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Sacrifice III (Overdue Redress)
Warning! These characters (and sadly, the actors who portray them) do not belong to me. They are the sole property of Universal/MCA. This story contains subject matter which those under 18 (or those with little tolerance) have no business reading. This story may contain themes which some would term "alternative" in nature. Beware reader! Beware!
Callistoís body dropped to the ground with flourish. She was at last dead. Xena held the hindís blood dagger so tightly she feared she would never again release it. Again she turned to the lava-filled chasm before her.
"Gabrielle," she whispered, walking to the edge where Joxer was still crouched in horror and disbelief. How could this have happened? How could the most wonderful person either of them had ever known have jumped to her death?
"All to save me," she muttered, her voice cracking with the anguish that was washing over her. "She sacrificed herself for me."
Tears welled in her azure eyes. Though there was no way Gabrielle could have survived her plummet into the chasm, Joxer and Xena continued to scan the lava for signs of movement... anything to prolong the realization that the woman they both loved was dead.
When Xena felt she could bear it no longer, she looked to Joxer. He was on his hands and knees, silently weeping. She knew he needed to leave this place. They both did.
She stood shakily, feeling almost as though she were not breathing- that no air moved through her lungs at all. Xena wiped the unshed tears from her eyes.
"Come on, Joxer," she said softly, extending her arm to him.
He made no move, as though he did not hear her.
"Joxer." She put her hand on his shoulder in an uncharacteristic display of warmth. "We need to go."
"But... Gabrielle... sheís--" he began, shaking his head in denial, as though he could will the last events away.
"Come on," Xena reasserted, more forcefully this time. Slowly he rose, but he could not seem to tear his gaze from the fiery ravine. Xena steered his shoulders away, back out towards the entrance of the temple. She stopped and picked up Gabrielleís staff before continuing to help Joxer outside.
Sunlight hit the two of them as their pace quickened. Suddenly, they desperately needed to be away from that place- away from Dahak and his followers, away from the remains of Hope and Callisto... and Gabrielle.
They walked in silence to the horses, Xena clutching Gabrielleís staff in one hand, the hindís blood dagger in the other. When it was time to mount Argo, she wrapped the dagger in a leather sheath and put it in Gabrielleís bag.
She brushed the bag sadly. In there were Gabrielleís scrolls and the bardís other possessions, everything she had ever held dear.
"Here," she finally said. "Take Gabrielleís horse."
"What about Callistoís?" he asked with some trepidation.
"Take off the saddle and let it go."
Joxer did as Xena instructed, and it took little prompting for the horse to take off into the valley. He then turned to Gabrielleís mare. The last time he had ridden it, he had been seated behind the bard herself...
It took much effort, but Joxer finally managed to get in the saddle. He had to concede, he was not much of an equestrian.
Xena waited for him patiently. She did not have the heart to hurry him today. She attached the staff to the side of Argoís saddle so it was snugly secure.
"Ready?" she asked.
"I think so," he replied unsteadily.
Xena spurred Argo forward, and Joxerís horse luckily knew to follow. After several long, uncomfortable moments of struggling, Joxer managed to catch up with Xena and ride next to her along the trail.
"So where are we heading?" Joxer asked, the motion of the horse giving his voice great vibrato.
"Iím not sure."
"Youíre not sure?" He seemed taken aback somewhat by her admission. "You mean, youíre not sure where to go first, right?"
Xena didnít respond.
"I mean, you have a plan, right? You know what to do to bring Gabby back, donít you?"
Xena still remained stoic in the saddle.
"What do want me to say, Joxer? I donít know what to do," she snapped.
Joxerís face was one of crestfallen panic. "Well, I know there has to be something we can do. Surely the gods wouldnít let this happen."
Xena softened her tone. "The gods donít give a flying fig about me or anyone that I care about."
Joxer seemed to think long and hard then. "What about Artemis?!" he exclaimed. "As Goddess of the Amazons, surely she canít let her queen die!"
Xena looked to him sympathetically. "A queen who chooses to wander the countryside with me rather than govern her people?"
"Oh." His tongue now rested on his top lip as he wracked his brain further. "Well, what about Zeus?"
"What about him?"
"Didnít you used to date his son, or something? Donít you have connections?"
Her eyes narrowed. "I do not date," she enunciated.
"Well, you know what I mean," he attempted to clarify.
"Hercules was never really what I would call in his fatherís good graces," she explained. She looked down sadly. "I have no friends on Olympus."
The two of them rode for quite some time in silence. After a while, Xena realized the direction she was subconsciously heading... towards Poteidaia. She grimaced as she realized that she would need to tell Gabrielleís family what had happened. That would be so terrible. Here were people who loved Gabrielle just as much as she herself did, but for Xena they would surely hold nothing but contempt. After all, she had been the one to lead their young girl away to her death.
"Hey, a tavern," Joxer noticed, extending his finger. "I could really use a break."
Xena nodded. "Why not?"
The two of them rode around the side to the stable and dismounted- Xena with a bit more finesse than Joxer, whose foot became inextricably entangled in the stirrup. As a result, he flung himself to the ground, sprawled like a lazy picnicker on his back, his foot bound firmly above his head.
Xena rolled her eyes as the stableman struggled to free Joxer from his binds. When he was at last free, the two made their way into the tavern.
"Give me the strongest thing you have," Joxer barked, slamming his hand on the table.
Xena raised her eyebrows. "Are you certain thatís what you want?"
"No. I really want ten of the strongest thing they have."
Joxer was poured a drink that to Xena looked to be a cross between green and blue. She shuddered slightly as she watched her companion take the glass and empty it one swig.
He slammed the glass back on the counter. "Another," he rasped.
"I donít think this is the best idea..." Xena attempted to reason.
He emptied another glass, and the sting of it contorted his face. "I want to be numb," he explained sadly. "I want to get to a point tonight where I canít remember her name, or how she looked, or how she smelled... nothing." He looked to the tavernkeep. "Leave the bottle," he instructed morosely. The tavernkeep shrugged at Xena and did as he was told.
Joxer poured a third glass and pushed it toward her. "Have some."
She frowned. "No. If I start now, I may never stop." She slid the glass back toward him. "You do what you need to do."
Joxer held up the glass in a silent toast to the warrior, and she walked over to where the tavernkeep stood.
"Hey," she said discretely, holding out a small pouch to the stout man. He took it and looked inside. It held many dinars.
"Yes?" he asked curiously.
"My friend over there just lost the woman he loved," she explained solemnly. "Give him whatever he wants, but make sure he ends up in a warm bed upstairs when itís all over." She looked to the tavernkeep who nodded in understanding. "I will be back for him in a few moons. Make sure you tell him that, and to wait for me here."
"Iíll see to it," the portly man assured her.
"You do that. I would hate to hear that my friend was... taken advantage of."
"Iíll look after him like he was my own son."
"By the time I return, youíll be thanking the gods heís not." She glanced to Joxer and saw that he was weeping, his arm around the shoulder of the unfortunate man next to him. Unable to stand it any longer, she exited.
She reclaimed Argo, along with Gabrielleís bag and set off toward the dusky horizon. Though normally she never made it a common practice to travel at night, she could not help herself. Something was driving her to Poteidaia.
Xena rested only for Argoís sake. She was too uneasy to stop for long periods, though, even in darkness. She knew that Poteidaia was only a few hours away, and even though she would not dream of visiting Gabrielleís family anytime before morning, the desire to feel close to her bard made her continue.
When at last she reached the township, the tears began to fall. She tried to hide her emotion as she boarded Argo in a stable for the night. Her breathing became ragged as she walked to the outskirts of town.
She stopped when she reached a familiar site. Here, nearly four years prior, she had buried her armor and weapons. Here, she had decided to give up her warrior lifestyle for good. Here, she had first seen a fiery blonde, who, while at the mercy of soldiers, still had the courage to stand up to them.
Xena dropped to her knees and began to weep.
"Gabrielle," she whispered. "I know you can hear me. If I had known the pain of being left alone among the living, I would never have so readily offered up my life. I know now why you needed so much to stop me."
"I am so sorry for the pain I caused you," she continued, slightly louder. "I was so caught up in my own pain that I never saw yours. I canít believe now that I ever wished you harm. You gave your life for me... and now that youíre gone... Iím so empty."
She wiped her tears away with her palm. "All this time you had become my reason for going on... and I didnít even know it."
She paused and squinted toward the sky. "Please, Gabrielle. Please hear me," she rasped desperately. "With all Iíve seen and done in my life, it was hard for me to recognize purity. Everything Iíve ever known has had a darker side... until you. You were pure. I may not always have agreed with your actions, but your motives were always pure... I canít make that boast."
"I was hoping you were more heartless than this," came a deep voice from behind her.
Xena did not flinch. She closed her eyes and sighed. "Ares, you amaze me."
"Do I?" he asked, stepping to face her.
Her gaze darkened as she finally let herself look at him. "Oh, yes," she answered coolly, as she slowly stood. "Only a fool or a madman would cause the death of the person who meant more to me than anyone, and then, knowing I possessed the lone weapon that could kill him, appear before me as though we are old friends."
"You have a very selective memory," he said, walking still closer to her. "As I recall, your little bard killed herself."
"Because you backed her into a corner, you bastard!" she spat, her eyes clouded by contempt. "She died trying to save me."
"Well, I hope you realize that was not my intention."
"I donít care if it was your lifeís plan," she hissed, her face so close to his he could feel her breath. "The damage is done now, and you will have to pay."
He smiled at her nervously. "What are you talking about?"
"Iím talking about me killing you, Ares," she replied sternly, not much louder than a whisper. "I may not do it tonight, or in a fortnight, or even before the next spring thaw, but mark my words, it will be so."
Her eyes were wild and crazed, and Ares swallowed loudly as he let her words unsettle him.
"I could kill you right now," he defended. "You are mortal."
"But donít I usually accomplish what I set out to do?" His eyes bored into hers as he attempted to read her. "You have dogged me these last years, trying to manipulate me and hurt those I care about. Now you have killed the one person that made me all I was. And god or not, you will rue that day. If I have to devote the rest of my life to that purpose, and give up my life in the process, I will see this through, Ares."
A shudder passed through him. This was the last mortal he would want to push over the edge of reason, he decided. "But I have come to make you an offer," he explained, hoping to change the warriorís mind.
"Your offers always lead to misery, misfortune, or death," she observed bitterly.
"Not this one." He paused for dramatic effect. "What if I gave you back your bard? In exchange for an alliance with me?"
"Ally with you? That will never come to pass."
"Not even for the life of your precious Gabrielle?" he coaxed. "After all Xena, she made the ultimate sacrifice for your life. Can you not give anything for hers?"
Xenaís eyes flashed with contemplation. "I... could never bring her back like that."
"Donít you want her back?"
"More than I want my own heart to beat. But years ago I made her a promise."
"That if for some reason she were ever gone, that I would not revert to the dark warrior of my past."
He rolled his eyes. "Surely she would understand in this case."
"She would not. I can not dishonor her memory by breaking my promise to her... even if it is to restore her life. She would not want that."
Ares looked clearly agitated. "All right, look," he began in annoyance. "How about this? You join me, and I will bring back a Gabrielle who has no remembrance of Xena. You and she will never have met."
"Say the word and I will deposit her here in this gloomy, little town, where she will have lived for the last few years. Among her family... and her husband."
"And her children," he added softly. He saw that he had her on the ropes now. There was indecision in her eyes. "You can give her back everything you thought you ever robbed her of, just by telling me yes. You will not have broken your word, because that promise will never have been made."
Her eyes began to tear again. "But that wonít make me hate you any less," she said resentfully.
"Hate is just a hairís breadth from love," he reasoned.
"No. I know what love is. You never will."
"You have a special place in my heart," Ares offered. "You always have."
"So you torment me? Leave me, Ares!" she barked. "Before I make good on my earlier threat!"
"My offer still stands..."
"If you had a heart, you vicious son of a bitch, I would rip it out with my own hands!"
He began to fade away. "Think over what Iíve said. Iím sure youíll realize itís what you should do. But make haste! This is a limited offer..."
Xena did not sleep. She was too confused to allow her eyes to shut. Over and over when she did so she would see Gabrielleís face as she pulled Hope over the edge of the ravine. Aresí words rang in her head like a childís rhyme.
What was she to do? She knew that Gabrielle would not want Xena to compromise herself. But for the chance to give Gabrielle back everythingóall semblance of a normal life...
"She made the ultimate sacrifice for your life. Can you not give anything for hers?"
Aresí words were like a dagger in her. But how did she know that what he told her was true? How did she know what Gabrielle would really want? Would the bard have been so much better off had they never met?
Around dawn, Xena made up her mind. The oracle of Alethia, goddess of truth, was less than a dayís ride. Until she spoke with someone who had knowledge and clarity of thought, she could make no conscious decision of any kind.
Though it had been her general practice to avoid the gods and their whimsy at all costs, it was clear to her that their involvement in this matter was inevitable. She had always heard good things about Alethia, that she was kind, even if her words were brutal at times.
As soon as the sun rose to a respectable height in the sky, she retrieved Argo and headed off. The ride was long and distressing. The silence did nothing to keep her mind off her present dilemma, and conversing with Argo was vaguely unsatisfying.
Now would be the time, she mused, that Gabrielle would have been chattering on about something or another... the origin of mankind, the concept of stars and space, why there were four seasons...
Xena thought hard to recall the last story Gabrielle had told her, as though it would hold some significance, or lend her some insight as to what to do. She couldnít remember. She shook her head in anger with herself. Why hadnít she been paying more attention?
For the rest of the trip, she decided to think of nothing. Years ago she had learned a method of "leaving her mind" and focusing on her body. It had been a tactic Lao Ma had shown her, and it had helped prevent her from becoming distracted in battle.
Soon, she stood before the oracle. It was a very ornate structure that sported large detailed columns and sculpture over the doorway, but it was very small. Xena was surprised that a goddess of something as important as truth would have such a diminutive temple on her behalf.
Allowing Argo to roam and graze, Xena took Gabrielleís bag and pushed open the door cautiously. Inside was small as well. There were ancient carvings on the wall and ceiling and a stone circle in the center of the floor.
Slowly she walked to stand in it.
A small, blue light appeared above her. It moved in a direct path straight down until it rested right before Xenaís eyes. Xena did not speak, but the light seemed to grow and in a flash, she stood before a tall, slender brunette.
"Xena," the goddess said with reassurance.
"You know me?"
"I know of you," she replied with a smile. "Your path has crossed the paths of many gods. Now it has crossed with mine. What do you seek?"
"I seek answers."
Alethia looked surprised. "You?"
"I have a great decision to make, but I fear I do not know all I must to come to the right conclusion," Xena explained.
"Then I must see deep within you, Xena," the goddess said as she reached to her right and retreived an intricately designed golden bowl from a stone pedestal. "I must drink from your soul."
Xena watched as Alethia poured wine from a decanter into the bowl and then added a powder of some kind.
"I will need some of your blood," she instructed.
"It is the only way I can see whatís in your heart." Alethia saw the hesitance on the warriorís face, and she smiled to put her more at ease. "I only need a few drops."
With renewed determination, Xena drew her breast dagger and pricked the tip of her index finger. As the blood began to flow, she held it over the bowl until several drops had been thoroughly mixed into the concoction.
Alethia picked up the bowl and drank. After a few swallows, she returned the bowl to its pedestal and looked again at Xena.
"You have lost your soulmate," the goddess announced.
"And with her, your will to go on."
Xena looked at the ground, as though not ready to admit that.
"My brother Ares has made you an offer that would return your soulmate... but not to you." Alethia scowled. "This is most confusing. It is your guilt that guides you."
"He has said he would bring Gabrielle back from the Elysian Fields if I join him."
"But Xena, that is not where your soulmate resides."
"What do you mean?"
"Your Gabrielle is still among the living."
Xenaís eyes grew wide, but Alethia could not discern if it was panic or elation that she saw. "Gabrielle is alive?"
"It is good you came to see me, Xena. My brother was not totally honest with you."
"But how?" Xena asked incredulously.
"My brother Ares has been deposed as god of war. Our father could not abide both his betrayal at the will of Hera, and his alliance with the one dark god."
"Zeus deposed him?"
"Word of his collusion with Dahak to overthrow the gods took little time to reach Olympus. Ares is lucky he escaped with his life."
"But who now is god of war?"
Xena smiled. "Your father made a wise choice." She frowned as she took all this in. "So Ares sought me out because he needed something from me."
"Of this I am certain... but what that is, I do not know." The goddess stopped and squinted at Xena. "But you have the hindís blood dagger!" she exclaimed in revelation.
"I do. My guess is he wants me to use it on Dahak."
"Yes. That would make sense."
"Of course," Xena answered with a sneer. "Ares betrayed Dahak as well. As soon as Gabrielle pulled Hope into the chasm, he vanished. So much for his strong loyalty," she spat. "He wants me to help him conquer Dahak so he can win back Zeusí favor." Xena paused unsurely. "Do you think if Ares succeeds, that Zeus will forgive him?"
Alethia looked Xena squarely in the eyes. "It is a possibility."
"Is there any other way to get Gabrielle?"
Xena nodded and looked at the ground. "Thanks," she said faintly, her new-found knowledge running frantically through her mind. She turned to exit the oracle.
"Xena," Alethia called, her voice turning to echo as the warrior turned back around.
There was no longer anyone there.
"Do not bury the truth any longer," the goddess intoned as Xena looked nervously about the oracle for the source of the voice. "With your admission to need of another, comes forgiveness... for you both. Do not forget this, or you may never find what you truly seek."
With the last syllable uttered, the echo stopped, and any indication of the goddess had vanished.
Xena looked down to see her finger was no longer bleeding. The cut was not there anymore.
The warrior rode to a clearing a short distance away before dismounting and walking to a large rock with great swiftness and deliberation. When she felt certain she was both nowhere in sight of anyone, and close to the presence of a certain god, she planted her feet firmly and looked heavenwards.
"All right you snivelling worm, show yourself!" She waited impatiently, as she pulled the hindís blood dagger from Gabrielleís bag. "Come on , Ares!" she snapped. "I havenít got all day!"
The leather-clad god manifested before her, a look of concern on his bearded face.
"You have thought over my offer?" he asked, thinking the warrior looked a bit too edgy for his liking (especially the way she was fondling that dagger).
"It seems you left out a few important points," she hissed, pulling the dagger from its sheath.
"Howís it feel to be the god of nothing, Ares? To know that when the scribes of the world document the history of nations, you will not be in it?"
His face hardened. "I will be in it, Xena. And you will help me see to it."
"And you will help me," she announced. She re-sheathed the dagger and took a step toward him. "You and I must discuss the terms and conditions of our arrangement."
His eyes lit up at her use of words. "All right."
"Condition one: this is not a promise to ever ally with you again. You and I have a mutual need in this case ó and only in this case."
"Done," he said with resignation.
"Condition two: you will kill Hope."
"Because of your little deal with the Fates, " she cooed maliciously. "My sole objective is to get Gabrielle back here alive and in one piece. Iím not about to die in the process... not now."
He winced. "Well, I guess I have that coming, donít I?"
"What goes around, comes around," she asserted morbidly. "Condition three: get me safely into the realm of Dahak, and I will personally insure his death. But you must give me your word that you will bring Gabrielle and me back here intact."
Ares scowled. "You have my word."
"You want it all," he quipped. "So be it, Xena. And when we are through, you will give the hindís blood dagger to me."
"Not on your life. You have the loyalty of a wild boar in heat," she chastised. "I wouldnít trust you to regain your title by your deed so much as by your weapon."
"Well, surely you donít think Iím going to let *you* keep it," he snapped.
"It would be safer with me than with you, thatís for sure."
"Not for me, it wouldnít."
Xena held up her palms in exasperation. "Look, I really donít want to waste time arguing this point with you. I want to go get Gabrielle."
"Youíre right. We donít have much time."
"If Hopeís pregnancy is anything like Gabrielleís, sheís probably close to delivery by now. Letís go."
Ares took Xenaís hand in his and she felt herself begin to disintegrate slowly. There seemed to be a blinding light, and no amount of shielding her eyes could block it out. When at last it began to lessen, she found it replaced by a heat of indescribable proportion.
As her eyes adjusted to the new surroundings and she regained the ability to focus, she found herself in a sweltering cavern of some kind. There was so much fire and molten magma within it, either as flowing lava through large fissures, or as flames bursting from geysers, that everything looked to be tinged with a deep ochre... and an ominous evil.
"Gods, this place is hot," she whispered, the sweat beginning to bead down the back of her neck.
"All the more reason to finish and get out," Ares whispered back.
The two of them slinked quietly toward an area that seemed to give off a brighter glow. The heat increased as they approached a crude entranceway. Xena patted his shoulder lightly and motioned that instead of going in that way, they climb the wall of rocks to the left and get a better vantage point. He nodded.
Eagerly Xena began climbing the steep rocks, sweat running down her back. As she stood about twenty-five yards off the ground, her foot missed a foothold and the slickness of her damp palms prevented her from getting a firm grip, causing her to topple backwards.
She felt her body begin to plummet, but suppressed the desire to cry out, not wanting her fall to give them away. No sooner had her balance shifted, than she found herself in Aresí grasp, floating upwards.
"Do you always do everything the hard way?" he asked, setting her down at the top.
They both crouched behind the cover of larger rocks so as not to be seen. "No," she whispered in reply. "But I never want to owe you anything."
As Xena turned her head to peer over the boulder before her, the sight that lay in wait for her, caused all of her breath to rush from her lungs. Her eyes flew open wide in horror.
There, not more than fifty yards away from her, was the most hideous demon she had ever beheld. Oh, the deliverer of Britannia had been a nasty sight, but this beast made him look like a boy you might bring home to meet your parents.
The demon was enormous. Xena guessed she was about the size of his little finger (if he had possessed a little finger). His hands looked more like hooves that were split in two. His skin was the color of moss, but it was scaly and iridescent. Two enormous horns protruded from his massive head. They resembled rams horns the way they spiraled inwardly.
Xena squinted as she looked into his eyes. They had no color. They were simply white.
Further off to the right, Xena saw the outline of a very pregnant woman... obviously Hope. She seemed to be trying to reason with the beast, but she appeared frustrated.
Xenaís breath caught sharply as she saw what was even further to the right.
It was Gabrielle. She was unconscious and shackled at the wrists and ankles. Xena angrily examined the bardís naked body, noting every bruise and contusion. Gabrielle looked as though she had been more than just beaten... more like tortured.
"I see no reason to keep her alive any longer," the demon was saying. "You must not let your bond to your mother affect your judgment."
"But Father," Hope reasoned. "I know we can persuade her to join us."
"And what makes you think that?" Dahak posed, his voice booming and deep. "She has tried to kill you twice."
"How do you know that she was not trying to save me, Father? From Xena?"
"Your mother is like all humans, Hope. She is weak. Humans are ruled by their emotions instead of their intellect. You must fight that part of you or you will never be able to succeed me as a ruler."
"I have let you put off her death long enough. Is it because you look like her that you feel this need to protect her?"
Hope simply looked down. Her hand moved to her unborn child. "I donít know."
"You mystify me, Hope. I am who brought you back from the other side, and your very life relies on mine. You cease to exist without me! And yet you oppose me! Your Mother must now die! I tire of her!"
Xena turned to Ares. "Put me over there, behind that boulder," she whispered, indicating a large stone directly behind Dahak. Ares nodded. "Remember your part of the deal," she asserted as he watched her disappear and reappear behind the boulder.
The warrior pulled the hindís blood dagger from its sheath as she sized up her target. She wiped her moist palms off on her leather armor and she took aim.
Her arm snapped back as she let the dagger fly. It sailed perfectly toward its mark.
Dahakís head spun in sudden reaction, and he batted the small dagger to the cavern floor.
"You!" he said in amazement. "Was that your great attempt to do me in? To toss a little thorn at me?"
He smiled a sinister leer, his mouth full of yellowed and gnarled teeth. His breath smelled of decaying flesh. "Here, my daughter, is a perfect example of what I was saying," he noted as he leaned toward Xena. "This human has probably made no small sacrifice to find us here, so that she can rescue her friend. Of course, she will die. Her emotions led to her ruination."
Hope was aghast. How did Xena find them? How did she enter this realm? Behind her, she heard a sound and spun to see Ares, crouched over Gabrielle, her manacles vanished.
"Ares!" she spat. "How could you betray us!"
He looked up to her and smiled. "Never trust a guy who only wants to get into your... realm."
Hope struck out toward him in anger, but he managed to evade the bolt of fire which came from her palm.
"Not quite good enough, sweetheart," he teased. "Boy, you really got big, didnít you?" he chided, staring at her belly. "Are you sure thatís a destroyer in there and not a porker?"
Hope looked crazed with hatred.
"Ah!" Dahak cried, seeing Ares. "Little god! You again show your stupidity. Have you returned with the warrior to finish me?" The demon laughed.
Ares looked noticeably more subdued. "Look, Dahak"ó
"Silence!" Dahak bellowed, and with a wave of his cloven hoof, sent Ares flying back to the cavern wall... and then through the cavern wall. A small avalanche of stones hailed down in his wake.
The demon turned back to again face Xena. "Now, warrior," he began with dark malevolence. "It is time for you to die."
"Who do you think you are?" Xena demanded, drawing her sword.
The god looked amused by her question. "What?"
"What gives you the right to pass judgment on humans and criticize our qualities? You donít even live among us!" She slowly circled him with her blade at the ready.
"I soon will," he answered. "I will enter your world, and there is nothing that can be done to stop me. You *will* be dominated."
"For what?" Xena barked, the sweat running down her steadily now. "For your amusement? That is a noble trait? Bloodlust?"
"Are you here to try and persuade me to join the forces of goodness?" he asked laughingly.
"No. Iím here to kill you."
"Very bold, warrior. Who has bloodlust now?"
"This isnít about blood," Xena explained coolly. "Itís about retribution. You raped Gabrielle of her blood innocence and forced her to carry your child! You knew her good nature would prevent her from killing her own daughter!"
"Of course," Dahak confirmed. "I never dreamt of the conflict it would cause between you two. That was a bonus."
"So naturally, you had Hope kill my child... to stir things up a little," she sneered.
"I expected you two to kill each other," he explained, his fetid breath nauseating her nearly as much as his words. "It would have been easier for me if you had."
"Well, know what Dahak?" she posed contemptuously.
"Whatís that, warrior?"
"You picked the wrong women to screw with."
Xena catapulted through the air, doing several somersaults and landing on the other side of Dahak, staring at Hope.
"Expecting, I see," Xena remarked as she raised an eyebrow. "Why donít you name him Solan? The name brought good luck to my boy," she spat.
Hope was unable to reply. She merely looked at Xena in shock.
Xena glanced around to see where the hindís blood dagger had fallen. It was over to the left of Hope. Behind Hope was Gabrielleís unconscious body. Ares, meanwhile, was still embedded in the cavern wall.
Xena looked back to Hope. "Let me take Gabrielle."
Hope looked uncertain. Xena could see it in her eyesóeyes exactly like Gabrielleís.
"Sheís all I want," Xena whispered.
"Will you leave Ares?" Hope asked, ready to bargain for the father of her child... the man she most wanted to see disemboweled.
"There will be no deals here!" Dahak shouted, as a bolt of energy left his eyes and flew toward Xena.
The warrior did a backflip that sent her over Hopeís head and near Gabrielleís body. She stooped to turn her bardís face so she could see it. It was bruised, but beautiful.
"I am not leaving here without Gabrielle," Xena said stoically, her courage renewed. She held her sword at the ready.
"And Iím not leaving here while Dahak is still alive," Ares announced as he brushed the dust from his leather. He walked from the cavern wall toward the melee.
"You are a slow learner, little god," Dahak announced as he sent a stream of fire toward him.
Ares jumped out of the way and sent his own lightning bolt toward Dahak. The demon raised his powerful arms to block it, but it was not in time. The jolt stunned him.
Xena saw this as an excellent opportunity to grab Gabrielle and get out of there. The fact that she was not dead already was a total stroke of good fortune. She re-sheathed her sword and knelt to collect her bard.
She tried not to handle Gabrielle too roughly, her bruises were obvious, but her sense of urgency could not be quelled. She tossed the bard over her shoulder and began to back away. She looked into Hopeís eyes as she retreated... she saw no anger there, no move to stop her.
Dahak screamed in frustration and thrust his arms forward, sending out a blast of fire toward Ares that was enormous. Ares retaliated with his own, the two blazes meeting between them and dissipating.
Suddenly, Dahak saw Xena backing toward the exit with Gabrielle hoisted over her shoulder. "No!" he cried, extending his cloven hoof to strike.
"Father, wait!" Hope shouted, crossing in front of him defensively, her diminutive size anything but imposing.
Paying her no mind at all, Dahak took a step forward, inadvertently knocking Hope off to the side, and sending her sprawling into the dirt.
Ares sent a cold blast of ice Dahakís way, but the demon easily stopped it with a wall of flame that not only melted Aresí weapon, but also separated the two gods so they could no longer see each other.
Again, Dahak eyed Xena intently. "You will never leave here alive, warrior. And neither will Gabrielle."
"Noooo!!" came a fervent cry from behind the demon as Hope plunged the hindís blood dagger into her fatherís heel.
Xena watched in stunned amazement as Dahak cried out in agony, then fell to the ground with an enormous, echoing thud. There was no longer any life in him.
Xena looked to Hope, who still held the dagger, but let it drop from her hand as though she were too fatigued to hold it any longer.
"It is done," Hope said softly as she began to vanish. She looked at Xena in resignation as she and the body of Dahak faded away.
The wall of fire dissipated after the two disappeared, and Ares walked to the dagger which lay where Hope abandoned it.
"Leave it, Ares," Xena instructed. "Let us be done with it for all time."
He looked to her and realized that no mortal would be able to retrieve it here. This probably was the best place for it.
"Letís go," he suggested. Before Xena knew what was happening, she and Gabrielle were back in the field she and Ares has departed from.
"Ares," she called, causing the god to manifest as well. "Can you remove her memory of this? I donít want her to be tormented by the nightmares of her torture."
"What will you do for me?"
"Allow you to take credit for the slaying of a god that was by the hand of another," she countered, setting the bardís naked form gingerly on the grass.
He stared at her intently, then shrugged. "So be it. When Gabrielle awakes, she will have no memory beyond her drop into the ravine."
"And no pain," Xena negotiated.
Ares sighed in exasperation. "And no pain. Now go, get the woman some clothes." And then he vanished.
Xena reached into Gabrielleís bag and retrieved a linen shift and put it on her. She whistled for Argo, and the horse came running. In his saddlebags, she found all her necessary balms and salves to treat Gabrielleís wounds.
Xena built a small fire that night (she thought that the sight of a large fire would disturb her), and after cleansing all of Gabrielleís wounds, and washing up herself, she simply sat near the fire, with her bardís sleeping head resting in her lap. She hummed to Gabrielle, and talked to her, but mostly waited for her to awaken.
"You know, Gabrielle," she said wistfully as she gently brushed the bardís hair from her forehead. "I Ďm never going to let you go again. I thought I was strong, but now I realize in some ways Iím not."
The bardís eyes fluttered open and she moaned softly at the gentle touches she felt on her face. "Xena?"
"What happened? How did we get here?"
"What do you remember?" Xena asked suspiciously.
"I remember the temple... and Hope. She and I"ó
"Went over," Xena finished. She pressed her lips to Gabrielleís forehead. "I thought you were dead."
"Then what happened?" she asked, trying to sit up.
"You were in the realm of Dahak," the warrior explained. "I had to go there to get you back."
"How did you get there?"
"I made a little deal with Ares."
"Ares! That coward! You made a deal with him?"
"Gabrielle, I had to." Xena reached out and ran the back of her hand softly down Gabrielleís cheek. "I couldnít let you go. I... need you."
"I didnít know it until you were gone. You bring me purpose and meaning."
Gabrielle stared into her warriorís azure eyes and saw real love there, and it made her own eyes tear. "So, you didnít hurt yourself rescuing me, did you?"
"No. And Hope and Dahak are dead."
"But you couldnít have killed Hope," the bard pointed out. "The fates would have cut your life thread. Ares killed her?"
"Hope killed Dahak, and with him, herself. She could not exist without Dahak. When he died, so did she."
"But why would she do that if she knew it would mean her death?"
Xena looked down in discomfort. "She was protecting you. Dahak was trying to stop me from leaving with you... she stabbed him with the dagger."
"But I betrayed her," Gabrielle mumbled, shaking her head in disbelief. "Why would she"ó
"Because maybe you were right about her all along, Gabrielle." Xena winced as she spoke. "Perhaps the good in you was enough to overcome the evil of her Father. Maybe I should have trusted you more when she was born. Then all this could have been avoided."
"Xena, no," the bard corrected, taking Xenaís hand in her own. "You couldnít have known that... and you still donít. We canít go back and change the past... though there are some things I would change in a second. Letís just leave it behind now. This is all over."
"Almost," Xena said softly.
"Yes. I saw Alethia, the goddess of truth. And she gave me some good advice."
"What was that?"
"To admit that I needed you and we would find forgiveness."
"But isnít that what we just did?" the bard asked with a smile and a small scowl.
"Then she said I would find what I truly sought."
"What is that?"
Xena leaned toward Gabrielle with eyes darkened by passion. "Your love," she clarified, pressing her lips to Gabrielleís softly and hesitantly.
The warrior reached up to touch the bardís face as the kiss deepened. Gabrielle did not pull away as Xena had feared. Instead, she responded with a growing urgency, and her hands began to roam as well.
Xena pulled away and they were both left surprised and breathless.
"I do love you," Gabrielle rasped, her fingers brushing over Xenaís lips in reverence. "I always have. I want this too."
As their lips again met, Xena had a fleeting thought of thankfulness to Alethia... and perhaps even Ares. Maybe the gods were not as worthless as she had once thought.
As the moonlight illuminated Gabrielleís naked body arching against her, Xena knew there was somebody somewhere she would need to thank.
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