more pain." She smiled again and motioned slightly with her palm. Slowly, Gabrielle took the offered hand and moved her legs over the side of the bed. There was no pain, no bruising, no burns, no blood. At first she feared looking at her damaged limbs, but could not mask her relief upon the sight of her unblemished extremities. Immediately she examined her arms as well and found them to be in the same excellent condition. The look of surprise on the young girl's face amused the woman. "Father is quite skilled in his healing arts. You will find everything in its proper working order." She laughed a soothing laugh as she gently pulled the girl to her feet. "Come now, we have far to travel and time grows short. I am called Hygieia, daughter of Aesclepius, divine healer."

Gabrielle swallowed hard pushing back the growing fear. "I'm ready," she answered in a small voice. She was sure this woman was sent to lead her to Hades' judgement. She knew she would have to pay dearly for the evil she had brought into the world, for the death of the priestess slain by her own hand, for the many misdeeds that swam in her brain. There were no excuses; she was guilty as charged. She would take her punishment. She would take what she deserved. She hung her head in shame as she allowed the woman to lead her across the room to the large oak door that would open to her final destiny.

As the woman released the latch and opened the large door, Gabrielle held her breath. Outside the portal rose a fine mist completely concealing any landscape that lay beyond. The bard looked again into the eyes of the woman at her side. She found only compassion and sincerity. She released the breath she had been holding and inhaled deeply before stepping into the inevitable.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 "Xena, Xena, Xena...." Ares voice mockingly clucked as he stood amid the falling silt in the now crumbling temple of Dahak.

Joxer jumped to his feet ready to defend the broken warrior. He ran his sleeve across his eyes and stuck out his chin in the mightiest pose he could assemble. Fumbling, he drew his sword and pointed it at Ares' chest.

Ares stared at the sword for a second, a smile forming on his lips. He followed the blade with his eyes to meet the glare of the incensed young man before him. He began to snicker, his body shook with the unheard giggles until he threw back his head and roared with uncontrolled laughter. Joxer stood his ground and jabbed the point of his sword into the god's unprotected chest.

Ares laughter was cut short and his glare turned deadly. He took the point of the sword in his hand and with that small grip tore it from the pseudo-warrior's grasp and flung it across the room. His hand went around Joxer's throat before the sword hit the floor and the skinny mortal found himself lifted into the air.

"DO YOU THINK YOU ARE A MATCH FOR THE GOD OF WAR, IMBECILE? WHY I COULD CR..."

"Let him go, Ares." The voice was low and feral; it hummed with the passion Ares had longed to hear these past four years.

Ares looked again at the man before him struggling to gain the slightest of breath. He shook him once, just to teach him a lesson then let him drop to the floor. Joxer landed on his hands and knees coughing and gasping for air.

The god of war turned to welcome his warrior princess into his arms. He spread those limbs wide and smiled, "Xena!" He stepped forward to take her.

"BACK OFF, ARES!" She growled as she drew her sword.

Immediately Ares arms dropped to his sides as his lower lip curled in a fake pout. "Xena, I'm disappointed. I've come to offer my condolences. To comfort you in this time of loss, and you act as if..."

"ENOUGH!" She cut him off, holding her sword with both hands and wiping the still falling tears with a quick motion of her head and shoulder.

Ares let out an exasperated sigh and crossed his arms over his chest. He looked at the sword in front of him then back into Xena's cold blue eyes. He silently dared her to make the first move. A dare he was sure she would take.

Xena stared into the coal black eyes of the war god and saw the challenge he posed. She cocked her head to one side and returned the same smirk he had given her. His eyebrows went up in question. She moved forward quickly and dropped her sword at his feet. It landed with a loud clang in the silent chamber.

Ares glared at Xena for a moment before stepping forward. He smiled again, "I just love it when you're angry, Xena. Just like old times!" He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her closer. "Now, maybe you'll see you never needed that annoying little pest in the first place." He forced her even closer and breathed into her hair, his voice turning sultry and inviting. For the moment she allowed him to do so, needing the comfort as much as the information he was sure to expend. "Oh, my Xena you played your part so beautifully. Everything worked so well. You did everything just as I knew you would."

Xena's fists clenched as Ares held her with one hand and slid the other up and down her back. She made no attempt to look at him, but instead focused on the actions of the only other person still alive in the room.

Ares laughed softly and nuzzled the warrior's neck. "Yes, I knew the little brat would never let you kill that beast. Couldnít take a chance though, no that's why the Fates granted me my one request." He thought for a moment, "I didn't really expect her to go all the way though, hmmm, guess I underestimated the little nuisance." Xena swallowed hard as tears escaped and rolled over her cheeks, this had to end soon.

"Callisto! Ah Callisto," Ares squeezed her tighter and swayed a bit from side to side. "Now that, THAT was a bonus I must admit. I didn't see that one coming, not that that bitch didn't deserve it! But now look at us Xena, back where we belong. I'm the only one you have now, and I'm not going anywhere."

"It won't work Ares! Not now, not EVER!" Xena pushed hard on Ares chest effectively knocking him backward, she spoke through angry tears, "I will not follow you. You have NOTHING I want." Her voice shook with emotion as she tried to hold back the anger and grief that burned just behind her warrior's mask. "You have taken from me the only thing that made ANY difference at all and I will dedicate whatever is left of my life to destroying every ounce, every inch, every speck of everything you are and everything you represent!" She hissed through her teeth as she moved slowly toward her former mentor. "I will be your worse enemy Ares! I will bring about your END!" She stopped inches from him, their faces a mere breath apart.

Behind them Joxer continued coughing and gasping for air as he crawled across the floor in search of his sword. He slid his hand through the rubble hoping to make contact with it. His vision was blurred with tears of grief mixed with those caused by his intense choking. He made contact with something metallic and cold, he curled his fingers around this seemingly familiar hilt and pulled it from the debris. It was much lighter than his broad sword. He held it in front of him and wiped his eyes with his other hand as his coughing slowly subsided. He rubbed his eyes again trying to clear his vision enough to believe what he held in his hand. The Hind's Blood Dagger! The coughing suddenly became more intense as he hid the weapon inside his belt and turned to watch the altercation across the dusty chamber.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gabrielle stepped into the swirling mist surprised to feel solid ground beneath her feet. The woman beside her laughed softly as the girl gripped her hand a bit more securely hoping for reassurance.

"You have no reason to fear, Gabrielle. We shall only journey the path you have already forged." The woman smiled as she gently coaxed the girl forward.

Gabrielle moved slowly as if she were treading in knee-deep waters. Her skin prickled with a certain degree of fear, yet she felt compelled to move ahead. Somewhere in this foggy netherworld was whatever punishment Hades had deemed the young bard deserved. 'Eternity,' she thought, 'forever...without Xena.' She swallowed hard in a useless effort to stop the tears welling up in her eyes. The woman gently tugged her forward and she went willingly.

"You have been this way before, little one. Remember." The woman waved her palm in front of them and the clouds seemed to part allowing the girl to see what lay beyond.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the shrill cry of a newborn infant. Gabrielle jumped, startled by the sound. She could see, could sense the woman before her. Her senses cried with remembered scents and sounds. She felt warm, comforted, loved. A feeling long forgotten, yet always part of her consciousness. She felt safe and secure, content and soothed by the soft crooning of some unseen protector. Tears fell quickly across her cheeks and a small sob escaped her, as she could not suppress the sudden overwhelming need she had for her mother. Everything around her now was a reminder of that soft, warm comfort only a mother can give. As she slowly moved through the obscurity she felt that comfort surround her, felt that strong love and protection that had given her such a solid start in life. Her eyes closed and the smile on her face could only be compared to that of a babe safely nestled in the arms of its mother, fast asleep in innocent security. She seemed to move forward for a long time allowing this feeling to wrap around the pain she had so recently experienced.

Gabrielle stopped short as the feeling grew slightly faint and listened to the familiar sound of children playing some singsong game. Their chirps and giggles brought another smile to her face, another memory called from her mind. Part of her sped back to a time when nothing mattered but the sun in the sky and the grass in the meadow. So many voices calling, chanting, teasing and whispering all at once. Yet all seemed amicable, all seemed part of something she once was.

"Come on Gabrielle! Hurry!" Was that Lila? How long had it been since her voice held that little squeak? "Can't catch me!!!!" Yes, it was definitely her little sister calling to her, challenging her to race her to that stream behind the barn. They would play for hours, until Mother came looking for them or until the sun went low in the sky. Gabrielle's heart leapt as she hurried to catch this bit of memory.

"GABRIELLE!!" Her father's stern voice stopped her. "When are you going to get your head OUT of the clouds and starting acting like the other girls? There are chores to do, young lady...no more day dreaming!"

"Yes, father." She answered automatically, remembering her father's objections to her procrastination. Even this memory warmed her soul and pushed her forward. It seemed as though this strange woman was actually walking the girl through all the experiences of her life. Her own existence was passing before her as if it were some cataloged drama. 'My life.' She thought. Then stopped moving and pulled back on the woman's hand.

"This is my life." Gabrielle said flatly. "My whole life, everything I've seen and done."

"Yes, little one you have been this way before." The gentle voice was the same.

"I've heard stories about people seeing their whole life pass before them, but...but this is amazing. It's almost like I am living it again. I feel every feeling. Remember everything."

"Come," the woman tugged the girl's hand. "We must continue, there is more."

"You don't wanna make me mad now, do you?" Gabrielle stopped as if she had hit an invisible wall. She spun in a half circle looking for the owner of that voice. "Xena!" She called hoping for one last glimpse of her friend, one last time to explain, to seek forgiveness. But the voice and the warm wonderful excitement of her first meeting with the warrior were gone. The woman pulled her forward. Her heart begged her back.

"Gabrielle, you are a gift to me." Again Xena's voice called her onward. She followed her heart, hoping to find the missing piece of her soul. Perhaps this was her punishment, lost in this haze eternally reaching out to the unreachable warrior.

"This is WAR, what did you expect...GLAMOR?!" Even that verbal chastising eased the ache, as Xena's voice became louder and stronger with each step the bard took.

"You are my source, Gabrielle." Now the girl was leading the woman, pulling her gently along as the remembered words urged her onward.

"I want you to know that I still think you are the best thing that ever happened to me. You gave my life meaning and joy and you will be a part of me forever."

At this the bard stopped cold. "NO!" She shrieked. "NO, no more...I can't...no more...please...please...no more..." Her voice faded to barely a whisper as she slid her hand from that of the woman and collapsed to her knees on the misty floor. "no more, please..." She leaned forward and let her anguish escape. "Why?" She turned her tear-covered face toward her guide, "why this...I can't...why?" Her words escaped through sobs as the gentle benefactor brought her to her feet and placed her hands on the girl's shoulders. "Why are you showing me this? Is this to be my punishment?"

The white robed woman softly turned the girl back in the direction of their quest and again urged her forward. "These memories are not of my choosing, little one. These are but the best pieces of the life that was, pieces that you yourself have chosen to ease the pain in your soul, to heal that wound left upon your heart. All of what you have done and all you have survived has brought you to this moment, Gabrielle." The quiet woman justified as they moved forward. "Now, dear heart, all will be explained. We have come close to the end of this journey. It is time for you to resume your path, the journey must continue. You have far to go."

Gabrielle swallowed again and tried to make sense of the woman's conflicting statement. Again she wiped her eyes and set herself forward, timidly at first then determined to meet her fate with the same confidence she had lived her life. She had once asked Xena to honor her memory; she now would honor Xena by walking into Hades judgement with her head held high, not in pride but with courage.

The woman pointed to a break in the fog, a break that Gabrielle knew held the ultimate conclusion to this strange trek that had begun at the mouth of a fiery chasm. She stepped forward ready to meet her fate.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ares stared into Xena's cold blue eyes searching for a way past her defense. She stood mere inches from him daring him to push her just a little further. His intense glare matched hers precisely. They were at an impasse, a stand off, a dead lock. The heat of her quick breaths on his face aroused his passion just as the chill of his immortal expiration ignited her fury. The corners of his mouth slowly curved into a sarcastic smile as he stepped away from his prize, trusting neither his actions nor that of the woman before him. She blazed with a frozen ire, one that threatened even the mighty god of war. He would get nowhere with her today. No, he would let her anger swell until it overwhelmed her, until she excepted her dark side and his counsel once more. He could wait. He had all the time in the world.

"Not today, Ares." The wild-eyed warrior hissed through her teeth. "Not any day, not ever!" She almost shrieked advancing toward him again.

How, he wondered could she know what he was thinking. No, it had to be mere coincidence. Had he become so transparent to this warrior, so visibly taken with her that she saw right through his façade. This could not be! No matter who she was, he was ARES GOD OF WAR. He would have to set things right, put her in her proper place, let her know that he was ultimately the one in control. His eyes grew dark and his smile melted into a growl as he reversed his method and advanced toward her.

Too far away, Joxer watched this altercation and felt the atmosphere in the temple change as the god of war made his move toward the warrior princess. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen soon and unless he did something about it the only other person that cared even the slightest bit for this hapless warrior would also be taken from this life. He had watched one good friend go to her death this day; he would not stand by while another was destroyed. No matter what the cost he would take action.

His hand closed around the handle of the dagger in his belt. He pulled it quickly from its hiding place and stared at it for a second before shouting, "XENA!" At the same time he flipped the weapon in his hand catching it by the tip and aiming precisely he launched it in the warrior's direction.

Xena's head spun at the sound of his call. She watched as the dagger flew through the air almost as if in slow motion. Without thought she leapt toward it flipping once before catching it and landing without a sound on the same dais where this nightmare had begun. She spun to face the incensed Ares. He glowered at her practically baring his teeth in his furor.

"You want a taste of hind's blood?" Now it was Xena's turn to smile an evil blood lust smile.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The gently swirling mist that had surrounded Gabrielle since she entered this bizarre world suddenly turned dark and ominous. The once white clouds became blackened and threatening. She stepped forward cautiously, as the ground became unsteady, shifting and rocking. She held tightly to the woman to keep her balance and looked for some kind of guidance. The fog twisted and turned as the wind suddenly increased and bit at her with it's tiny frosted fangs.

"This is as far as I can go Gabrielle. Now, you must continue your journey." The woman slid her hand from the girl's and stepped back into the gentler swirling mist.

"I must go alone?" Gabrielle asked barely above a whisper trying to see what lay beyond the strange storm. "Is this my punishment?" She breathed turning to look at the kindly woman who had been her guide.

"You have never been alone, Gabrielle. You shall not be alone now. You have made the greatest sacrifice today young one. You have put your life before that which threatens to take life from all of us. You have shown the greatest love of all, Gabrielle." The woman began to dissolve into the mist, Gabrielle felt her heart beat quicken with trepidation. "This is not a punishment, dear one, but a reward. Go forward and remember. Remember what has happened and believe. What you have done will change the world, Gabrielle. There is much more for you to accomplish. Be well, little one." With those last words the woman was gone and Gabrielle stood alone before the darkening void threatening to engulf her.

She could not go back and she could not stay in this place. She stepped forward as the black fog parted allowing her entrance. She gasped at the vision before her.

Xena stood on the dais facing Ares. Hope stood a few feet behind at the mouth of the fiery altar. Callisto watched from the side, frantically twisting her fingers together and smiling that maniacal smile. Joxer knelt on the stone floor struggling to get to his feet.

Gabrielle tried in vain to catch the sob before it escaped her. This was it. This was her punishment. She would be cursed to relive this scene over and over. Cursed to watch as her trusted friend prepared to give her life to rid the world of the evil the bard herself had brought into the world. Doomed to repeat her actions and damned to look into Xena's eyes that last time seeing her shock and pain repeatedly, infinitely, eternally. She felt herself falling, sure she was collapsing with the overwhelming agony of this judgement.

The world exploded with a flash of light and a vaguely familiar cry.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

"Do it gut her, then it's my turn!" Callisto urged with misplaced glee.

"You can't stop the will of Dahak!" Hope's demonic voice rasped.

Suddenly the priest appeared in front of her and Gabrielle automatically swung her staff effectively knocking the man away and unconscious. Sparks seemed to fly in all directions. Gabrielle's mind told her this wasn't happening, it was a dream, a nightmare, a vision forced upon her by Hades. But her heart wanted, needed to believe. It couldn't be, not again. She turned and held her staff before her, watching as Hope's evil glare threatened the warrior who had changed the bard's life. Xena seemed to move with jerking motions, almost as if she were pushing herself forward. Gabrielle viewed the scene for the second time this day, but with the same look of pain and sadness. She knew what was to follow. She was powerless to stop it.

The dagger in Xena's hand turned toward her face. Callisto shivered with anticipation. Gabrielle swallowed with apprehension. Hope sneered with satisfaction.

"If Xena kills Hope, Xena will die..." The words rang over and over in Gabrielle's head. She watched as Xena pushed the knife away and advanced slowly. Hope backed away, never changing the expression on her evil face.

"You know the stakes, Gabrielle..." She turned toward the voice of Ares. "Xena's fate is in your hands."

She looked back at the vision of that demon and the warrior on the brink of the pit. Xena mere inches from accomplishing her goal. The warrior's hand drew back as a final cry escaped her throat.

Gabrielle leapt forward using her staff for added momentum. She landed a few feet from the combatants and raced forward.

Xena jumped as the unexpected push from the bard knocked her off guard. She watched as Gabrielle sped by reaching for the red robed demon. Without thought and with a speed she was not aware she was capable of Xena lunged forward wrapping a strong arm around the bard's waist.

Gabrielle's unexpected movement surprised the demon and Xena's grip on the girl sent her upper body in a strong forward thrust. The bard struck Dahak's spawn with enough force to send it flailing backward and over the edge of the lava pit. The demon dropped into the welcome fire of its procreator without a sound.

The warrior effectively tackled the bard sending both across the dais and roughly onto the hard stone floor. Xena rolled to the side seconds before the impact absorbing the brunt of the fall with Gabrielle still held tightly in front of her.

No one moved. No one spoke.

Gabrielle waited for the scene to reset itself, waited for it to play again.

Xena waited for Ares sarcastic laughter, waited for the form in her arms to melt into that of the god of war.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" The howl brought both all of them to their senses. Callisto sprang forward blazing with ire. "THIS is NOT how is supposed to end. WE had a DEAL Xena! I did everything you needed, I will not be denied. I TOLD you who would pay if you failed, XENA! Your precious Gabrielle!" The crazed goddess raised both hands in preparation of striking the girl down with her deadly power.

Xena hurled the dagger she had somehow managed to keep at the maniac goddess striking her inches above her belt. Callisto's hands instinctively went to the weapon as she sunk to her knees. Her dark brown eyes met the warrior's deep blue as she continued to fall, all insanity, all divinity ebbing away as the woman Callisto embraced the death she had longed for since this episode began. Before the last of her life slipped away she looked deep into Xena's eyes. A strangely calm expression spread over the warrior queen's face that simply said 'thank you'.

The warrior stood pulling the bard to her feet also. She spun the girl around to face her making a quick visual inspection of every inch of the bard's countenance. Gabrielle in turn grasped the warrior's forearms with such force the metal of the woman's bracers cut into her hands.

Gabrielle raised her head almost afraid to meet the warrior's gaze. Afraid if she did this dream would end and she would once again be at the beginning of her nightmare.

Xena smiled down on the treasure before her, refusing to let go. Perhaps Ares had knocked her senseless with one of his blasts, even if it were so she was not going to let go of this vision.

"Xena?" Gabrielle tested her voice.

"Gabrielle?" Xena tested her reality.

"Is this real Xena?" Gabrielle hoped.

"Enough, already!!" Ares disgusted voice broke their dreamlike state. Both was sure neither would include him in such a dream or vision. They turned together to face him.

"So..." He began. "This is what dad meant." He moved dangerously close. Xena moved to place herself between the bard and the god. Gabrielle fought to stay where she was. She did not fear this confrontation.

"Now, all debts are paid! Clean slate!" He smiled again at the warrior as he gently tapped the bard's nose with the tip of his finger. Gabrielle grimaced and pulled back slightly. Xena moved to reply but the god stopped her. "Now...we start again...everything is new...until next time Xena...." With those words he turned and simply faded into the wall of the temple, his deep laughter echoing in the hollow chamber.

Again warrior and bard turned to face each other. Gabrielle hung her head, suddenly ashamed of the pain she had caused, "Xena, I..."

The warrior wrapped the bard in a tight hug snuffing out any comment the girl was about to make. Gabrielle returned the hug with her own degree of force. They stayed that way each refusing to relinquish the closeness of the other.

Xena kissed the top of the young bard's head and rested her cheek there allowing the tears of relief to fall freely. Gabrielle moved back to look into the warrior's eyes, again trying to explain.

."No, Gabrielle...don't. I was willing to die for the same reasons. I thought it was the right thing to do. I didn't realize the pain that loss would bring to you. Now, I understand. I would never want you to feel the way I did when I thought I'd lost you. Never." Again she pulled the girl close. "So, no explanations, Gabrielle, hmmm?"

Gabrielle nodded into the warrior's chest, suddenly at a loss for words and certainly choked by the sobs she could not contain.

"Ah, hum!" Joxer coughed an attempt to gain their attention.

Xena turned to the man without letting go of the weeping girl. Silently she asked his meaning.

He smiled nervously and shifted from foot to foot. "Ah...do you think we could...ah...get out of here?" He shrugged his shoulders a bit and fumbled with the odd hat he held in his hands.

Xena looked down Gabrielle. Gabrielle turned toward Joxer and smiled weakly. She wiped her nose with the side of her finger and brushed the tears from face. Slowly she pulled away from the warrior and panned the empty chamber. "It's time...time to leave."

Joxer moved forward stooping to pick up the bard's staff. He handed it to her timidly. She took it from him and leaned forward planting a gentle kiss on his cheek. Immediately the young man's face reddened. He was glad the girl had turned away.

"Come on, Gabrielle it is time to go." Xena held out her hand and the bard took it. She was not alone. Xena was not alone. They would lead each other. They walked out of the temple into the midday sun.

Their journey would continue. There was much to be done....................

 

Epilog...

Zeus looked into the hall of mirrors and watched as the two women and the clanking clumsy warrior walked away from the temple. He smiled his appreciation toward them.  He turned to the golden-haired young god standing at his side.

"Your son has done well this day Apollo, your sister Artemis will be pleased." The sun god smiled at his father's praise.

"As for Ares...he has sealed his own doom. We have only to wait..." The father of the gods turned slowly and walked into the great hall.

Apollo dissolved in a shower of gold. It was time to man his chariot and take the sun on its journey across the sky.


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