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Blackness. Pure dark blackness. Xena blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to adjust to the darkness around her. She lifted her hands and tried to find something to grasp to. She felt an arm.
"Xena?", she heard Hercules whisper.
"Right here," she answered back, "can you see anything?"
Hercules pulled his arm up to grasp Xenaís hand. A shuffling could be heard around them. Xena snapped her hand away from herself in a fighting stance. She heard a movement behind her. She cocked her head and spun around in a high kick. She heard a groan and grinned. More sounds filled the stale air. She let her senses take over. She reached over and hit someone on the head while yelling a short battle cry.
"Hey! Save your strength for your foes, will ya?!", Hercules yelled above the battle.
Xena smiled nervously and mouthed an "oops".
To the two, the battle raged on forever. All of a sudden, FLASH, sunlight hit the room. Hercules and Xena froze in a few seconds of shock. The enemy took the chance to punch a few extra punches before they were thrown across the room. Soon Xena and Hercules adjusted to the light. They fought even more bravely. The punches were harder, the kicks were firmer, and the special moves...well, letís just say they didnít fail.
In the midst of the battle, Hercules spotted something in the distance. A door. His conscience screamed at him to get through the door. He shouted to Xena to fight toward the door. He watched Xena nod and flip up to walk across a row of heads. Hercules shook his head. Some people are just too good.
It took forever to get close to the door. Xena and Hercules raced out of it. They found themselves in an inn.
"Wait a minute...", Xena murmured, "Mother?"
A woman turned around, smiled, but then frowned. "Xena, what happened to you?!"
Xena realized the pain in her bones and muscles. She smiled to her mother.
"Itís alright, Mother," Xena reassured her mother, "I need some bandages, warm water, and some cobwebs. Please."
Her mother hurried to get the necessities. Xena turned to look at Hercules.
His face was battered, blood covered it, though it wasnít all his. Xena grinned lopsidedly.
"Hey, howís your head?"
Hercules grinned back.
"I donít know, you tell me."
Xenaís mother came back with her arms full of bandages. Xena graciously took the things and beckoned to Hercules to follow her upstairs to the rooms. Xena bandaged the wounds and the cuts on both of them, because, well...Hercules isnít exactly good at the medical stuff.
* * * * *
Gabrielle groaned and struggled to sit up. She looked around her, spotted
Iolaus leaning against a tree, and spoke.
"Ow...my back hurts...", she mumbled.
"Same here," Iolaus replied as he threw rocks against an opposite tree.
"I wonder how many stones we slept on," Gabrielle spoke after a moment of silence, attempting to lighten the mood.
Iolaus glanced at Gabrielle and broke into giggles. Their laughter rang through the dense forest. Soon, creatures of the tribe appeared from their little huts. None of them bothered to spare an extra glance at the two humans, except for Nakio, who guided them through the day. As he reminded
Gabrielle and Iolaus that there were only two times that the tribe stops working and eat, Iolaus grinned like an idiot.
"Splendid, we are stuck on some planet, with a bunch of odd creatures, and we get to have two meals per day," Iolaus muttered sarcastically, "just wonderful."
Gabrielle walked thoughtfully behind Iolaus, not wanting to anger him more.
Xena...hurry, please...please... Xena jolted up from the bed, heart pounding, thoughts whirling. "Gabrielle," she spoke the name soundlessly. She sighed and wiped the sweat off her brow. She turned to wake Hercules laying beside her.
"Hercules? Come on, I gotta tell what to do in the mental stage."
Hercules blinked rapidly to shake off sleep. He sat up and waited for Xena to continue.
"Like Ares said," Xena bit out his name with anger, "I know what to do. You have to use your mind and not your physical strength. If you fight the illusions, cause that what they are, with your muscles, then you lose. Use your mind to block them out. Donít let ANYTHING get to you. Got it?"
"Yeah, I guess, but what if..." Hercules started to ask.
Screams could be heard downstairs. Xena hopped off the bed and sprang out the door in a bleen (I mean blink, sorry Lieutenant Jacqueís influence.) of an eye. Hercules followed. He nearly ran into Xena, who did not move. Her eyes glued to something downstairs. The dark blue pools widened. Hercules followed her dumbfounded gaze and choked. Every single body was dismembered and that included Xenaís mother.
Now it was Herculesís turn to look dumbly at Xena.
Xena flung her head upwards and yelled, "Nice try Ares! Real nice!"
Hercules understood, looks like the mental stage has begun...
* * * * *
"Gabrielle? Iolaus? Come and help us collect food, please!" Nakio shouted telepathically to Iolaus and Gabrielle.
Iolaus and Gabrielle jogged up to Nakio and asked what they were looking for. Nakio told them to find a kind of plant called stepada. He held one up for Gabrielle and Iolaus to see. It had the shade of the sky and it looked like an eggplant. They nodded and went off to find more stepadas. Gabrielle spotted a couple, scooted them up, and put them in a well woven basket. Her eyes led to another, in the middle of a field. She strode over and bent to pick it up. Excruciating pain shot up her hand. She gasped painfully.
Iolaus came running over to examine the wound. It was nothing big, but it did hurt a lot. Nakio had also scrambled over to see. He shook his fuzzy body.
"Iím sorry, I should have told you. There is something that also looks like a stepada but is actually what youíd call a parasite. The difference between them is that the parasite has light yellow dots over itself and the stepada does not. The wound should heal in a few days or so," Nakio explained.
"Sorry?! Gabrielle got hurt and all you can offer is a sorry?!" Iolaus turned to look at Nakio, "Well Iíll tell you something..." "Iolaus! Itís nothing, really. Nakio, itís alright. Can you leave Iolaus and I alone for a while?" Gabrielle quickly interrupted.
"Yes, of course," Nakio silently scrambled back into the forest.
Gabrielle waited until she couldnít see his body anymore and began to talk to Iolaus.
"Iolaus, itís just a while. Live with the guy, please. Iím sure Hercules and Xena will figure something out soon. Theyíre probably just on a detour. Just calm down, Iím really alright, besides, Iíve gotten worse cuts before."
Iolaus nodded in shame. "Youíre right, I acted foolishly, but really, who can stand this?"
"You ready?" Xena asked.
Hercules nodded grimly. OK...let's get this over with... The two quickly descended the stairs. By the time they got to the last step, all the bodies had disappeared and in a flash, they were in a totally different environment.
A brick wall appeared between Hercules and Xena. It had separated the two. Xena glanced at the wall for a brief moment before turning away. "Come out, come out wherever you are..." Xena muttered mostly to herself.
"Xena...Xena...Remember me?" a silvery voice rang out behind her. Xena snapped around.
Callisto grinned with that I-love-you-so-I'll-kill-you-right-now look. Xena swallowed, took a deep breath and shut her eyes tight. This is NOT Callisto...This is NOT her...she repeated in her mind over and over again. "You are NOT Callisto," Xena yelled out loud.
She opened her eyes slowly. The "image" of Callisto was gone. Xena grinned lopsidedly. She took the time to make note of her surroundings. At least I'm wearing MY clothes, Xena noticed remembering her last time in a situation like this. She glanced around herself while moving in a forward direction.
To her right, a red brick wall, extended from the one that had separated herself and Hercules that reached the heavens. To her left was an enormous wheat field with pine trees on the horizon line. The sky was blue, but from the direction of the trees, a mass field of gray clouds was moving slowly. A thunderstorm, splendid, wonderful, Xena rolled her eyes. She moved quickly, looking warily ahead and behind herself. She stuck close to the wall.
* * * * *
The wall had separated them. Hercules had figured the gods would not let them be around each other to help in this one. He sighed and glanced behind him out of the corner of his eyes. Huge mountains rose behind him, their height, he estimated, could top Mount Olympus. A river that ran parallel to Hercules glistened softly in the dull sunlight. No sounds. Except... Deep growls could be heard from behind him. He turned and what does he find? A nine-headed hydra. Hercules sighed again. "Look, I'm a friend of your dad and your mom, so please, back off. I don't have the time for this and I REALLY don't want to kill you," Hercules tried talking.
One of the heads bent towards him and then, the others followed. Each showing their vicious teeth and putting out an unbearable stench. "Whew...don't you ever brush your teeth?" Hercules murmured, "OK...time for Plan B..."
Then he thought about Xena and it clicked. He shook loose and closed his eyes, hoping that this will work. He concentrated on shutting out the hydra and looking towards his goal. He was concentrating so hard that he did not realize that the growls had stopped. Once again, silence filled the air. Hercules shrugged and strode onward.
* * * * *
Xena was angry, very angry. No matter how hard she tried, she could not use her mind to kill the image because the image was not like any she had met before. She had already gone past Atlanta, who tried to beat the living crap out of her, Marcus who gave this heart-wrenching speech, and Lyceus who just literally made Xena cry and now...
"Xena! Help! Get me out of this!" Gabrielle shrieked.
Xena shook her head, trying to make it all disappear. Gabrielle...or the "image" of Gabrielle was chained to the brick wall. An invisible hand held a visible whip which beat on Gabrielle's slender figure, making deep red gashes. Xena was desperately trying to stop it and give her mind a rest, but she could not get it out of her mind. It was driving her insane. I quit, I quit, the warrior set her jaw and stalked past Gabrielle. The moment Gabrielle was out of her sight, the screaming stopped. Xena's shoulders drooped in relief before straightening herself up again and jogging forward. She hoped that this will be over soon. Three figures...shadowy but familiar figures. One woman and three children.
Uh oh...Hercules thought as he squinted to the far distance. A dark mist seemed to surround them, but the way they walked...too familiar. Oh no...Hercules stopped right where he stood, his eyes wide at the four people coming his way. One ran towards him in a bouncy fashion.
"Daddy!" a happy, girlish voice cried out.
"Ilea..." Hercules decided that his family shouldn't be too much trouble.
He bent down and picked up tiny Ilea.
"Dad! Dad!" Hercules's other two children ran up to him. He hugged them, tightly, trying to stop the tears that were forming.
"Hercules?" a silvery woman's voice rang out.
Hercules looked up. "Deianeira."
Deianeira literally jumped into Hercules's arms, laughing with joy. The kids began to talk at the same time, so happy were they. Hercules and Deianeira were just hanging around, kissing and hugging their hearts out.
Then something turned the happy mood around...
"Hercules?" another silvery but firm voice called out across from Hercules. Hercules's smile faded as he turned to look at the person which possessed the voice. His jaw dropped in shock, disbelief, and a little horror. His mouth formed the name, Serena. Mount Olympus, we have a problem, he thought desperately.
Deianeira knew her well. She still hung on to Hercules while staring openly at Serena. The children looked at Serena and then back to their parents.
"Daddy, is this my other mommy?" Hercules heard her daughter ask.
Oh great, I'm stuck in the worst position ever. Hercules sighed. I should have known it'd come to this... Hercules cleared his throat. As if it was a hint, Deianeira dropped her arms weakly to her sides. Hercules turned and gave his wife a apologetic smile before striding towards Serena. It took a while before Hercules returned with the smiling and beautiful Serena.
Deianeira smiled to Serena with the best smile she could muster before her face contorted into sadness. Luckily, Serena wasn't looking at her right then, but instead at the children. Hercules caught the face and his own crumpled instantly. Trouble wasn't the word. He sighed again and closed his eyes. This has been his hardest one ever. He trembled under the stress that he felt. Voices cried and called to him.
He opened his eyes for a moment. First, he saw his family die from Hera's fireball. Then, he sees himself killing Serena. The images glued themselves to his memory. He nearly fell with agony, hatred, and sorrow. Bad combination.
Before he knew it, he was in Xena's mother's busy kitchen.
"Well, young man," Xena's mother peered at him from the corner of her eyes, "looks like your wounds healed."
People went in and out before Hercules could even recover from his shock.
Hercules whirled around, expecting to see Deianeira or Serena, but instead, it was Xena. She was calm. Calm and beautiful.
"Calm yourself," Xena spoke gently as she led Hercules to the nearest bench, "You're done. We're done. We passed the second level. Nicely done."
Hercules still wasn't sure if this was still a test or not. He cocked his head. His expression was still stone.
Xena smiled. "Hercules, don't worry. It's me...y'know," Xena gestured towards herself and the room, "look, I had the same feeling when I came back, which wasn't too long ago. I figured, hey, if we were still in the level, the gods wouldn't give us this, now would they?"
Xena took out what looked like a little road sign. On it, in Greek, it said: This is a clue sign. You have passed the level. Good luck on the next one.
"My mother gave it to me when I walked in. She said some guy wearing a big sword came in, gave it to her, and told her to give it to me," Xena continued, "I figured it was Ares."
Hercules began to relax slowly. He made sure his guard was still up. He tried to trust and listen to Xena, but something kept nagging his mind. He shook his head, trying to clear the images away.
"What is it?" Xena asked worriedly.
Hercules sighed and nodded toward upstairs. Xena glanced around the room and took note of all the people that surrounded them. She smiled and strode up the stairs. Hercules followed silently, still trying desperately to make sense out of all of this. He decided to wait until he got this out of his mind.
Once they were upstairs, and all was quiet, Xena sat opposite of him waiting for an answer.
"I met my family again," he began, "and...Serena."
It only took Xena a second to understand what he was talking about. She nodded quietly. She did not encounter anything like that in her level, though she knew it must have been hell. She looked at him, her expression soft.
"Look, we only have one more level to go, even though it is the hardest..." Xena spoke to Hercules, "but I'm sure we'll make it."
"Yeah," Hercules responded quietly.
Daylight spilled into the room. Xena awoke and blinked away sleep. She yawned loudly and looked around the room. Hercules was no where in sight. She quickly got out of bed and dressed. Just as she was clipping on her chakram, Hercules burst through the door.
"Glad youíre ready Xena," Hercules began breathlessly, "Look what I found."
He handed her a package wrapped in silk. Inside was another one of the clue signs. It read: Both shall enter a world of civilization through the steel-blocked door, but beware, they are not what they seem.
"Whoís they?" Xena asked.
Hercules shrugged. Xena gave Hercules back the sign and strode out the door.
"Looks like weíre going to have to figure it out ourselves," Hercules muttered as he followed.
Outside, the sun was still low in the clear blue sky. Not a cloud in sight. The people of Amphipolis began re-establishing their little outdoor shops. The noise of the town was getting louder. A breeze sent Xena shivering.
"Hercules!" an urgent whisper was heard behind them.
Hercules spun around to face one of his half-sisters, Aphrodite, the goddess of love. He opened his mouth to tell her not to interrupt them right now, but the goddess put her fingers to her mouth to silence him. Hercules looked at Aphrodite curiously. Something was different about her than the last time heíd seen her. Her face looked serious and . . . afraid. There was a blue aura surrounding the goddess, too. Xena came to stand beside him. Obviously, she could also see Aphrodite. Aphrodite held out both of her hands and motioned for Xena and Hercules to hold on to them. When they grabbed hold of her hands, the blue aura spread to cover them.
"Now, dear brother," Aphrodite spoke, "I put this powder on so no one can see us, not even the gods. I . . . stole it from Zeus. Anyway, I know what you two are doing and Iíd like to help. I know where Iolaus and Gabrielle are. I owe Iolaus a favor anyway, since he got Hephy and I together . . . you know, he was so nice to do that, even when I . . . "
"And?" Xena asked impatiently.
"Alright! You donít have to yell, you know. I can only tell you that the door is on the south side of Athens, in the forest. Other than that, good luck."
And with that, Aphrodite disappeared. Hercules and Xena looked at each other. Xena whistled sharply. Argo came galloping their way. Xena climbed on and waited for Hercules. She knew Hercules hated to ride horses, but in this situation, heíll have to. Xena raised an eyebrow. Hercules sighed and climbed on behind her. Xena turned Argo around and headed towards Athens.
Athens, a rich city full of bustling life. From various street shops to highly decorated towers, it seems more like a tourist attraction than a home to people. With so much in this city, no wonder warlords love the target. A golden colored horse came cantering down the hill. The horse hesitated for a moment before turning to the outskirts of the city. Then, it broke into a run towards the south side. Many pedestrians stopped to look at the two figures on the horseís back, while whispering amongst themselves. The horse slowed and stopped at the edge of a forest and the two riders climbed down.
"This is it," Hercules remarked.
"Yup," Xena agreed, "Shall we?"
"Ladies first," Hercules managed a smile.
Xena smirked and headed into the forest. Hercules followed and Argo was left alone in safety. The dense forest blocked out most of the sunlight, but it was enough to make out the clearing coming up ahead. Once they traveled to the clearing, they saw a door. A big, steel double door. The frame was carved into dragons, sphinxes, monsters, and phoenixes. Hercules whistled.
"Hephaestusís craftsmanship," Hercules muttered.
"Yea, too bad it couldnít be used for a better purpose," Xena said sarcastically.
And with that, Hercules stepped through the door. Xena glanced back a moment before stepping in behind him.
The sky, a clear lavender, splashed with what looked like green clouds. The floor crunched as Xena and Hercules stepped on it. It seemed to be made of glass. The beautiful forest with odd plant and animal life stretched out before them. A magnificent bluish-gray mountain stood behind. Hercules and Xena tried to be silent and cautious, but all they could do was be cautious. By the time they got to the edge of the forest, they could hear much commotion from within. Noises that sounded like something squeaking, then drums beating wildly, next mixed with beeping noises that seemed to mix with some familiar voices shouting . . . then . . . Whoa! Voices! Hercules and Xena eyed each other with surprise. They sprinted into the forest almost as much sound as they could possibly make.
"Xena!" Gabrielle gasped in surprise and happiness.
With that glad cry, Xena smiled in relief and held Gabrielle close while Hercules and Iolaus clasped hands with joy.
"Achem, who are you, may I ask?" an old, wizened voice tapped into Herculesís and Xenaís minds.
Xena turned around to look at the strange creatures surrounding her. These creatures must have made the other sounds she heard. Gabrielle nudged her.
"Xena, I tried to be nice with them, but they didnít seem to understand. I think they are trying to make Iolaus and I their slaves since weíre bigger and stronger and everything . . . "
Xena held up her hand to silence Gabrielle. Boy, did I miss her chatter, Xena grinned. She glanced at Hercules. He nodded.
"Weíre your worst nightmare," Xena said telepathically.
And with that, the whole Jensan tribe squeaked and squealed. All of a sudden, out of the blue, every Jensan transformed . . . into . . . warriors, warriors from Aresís temple. The four heroes were somber.
"I donít like this," Gabrielle muttered.
"I never liked this," Iolaus growled.
The fighting began. With sword clashing sword, staff clashing staff, the entire forest became one giant battle-ground. They were greatly out-numbered. Four against somewhere about fifty other warriors. They needed a miracle.
Hercules looked around to find something to fight with. He spotted a long staff. He grasped it earnestly and swung toward a warrior. The warrior burned to ashes before the staff even touched him. Hercules looked at the staff in wonder and awe.
"Ooo . . . nice staff," he murmured to himself.
He fought his way through a crowd before reaching Xenaís side.
"I think Iíve found our solution," Hercules yelled to Xena.
"Go get on of these staffs and youíll find out."
Xena glanced at the staff momentarily. She had noticed some of those around. She crouched and with a great war cry, she sprung across half the battle-field to a cluster of those special staffs. The staff itself was made from oak-like trees she had seen earlier and the head of the staff was a great big, clear cube, inside, held suspended in air was a curious little bug. A warrior ran towards her, growling. Xena sheathed her sword and swung the staff at the warrior. When she saw what happens with such a staff, she stopped Gabrielle and Iolaus and tossed them a staff each. In no time, all were dead by the staff except a few. Those few were too weak with wounds to fight. The four had little wounds here and there, but theyíll live. Gabrielle went to kneel next to a fallen, weak warrior. She asked about the staff. Xena, Iolaus, and Hercules went and gathered around him to hear what he had to say.
"It is the staff . . . <gasp>given to us . . . <cough>by . . . <wheeze; choke>," and with that he passed into unconsciousness.
"By us," a familiar voice rang out behind them. They turned around to face Here and Ares. They did not look too nice.
"That was supposed to give you a little leeway when you got here, but you werenít supposed to get here until much later. So, we think someone gave you a little hint as to where you were supposed to go," Ares told them with much anger.
"Whatís the difference if they got here later?" Iolaus asked curiously.
"There would have been many more . . . formidable foes," Hera spoke with amazing calmness.
In a clap of thunder, the four landed back in Athens, next to Argo.
"Until next time, Xena," Aresís haunting voice filled the sky.
A merchant ran up to them with a scroll in his hand.
"Hercules! Hercules! This is from your mother, saying something about missing bodies," the merchantís voice seemed to quiver with the last two words, "I see itís your line of work." He ran back after handing Hercules the scroll.
"Looks like weíll have to pay a little visit to your mother to assure everything," Iolaus said. Then he muttered, "Missing bodies?"
"And weíll have to go back to Thames and tell everyone there that the temple isnít haunted."
The four embraced and kissed their good-byes and went their separate ways.
"So, Iolaus, what did you have to do when you were in that strange place?"
"You donít want to know, Hercules, trust me."