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THE ROAD TO HEL
by North
hollye@sympatico.ca


DISCLAIMERS: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.

Any comments or feedback (nothing impolite pleas) can be made at hollye@sympatico.ca. Thanks.

WARNING: There are intonations of violence , both physical & emotional/mental though nothing explicit. There are LESBIANS IN LOVE in this so if you no like- then what the Hades are you doing at this site anyways ?

This takes place before & without acknowledging season 3.

This was written for Marion, happy belated birthday.

 

I would rather be ignorant, than wise in the foreboding of evil.
Aeschylus

 

PROLOGUE

 

Ivanovarrh checked the circle of summoning for what probably was the hundredth time. Every candle was placed, every rune marked, exactly as he had painstakingly prepared them several hours ago when he had secluded himself in this secret inner chamber of his Goddessí temple. He passed a shaking hand over his damp head; balding though he was only now approaching his 40th turn. Although the ceiling was high, and the room long, Ivanovarrh found breathing difficult and he shivered in the cold perspiration that covered him. He fervently wished another acolyte could do the summoning, but the theft of the stone had left all but himself and a few novices still alive after the bandits had left. As he knelt, cowered actually, within the circle, he tugged his black ceremonial robe into place. For if there was one thing that mattered to his deity beyond anything besides power, it was appearance.

He intoned the sacred text and waited. All too soon, the room darkened. Although no candles went out, they danced wildly as a sense of strangeness washed over him. It was the feeling of an immortal among the mortal. When Ivanovarrh heard Her voice, both the husky allure and the melting menace of it, he groveled in abject terror.

"Look upon me insignificant worm of the earth, mortal, and name me," the words seared like welts.

Ivanovarrh dared not, yet could not do otherwise than to raise his head from the flagstones and look upon the goddess he had chosen to serve. He looked upon Hel.

The half he could see mesmerized him like a mouse caught in the weaving gaze of a cobra. Skin smooth and more pale than alabaster, long hair darker than a starless night and eyes,(at least the eye he could see) even darker still. Dark mauve lips curled in a cruel mockery of a smile at his regarding her. At least the right side of her. The other side, the left side, was carefully covered by a cloak of night within night. It carefully concealed that half of her form from head to toe. Clever and intelligent, as a view of the rotting left half of her form (Ivanovarrh could see the shape of things squirming and making ripples under the cloth as they moved within her), would drive any mortal mad. Ivanovarrh tried to swallow, only to find his mouth and throat as dry and coarse as the sands of a desert.

"Am I not", one could feel the claws hidden behind her words, "beautiful?"

"Beyond all reckoning." he answered sincerely, for what was mortal beauty compared to that of a God? "This acolyteís eyes are unworthy to behold you."

"You have", she did not acknowledge his devoted compliments as it was his place, "a confession of sorts?"

"Y-yes, the stone ..."

"My stone." Iron replaced her usually velvet tones.

"... was stolen ..."

"Incompetent!" something beneath her cloak fell upon the floor and started to slowly crawl toward him. Something pale. "I know these things! The death of your puny brethren put the fools in my realm, where I had sufficient opportunity to extract such information. Now they are consumed by their allotted punishments for their failure to protect my property."

"As you failed to protect it."

The slug like thing was moving closer at a slow, yet steady, rate. Ivanovarrh dared not move. His choice, or inability, to deny her charge of his responsibility seemed to appease her, if only a little.

"Who," her purr oozed acid, "my poor little servant, tell me who stole my stone."

"They did not speak our language." He spoke quickly, the words running into each other as he stumbled to finish his telling before her mercurial moods shifted again against his favour. At this time his hopes were nothing more than to be left alive and intact at the end of this. "Their manners and clothing were equally foreign. However", he rushed when he saw the line of her mouth harden further, "one bandit dropped an armlet. A tradesman within the town identified it as Greek, from the area around a city called Corinth."

"So Odin now employs foreigners in order to undermine Me!" Her words were burning ice. "He cannot be allowed to have the power of the Hel stone! Though I donít yet understand why he waits to claim it; it is undoubtedly another one of His cunning plots." Ivanovarrh was relieved to no longer have her full attention. "Even though He is the Overgod, that he dares to steal from me is unconscionable!"

"You!" his relief was gone as though it never was. The creature inched closer. "You will hire what men are needed, using the coffers of this temple, and have these criminals hunted down for the animals they are. Each and every one of them is to be slaughtered and My stone returned. Is that clear!" It was not a question.

Ivanovarrh bowed, cowered and groveled a more obvious acquiescence than any words. He felt something wet and cold against his hand.

"Oh, and Ivanovarrh," a voice of sweetness, from one never sweet. He wondered how the sound of his own name from Her lips could paralyse his soul. Then again, maybe, he did not wonder at all. "I have not forgotten your failure, so I will leave you with a kiss from part of my right side." He felt a sting where the cold slimy thing was. He only kept his eyes closed and head bowed, for where was there to escape from Her? "Consider it motivation to not fail me again."

She left. He felt it. He could breathe again. The cold wet pale thing by his hand was gone. "Curious though, Her departure must have extinguished the candles," he thought to himself as he reached for the nearest candle, and was suddenly burned. It was then he realized the truth. The truth of his state and of Helís words.

Ivanovarrh was blind.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

(2 months later)

The not so tall woman with strawberry blonde hair just managed to dodge the projectile aimed at her head before she somersaulted to avoid another. As she stood in the pond she quickly glanced about, no weapon in sight, her staff on land against a tree and herself too far away to reach it. A blow caught her side and she stumbled in the thigh-high water from its impact.

Gabrielle was fighting for her life.

Her relentless opponent saw her opening and whipped a long, wet, tightly wound cloth around Gabrielleís leg. Gabrielle was instantly pulled under the water. Trying to stay calm she forced herself to think as she acted. Scraping the floor of the water hole, her hand found a dislodged rock the size of a fist. She had to be careful, she wanted to stop her attacker, not kill her. The person in question was moving toward her while keeping the caught leg taut. Gabrielle sprang up using her free leg, just enough to break the waterís surface, aimed and threw.

Her aim was true. It hit her attacker directly in the diaphragm. Before her sea-blue eyes, the other woman immediately released the cloth holding Gabrielleís leg and doubled over, clasping her stomach.

Damn. She hadnít meant to hit her that hard.

"Oh no! Xena!" Gabrielle rushed towards her friend - and combat trainer. "Are you okay? I didnít meant to ..."

Xenaís hand wrapped around Gabrielleís left ankle and pulled her off balance to fall back into the water, cutting off her sentence.

She came up spluttering. "What was that all about!?"

Xena regarded her companion strangely, her athletic form a good head and a half taller than Gabrielle. She folded her arms.

"Never rush towards an opponent when they seem hurt. Chances are nine times out of ten that theyíre trying to fake you out. If you canít tell, trust your gut, not your heart."

Thoroughly soaked, Gabrielle couldnít help but notice that Xenaís long, dark hair was completely dry.

Thereís a difference?" she sounded more churlish than she had intended. "Between heart and gut I mean."

"Your heart is your emotions" Xena stated matter-of-factly as they both began to make for the shore. "Although passion can help you have an edge - add extra drive to your fighting - it can also cause you to lose focus, unbalance you, or", her eyes flickered sidelong at her friend, "drop your guard like you did back there."

"Youíre my friend" Gabrielle defended, "I thought you were hurt."

"Yes, but in a real situation you canít allow your heart to fool you." Xena continued, "your gut is your instincts. Itís your gut that you can trust in a fight; whether you can take an opponent on or not, what their next move is going to be ... if itís a feint."

Gabrielle threw up her arms in exasperation. "Alright already! I get the point. I still think that was a dirty trick you pulled."

All severity vanished from Xenaís face; she couldnít help grinning at the surly look her friend wore. "You seem pretty clean to me after spending so much time in the water."

"Oh!" Gabrielle saw that not so hidden look of self-satisfaction on Xena. She hated the way Xena always got the best of her. Hated it. "One of these days I will get you, you know."

"Of course you will." By Zeus, Gabrielle hated that smug, patronizing tone even worse. "Besides, you gave me that good whack in the face at bedtime with your staff not so long ago."

"I still think you let me do that." She only sounded partly mollified, but Xena knew her friend wasnít really angry. Maybe if she wasnít just so easy to tease ... .

"Look on the bright side", she grinned wider, flashing even, white teeth, "at least our clothes are all clean."

Gabrielle busily immersed herself in hanging up their 'weapons' from this surprise training session to dry.

"All I know is that there has got to be an easier way to do laundry."

The washing of clothes, blow by literal blow had been hours ago. The two friends walked silently side-by-side; Xena leading her golden horse, Argo, by her reigns. Both were enjoying the amicable silence. Xena maybe a little more than her, Gabrielle mused. Her warrior princess was often prone to long silences. It was her way, but sometimes Gabrielle knew she was brooding over her past; still an open wound for Xena. Being a storyteller, Gabrielle had learned a lot more than how to talk. One also learned how to see into people's hearts; their motivations, their inner character. One learned how to watch. And watching Xena, seeing how the slightly older woman's face would grow hard in battle. The light blue eyes turning instantly to ice. The high cheekbones giving her an added look of ferocious austerity. Then after, how the corners of her full lips shadowed downwards as the ice melted. One second, a weapon more than a woman, the next, silent grief as a past she regrets, more now than ever, comes back to haunt her time and again. Gabrielle worried about Xena's guilt eating away at her. Worried that Xena may never truly forgive herself. And what that could mean for both of them.

Stop that, Gabrielle chided herself mentally. Worry about the future when it happens. After all, when all was said and done, Xena was and has made the world a safer place. She risks her life going against incredible odds; against warlords, monsters and even gods, in order to protect the innocent. People love her, wonderful, good people like Hercules who knows her for what she was and who she is now. And then there was how Gabrielle felt about her. The way she and Xena would talk for hours late at night. The countless times they'd risked everything to save each other in times of danger. Gabrielle's heart, her soul, warmed whenever she caught Xena watching her when she thought Gabrielle wasn't looking. When she wasn't guarding her expression, all the tenderness shone through. Yeah, Xena may protect the world, Gabrielle thought firmly, but I'm going to protect her, even from herself.

A light whack on the shoulder from Xena brought her out of her deep thoughts. "Think any harder," the darker woman said gamely, "and you might break something loose."

"Or", Gabrielle grinned, "smoke might start to come pouring out of my ears!"

"Ha! That would be a sight. What were you thinking so hard about anyway? A new story?"

"No. I was thinking about you - I mean us." she quickly amended.

One fine black brow arched expressively, "Anything in particular."

"Oh, first thinking how neat it is, you know." she smiled up at Xena. "We've only been travelling together for two years now but I feel like I've known you all my life." The mischievous philosopher in her poked out, "In any past lives I may have had even!"

"Yeah," Xena returned her smile warmth for warmth, "to think I'd end up travelling with an Amazon queen!"

Gabrielle laughed. "That's in name only, by rite of caste. After all, I only started to learn how to fight after we ran into the Amazons."

"Hmm", Xena fixed one of her black arm braces, "you're right about how close we've become though. You've sacrificed so much to be with me ... I told you before that you are my family Gabrielle. When you first chose to come with me, I had no idea how much your desire for adventure and your loyalty to me would cost you ... "

Gabrielle stopped her with a firm hand on the other's shoulder, and an even firmer voice. "Stop that." Her eyes looked squarely into Xena's, saw what was behind them. "Callisto's actions were her own. She killed Perdicus, not you. And" she couldn't help the tears that rose to her eyes with her emotions, "I wouldn't have traded a second of our time together for anything, or anyone."

Rare wet jewels threatened to spill over Xena's light pools of blue. "But Gabrielle, Callisto killed your husband, and she did it just to try to hurt me indirectly. If we hadn't known each other ... "

"Then my life would be a sorry lot. My time with you has been the happiest, most rewarding of all my life Xena. And, although I grieve over Perdicus' death, the more I think about it the more I think it was meant to be."

"Meant to be!?" Her look was incredulous.

"That, although Perdicus' death was tragic," Gabrielle hefted her staff and resumed walking, "perhaps it happened to make me a stronger person; stronger to aid you in helping others." She paused briefly. "And I think it was also a way of telling me that it wasn't my time to settle down yet, that there's more out there that I have to do." Her voice grew softer, "And that I'm meant to be with you."

Xena was moved beyond words. Surprise and tenderness warred with a deep sense of inadequacy to find herself the object of such faith and devotion.

"Besides," Gabrielle, seeing Xena's discomfort, chose to inject some levity into the conversation, "if I had gone off on my own like I had first planned before meeting you, who would've been there to save my butt so many times?"

"You've got a level head." Xena replied, grateful to her for the levity. "You would've been fine."

"Oh yeah?" the younger woman's eyes twinkled,"what about the time you risked losing touch with your physical body in order to enter the dream realm and save me from Morpheus?"

"Well", Xena knew exactly how to answer this, "what about the time you stepped in between me and my home village when they were ready to stone me?"

"Sure, sure, but that was only after you had saved my life and those of the people of my village when you saved us all from those bandits."

"How about the time you saved me from a death sentence by a tribunal after Ares had framed me?"

"Okay, the God of War plotting against you was tricky", Gabrielle nodded mock-seriously, "but what about the time you brought me back from the brink after I was mortally wounded?"

"Well, you saved me from being squashed by a titan by turning him back to stone."

"Only after I had stupidly re-animated three of them to begin with." Gabrielle searched her mind for a second, "Okay, I think I have the winner." She cackled in mock evil glee. "Prepare for defeat Warrior Princess! How about the time you went on the 300 year old cursed ship of Cecrops to save me from living the remainder of my days with sea sickness and a crew of deprived and lecherous, senior seamen? Huh? Huh?" then just to ensure her victory, "And the time you kept me from being burned alive as a betrothed queen to some dead guy while you were blind, let alone risking permanent blindness because you chose to rescue me rather than seek an antidote for your eyes!" She clapped her hands on her hips which were covered by a short mahogany cloth skirt, taking a confident stance in same coloured knee-high boots.

"Yeah, maybe youíve got me there," Xenaís eyes smiled, "That is, if you donít take into account the time you risked your life when you were wounded and suffering from exposure to drag my unconscious body to a healer during a blizzard. And, after I died, dragged my corpse halfway home to be buried with my brother, facing attacks from bandits at every turn, only to incur the wrath of an over ambitious Amazon turned immortal psychopath when you went up against her to get me the ambrosia needed to bring me back to life. And afterwards, turned down ruling the Amazon Nation to be with me."

Gabrielle stopped in her tracks, "You mean?"

Xena playfully flicked her shoulder, "I win."

"Hmph" Gabrielle returned to trudging along beside her. "But there were lots of other times youíve saved my life."

A soft look spread over Xenaís features. "Thatís what friends do. Help each other when theyíre in trouble. You told me that when we first met."

"I said that?" Her brow furrowed trying to recall the moment.

"Yes you did."

Gabrielle gave her a sly sidelong glance. "So I guess that makes me the brains of this outfit."

"Keep it up, and Iíll give you another dunking at the nearest lake." The lines of Xenaís face suddenly became all hard angles as she peered ahead, light eyes became serious. She stopped them and spoke lowly, "Get your staff ready, just in case."

Falling completely silent, Gabrielle braced her body in a fighting stance, staff poised. For although she herself could sense nothing, she had long ago learned to trust Xenaís instincts implicitly. She waited to follow Xenaís lead.

"Fighting." Xena mounted Argo. "Past the thick fringe of trees ahead there." She gave Gabrielle an arm-up to mount behind her, "Sounds like a small village. Bandits raiding probably. Once we ride in, jump off and --"

One hand on Xenaís waist, the other held up her staff, "I know the drill."

"Good," Xena leaned forward and Argo charged through the brush like the wind.

They were upon the village so quickly that Gabrielle hadnít the chance to complete her puzzled thought: I donít recall a village ever being here before now, why n--.

They rode into a chaotic scene, women and men running and trying to defend their lives with whatever was closest to hand - pots, chairs, tools, food. Others tried to gather the children away from wherever the bandits were. And they seemed to be everywhere, wreaking havoc.

With her trademark, high-pitched battle cry, Xena vaulted herself in a clean somersault over Argo and had her sword unsheathed and her chakram thrown before her boots landed upon the ground. Slicing the wind, the sharp, round, and very lethal chakram bounced off a stone wall, a temple bell and then across the heads of two bandits to rebound off a pot and slice open the neck of a third bandit before returning to the hand of its mistress. Within that brief time, Xena had dispatched two bandits with her sword, waylaid five with rapid-fire, airborne kicks and run up a wall to twist in mid-air and land behind a sixth, tapping him on the shoulder, laughing her battle-laugh and back-handing him so hard he landed fifteen feet away.

She wasnít called the ĎWarrior Princessí for nothing.

Gabrielle had gotten off the horse beforehand as instructed and was literally herding innocent villagers away from the area of concentrated fighting. A scruffy and mean looking bandit - they all looked that way to Gabrielle - charged her with sword high and swinging. With a simple, swift leg sweep with her staff, he instead charged the ground to land with a loud and painful thud. A clean and non-fatal pole thrust to the back of his neck rendered him unconscious but not seriously hurt. Two others tried to flank her. She feinted an overhead swing and then struck with the end of the pole into the now exposed diaphragm. As he buckled over, she rolled over his bent back to avoid the third marauderís mace swing which just missed his comradeís head by a rabbit hair. She swiftly took out number twoís left knee from behind, spun on one heel to face her next opponent and swung her staff. He blocked and this led to a back and forth parry which she ended by a hard heel stomp on his foot. Number three yelped in pain and surprise, nearly dropping his weapon while grabbing his now raised foot. Gabrielle knocked him down and out with a roundhouse kick to the jaw. By that time, Xena had dispatched a total of eight men. The rest of the bandits, realizing half of their group had been defeated in just a few seconds, wisely chose this time to flee.

The young bard and Amazon princess walked up to the warrior princess, "Well, that was easier than usual."

"Yeah," Xena had that grinning battle-happy glow about her, "it was alright. A little too easy for a decent workout."

Gabrielle nodded towards the still closed doors and window shutters of the townsfolk, "Looks like the villagers donít feel the same way. Youíd think theyíd at least come out and thank you for saving them."

"Thank us. You helped too." She spoke matter-of-factly. "Donít worry about it. Theyíre scared. And weíre strangers with weapons we can obviously use."

"Surely since we helped them," Gabrielle leaned on her staff, "they know weíre the good guys."

"Fear isnít rational Gabrielle." She whistled for Argo to come, "Letís go."

"Please <koff>." A voice sounding like dried leaves rasped, "wait please."

Xena had already half-drawn her sword as a precaution before she caught sight of the voiceís owner. At that, she resheathed her sword immediately for it was an elderly man who stepped out of a hut. Clothed in faded blues and browns, his face and hair were just as faded from age. A face that matched his voice with its intricate wrinkles and weathered skin. He looked like he would blow away with the slightest of breezes. However, it was the blood on his forehead that grabbed their immediate attention.

"Sit down here." Xena guided him to the nearest perch and took the bandage Gabrielle handed her. "This will stop the bleeding," she carefully pressed the folded cloth against his cut. "Itís not serious as long as you donít let it get infected."

"Thank you Warrior Princess," he held the bandage himself and gave a look, with remarkably clear black eyes considering his age, towards Gabrielle, "and to your friend as well, for your help."

Gabrielle stepped closer, "Do you have any idea why you were attacked?" She blushed slightly, "I donít mean to be rude but this small village doesnít seem to have anything worth stealing by anyone, let alone a large group of thugs like the ones that were here."

"Thatís what I wanted to speak to you about," a face full of worry pleaded with them. "They did steal something, and you have to get it back."

"What" Xena asked "did they take?"

"Your friend was right, we donít have much. However, a long time ago, we were entrusted with guarding a weapon of the gods: a black pearl the size of a fist. I donít know what itís capable of doing, only that it gives incredible power to the one who possesses it. If that person were evil, then ...." He shrugged expansively.

"Then thereís no telling what theyíll do with it," Xena finished the sentence, "or if they can be stopped." The old man nodded.

"Quick Gabrielle, mount Argo." She began to turn away from the villager. "We canít waste any time. We have to catch those bandits that ran and get that thing back."

A hand, stronger than she would have expected, stopped her, "No you cannot."

She half turned to look at him, "Watch me." She strived for a gentler tone, "You donít need to worry old man, weíll get it back for you."

"No," his shaking head stopped the flow of her reassurance. "You donít understand, they arenít the ones who have it."

Xena and Gabrielle waited.

"Uhm, you see, we were raided just yesterday by foreigners. They wore short clothes and didnít seem to speak our language. They were fierce and we are not warriors here. They took the dark pearl and left. The bandits that came today were looking for the same thing but they were too late; it had already been stolen. They didnít believe us so they started to get rough. Thatís when you two appeared."

"The ones who took this stone, " Xena asked, "do you recall which way they went when they left?"

"Straight North, Princess."

"Did they have horses? And donít call me princess, Xenaís fine."

"Sorry, Xena. Um, yes they had horses but they appeared worn, like theyíd been ridden too hard."

"Good." She quickly went to Argo and mounted up; Gabrielle only a second behind in following her. "Then we may still have a chance at catching up to them." Xena spared the old man a last glance, "Is there anything, anything at all that you remember?"

The man rubbed his stubbled chin in thought. "Hmm, now that I think upon it, one of them did say a word I recognized - ĎAresí - but that makes no sense does it? After all, what would foreigners know about our gods?"

"The god of war" Xena growled from a suddenly clenched jaw "is cunning as well as brutal. Youíd best keep that in mind."

With these words, she reigned Argo around sharply and galloped off. What she didnít see was the old man watching them leave, well after they were out of sight.

And he began to laugh.

A low resounding laugh that disquieted nearby wildlife and would have crawled along the skin had any human been there to hear it. And as he laughed, the village, the people, the bandits, all shimmered and were gone as if they had never been. Where the old man once stood, now rose the tall image of a man in his prime. Black waves of hair cut just above the collar of an equally black leather jerkin. A wide ebony sword belt carried a heavy looking gold sword. Matching black leather pants tapered into knee high sable boots. He was well muscled, handsome even, with chiselled features accentuated by a neatly trimmed beard and mustache. The blackest things about him though were the eyes that were darker than midnight, reflecting the cruel soul behind them. He looked imperious. He was.

"Lord Ares."

He was a god.

Although Ares ceased his laughter, it was cut into the upturned corner of his mouth and, although his voice was clear and hard as iron he sneered as he spoke, "Chaos, Iím having a moment." He turned to look at the other god, "What are you doing here?"

"Curiosity." came a voice that held the music of shadow and smoke. "Why the elaborate charade ĎUncleí? After all the work your men went through to get the Hel stone, you let it be taken from them and now you deceive Xena - your sworn enemy - into getting it back. Why? Once she has it, sheíll realize what it is and she wonít be tricked into giving it back to you."

Aresí sharp eyes peered into the shadows within shadows. He felt uneasy and quickly dismissed the unfamiliar sensation. "Dammit Chaos, if youíre going to talk with me then face me as one god to another . . . Ďnephewí."

One fathomless shadow grew and expanded until it was big enough for a man - or god - to step through. The male god who stepped from it seemed to be more shadow than the shade around him. Midnight cloth intricately fringed with complicated, fluid patterns of the deepest of amethysts flowed around his tall, lean form. A matching cloak rippled around him like night itself. An ebony flame of short hair framed a smooth alabaster face. Some unruly strands strayed over a wide brow, straight lines of sable and high cheekbones, all of which only added to the wildness to be seen in his mismatched eyes: one gold; one a brooding lavender. His movements as he walked towards Ares, were water and wind. He was feral grace and wild nights. And despite the full lips, his sensual smile was cruelty itself.

"Come, ĎUncleí," he spoke with the quiet and deadly slither of a viper, "we are not un-friends. Donít you fear the wrath of this foreign goddess?"

"Please." Ares contempt reared in the clear tones, "Am I not the god of war? With my brilliant strategy, that half-rotted hag will never even suspect me. Besides, gods never battle each other directly, thereíd be too much destruction, thatís what pawns are for. After all, who wants a world that isnít worth ruling?"

"Never directly." Chaosí eyes couldnít be read, the lids half closed as he regarded Ares. "Indeed."

"And as for Xena," the commanding arrogant grin was, perhaps, justified, "I donít want her to return the stone to me."

"Oh no?" Chaos waited patiently. Ares needed little prompting to boast. The strange god waited like a panther about to pounce upon the gazelle, never forgetting the prey had horns.

"I want her to keep it." He gave Chaos a smug look over-filled with self satisfaction, daring the under god to uncover his brilliant plan.

"You plan," he answered effortlessly, "to have Xena break the stone and be imbued with itís evil, thereby bringing her back to your way of thinking."

"Exactly." Now the dark, predatory eyes shone with anticipation. "Sheíll return to her old self and once again be by my side, leading my army!"

"To what end, dear ĎUncleí?"

"To rule the known world of course." He absently stroked his beard, "What else is there but to conquer." It was not a question.

"Perhaps to wreak havoc and chaos." Nor was his.

Ares gave him a calculating look, his voice heavily edged with iron, "I hope for your sake dear, dear Ďnephewí, that I have made my objectives clear enough that you wouldnít think to oppose me."

"I would never dare," Chaos smiled coldly, "dream of opposing the most powerful over god directly. Banish such impossible delusions of ludicracy from your thoughts."

"Good." Ares stance was full with a godís pride. "I wouldnít want to find us in the middle of any kind of Ďmisunderstandingí that would require my personal Ďattentioní."

"Nor I," Chaos bowed in meek submission, "Ďuncleí."

Ares should have realized, true meekness was never that meek.

 

INTERLUDE

 

The sky was the clear blue of hope. The sun, a blessed warm, was high in the sky. It was a fine day to pick flowers, which was exactly what Remeus was doing. An odd endeavour for a twelve year old boy, nearly a man, yet he had a purpose. Early that morning, he had accidentally spilt his goatís milk on his sisterís drawing of flowers. Adela, only five years old, had cried. With a thoughtful kindness that belied his years, Remeus, rather than going to play with his friends after shepherding the herd, had decided to find the prettiest flowers he could by way of apology and to cheer his little sister. Although he wouldnít admit it to his peers, he liked her drawings. He liked the colours.

There was a sound that stole his breath, for it sounded like the Earth itself had begun to break. Before he could run, or even breathe again, the ground beneath him cracked and heaved, releasing a blow of air so hot it seared his skin and threw his body several feet before he landed, the explosion stealing his life. The flowers, wilted by the steam, had fallen recklessly all about. Hot ash flew up so high and so thick that the sky became grey, the sun could no longer be seen and the heat was vicious.

Out from the heat and ashes and earth rose up what appeared to be a woman. She surveyed her surroundings, taking no more note of the boy with the oddly bent neck, than she did of the trees on the far horizon. She laughed. A sound that caused the birds far off to shriek and fly even farther off. The woman walked to where the boy lay dead and without a pause or a glance from eyes as white as the ash that fell like snow upon them both, she kept walking.

The sky was black. The sun was grey. And a boy with eyes as blue as hope stared blankly into nothingness.

 

CHAPTER 2

Gabrielle:"Xena, I canít lose you again."
Xenaís vow:"Gabrielle, Iíll always be here."
The Quest

 

Xena moved quickly through the thick brush as she relentlessly pursued her quarry. It was unfortunate, having to leave Argo by a tree, but the vegetation had become too thick for the mare. Gabrielle was some distance behind Xena but still keeping pace enough to follow the warrior. No small task when one considers that Xena has not only the strength and stamina of ten men, but was fast enough to beat even the fleet-footed Atlanta in a foot race. The thick brush and lagging friend were no set-back though, for Xena, a tracker for most of her life, knew the person they chased was exhausted and wounded. The trail of blood and clumsy, deep tracks revealed it as clear as daylight to her.

She found it hard to suppress one of her battle laughs. Mother forgive her but she loved this. The adrenalin, the feel of her disciplined body in action. The thrill of the hunt, the anticipation of battle - this was where she felt the most at home. That is, until innocent lives were lost. But that was then she reminded herself, not now. Locked in hatred and vengeance for so long, she still marvelled that Hercules, rather than killing her, had instead stopped the bloody rampage of her and her army by showing her the good that still lived in her heart. And though he had opened the door with compassion and love, it was Gabrielleís steadfast friendship that showed her the breadth and depth of it. Even with Gabrielle at her side, Xena wondered if anything she did would ever truly be enough to atone for her bloody past. And no matter how much she tried to give, or how much compassion and love was returned, would it be enough to ever really change her?

For even now, the mere mention of Ares made her blood boil and the berserker within her to silently scream for release. She had known hatred and loneliness for so long ... if Gabrielle had not come and remained in her life she might have become ... I would have ended up just like Callisto, she grimly mused. Insane. Alone in my hatred. A heinous, ruthless murderer.

The rustling of the wounded bandit was much louder. Regrettably, Xena was able to smell her target from where she silently ran. The bandit smelled of male sweat, fear and an unpalatable foreign scent. She was so close. She relished the opportunity to spoil another of Aresí deadly schemes. The coil of buried hate burned. Jaws clenched against her inner struggle. Xena distracted herself with action. An echoing battle cry issued from her lips as she ran, leapt, cartwheeled, rebounded off a thick tree trunk giving her added speed and aerial height to body twist to land directly in front of her prey.

The first thing she thought and felt as she looked at the stooped, panting man was this is wrong.

The man was five score, maybe a little more. Thick blonde braids threaded with grey and smeared with dirt and blood came from under a helm that bore horns on either side. He wore simple mail over a dingy tunic and fur boots that were too warm for this climate. He tried to hold up a broad short sword with one arm and heft the charred and cracked remains of a small round shield with the other. Xena took in the several wounds he bled from, the bruises, scratches, welts and burns that wore him, there were so many. And past the dense beard and moustache she could see the red burn on his pale skin that came only from bright sun on long, cold, gusting winters. The bushy eyebrows did nothing to hide the light blue eyes that spoke of his pain and exhaustion - or the fact that he knew he was dying. He looked neither ruthless nor like a thug, only like a tired man, frightened and beaten who wished to see the sight of familiar lands again. Oddest yet, his fear was not of her.

When the manís eyes did fully focus on her, he kneeled, holding his arms up, eyes burning with tears of joy. Xena stared, completely uncomprehending.

<At last.> His words were a guttural dialect. <Having failed to take the Hel stone home, I feared no Valkyrie would come to lead my soul to Valhalla. And yet you are one of Odinís Valkyries, come to give me an escort to the Hall of Warriors where my fallen comrades await me.>

Xena stood in blank astonishment. Despite this, she acted with her usual swiftness. She caught this person, who was obviously no enemy, before he collapsed completely. Gently easing him onto the ground, she attempted to reply to what she had understood from his language.

<Not Valkyrie. Who harm you?>

<Sheís not - human.> dark, frothy blood caught in his throat and then, his body briefly convulsing, flowed up and over his chin and down one side of his face.

<Who she?> Dammit, she couldnít save him and if she didnít press him, heíd be dead before she had the information she needed.

<Must be a god.> his eyes glazed and refocused, <More fierce than Odinís Valkyrie. Thought she was one - sun for hair. Wanted Helís stone ... killed everyone.>

More fierce than ...
Killed everyone ...
Sun for hair ...
Killed everyone ...

A coldness descended upon Xenaís heart at a suspicion, she, out of fear, would not yet name.

<Sun for hair.> She gripped his shoulders harder than presence of mind would have allowed, <You mean her hair was yellow?>

<Uh.> A barely audible assent.

<Hair long?>, she pointed at her own, <Like mine?>

Again, consent. This time with a weak half-nod.

"Eyes white?" Not knowing the words, she pointed at her eyes and the white fur of his boots.

Agreement again.

<When she fought, did she scream?> and she gave him an imitation of the sound she had hoped to never hear again. Dread suffused her being as she waited for his answer.

<Yes.>

Xenaís next words were a fierce whisper. "The Hel stone - where?" Did she get it?

The man clumsily fumbled at his jerkin. Xena brushed away his hand and felt the pouch that lay there. Spilling its only content into her hand, she held a black orb. It felt smooth like glass but did not shine. Inspecting it, she noticed something moving within it. Gooseflesh appeared involuntarily on her arms.

A hand gripped hers.

<Warrior>, his words now came only with great effort, <swear - return to Helís temple. Great evil else.>

<I keep safe.>, she awkwardly patted his shoulder as he died, then closed the eyelids over the emptiness that appeared.

Years of discipline taught her to breathe normally, to steady the quickened pace of her heart. Ares was but a shadow compared to what she now had to face.

Callisto.

Somehow, Callisto had escaped the lava pit and beaten Velasca. And now she was somewhere nearby, an immortal with god-like powers. And Callisto wanted what Xena now held - the Hel stone.

Great evil the man had said.

He had no idea what true evil was.

Xena closed her eyes and bowed her head under the weight of it. How? How am I going to tell ...

"Xena!" Gabrielle huffed and puffed from where she came through the trees behind her. "Did you find ...", her eyes fell on the dead man, "oh. I guess you did. Did you ...?"

Xena stood and turned to face her friend. "No, I didnít kill him. He was already dying when I caught up to him."

Gabrielleís eyes widened when she noticed what Xena held. "Is that the stone? It looks pretty harmless. What do you think Ares wants with it?"

"Iím not sure aside from knowing he only acts out of his own selfish arrogance. And that thereís more going on than we were led to believe." She caught herself mid-sentence, the word led resounding in her head. A warrior with a code of honour, not a bandit. And he called it Helís stone. That was no Greek god so how could it have been entrusted to a Greek village that she had never come across before.

"Gabrielle," she took hold and kept still her urgency, "that village back there, do you remember ever hearing about it before? Think hard. Itís important."

The younger womanís brow furrowed in thought. "No, never. Why?"

"What," she ignored the question, "about the old man?"

"Hmm. Nothing in particular. He seemed nice. Something about his eyes though ..."

Yes, eyes too bright and alert for someone his age, the warrior thought. Dark and predatory ... familiar. And Callisto on the loose ...

"Ares." Xena followed the name with a series of oaths that caused Gabrielle, who by now had heard many tavern verbiage, to blush.

"It was Ares all along." Damn him. Damn him to Tartarous. "Weíve been tricked."

"Hey there," Gabrielle waved the hand not holding her staff, "remember me? Your friend, your confidant, travelling companion. Would you mind filling your loyal partner in on whatís going on?"

"The village doesnít exist. There are no bandits. The old man was Ares. And on top of that..." No, she didnít need to tell Gabrielle now, did she?

"No bandits?" Gabrielle cocked her head towards the dead body, "What about him?"

"Heís a Viking." Please donít make me have to tell her, not just yet.

"Heís Norse!" shaking her red-blonde hair in disbelief. "Theyíre supposed to be unbeatable berserkers of some kind arenít they?"

"They are fierce warriors." Iím being a coward, prolonging the inevitable, but to watch Gabrielleís so recently healed heart break all over again ... "Being able to die well in battle means everything to them." Xena talked distantly, in matter of fact tones, the way she did whenever she mentioned her past. "I once led a campaign up North, just on the outskirts of the Norse lands. To die in battle is the highest honour to them. We fought to a stalemate and both sides walked away with heavy losses. I managed to pick up a bit of their language and culture at the time."

"Anyway, I donít think the stone belongs to our gods, I think it belongs to theirs. Before he died he called it Helís stone. Hel is their goddess of death. And that village back there, doesnít exist. The old man was Ares; the village an illusion. My guess is that Ares had his scum steal the stone, then when the Vikings took it back, tried to trick us into getting it back for him."

"That must be a really important thing," Gabrielle nodded at the black orb, "for him to go to all that trouble. I wonder what it does?"

Xena shrugged, "I donít know. Yet. Until I do Iím going to hold onto it." A frown creased her brow. "Maybe Hercules would know what should be done with it. We have to put it someplace where Ares canít get to it."

"Well," Gabrielle had a similar frown, "shouldnít it go back to the original owner?"

"Huh." It was Xenaís turn to shake her head, "Youíre right. I donít know why I didnít think of that." All I can think about is Callisto. I have to tell her.

"Alright," Gabrielleís voice changed to one of "decisionís made, letís go!" "To the Northern regions it is! Wow, thisíll be quite the adventure, foreign lands, a new culture and people for me to learn about ...," her voice trailed off as a thought occurred to her.

"Wait a second. If the Vikings went after the bandits and Ares sent us to get the Vikings then who did that," she motioned towards the savaged corpse, "to him?"

"Listen to me Gabrielle," Xena gentled her voice and the hands that now reached and held the other womanís shoulders. She looked sombrely into the others curious - and now cautious - darker eyes, losing herself momentarily into the kindness and trust that lay open within them. Please, why her? Gods above if you had even an inkling of a soul youíd leave Gabrielle in peace. Why? Why must I be the one to hurt her? "We canít go North just yet, first we have to find a way to stop the person who wants the Hel stone. The one who killed this man."

"What," Xena could see the fear beginning to shadow Gabrielle, "are you trying to tell me? Who was it? Ares?"

"Not Ares, no. At least not directly." If you did free her Ares; if youíre the one to cause Gabrielle this pain .. god or not, Iím going to kill you. "This will be a shock to you."

"Dammit Xena, would you just tell me already?"

"Itís", if only there were a way to make the truth softer, "Callisto. Sheís free, again."

She could feel Gabrielleís body immediately tremble beneath her hands; felt the skin grow cold. Saw how her friend grew pale, the mouth slack and the eyes ... elsewhere; turned inward towards memories of a time too painful to regard directly. Yet Gabrielle had no choice.

She stepped out and away from Xenaís hands.

"N - no." She turned away, looking down. "That canít be right. She was trapped battling Velasca under all that molten lava. It canít be her. You must be wrong Xena. Even you can be wrong." Blue eyes blurred grey with tears looked up at her, "You can be wrong, canít you?"

The warrior woman slowly shook her head, "I wish I were, but itís her Gabrielle. Callistoís come back."

"But how? How!? Dammit! How much more of this am I supposed to take?! Why canít she just have stayed dead, or never even been born?!" Now she did turn to Xena, let herself be held in strong arms; against a heartbeat that understood, not wanting to see the suffering mirrored in Xenaís eyes. Unshed tears made her words raw, "Over and over again. Will I - we - never be rid of her?"

"If there was a way," Xenaís soothing tones hid the carefully reigned intensity behind her words, "I swear Gabrielle, I would do whatever it takes to give you peace once again."

"We have," Xena had to strain to hear Gabrielle, "what she wants - aside from wanting us dead."

"Yes."

"Then sheíll be coming after us."

"I know." Xena closed her eyes against the ache she felt in her friend.

Gabrielle let out a low shuddering breath. "Well then," she tried to sound as if everything was and would be alright, "Weíd better get moving and while weíre at it, figure out how weíre going to stop her this time."

"Wait, please Gabrielle," she said when she felt Gabrielle start to pull away. Putting her pain aside like that, striving to deal with the threat at hand, not only to them, but with Callisto free, then the known world was in peril. Putting her own needs aside for the greater good. Gabrielle, her arms tightened around her, I am unworthy of you.

"Please," her arms tightened around the other woman, "donít move just yet. We have a few minutes."

In response, Gabrielleís arms wound around her neck and they leaned within one another and stood there, silently. After a time, Gabrielle raised herself on tiptoe and pressed a suspiciously damp cheek against Xenaís and whispered in her ear.

"Itíll all turn out alright, as long as youíre with me."

Xena remembered when she was trapped in limbo, fighting to regain her body. Gabrielle had come to her there, so relieved that Xena was not, as had been believed, dead. Xena had made a promise to her then. She wondered if Gabrielle recalled the vow.

"I know," she did, "that you keep your promises."

They reluctantly released each other; the call of duty demanded immediate attention.

"So," Gabrielle hastily wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, "where do we start?"

"We," Xena began to retrace their steps back to Argo, "need to stop and visit a very old acquaintance of mine."

"This friend of yours would need to be a god or something to help us against Callisto."

"Yeah," Xenaís only answer, "I know."

 

CHAPTER 3

It was not hope that wrecked at once
the spiritís calm in a storm,
But a long life of solitude,
Hopes quenched and rising thoughts subdued,
A bleak, Novemberís calm.
Emily Jane Brontë

 

They rode hard through the night and well into the next day. During that entire time, not one word passed between them though the air hung heavily with emotions unspoken and memories silently shared. Knowing. The sun pierced the sweat of their thoughts with its glare. It was only when they came to the dark side of a craggy, cavernous mountain of so bleak a gray that it seemed to repulse all colour and life around it - as if intentionally - that they spoke.

"I recognize this place." Gabrielle said mostly to herself.

"Hepheastus." Xena said from behind where she cared for Argo.

"Yeah," Gabrielle snapped her fingers, "thatís it. This is the cave of Hephaestus." She pivoted to look at her friend, "Xena, what are we doing at the cave of Hephaestus?"

"Calling in a marker."

The meaning of the words dawned on the bard. "You mean your friend - your "very old friend" - is Hephaestus, God of the Forge? And he - a god - owes you - a mortal - a debt?"

"Thatís right." Xena began to closely examine the flat stone before her.

Gabrielle studied Xena just as closely, and for almost as long. "This is one of those ĎIím not going to talk about ití things with you isnít it?"

"Yep."

Gabrielle sighed and wished for food, a bath and sleep, three comforts that now seemed like the most priceless of luxuries. Their dismal surroundings held no hope of any of them. Meanwhile, Xena seemed to have found what she was looking for. Very carefully, she pressed three exact places - which looked no different than the rest of the grey surface as far as Gabrielle could see - with her fingers. One moment all was as expected, then a low grinding sounded from everywhere, even jarring beneath their feet. Choking dust billowed from a large grey panel which reluctantly opened inward. Smoke from within hissed a warning through the entry crack until it widened enough for a person to pass within to what lay beyond inside the mountain. Anyone with half a wit and even the smallest desire to live would have reared instinctively as far as feet could carry. Xena and Gabrielle merely had no choice but to enter.

Gabrielle had expected unbearable heat, but was surprised by a dark labyrinth of caves that held a chilly coolness. The smoke that danced through them was like a warm touch and was odourless. She followed Xena, who, despite the myriad of options, seemed to choose her path unerringly. Sheís been here before, thought Gabrielle, and she made sure to remember.

The dry cold seemed to discourage visitors yet the caressing warmth the two women followed contradicted with its enticing breath. At first, Gabrielle wasnít sure, but as the sound grew louder, she recognized it: the clear ringing tones of a hammer striking metal on an anvil. The passage they were in began to widen until finally they found themselves in a vast chamber. Lit torches and the forge melted light upon the too numerous items that carpeted the floor, walls, even parts of the ceiling which was so high it could scarcely be seen to be measured. What all the things were, her mortal eyes could not say, yet here and there she could make some out. Armour, a vast array of weapons, a harp that played itself ever so gently, a chariot covered with a black cloth yet a part of a wheel could be seen and shone as bright as the sun; for Apollo she thought. Other things not only awed but surprised her; a necklace too dazzling to look at directly, and statues of simple things such as a tree, a bird, over there a woman. Yet each looking so intricate, so painstakingly detailed in their beauty that they seemed real. And everywhere, everywhere, the reflections of light from them danced and waltzed gracefully about the cavern and all within it.

It was the near centre of the chamber that drew oneís attention however. For beside a forge that raged and roared in hushed tones that cracked intermittently, almost as if it were speaking, stood a form mighty in strength and beauty and an effortless divine grace. Not surprising, since she was looking at a god.

Hephaestus.

A hammer that shone like moonlight rose up and swung down against an anvil blacker that coal. From where she stood, Gabrielle could only see his broad back. Well muscled and tapered to a slender waist. A simple sleeveless shirt of black showed no sweat. Leggings and soft boots of the same colour seemed unaffected by the white-red sparks that showered them with each hammer blow. Longish hair, a richer darkness than the clothing, was pulled back by a leather headband, its lengthy ends mixing with his hair. Thick braces on each wrist only accentuated the strong and surprisingly slender hands. She couldnít help but gasp when she heard the heart breaking beauty of his voice.

"Anyone else," Hephaestus said in a voice of fire and moonlight and endless nights, "would be dead from my homeís precautions."

"Lucky for us," Xena wore her almost smile, not dropping her guard a fraction, "that you made sure to show me the safe way here so that we wouldnít run into any of your precautions."

"Perhaps." the god said in tones of a guarded, almost smile that matched Xenaís. "Had I known youíd invade my sanctum with other mortals, I may have chosen to have done otherwise."

"Unlikely." she cautiously bantered. "You have a sense of honour as demanding as mine."

"Which is why," Hephaestus turned to face them, his words now cooler than the outer caverns, "you have come to claim your debt."

Gabrielle had not expected this. She knew the stories of course; about how the god of the forge had been so ugly that his own mother, Hera, along with the other gods, had cast him out of Olympus, wishing him to stay in this dark place. So Gabrielle, having braced herself for one who was grotesque in appearance, had not guarded herself against this.

The god Hephaestus was beautiful. Was beauty.

It was injustice to even try to describe it. The lines of strength and grace in every fibre of the tall, slender form; in even the hint of a movement. The high, smooth brow, the straight sable eyebrows, the lock of midnight hair that refused to remain within the head band, the full lips, the high cheekbones, even the scars that interlaced along the left side of the face and body only accentuated the austere beauty, pale markings as intricate as any of the godís designs. In his left hand the god had hooked the hammer on a slack leather belt and picked up what had been made on the anvil, by those hands. It cracked and arced, casting branches of blue-white light along half of the god. Most devastating though, was the terrible beauty of those eyes, piercing silver with shards of gold that both blazed and smoldered there. Gabrielle could barely breathe, the godís appearance shook her to her core. Nor had she expected this; that the god Hephaestus was a woman.

Gabrielle bowed her head a little, so as not to be burned by her beauty.

Hephaestus mistook her action. "Be not distressed over my looks," how those words raged silently in grief, "I have been made well aware of my ugliness."

"Ugliness." Gabrielle blurted. "Youíre the most handsome person Iíve ever seen!"

Hephaestusí features became suddenly both fierce and sharp (although she had a certain fierce look about her at all times). She strode towards the bard, who, in acute trepidation, thought Dammit, why can I never stop before I blurt out what I think or feel! Sure that punishment was soon to be hers, she was instead surprised again when the god merely stopped before her and studied her. She felt sure those dazzling eyes could see through to her very soul. After the agonizing scrutiny, it was Hephaestusí turn to be surprised.

"Youíre," Hephaestus said in awe, "telling the truth."

Xena merely smiled knowingly.

"I would never lie about something like that. To anyone." Knowing her face was flushed, Gabrielle could only blush more furiously. "You must realize _" This time she did stop herself, for obviously the god did think herself ugly. Her eyes strayed nervously to the moving light in the godís hand, "Youíre not going to hurt me with that are you?"

"Hurt you?" the puzzled gaze followed her then understood, "This?" She held the fearsome blue-white light, "This is not for you." The god moved away, carefully placing it in a barrel that when uncovered, shone bright and thundered with what lay within. "Itís for the old man. His favourite toy."

"Old man?" Her bardís curiosity got the best of her. "Do you mean Zeus? Then that would make it one of Zeusís thunderbolts. Oh my _ "

"Perhaps," Xena stepped in, "I should make introductions."

Hephaestus waved her next words down, "Gabrielle, bard of Poteidaia, Amazon Princess by rite of cast. I know." she said blandly. "I make a habit of keeping track of those few whom I owe."

"Then," Xena said, "you know why I came."

"I donít keep that close an eye on you. Youíll have to explain yourself."

It was Xena who told the story, for the want of brevity. The way she stated the facts so bluntly made Gabrielleís sense of creativity wince. At the end, she pulled out the Hel stone and held it out.

The god didnít take it immediately. Instead she studied it while Xena held it, asking her to move it this way or that. The god couldnít take her eyes off the stone, Gabrielle had difficulty keeping her eyes off of her.

Hephaestus straightened, "It doesnít look like a god touching it will cause any reaction." She took the stone finally from Xena then, "Iíll need time to examine it more. Can you," she glanced at the warrior, "part with it? Or would you prefer to spend the night?"

"Staying here for the moment might be best." Xena answered smoothly.

The god Hephaestus was almost completely absorbed in her examination of the stone, "Just follow the torches and they will lead you to a room. As for the favour," now she looked squarely at them both, "thereís only so much I can do. Callisto is an immortal now, along with certain powers. Sheís no match for an overgod, but even then there are limitations on what can be done to her."

"I realize that." Xena motioned with her head for Gabrielle to start toward their room, "Do what you can and your debt is paid." She stopped before exiting the forge, her words almost whispered, though Gabrielle heard them, "And thank you, for not being hard on my friend. I hope you can forgive me for disturbing your privacy. I know how important it is to you."

"I have no need for your gratitude or your apology." the soft words carried themselves. "Such as your friend, I would sooner tear out the moon before harming. However," a pause as though having spoken this much had wounded her, "I thank you, for your understanding and simply ask that once this is done, you and your friend leave me to my ... peace."

"Of course." Xena seemed about to say something but chose, for reasons known only to herself, not to. She turned and caught up to her friend.

 

Like a child, Gabrielle jumped on the bed, landing on her back, arms flung out. "I cannot believe this," she sighed, "a bed, a real bed." She gazed at the huge room and took note of the food and drink that had somehow been anticipated for them as well as the bath in the next room, already filled with hot water. "I think Iím too tired to take a bath."

Xena grinned at her friend, unbuckling her sword and removing her weapons. "But not, I bet, too tired to eat."

"Never." the other woman laughed.

It wasnít until they were almost done their meals that Gabrielle asked, "So whatís the deal?"

"You mean," Xena dried her fingers on a hand cloth, "why is Hephaestus a woman?"

"That," she nodded, "and why the big scam about her looks?"

"For the first question," she spoke as she undressed for bed, "you would have to ask her. Itís not my place to tell you."

Gabrielle sighed as she followed suit and joined her friend in bed. She had had a feeling Xena would say something like that. "And as for the second?"

An answer wasnít given right away. Xena lowered the lamps and sat a long time regarding her friend. Gabrielle saw the rare look of open tenderness and affection on Xenaís face, in her pale eyes. The Xena perhaps no one else, except Gabrielle, saw.

"A lot of people would disagree with you."

"I canít see how ... you donít."

"No, I donít. But you have a way of looking for the good in people - of seeing it right off. Thatís how come you can see Hephaestus for who she really is and not the scars or the aloof behaviour as Ďuglyí. Thatís how, despite all sheís done, your have compassion for Callisto. Remember when you told me how you believed she regretted what sheíd done, that you forgave her? I donít know anyone else who has that kind of courage and strength of heart. And thatís how," now her face softened even further and a hand gently smoothed the otherís red-gold hair, "despite all the horrors Iíve perpetrated, no matter how many people still see me as a bloodthirsty warlord, you believe in the good in me. Stay with me out of genuine friendship. You donít know how much I love ... that." it seemed like she wanted to say something other than that last word. Gabrielle knew. She closed her eyes when she felt the midnight hair fall across her face as Xena carefully leaned over and kissed her goodnight. I wish it could always be like this, Gabrielle thought.

"You should get some sleep. We both have a big day tomorrow."

The comfort didnít last however, for long after her companion had fallen asleep, Gabrielle lay there, replaying the words in her mind.

"Remember when you told me how you belived she regretted what sheíd done, that you forgave her?"

"Remember ..."

 

CHAPTER 4

Not dead? Not yet quite dead?
Othello

 

Gabrielle couldnít tell what hour it was, deep within Hephaestusí domain. Wandering the dimly lit caverns aimlessly, memories haunted her and doubts gnawed her tender heart. It felt bruised and aching without understanding fully why and so she had finally chosen to leave the bed since sleep had forsaken her. Careful not to disturb Xena, she didnít breathe freely until she was well past their chamber door.

A plain set of oak doors attracted her attention. Perhaps in there she could find some distraction to draw her away from the frightening turns her thoughts were taking. Opening the double doors only enough for her to slip through, she found, to her amazement, something which swept her up and consumed her senses. Statues of a woman in various poses. Busts of her showing various moods. On the walls hung protraits. At first she had thought them paintings yet as she regarded each in turn, realized they were all formed somehow with different coloured metals. In every line of every piece of the immortalís wondrous art - for who else but Hephaestus could have created these - she could feel the driving longing, the soul-rending loneliness, that made all this. All of the same woman. One which Gabrielle recognized.

The goddess, Aphrodite.

She looked about at length, consumed by the artistís pressing need for detail and realism. Unlike the others, oddly, one was in deep shadows, positioned sitting back on a high backed chair. It was only when she saw the regard of twin moons with dard gold shadows that she realized her mistake. That was no rendition of a goddess. That was a god.

"Er," she stumbled self-consciously, "Iím so sorry. I couldnít sleep so I thought a walk might do me some good and I saw the doors slightly open so I thought itíd be okay for me to come in and then all these renditions of Aphrodite were so amazing - how do you paint with metal? Well youíre a god so I guess thatís how, right? So anyway, it was all so beautiful I never realized there was anyone else here! Well, anyway," she found a sudden need to breathe, "I kinda got the impression you prefer to be alone so Iíll just go now, okay? Sorry toíve disturbed you and have a goodnight."

"Gabrielle," liquid silver, "itís alright. You donít have to leave ... or be nervous."

"Really, you donít mind?" she struggled to reign in her eagerness. "If you donít mind, Iíd like to stay. Maybe ask you some questions - talk yíknow?" She smiled, "And Iíll try not to be nervous."

She could have sworn, if only for a second, that those sensual lips had moved in a slight smile of genuine amusement.

"You want to know why Iím considered a god and not a goddess." It was not really a question.

Gabrielle nodded. "Like I said before, only if you wouldnít mind. After all, I know itís none of my business or anything. Was it a whole even number thing? I mean, 12 overgods, they wanted the gender ratio to sound even by saying there were six of each when thereís actually seven goddesses?"

"Not quite." the humourless laugh disturbed the hairs on the back of Gabrielleís neck. "My hateful mother, Hera, along with the rest of my so unloving family, had so despised being around a goddess of such vile looks, they chose to call me god rather that goddess." She heard the bitter, ancient resignation in her voice. "As if shunning me from Mt. Olympus was not enough insult added to injury."

"Thatís," her dark blue eyes were moist, "so cruel; so horrible. No one should ever grow up feeling unwanted by their friends and family.

"Such things," the words hardened to flint, "are the concerns of mortals."

Gabrielle shook her head vehemently. "I donít believe that. And neither do you. Gods have souls too. They - you - have feelings, desires, dislikes, even dreams. I donít think any of you gods - or goddesses - are really so different than us mortals. You couldnít create the beauty you do if you didnít have a soul. I can feel your loneliness and you must have courage and strength to have endured it. And," perhaps she was going too far as she gestured about her, "itís also obvious that you love. And love deeply."

"I observed," the god acknowledged Gabrielleís words by her

obstinate absence of acknowledgement, "that you recognized her."

"I actually met Aphrodite," sheíd try not to push, "a couple of times."

"Youíve probably also come across Ares."

"Yeah, hard to avoid when your travelling companion is his main interest."

"Indeed not." Again, the almost smile.

"Actually, I also met Cupid, Hercules - though heís a

demi-god - Hades sister, Celesta, saw Stryfe, was nearly sacrificed to be Morpheusí bride, and was nearly killed by Poseidan." She paused in reflection, "Youíre not like any of them. Theyíre all so ... petty and cruel."

"And you believe me" a dry laugh, "to be so different?"

"Youíre helping us," she pointed out blithely, "at some discomfort to yourself. And without any games or hidden agendas."

"That you know of."

"That I know." Gabrielle insisted emphatically with all the faith of an innocent.

"What I do," the voice now holding hints of iron, "I do to repay a debt - no more."

"Your actions are too self-sacrificing." Gabrielle saw the precipice that her words brought her to - and stepped. "You care. About Xena even, I think about me. Youíre touched too deeply by whatís around you to be otherwise. Though I admit," she bit her lower lip, "I donít understand - why Aphrodite?"

When Hephaestus didnít answer, her at first, Gabrielle felt true fear over the possibility of having gone too far. Or at least harmed for the words that bore far harder on their listener than the speaker. And she could see it, the flaring of the silver eyes, the sudden hard set to the face ... like Xena, she realized. However, Hephaestus chose to let the wounds remain unchallenged, for there is no harsher weapon than Truth. Instead, she leaned forward and covered her face with her hands to ease itís weight against them.

"You think me benevolent yet her cruel?" The irony in the tone was far from weightless. The following answer held a sober tone that warmed from a far deeper region of the soul, if indeed as Gabrielle believed, a god were capable of having one. "She was the only one of my kind to have shown me the slightest bit of kindness." The silver look was quiet again though somehow more brilliant. "Perhaps you will bear that in mind lest you misjudge her. For we have much in common, she and I."

With another, Gabrielle might have argued. This was no other, however, this was a voice of moonlight and eyes of silver and all the grace and bearing of divinity before her; complete with its divine and immortal suffering. Thus she acquiesced, with her eyes, her face, her body.

"Iím sorry."

"Donít be." a shadow smile, the third sheíd won. "Youíre very brave Gabrielle. Braver even than Xena in some ways. No," her look arrested Gabrielleís protests, "do not belittle my sentiment or yourself by disagreeing."

"Now," Hephaestus stood and approached her, "Iím sure you werenít about at this late hour to test my mettle, O Warrior Bard. You were having trouble sleeping and that, I may be able to ease. It is thoughts of your enemy that are causing you upset, is it not?"

"Ah," Gabrielle tried not to let all she felt crowd her, "yes."

"Here then, to help you sleep." The god took the hand that hung at Gabrielleís side and lifted it palm-up between them, never taking her eyes from Gabrielleís. At first, the mortal woman could only feel her hand, as if the rest of her body and all its nerves had crowded into that one appendage, starved for the sensations of otherworldly warmth and strength that suffused

into the touch of Hephaestusí hand upon her own. Then a different warmth was laid across, a weight yet weightless in this moment of ecstasy. Smooth. Soft even. And then her other hand taken and placed atop, covered by the godís. One heartbeat. Two. As the third released itís flow of blood so too did the god release her hands, a featherweight caress and then Gabrielle felt more in control of herself again.

She looked a what she now held. A chain across her palm, dangling below on either side were shackles. Ornate designs moved upon the metal when she tried to focus. Magic.

"My debt to Xena."

"This will," Gabrielle tried to wet her lips with a suddenly dry tongue, "stop Callisto?"

"Kill her, no," the god spoke in soothing tones, "but once you place the cuffs upon her, they will essentially - how can I put this simply - they will leech the powers the ambrosia gave her. Even render her closer to human mortality, though the conversion wonít be complete," she cast her a warning look, "or permanent. Only while the shackles remain on her. And once on, they lock. Iíve made no key."

Gabrielle peered at them, "And the metal?"

"Can be broken by no mortal means."

"I ..." So many feelings rushed over her from all this, "thank you. Now I guess, Xena and I will have to figure a way to get them on her."

"Leave that to me."

Gabrielle started at the voice coming from behind her and turned to see, "Xena."

Xena, who was indeed there in the doorway, gave a nod in greeting to Hephaestus as she walked towards her friend. "When you didnít come back to bed I began to worry."

If that was a mild rebuke, Gabrielle didnít feel it. "I .. got to talking with Hephaestus."

"I gathered." the other said drily. Gabrielle wondered how long sheíd been standing there. Xena lifted Hapheastusí invention from Gabrielle. "Impressive."

"How good," the god replied with equal dryness, "of you to approve. Will you next ask me if it works?"

If it were not so deathly a concern, Xena might have laughed at the indignant tone in those words. "You are sure then?"

"For what you want, yes. Its full effect is questionable but it will render her to only mortal powers - if you exclude the immortality. She will be open to attack and capture."

"Once," Gabrielle added, "and only when theyíre actually on."

"And thatís why," with her free hand, Xena held Gabrielle by the shoulder, "when we do find her, I want you to stay clear. Let me handle this."

"No way." The dark eyes flashed in hurt anger. "Where you go, I go. I will not sit on the wayside while you go up against her. Iíve suffered too much - we both have - at her hands for me to let you face her alone." She raised her chin a notch. "We face her together or not at all."

"Gabrielle -", Xena began to argue the point when a low howling shook the entire mountain from the sound and breadth of it. In the silence that followed, Hapheastus looked grim and said in words of stone, "It looks like you have no choice. That was an inner perimeter alarm. Nothing mortal could have gotten that far." the god explained. "Callistoís here."

 

CHAPTER 5

Lest auld acquaintance be forgot
Auld Lang Syne

 

Callisto walked the halls of Hapheastusí stronghold impatiently. She was on the hunt and there was no known creature that could rival her obsessive determination. One person had tried, and Velascaís charred remains were lost in a bed of moving lava. A black, knee high boot turned a corner and pale eyes of white (their original brown lost to the effects of the ambrosia) peered into the forge of the god. Without hesitation, she stepped inside.

"You know Hapheastus," she jeered cheerily, long blonde waves of hair flashing in the firelight, "I expected you to be more of a challenge - being a god and all. Clever though," she walked casually around the inner sanctum, sparse, clinking chain mail overlayed her studded, sleeveless, black leather armour; the skirt whispering against bare legs except for the knee braces. She adjusted one of her forearm guards, "the way you had those spears shoot out merely to chase the person, if their impossibly fast enough to escape to that river of lava." A slender hand picked up one of the many treasures lying about, regarded it and threw it over her shoulder indifferently. "But the spears, well, all I had to do was pull them out of my body ... and as for the lava," she looked gleeful, "Iíve just recently left from some. Is that really all you could do?" she took out an evil looking blade from her boot and smiled. "Why donít you come out and say hello to your newest family member? Hmm?"

"Arrogant," came the cool, low voice, "to assume that merely because you ate the food of the gods, it makes you one."

Callisto turned to face the speaker and laughed mockingly in her surprise. "So the god Hapheastus is actually some scarred woman! My, my, wait till word gets out about this." She cocked her head and crossed her arms, tapping the blade against her lips. "But I donít want to fight with you really. Just give me what I want and Iíll go. Consider it a familial gesture on your part."

"I donít take kindly to visitors." Hapheastus said non-plussed. "Especially false relations."

"Oh, but I am a god: immortal." she stepped closer, "Invulnerable," even closer, "complete with powers."

"You ignorant, fragmented, psychotic fool." She sneered at Callisto, "You have yet to truly understand the full suffering that immortality mandates. Nor could you - a mortal - comprehend what it is to be born imbued with the essence and power of a god. Throw around all the pathetic lightening and wind you wish, little wanna be," the god turned her back and began to walk away from the enraged woman. "It cannot harm anything here, let alone me."

Callisto screamed in outrage and launched herself at the god. The bolts exploded yet failed to mark or move the tall figure before her. The dagger broke against the godís breast. Her kick merely resulted in her being propelled against the cavern wall - hard. The sickening thud would have meant death for a normal mortal. Not to Callisto. "Look," she snapped as she quickly stood up, "all I want is the Hel stone. Either give it to me or Iíll stay and sooner or later I will find a way to hurt you."

The silver gaze narrowed, "The Hel stone is what youíre after - nothing else?"

"Are you trying to play games with me?" Her mood swings as changing as the direction of the wind, Callisto now re-approached the god coyly, as if her murderous rage seconds before never existed. "I should warn you," her eyes rounded in a sudden show of astute insanity, "I always win at games."

Hapheastus sat in a high back chair of wrought iron and reclined, her eyes now half-lidded as she seemed to contemplate the invader. "Like the way you lost against Xena? Do you somehow delude yourself into thinking of your failure as the reverse?"

"Youíre not as ignorant of the mortal world as your reputation would suggest." Callisto half-sneered, half-cajoled. "Iíve defied death and gods and goddesses alike in my mission to avenge myself on Xena for the death of my family, my innocence!" her voice began to rise. She realized it and recomposed herself. "The Hel stone will help me in achieving that dream."

"Who told you such wondrous lies?"

The fair woman shrugged, "Some misshapen woman with different coloured eyes. No doubt some temple servant. She told me in her last moments all about the power of the Hel stone that even the gods of Olympus fear. I fear nothing so Iíll just take all that power for myself and unleash it on my sweet Xena when I find her." How the pale eyes glowed at that.

"Xena," the god spoke so quietly that Callisto had to strain to hear her, "is here."

"Thatís right," if Callisto had been other than insane and obsessed with Xena, she would have felt the wrath in the half-smile Hapheastus now wore. Even the torch fires had sense enough to flicker away from it. "Your arch-enemy is here. So is the person closest to her heart. So is the stone. Now Callisto, whatever will you do?"

"Tell me where they are," her words burned with all she felt, "or do you protect them?"

"Do I?"

"Donít toy with me! Do you?!"

"I would never toy with someone so good at games." The god had not moved a fraction, still as a statue except the mouth that spoke, "If I told you where they were, would you take them and go? Leave me to my seclusion?"

"Donít want me to make a mess in this huge closet of yours? Fine," she crossed her arms impatiently, "just point the way and Iíll grab and run. After all," an evil curl of her lips, that might have been a smile on another, twisted her face, "I have no intention of killing them so quickly. Xena has to be made to suffer for what sheís done to me."

Her host raised an arm almost lazily. Callisto followed where the supple hand pointed and grinned like a greedy child. "Youíll excuse me for feeding my hatred and running wonít you?"

She strode without a backward glance toward the unlit passage that the long finger still pointed towards. "Her suffering is all I ever wanted," she said and crossed over.

"Callisto," only the fire heard the words, "youíre a liar." And the god snapped those same fingers.

Chains appeared to come from the very air, aimed straight as beams of light towards the immortal mortal. Her senses, alert for the constant possibility of expected betrayal, Callisto tried to dodge the shafts of chains and smash others aside. Tried and failed. They were too fast, ensnaring her limbs, her body, even around her neck. The sword she had used in an attempt to break them lay shattered at her feet. Callisto couldnít move a hair due to their now still tautness.

With eyes wide with rage she watched helplessly as Hapheastus walked slowly toward her; something swaying in one hand. As she came to stand directly before the woman - her captive - Callisto saw that the god held ornate manacles of no human making.

"Foolish girl," with a certain finality, Hapheastus closed a manacle on one wrist, removing the leather and mail arm guards, "did you truly think you could crash into my private domain and not pay the price?" She closed the other one, the two wrists were bound behind and together.

"You canít," the words scratched from the chain about neck, "kill me."

"Perhaps." Too late now Callisto recognized the smile for what it was.

She could merely stare at the towering figure of cold fury before her.

"Xena and Gabrielle really are here. If you had merely waited, they would have left and had to have bound you themselves. For any other mortal, itíd have been certain suicide. For them, a 50-50 chance. As soon as you invaded my home. You made it personal. The ease with which I caught you was pathetic. The first time Xena came here, without your invulnerability or vaunted immortality, she gave me a true competition."

"You speak of suffering," the eyes that seared hers with contempt were as relentless as the godís words, "Why? Because all you cared for was taken from you? Because you were left alone with your hatred time and time again?" A hand wrapped the chain leashed against Callistoís neck and pulled her closer, painfully pulling her taut body. "You havenít even begun to understand the word. Iíve lived half an eternity with mine! Your life is but a blink of an eye by comparison. You, who were born out of love in a family that loved dare try to fling your petty tyranny as vengeful hardship to me! A god who has never, since the birth of the world, ever known love from anyone! Your insolence and stupidity truly know no bounds!" She released her with a sharp fling of her hand.

"Before I deliver you to your enemies know this," something in her voice caused an unfamiliar, unsettling feeling to rise in Callistoís breast, "those charming bindings also bind your immortality and its powers. If you doubt me, look in any mirror in a day or two. They are also made by me and therefore nothing of mortal hands or mortal land can break them. As for the last," Hapheastus raised Callistoís chin with one finger and saw all that lay behind the face of the other, "Iím aware of the truth. You speak of avenging yourself by destroying Xena. Believe the lie if it helps you sleep at night but I know what you really want. And it wonít be long before the bard sees into your heart as well." The god stepped away in one fluid motion, the iron of and in her unbending will, "You have every right to fear."

It was the last thing Callisto heard before something caused her head to feel like it exploded and mercifully, she knew no more.

 

Xena regarded her enemyís unconscious form vigilantly and with disquiet. She stood in the labyrinth of seemingly endless caverns that wove and webbed beyond the forge godís sanctum. The god herself stood only paces away, watching her just as carefully as she watched Callisto.

"She wonít wake up for some time yet." The god only offered facts, not empty reassurance; she wouldnít say itíll be alright. How could she? "Gabrielle should return soon enough. I showed her the passage that would take her and Argo to the village there. The people there serve my temple and will care well for your horse."

"I should have anticipated it." but damn, she really needed her horse now especially. "Her violent reaction to Callisto when we went outside with her. She had almost killed Argo after all ..." Xena could not afford such a burden - in many a sense - not now. Nor could Gabrielle. "Are you sure you canít keep her here until we return?"

Hapheastus slowly shook her head. "Sheís too cunning, too dangerous. All she would have to do is even tap those cuffs on any other item of my making and sheíd be free. Is there no one you can entrust her to?"

"No." now it was Xenaís turn to shake her head. "Itís as you said, sheís too dangerous," her slow admission revealed her reluctance, "and Iím the only fighter I know who can best her."

"I do not wish to pry," the music of the voice and the godís easy grace and looks made it difficult to remember her strong aversion to contact with others - until moments like these, when the words were spoken slowly as if chosen carefully, Ďyour plan is to return the stone to Helís temple? To travel to the Northlands?"

"Yes. I have to get this weapon away from Aresí reach. Taking Callisto along was not part of the plan but I can see no alternative. Iíll have to rent horses. We have no time to lose. The journey will take months as it is."

"If I may be of further service," how odd an experience to hear these words from a god let alone one such as this, "these tunnels are not what they appear. Time and distance are somewhat malleable to them." Xena could tell from the narrowed eyes that Hapheastus was being careful in what she chose to tell her, and that what she was not being told was a great deal. "I can show you a certain passage that will take you there in less than an hour. Only to the edge of the Norse lands however ..."

This was more than Xena could have dared hope for yet she sensed a weight between her and the god. Her years as a veteran warrior gave her the discipline to wait for what had to be the dropping of Ďthe other shoeí. "There is a ... thing you should be made aware of." The god closed her magnificent eyes briefly, "You must be sworn to secrecy about it however, for if you should tell anyone - anyone - not only will your and their souls be made forfeit, but I will be held accountable."

"On my honour and my life," for Xena there was no hesitation, "I swear."

"There is an unspoken agreement among us gods; never, ever do we go to war directly with each other. To do so would result in the destruction of the world for such is the monstrosity of our power. This is not our only unspoken understanding. Between gods of different regions, such as the Norse gods and us Olympians, there is also an understanding of no direct fighting. To ensure this, there exists a barrier of sorts upon our different territories. This barrier affects any god upon alien soil; in unpredictable ways. Although a godís power cannot be entirely negated it can be affected in such a way that one cannot use oneís power effectively thereby limiting it." A look of distaste came and went over the strong, beautiful face, "Hence, the use of humans as pawns in any quarrels between us so-called omnipotent beings."

"Why tell me this? Is it possible that Callistoís immortality will further be affected there?"

"It is probable", Hapheastus nodded. "How, I cannot say, as no immortal or god has tried to traverse foreign soil to test the barrierís effects." She reached within the folds of her midnight shirt and held out something to the mortal before her. It was a simple tin whistle, the size of a thumb. "I tell you so that I may give you this and so that you will fully comprehend what you ask and risk should you use it." She held Xenaís eyes. "If it should come down to no other options for you and or Gabrielle, should the danger become too great, use this and it will call me to you."

Xena looked at the object Hapheastus placed in her hand then looked back up at the god, "I ... I donít know what to say." I never expected this, despite our past. "Thank you."

"Do not show or speak of any of this to Gabrielle. The more people who know, no matter how trusted, the greater the risk of other gods finding out. And their punishment would be no small thing."

"Neither is your generosity," Xena still felt the weight of the gesture, "once given. Now Iím in your debt."

"Please," Hapheastusí eyes closed as if against pain, "do not say such things to me. I have not changed so much since our last meeting that such praise would not wound me."

"But you have," Xena gentled, "changed."

"As," the ghost of a smile, "have you."

"If only it had been sooner," the warrior sighed, her eyes turned inward to thoughts of her past, "before I went so far down the path of evil."

A smile full of tenderness caressed her face, a face rarely seen by any except Gabrielle. "Gabrielle helps ... more than she knows." She looked back at Hapheastus, "You see it too, donít you?" It wasnít really a question. "You wouldnít have been so kind and open with her if you hadnít."

"What I was fortunate to observe Xena," the sound of her name surprised Xena, closing the distance between them though neither had moved, "are two people who are very lucky to have found each other."

The real shock was to come, as the god softly took the otherís shoulders in her strong hands. "It worries me too though. I see what you two mean to each other and how much ... More than that though. My friend, if I may call you such," Xena knew how much these words, this openness, this reaching out to another must have pained the god, "you depend on her too much."

Xena had a sudden urge to step away from those hands, the otherís concern, but dared not. "Xena, do you remember when you knelt down in prayer that night you feared Gabrielle would be swallowed up and lost by her grief and rage over Callisto murdering her husband?"

"Yes." she answered, puzzled. "I said Ďif anyoneís listening ... I was ready to give up once and then Gabrielle came into my life. Please, donít let that light that shines out of her face go out.í ..."

Hapheastus took over her words, "ĎI couldnít stand the darkness that would follow.í"

Xena stared at her.

"You see," she felt a sad gentleness emanating from the god, "someone was listening after all."

"You heard me." Xena whispered, speaking mostly to herself.

The sadness, the loneliness, reached the moonlight eyes. "After everything that passed between us, how could I not feel your pain and longing as though it were my own?"

It was not really a question.

"Thatís why I must say this to you. The goodness of your own soul, you attribute to Gabrielle. All the wishes, all the hopes you have from your countless regrets, youíve put on to her. You depend on her for your own goodness because of how much you hate yourself for all that you have done when you were other than who you are today. Itís wrong. Itís unfair to you both. Once she had you on a pedestal, but now she admires you, respects you and has never felt the hate that you feel for yourself. Gabrielle understands how you once were yet knows itís not who you are; even though you still doubt yourself. If something were to happen to her, not even death, but if she lost her way, youíve depended on her so much that it would result in the loss of you as well." She held Xena more firmly. "That kind of burden will break a friendship sooner or later, no matter how close, how miraculous that friendship is."

The god still held her a moment following the silence that came to blanket them. When she released her, Xena felt the cold where her warmth had just been.

"I wouldnít have said any of this to you, especially when you are about to go into danger, but I do not know when, if ever, we will meet again."

"Itís," Xena was having trouble forming words, her heart and mind ached so, "a lot to consider." My past, you, Gabrielle and me. "It will have to wait until this," the stone, Callisto, "is taken care of."

"Of course." the midnight head bowed slightly. "Your friend has returned."

The whistle had been carefully tucked away by the time Xena heard the familiar footsteps which slowed dramatically as the red-blonde haired woman caught sight of them and the unconscious form lying near the other side of the tunnel.

"Are those," Xena nodded at the bundles Gabrielle carried, "everything we listed?" She wanted to ask ĎAre you alright?í but, of course, she wasnít. How could her friend be with the murderer lying between them.

Gabrielleís eyes never left Callistoís prone body, "Yeah, food supplies, lots of fresh water, couple of blankets and warm clothing."

When the bard did not approach them any nearer, Xena walked the short distance to her, clasping Gabrielleís shoulder. "Hey, you donít have to come along. I can manage things from here."

Gabrielleís blue gaze was darker for the hurt now reflected there; hurt and anger. "I canít run away from this - from her." She blinked back the sudden burning in her eyes. "I wouldnít be able to live with myself if something happened to you and I wasnít there. Especially if," the name came out thick, "Callisto was that something. She already murdered someone I loved. Iím not about to risk that happening again." She released a slow and somewhat shaky breath. "And it doesnít help when you patronize me like you just did. Iím not the same helpless girl you saved in Potedia you know. Since then Iíve learned to handle myself pretty well in a crises."

Xena withdrew her hand, "I know that. Itís just that I donít want to see you get hurt. I know how hard this must be on you."

"Then letís not argue." Gabrielle absently brushed at her skirt. "And get this over and done with as soon as possible."

Sheís trying to make it easier for me, with no regard for herself. Maybe she will be okay. Then why, Xena wondered, did she feel this constriction in her chest, making it hard to breathe?

"Gabrielle," came the godís call, softly pulling them out of the momentís pensiveness, "this would be best taken care of by you as you are without any edged weapons or metal coverings." Hapheastus held out the Held stone, felt the mortal hand brush hers lighter than a breeze as the bard took it. "Though I doubt any such things could break it, Iíd rather you took no chances. The secrets it holds remain safe since I was unable to fathom them. The sphereís markings, its fabrication, remain a mystery. Any mechanism to activate it is indiscernible. As for its contents, though I know not what the sphere itself is made of, it is without a doubt, a containment for the evil that rolls within it." Her voice both quieted and deepened, "I can sense the evil within. It is immensely strong and somehow knowing, insidious. Exactly how, I cannot say. I am truly sorry that I could learn nothing useful for you."

"Youíve done more than enough, really." Xena could tell by the rushed way Gabrielle spoke, that she was on edge. The bard put the stone into the leather pouch that held her scrolls. She unnecessarily adjusted the shoulder strap that hung across her chest down to the pouch that rested on the opposite hip. "So Xena, how are we gonna get to one of Helís temples with Callisto along? We canít carry her all that way."

"Oh I wouldnít dream of inconveniencing either of you." came an unexpected voice from the floor. "After all, I plan on being much more than a mere inconvenience."

"Callisto." Xena said drily while carefully stepping closer to a position between the blonde who now sat up (awkwardly with her arms manacled behind her) and her friend.

"Xena!" Her white eyes had a cunning look in them, despite the crazed gleam and overly large smile. "Ooh! And little Gabrielle. How nice of you to plan a welcome-back-from-the-lava-pit-we-trapped-you-in reunion for me." She cocked her head to the side, gave a single nod towards the god Hapheastus who stood behind her. "Having others fight your battles for you though, what fun is that." Callisto stood, her smile widening maliciously at the way Gabrielle took a step back and levelled her staff at her. "Soon your little friend will be more of a warrior than you are."

"Iíll live." Xena answered in the same dry tone.

"Will you?" Callistoís voice hardened just underneath the words. Her smile didnít drop a hairís breadth.

A shove from behind sent Callisto stumbling past both women. She whirled on one heel only to come face to face with Hapheastus.

"Might I suggest," the god was speaking to Callisto, and the piercing eyes never left hers, "that we walk and taunt at the same time?"

It was a command to move, more than a suggestion.

They proceeded, an odd train of hostility. Callisto in front, being sent forward rather than leading with Hapheastus only a step behind her. Gabrielle followed nearly shoulder to shoulder with Xena, intentionally keeping close to her friend and a breath ahead. The heavy silence would have been left unmarred were it not for Callisto.

"I didnít realize that you took pity on mere mortals, Hapheastus." she tossed over her shoulder. "Or were you so touched by Xenaís innate goodness," the foulness of the word to its speaker apparent to all ears, "like your half-brother, Hercules, that you felt compelled to help her?"

Silence.

"Whatís the matter god of ugliness," she said with vindictive glee, "righteousness got your tongue?" She laughed, not waiting for any response this time. "Still playing the heroine Xena? You may have even the gods fooled," the edge to her voice came openly as the false cheerfulness evaporated, "but not me! I know you for the murderer you truly are!! Do you really think you can hold me captive for long? Even Tartarous couldnít hold me! If I can escape death how can these chains of Hapheastus hope to hold me? And once free, Iíll do exactly what I said I would. Iíll destroy everything you hold dear: your family; your special friend ... even your horse. Especially your precious Gabrielle. Iíll destroy every pure thing in your life and watch as your pretense to goodness crashes down around you. And then," even from behind and in the wanly lit tunnel, Xena could see the fire that burned within the look thrown over Callistoís shoulder, "itíll be just you and me. Just like I always wanted. Just as it was meant to be."

"Meant to be?" Surprisingly it was Gabrielle who scoffed derisively. And either didnít see or ignored the warning look Xena gave her.

"Of course. Xena and I are bound by hate. After all, who do you think about more - Perdicus or the person who killed him? That being me. However, since all my hatred is for Xena, that leaves you with only my peripheral angst. Donít worry though, Xenaís treasured friend, Iíll get out of these manacles soon and then we can spend some quality time together before I eventually kill you. So try not to feel too left out." The smile that was no smile, returned.

"You might not find me," Gabrielleís voice deepened with emotion, "so easy a target."

"That will just make it all the more fun for me."

"Thatís enough." Xena cut in.

"Oh", Callisto snarled suddenly, "far from enough my sweet!"

With that, she gave her shrill battle yell as she suddenly vaulted into a back flip going over the godís head to land, ready to fight, hands bound behind her, the two mortal women.

At least, that had been the plan.

Instead, a hand of steel caught one of her ankles during the overhead aerial manoeuvre, and threw her forward again to land unceremoniously on her backside against the stone floor. She was facing them at least.

"And you," Callistoís directed a sullen, smoldering glare at the god, "have made an enemy of me this day. That makes you either supremely stupid or immensely overconfident." She stood, her face only inches from the godís, "Either way, Iíll break free of your pathetic little toy and sooner or later, Iíll make you suffer for this."

One of the godís sable brows rose eloquently. Obeying the will of their maker, the manacles rose, lifting the bound Callisto with them. In mid-air, she was rotated until she was hanging upside down. In helpless humiliation, she screamed in rage, kicking out in futility.

"Enemies is a relationship implying equality." Hapheastus instructed calmly, "Learn."

It was in that state that Callisto was forced to continue the journey down the tunnel. She continued to rage, floating powerlessly, while the others remained silent. One time, she actually spat at the god. A testament to how frustrated she was as she would rarely have used vulgarity futilely.

Within no short duration, a difference came upon the tunnels. At first it was merely a trifle colder. Then the torch flames changed from red-orange to an unearthly blue-white. The entire tunnel was basked in their eerie glow.

Callisto quieted her struggles, "Nice colour. Reminds me a little of Tartarous - cold, morose, creepy ... Do you and Hades share the same decorator?"

"Is everything actually okay?" Gabrielle ventured a little worriedly. "I mean, this isnít some kind of alarm or omen or something is it?"

"Nothing like that," the forge god answered Gabrielle, "it merely means we are nearing your destination."

An arm came and went from the bardís shoulders; a quick squeeze of reassurance from Xena. And sure enough, the echoes of their footfalls (only Xenaís and Gabrielleís as Callisto was still airborne upside down and Hapheastusí steps made no sound at all) receded as the opening at last became visible. Once reached, they could see the flat country that lay beyond. Tufts of greenery and even flowers sparsely pushed out of it; stray and stubborn. Snow-capped mountains could be seen from a far distance; an edge of pine trees as well. Though the sky was bright and cloudless, the sun seemed far away as though it too shunned the landís empty expanse. The exact colours, though they appeared to be washed out browns and greys were difficult to distinguish as the blue light covered the opening like a semi-transparent veil.

"Youíd best get your warmer clothing ready." Hapheastus suggested. "There is a considerable difference between their climate and ours."

"Weíll change once weíre on the other side." Xena replied.

"All you have to do is walk across. The light wonít harm you. Go ahead. Iíll send the delinquent out after you."

"Thanks," Xena nodded, full with what lay ahead of her and not comfortable with goodbyes, she stepped out to the open space beyond without hesitation.

Gabrielle felt no such discomfort.

She went right up to the god and to the godís shock, hugged her - without hesitation.

"Thank you," she whispered in Hapheastusí ear, "for all youíve done. I hope we meet again someday."

"Thank you," the god breathed into her, touching somewhere indefinable to the otherwise articulate bard. And returned the fierce embrace with a gentleness that belied the hard body.

Some eternities only last the length of a heartbeat. And so it was for these two, god and mortal, midnight moon and summer sunlight. When they pulled apart, the god slid something into Gabrielleís hand.

She inspected the four metal bits that lay there. Then looked up at Hapheastus in confusion.

"Here," she spoke softly to Gabrielle taking one of the pieces and then touching it to the outer ridge of her ear, "this will only sting for a second." There was a sharp piercing pain that was over before it began. Gabrielle gingerly touched the small metal band now fixed upon her ear.

"Itís a ... gift." Hapheastus gave her a ghost of a smile. "It can actually be placed anywhere on the ears, either as a cuff or an earring. Give the other two to Xena. They will allow you both to understand and be understood by the people here."

"You mean that even though weíre speaking Greek and theyíll be speaking Norse weíll each hear our own language?" The god nodded. "Wow. How do they work?"

"Magic - how else." Now she did smile and because of that, Gabrielle couldnít tell whether Hapheastus was answering her seriously or not.

The god didnít give her time to consider. Hapheastus nodded toward the blue veil, "Youíd best hurry over lest your friend worry."

"Yeah, she is a little overprotective. Bye!" Gabrielle waved back as she crossed over.

"Awww,í jeered Callisto, "nothing for me? Iím so hurt." Even upside down she glared hotly at the god. "Donít be concerned though, when I come back Iíll have plenty to share with you."

"You will get yours Callisto." the god, upon Gabrielleís departure now became all fierce edges and words of ice and iron. "It is merely not mine to mete out."

On the other side, Xena and Gabrielle were met by the sudden appearance of Callisto, still inverted, to be unceremoniously dropped on her head.

Picking herself up in fury, she growled, "Iíll kill her. I wonít let that freak get away with this."

Xena crossed her arms and cocked an eyebrow. "Really? And how do you think you can accomplish that?"

"All I have to do, once I take care of you, is find my way back to this ..", she turned around to point out what she was talking about, "..cave??"

Callisto saw what the other two already knew, having passed through before her. There was no cave there, no mountain, nothing. All that lay before her was the northern tundra which stretched on for what seemed like forever.

It was as if the tunnel never existed.

Callisto turned to face the two women with a sudden, and most unfriendly, smile, "Well, well," sounding deadly cheerful, "an excursion into unknown territory with my two favourite people. This," her eyes shone evilly, "is going to be fun."

 

INTERLUDE

 

Suddenly, all over the regions of Greece and Rome and beyond, catastrophes, both small and large, struck. In a quiet town, a violent brawl suddenly erupted. In a farming community, neighbours used tools that once nurtured the soil to now draw blood from one another in an unforseen argument turned ugly. In a home where lived a family admired for their love and kindness, now lay the husband dead in a pool of his own blood, a carving knife protruding from his back where his wife, for no known reason, had plunged it. In another area, two kingdoms which had known peace for centuries, unexpectedly broke out into war. In a field some distance away from all such things, a brother raised a stone to bludgeon his sibling simply because he wanted the otherís toy.

The anger of Ares, the god of war, was never a thing lightly felt. So it was no surprise then, that when he discovered the men slaughtered by Callisto, the interference of aid given by the god Hapheastus, and that somehow the human he coveted like none other had been mysteriously whisked away to a land beyond his reach, that those in the world under his domain should be touched in some manner by his fury.

Ares cleaved the marble table before him in two with his sword. A gesture of his impotent rage. Even his attendants - Fear, Terror, Discord and Dread - flew from his ire.

"Such brutal acts of futility," spoke Chaos indifferently from where the shadows played about him like affectionate children, "is unbecoming to a god, whether it suits you or not."

"That those within my own family should conspire against me!!" Ares roared pacing the room in his black leather like a restless tiger. "That freak!! We should have made that cave her grave!"

"She is your sister," Chaos let the words slide out, "one of the twelve Overgods of Olympus ..."

"Her! An Olympian!", the other snarled, then stopped pacing, forcing self-discipline as he began to ponder. "Why would Hapheastus have anything to do with humans - even Xena, let alone help them ...?"

"Perhaps they met before?", the question was too innocent for the answer to be unknown to its speaker. "Oh. Forgive me. You, who have spent Xenaís life watching her, would surely know such things."

"Hmm," Ares moved about the room, "thereís a year where I lost complete track of Xena. It was as if she had completely disappeared from the face of the earth. Iíve still never been able to find out what happened or where she was during that time."

"How ... frustrating that must be for an Overgod, let alone one such as yourself." Oh, yes, Chaos did act the part of the concerned relation so well. All golden compassion and silver flattery.

"Itís the least of my problems." Ares growl was quieter yet no less threatening. "That bitch Callsito killed my men and the Norse. How she escaped the lava and found out about the Hel stone ... that troubles me. Damn her! If I ever get my hands around her pretty little neck ..!"

"Is your plan to turn Xena evil with the Hel stone thwarted then?", coaxed the other, darker god. "Your chance to have her bring the world under your rule, lost?"

Ares sat in a high backed chair, a hand to his bearded chin. "Not yet. They must still have the stone on them. Thereís a chance they could break it and Xena could become infected." He grinned with the thought, renewed in his determination, "This is all far from over."

"Indeed," murmured the god of chaos, his mismatched eyes hidden by shadows that kept the sudden flame within them unseen.

 

PART 2