Convert This Page to Pilot DOC FormatConvert this page to Pilot DOC Format

Editor's Choice Award


by Anon.

It is daytime in the meadow of eternal summer. The sun shines warmly on a group of women reclined on the grassy slopes listening to the soft music playing in the air. The strains drift teasingly on the wind as the musician skillfully plies the lyre she is holding. The sounds are perfect and precise, yet the notes contain an enchanting quality that no mortal music could ever equal. As the player finally winds down, her audience of eight smile and clap appreciatively. The musician bows slightly before resettling back on the grassy ground.

"It's my turn." one of them stands up as her sister sits down.

"Oh, Mellie, you're always so depressing. Let's have some poetry, now, shall we?"

"Surely, not any of your own, Erato." another of the women argued. "Your work is rather to intense for such a lovely day."

"Poly does have a point, Erato," the eldest of them gently stills the debate with a wave and all eight turn to regard her with respect. " For I believe it is Callie's turn to share her art with the world."

"Yes, so it is." a young performer stands up, with an odd look on her face. She has been unusually quiet, her sisters notice, and seemed to be unduly disturbed about some matter, which was truly odd. For there were supposed to be no troubles in the meadow of eternal summer, only dreams and half fantasies waiting to be formed into substance. "Today, sisters, I do have an interesting tale to spin, one which I do not know the outcome of." Callie notices that her words have caught the complete attention of her sisters.

"How can that be?" the eldest has gotten up in alarm.

"Because this story has yet to unfold." the girl says quietly, with a distant look in her eyes. In the distance, she can already see storm clouds beginning to unfold across the normally azure sky. She knows that time is short and prepares to give herself to the performance. She only hopes that she will be able to finish it in time. "I sing of a mighty princess, forged in the heat of battle...."

The sun was nearing its apex when the two travelers reached the top of the hill. One of them, who was astride a beautiful palomino, stopped shortly to view the landscape around her. Her piercing gaze swept over the hills and the trees, taking in the details and drinking in information like a dry sponge soaks up water. Her companion, however, seemed to see the surroundings in a much different light.

"Isn't the view lovely." she breathed, eyes sparkling in wonder.

"I guess." the rider shrugged. "But if you've seen one part of Greece, you've seen it all. Pretty good location to defend though, if push comes to shove."

"Oh Xena, that's not what I meant." the younger of the two swung the staff she was carrying in a wide arc. "Look at the trees, the grass, the sweet smelling reminds me of a story I once heard."

"Not again, Gabrielle." Xena rolled her eyes. "Everything reminds you of a story."

Gabrielle just grinned in response. Xena tried to muffle a groan as she urged Argo on. It was inevitable. As soon as they began walking, Gabrielle launched into her fifth story for the day.

"And the great Dragon, flaring its five heads..."

"Last time you said it was three." Xena reminded her.

"Five, three, what's the difference?" Gabrielle smiled. "Anyway, this six headed dragon, with venom dripping from its wide gaping jaws..."

"Can't you just stick to the facts? It was a three headed dragon Hercules fought, and there was no venom." Xena griped, although her eyes held the slightest trace of a smile. Gabrielle ignored her .

"And closer it came to the gallant hero, but Hercules never flinched. With his brave companion, Iolaus by his side, he charged, striking at the monster with ...hmmm what do you think sounds better, clashing swords or bare handed attack?"

"Neither. " Xena snorted "If I remember correctly, he used arrows."

"You're no fun. We bards have to embellish a little to keep the audience interested." Gabrielle grinned. "Just wait until you hear my newest version of our battle with Draco."

"Not again! " Xena grumbled. "No, I do not want to hear it."

"Come on Xena, where else am I going to get any practice?"

Xena looked at her uncomfortably."Somewhere else. I do not relish hearing our adventures blown way out of proportion."

"But think what it would do to your reputation."

"That's what I'm worried about." Xena sighed. "People tend to get an overblown idea of what I can or can't do. I'm just a simple warrior , Gabrielle, nothing more or less. The way your stories tend to go, it seems like I can solve any problem and defeat any foe."

"But you can!" Gabrielle insisted. "I haven't seen you lose yet!"

Xena gave the young bard a wry smile. "The operative word is `yet'. It's just a matter of time."

Gabrielle hesitated at the somber note that had crept into the warrior's voice. "Xena, there's nothing you can't do." she said confidently. "I believe in you."

Xena shook her head in reflection as she gazed fondly at her friend. "I'm only mortal, you know. And I have been defeated before. I wouldn't be here if I hadn't been. Sometimes, a step backward tends to be more enlightening than any victory." She hid her smile at Gabrielle's puzzled expression. "You'll understand one day."

Gabrielle could tell that Xena was reluctant to elaborate further. As was her talent, the bard decided to switch to a more comfortable subject. " Anyway, what about this opening scene. It's the middle of the day and this huge band of warlords have surrounded a poor defenseless village. All hope seems lost, when out of the woods thunders Xena, Warrior Princess. She brave, she's smart, and she really knows how to kick some as-"

"Gabrielle, enough." Xena held up a hand. "Could we talk about something else besides your stories? If you'd spend half the time practicing your staff that you do composing tales, then you'd be the greatest warrior this side of the Styx."

Gabrielle stopped and tried not to let the hurt show on her face. She had been practicing as much as she could with her staff, but somehow, warfare never seemed to thrill her soul like carefully choosing and weaving words into an animated tapestry of their adventures. Although there were some exhilarating moments when she fought side by side with her best friend, nothing could ever take the place of her first love of telling a tale and telling it well.

Xena could tell that she had hurt the small bard's feelings. "You're doing fine with your staff, and you've grown much better at it. I know you're doing your best. It's nothing to be ashamed about that you like storytelling more than fighting. It's a good thing, in my opinion. The world needs people like you. One day the our land will be ruled by people who use words instead of weapons to make peace. Count on it."

Gabrielle nodded, although she still felt a tiny bit of sorrow. However, it was not in her nature to brood for long and Xena could tell that another long drawn story was coming her way unless she did something fast.

"Gabrielle, I'm really not in the mood for your storytelling." she warned.

The bard frowned. "Okay." She shrugged as she fiddled with the bag at her side. Xena raised an eyebrow. The bard didn't usually give up that easily. She sighed as she realized why her friend had agreed. Gabrielle had pulled out her pan pipe.

"I wanted to work on my composition anyway." Gabrielle grinned.

"No. Not on your life." Xena leaned over the saddle and grabbed the instrument from the bard's hands. "I do not want to go deaf any time soon." She tucked the small instrument safely away from her friend's grasp.

Gabrielle pouted. "If you won't let me tell stories or play music, what do you want me to do?"

"I'll make you a deal. If you can make it to the next town without making another sound, we'll stop there for a meal or two. Otherwise, it's trail rations again."

Gabrielle frowned, her bard's instincts fighting with her love of food. Finally, her hunger won out and she nodded her agreement.

"Don't look so miserable. Cotidi is only a couple of hours away. This exercise will help you learn patience. When we get to the tavern, you can tell as many stories as you want, as long as I don't have to hear them." Xena spurred Argo to a fast trot. Gabrielle followed, still silent, but with a stubborn look on her face.

They arrived at Cotidi in record time. Xena was surprised that Gabrielle had managed to keep her part of the bargain, although the trail there had be filled with many scenic sights that would have normally sent the bard into a torrent of chatter. Although she would never admit it to her friend, Xena had missed the Potidean's steady voice. Gabrielle had a way of seeing the world as if each day was unique and every trail lead to some uplifting discovery. Her curiosity and fascination with life permeated everything the bard did. This was especially evident when Gabrielle launched into one of her stories. Xena cherished this trait in her friend, even if at times she wished that the bard would find other materials for her tales besides embellishing Xena's own adventures.

After finding a suitable stable for Argo and getting directions for the nearest tavern, Xena and Gabrielle headed out to see the town. Gabrielle surveyed the market with a wary eye as she neared the tavern. There were many people milling about in the afternoon sun, and the square was filled with a myriad of sights and sounds. However, she felt inwardly nervous. There was something wrong here...she could not exactly pinpoint what it was, but it gnawed at the edge of her consciousness like a itch that could not be scratched. The feeling had been hovering on the edge of her mind for a couple of days now, but it became a full blown wave of panic almost as soon as Gabrielle had stepped into Cotidi. Struggling to remain calm, Gabrielle tried to push the feeling away to a far corner of her mind.

"You know you can talk now." Xena's voice startled her out of her thoughts. Gabrielle turned to give her friend a playful grin.

"I'm just saving my voice until I have a more appreciative audience." she retorted. "Besides, I rather fill my mouth with food than words at the moment." She smiled at her friend, but her heart was not in it. Gabrielle shivered as her sense of unease grew. "On second thought, maybe we should try to get a meal in the next town...."

"Are you alright? You've never turned down food before." Xena looked at the bard concerned. Was Gabrielle sick?

"I'm fine." Gabrielle wandered a few steps toward the tavern, then looked back at the warrior with troubled eyes. "Xena....there's something not right here."

"What do you mean?" Xena was suddenly cautious as her sharp eyes scanned the market for any unforeseen danger or ambush, but she could find nothing. However, she was not one to take a warning lightly. "What kind of danger?"

"It's not a danger, exactly. Not in the physical sense." Gabrielle murmured. She had a far off look in her eyes, one that Xena recognized all to well. It was Gabrielle's bard mode. There was something different in the young woman's stance though, and suddenly, Gabrielle went rigid. Xena could see the fear in her friends eyes.


"What?!?" the bard shook her head as if trying to clear it.

Xena quickly strode over and put a hand to Gabrielle's forehead. It felt normal.

"I'm feeling fine." Gabrielle said exasperated.

"Then what was that all about..."

"I don't know." Gabrielle's face was a picture of confusion.

"You said something about the town..."

"It's not the town." Gabrielle blinked. "Call it a quirky feeling, but I think something's wrong with the big picture."

"What do you mean?" Xena tried to keep the impatience out of her voice. Gabrielle was acting strangely and she was very worried about the bard. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Come on, don't worry." Gabrielle said forcefully, determined not to let the strange feeling color an otherwise perfect day. "Probably just something I ate. Anyway, let's get going. You do owe me lunch."

Xena cast a doubtful look at the bard, but Gabrielle had already started picking her way through the crowd, whistling a cheerful tune. Xena followed her silently, vowing to keep a close eye on her friend.

Halfway to the tavern, Gabrielle paused again, as if listening to something. A frown crossed her face, and the bard took off to her right, winding through the crowd. Xena quickly did the same.

"Where in the name of Hades are you going?" Xena asked her when she finally caught up with her friend. "The tavern's that way."

Gabrielle did not reply. Turning, Xena saw that the bard's attention was drawn to a pair of people that stood on a crude makeshift stage. The man, a stunning blond with deep blue eyes was singing an ancient love song to a beautiful brown haired woman, who replied him with equal fervor and volume. Both were obviously performers, and Xena could see nothing wrong with what they were doing. To her, it looked like any other pair of wayward musicians that wandered the roads of Greece. Perhaps they were a little worse than the rest, she thought wryly as the male singer hit another flat note, but they were certainly not out of the ordinary. However, by the expression on Gabrielle's face, it was as if the bard was hearing something out of this world.

As soon as the duo ended their number, Gabrielle was the first to rush up onto the stage. The rest of the onlookers, perhaps a little more unimpressed, wandered away without comment. Xena watched as Gabrielle engaged in a furious conversation with the man and wondered what the whole situation was about. Finally, Gabrielle led the performers toward her.

"Hey Xena. This is Branyel and Tenya." the bard gestured to her two new friends. "Branyel and Tenya, this is Xena. "

"How nice." Xena said, frowning slightly at her friend. She was still curious as to what Gabrielle was doing.

"It's a pleasure to meet you." Tenya extended her hand, which the warrior took awkwardly "My husband and I have been long time fans of Gabrielle and her stories about you. We're so glad you're here."


"Yes, we know of your ability to solve problems.' Branyel sounded hopeful.

"What do you mean? Is there a problem?"

"Yes." Tenya said determinedly. "We haven't been singing very well. It seems like every time we try to compose another song, something's missing. At first it wasn't that big of a deal, but today, it's like all of our music has disappeared."

"You were singing just awhile ago." Xena said skeptically.

"Yes, but that was all it was. Just singing. It wasn't music. " Branyel struggled for the words. "There's something gone, Xena. I can't explain it. I hope you can help."

Xena gave Gabrielle a "you can't be serious about this" look. The bard just turned away sheepishly. Finding no help from that quarter, Xena turned back to the two performers, who were looking at her intently.

"What do you want me to do about it? I'm a warrior, not a music teacher." Xena tried to keep the sarcasm at a minimum, but she was beginning to find the whole situation a tad ludicrous.

"We don't know who else to turn to. The Academy in Athens has been experiencing the same problems; theirs deals with not being able to form new stories. My friend, Archais, has trouble sculpting his clay, and our town historian reports that he can not remember the correct sequence of events anymore. We've already sent for some help, but we thought that since you were here, you could--"

"That I could what? I don't know how to battle a spell of noncreativity. And as for your historian, perhaps you should look for a better one." Xena shook her head exasperated. "I'm sorry that your music is not as good as it used to be, but I don't see what I can do about it."

"We think that maybe the gods are displeased..." Tenya looked up in surprise as Xena held put up her hand in a signal for silence.

"I don't deal with that department. Warlords, yes. Awful kings, deadly dictators, and nasty despots, yes. But you have the wrong person for the job if it involves the rulers in Mount Olympus. C'mon, Gabrielle, let's get some food. If you really want a someone who can talk to those high and mighty deities, call Hercules." Xena strode off toward the tavern, mumbling to herself. Gabrielle gave an apologetic look to both Tenya and Branyel before running after her friend.

Branyel watched the retreating figures and heaved a big sigh. "Let's hope that our next pair of heroes will be more helpful." he remarked.

"Xena, aren't we going to help them?" The bard asked as soon as they both were seated at a table at the tavern. Xena gave a stern glare to a leering barkeep before replying.

"Honestly, I don't know what you want me to do. Your stories have made the world think that I'm a miracle worker of some sort, able to fix every problem that arises."

Gabrielle stared at the floor uncomfortably. "Sorry about that."

Xena relented. "All I ask is that you tone it down a bit, not give up the art totally."

"Xena, what if the gods are involved?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

"I don't see why they would be. It is small pleasure to torment a group of artists. You creative types give enough entertainment as is. Besides, without bards, poets, and musicians, no one would sing of the immortals great deeds and adventures. The way I see it, you give them enough of an ego trip to ensure your own safety. It's just a slump in productivity. "

Gabrielle looked thoughtful then nodded. "It makes sense."

Xena gave her a enquiring look. " Don't tell me that you've run out of stories too."

"No. Not that." Gabrielle gave a quick smile. "In fact, while we wait for our food, I think that I might take the chance to get some more dinars for the road. " she got up and walked over to the barkeeper. Xena watched her go and sipped the mug of ale that had been placed in front of her. She frowned as a big hairy oaf the took the chance to make a swipe at the passing bard. However, before she could take action, Gabrielle had already effectively elbowed him in the groin.

"I'm not that type of girl." she informed him. The miscreant looked as if he might argue, but he when he saw Xena shoot him THE look, he let the bard pass. After exchanging a few words with the manager, Gabrielle was back.

"The tavern manager agreed to let us have our meal and a night's lodging for free in return for a performance. Seems that the regular bard hasn't shown up yet." Gabrielle looked pensive for the moment, then straightened. "Don't eat all the food, okay?"

Xena sighed and prepared to hear another exaggerated tale of her adventures. One of these days, she thought sourly, Gabrielle was going to stretch her stories a little too far. Xena just hoped that she could live with the aftermath. As Gabrielle began her tale, Xena recognized that it was the one about Hercules and the Dragon. She caught herself being drawn into the plot despite hearing the tale earlier. There was no doubt about it, Gabrielle was quite a bard. However, Xena could not help but feel that something was missing in her friend's account. Gabrielle was putting her whole heart and soul into the performance, but Xena knew that the young bard could have told the story in a much better way than what she was presenting now.

"Last time I remembered, it was a two headed dragon." a warm voice in the air made Xena stop her musing.

"Nah, it was a three headed one." another voice joined in. "However, you've got to admit that she has style. She's the only bard that even bothers to remember that I was there."

"Hercules. Iolaus." Xena said guardedly.

"Hello, Xena." the immortal son of Zeus took a chair. "It's been a long time."

"Yeah...wasn't it back with Prometheus...?" Iolaus also sat down.

"Yes." Xena nodded, smiling faintly at the memory. Now THAT had been an adventure. "What are you two doing here?"

"We came at the request of a couple of local musicians in the area. Seems that they've been disappearing." Iolaus shrugged. "Something to do with Hera again, I bet. So, why are you two ladies here?" his eyes strayed across the room to where Gabrielle was emphatically gesturing with her hands in order to emphasize a dramatic point in her story.

Xena followed his gaze and hid another small smile. "We're just passing through. I didn't know about the disappearing musicians. From what I heard, it was their songs that were missing."

"Well, whatever has been taking them apparently wants more than that." Hercules looked angry. "We just came from Athens, and the whole Academy of Bards has disappeared."

"What do you mean?"

"Their scrolls are still there, but all the students and teachers are gone. That's not all of it. Every township and village has been reporting disappearances of their historians."

Xena looked up sharply. "And you think that the gods are involved."

"Yes. But it doesn't make sense. Apollo would never let this happen, unless...."Hercules looked even more angry.

"Hera was behind this." Xena gritted her teeth. She knew what it was like to have a god for an enemy.

"My half- brother would never dare defy our stepmother openly. If Hera is behind the disappearances, no one on Olympus would dare lift a hand, except for Zeus. And he's out of town right now." Hercules smacked a hand on the table, making the whole inn shake. "She's taking advantage of the fact that no one will try to stop her."

"The thing that I don't get is what she would want with a bunch of bards? I understand if she wanted to torment ol' Herc and me. This would be the perfect opportunity. But instead, she goes around snatching all the storytellers." Iolaus snorted. "Maybe she can't go to sleep and she wants them to tell her a bed time story."

"I don't think it's that simple. Hera's up to something and I aim to stop it." Hercules looked at Xena hesitantly. "We make a great team...."

Before she could reply, Gabrielle moved toward the table. Her face lit up when she saw Hercules and Iolaus. "Hi! Glad to see you guys again." she said brightly. "Where's the food?"

Xena chuckled as she signaled the bartender. "Coming, Miss Greedy Guts."

"Say, now that you're here, what did you think of my tale? You know, I need more substance to flesh it out a bit." she said to Hercules.

"I think you've fleshed it out just fine." Hercules told her with a smile.

"Then how about some other adventures?" Gabrielle asked quickly. "You know the world can't ever get enough of you or Xena. Personally, I've always wondered about those twelve tasks..."

"Not now, Gabrielle." Xena said sternly. Quietly, she informed her friend why the Hercules and Iolaus were there. Gabrielle looked shocked, then angry as she gripped her staff tightly.

"I want to help, Xena." she said firmly. Xena looked at her friend seriously.

"Gabrielle, I'll join Hercules and Iolaus but I want you to go home to Potidea. Something is out after bards and it could come after you next."

"I'm not going." Gabrielle said determinedly. "I faced warlords before; I'm not scared."

Xena grumbled fondly "I know you're not. But we could be dealing with a goddess here, and one who wants creative blood. You'd be in more danger than any one of us."

"Goddess, warlord, same difference." Gabrielle glared defiantly at her friend. " I'm coming. I want to fight this thing. Besides, it's not going to help if I just ran home. From what Hercules has said, bards are disappearing from everywhere. What's the difference if I disappear here or at home? At least I have a chance if I confront it head on."

"Traveling with us, you could put yourself in even greater risk."

"I can take it." Gabrielle gripped her staff and swung it around. "I know how to fight now even said so." she out her chin up defiantly. "There's nothing you can do about."

Xena looked at her friend with a mixture of affection and irritation. Her first impulse was to haul the bard back to Potidea and leave her there, tied if need be. However, in her heart, she knew that Gabrielle was right. There was nothing she could do to prevent whatever force was out there in taking the bard. If the pattern remained consistent, than Gabrielle would disappear very soon. Xena pushed down the feeling of despair that welled up at the thought. NO. She told herself firmly. She would not let it happen.

Gabrielle watched Xena closely. Although the warrior's face remained impassive, Gabrielle knew that a storm of emotions was raging inside her friend. Placing a comforting hand on Xena's shoulder, she smiled reassuringly.

"Hey, nothing's going to happen to me. I have the world's three greatest heroes by my side, remember?"

Xena nodded slowly. "Fine. But you stay within eyesight, you hear me? If anything happens to you, I'm going to kill you myself."

Hercules and Iolaus had remained quiet throughout the whole exchange between the two. As he watched the bard face off with the warrior, Hercules could sense the deep bond that had formed between them. It reminded him of the one he shared with Iolaus, and he knew the pain that Xena must have been going through. It was not easy watching your best friend go into danger and not to anything about it. He swore silently to do anything in his power to see that the two would not be separated by his stepmother's plans. Seeing that the battles of wills was finally over, with Gabrielle as the surprising victor, Hercules cleared his throat.

"Ladies, if you will, Lunch's here." he gestured to the food. "Let's continue after we've eaten."

At the mention of eating, Gabrielle immediately perked up. "Great idea! By the gods, I'm starved!" Immediately, she dived into her plate, even surpassing the son of Zeus in her feeding frenzy. The amount of food Gabrielle could put down would satiate a cyclops. The amazing thing about it though was that she managed to stuff it all down without breaking a single table manner or dirtying herself or her surroundings. As she started on her third plate of chicken, she noticed the amused looks on her companions' faces.


"I was wondering if you ever came up for air." Xena replied. She turned to Hercules and Iolaus with a hint of laughter. " Now you know why we have to spend so much time in bar rooms like these; if Gabrielle wasn't such a good bard, we'd be broke by now."

"Well, you don't have to watch me eat." Gabrielle said as she noticed that everyone else's plates were empty. "Go ahead and plan something."

"Do you know where Hera may be taking all the people?" Xena asked.

"No. But I willing to say that its someplace nasty, dark and dank, with about a thousand monsters guarding it. " Iolaus shrugged as Xena raised an eyebrow. "Hey, that just happens to be her style. Kind of matches her unpleasant personality."

"Unfortunately, half of Greece tends to be nasty, dark, and dank." Hercules replied.

"Have you tried the Oracle at Delphi ? Apollo may not want to cross Hera directly, but he may tell you where she's holding his bards." Xena suggested.

"Done that already. They're not speaking about it. Hera's got to powerful of a hold over Olympus at the moment. Like I said, none of the gods would dare defy her. Including Apollo." Hercules brow furrowed as he thought furiously. "She has to have them somewhere secluded, where no one would dare venture."

"That sounds like the other half of Greece." Iolaus remarked.

"Watha aaguot." mumbled Gabrielle. She swallowed quickly. "Sorry. What about a seer or a prophet? Like Cassandra and Tireseas the Blind. Maybe they'd know."

"Unfortunately, the seers were among the first to be taken." Hercules replied. "I-"

He never got to finish his sentence. Suddenly, the door to the bar burst open. A woman came in, looking wild eyed with grief as she ran over to the bartender.

"Tenya!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "What's wrong?"

"Have you seen Branyel? I can't find him anywhere." Tenya cried . "We were in the middle of the Ballad of Psyche when we found that we couldn't sing another verse. No matter how hard we tried, the words wouldn't come. Branyel was furious and before I could stop him, he ran off towards the towards our home, where we had the original scroll of the words. I tried to follow him, but I lost sight of him in the woods. Then I heard him scream, then...." the woman broke into tears.

"What happened next?" Gabrielle asked gently.

"He was gone! I can't find him, Gabrielle. I feel so empty inside without him..." she turned away. "His void echoes the one which was made the day that our music started dying. I have nothing to live for without Branyel and my must understand. You said your stories..."

"Hey," Gabrielle said softly. "At least you haven't lost your dramatic sense." she smiled comfortingly at the singer. "Anyway, Branyel won't be gone for long. Xena and Hercules will find him, right guys?"

Tenya turned to them, her face suddenly alight with hope. "If anyone could find Branyel, it would be you two. Please believe me now, Xena, there's something out there..."

"I know." Xena said shortly. Nodding to Hercules and Iolaus, she headed toward the door. "Stay here." she commanded Gabrielle. She locked eyes with her friend. "I mean it, Gabrielle. I need you to take care of Tenya. Whatever took Branyel may come back for her. You two should be safe enough here in plain sight of these people. We'll be back soon."

"I'll stay behind to give extra protection." Iolaus volunteered. When Gabrielle gave him an annoyed look, he waved his hand placatingly. "Not that you would need it or anything."

Gabrielle smiled but motioned him to follow the other two. "I'll be fine here. Xena and Hercules could use another pair of eyes. Besides, your old hunting tricks will come in handy." her face clouded "Be careful, alright?"

"We will be. Now stay put." Xena headed out of the door. Gabrielle let out a the breath she had been holding before turning to Tenya.

"So, you want to hear a story while we wait?"

The woods around the town were suspiciously quiet. Not a single bird lifted its voice in song, nor were the grassy paths serenaded with the usual buzzing of cicadas.

"It's as if Gaia herself has lost her voice." Iolaus said as he drew nearer to his friends.

"I know. And I don't like it." Xena stooped to examine the dirt on the trail. "Here are Tenya's tracks, those are Branyel's." Her eyes traced the ground. "Hercules, Iolaus, come here....what does this look like to you?"

Iolaus noticed the puzzled frown on Xena's face and hurried over to investigate. "That's impossible." he said finally. "It looks like he was running one minute then disappeared before his next step."

"Maybe it was an air attack." Hercules suggested. "Or his trail could have been wiped clean."

"Nah, there's no sign that he was lifted...there would at least be a faint drag mark. There's nothing here. Of course, knowing the gods, they could as well made him vanish into thin air."Iolaus stood up and looked at Xena. The Warrior Princess nodded, confirming what he had said.

"We'd better go back to the tavern." she got to her feet. "We won't find anything here. Whatever took Branyel is long gone by now. Without a trail, he could be anywhere."

Hercules nodded as he surveyed the woods. The trees remained deceptively silent. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an arrow pierced the gloom. In reflex, Hercules caught it and tensed for an attack. He could sense Xena and Iolaus doing the same.

They were as ugly as he remembered them to be. About twenty in number, they swarmed out from between the tree trunks, all of them waving nasty looking swords. In moments, the quiet air was broken by the first sounds of battle.

"Do these guys ever give up?" Iolaus asked as he flipped a thug over his shoulder and used the body to knock out another.

"Nope." Hercules replied, after bashing the face of another assailant and deflecting a second attacker's sword.

"You'd think that Hera would get a little more creative."

"I've seen her when she gets creative....its not a pretty sight." Hercules grunted as he swung two more attackers together and effectively knocking them out. "Remember the hydras?"

"How could I forget? My shoulder hurt for weeks!" Iolaus ducked a blow that was meant for his head and kicked his opponent's legs out from under him. "But still, these guys are getting too cliche, if you know what I mean. Oh, behind you."

Hercules swung his fist around and it connected with the groin of a soldier creeping up in order to ambush his back. Not far away, the clang of metal upon metal could be heard as Xena chopped her way through her share of the attackers. She sounded happy as her sword swooshed through the air, and around her the groans of the fallen soldiers echoed loudly. With a triumphant leap and a chilling cry of AYIYIYIYI, she flipped through the air, landing with uncanny precision beside Hercules and Iolaus. A quick flip of her chakrum felled the last three remaining soldiers. Catching her deadly weapon, she deftly hooked it back onto her outfit. A wild grin was on her face and her eyes were alight with battle fire.

"That's all?" she said, almost disappointedly. Hercules had to raise an eyebrow at her question. By herself, the Warrior Princess had disabled ten of the would be killers. He himself had only accounted for six, while Iolaus had managed to dispatch four. To her credit, however, Xena had only killed the soldiers when it was necessary, so the carnage was not as great as it could have been. Xena walked up to one of the prone men and quickly tapped his neck.

"I've just cut off the blood flow to your brain." she said, in a calm voice. "In ten seconds, you will die, unless you tell me what you know about the missing bards."

The soldier just struggled. Before he could reply, however, the whole squad had vanished, leaving Xena clutching thin air.

"I hate it when they do that." Iolaus said sympathetically as Xena strode back toward them, anger apparent in every step.

"There were too few of them." she declared.

"Hey, I know you like crushing their gourds like melons, but I do think that wishing for more is a tad bit bloodthirsty." Iolaus remarked.

"I mean that Hera must have known that we would easily defeat her creations." Xena narrowed her eyes. "Especially when there are so few of them. I think that the attack was just a delaying method....oh no." she whispered. "Gabrielle!"

"And then...." Gabrielle took another swallow of apple cider as she desperately groped for the correct words. Tenya was studying her intensely.

"It's happening, isn't it ? You're losing your stories."

"I can't be..I'll remember!...then Xena came down onto the village..." Gabrielle paused again, then looked hopelessly at Tenya as her mind . "Yeah, you're right." she said slowly. "I can remember what happened, but I can't put it to verse." she tried to keep the panic out of her voice "The words won't come."

Tenya nodded knowingly. "It's no use fighting it. I'm surprised you were able to hold out so long." her eyes flashed brief admiration. "You must have a great amount of talent."

Gabrielle blushed. "Not really. It's just that I can usually see it all so clearly in my head. I want it to share my stories ...but now the images won't come."

"You have a pure heart and the true soul of a true artist." Tenya said wistfully "I know how you feel for I too know the power of our art. However, unless your friends succeed, all that will be gone. "

Gabrielle tried not to let the thought sink in. "They'll succeed. Branyel will be back here before you know it, along with the other missing people. Xena's never failed." she said calmly, although the warrior's earlier words echoed through her head.

"Perhaps it won't be soon enough for me." Tenya replied softly. Gabrielle looked at her in alarm.

"What do you mean?" she said anxiously.

"It's coming for me, Gabrielle. I can feel it. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I want to fight it anymore. Without Branyel and my music, it feels like a part of my innermost being has been cleaved away. I can't live with only a half of a soul." Tenya sounded resigned. "You'll understand when all of your stories disappear. I can tell that barding is a integral part of your soul. It knows it to, and will be after you."

"What's this IT thing?" Gabrielle fingered her staff as she glanced warily around the room.

"The thing that eats men's dreams and crouches on the edges of nightmares." Tenya shivered. "I think it may be a dream eater. The gods have released a dream eater."

Gabrielle tumbled the name in her mouth. The mere sound of the word sent chills down her spine. "I've never heard of a dream eater. Where did you learn about it?"

"We were protected, Gabrielle. There was an ancient song about how and why it lives, but I can't recall it anymore. My memory fails me, perhaps because the dream eater has already gotten to the verses. That demon has been stalking me for a while now." Tenya sighed "You think I'm crazy. But you'll know the truth when it finally hunts you down. It's been gnawing on my thoughts and it is about ready to attack."

Gabrielle took a deep breath. Had the singer gone over the edge? But the look in Tenya's eyes showed that woman truly believed what she was saying.

"The others thought it may have been Hera that was kidnaping the bards." she gulped.

"The goddess does have something to do with it, I am sure." Tenya's eyes were distant. "She's probably the one who unleashed the creature in the first place."

"Then tell me all that you know about this dream eater thing." Gabrielle's eyes widened. "We need to warn Xena and Hercules!"

"Your friends will be fine. A dream eater cannot do any physical harm nor do your friends have anything that the demon wants. It eats only the creators of dreams." Tenya put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "You should be more worried about yourself. As for what I know about this beast, I can only say that he can be stopped by reinstating our original protectors."


"Something guarded that thing from coming into this world! Whatever it was, it was taken away!" Tenya voice dropped. "However, I do not know who the protector was."

Gabrielle nodded. "Well, at least we know what's taking the bards and the musicians. I bet Hercules can convince Hera to replace the protecting thingie. We'd probably have to fight a whole bunch of monsters, but I'm sure it will be alright."

"I hope so." Tenya did not sound very confident, "Little one, do you realize just what is at stake here?"

Gabrielle swallowed. "All the bards' lives, including mine."

"More than that." Tenya shuddered as she realized the full extent of Hera's plans. "All of humanity's dreams and hopes."

"No..." Gabrielle gulped as she saw what Tenya meant. "Without stories, music, and art, human kind will fall back on itself."

"True. Our work makes life more bearable and takes the toil out of living. We find the beauty in every day and give light to the darkness. It would be a sad time for the souls in our world when every last remnant of art is taken."

"Xena won't let that happen. We'll find the protector of the dreams and force that nasty dream- thing back to where it belongs. You'll see." Gabrielle gripped her staff tightly as she gave Tenya a grim smile. "It'll probably make a great story."

Tenya refused to share the bard's enthusiasm. Instead, she stood up, her eyes unfocused. "It's here.' she said, stiffening.

Gabrielle got up too and swung her staff into attack position. Around her, she could feel the other customers tense as everyone went for their weapons. Everyone had heard Tenya's recounting of the dream eater and all were cautious. Suddenly, Tenya bolted away from Gabrielle and ran out the tavern door.

"Tenya!" Gabrielle screamed as she followed the singer.

"Stay away from me! Don't let it eat you too!"

Gabrielle watched in horror as the woman stopped in her tracks. A cold sensation swept past the young bard as Tenya screamed in agony. There was no time to think. Acting without reacting, Gabrielle flung herself at the Tenya's attacker, although she could see nothing to fight. The bard was too late however. With a slight wail, the singer disappeared, amid a flurry of chilling laughter.

"I'll be after you next......" a voice whispered on the wind. Then Gabrielle was alone.

Xena, Hercules, and Iolaus were halfway through the city gates when they heard the screaming. Doubling their already fast pace, the three heroes arrived just in time to see Gabrielle collapse to her knees.

"GABRIELLE!" in a heartbeat, Xena was beside her friend, shaking her. "Are you alright?" Anxious eyes searched the bard's body, but there were no signs of injuries. "Say something!"

"I couldn't stop it." Gabrielle mumbled dazedly as she got to her feet. " got her. I could feel it snatching away her music and ...."

Xena ignored the torrent of words. "Are you okay ?!?!" she demanded as she looked around frantically for any sign of the attacker. Hercules and Iolaus was already scouring the market place, but both soon returned, shaking their heads.

"I'm fine." Gabrielle brushed back her hair absentmindedly as she picked up her staff where she had dropped it. "The dream eater was not after me."

"What in Olympus are you talking about?"

Gabrielle's eyes turned to Xena. The Warrior Princess was taken aback by the level of fear she saw in her friend's eyes. However, the fear was not for herself, but for something else.

"Hercules and Iolaus need to hear this also." Gabrielle said faintly as she turned toward the inn. As soon as they had settled themselves around a table, Gabrielle told them all that Tenya had told her, omitting only the part about her own personal danger.

"I never thought that Hera would sink this low." there was a trace of barely restrained anger in Hercules voice. "Stealing the dreams and stories of all mankind is too cruel. I don't understand why she would do it. Many of the bard's stories are about Hera's own glory."

"A people without dreams are easily ruled and conquered." Xena said slowly. "That would be enough of a tradeoff for her. Would Zeus be able to stop this?"

"By the time Zeus got back, the dream eater would have finished eating all the bards." Iolaus said looking worriedly at Gabrielle. The bard had been uncharacteristically silent throughout the exchange. She had not even attempted to turn Tenya's information into a story.

"Gabrielle, what are you not telling us?" Xena asked.

"I told you all I know about the dream eater."

"I know that. But there is something else, I can see it in your eyes."

"Nothing much." Gabrielle forced a ghost of a smile on her face. "Just reminds me of the time with Pandora...remember the box that was suppose to contain hope? Wouldn't it be nice if this could turn out like that adventure did?"

"Pandora?" Iolaus asked. "You two actually met her?"

"Yeah. We helped her and a kingdom. That's about it." Gabrielle replied.

Xena stared intently at the bard. There was definitely something wrong. Gabrielle had missed her cue for a story. Iolaus and Hercules noticed it too.

"Gabrielle, just to relax us a bit, why don't you tell the whole story about Pandora?" Hercules said carefully.

Gabrielle twisted around in her seat as she nervously fingered her staff. Finally, she looked up, despair written across her face. "I can't." she said simply.

"You've lost your stories...." Xena looked shocked "Gabrielle...."

"Hey, it's no big deal." the bard shrugged, "We're going to do something about it right? C'mon, I bet you got something big planned already."

Xena could see the pain in her friend's soul and that tore at the warrior's heart. "We will, Gabrielle, I promise. Besides, the trail would be awfully silent without you blabbering along."

"Yeah, you're the only one that remembers to put me into the action." Iolaus said warmly.

Gabrielle managed a small smile. However, she remained moody and distant as the night wore on. She did not seem to listen to the others as they tried to formulate a working plan. Instead, the bard looked as if she was tuned into another source that was interesting her terribly. When their dinner came, Gabrielle only picked at her food for a couple of minutes before pushing it away. Xena, who had been watching her best friend like a hawk, worried even more. When the bard got up and walked outside, Xena followed her, motioning for Hercules and Iolaus to stay where they were.

"Can you tell me what's wrong?" Xena asked her once they had gotten out of earshot of the others. "Something's been bothering you for awhile and I know it has nothing to do with you losing your stories."

"Xena, I want you to know that you're my best friend. I've never regretted coming with you." Gabrielle said quietly. "Whatever happens, it's not your fault."

"What do you mean, whatever happens?" Xena said suspiciously, half afraid of what the bard was insinuating.

"Xena, I want you to remember your promise to me, the one you made when we were still fighting Callisto."

"What does that have to do with it ?" Xena's eyes widened and the feeling of fear clutched her stomach. "'re going to be fine. Don't talk like this."

"I mean it Xena." Gabrielle's eyes were haunted. " I also have a favor to ask. If anything does happen to me, remember the happy times. I don't want you to grieve over me."


The bard turned away. "Xena, promise me these things. Please."

"No." Xena gripped her friend and turned Gabrielle around. "I'm not going to let anything happen to you."

For a minute, Gabrielle's fiery spirit flared up. "I don't need protection. I'm not a baby!" she retorted. But almost as immediately as it had come, the fire died, to be replaced by something akin to desolation.

"Will you promise me ?"

"Stop talking nonsense. Hercules and Iolaus are waiting for us." Xena tried to hide the terrible feeling of fear that was building up in her. Gabrielle followed her wordlessly. The mood back in the tavern was as somber as the one that they had left outside. There was something missing in the atmosphere of the bar, and abruptly, Xena realized what it was. The convivial air was gone, as were the boasts that usually flew thick as the ale. There were no loud talking soldiers, nor were there drunk has-beens retelling their days of grandeur. Even the fire in the hearth seemed to crackle with less spirit.

"I think I want to get some sleep." Gabrielle said as she walked up the stairs to where the tavern's room were. "We have a long day's journey ahead if we are to make Athens."

"Why Athens?" Iolaus asked.

"Well, we don't have any other place to start and Tenya did mention an old song that might hold a clue to how to defeat this thing. I hope that the Library in Athens holds a copy." Gabrielle said tiredly. "Good night."

"I think I better turn in too." Xena said. She did not feel comfortable with Gabrielle out of her sight. Hercules and Iolaus nodded, understanding her feelings.

"We're going to make camp outside the gates. You can meet us there in the morning."

Xena nodded as she went up the stairs and towards the room that she and Gabrielle shared. The bard was already asleep on the bed nearest to the door. Xena pushed the bed quietly across the room, away from both the door and the windows, to a place that she thought would be the most defensible. Gabrielle snored away, oblivious. Then the Warrior Princess settled herself onto the floor, eyes fixed on the sleeping figure of her friend, and prepared herself for another long sleepless night.

Just before dawn, Gabrielle woke suddenly, gasping for air. Immediately, Xena was at her side.

"What's wrong?"

Gabrielle looked at her . "Have you been there all this time?"

"Yes. Did you have a bad dream or something?"

"No...I didn't have any dreams." the bard got up and headed for the door.

Xena drew her sword and followed. "Where are you going?"

Gabrielle shivered. "I don't have much time left. We need to get Hercules and Iolaus and leave for Athens right now."

"Is there something I should know?" Xena stepped in front of the bard, barring Gabrielle's path. "It's coming for you, isn't it."

Gabrielle nodded slowly.

"I'll be ready for it." Xena said fiercely, a wild light in her eyes.

"Xena, you can't fight this thing. At least, not with a sword. I tried with Tenya, but it didn't work. I couldn't even see the blasted thing." Gabrielle thought sadly of the singer. "It's not a physical force. All we can do is hope that there's something in the great Library of the Academy that will tell you guys how to stop it." She smiled sadly, and Xena could see that the bard was resigned to the fact that her days were numbered. However, the Warrior Princess was not going to give up so easily.

"We can fight this thing. Don't give up, Gabrielle, You've never backed down from any challenge in your life."

"I don't plan to go without a fight." Gabrielle reassured her. "But I really don't think I can win. Anyway, we're wasting time. " She pushed past Xena. If anything, Gabrielle was as determined as ever not to let the present state of things get her down. Xena had never seen anyone with so much courage. The only thing on Gabrielle's mind was to try to help her friends conquer the demon. The bard did not pay any attention to the fact that she was probably not going to make it through this adventure. In fact, she seemed to take the whole matter quite lightly. However, Xena could not say the same for herself.

By the time she caught up with her friend, Gabrielle had already gathered up all their supplies and had loaded them onto Argo, who was saddled and ready to go.

"Hurry up, Xena!" the bard urged. Despite the grim situation they were in, Xena had to smile at this sudden role reversal. Usually, it was Gabrielle who had to be poked and prodded to get started in the morning. To Xena's even greater surprise, Gabrielle mounted a grey horse that was saddled beside Argo. She lifted an eyebrow, which Gabrielle replied with a shaky grin.

"I, uh, feel the need for speed." she said, although she had turned a pale shade of green. "This was Tenya's horse. She told me that it was one of the gentlest beasts around." Gabrielle winced as the horse shifted. "There are also mounts for Hercules and Iolaus...the innkeeper lent them to us for fifteen dinars."

Xena swung herself up onto Argo "Are you sure about this?"

"What me?" Gabrielle gulped as the horse snorted. "Uh, of course, I'm sure. Umm, giddy up." she gave an involuntary shriek as the mount took off. Xena followed the galloping steed, unable to hide the laughter that boiled up as she watched Gabrielle clutch onto the saddle as if hanging on for dear life, strawberry blonde hair flying behind her like an disheveled battle banner.

They reached Hercules camp in record time. Gabrielle face was white as she pleaded for her mount to stop. When it finally did, the bard slid shakily to the ground.

"Hello, ladies. Aren't you a bit early ?" Iolaus yawned as he wearily rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "It's barely dawn. I thought you liked to sleep in." he grinned at Gabrielle.

"We need to start now. Gabrielle says that we need to hurry." Xena's voice caught in her throat. Hercules and Iolaus caught her look and hurriedly packed up. "We've obtained mounts for the both of you."

Gabrielle had already gotten back in her saddle. "Yeah. I bet we can make Athens by nightfall if we ride hard all day." The bard gulped at the thought of having to sit on a horse for the entire time, but continued on bravely. "That demon thingie should be taken care of by dawn tomorrow."

"I hope so." Hercules mounted the deep black stallion. Iolaus did the same. "After you, ladies."

Gabrielle gulped again and urged her horse to move into a fast gallop. She tried to keep her eyes on the road and not upon the ground that was moving alarmingly far below her. Trees sped by in a green blur, but soon, Xena, and Hercules had thundered past her. Gabrielle groaned as her rear began to complain about the abuse it was receiving. If I make it through this, the bard swore, I will NEVER ride a horse again. Something laughed at the back of her mind.

"If you make it through." the voice whispered. "I enjoy your thoughts, little bard. So rich and pure. You will be a fine addition to my collection. Perhaps the crowning piece."

"Shut up!" Gabrielle thought back.

"It will only be a short time. Even now your defenses begin to weaken. Once I finish eating the last of your talent, I will have you, little bard."

"I hope you choke." Gabrielle spat.

"That's not a nice thought." the voice laughed. "It sours your sweet nature. I can't wait for you to join me. Your talents are wasted here, you know."

Gabrielle gritted her teeth. "Are you ever quiet? Gee, now I know how Xena feels."

"Get used to it, little bard. You and me will be together for a long time. Eternity." the dream eater laughed.

Gabrielle pushed with all her strength against the monster. It left her thoughts reluctantly, although it stayed just at the edge of her mind, waiting for the moment when the bard could fight no longer. Wearily, Gabrielle knew that she could not maintain the struggle for long. Already, the deep stock of her remaining stories were beginning to run dry as the demon fed greedily on them. Once the last story was gone, she would cease to exist. The knowledge of this drove Gabrielle to urge her mount on even faster.

By late afternoon, Xena had to call a stop to their breakneck pace. The horses were all fatigued and lather gleamed of their steaming sides. Gabrielle was unhappy with the stop, but she knew it was necessary. The bard dismounted clumsily, landing unceremoniously on her rump. Xena helped her stand.

"How are you holding up?" the warrior asked, concern clear in her voice.

"Hey, don't worry." Gabrielle rubbed her tender rump. Although her body screamed for her to sit and rest, the bard was unable to stop pacing around like a caged animal. Her ability to resist the dream eater was almost gone.

"Calm down, Gabrielle. We'll make Athens soon." Iolaus tried to soothed the jumpy bard."By the way, great riding today. You're a natural. I don't know why you always claim that you can't ride a horse."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged amused looks. "I can't imagine why either." the Warrior Princess remarked. "All this time, you've been holding out on me."

Gabrielle shrugged as she helped her mount cool down. "This horse looks a lot like the pony I used to ride at my village" she mused. "Maybe that's why I don't feel so frightened." she savored the memory fondly.

Unbidden, a story sprung to her lips. "He was the best. As gentle as a sheep, he'd follow me around everywhere. He even saved my life once. I was walking back from the river, and he was just following along as usual. It was already late Autumn and I remember that the leaves were turning all these beautiful colors, from the deepest flaming scarlet to the most delicate yellow imaginable. I was so busy looking at the trees that I wasn't paying attention to where I was going. Anyway, I was about to stoop and pick up a pretty golden leaf that I had spied on the side of the road when something hard pushed against me and I fell down. It was Lightning. I had never seen him in such a state before. He always so careful with me. Now however, he was rearing and pawing the air like someone possessed. The earth trembled as he struck the ground again and again, with his sharp hooves cutting deep furrows into the ground. When he finally stopped, I found the smashed remains of a deadly viper in the grass. If Lightning hadn't intervened, it would have bitten me."

Gabrielle closed her eyes, remembering the next part. "He didn't escape unharmed. The snake had bit him. Although my father gave him the best care that he could, the venom had done its damage. Lightning did recover from the snake bite, but he was never the same. That winter, he got sick, and he didn't get better." The bard opened her eyes to find her friends staring at her, entranced by her tale. "I've always wondered if I would find him once I made my journey to the Elysian fields. If any animal deserved a soul, it would be him. He taught me the meaning of selfless courage." Gabrielle sighed as she walked back to where the gray horse was resting. As she neared the horse, the bard froze.

"Xena.... that was my last story. I don't have any more.... " she said fearfully, before suddenly taking off. The others looked at her bewilderedly for a moment before breaking off after her.

The bard ran on, not paying attention to where she was going. All her instincts screamed for her to run like the wind and Gabrielle found herself obeying, despite the fact that she knew it would be no use. Finally, mastering her feelings, Gabrielle stopped and turned.

"You want me?!? Well come and get me!" she yelled in defiance, her staff in attack position. To Xena, it was as if the bard was challenging thin air. However, Gabrielle seemed to be able to see her attacker and the bard began to twist and swing her fighting staff. The Warrior Princess could only stand by helplessly, unable to attack for fear of harming her friend. She tried to join into the fray once, but was thrown back by some unknown force. Beside her, Hercules had balled his fists in frustrated anger as he watched the bard fight for her life. Iolaus, meanwhile, was shouting encouragement. At one point, the brave hunter even charged in, but was only knocked backward like Xena was. The battle lasted for a few more minutes, but to the group, it seemed like an eternity. Finally, Gabrielle looked up, and her gaze locked with Xena's. There was a trace of fear and regret in the bard's eyes, but there was also a sense of peace and acceptance.

"It's been great!" the Gabrielle managed to shout. "I pass my right of caste to you, Xena. Tell Ephiny that I did finally manage to ride a horse! Remember the happy times, Xena!"

"Gabrielle! NOOOO!!!" Xena threw herself forward as she watched her best friend disappear. "Come back! Don't leave me alone!"

Grief and rage washed over her and she screamed it to the heavens. Taking her sword, she swung it around, looking for something, anything to vent her sorrow on. Hercules and Iolaus wisely stepped out of her path as she sprung onto Argo and galloped away furiously.

It was long past nightfall when the warrior finally returned. Hercules and Iolaus had set up camp already, and had a big fire blazing while they both waited in somber silence. Both friends were preoccupied with his own thoughts to even try to talk. They both looked up in relief when they saw Xena thunder in.

The Warrior Princess looked as if she had been in a hundred battles and had lost every one. Her normally beautiful raven hair was disheveled and matted. There was an empty look to Xena's eyes and her posture was that of a person who has had everything precious in life ripped away from her . As she slid from Argo's back, Hercules could see that her outfit was in major disarray and there was a slight nick in on the blade of her unsheathed sword as if the warrior had pounded it again and again on some unyielding surface. As she neared the fire, she tossed the weapon carelessly aside. Iolaus got up to tend to Argo, whom Xena seemed to have forgotten.

"Xena...." Hercules began awkwardly, but the Warrior Princess motioned for him to be silent.

"Just hold me." she whispered, and he complied.

From the edge of the campfire, Iolaus watched the two of them as he quietly rubbed Argo down. Hercules gently rocked the warrior back and forth as if trying to comfort a frightened child. Iolaus had to turn away as sorrow overwhelmed him. There had been one time where he would have rejoiced to see Xena in such terrible pain, but that was long ago. Now he only saw a woman trying to comprehend her loss. Iolaus , himself, was trying to deal with Gabrielle's disappearance. He had felt something for the young bard, something different than anything he had ever felt before. It was not the kind of love that he encountered often enough on his travels from village to village. There was something special to the girl, and Iolaus felt her lost keenly.

Even Argo seemed to be grieving for Gabrielle, for she showed no interest in the feed that Iolaus offered her, even though the horse had not eaten all day.

"I know how you feel. I miss her too." Iolaus whispered into one of the yellow ears. The horse turned to regard him with her large brown eyes, then turned to look at her mistress by the campfire.

"Do you think Xena'll be alright?" Iolaus asked softly as he brushed the horse's pelt. When the horse looked at him dully, Iolaus felt his spirit drop. Feeling a little sheepish, he finished combing the horse without speaking another word to her.

When morning came, Xena was the first one up. She slowly uncurled from the bed which she had shared with Hercules. Looking around, she felt a rush of panic..where was Gabrielle? Then the memory of yesterday's events hit her like an arrow piercing her heart. Xena felt the grief welling up again. Furiously, she fought it down. She had to remain calm and take events one at a time. There was a job to do and she would not think about Gabrielle until she had successfully completed it. Hercules, who had also got up, watched her with worried eyes. She turned to him abruptly.

"We need to get going." she told him firmly.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Gabrielle made me promise that I would not lose myself in grief over her." her eyes burned, belying the deep rooted pain inside the warrior's soul. "I owe it to her to destroy this thing that is plaguing our land."

Hercules nodded, respecting the warrior's feelings. Xena walked over to where she had dropped her sword last night and slid it into its sheath. She also straightened out her hair and polished her chakrum, before going over to inspect Argo. All her actions were done with a chilling lack of emotion. Looking over to Iolaus, she gestured her thanks for the care of her horse. That was her last form of communication to them. The rest of the morning was spent in silence.

By mid morning, they could see the gates to the city. Xena strode into town, her face set like granite as she handed Argo's reins to a young stable boy. The city of learning seemed almost empty as the three heroes headed toward the library housed in the Academy of the bards. Only a few people were on the streets, mostly merchants and other shoppers. There were no signs of the street performers nor were there any of the impassioned orators that made the city so famous. Instead, there was a lack of any spirit in general. Even the children were silent and still as they sat outside of their houses, none of them reenacting great battles nor pretending to be great heroes in the fresh sunlight. The whole city looked like it had been put through a sieve which had sifted out all its creativity leaving only a bare shell behind.

The famed Academy was as quiet as a tomb when Xena opened the doors. All around them, scrolls lay scattered on the floor, abandoned by their authors. Lighting a torch and lifting up a nearby piece of parchment, Xena scanned its contents before discarding it. The words were as lifeless as the city without a bard to read them. Gabrielle would have done the story justice, she thought sadly, before shutting the thought off by heading toward the great library. Once there, she almost groaned in despair. Literally thousands of scrolls were kept in the vaults; how were they supposed to find the right one?

Hercules and Iolaus also gulped when they saw the large volume of material they would have to go through.

"Does anyone know the title what we're looking for?" Iolaus asked.

"It's a song or verse about a dream eater. Gabrielle never mentioned a name." Xena said tersely.

"Glad we cleared that up." Iolaus sighed as she walked to one end of the room. "I'll take this side. Herc, you take the one by the west window." he regarded the daunting pile of reading before him. "I'm sure its in here somewhere."

It has been long since they have seen sunlight. Instead of the warm laughing winds and cool waving grass of their beloved meadow, cold iron greets their every move. Once they had known the freedom of a dream, to glide and slip over the mortal world, benevolently nourishing it as it nourished them. Now both the world and they were slowly perishing, chained in spirit and soul to die a death worse than death. However, they have not lost all hope for one of them still keeps the soul light afire, bravely continuing on despite the depression, giving the strength for the world to keep on turning.

"I sing of a bard...."

It was very cold. And very uncomfortable. Gabrielle rubbed her arms as she tried not to sneeze. Her two piece wrap did not provide much protection against an environment like this. Funny, but she had always pictured the Elysian fields to be somewhat of a warm cheerful place. In fact, she could remember visiting there once.

"Gabrielle!" a voice hailed her, somewhere off to her right. Gabrielle thought about replying, then decided against it. The source might not be friendly. Holding her staff , which had also mysteriously come with her, in a ready position, Gabrielle cautiously made her way toward the voice. A greyish mist around her obscured her view, but Gabrielle was confident that her keen senses would tell her if there was danger. Suddenly a figure loomed out of the mist and Gabrielle swung her staff around, ready to hit it.

"Hold on!" the figure squeaked. Gabrielle stopped immediately as she peered at her visitor.

"Orion?" she said, confused.

"Yeah, it's me." the familiar figure of her friend stepped forward and smiled. "But I go by Homer now. I was wondering when you would get here."

"Where is here?"

"Follow me and I'll show you." Homer led Gabrielle through the mist. Soon, the mist dissipated to reveal a castle made of grey stones. Somehow, the place looked somewhat familiar to Gabrielle. As they entered the drawbridge, many figures crowded around them. Gabrielle recognized a few of them and turned to look at Homer.

"Hey aren't those your fellow students at the Academy?"

"Yeah. Seems like every bard, musician, and artist of every kind has ended up here. " Homer gestured to another figure. "Hey, Orpheus, it's your turn to be the lookout for newcomers."

Gabrielle looked at the legendary bard in awe. "Even you didn't escape? I thought that being the son of Apollo that you would be sure to make it."

The master bard chuckled gently. "I was the demon's first victim. Even my songs didn't have an effect on it. I'm afraid that my father can't do anything against my grandmother. Our only hope is that your friends will succeed." Orpheus turned went out the door, leaving Gabrielle a bit starry eyed.

"I can't believe I met him."she gasped. Homer nodded.

"Yeah, I always wished that one day my stories would become as famous as he was." he shrugged. "Guess I'll never find out, eh?"

"You still haven't told me where we are." Gabrielle reminded him.

"Well, me and the others think that we're in a part of Morpheus' kingdom." Homer gestured around him. "You know, the dream scape."

"So that's why this dank castle looks so familiar." Gabrielle grumbled. " I really don't like this place. Last time I was here, I nearly got married to Morpheus. Talk about bad memories. What in the name of Hades are we doing here? I don't remember falling asleep. Last I thing I recall was that I was fighting the dream eater."

Homer shrugged. "I don't know how we got here, but apparently, the dream eater can't fully digest us yet, and it's decided to put us in storage for awhile, like a spider wrapping up its prey for later."

"How lovely." Gabrielle grimaced, but the expression faded when she saw Euripides, Tenya, and Branyel walk up.

"This is becoming a regular festival of the arts!" Gabrielle remarked.

"Come on, you guys, Tiresias has been waiting for you." Branyel pulled insistently on Gabrielle's arm. "We all have."

"Why?!? I can't do anything. I'm stuck here, the same as you." Gabrielle was mystified, but let herself be led in front of the famous seer.

"It is a honor to meet you, sir." she stuttered. "Why do you want to see me?"

"The honor is all mine." Tiresias replied. "You hold the key to getting all of us out of here and freeing all the dreams of mankind."

"I do?"

"Yes." Tiresias reached forward and caught Gabrielle's hand. "I know it.But first, you must know how the dream eater got loose. Hera had made a great error in releasing the monster and now events move beyond her control. Soon, all her plans will be in ruin and the wrath of Zeus will be great."

"She seems quite in control to me."

"Hera only wanted to turn all of mankind's thoughts to her and her only. She therefore devised a plan to ensure all the stories that would be told would be about her."


"She captured all nine Muses in hopes of bending them to her will. By doing so, she has destroyed all our abilities to perform and produce art and has released the dream eater. Without the muses, we no longer have the inspiration to write or create. That was why our stories were disappearing. There is more disturbing news. Our art tends to be a shield for humans against the effects of depression. Without it, the souls of the world will become vulnerable to outside forces who now can steal in and raid the human souls. The dream eater is but one of these things. There will be worse to come if we do not get back and prevent it. "

"Great." Gabrielle muttered. "That still does not explain why we're in the dream scape."

Tiresias gave a patient sigh. "The dream eater is planning to seal off this realm, once the last artist is taken. The demon has already usurped the throne of Morpheus and he plans to rule over us, feeding off our suffering. He cannot do anything right now, while the Muses still live. But once he captures the last artist, then all nine will die, for like we gain our talent from them, they need us to live."

"This is just getting better." Gabrielle put her head in her hands. "So, what can I do about this?"

"Get the information to the Warrior Princess and Hercules. They need to find where Hera is hiding the Muses and free them. Only they must hurry. Already our link to the physical world is beginning to fade. The longer we stay in the dreamworld, the harder it will be for us to leave it. If the Muses aren't freed by the time the last artist is taken, then all hope for mankind will be lost."

Gabrielle gulped. "Alright, I'm game. Anyone have any ideas how to get out of here?"

"We've tried, but there is no physical way out." Homer looked nervous, "However, there is the dream path. Have you ever heard of it?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Xena did mention something like that once. If I'm able to walk it successfully, then I can transfer myself out of here, right? What are we waiting for?"

"There's a major catch. Right now the path is being guarded by one of the dream eater's progeny." Tenya twisted her hands. "Plus, without Morpheus, the trail is very unstable. When we sent Euclid out on it, the path kinda fell apart. Luckily he was very near the entrance and he was able to jump back to safety. We're not sure that the end is reachable. All we can hope for is that the path will be stable enough to at least send an image of you to your friends."

"Okay, I can handle that."

"Also, the path of dreams has its own dangers. I'm sure Xena told you about those." Branyel supplied.

"Mmph... she did say something about having to fight herself." biting her lip, Gabrielle tried to remain confident. "Okay, anything else?"

"Yeah, while on the path, your life force will be drained at an very rapid rate. You could die before you got a chance to return."

"Ooooh....that could be a problem." Gabrielle grimaced.

"We figured that since you know the ways of a warrior, you might stand a slightly better than the rest of us. After all, if something attacks us, all we can do is try to talk it to death. You have a stick to hit it with." Tenya looked away guiltily.

"You guys did the right thing to wait." Gabrielle reassured them. " You really wouldn't have stood a chance. I'll try my best, I promise."

"Then you will go?" Tiresias asked, hope in his voice. "You do not have to. We won't hold it against you. There is no shame in backing down from an nearly impossible mission."

"Hey, what kind of warrior bard would I be if I let the impossible get in my way? Besides, this is great stuff for a story! I get first dibs on the copyright!" Gabrielle joked as she readied her staff. "Xena's probably really upset right now, anyway. She kinda thinks I'm dead. I better get back before she does something foolish. Now about that monster blocking the path..."

"Leave it to us. We'll keep it and the dream eater busy." Homer said confidently.


"You have to ask? We're bards! We'll entertain them! They'll be having so much fun that they won't even notice you're missing."

"Okay then." Gabrielle nodded.

"One more thing." another voice joined their conversation. Gabrielle looked up to see Orpheus. The bard smiled at the young woman. "Don't stray from the path once you start. Otherwise, you'll be lost to the physical world forever."

"Gotcha. Don't leave the path, watch out for monsters, and do it as quickly as I can." Gabrielle recited. "How hard can it be?"

A couple of minutes later, Gabrielle began to wonder if starting on the dream path was such a good idea. Homer, Orpheus, and the others had successfully maneuvered the monster away from the path, however, the mists had grown so thick outside the castle that Gabrielle could barely see an inch in front of her nose. Finally, she found a slightly golden path glimmering in the swirling vapors and hesitantly put a foot on it. Instantly, she felt a chill run through her body that was colder than any physical sensation ever could be. Gabrielle gasped, but pushed herself forward. Lives were depending on her success, as well as the fate of humanity.

"No pressure there." she muttered dourly as she picked her way along the glowing pathway. A sudden tremor in the path made her drop to her knees. Tiresias had been right...the dream path felt like it could come apart any second. Gabrielle steadied herself with her staff and crept forward.

"Welcome, mortal." a sudden voice made the young bard jump. Gabrielle turned to find herself facing the ugliest creature on Gaia's green earth. The monster looked like he had come straight out of a nightmare, which in fact, he had.

"Look, I don't have much time." Gabrielle said through gritted teeth. "Can we make this fast?"

"I have not come to harm you, fool." the monster showed its very sharp pointed teeth. "My former master has sent me to aid you."

Gabrielle still kept her staff up, although she was beginning to relax.

"Morpheus wants his kingdom back. In order to conquer this realm, you must learn to use your fear as a power." the monster smiled gruesomely. "Only then will you be able to reach the end." Suddenly, without warning, the beast leaped at her. Gabrielle did not have time to react and within seconds found herself flat on her back, gazing into a pair of bright red eyes. The creature laughed harshly.

"This land uses your fear against you, bard. Learn to master it, or it will master you." he vanished abruptly. "It is time you faced your first challenge!" Gabrielle got up slowly.

The mists had disappeared. Instead, the surroundings were replaced by a battlefield. There were groans of all who were sick filled the air. She ran to the first man she saw and tried to do what Xena had taught her to stop the blood flow, but it was too late. The man died, his eyes looking at her accusingly. Suddenly, the face changed to that of her sister, Lila.

"You're ran away from me! I needed you and you weren't there! Now look at me, this is all your fault! You never loved me...all you know is your own selfishness and your overblown dreams of grandeur. You should have stayed a simple peasant girl. You are of no use to anyone!" Lila claimed. Shocked, Gabrielle backed away from the figure.

"I was only trying to help Xena...."

"Help me do what?" another figure accosted her. "You were never a help, bard. All you were was a pesky nuisance. If you hadn't saved my life just once back in Amphipolis, I would have never let you tag along. Warrior? Hah? You're just a simple storyteller and that's all you'll ever be."

"But I thought that..."

"Thought what? That somehow you were saving my soul? Big dreams, little bard. How could a small simpleton like you possibly help someone of my caliber? It was always me having to save you, not the other way around. I've never needed you Gabrielle, and I never will."

"Xena...." Gabrielle was near tears. Suddenly the scene changed yet again, and she was standing by a freshly burning funeral pyre. Around her, people were leaving shaking their heads wearily.

"Wh-what's going on?" Gabrielle was very confused.

"It is the funeral of the Warrior Princess, Xena. She fought a great battle, but the end she was betrayed."

"What? By whom?"

"Her best friend, Gabrielle."

"No!" Gabrielle screamed. "I would never..."

"You failed me, Gabrielle. You failed me..." a pale shadow approached her and Gabrielle sobbed as she realized it was Xena. "I died because through your ineptitude."

"Nooo!" Gabrielle cried out. "This is not real. Xena and Lila would never say things like this to me, because it's not true!" She stood up, brandishing her staff. "You hear me, it's not true! I'm not a failure! I'm more than a simple farm girl. I am Gabrielle, an amazon princess and bard. And right now, I know Xena needs me, not to mention a million other lives. I don't have time. Now stop this!"

The shadow that looked like Xena smiled.

"Well done, little one. The Warrior Princess would be proud. You overcame your deepest fears quite quickly."

"Like I said, I don't have time to indulge in personal angst. Now please, let me go."

"I can see why Morpheus wanted you for a wife. I bid you adieu, little mortal, until the next challenge." The surroundings around her disappeared, and Gabrielle again found herself on the golden pathway.

It is dark and cold in the tiny stone room. A single flickering torch seemed to cast more shadows than give any light. Callie is still speaking , her voice the only comfort as its rhythm swayed with each of her words. Suddenly, a sound is heard and she stops, frightened. Silence fills the room as the nine sit and wait. The door to the chamber opens, and the women look up into a pair of peacock green eyes.

"Hera." the eldest begs. "You must let us go! You cannot keep creativity locked up in a cage forever. Otherwise it will die. Please, set us free."

"No. Not until you swear to me that you will grant inspiration to only those who would sing of my glory."

"We cannot do that! Creativity cannot be chained or restricted. To do so would be to kill its essence."

"Then die here, for all I care."

"If we die, then so do all the souls of humanity. You cannot be so cruel!"

"Then grant me my desire."


"Then you and all your followers will vanish."she said heartlessly, slamming the door as she leaves. The others look at each other, desperation etched on their faces.

"Callie, perhaps you can spare us more of your tale." the eldest finally speaks up.

"Oh, Clio," Callie looks up, distraught. "It is hard to go on. But I must, to give mankind the strength and endurance to keep on fighting.... I sing of the second trial of the bard..."

"If Morpheus wants to help me, than can't he just cut out these tests?" Gabrielle asked to no one in particular. "I mean, I know they're coming. Doesn't that sorta defeat the purpose?"

"They are necessary if you are to gain mastery over the realm of dreams." the nightmare was back. "What you experience is real enough, little mortal. If you die here in the dream path, it would be as if you died physically. The risk is great, as are the rewards if you successfully pass. Morpheus can not help but to give you me as a guide. The challenges are of your own making."

"But the others need me to get through this in one piece. Can it wait till after I've delivered my message?" Gabrielle swore in anger as the nightmare disappeared. Still shaken by her last test, Gabrielle banged her staff on the hard surface of the dream path. She was tired and frustrated. The fact that the path had begun to buckle like a writhing snake did not help either. Gabrielle tried to hold her balance as she kept her eyes on the road ahead.

Suddenly, she was not alone. A man walked through the mist toward her. He was holding a struggling figure in his hands, which turned out to be a young boy, about five years old. Before Gabrielle's horrified eyes, the man calmly slit the boy's throat with a dagger, and then turned to face her. A memory stirred, of a civil war, and a land torn by two bloodthirsty parties. With a start, Gabrielle suddenly realized that she was no longer on the path anymore but was instead in the middle of a gathering of trees. The man slowly advanced toward her, now with a sword in his hand. She seemed to be locked into place as he lifted his sword to bring it down on her in a paralyzing stroke.

"No!" Gabrielle cried, knowing what would come next as she tried to block the sword with her staff. She remembered him now, he was the one who had almost killed her. She fought back furiously, but she knew it was going to be of no use. He was stronger than she was and more trained in the combat. Gabrielle tried to remain calm, but her mind kept flashing back to the terrible sensation of pain and confusion that had resulted from their last encounter. Suddenly, the man lunged past her and Gabrielle gasped as his sword traced a line of red fire down her arm. Anger exploded into her system. Gabrielle's eyes hardened. She would not let him take her life again. Like a woman possessed, she ignored the wound she had received and started concentrating on attack rather than defense. The man began to back down as Gabrielle rained blow after blow with her staff. All the rage and anger she felt about the whole ordeal he had put her through , about killing of the boy, about the whole civil war in general, was translated into pure and unbridled energy. Almost in a daze, she watched as he tripped and fell onto the ground and she lifted her staff for the killing blow.

"I hate you! " she declared angrily, but was unable to bring her staff down. Finally, she dropped it and turned away."I won't do this, I know it's a test."

She chuckled hoarsely as she watched the man get up and retrieve his sword. "This old thing with the blood innocence isn't going to work, Morpheus. I'm not planning to lose mine, especially in a dream."

"Are you so sure it's a dream?" the man had his sword pointed to her throat. Gabrielle closed her eyes wearily.

"I'm not scared of death anymore because of you. However, just because I don't fear death does not mean I will cause one. If I did, then I'd hate myself."

There was a sudden whoosh of air and Gabrielle felt a sudden sensation of pain through her heart. Then the world dropped away and when she opened her eyes, she found the dream path below her.

"You died." the nightmare was back. "But you also succeeded."

"So what's your point? I can't be dead. I'm still here, aren't I ?"

"Your old anger has died." the nightmare replied. "If you hadn't succeeded in conquering it, then you would have perished in its place."

Gabrielle stumbled as a wave of dizziness swept over her. Looking to her arm, she saw that it was still bleeding.

"As I said, what you encounter here is real enough. " the nightmare inspected her wound. "Looks very nasty, if you ask me."

"Do you have anything I could bandage this up with? It really hurts." Gabrielle clenched her teeth. "I thought that dreams weren't supposed to hurt."

"Dreams no. But this is the dream path." the nightmare looked at her sympathetically. "I'm just a nightmare, you know, I don't carry first aid kits."

Gabrielle tore at the hem of her dress awkwardly with one hand and tied off the blood flow. The nightmare was beginning to look a little squeamish.

"It's just blood." Gabrielle said exasperated. "Being a nightmare, I would think you would have a stronger stomach."

"But that's the real stuff ! Anyway, I'm the type of nightmare where you feel something's chasing you. My big brother's the one that deals with the gore."

"Why didn't Morpheus send a day dream to help me...." Gabrielle sighed as she resumed her trek. Her staff would be useless now for defense since she could only use her uninjured hand.

"Because that would not have helped you. We nightmares may get a bad reputation, little mortal, but we help you face the truth of your fears. Besides, the dream eater has already eaten all the good dreams."

Gabrielle leaned on her staff even more as the path buckled again. "It's getting more unstable."

"You don't have much time left. The third challenge awaits you."

Before Gabrielle could reply, the path ahead of her suddenly caved in, sending the nightmare scrambling toward the bard for safety. Gabrielle looked at the wide fissure and groaned.

"Is this my third challenge?"

"'s an unexpected obstacle." the nightmare twisted around and Gabrielle could see that it was just as confused as she was. "I do not know how you're going to get across. I can't help you in any way, you know."

"Normally, I'd just vault it..." Gabrielle thought aloud, but winced as her bandaged arm gave another whimper of protest, "But in my present condition, I'd probably miss the other side all together." she peered cautiously over the edge. A endless void yawned back at her."By the gods, that is deep." she murmured.

"Humanity must have already lost most of its dreams if the path is in such a state. I fear you may be too late."

"Wait...just what is the dream path made of?"

"It is the physical reincarnation of human thoughts and dreams." the nightmare shrugged. "All your hopes and fears form the foundation. As a storyteller, you of all people should know that here, your tales take substance."

Gabrielle looked wistfully at the gorge. "I wish I had my talent. I could have probably woven a tale about a bridge in no time."

"Then why don't you?"

"With the Muses gone, I have no intuition nor talent."

"How hard can it be?"

"You try!" Gabrielle looked at the nightmare piercingly.

"I'm myself am made of a dream. Use me as a type of building material. Hopefully, that won't count as intereference from my part. Anyway, it should give you enough inspiration to go on. Besides, the Muses are not yet dead yet, nor is your talent." the nightmare sighed sorrowfully. "If you don't use me, the dream eater will have me for lunch anyway, mortal. I will not be able to guide you any farther. Be warned, the third challenge is the hardest. It involves the lake of souls. But since your soul is the purest I ever seen, little mortal, you should have no problem gaining the truth. Solve the riddle the best you can. Remember what you learned in the dream world. Only when all three elements are combined can the door to the waking world be opened. The dream eater will be after you soon. Take care."

"Thank you." Gabrielle said meaningfully. Somehow, she had begun to like this little odd nightmare. "I hope to see you again."

"Perhaps in your dreams, little mortal. Now begin."

Gabrielle held her breath as she thought furiously. However, not a single story involving a bridge came to mind. It was as if her mind had drawn a compete blank on the subject.

"I can't do it, not without the help the Muses."

"Then the dream eater has already won. Little mortal, trust in yourself. Your gift lies deep within you, no demon can take it away. Find the spot within your soul where a fire burns bright."

Gabrielle closed her eyes. Oddly, a picture of Xena sprang into her mind, along with the images of all the adventures they had shared together, and all the friends she had met. Gabrielle finally found the right words. When she opened her eyes again, the path was whole, but there was no sign of her friend the nightmare.

"Well, done, little bard." a voice whispered in the wind. Gabrielle hurried across until she spied a large silver lake on the side of the path. Hesitantly, she approached it, knowing full well that it must be the lake of souls. Peering warily into the transparent depths, Gabrielle prepared herself for whatever dangers that the water may yield up.

However, there was nothing to be seen on the placid surface, not even her own reflection . Reaching out a finger, Gabrielle poked the liquid. The image swirled and changed suddenly.

Instead of seeing herself in a dirty worn out state she was in, Gabrielle's reflection was clothed in a beautiful silver and cold gown. A sparkling tiara was perched delicately on her head, amongst other rare and exotic gems.

She frowned. "Wait, that can't be right. I'm not supposed to look like that..." the water s began to cloud. "What did I do?" In puzzlement, the bard pushed all thoughts of her reflection out of her mind. The water abruptly cleared. "

Very nice..." Gabrielle muttered. "But why does it do that? What does this have to do with the door out of here?"

The water swirled yet again to reveal a door behind the beautiful reflection on the lake. But when Gabrielle turned, there was no door behind her. "I don't understand." she said, frustrated. Suddenly ,the waters of the lake began to foam and ripple roughly. Gabrielle backed away in surprise, and the water calmed down. Confused, the bard sat down by the lake's edge. Almost as an afterthought, Xena's voice filtered into her thoughts.

"Keep calm. Concentrate. Listen to your own body. It will tell you what to do." her friend's voice said soothingly. Looking out over the lake, Gabrielle could see that the surface was tranquil again.

"It's almost as if it was affected by my moods." the bard mused. "Oh, I SEE." excited, the bard jumped up. The water began to dance and spray wildly. "That's what the nightmare meant. You have to remember the rules of this place...only when you overcome your anger and fear and calm your soul can the truth be seen. The lake's a reflection of the inner soul! That means that the door's somewhere inside myself. But how do I get inside myself ?" Gabrielle sighed as she realized the only way to reach the door. Closing her eyes and holding her breath, she plunged into the lake.

The torches were almost burned out when Iolaus finally got up from his sitting position on the floor of the library. There was a faint chill in the evening air and he shivered as he reshelved the scroll he had been looking at. His stomach was growling miserably and his eyes felt strained from squinting at parchment after parchment. Stretching out his complaining muscles, Iolaus decided that a small break would be necessary. Walking out of the chamber, he looked for Xena and Hercules.

The legendary heroes were knee deep in yellow sheets of paper. From the looks on both their faces, Iolaus could tell that they had about as much luck as he had in finding the correct scroll. At his entrance, Hercules looked up and smiled wanly, but Xena remained where she was, still furiously scanning the scrolls.

"Any word?" Hercules asked as he put down the poem he had been reading.

"Yeah, thousands of em'. But none mention anything about this dream eater. Man, if I have to read anything else about Odysseus, I'm going to scream." Iolaus snorted.

"At least you didn't have to wade through Oedipus." Hercules had a distasteful look on his face. "Talk about a guy with the ultimate bad luck."

Iolaus gestured quietly to Xena, who was to absorbed in her work to notice their exchange. A frown crossed Hercules face as he shook his head slightly. No change. The Warrior Princess remained as inconsolable as ever. Iolaus nodded and said out loud.

"How about some dinner? I'm starved!"

"I'm not hungry. Do as you will, but I'm staying here." Xena said as she finished her scroll and reached for another.

"You need to eat something. You haven't had anything all day." Hercules tried to reason with the warrior.

"I said, I'm not hungry."

Hercules looked helplessly at his friend as he thought furiously about how to get the Warrior Princess to rest. At the rate that Xena was driving herself, she was sure to collapse soon. Although she was as tougher anyone Hercules had ever met, the strain was beginning to show in the warrior as she furiously denied herself any feelings of grief. The only emotion remaining on the warrior's face was her determination to kill the dream eater. Hercules did not even want to think what would happen when and if that goal was completed. Then Xena would have nothing to fight against, and he feared the effects on the warrior's fragile soul. Turning, he looked at to Iolaus, his own best friend, and he understood the depth of her grief. Xena's closest family had been the little bard. Pushing back thoughts of his own reaction when his family had died, Hercules went over to the recalcitrant princess and put his arms around her.

"You're not alone." he said softly. Xena turned roughly on him, but the fire died as soon as it had flared up.

"Would you stop pestering me?" she snapped.

"Only if you come to dinner. If the answer's here, we'll find it. These scrolls will still be here after we've eaten."

"No." she said, stiffening slightly and pulling away. "I can't. It's in here, somewhere." Looking into her eyes, Hercules knew that he would not win this battle. Xena's will remained as stubborn as ever, and the warrior would not bulge until she got what she was looking for. Not even the gods, Hercules thought wryly, could change Xena's mind once it latched onto an idea. Shrugging helplessly to Iolaus, he sat back down to leaf through the scrolls. With an pained expression, the hunter did the same.

"You know, I would like some dinner. Maybe some nutbread, with cheese. Mmm...nutbread. The way my mom made it. Without the henbane, of course." a cheerful voice suddenly filtered into the room. All three of them looked up in shock.

"Well, even you've got to eat, Xena."

"Gabrielle?" Xena looked as if she had been struck by lightening.

"Of course it's me. Who do you think it was, a one-eyed cyclops?" Gabrielle teased as she stepped into the room. Like an arrow shot from a taunt bow, the Warrior Princess was on her feet before the bard could even cross the room. Running up to her friend, Xena prepared to sweep her up into a great hug, when she realized that something was not quite right. She was not making contact. Looking at the Gabrielle in bewilderment, Xena walked back slowly to her friend and cautiously tried to place a hand on her shoulder. Instead of meeting solid flesh, Xena's hand slid right through, as if touching only air. Gabrielle winced.

"Don't do that. It feels funny and makes me dizzy when I look." the bard griped.


The bard watched as the Xena, Hercules, and Iolaus all gave her horrified looks.

"Your soul..." whispered the Warrior Princess. "You're not at rest."

Gabrielle choked as she suddenly realized how she must appear to her friends. "No, wait. It's not what you think. I'm not dead."

"But how..."

"I'm in the dream scape, not Hades." Gabrielle replied. "I went on the dream path to get here. Only the path's falling apart and can't transport me fully here."

Xena looked surprised, then joy filled her face.

"You're not dead?"

"No." Gabrielle grinned as she watched her friend drink the news in. "But I'm afraid we're in some serious trouble. That's what I came to tell you. The reason all this has been happening is that Hera has imprisoned all nine Muses. That's why all our stories seem to be disappearing and drying up. Also, they are what wards the dream eater away. You must free them soon, before the dream eater eats his last artist. Otherwise, all the Muses will die and mankind will lose its inspiration and its dreams forever."

"Where's Hera holding them?"

"I'm not sure." Gabrielle sighed, "But the answer's in a scroll here."

"Great." Iolaus gestured "Which one?"

The bard shrugged, wincing as pain lanced through her arm. "Well, the Academy is where the greatest storing place of information."

"You're wounded!" Xena tried to inspect Gabrielle's cut.

"It's nothing. I've tied it off like you taught me." the Gabrielle said flippantly. "Just a bad encounter with a nasty dream. You won't believe the trouble that I had to go through to get here."

"You did a good job." Xena still looked at her friend worriedly. Gabrielle knew that the warrior would like to rebandage the scrape herself, if only to make sure that the bard was indeed in one piece, but right now, they both knew it was impossible.

"Go on to dinner." the bard said determinedly.

"But the dream eater..."

"You won't do me a lot of good if you don't have enough energy to fight Hera. Come on, I know you're tough and everything, but just think about a nice warm loaf of nutbread. Doesn't that sound good? "

"What about you, then?"

"Hey, I'm just dreamstuff. I don't need to eat." the bard said as she walked over to the shelves of scrolls. "I'll stay here and look."

"But how?" Iolaus asked curiously.

"I can see what the scroll's about by just looking at the way it's sealed. I'll know when I find the right one." Gabrielle said confidently. " You guys go and get some dinner. I'll be here when you get back."

Xena gave the bard a reluctant look. Gabrielle could sense her friend's feelings and smiled reassuringly.

"Hey, it's not so bad. We've been in worse scrapes then this. Remember the time with Sisyphus and Celesta? I figure if your can face down the living dead, a dream monster will be no problem." Gabrielle looked deeply into the warrior's eyes. "I'll be fine, Xena....and I'll be here when you return. That's a promise."

"I-I thought..."

"Well, you were wrong." Gabrielle said softly. "I'm still here and I'll always be here. " She nodded at Hercules."Well, I don't have all night."

Hercules looked at the bard tenderly. "Of course. We don't want to keep you waiting." taking the reluctant warrior by her arm and using a bit of his brute strength, he was able to lead Xena toward the door. The warrior followed, looking back at her best friend regretfully.

"Eat a big hunk of nutbread for me!" the bard called as they left. As soon as Xena was out of sight, Gabrielle slumped heavily against her staff. She was getting tired fast and she knew that if she did not find the correct scroll soon, then she would have no energy left to leave the path.

"Why isn't this ever easy?" she grumbled as she scanned the shelves. "Alright, I know I'm looking for a song scroll...these are obviously history and sagas." she dashed to the next room. "Hmm. Looking under the letter for Muses..."

When Xena, Hercules, and Iolaus returned from their hurried dinner, the bard was waiting for them with a huge smile on her face. Xena looked at her friend in relief...she had half convinced herself that she had made up the vision of the bard. However, Gabrielle looked very much alive, if not present, as she skipped along in her excitement.

"I found it!" she declared as she led them through the halls. "It was in the music department, aisle three, under `Epic songs that deal with the Muses.'"

"How did you find it so fast?"

"Have you guys ever heard of the Pythagorean decimal system?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I swear, you must have never done a research paper in your lives!"

"Well, I think I flunked that one." Iolaus replied with a smile. "Gee, you're putting us hero types to shame."

"Don't I always?" the bard pointed to a high shelve. "I can't reach it. It's that one rolled in the blue ribbon."

All four of them looked up. "I think I can find a ladder..." Hercules looked around.

"Don't bother." Xena grinned as she took out her chakrum. "It has many uses." She threw the deadly " round killing thing" with a flip of her wrist. However, instead of sawing something to pieces, the versatile weapon was angled so that it would just nudge the parchment off it's placement. Xena caught the chakrum and the scroll expertly. After rehooking the weapon, she ripped open the scroll. Iolaus and Hercules peered over her shoulders.

"Um.., that doesn't look like Greek to me." Iolaus muttered. "No, it's not." Hercules turned to Xena. "Can you read it?"

"Not one of the dialects from around here." Xena squinted. "I've seen it before, seems to be Phoenician. I know the basics to the language, but this stuff's quite complex."

"I know Phoenician!" Gabrielle spoke up. The others looked at her in amazement.

"You are one very surprising woman." Iolaus grinned, looking at the bard in a new light.

"Hey, it comes with the job. Any bard worth her salt knows Phoenician." Gabrielle smirked as she glanced at the scroll. Her face became thoughtful.

"It's says "Oh cursed be the day that...yadda, yadda ,'s about the dreameater...we already know that stuff. Dire warning...blah blah...deadly trap...blah blah...three ugly monsters.... here it is. `The nine of souls can be found betwixt, that region past the realm of the Styx, where even the gods have reason to dread, and no mortal feet would dare to tread...for beyond the reach of the bravest of souls, is the rock of where dreams in captivity hold...hmph...rhyme scheme's off be unlocked by the one with the key or else in darkness dwell for all eternity."

Gabrielle shrugged. "That's about all."

"A realm beyond the Styx...that wouldn't be the Underworld, would it?" Iolaus mumbled. " about one of your less beautiful vacation spots..."

"No..." Hercules said, with a gleam in his eye. "Gods don't fear there. The only place that is beyond the Styx, besides Hades, is the bank before you cross the river. There are many caves there, filled with lost souls that cannot cross to the other side. The special stone walls of the place keep them from leaving while the river prevents them from going across. The shades are pretty much stuck. My family doesn't like going there's a strange place between life and death. They say that many worlds cross at that point. If Hera wanted to confine the nine Muses, that would be the ideal place."

"Any idea how we would get to the Underworld? The lake I used is pretty far away." Xena frowned.

"You went to the Underworld?" Hercules shook his head. "Never mind." he smiled at Gabrielle. "You can tell me about it afterwards."

"Well, I don't want to wind up dead...." Iolaus shrugged eyeing his blade.

"Let me handle it. Hades owes me a favor." Hercules replied. "Wait here. I'll see what we can do about a ride."

Xena lifted an eyebrow at Iolaus, who shrugged. However, the Academy suddenly disappeared and they were staring at the flickering torches of a dark dank passageway. Hercules joined them nonchalantly. Xena decided not to ask. Sometimes, being the son of a god could come in handy. As they followed the passageway down, Gabrielle shivered. She had been here before. However, she cocked her head...was someone singing?

"Not again! Hopefully you have your fare this time." A crabby voice suddenly assaulted them.

"Charon, we don't need to go to the other side...."Hercules began, but the irate boatman ignored him.

"Let's see...that's four passengers...yes, I see you lurking back there, little girl! That would be six and a half gold coins. Two for both you and Xena,...last time you people came through, you never paid me, one for that blonde guy and a half for the girl. You get a discount being a second time customer."

"Hey, I'm not even really here." Gabrielle snorted.

"Doesn't matter...You're still using the boat."

"Charon, we don't need to be taken to the other side this time." Hercules repeated as he scouted out the banks.

"Then where are you going? I don't recommend the cave of sorrows...the sights there even send a chill up my spine. you know how hard it is to do that? Now come on and pay up. You owe me."

"Bye, Charon." Hercules waved as he started toward the nearest cave opening. The ferryman wrinkled his nose.

"That's it. All these air breathers, they've got no respect these days! Exploring the caves of lost sorrows, hah! What next? Synchronized swimming in the Styx?" Charon turned away in disgust. In minutes, the group could here he begin his famous song again, at full volume.

"At least he'll be a good guidepost out of here. We just follow the wailing." Iolaus muttered as he tried to block the tune from his ears. "Just great. Now I'll have it stuck in my head for eternity!"

The group proceeded cautiously into the caves. Gabrielle shuddered as she saw a shadow slip around the edge of her vision. A soft keening wail could be heard in the air that sent a chill down to the deepest part of the soul. It was a cry of utter desperation and torture, of a soul lost forever in limbo.

"I bet even Tartarus is better than this." the bard murmured fretfully. "At least there you have something to hang on to, have a sense of being. These souls here don't have even have the reality of pain to keep them going."

Xena nodded. "They lose every vestige of both spirit and mortal until all they know is the wasted emptiness."

"Can't we do anything to help them?" Gabrielle's heart went out to the suffering spirits.

"I would, but they don't have a sense of identity nor the will to even try to cross over." Hercules spoke with a longing in his face. The son of Zeus wished that he could lighten the spirit's load, but knew that some things just had to be. "Not even the gods can do anything about them."

"How do they get here?"

"It is said that they wasted their lives when they lived and that they are stuck here through their own will." Hercules looked sad. "They inflict this exile on themselves, for not even my family would be so cruel as to punish them in such a way. However, this is what the whole world will be like if we can't free the Muses."

Iolaus ducked away from a shade that had come a little too close to him. He swallowed as he looked into the empty eyes of the thing that had once been human, but not was human any more.

"Can we hurry out of here? This place sorta gives me the willies." he gulped. "I rather face a thousand hydras."

Even Xena looked a bit uncomfortable as they headed deeper into the caves and the wailing increased. The unnatural aura of the caves made all of them feel on edge as they inched their way along. When Gabrielle gave a sudden sneeze, all three heroes turned around alertly, weapons raised and ready for attack.

"Sorry." the bard murmured as she blushed. Then she gave a horrified squeak as one of the shades passed right through her. "I'm not really here...I'm not really here..." she repeated firmly to herself.

"Gabrielle, are you alright?" Iolaus asked.

"Yeah..." she replied faintly as she shivered again. "Although this dream path really could use a good fire."

"Speaking of fire, we're running out of torches." Iolaus winced at the thought of having to wander around in the dark. The others mirrored his expression. "Anyone have any idea where we're going?"

"No, the poem never gave specific...hey stop that!" Gabrielle yelped angrily as the same shade tried to pass through her again. "Whatever it is, I'm not interested."

"I think he likes you." Xena remarked.

"Would you cut it out!" the bard jumped back. "Quit it! " she tried to swat the offending spirit away, but since both of them were made out of insubstantial substance, it did not work out. "Hey! Don't you dare go there!" Gabrielle tried to run away from the shade, but it followed her. Frustrated, the bard tried to swing it the spirit with her staff. However, she was hampered by the fact that she could only use one arm. Unbalanced, Gabrielle toppled over and disappeared through a wall. The shade, seemingly satisfied, wandered away.

"Gabrielle, quit fooling around and get back over here!" Xena shouted.

Moments later, the bard stuck her head halfway out the rocky side. "Xena! There's a passageway behind here! I think that's what my pushy spirit friend was trying to show me." the bard ducked back. "It's really dark, but I can barely make out the beginnings of a tunnel. I bet there's a switch somewhere to get into it."

The bard popped back out of the stone wall and sat smirking on the floor as she watched her three friends grope around.

"You could help, you know." Iolaus sniffed.

"You're forgetting something..." Gabrielle pushed her hand through the rock. Iolaus snorted.

"Just a minor technicality." the hunter grinned warmly at the bard and received a sweet smile in return. "I wonder what all your physical limitations are..." However, before they could say anything else, the lights went out.

"Hmm..., well, this is just great." Iolaus's voice drifted across the ebony sea. "Hey...whatever that was that felt me in that place I rather not mention, you better get away before I start hacking..."

"Stand back." Hercules' voice thundered in the blackness There was a sound of flesh upon stone as the mighty hero pushed the wall they had been searching. Incredibly, the stone began to creak and sigh as the immortal threw his vaunted strength against it. Slowly but surely, the wall gave in and the group found themselves in a greyish cavern. A small beam of light coming from one end allowed them to see their surroundings dimly. Iolaus took out one of their last torches and lit it. In the distance, voices could be heard. Xena, Hercules, and Iolaus started towards them.

"Wait!" Gabrielle cried. "Let me go ahead. The poems mentioned three monsters. It'd be safer if I went. They can't do anything to me." the bard ran off before Xena could say another word.

In minutes, she was back. "It's a ugly ten headed dragon. Nine of the heads seem to be able to spit fire. There's a back way in where he won't see us." Gabrielle led them swiftly along the passageway. Minutes later they were staring at the hideous beast from the safety of a small ledge. With ten pairs of eyes, there was no way that they could hope to slip pass the monster. Hercules studied the dragon and groaned.

"Great. It's a immortal dragon. It won't matter if we cut off all nine of the heads, the tenth one can't be killed." Hercules tightened his grip on his sword. "Plus, the immortal head is poisonous...if it bit you, you'd die instantly."

"Just because it can't die doesn't mean it can't be stopped." Xena said, her eyes glittering. "You and Iolaus take care of the fire breathing heads. I'll get the immortal one."

"Xena, that thing's faster than Zeus's thunderbolt." Gabrielle looked at her friend in fear. "It'll eat you before you get a chance to get near it!"

"Who says I plan to get near it?"

Gabrielle looked downwards. Hercules had already pinned killed the first two heads by throwing his sword and piercing them. When the monster slithered over to in an attempt to barbecue Hercules, Iolaus darted in and blinded a third head. Faced with a battle on two sides, the monster divided its attention as best it could. It's venomous tenth head snapped around, almost faster than the eye could track it. Only by the most agile of moves could the two men avoid being bitten or flamed. Hercules hurled a rock and crushed another head, but the monster had been waiting for him. Seeing that the hero was in a vulnerable place, the venomous tenth head reared and prepared to strike. Gabrielle yelled out a warning as she raced to try to help. But she would be too late. The monster's head was already racing towards its target...

"AYIYIYIYIYI!" a battle cry suddenly split the air as the Warrior Princess launched herself from the ledge. Instead of landing on the monster, she hit a large stalagmite right above the creature's body. Then the laws of gravity took over. The huge rock plummeted, with Xena astride and whooping like a cowboy. Smashing right onto its target, the rock pinned the head down from Hercules, who was inches away and wearing a bemused grin. Not stopping there, the Warrior Princess launched herself in the air again and sliced through another head that was trying to sneak up behind the hero.

"What took you so long?" he commented as he dodged another fire spitting head. The flame throwing mouth was immediately shut as he slammed a fist into it.

"Hmpf." the Warrior Princess grumbled as she threw her chakrum into the eyes of another head. "Males."

Gabrielle was about to make her own remark when another head fell through her body. It was quite lifeless, due to Iolaus, but it was still unnerving.

"Watch where you put that thing." she said, annoyed.

"Sorry." Iolaus sheathed his sword when he saw that there were no more heads to lop off. The immortal head was still twitching limply, but it remained under the rock. "Oooh, that's going to hurt when he wakes up."

"I say that the monster is a good sign that we're going in the right direction. Gabrielle, if you would be so kind..." Hercules waved a hand grandly in the air. "Ladies first."

Gabrielle picked her way through the carnage and thanked the stars that the dream scape had not provided the scents of the caves. From the looks on her friend's faces, the monster really reeked. Running around the bend, Gabrielle had to catch herself as a wave of dizziness swept over her. She shivered uncontrollably. I'm running out of time, she realized slowly as she leaned on her staff. But she couldn't let the others know, they would only worry and the important thing was to get the Muses free. She would have plenty of time to think about the dream path later.

"Xena, it's clear." she called out. A sudden rumbling made her wish she had kept her mouth closed. A huge giant emerged, looked at her, and grinned.

"Breakfast." he grumbled as he reached for her. Luckily, all he got in return was a handful of dirt. Gabrielle sighed as she called out a warning to her companions. It was going to be one of those days.

The giant looked at her confused and tried to swipe at her again.

"I don't get it," he mumbled as his hand passed completely through the bard. "Why can't I touch you? I can see you...why doesn't my hand feel you?"

Gabrielle snorted. The giant was stupid to boot. It would be a shame killing it, although he wanted to eat them. To kill the giant would be too easy, like swatting a wingless fly. She knew that Xena and Hercules could easily finish it off, but the bard felt a sense of sadness. There was already too much pain in the world.

"You're seeing things." she informed him cheerfully. "I'm not really here, nor are the three warriors who will be crossing here shortly."

"What?!?" the giant's mind was clearly puzzled. "I can see you..." he repeated.

"Ah, you can't pick me up. That's because all of this is a delusion. You're not really here, you know." Gabrielle said convincingly.

"It can't be. Hera told me to stay here to guard the caves and to smash anyone coming through here. You know, I'm good at smashing things..."

"I bet." Gabrielle said with an admiring tone in her voice. "But you didn't smash me. If you're so normally good at smashing things, then why am I still standing?"

"Because I can't touch you."

"Yes. That's because your delusional. The idea of Hera, protecting this cave, and smashing people all are delusions. You're really not here, you know."

"I'm not?" the giant looked really confused.

"No. You're off dreaming somewhere."

"This is a really strange dream then." The giant sat back worriedly. "I've never been delusional before. Is it serious?"

"Very!" Gabrielle looked as serious as she could be. "You could die, you know."

"But I don't want to die!" wailed the poor confused giant. "How do I cure it?"

"Easy. Delusions are known to be caused of by an improper diet. You've been eating a lot of humans again, haven't you?" Gabrielle clucked disapprovingly as the giant nodded a miserable yes. "That explains it. If you keep doing so, then you'll get worse and worse delusions, until you never wake up."

"No!" the giant cried.

"Well, if you stick to just cattle, you should be fine. But no more humans, got it? Otherwise, your world will be like me..something you can see but not touch. That includes all food."

"I won't eat any humans anymore, I promise! Now please let the delusion end!" the giant begged. Gabrielle smiled as she saw Xena, Hercules, and Iolaus slip pass.

"Well, okay, but you better stick to a no-human diet!"

"Yes, yes!"

Gabrielle walked away smugly.

"Alright, Ms. Delusion, way to go!" Iolaus cheered when she reached them. "That is one of the most unique ways I've ever seen to vanquish a giant. Your mouth should be labeled a lethal weapon!"

"It already is." Xena said tersely. "I've known her to talk someone to death."

"Iolaus has a mouth to match." Hercules reminded his friend, who gave him a murderous glare. Laughing, the friends proceeded forward. They were near to their destination, they could feel it.

"Talking about mouths, what's that noise?" Gabrielle paused. "Uh-oh."

"Enter monster number three." Iolaus muttered. "Why do these things always come in threes?"

"Well, if you want to know, three is the number of integral elements that a story has to have ....mainly excitement, compassion, and depth." Gabrielle shrugged as Iolaus looked at her oddly. "Also, three squared is nine, which is the number of Muses. Most stories are have some multiple of three of something or other. Besides, it's a really handy number. What? You asked!"

"Shh-h..."Xena waved a hand for silence. Suddenly, she threw herself on the floor "Duck!"

"Wh-aa" Iolaus yelled before Hercules yanked him down. The cave was suddenly filled with a loud squeaking noise.

"Bats!" Xena replied, sounding disgusted. "I HATE bats.

Gabrielle nodded as she watched them dive at her friends. "By the look of them, hungry bloodsucking monster bats. Shooo...go away!"

The animals ignored the flustered bard as they concentrated on the humans that they could sense. The situation was becoming serious. Although they were doing the best they could, the three heroes were losing the battle as more and more of the furry creatures poured out of the dark recesses. Iolaus swung his torch at them, but it had no effect except to extinguish that light source entirely. The room was plunged into blackness, but that did not even make the bats pause. Gabrielle yelled out in dismay.

Suddenly, a high discordant whistle pierced the air. The sound wavered a couple of notes, but the tune remained shrill and unpleasant. The whistle was soon joined by another, equally piercing. There was a sudden rush of wings and as quickly as they had came, the bats swiftly exited the cave. It seemed that they had enough of the awful noise.

The cave was grew silent, except for a clicking noise as Iolaus relit the torch. Gabrielle sighed in relief when she saw that the others were alright. Xena, looking a little bloody and annoyed, strode up to the bard. Gabrielle realized that the warrior was clutching the bard's pan flute with an amused look in her eyes.

"I knew this thing was good for something besides deafening me and Argo." Xena remarked offhandedly. "Apparently, the bats thought that I was a worse player than even you."

"Ha-ha." Gabrielle grumbled.

"That was a pretty good whistle you backed me up with." Xena said approvingly to Iolaus.

"It was just an old hunter's trick." Iolaus grinned.

"Yeah, but if you really want to hear him whistle, wait until you see him in action with the girls in the towns we visit." Hercules ducked the blow Iolaus gave him in jest.

"I just hope that was the last of the dangers." Gabrielle said wearily as she looked around the cave. Already, everything was beginning to look a little blurry. She shook her head. "I don't think I can go another round with any more monsters. I've had my fill."

"What are you complaining about? We're the ones that did the hard work." Iolaus teased "Anyway, three monsters are not that big of a deal. Hercules and me, well, we usually have to go through about twenty a week."he looked at her with some concern. "Hey....are you alright? Your kinda going...a little..well, fuzzy on the edges."

Gabrielle looked at herself in surprise. "I am? Jeez, the dream path must be really falling apart."

Now Xena was looking worried. "Gabrielle, maybe you should take a rest. You have been at it all day. Just step off the dream path and take a break for awhile. You can always catch up with us later."

"No. I said I would see things through and I will. I have to...I can't write a story without an ending. Besides, you might need my help. We're just wasting time here."Gabrielle pushed on ahead. "We're so close anyway. Once we free the Muses, I'm sure everything will revert back to normal."

Xena frowned at her best friend, still unconvinced. She knew that Gabrielle was not telling her something because the bard did not want the her to worry. However, Gabrielle's reluctance to confide in Xena only served to heighten the warrior's anxiety level. The danger they were in, though, prevented Xena from probing Gabrielle any farther. She just hoped that whatever it was, the bard would be able to handle it on her own. If not, Xena always had her sword ready. Feeling helpless and hating it, the warrior followed the Gabrielle as she picked her way slowly through the passageway. Hearing the bard gasp, she ran around the corner, only to find that they had reached a huge wooden door.

"I think we're here." Gabrielle murmured.

Despite pounding, heaving, and generally battering its surface, the door remained firmly shut. No amount of pulling or pushing, even by Hercules, had any effect, whatsoever. After trying to pick the lock again for the fifth time. Xena resheathed her dagger and glared malevolently at the unyielding portal. It was a look that would have seared any living creature, but the wood remained obstinately solid.

"I would say that it is definitely magically protected." Iolaus remarked from his comfortable position on a nearby rock.

"What a brilliant deduction." Hercules grumbled. "At least you could have tried to help."

"Hey!" Iolaus grinned. "I was holding the torch!" he glanced upsettedly at the light source. "I mean, what's left of the torch. If we don't get out of here soon or find some wood, we'll be catering darkness again."

"Gabrielle, are you doing alright?" Xena asked. The bard looked at her and nodded slowly. The bard had already tried to cross the door, but it had been surprisingly solid, although she still remained quite the opposite to the others. The result of running into the wood had sent up a field of stars in her vision, and the world became less distinct. To make matters worse, the pain her arm had began to flare up again.

"You know, you're setting a record for asking me that." Gabrielle said as she felt the contours of the door. "Anyway, just our luck that this happens to be dream proof."

"It makes sense." Hercules shrugged. "After all, Hera has to contain the Muses. But there must be a way in."

"The scroll mentioned a key." Iolaus muttered. "What could be the key to a door like this? Man, I wish Autocluas was here. I bet he'd be through that thing faster than Salmoneous goes through money."

"However, he'd probably pick us clean before he left." Hercules said wryly. "There must be a way in."

Xena thought hard "How can you seal a dream in? Nothing could stop those. What do we know about dreams, anyway?"

"I don't know, but I just met one." Gabrielle recalled. "One of those nightmares where you run and you run, seeming like forever."

"Until you wake up." Xena nodded. "But how can we use that? Gabrielle! You're fading!"

Gabrielle did not reply. Instead, she slumped wearily against the wooden door, the only support she could find beside her staff.


"The connection's getting weaker." she managed to say softly. "I'm not sure I can stay with you much longer. Free the Muses...and ask them to tell a story of me."

"Gabrielle! Hang in there." Xena was frantic as she tried to help her friend.

"I think I'm going to take your advice and get off the dreampath for awhile..." Gabrielle said faintly. "Don't worry it'll be alright. I'll be fine if you get the Muses out. Just...hurry." The image of the bard disappeared. "Gabrielle! No you don't, not a second time!" Xena ran towards the door and hacked at it furiously with her sword. The wood showed no scarring.

"Hey, take it easy !" Hercules stepped in, trying to break Xena's fury. "She's alright, she's just taking a break."

"I don't believe her." Xena said flatly.

"She'll be fine." Iolaus stated firmly. "It'll take more than a little quirky dream path to stop Gabrielle and her mouth. It's like a force of nature."

Xena stood up and glared at Hercules. "I'm not going to lose her again."

"No. You're not." the god replied, with a gaze as steady as hers. "We'll stop it. I promise you. You have to believe that Gabrielle will be alright."

"She better be, or I'll..." she shook her head. "I don't know if I can take it." the warrior traced the spot where Gabrielle had left a smear of blood on the door. The scarlet patch began to grow warm under her hand. Startled, the warrior princess stood back. Slowly, the door began to glow and words appeared on the frame.

"Weird." Iolaus muttered as he bent to examine the writing.

Xena scanned the words. "To unlock, use the codes of three."

"Three again?" Iolaus thought furiously. "Do you think it could mean the three elements that Gabrielle talked know, excitement, compassion, and uhh...."

"Depth." Xena supplied. "What does it want us to do? Tell stories to it?"

"It's worth a try. Nothing has worked so far. Besides, if this door needs to be strong enough to withstand the escape of a dream, then it makes sense that only a dream or a story could break through from this side. Perhaps if we bombard it with tales, it will open." Hercules sighed. What a time for the bard in their group to fade out. Normally, he felt a minor annoyance when it came to that subject. Too many bards seemed to like to flock to him, asking to chronicle his adventures. However, right at this moment, he would have given anything for just one of them.

"How are we supposed to come up with good enough stories when even the greatest authors have lost their inspiration?" Iolaus glared at the door. "Three stories in fact! We're heroes, not storytellers. That's probably why Hera locked it this way. She knew that no bard would get far enough to unseal it!"

"We have to try." Xena said firmly. The hunter nodded resolutely.

"Here goes...." he closed his eyes. "Once, a friend of mine told me that all male and females were of one body and one shape....."

Slowly, the door began to glow even brighter as Iolaus kept talking. When he finished, it was almost as bright as the sun. Hercules smiled at his friend. "That was a good one." he nodded.

"Might as well give it a go." he thought back to his family and the stories he used to tell his children and finally found the words to speak. The door glowed even brighter. When Hercules finished, he looked up at Xena. "It's up to you now."

She took a deep breath. War she was used to. Fighting she was fine with. But storytelling? She was unused to this weapon of words. But the image of Gabrielle rose in her mind and she began to speak.

"I tell you of a bard, a great person, and a true friend. Born not to greatness, but achieving it through her heart, this young woman never let the forces of evil stop her. Even though many times the odds were not in her favor, she always seemed to win, either with her staff or with her words, both of which were equally powerful. One day, the young bard came upon another woman, who was scarred by her past and bitter about life itself. Although the woman was quite nasty and even rude at times, the bard stuck with her, for she could see something in the woman that no one else could. Although her friends laughed at her and even her own family disapproved, the bard stayed with the woman, recognizing that the other needed her. For this woman was on a quest....a quest to redeem herself and find some measure of self worth. Although they both searched long and hard, and each learned many of life's lesson along the way, the warrior woman could never find any proof that she was anything better than what her past had made her. Until one day, she stopped to glance at her companion and knew that the innocence and the life she had sought had been with her all along." Xena stopped, voice catching in her throat. Hercules and Iolaus were equally silent.

"I know that wasn't quite up to the caliber that Gabrielle would have made it..."

"Xena, I doubt that even Orpheus himself could have told it more beautifully." Hercules said sincerely. "Besides, you opened the door." "Then what are we standing out here for!" the Warrior Princess charged into the room, followed closely by her friends.

"Welcome, Xena, Hercules, and Iolaus." a melodic voice spoke up from her bed of iron chains. "Long have we sent dreams to bards about you, and long have we sung of your glory."

Xena tried to break the chains that bound the Muse.

"No ordinary chains are these." she told the warrior as Xena tried to force the locks open. "Made by Hephaestus himself."

"How can we free you then? My friend needs your help!"

"I cannot be freed by a mortal's brute strength." the Muse replied.

"But I'm not mortal." Hercules walked up to the chains and wrapped them around his jeweled wrist guard. "We don't have time to go get the sword that freed Prometheus." he yanked as hard as he could. "I hope these aren't the same chains anyway."

"No, they are not. They are spelled like the one on the door."

"Great, more stories..." Iolaus groaned.

"No. Just weaken one link for us, Hercules. We'll do the rest. Like a good story, if one part is flawed, the whole chain comes apart."

"I'm trying, but it won't bulge."

"It was Gabrielle's blood that triggered the door's response." Xena said suddenly.

"The lifeblood of a bard is the substance from which stories are made of. It is a powerful force to be reckoned with, for it contains the strength to create worlds beyond ours and sustain all the dreams of humankind." the Muse replied. "It has the strength to even break what the strongest man on earth cannot bend."

"But Gabrielle's gone off the dreampath." Xena said wearily.

"You must call her back. She'll come if you tell her to."

"No. I can't do that. She's exhausted and wounded. It would kill her. I won't do it."

"You do not have a choice. The world is at stake." the Muse said heartlessly.

Xena stopped, a pained expression on her face. It was the ultimate decision, one which she had to make but did not want to. Why? Her mind roared. Why did she have to become responsible for another death of one she loved?

"You're not responsible." a voice whispered to her. "And I would never make you go through that. I promised you that I would be with you all the way."

Xena turned to find the faint image of Gabrielle haloed in the torchlight.

"You said you were going to take a rest...."

"To where? The dreampath's been blocked off." Gabrielle paused, as if gathering her strength. Walking over to the chains Hercules was tampering with, she held out her hand and grasped it solidly. A single drop of blood fell from her fingers and hit the links with a soft chiming sound. The bard swayed unsteadily as she turned to her best friend.

"I..I heard your story." she said to Xena and smiled warmly. "Thank you." Then she was gone before the others could do anything.

The room began to shudder and quake.

"You must free us now. The dream eater is nearing!"

Quickly, Hercules forced open the chain link. There was a loud burst of color, light, and sound as if all the paint and music in the world had been let loose in one great bang! It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Suddenly, they found themselves on a plain overlooking the city of Athens. Around them, people were shaking themselves as they picked themselves of the ground, as if finally waking from a dream.

"What happened?" Iolaus asked as he brushed the grass from his clothes.

"I think they can tell us." Hercules gestured toward the nine dark haired ladies that stood patiently at edge of the grassy expanse.

"You have freed us, mighty son of Zeus." the eldest of them said. "Long will be your glory. Bards in years beyond will sing of your greatness. Thank you, for saving our children." she indicated to the waking artists around them.

Xena was already among the people, looking for her best friend. However, her heart skipped a beat when she found the bard had not returned with the others.

"Where's Gabrielle ?!?" she demanded of the Muses.

The nine looked at each other, disturbed. "She is still on the dream plane. The dream eater has turned his attack to her."

"What?!? I thought that once you were freed, he would disappear!"

"He is still in our world, and we can do nothing until he leaves. We are not the protectors of this world, the bards and artists are. We just give them the material to fight against the dream eater. He must be defeated by a human whose heart burns with the creative spirit. Normally, Gabrielle would have killed him easily, but she is weakened by the dream path. "

"Send me to her then. She needs my help. I know you can open a path there." Xena demanded angrily. "You owe me and Gabrielle a favor. It was her blood that freed you!"

The Muses looked at each other. "Very well, Xena. We can send you to your friend. But be warned...the dream eater cannot be defeated physically."

Xena nodded tightly. "I'm ready."

"We're going too." Hercules strode up.

"No. It's something I have to do myself. Take care of these artists." Xena gestured to the Muses. In a flash she found herself standing waist deep in a grey fog. The dream path was beneath her, but it was only glowing faintly, as if something was dimming its light. Xena took out her sword and ran forward, praying to each and every god that she would be able to reach her friend in time.

Suddenly, a figure leapt out at her, a mass of sharp fangs and drool. Xena prepared to attack it, but surprisingly, it bowed before her.

"This way....the little bard cannot hold out much longer. She is too weak." it said.

"Who are you?"

"Just a dream." the monster scrabbled on the path. "I will show you a short cut through this path. Since you have walked it once before, there is no need for you to undergo its challenges again." it leaped forward, unfurling leathery wings. "Come! Time grows short."

Xena jumped onto its scaly back, trying to ignore the icy chill where her flesh met the dream's body. In minutes, they were high over the winding path. Xena shuddered when she saw the state of ruin the once magnificent dream world had become. As they sped their way silently through the air, she hoped that somehow it could be repaired. Suddenly, she saw a dark figure in the distance, leaning over a very familiar form...

With an angry shriek of "AYIYIYIYIYIYI!" she leaped off the nightmares back. The thing turned around to face her.

"You are too late!" he cackled. "I have the storyteller!"

"Nooo!" she swung at him, pain and rage blinding her. She fought fiercely, her sword humming a eerie tune as it whistled through the air. Slash, cut, parry, slash again, they both swung and twirled in a deadly dance where claw and sword were partners.

"You cannot win, Xena. For this is my realm and you just a figment of a dying dream." Xena steadied herself as the ground shook beneath her. The dreampath was rebelling, called to life by the demon. He has control of this place, Xena realized suddenly, but so do I. She imagined the path calming down as she blocked another blow from the monsters claws. The dream path stopped quaking. The demon looked up in surprise.

"You are wrong. The dream path is made up of mortal dreams, something you can never have." Xena said calmly. "I'm the one in control here. This is my dream, and I'll be da** if I let you ruin it."

Snarling, the dream eater abandoned his fight with the warrior and leaped to tear apart the bard instead. Desperately, Xena threw herself forward, using her own body to shield that of her friend's. The demon smiled as he prepared for the killing blow.

"You seek to destroy me? Well, I've won." he snarled as he swung downward. Xena had no time to pick up her sword or try to block the blow.

"Don't fight him like that...use the dream world against him. Create, not destroy....that's the code of the bards..." a voice told her weakly.

Xena closed her eyes. In her mind, she saw the broken realm of the dream world and imagined it whole again. As an afterthought, she added the idea that it would be world where there would be no more need for wars, no more need for bloodshed. Instead, art ruled here, and peace. The monster howled in fury and pain. Xena gritted her teeth and thought of a huge hole deeper than eternity, opening up behind the monster. She used her emotions like they were weapons, using them to drive the beast backwards, forcing him closer and closer to the hole she had created. The demon struggled, but Xena's warrior spirit pushed him back, its strength now concentrated on driving this evil from her world. Slowly, the demon toppled from the brink of the void, his eyes blazing red.

"You haven't seen the last of me." he howled as he vanished from view.

"Why do they always say that?" Xena sighed as she opened her eyes again. The struggle had drained her, more than any physical battle ever did.

"Well, done, Warrior Princess." the nightmare had returned. "Morpheus is pleased. The realm of dreams is safe again for mortals."

Xena held the still body of her friend tightly as she gazed back emptily at the dream.

"At what price?" she asked wearily and shook her head "I want to get out of here. I just want to go home."

The nightmare nodded. "Very well then, there is only one way." he tensed. Without any warning, he pounced at her, fangs exposed and heading straight for her neck....


Xena found herself lying on a bed of itchy grass, again on the plain above Athens. Pushing herself shakily to a sitting position, she found that she was still cradling Gabrielle's form. Hercules and Iolaus had spotted her and came running.

"Are you alright?" Iolaus asked, eyes wide. He stiffened when he saw the motionless body of the bard. "Is she...."

Xena lifted a hand and fearfully searched for a pulse. She sighed in relief when she found the reassuring beat.

"No." she said, smiling softly "She's going to be fine."

Three days later.....

Hercules and Iolaus had returned from escorting the last of the artists home. As they walked into the inn, they smiled as they recognized the faint strains of music in the distance and the chatter of a story being told, which stopped abruptly when they passed through the eating area. The barkeeper, used to their comings and goings motioned upwards.

"Any change yet?" Iolaus asked.

The barkeep shook his head. Looking at each other, the two friends headed up the stairs and towards the room they knew they would find Xena. Knocking quietly on the door, Hercules opened it gently. He found the Warrior Princess where he had left her a couple of days ago, still faithfully keeping vigil at the bedside of her friend. When she saw them, Xena rose carefully and headed toward the door. Closing it with as little sound as possible, the warrior smiled at the worried faces of the two heroes.

"She is getting better." she confirmed in a low voice. "It's my guess that she's just being lazy and doesn't want to wake up. Knowing Gabrielle, if she had it her way, she would sleep to the end of the Golden Age. Still, she deserves a rest, after all she's been through." she sighed as she looked at him inquiringly. "What about all the other artists?"

"The last of the bards have made it home safely." Hercules told her, with a slightly annoyed frown. "I must have heard about a million versions of our adventure. Anyway, we came to tell you something... there's been a request for me and Iolaus to go on another journey already....seems like a giant locust is attacking Thrace."

"They need why are you still here?" Xena asked.

"We were hoping that we could at least hear one more version of our adventure..." Iolaus looked meaningfully at the closed door. Xena followed his gaze and nodded.

"I'm sure you will. Again and Again. With numerous exaggerations." Xena said with a slight grin. Still, she wished her friend would just hurry and wake up. She found herself missing the bard's voice.

"Hey, what's all the racket ?" a muffled voice drifted through the door. "Can't a girl get some sleep around here?" The door opened to reveal a drowsy looking bard, strawberry blonde hair mussed and blue eyes slightly unfocused. "I was just having the most wonderful dream...umph." Her words were suddenly stopped by a pair of arms who grabbed her and hugged her tightly.

"Hey! Ouch, watch the arm...I'm glad to see you too, Xena."

"About time you woke up, sleepy head." the warrior lessened her grip.

"Aw, you never let me sleep in." Gabrielle grumbled, but she smiled when she saw Iolaus and Hercules looking at her fondly. "Hey, you guys want to hear an interesting story?"

The sun was again bright and tranquil as it danced upon the meadow of eternal summer. It shone especially warmly on the young performer as she finished her tale, amid the applause and admiration of her audience.

"Quite good, Callie," praised Clio as she gathered up her robes. "It is indeed a wonderful story."

"I'm glad you thought so." the young Muse smiled, although her face still remained disturbed.

"What is it?" Erato asked, concerned.

"The dream eater..." she sighed. "He is still out there, waiting for the chance to break in. As soon as the mortals let down their guard, he will be rampant in here again."

"As long as the mortals keep producing works of art and beauty, that will never happen." Clio reassured her. "It is up to them, and us, to make sure that he is never freed again."

"There is a another thing." Callie looked upset. "The dream eater did manage to defeat Gabrielle. That means that after her death, the stories of Xena will be lost forever. The world will never know of the great hero."

"No." Clio said quietly. "Perhaps the tales of Xena will be lost for quite a time from human knowledge, but I predict that years from now, the stories of the Warrior Princess will resurface again. Perhaps it will take thousands of years, in a world very different from the one we know today, before the bards sing the name of Xena. But no matter how long the time, the Warrior Princess will ride again."

Callie nodded in relief as she took her place beside her sisters. As the sun waxed high in the sky, the music and poetry began anew.


Author's note: This piece was written before I saw "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" Thanks for reading!

Fan Fiction
Return to my Fan Fiction Page