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Disclaimers:

Copyright: The characters Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Joxer, Argo, Hope, Dahok, Ephiny, Eponin, Ares (well, sorta), Seraphin, and any others Iíve forgotten to mention are property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended as this story is just for fun. The plot and everything else is mine, so you can blame my sick mind for it.

Violence: Yeah, sure, there a little violence in this story. I mean, it is a story about a Warrior Princess. Itís nothing you wouldnít see every night on cable (or the nightly news for that matter). Yeah, some people die and thereís a little blood. I rate it a PG-13.

Sexual: There is absolutely nothing sexual in this story. No one even kisses. Itíll probably put you to sleep. However, there is a small degree of what some might think of as severely repressed desires. If youíre looking for subtext (or maintext) you wonít find much here.

This story takes place after the third season finale Sacrifice II. It is my impression of how the fourth season opener would be handled. It WAS an entry in the GJRS Fanfic challenge before the site disappeared right after I submitted it. I now know that my guesses have been incorrect. It is still, however, a fairly good story. All comments appreciated at rdiener@umich.edu


Fire and Remembrance
By: Becky Diener
Part I


The fire jumped with a giant crackle as one of the logs within shifted and fell. Sparks flew up to be twisted into wisps of smoke and drift up to the silently watching stars. The orange glow illuminated only a small circle about the fire and turned everything within it a strange shade. Reds and oranges seemed to predominate in its light, bathing the small clearing in blood. Outside of the circle, bright yellows quickly turned to blues, and then black. The deep ebony of the unknown. Soft rustlings in the undergrowth which would normally have disturbed the firelightís two occupants went unnoticed as each was lost in their own thoughts.

On one side of the fire, a young man sat with his legs stretched out before him. His ungainly position was matched by the atrocity of his outfit. He wore on his chest what appeared to be a hammered silver serving platter, while his head was graced by the most ignoble of helmets. Beaten and dented, it rested crookedly atop his head, so that the point on itís top pointed off at an angle. The flaps at its side stuck outwards enhancing his already a little too large ears. Held across his lap was a bent sword. Just looking at his outfit, one would have thought that he was a clown from some roving band of players. But his face betrayed the humor of his clothes. He stared into the fire unseeing. A look of utter dejection on his face as he fought to hold back the tears which threatened to pour.

Across from him his companion painted almost a completely opposite picture. Here was a warrior. Her armor, close fitting and functional, clung to her cat-like body. She looked at any moment, ready to spring into action. Her dark silken hair framed her cold set face. She showed no expression as she stared across the fire at her companion. But, one could tell from the piercing stare of her sapphire eyes and the purse of her well formed lips that whatever thoughts she might be having were not pleasant. Her sword glowed red in the firelight as she rubbed if carefully with a piece of cloth. Rubbed as if trying to rub the blood light out of it, and out of her soul. Men found it easy to say she was beautiful, save for those few who had gotten a close look at her inside, and felt her a monster.

"It wasnít your fault, you know," she said, breaking the silence. The young man looked up from his reverie to stare into those piercing blue eyes which appeared black in the firelight. "Gabrielle knew what she had to do. And...she...did it." The woman finished her polishing and returned the sword to the scabbard on her back. The slither of the metal sliding into place sent unwarranted shivers down the back of her dubious companion.

The woman sighed and stood. Stretched to her full height, she was a sight to see. Almost six feet of a lithe, dark, killing machine. Her skirt of leather strips reached only partway to her knees and her waist was garnished by a strange round weapon that glinted in the firelight. "The fireís dying," she said simply. "Iím going to get some wood."

"No, Iíll get it," the young man said, scrambling to his feet. The woman glanced across the fire at her companion and, seeing the look on his face, nodded in affirmation. She watched almost kindly as her friend clanked off into the forest, his inadequate armor catching on every low lying tree branch or bramble along the way. From somewhere beyond the fireís circle she heard her steed moving restlessly in her search for dinner. She stepped away from the fire and picked out the glint of Argoís cream colored mane from among the shadows.

She walked over and patted the faithful warhorse gently on the shoulder. She was rewarded as the horse raised a muzzle full of grass to touch her shoulder. The mare whickered softly, sensing some unseen tension in her dark mistress, and then went back to munching contentedly.

"Oh, Argo," the woman said in a cracked voice. She buried her head against the mareís soft neck, letting herself go for the first time. Her tears stained the palominoís light coat like blood.

 

 

Joxer bent over to pick up some kindling. As he tried to straighten back up, however, he found the point of his helmet had caught in some of the underbrush. He started to shake his head like an angry calf. "Hey! Let go!" he shouted. He started to thrash his arms about too, dropping most of the wood he had managed to collect so far. After floundering for several minutes he managed to extricate himself from the offending shrub. He stood back and stared at his aggressor. Then with an inhuman cry, and some difficulty, he drew his bent sword from where it was stuck in his belt and attacked the bush.

His face red and tears coursing down his cheeks, he beat at the shrubbery. Leaves and small twigs flew everywhere as he hit it violently again and again. Finally, his lips pulled back in a grimace of pain, he raised his ruined weapon above his head and brought it down crashing into the brush. This last forceful maneuver caused him to lose his balance and tumble headfirst over the bush and down the slope towards the river. When the world finally stopped spinning, he sat up on his knees and found himself to be on the grassy bank of a pleasant stream. He looked for his sword and found that the only thing he had left in his hands was one small piece of kindling. Then Joxer began to cry for real.

"Joxer the Mighty, hah! Some warrior you turned out to be!" he shouted into the darkness. Hearing no reply, not even the faithful creaking of crickets, he continued. "Couldnít even keep a sword," he said, ripping off his ridiculous helmet and tossing it into the river. "Couldnít even save the woman you loved.....couldnít....couldnít even....tell...her...." He ripped off his breastplate and stumbled over to the riverís edge. He tossed it out with the helmet. He heard the distant splash as it descended into the water, saw the reflected moonlight ripple with its passing. He kneeled down at the waterís edge and stared into it. The foggy reflection managed to make him appear more foolish looking than he usually was.

"I....loved you, Gabrielle," he whispered to the reflection, "More than life." He buried his face in his hands and let the warm salt tears run out between his fingers. Someday, they would follow the course of the river down to its delta and meet their salty cousin, the sea. From there they would be taken into the clouds and fall back to earth as rain, watering the plants and flowers, and giving life to the world. But Joxer didnít think about that right now.

 

 

When Joxer returned to camp over an hour later with red, puffy eyes and carrying little firewood, Xena didnít question it. Her own emotions sated for the time being, she watched as her friend added his meager catch to the hungry flames. She noticed his sword and armor were missing and was briefly thankful. Now at least, he wouldnít make as much noise as a herd of elephants as they tried to slip silently through the forest. But, she understood that the loss of his armor was like the loss of a part of himself. Just as surely as Gabrielle had taken a part of her own soul with her into that fiery hole.

Xena looked away from the fire quickly and placed a hand to her forehead. Must not think about that now. No, not now. Not here. Must not think of those kind eyes, that innocent face staring back from the demon fire. That look, a plea and an apology in one. No, must not think of that. There is too much to do yet. She turned back to the fire to see Joxer staring at her curiously.

"Xena, are you all right?" he asked.

"Iím fine," she growled. She saw him flinch and felt pity for a moment. She had not meant to be so cold. She raised herself from her log and crossed over to his side of the fire. "Here," she said, handing him a piece of dried venison, "Eat this. You could use it." Joxer nodded and took the meat from her silently. She turned away and returned to her side. "And then try and get some sleep. Iím setting a hard pace tomorrow in the hopes that we can reach the Amazon village before sundown." She sat back down on the log.

"What about you?" Joxer asked. Xena looked up coldly.

"Well, someoneís gotta stay awake and stand guard. Who knows how many of those Hope fanatics are out there looking for our blood."

"Oh, right," he replied. He turned away, remembering the Gabrielle he now knew had been Hope asking him how he felt about her. He hadnít even been able to tell her evil twin...what...daughter? "Some warrior," he mumbled and laid down on his bedroll, facing away from those blue eyes he couldnít quite meet.

Xena stared at the tired shoulders of her companion. Coming back without his armor was better than him not coming back at all, an outcome that Xena had half expected. He blamed himself, no doubt. No matter what she said to him. She was glad he was back, though. She had not wanted to be alone tonight, and even Joxerís meager company was comforting. They had never had much in common, save their love for Gabrielle. And now they had her loss.

She knew he wouldnít be able to sleep tonight. Not anymore than she could. She had found over the years that as long as she had someone around who was weaker, or more afraid, or more in need of help than her she could keep going. She had often wondered if that is why she had originally kept Gabrielle around. Her early ineptitude had been a booster to her own ego. And, as long as she kept Gabrielle near, she was always too worried about the safety of the bard than to care about what might happen to herself.

And now Joxer. Giving her something else to worry about. Something else to think about other than that horrid last glimpse of her best friend. Giving her someone to pity other than herself. A strange pair they made beneath the stars. Each alone with their thoughts, on their own side of the fire. And yet, closer than they had ever been before.

 

 

Ephiny sat in her hut looking over a trading agreement and absentmindedly petting the little model of the Trojan horse she had carved for her son. She couldnít wait to give it to him while she was delivering this treaty to his caretakers. He just loved to hear the tales surrounding the war, and the parts his Aunt Xena played in it. She looked up suddenly as her reading light was lost to find a familiar figure filling her doorway.

"What is it Eponin?" she asked.

"Some travelers were sighted coming this way," came the stoic answer.

"And your point is," sighed Ephiny, sitting back in her chair. Eponin entered the hut fully and let in some light.

"One of the travelers is Xena."

"Oh!" squeaked Ephiny, grabbing her Amazon headdress off the wall. "I must go out and greet our queen." She turned to find herself almost nose to nose with the tall warrioress. She was about to step around her when the hard look in Eponinís eyes stopped her.

"What?" she asked.

 

 

The sun setting behind the gathered Amazons shrouded them in shadow. Not that the two weary travelers could make out much behind their elaborate costumes and their bird-head masks. The forlorn group stopped several feet from the imposing line of warriors. Xena was squinting in the final light of dusk, trying to read the intentions of the women in their posture. Finally she turned, dropping Argoís reins to fiddle with the something on the saddle. When she turned again, she was holding the bardís scroll bag in one hand, and her fighting staff in the other. She tossed the two packages down in front of the Amazons and crossed her arms.

"Your queen is dead," she said emotionlessly. "I bring you these possessions of hers so that you may know what I say is true." Xena looked down, apparently in intense study of her boots. "She died....fighting bravely for what she believed in. She sacrificed herself for the sake of the world. And," she almost whispered, "...for me." Through the entire exchange, Joxer did not lift his eyes from the ground.

One of the bird-masked women moved out from the group. She bent down on one knee and placed a hand on the smooth wood of the staff. She caressed its finely sanded surface lovingly, like it was a child. Leaving her hand on the weapon, she slowly turned the mask up to face the dark warrior. Suddenly the soft touch became viscous as she gripped the staff and lunged swinging it at Xena with a wordless battle cry.

Half surprised and half desiring the punishment, the warrior princess let the staff get through her ironclad defenses and bash into her head. The force of the blow slammed her back against Argo. She bounced off the mare and fell to the ground. She got up on her hands and knees, trying to get her head clear, only to be slammed in the backbone by the butt end of the staff. Once again flat on the ground and expecting another such blow, Xena instinctively rolled. The next strike came down by her ear, missing her head by mere inches.

Xena managed to get to her feet and face her opponent, holding out her hands to show that she was weaponless. The Amazon didnít seem to care as she swung the staff first above Xenaís ducked head and then down, forcing Xena to jump over the weapon as it passed beneath. The Amazon continued to swing the staff at Xena who blocked some of the punches with her bare hands and let others get through, almost thankfully.

"She never meant to hurt you!" the Amazon screamed in a vaguely familiar voice. "She came here heartbroken, a wasted shell! Saying she had killed her own child for you! Hoping that would be enough! Hoping you would realize she had made the ultimate sacrifice to regain your favor, your love!" the woman spat. Xena was slowly being forced back towards the center of the village.

"But, no!" she screamed scoring a hard hit on Xenaís shoulder, "That wasnít enough for the great warrior princess. You had to torture her further for her sins!" The Amazon collapsed to her knees suddenly. Her head bowed, breathing heavily she sat for a moment. Looking up, she cried out one last burst of agony, "When did you ever pay for YOUR sins Xena?!? When did the world ever get retribution from you?"

Xena sat down on her heels in front of the Amazon and lifted the mask, revealing Ephinyís tear streaked face beneath. "Every second, of every minute, of every day," Xena said stoically. The Amazon regent buried her head into Xena shoulder and worked her fury out in tears. The two were soon surrounded by the rest of the Amazon camp who had removed their bird masks. Xena lifted Ephiny off her shoulder and replaced her mask over her face again, knowing she wouldnít want such weakness to be seen by her followers.

Eponin, who was holding the bag of the bardís possessions reached down and took the staff from her regentís shaking hands. Xena helped the grief stricken woman to her feet.

" I am also here to give you, Ephiny, the right of caste." Xena said in a voice loud enough to be clearly understood by the whole clan., "Iím sure Gabrielle would have wanted it that way."

Ephiny nodded her head knowingly and replied softly, "Xena....about what I said...I...I didnít mean it .....I was just so..." Her words trailed off. Xena shook her head.

"Whether you meant it or not, it was all true, and," she added, "I deserved every bit of it."

Ephiny finally had enough control over herself to raise her mask and peer into the startling blue eyes of the warrior princess. She did her best to put on a stern Amazon leader look and stated, "We shall prepare a funeral pyre for her tonight fit for a queen and a heroine."

 

 

Eponin offered the bowl of what appeared to be rabbit stew to the dark woman seated cross-legged on the hutís floor. After taking a quick look at it and, having had a whiff of the concoction before, Xena turned away.

"No thanks," she said, "Iím not hungry." Eponin nodded and moved on. She offered the bowl to the warriorís thus far silent companion. Eponin didnít approve of having men in the village, but this one had been there before and she didnít mind him. Of course, had she met him on a normal day she probably wouldnít have been able to keep from snapping his neck. However, the one time he had visited before was during the queenís purification ritual, and he had been too concerned for her safety to be his own bumbling self. He sat with slumped shoulders staring into the fire and took a moment to notice that she was standing above him.

"Oh, no ,....thank you," he said sheepishly.

"Humph!" Eponin grumbled, since it was she who had made the stew, "Suit yourselves." She plopped down across the fire from then and proceeded to dig into her creation with relish. A few minutes later Ephiny entered, still in full costume, but with her mask pushed up on top of her head. Eponin rose respectfully.

"Not yet my friend," said Ephiny, patting Eponin gently on the back. "Not till after the ceremony at least." Eponin nodded and returned to her seat. Ephiny crouched down next to her and stared across the fire at Xena. "Everything is in order for the ceremony. Unless, of course, you think it would be better to wait until morning."

Xenaís eyes darkened considerably as she glanced into the depths of the flames. "No," she said darkly, "I still have one card left to play in this sick little game and Iíd like to get to it as soon as possible." Joxer looked up, sensing something in his companionís voice he had not heard there before. Even Ephiny looked quizzically at her. She glanced to Joxer to see if he had any idea what Xena was talking about, but received a look as blank as her own in reply.

"We will keep her scrolls of course, for posterity. However, we found some other items, personal artifacts and such, in the bottom of her scroll case...."

"Burn them all," said Xena, and this time, Joxer did look at her sharply.

"What about this?" asked Ephiny, as both heads turned towards her in badly veiled anticipation. Neither one would have admitted how much they wished to see anything that reminded them of the girl they loved, despite the pain it would give them. Ephiny held up her package, and it glinted in the firelight. The leather chain was wrapped around her fingers and the square sea green pendants swung hypnotically back and forth. The two wanderers just stared. "I wasnít sure if it was even hers," Ephiny related, "Iíve never seen her wear it."

"It was hers," stated Xena, uncommittedly. She glanced at Joxer who was still staring at the necklace with a childlike expression. The look reminded Xena very much of the man he had been before this new tragedy. And of Gabrielle. Gabrielle as she had been in a long peasantís dress, looking up from her scrolls to stare off into the starry night, unaware of the attentions of the Warrior Princess. Just like a child. So small beneath the vastness of the sparkling heavens. So unaware and innocent, and alone. "I think..." she suggested lightly as she turned to face the regent, "I think that Jox-"

"Burn it too," said Joxer with finality. Now it was Xenaís turn to look sharply at her companion. He buried his head in his hands. "Burn it..." he rasped from behind closed fingers. Ephiny nodded solemnly and got up to leave. She touched Eponin lightly on the shoulder to get her attention and indicated with a tilt of her head that she should do the same. After they had left the tent a long silence ensued. Neither person moved.

The silence ended a few moments afterwards when Joxerís shoulders heaved convulsively. Xena could suddenly hear the familiar sounds of poorly controlled grief. Her eyebrows pinched together. With Gabrielle she had almost always known what to do. There had been an unspoken, deep understanding between them. A closeness she had never had with the fumbling master of mayhem. Joxer was sobbing openly now. A look of deep pity came over the dark woman. It was hard for her to admit how important this foolish little boy had become to them. To her.

Xena reached over and touched Joxer lightly on the arm. "Hey," she said.

"Iím sorry," he said lifting his head quickly and sniffing hard, "I just....I should have been able to stop her." He sighed, looking down again, "Itís all my fault."

"No," the woman stated clearly, "No, Joxer, look at me!" She grabbed he chin and turned his face towards her once more. Her voice was a mixture of kindness and venom. "There was nothing you could do. You were halfway across the room. And besides, you had absolutely no idea she would go and try something like that." Her hand fell violently away and her back straightened as she turned her gaze once again into the flames. "I should have," she growled.

"What?!?" Joxer exclaimed in reply, "You canít be serious."

"No, I should have known. The deal was that I would die only if I killed Hope. Gabrielle wouldnít let that happen. Especially since she blamed herself for the entire ordeal. I should have realized sheíd be more than willing to sacrifice herself for my sake."

"Itís MY fault," she said looking up from the fire. Her eyes were black and rimmed with tears that she would not let flow. Could not. And then, turned once again quickly away. She had let him see. She had allowed him to know that there was a way to hurt the indomitable warlord inside her. So different we are, she thought. How vast the differences between us. He male and I female....he a bumbling idiot and I with the fighting prowess of a tiger....me a killer and him an innocent. And yet we share something, something more than our love for Gabrielle. She continued to stare into the depths of the flames and didnít see her friend sliding closer to her.

He placed his arm gently across her shoulders, bracing himself for a violent response. She didnít flinch as she normally would have or push him away. She seemed merely to accept his presence and almost, to be thankful. When she finally did glance up at him she saw the deeply worried look in his eyes and was surprised.

"It wasnít your fault Xena," he started talking slowly, as if he was not used to making long speeches that did not have something to do with his foolishly arrogant opinion of himself. "You said yourself that Gabby did what she felt she had to do to save the world...and you..."

"I think," and here he stumbled, "I know that Gabrielle would have wanted you to live and to go on helping people. Thatís what she would have most wanted as her last request." Joxer managed a half smile at her. "And I know she loved you more than anyone in the world and I told her so...well...sort of...."

Itís as if we all belonged to some great club, Xena thought, Gabrielle and Joxer and I. And even Autolycus when heís not trying to lift something. Itís as if we were meant to come together. As if we were meant to change each otherís lives for the better. And now sheís gone and itís like losing some well loved member of a personal aristocracy. And yet, itís so much more than that. And she would have wanted me to go on, Joxerís right about that. So I guess....I guess Iíll have to do it. I wouldnít want to let her down again.

Suddenly the Warrior Princess gave a resigned smile and hugged Joxer to herself forcefully. Joxerís eyes widened considerably with surprise. He couldnít ever remember Xena ever showing such affection to anyone other than Gabrielle. Well....there had been that stint with Draco...but that didnít really count. Sweetie...she had called him Sweetie. Joxer would have giggled then except that he suddenly found himself to be in the precarious position of not being able to breath.

Suddenly but gently, Xena pushed him away. Eponin entered the tent with a solemn look on her face.

"Itís time," she said.

 

Part II

The flaming arrows arched through the air like falling stars. They landed on a large stack of wood and quickly ignited the small sticks and dried grass which had been placed there for that purpose. It was not long until the entire pyre was ablaze. On top of the fire, just barely being licked by the highest flames at this point, laid a wooden fighting staff. Tied around one end of it was a small necklace. A woman wearing an elaborate feathered bird mask stood at the head of the pyre, arms raised in the air, offering a prayer of supplication to her goddess. Soon, she finished and another woman stepped forward.

She was not dressed as the others standing around the circle. She did not wear a mask and the hard lines of her face were deepened by the flickering shadows caused by the fire. Neither was her body painted with natural dyes to signify her mourning. She stepped up next to the Amazon leader and began to sing. It was a long mournful song of loss. It arched up through the camp and sent shivers through the gathered warriors, despite the fireís warmth. When the hard faced woman finished a great hush fell over the camp as all in attendance turned their attention to the dying flames. The singer turned abruptly and left the circle. The lone male in the gathering, who was not quite able to conceal the tears brimming his eyes or his lack of comfort with being squeezed between two scantily clad Amazons, was the only one who noticed her departure. And he knew better than to follow.

 

 

"Where are you, you slimy bastard," the dark woman snarled, drawing her sword with a slither of metal on metal. She was bent half over and walking silently through the dense forest. She turned and started walking backwards while still holding her weapon out in front of her. Suddenly, she whipped around, setting the point of her blade at the neck of a leather clad man who had not been standing there the instant before.

"We have to stop meeting like this," the man said crossing his arms casually, "People will talk."

Venomously, the woman spat, "Give me one good reason why I shouldnít drive this through your stinking neck right now!"

"Well, one, because Iím a god and it wouldnít do anything. And two," he said with a languorous smile, "You just might like what Iím about to say."

"Why should I listen to you, you traitorous scum?"

"Because I can help you get your revenge." The man lifted an eyebrow. "Címon, you canít tell me we werenít a good team together," he smiled, "Before that annoying blonde came around." If such a thing was possible, the womanís look turned even colder and more deadly at that moment.

"Look," he said leaning back against a tree, "I canít beat Dahok, and neither can you. But with my armies, under you leadership...." He raised his hands in a gesture which said that the woman could figure it out for herself. Curling her lip into a snarl, the woman whipped her sword away from the man and turned her back on him. She returned the weapon to its scabbard.

"No deal Ares. You know I promised Gabrielle I would never become that sort of monster again, no matter what happened." Surreptitiously, she slipped a small, sharp object from her breast.

"Ahhhh, but donít you think she would have wanted a little retribution for her death. Especially," he paused for effect, "From the Prince of Darkness." She was on him like a cat in an instant, a small dagger pressed to his jowl.

"And just why would you want to help me against your master?!? Grown bored without someone to give you a good roll in the hay?!? Have the pressures of servitude finally got to you?!?" Ares strained his neck to look at the weapon threatening him. When he saw it, he closed his eyes and sighed resignedly.

"I never really wanted the destruction of the world or the other gods. I mean, who am I without these worthless little mortals to order around. Send them off to war. Watch them die violent, bloody deaths. Not much." He opened his eyes and glanced at her with something resembling respect, and which was almost affection. "You always worked best when you had to go up against a stronger enemy. It brought out that dark warrior side of you."

"And you thought," continued the woman, "That if I had a big enough enemy, and got angry enough over the death of Gabrielle...."

"You would return to you beautiful warlord self," he finished for her.

"Not a chance Ares," she answered. However, she stepped back and crossed her arms. "Just what did you think you had to add to this deal of yours....aside from the armies that is....which I could raise myself if I wanted to."

Trying to act casual, but noticeably relived about the removal of the dagger, the dark god placed his hands on his hips and answered. "That wasnít just a pit of fire your annoying friend got herself into, it was a portal to the realm of Dahok. Sooo....since I doubt our demon friend would want to off his own daughter..."

"Hope could still be alive...and so could...." the woman gasped.

"You are quick, thatís one of the reasonís I always favored you" said Ares, reaching out to brush her cheek with the back of his hand. Ignoring the violent twist of her head to avoid his touch, he continued. "Now, hereís the thing. That little stunt your lackey pulled didnít kill Hope, but it does appear to have weakened the powers of her father. If you want my guess, heís probably using quite a bit of his energies to hold the two of them in a sort of limbo. The priests at the temple are holding a big ceremony tomorrow. Human sacrifice, erotic dancing girls, the works. No doubt the blood of the sacrifice will increase his power."

"Enough to bring his daughter back to the mortal plane," Xena said understandingly. Ares nodded.

"And guess who has a special invitation to be there during the blessed event." Ares raised an eyebrow and gave an appreciating look at the woman he considered his creation. A rather traitorous one, but still beautiful. And deadly. "The point is, Dahok will still be weak and with that little present youíve got there," he nodded at the dagger, "Perhaps we can take care of father and daughter at one time."

"Whatís in it for me," she asked predictably.

"You get that annoying companion of yours back if she shows up, and revenge if she doesnít."

"And what about you," she said with a cunning smile.

"The satisfaction of kicking that bastardís ass." Ares frowned. "He actually made me, the god of war, kneel. Can you believe that?!?" Smiling, Xena tucked the hindsblood dagger back in between her breasts, drawing Ares hungry eyes for a moment. When he finally flicked them up to meet her face again she had gone stoic.

"So what do I have to do?"

 

 

The pyre was little more than a pile of reddish glowing charcoal when the Warrior Princess returned. She marched right past Joxer and the few remaining Amazons without a word. The Amazons exchanged curious glances. After a startled moment of indecision, Joxer rushed after her calling her name and waving.

She stopped at the hitching post and started rubbing down her mare vigorously. She was already done grooming and had moved on to saddling by the time her bumbling companion arrived.

"Hey Xena." he said.

"Hey," she replied, moving around to the other side of the horse to check if the pad was fitting well.

"Going someplace?"

"Maybe," she replied emotionlessly.

"Ummm...okay. Ah....ummmm...."

Xena ducked under Argoís neck again and checked the girth. Never looking at her friend she said, "Spit it out Joxer."

"Can I come," he spat out quickly.

She turned to look him in the face for the first time. "No." And with one smooth movement, she had mounted and was walking quickly out of the village.

"Xena...." Joxer said jogging to catch up, "Xena, you canít just leave me here." The Warrior Princess didnít even look down to acknowledge him. Joxer stopped dead. "Youíre going after Dahok arenít you." He paused that way for a moment until he seemed to snap out of his reverie and realize he was being left behind. "Xena wait up!" he shouted as he stumbled after her.

"Xena look," he said when he was once again level with her stirrup, "I know you think Iím a buffoon and Iíd just get in your way, but you have to let me go. She was my friend too you know." The scene was beginning to draw a crowd. That was the last thing Xena wanted at this moment. She stopped Argo abruptly.

"Listen Joxer, itís too dangerous and Iím not going to lose any more friends this week." She jerked Argoís head aside and kicked her roughly forward. The helmetless warrior jumped forward and just caught the horseís reins before she bounded away.

"Youíre not the only one who wants revenge, Xena. Iím not letting you go without me." Joxer looked up at the leather armored woman with the darkest look she had ever seen on his face. His voice had been cold and serious. He looked very determined. Well, Tartarus, she thought, maybe he will make a warrior yet. Then she kicked out with a tall leather boot and hit him right above his ear. Joxer went crashing to the earth.

"Heeeyyyyyaaaaaa!!!" Xena shouted as she slammed her heels into Argoís side and raced off into the forest. Joxer stood slowly, and more than a little unsteadily, with a hand pressed against the side of his head, and watched her go. When the echoes of her hoofbeats finally had faded into the distance he removed his hand to reveal a slow trickle of blood oozing from above his eyebrow. He was so intent on staring after the path Xena had taken, he barely realized when the now unmasked regent sidled up to him.

"Ephiny," he gulped, not quite able to believe what he was about to say, "Do you have a...horse...I could borrow."

 

 

The black robed priests and priestesses rushed back and forth hurriedly in preparation for the ceremony that evening. It was barely midday, but they were horribly understaffed. More than half their current order was out rounding up more sacrifices, human and otherwise. Xena had put them in quite a predicament by freeing all their previous captures before she left the temple. In fact, her liberation of their offerings had been the only reason they hadnít had the ceremony to restore their goddess right away.

Their surroundings did not look particularly good or evil. Neither were they noticeably dark or light. They were certainly clean, though. The priests saw to that. However, one could not enter the temple of Dahok without sensing the absolute evil emanated by the god within. Great flames roared up from a huge fire pit which acted as the focus for the entire chapel area. In front of it lay a raised part of the floor which had already been stained black with the blood of numerous sacrifices. The flames suddenly roared louder as a dark figure entered the temple.

"Leave now," said Ares to the surrounding worshipers. "Your god and I have much to discuss." All the people left quickly, save the head priest. He did not trust the arrogant god of war, nor did he respect him. His goddess had promised him powers such as he had for services rendered. Ares lifted an eyebrow threateningly. Realizing that his goddess was not there at the moment to protect him, the high priest scuttled out of the main chamber.

Ares then turned his attentions to the flames. He grudgingly lowered himself to one knee and began to address them. "I have done it. The stupid bitch fell for it. She will come to the ceremony tonight. I have posted guards at every door and window. Every person who enters, sacrifice or follower, will be searched thoroughly for weapons. One way or another, she will be found out." The flames leaped again. Ares creased his brow in thought for a moment. "Well, yes, someone will have to be armed in order to kill her. I figured that since I..."

The flames exploded outward as a general sense of menace filled the room. Ares squinted and turned his face away from the heat. Although gods did not sweat his brow appeared to be slick with moisture. Despite his loathing for the dark god, Ares had to admit that he was powerful. Powerful enough to destroy all the gods of Olympus? He wasnít sure. There was no telling what this new form of god was capable of. Obviously he didnít play by the rules of Aresí peers, he had already broken almost every rule in the Pantheonís handbook. The flames crackled loudly, demanding an answer.

"Yes," Ares said, "I will do it if I must. I will honor our...contract." Ares stood up abruptly. He was about to turn to leave when he was almost bowled over by a blast of hot air. Ares squeezed his eyes shut and pinwheeled his arms for balance. When the scorching breeze had receded Ares lifted his head to meet the gaze of the flames. He sneered evilly. "My....lord...." he forced through clenched teeth. Then, executing a swift military turn, he strode out of the temple.

 

 

Joxer was reminded once again of why he didnít like riding. He had never been able to master the smooth style of Xena where she appeared to move as one with her horse, and the violent bouncing was beginning to do a number on his balls. Joxer grimaced as he urged the horse on even faster. He didnít have anything against horses, it was merely the riding he despised. He suddenly remembered the sweet little pony he had learned the basics on. She was ancient by the time his father thought she was safe enough to pass on to his continually inept son. Her name had been Apple and she had had the bright red coat to match. Her mane and tail were like flaxen gold and her temperament was beautiful.

Joxer sighed and sat back in the saddle in an attempt to remove the pressure from his privates. Soon he found that bouncing on his buttocks was almost as bad. He was sure Ephiny had loaned him what was probably the calmest horse the Amazonís had to offer, but even still, the excessive bit chomping was beginning to set him on edge. He had always wondered what had happened to Apple. He had raced down to the stables one morning with his usual carrot for her only to find that her stall was occupied by a broken down old warhorse that was to be his new mount. She had been the daintiest animal with the softest muzzle. She had always had a habit of rubbing her muzzle against his cheek as if she were kissing him. Joxer smiled as he remembered how her long whiskers used to tickle.

That was how it had always felt when Gabrielle kissed him. Well, Joxer blushed, not really. I mean....to say that Gabrielle kissed like a horse was....well....almost sacrilegious. It was the feeling one got inside that he equated. To have someone that sweet and full of love that close to you was magical. It was an almost tangible, the feeling that someone so kind, and good, and wise actually cared about you. Not that Gabrielle had ever been in her right mind when any affection occurred. He held no foolish beliefs that she might actually care for him that way.

There were other similarities between the two, though. They were his first true loves and their hair, well, mane in one case, looked the same. The way it glowed like gold in the sunlight but turned red as the sunset at dusk. Joxer allowed himself to be carried away for a moment by visions of running his hands through Gabrielleís bright tresses and pressing her soft lips to his. He came out of his reverie as he kissed hard bark instead.

The low lying tree branch combined with the swift pace of the war steed was more than enough to send Joxer flying backwards off of his mount. Hearing something undeniably scary hit the ground loudly right behind its hooves, the horse did the only logical thing in its mind. It took off as fast as it could down the trail. Joxer lay stunned and spread eagled on the ground for several moments. When he did finally pick his head up all he saw was his steedís quickly disappearing form between his boots. He let his head fall back against the ground again with a thump.

Funny, he thought, I did that very same thing just the other day as part of a plan. Didnít hurt as much when I was prepared for it. Yeah, funny. Ha...ha. Like that night by the campfire after the Cupid incident. Absolutely hilarious. You should have been paying attention you idiot. Why were you having thoughts about her anyway?!? Sheís gone. Get over it and get on with living. Joxer squeezed his eyes shut and two small tears leaked uncontrollably out of their corners. Yes, get over it, he said to himself. You still have to catch up with Xena and then find a way into that temple. I sure hope thatís where she was going because if she wasnít youíre going to be in even hotter water than youíre already in.

Joxer stood up slowly to the tune of bones snapping back into their joints. He found that he was covered in dust from the road. He had passed a stream not too far back and decided to go wash himself off. No reason to be tired, hurt, AND dirty when he finally did catch up with Xena. He sighed and once again wished he had thought to borrow some weapons from Ephiny too. Not that he thought he was warrior enough to use them, they just would have made him feel a little safer.

He headed off the path to where he had heard the stream trickling on its way. After struggling through the underbrush for several minutes he finally pushed back a large tree limb and stood on the edge of the bank. What he saw made him stop dead in his tracks. As he was standing there frozen the tree limb he had so roughly pushed aside sprang back and gave him a much harder whap on the backside.

"Yeeaaahhhh," screamed Joxer as he flew head over heels through the air and plunged down to the edge of the water. He landed face first in the mud and right at the feet of two priests of Dahok. "Ummm......hi guys," he said uncomfortably as he stared up at them. "Nice day isnít it?" he asked. The two priests merely looked at each other with poorly concealed amusement on their faces. And then, as if one being, they bent down to lift him from the grime, and add him to their capture.

 

Part III

The raised sacrificial dagger caught the glint of the unearthly flames. The ruby eyes of the carved goatís head on the handle sparkled. It looked almost alive, grinning with a insatiable lust for blood. Suddenly, it shot down in an arc, cleanly slicing the jugular of the snow white lamb who shivered with fear on the altar. The bright flash of its movement left a light blue afterimage in the eyes of the onlooking worshippers. The lamb tried to bleat in terror, but could not. It stared up at the dark clad man with white rolling eyes, dark blood staining the purity of his silken coat.

Hot blood ran over the manís hand as he held the dagger. He grimaced in disgust and turned away. He had been through several such fine pieces of livestock so far and was becoming more and more annoyed with each one. The lamb gave a last violent shudder and toppled to the ground. Not even looking at the animal the man drew his hand back and wiped the dagger clean of blood on the black velvet coat he had worn for the occasion. The smell of the blood on his hands was sickening. Strange, he thought, this had always seemed much more fun from the perspective of the godhead.

He whipped around to bathe the high priest with one of his most menacing looks. The cloak followed like a cloud around him. He realized suddenly that he enjoyed the feel of its silken texture twirling against his knees. Perhaps he should start wearing it more often.

"Just how many more of these dumb beasts do I have to slice up today," he asked coldly. The high priest blanched. He cleared his throat and straightened his hood in an attempt to appear professional and unconcerned in front of his underlings. Beside him, a young woman with light blonde hair stared up adoringly at the dancing flames.

"No more," he replied, "Dahok is now powerful enough to accept the human sacrifices and return his daughter to this plane." Then, turning to the shadows, he clapped his hands. "Bring in the prisoners!" Unseen in the dark recesses of the temple, two guards raced off to fill the priestís request.

Good, thought Ares, at least Iím done with leading lambs to the slaughter. Killing humans is much more my style. He put on a confidant smile and leaned up against the temporary altar they had set up earlier. At his back he could feel the blistering heat of the flames which had grown noticeably hotter since the start of the sacrifices. That worried him a little. He didnít like Dahok getting too powerful. However, he didnít let his concerns show in his demeanor.

It was much darker in the temple now that the sun had gone down. It had become difficult to see the robed worshippers lined against the walls. He was not worried about them. They were easy to take care of should trouble ensue. And they were weaponless. Ares had seen to that well. He smiled again. This was going to be fun.

Twenty some prisoners were ushered into the chapel area. This took quite a bit of encouragement because they were all unbound. The priests seemed to think it made a better sacrifice if the person appeared to be going willingly. Ares just thought it was stupid. One of the prisoners seemed particularly familiar to him. Ares stared. The man looked up from his place near the back of the pack and their eyes locked. The young man quickly turned away and began to study a bestial wall sconce intently. He glanced once out of the corner of his eye at the god then looked just as quickly away. Ares refrained from shaking his head in disgust.

Then, all eyes were drawn to the dark doorway flanking the fire pit. Escorted by two high ranking priests was the main sacrifice. Robed from head to foot in red velvet, edged by black, the chosen one seemed to float across the floor towards the altar. The garments adorning the personage flowed around its body like blood. A dark veil hid its sacred face from onlookers. The chosen one had to be innocent of blood, free of any sexual corruption, and a devout follower of Dahok. Needless to say, they were a rare and revered find.

All eyes followed the figure across the room. The present fanatics fell to their knees and the prisoners were knocked roughly to the floor. Some stared up at their captors with pained expressions, the others were too enraptured with the coming spectacle to care. The flames behind the war god roared in anticipation.

Slowly, the sacrifice lowered itself to lay upon the stained altar. Obediently, it raised its arms above its head and clasped its hands together. Minor priests rushed forward to secure the chosen oneís wrists and ankles with rough hempen ropes. Ares stepped to the side of the altar and glanced dispassionately down at the sacrifice. No sex or body shape was discernible beneath the thick creases of the cloak. The skirt of the robe was spread out to cover the entire bottom of the stone slab and its edges fell loosely over the sides. Stretched out and bound tightly, the sacrifice could not even squirm. Not that it showed any desire to displease its god by being an unwilling sacrifice.

Mortals can be so dumb, thought Ares, as he carefully drew the sword stuck neatly in the sheath at his side. He glanced quickly up at the windows and wondered for the first time if Xena would be able to pull off some sort of miraculous stunt. Returning to the mission at hand he raised the smooth polished weapon above his head. Standing there, immobile, he began to address the congregation.

"Brothers and sisters in the worship of Dahok." The god of rolled his eyes briefly. "You have seen the power of our dark lord before. Close he came to ultimate domination, only to be betrayed and defeated by the likes of a common peasant girl. We cannot allow this to happen again. Dahok must be brought into the world and only the power of the sacrifice can bring him!"

The followers started a low throbbing chant in the background as Ares approached the climax of his speech. "But first, we must restore his family to the mortal plane. The return of his daughter, partner in destruction and carrier of the Destroyer, is the first step." Ares sensed a rhythmical drumbeat and the sensual movements of supple dancers behind him. "May this sacrifice of innocent, human blood give him the strength to help his offspring to reenter this domain." Ares raised the sword even higher, bringing it behind the line of his shoulders in anticipation of the swing. "Praise Dahok!" he said darkly as he pulled his lips into an unearthly sneer.

"Praise Dahok!" the overjoyed congregation shouted in chorus. The great fire leapt, throwing swirling sparks up to the ceiling. The sword came down in a viscous arc severing the sacrificeís bonds just above its clasped hands. The high priestís jaw dropped onto his chest in astonishment.

Ares whipped the sword up again and over in a larger arc which ended by cutting the chosen oneís ankle bonds. At the same time the sacrifice had sat up and, once its feet were free, leaped up in one fluid movement to stand on the edge of the stone slab. Ares stepped back, smiling in admiration, as the sacrifice ripped off the shadowy veil to reveal the smirking face of the warrior princess beneath.

Fumbling for words and jabbing his finger violently at the woman the head priest continued to remain slackjawed. Finally regaining his composure enough to speak, he turned to his guards and squealed. "Get her!!"

"Glad I didnít miss the party," Xena drawled and caught the sword which Ares tossed to her without even a glance in his direction. The attackers came at her from all sides at once. Never leaving her elevated position from the top of the altar the beautiful ex-warlord found it hard to use her sword without actually running the nearly defenseless guards through. Instead she kept the advancing horde at bay with sharp kicks of her boots from beneath the long skirt of her robe and fierce jabs with her elbow for those stupid enough to try to sneak up behind her. One man who managed to get up in front of her on the altar and make her take an unsteady step back was rewarded with a swift punch of the warriorís fingers at the base of his neck. Picking up the paralyzed man and tossing him into his gathered fellows, Xena set herself to do some serious fighting. So engrossed was she in her work, she never noticed what was going on elsewhere in the temple.

 

Joxer watched the ensuing carnage in awe. He couldnít believe Xena had found a way into the temple. He himself had been searched thoroughly before he was allowed to enter and he had seen fierce looking guards posted at every entrance. He had found it hard to believe that the followers of Dahok would fall for the same trick twice with him, not that he considered his accident a Ďplaní in any way. But, Xena had done him one better. Not that that wasnít to be expected.

He watched captivated as Xena dispatched her opponents one by one. She seemed deep in concentration, with her eyebrows puckered into a dark ĎVí. But it was not from her devilish visage that his fellow prisoners were cringing. A little off to Xenaís right and behind her an entirely different battle was being waged. And it was, believe it or not, even more fascinating to observe than the warrior princess in full battle rage.

The dark god of war, black cloak billowing back from the hot wind that engulfed him, had fallen to his knees in front of the roaring inferno. Fists clenched in anger on either side of his head, he crouched with his mouth frozen open in a silent scream. Orange shots of flaming lightning linked him with the bright blaze of Dahok. Bright red ropes of fire entwined themselves about his body and twisted vine-like up his arms. Sparks flew back and forth between his face and hands and the rest of his body. All over, underneath the whips of flame, he glowed in an unearthly blue light.

At the same time, the flames of Dahok appeared to bulge outward and take on shape. Vague facial features could be seen to writhe within the depths of the inferno. Ghostly, elongated eyes and mouth appeared briefly to be replaced by what appeared to be fiery wisps of golden hair. And, then again, the face appeared. Dark holes stood where the portals of the soul and the mouth, a gaping black scream of fury, should be. Joxer blanched in fearful recognition.

Soon, the flames took on a seductive, womanly shape. In the random flickering of the fire, short glimpses of the goddess within could be seen. A soft breast teased by flame, the curve of a rounded hip, the point of a modestly raised knee. The guards surrounding Xena stopped in their tracks and began to pay attention. Another, less substantial form began to take shape behind the writhing goddess. Joxer didnít even dare to hope what it might portend.

Suddenly noticing the lack of purposeful adversaries, Xena shot a look to her left. Her eyes widened in astonishment at the scene presented to her. The almost completely formed figure of Hope floated still within the flames several feet off the ground. The high priests and the girl called Seraphin knelt enraptured at the base of the column of fire. Ares, still crouched painfully on the flagstone floor, seemed to be fighting a losing battle against the god of darkness who was sapping his strength. She did not miss the partially formed silhouette behind the evil goddess, but neither did she pay it any heed.

All heads turned from the fire as Ares was consumed in an explosion of raw energy. Blue streaks of power broke forth from the hunched god as he stood and shook free of his flaming bonds. A great booming noise echoed throughout the chapel and mixed with the godís inhuman cry. When the sparks had cleared he stood staring daggers at the shifting form within the pyre. He breathed heavily through clenched teeth, shoulders heaving with the strain of his recent effort.

With a roar he ripped a sleek round object from its hiding place beneath his cloak and whipped it into the flames. It passed straight through the partially formed female and bounced off a column behind the fire pit with a metallic ring. The chakram bounced off at an angle and hit the gargoyle wall sconce near the kneeling prisoners, throwing off blue sparks and chipping off the demonís stone ear. It changed direction dramatically once again, flying over the ducked heads of most of the attacking guards and straight into the waiting hands of the warrior princess. Xena grinned at the chakram with a satisfied smile.

Ares fell to the floor, again engulfed in fetters of bright orange lightning. Balls of flame and live wires of fire began to shoot out from the main blaze to every corner of the temple. Worshippers dove for their lives as a burning projectile exploded at their feet. Priests and prisoners alike took cover as even Xena was forced to flee from her perch on the altar. With one mighty shove of her powerfully muscled legs she flipped forward, calling her characteristic war cry, just as the fire pit detonated outward behind her. Turning three complete somersaults in the air, she landed firmly on her feet at the completely opposite end of the room. She turned slowly to observe the carnage wrought by the quickly dissipating flames.

 

Fire outlined the two forms beside the altar. One stood with her chin lowered almost to her chest and a clearly malevolent look in her eyes. The other lay stretched out on the cold floor. Eyes closed and breathing in rough gasps, she seemed barely able to keep her head raised from the floor by her elbows. Tendrils of steam seemed to curl upwards from their smoothly naked bodies. The fire glowed in reflection of their mutually golden hair. Aside from their bodily positions, it was impossible to tell the two apart.

The first took a step forward. She seemed to take no notice of her rather inconvenient lack of clothes. The evil she exuded from her pores was enough to keep anyone from thinking of touching her. "So," she rasped, "The unconquerable warrior princess returns." "Funny," she continued, "I thought that someone was to take care of you for me." With this she shot the exhausted and still smoking Ares a look of pure hatred. From his position on the ground Ares returned a glance in her direction. Hopeís eyebrows pinched together with her concentration. Ares howled and rolled away, racked by powerful spasms.

"Come to kill me again Xena?" Hope turned and locked stares with the dark warrior. "Once wasnít enough?" "Or perhaps," she smiled coolly, turning herself back towards the still prostrate form behind her, "You came to rescue your precious little friend." With this the prone figure opened its eyes and turned their sylvan depths to gaze forlornly at her friend. "Perhaps we can strike a deal." Gabrielle turned her head up sharply to meet the stare of the demon goddess.

"I might be willing to trade her life for yours Xena," she said, "What do you say to that.....Mother." She spat the last word out as if it were poison. Gabrielleís face took on a horrified expression.

"No, Xena! No, you canít. Donít do it!" She scrambled to a squatting position, trying her hardest to hide both her weakness and her nakedness. Hope leaned in closer. Gabrielle disappeared into her shadow. "Xena!" she cried helplessly. At the sound of Gabrielleís voice a lone pair of eyes peaked up from behind a toppled wooden table. Hope laughed maniacally. She tossed her head and shoulders back in elation at the sound of uncontrollable fear in her motherís voice.

Suddenly, Hope screamed in pain and fury, as Xenaís chakram grazed over her shoulder blades and cut through her silken skin. Her cry was echoed by the girl Seraphin who, still kneeling obediently by the fading fire, toppled forward reaching behind herself for the wounds that were not there. Hope turned around at the sound of her cry and stared at the painfully writhing woman.

"Gabrielle! Catch!" shouted the warrior woman as she tossed something small in the stricken bardís direction. The object clattered to the floor and slid past Gabrielle. The bard jumped to retrieve it just as the evil goddess was looking back.

"Mother......" Hope started. She stopped when Gabrielle, now in possession of the Hindís Blood dagger, whirled on her. Waving the weapon dangerously in front of herself, Gabrielle advanced on the abomination that had once been her daughter. "Mother," Hope lectured in a monotone, "Arenít you a little bit out of you league here?" Gabrielle lunged at Hope, imbedding the dagger firmly in her breast. Hope stepped back. And then, cocking her head curiously to one side, smiled.

Gabrielle fell back into the altar. "No," she said, tripping over the stone set up. Putting it between herself and the now enraged goddess, she ran backwards several more feet. "No, it canít be." Tripping again over a rough patch on the stone floor she fell heavily down. Her backside hit the ground painfully at the same time her head smacked against the brick wall behind her. Hope laughed.

"Foolish mother," she hissed as she slowly approached the bard, thoughts of murder apparent in her every step. "I am not one of your gods. No sniveling member of your tiresome pantheon." She calmly slid the dagger, bloodlessly, from her chest. It came to rest comfortably in her palm. "Why ever would I play by their rules!" The dagger was suddenly flying. It cut through the air and embedded itself in a wooden support next to Gabrielleís head. Hope screamed in rage at her miscalculation.

"Gabrielle!" shouted Xena, and was echoed by Joxer from his hiding place behind the table. Both rushed to help their frozen friend. Hope turned on Xena and concentrated her will in the dark warriorís direction. Xena flew back across the room from where she had come and slammed against the wall several feet off the ground. She slid downwards and landed with a hard bump on the stones beneath. Shaking her head as if to clear it, she clambered to her feet. Holding her sword threateningly before her she advanced on the evil goddess. One side of her mouth quirked up in a self-assured smile.

 

While Hope was busy with Xena, Joxer had managed to reach Gabrielleís side. Staring terrified at the battle unfolding before her, she gave no indication that she had noticed his approach. When he touched her shoulder lightly and called her name with a concerned voice she tore her eyes away. For a moment their eyes met. Joxer turned bright red, a fact which was only enhanced by the still raging fire which filled one side of the room. Gabrielle looked at him curiously, and then looked down. With a gasp she rolled herself into a ball. "Do something," she yelled at him despairingly.

Joxer glanced over his shoulder. Xena had made some progress in the hopeless struggle against the dark goddess. Half a room closer to where Hope stood, she dodged shots of red lightning and bolts of pure energy which flew from her aggressorís hands. As he watched she dived into a roll just as bright flames scorched the piece of floor where she had stood milliseconds before. Coming out of the maneuver steadily on her feet she found herself only several steps away from the object of her destruction. Then she was knocked roughly to the side as an unseen blow caught her in the chest. Ares was no where to be seen.

Joxer hung his head. He knew there was nothing he, a weaponless warrior wannabe, could do to help the Warrior Princess. Iím likely to get her killed if I try anything, he thought. Better to stay here and do what I can to help Gabrielle. He looked up into her sad green eyes. Reaching across her he gripped the handle of the imbedded dagger and pulled. Nothing happened. He pulled again harder shaking the handle up and down in an attempt to loosen itís hold on the wood. Still the weapon would not budge. Gripping it now firmly with both sweaty palms and levering his feet against the wall he yanked as hard as he could. The dagger finally came loose and both Joxer and his newly acquired weapon went sliding backwards across the slick floor.

 

Battered and bleeding in several places, the warrioress fought on. She knew that her right arm had been dislocated during one of her desperate dives for cover. Something that happened fairly frequently with that arm. It didnít bother her so much, she knew she could put that right again easily. However, she didnít exactly have time for that at the moment. She knew she could not kill Hope. Her one plan had been exhausted. She had never expected the Hindís Blood dagger would have no effect. Stupid, she thought, Dahok is a new god. He has no reason to follow the others. Once again, you should have realized what was going to happen. And, once again, youíre going to pay for it.

Xenaís sword slashed wildly through the air striking a lucky blow on the goddessís left shoulder. The Warrior Princess could not savor her small victory, though. She could already see the injured skin curling back to close the wound. She was forced once again into a flying leap by a bolt of fiery power from Hopeís fingertips. This time, however, she somersaulted over the demon girlís head. Her war cry echoed throughout the temple. She landed behind the goddess, facing away. Whipping around she caught the goddess a surprised blow, shoving her sword through her back until its smooth metal surface protruded from her front.

The girl Seraphin gave a agonized cry and stumbled as best she could to the light skinned form huddled against the wall. Xena removed her sword from its unconventional sheath with a yank. She raised it to be plunged viscously back in again. Her face set in a mask of fury she jabbed it downwards, only to have it grabbed by the bare hand of the evil woman who had whirled to meet her. Xena shoved harder hoping to slip past the grasp of this demon with the face of the person she loved most in all the world. Hope smiled hatefully and tightened her grip. If the blade cut deep into her palm, she showed no signs of feeling it.

"I have tasted the soul of your son," she whispered, leaning a little closer to the dark warriorís heaving chest. "Would you like to know what it was like?" she asked in a confidential tone. Xena face hardened and her eyelids narrowed. Shoving the sword back until the grip knocked Xena hard beneath her chin, Hope laughed. Stumbling back a step, Xena regained her composure and lunged for the dark goddess again.

 

"Youíve got to stop her," Seraphin wailed as she half stumbled, half crawled her way towards the pair. She fell to her knees at the bardís feet. Cradling one hand against her chest she reached out with the other to implore them. Joxer backed up a step from his crouched position at her approach but did not lower the dagger he held before him. He stared curiously at the girl who seemed so afflicted by imaginary wounds. Suddenly, his eyes widened as he made a connection. "Gabrielle please! Youíre the only one Xena will listen to," she begged, tears coursing down her dirt streaked face. "Youíre her mother.....donít you feel anything for her?!!"

Gabrielle had opened her mouth to answer, when behind the sobbing girl, Xena managed another lucky blow. This time on Hopeís conspicuously exposed thigh. Seraphin whimpered and wrapped a tired arm around her leg. Xenaís sword was knocked from her in a bright flash of crackling red fire. Knocked to her knees, the Warrior Princess looked up to meet what she knew to be her end with a defiant sneer. "Gabrielle..." Seraphin whispered painfully, "Help her....help...me." She leaned forward and reached out her hand to touch her childhood friend on her bared knee, only to be met by Joxerís diving form as he drove the dagger smoothly into her heart.

 

 

The anguished screams were simultaneous. The agonized whimper of the blonde haired girl meshed perfectly with the piercing harpy screech of the dark goddess. The young girl turned her stricken face up to meet her aggressorís and grabbed uselessly at the cold handle protruding from her chest. Her already bloodstained hands pressed against Joxerís as he still held tight to the dagger. At the feel of her touch he ripped his hands away. Holding his dripping appendages out from him, he found himself unable to tear his eyes from the girl in front of him.

"No!" shouted Gabrielle as she reached out a hand to grasp her old friend by the shoulder. If Seraphin sensed her touch she gave no indication of it. She merely stared blankly into space, her hands falling limply away from the weapon embedded within her chest. Slick with sweat, she slipped from the bardís tentative hold. As she leaned heavily to the side, she cleared the way for of view of the scene going on at the altar behind her. The goddess stood, hands raised above her head and her mouth a cave of shrieks. Flames engulfed her entire body. Her hair was lit up like a torch. In front of her the Warrior Princess half kneeled with an arm in front of her face to protect herself from the scorching heat of the flames.

Seraphinís body hit the ground with a low thud, and the screaming stopped. The goddess had disappeared in a wisp of smoke. "No," Gabrielle whispered. She reached out and gently grazed her friendís motionless form with the back of one finger. Joxer stood up and stepped unsteadily back. His eyes were glued to the two bloodstained palms he held out before him. Still staring, he took another step back and was almost sick when he felt cold tendrils of blood dripping their way down his forearms.

A small animal cry made him rip his eyes away and glance down at the crouched figure on the ground. Gabrielle gazed at him with a look of horror plastered across her face. Naked and shivering she looked back at him over her shoulder from where she clasped the quickly cooling form of her lost playmate. Her disheveled hair dipped into her eyes. The deep glow of the fire turned the errant tendrils as red as blood, making her soft face appear as stained as his own hands.

"Oh gods...." Joxer moaned. "Gods...what have I done." He fell to his knees. They cracked hard against the cold stone floor. If Joxer felt any pain, though, it didnít register upon his face in any way. He didnít even look up when the Warrior Princess placed a gently understanding hand upon his shoulder.

 

 

Epilogue

The young bard pulled the black temple rope closer against her body to shield herself from the chilly night air. As high as Xena had built it, the campfire she faced seemed to give off no warmth. She clamped her mouth shut to keep her teeth from clattering, causing her jaw to stick out in a forceful manner. Suddenly she felt a flush of warmth cover her body.

"Hey," said Xena affectionately as she tucked the blanket she had just dropped over her partner about her shoulders. "A little cold?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle replied, giving off a weak smile. "Guess I should be glad for it after all that heat in the...in the temple." Gabrielle shivered, but not from the cold this time. Xena put a heavy arm around her friend. "Guess weíre even now," the bard continued, "You came back from the dead once for me and I...." Here the bard left off.

"Yeah," Xena finished. "Now, donít you ever go and do that again because then Iíll have to die again to keep us even and Iím really not up for that any time soon," The pair broke off into soft girlish laughter that made their male companion glance up from his spot on the other side of the fire. He looked just as quickly down as Xenaís eyes met his. Her face went sober again almost immediately. Gabrielle too had noticed the exchange and turning her face lightly away from the fire, picked up a stick and began to draw errant patterns in the dust.

"Be right back, okay?" Xena pledged, patting her partner twice firmly on the back. She stood up languorously and ambled off into the shadows beyond the campfire. The campís two remaining occupants glanced surreptitiously up at one another at the same time and then, just as swiftly, both turned away.

 

 

Xena entered the clearing and stood with her arms crossed. Moonlight sparkled off the dewy grass and shimmered like dark gemstones in her ebony hair. The slightest smirk crossed her face. "You had me worried there for a minute," she growled emotionlessly.

A chuckle echoed through the air surrounding her as the velvety darkness was pierced suddenly by a bright blue flash. Blue sparks fell like meteors to the damp ground below. "Iím flattered," said the now fully tangible god, "That the Warrior Princess would take time out to worry for my well being."

"I meant I was worried that you really were going to kill me in that temple." Ares gave a short laugh.

"Well, I can always count on you to be blunt," he countered, "Annoyingly so."

"All right Ares," Xena said, rolling her eyes, "What are you here for." The godís countenance darkened suddenly. He crossed his arms and looked down at his boots. Then, without meeting the dark womanís eye he lifted his head and gazed up at the heavens. Bright stars were just beginning to peek through the inky blackness.

"I came to thank you, Xena." He lowered his eyes to meet hers. Tilting his head to one side and holding out one hand helplessly, in a gesture that suggested this was not something he did regularly (if ever since the beginning of eternity), he opened his mouth. Then closed it. Opened it again, only to close it with a concerned wrinkling of his brow. And finally, he continued. "Thank you," he said simply.

"For what?" Xena asked, one eyebrow raised in question.

"For trusting me....back there....in the temple."

"Thatís it?" Xena said incredulously.

"And...." Ares paused, "For not killing me when you had the chance." For a moment the duo stood staring at each other. They each had an equal mixture of arrogance and confusion in their faces. For the first time since they had really met they took a long good look at one another.

"Well," declaimed the Warrior Princess, "I suppose that will have to do."

"We did make a good team, though," mentioned Ares as Xena began to turn away. "Again..." Xena stopped. Without moving her body she turned her head aside.

"Yeah," she drawled, "What of it?"

"Oh, just...nothing." Xena continued on her way back to the camp. "Oh, by the way..." This time Xena turned all the way around. One hand on her hip she faced the dark god. Her face was blank, but her sapphire eyes gleamed mischievously in the moonlight. "You wouldnít happen to know where a certain Hindís Blood Dagger has disappeared to, would you?" Ares asked.

Even in the full light of the moon it was difficult to see the thin line of Xenaís mouth straighten into a slow smile. "Not a clue," she said. And, without a further word to the god of war, she turned on her heel and continued on her way back into the forest. Ares chuckled once contentedly, shaking his whole body with it. Then, shaking his head, he disappeared in a parting flash of blue light.

 

 

The stick scratched loudly into the earth. Gabrielle bent fully over her work, her golden hair barely skimming the ground. She had intended it to be a beautiful landscape, a tree with mountains in the background. No matter how she looked at it, though, it merely appeared to be pointless scrapes in the dust. Finally she had given up and set herself to rubbing out her failed masterpiece. So intent was she upon her mindless task that she had dug a hole several inches deep where the sorry excuse for a tree had once stood. The moon slipped silently behind a cloud, shrouding the campsite in shadows.

Finally, with a sigh, she sat back and tossed the stick thoughtlessly into the fire. Clasping her knees to her chest she stared into the cold flames. Behind them she could see Joxer, still silently sitting on his own side of the fire...watching her. When he noticed her looking at him he turned away and started arranging his blankets for sleeping. He hadnít said a word to either of them since they left the temple, and he gave no indication that he had any intention of doing so.

With another light sigh Gabrielle got up and moved over to his side of the camp. She stood behind his kneeling form and watched him fumble with his sleeping furs for a moment. He was shivering too, she noticed. And then for the first time she realized that Joxer wasnít wearing his armor. I wonder what happened to it, she thought. He probably lost it somewhere. Itís strange seeing him without his familiar helmet. Without he doesnít look like quite such a fool. He looks like...a normal guy.

"Hey," she said, "Need some help there." Joxer shoulders straightened quickly at the sound of her voice.

"No, I think Iíve got it covered here," he answered tugging uselessly at one of the blankets.

"Thatís not what I meant," she said. Gabrielle kneeled down beside him and put one hand lightly upon his shoulder. Even though she was looking right at him, it was dark turned away from the fire like they were and she didnít she him shut his eyes painfully. Nor did she feel the sharp intake of breath as she touched him.

"Look," she said, "I know how I felt when I...when I first killed ." Joxer looked at her, startled. "Her name was Meridian...I didnít mean to kill her...I hated myself for it anyway...." Here the bard paused, as if the telling of the memory brought it back to her in full force. Joxer pinched his eyebrows in concern. He fumbled onto the first thing he could think of in an attempt to change the subject.

"That girl...Seraphin, or whatever...she was your...friend?" Only an instant afterwards did he think how much his words must hurt her, and he almost kicked himself for it.

"Yes," said Gabrielle, closing her eyes. "Iím going to miss her." Joxer hung his head. Great, he thought, now Iíll never have a chance with her. Not that I ever did before.

"But," she continued, "I want you to know that I know you did the right thing. She wasnít even really Seraphin anymore, not the one I knew anyway. She had become just another one of Dahokís pawns. What I mean to say is...I donít blame you for killing my friend. I just feel bad that you had to lose your...your blood innocence." And that it was my fault...again, she thought, but said nothing.

"It doesnít matter," Joxer said emotionlessly. Gabrielle looked up at her friend in surprise. It was not what he had said, but the conviction with which he had said it that puzzled her. The moon peaked out from itís hiding place and for a moment she saw Joxerís face firmly outlined by its silver beams. His jaw had a set to it she had never seen before and his eyes had a cold gleam that disturbed her. He looked more determined and sure of himself than he ever had before.

"W-what?" she managed to stutter out.

"It doesnít matter what I did," Joxer stated stoically. And just as suddenly as it appeared, Joxerís sturdy visage melted into the night like the misty ghosts of their breath in the cool night air. Gabrielle would have been hard pressed to explain what exactly about his look had changed, for he certainly didnít move. A softening about the eyes perhaps. Or maybe the almost imperceptible return of the little creases at the sides of his mouth which gave him that perpetual goofy grin. But, whatever the change was, he was suddenly just Joxer, all over again. "Just as long as youíre back," he finished.

The two remained there montionless and silent for a long time afterwards, completely unaware of the dark form watching them from the shadows. Xena waited patiently, braced comfortably against a tree trunk. She was loathe to break the peacefulness of the camp with the clatter of even her stealthy approach. Not willing to shake either of them from their private reveries. She knew that both her bard and their ungainly friend had wounds that would take much longer than a single evening to heal. And they werenít the type that can be fixed with a needle or bandage, those she knew how to work with. She hoped they would help to heal each other.

Besides, she had her own thoughts to ponder. What Joxer said had been right. It didnít matter what he did, or what any of them had done, or if there was a legitimate reason for their actions. What mattered was that they were together...again...to work through whatever the consequences of those actions were in the future. Together...

The world, she thought, is made up of two kinds of people; those that are alone, and those that are together. She had been alone in her past, no matter how many liegemen she had surrounding her. No matter how many lovers or partners stood at her side. She was alone because she had never really had a friend. And, once she had found one (or in actuality, a friend had found her) she realized the difference between those that were together...and those that were not. And she never wanted to go back to being not.

Together...yes, youíre right Joxer...in the end thatís all that matters...that youíre not alone. With a wistful smile she leaned her head back and gazed into the heavens. Above their heads the stars turned upon their familiar paths, as they would for a thousand years to come.


The End


If you liked this story or would like to make a comment please e-mail me at rdiener@umich.edu. If you hated the story then why in Tartarus did you read all the way through to here?


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