DISCLAIMERS: The following story contains spoilers for the Season 3 episode Sacrifice 2.
Xena stared into the fiery pit, her expression blank. This couldn't be real. Not this. Not after all they'd been through. She couldn't be gone. Not like this.... not like this...
The Hind's-blood dagger slid from her grasp and fell to the stone floor, the sound echoing through the temple. A muffled sob behind the warrior cut through the disbelief. Beside her, Joxer sat stunned and staring. Xena turned away from him, tried to turn away from the image in her mind. Gabrielle had looked into her eyes and called to her as she fell to her death. Even as she'd watched the life leave Callisto, she'd seen that image, saw it now as she stepped over the dead goddess and walked out of the temple. Dahok's followers scurried to clear the way, the only sounds Xena's footsteps and Seraphin's sobs.
Outside, she raised her face to the sun, closed her eyes and thought about the many times she'd watched Gabrielle stand like this. Her hair would glow with the fire of the sunshine, and after a few minutes, she'd sense Xena watching her. A slow smile would spread across her face and she'd turn and look into the warrior's eyes. Xena had basked in that smile the way Gabrielle had basked in the sun, drawing strength and warmth from it.
The sunshine couldn't slow the cold that moved through her now. Her limbs were heavy, her heartbeat loping, as she turned from the sun and walked away. Thankfully, she gave herself to the cold darkness, let her mind and body go numb. She walked until her legs would no longer support her, then lay staring at a blade of grass. The earth was cool against her cheek, the rich, musty scent inviting. She imagined it closing over her, and she suddenly envied Callisto.
Death. Oblivion. No more pain, no more memories. No more love to twist her emotions. No, she wouldn't be as lucky as Callisto. In this life or on the Other Side, she knew she would have no release. Gabrielle was lost to her for eternity. Xena knew she'd be sent to Tartarus for her crimes, while Gabrielle was most likely already in the Elysian fields.
The cry in her mind tore through her heart and brought her to her knees. She tried to stand, but her legs folded. She began to crawl, ignoring the rocks and branches that bruised and cut her hands. Staring unseeing as she pulled herself through the forest. Seeing Gabrielle's face as the night gave way to morning.
Sheer exhaustion finally won out and the afternoon sun broke through the leaves to reveal the warrior lying asleep beneath the trees. Her bloodied fingers still gripped the soil, her body stretched on the forest floor.
Zeus's voice tore through the Halls of War, shaking the walls and bringing Ares to his feet. He'd been waiting. He knew Zeus wouldn't stand for his betrayal. Damn the bard! She'd ruined everything, again. The only good thing to come from this had been watching her fall into the flames.
He steeled himself as he felt Zeus's power grab him, pulling him to Mount Olympus. Zeus backhanded him almost before he appeared, sending him flying. His rage took control and he fought back against his father, but the fight was short-lived. Zeus was not alone, and Ares had no chance against the combined powers of his brothers and sisters.
He found himself on his knees, facing the angry and disapproving glares of Zeus, Hercules, Athena, Artemis, and Hephaestus. Aphrodite stood off to one side, supremely miffed at her big brother, and beside her, Hades appeared with Hestia and Apollo. Ares laughed a harsh laugh, trying to keep the fear from his voice as he directed his words to Hades.
"Nothing like family unity, uncle." He looked from face to face, searching for any glimpse of support, but found none. Zeus spoke first, his voice shaking with anger.
"Ares, you have betrayed your family. You've betrayed my trust. Your obsession with this mortal woman has blinded you. I should have put a stop to it long ago, but I never thought even you would ally yourself with another god against us. Dahak is a powerful god. If we're to stand against him, we must be united. You're a danger to all of us now. The birth of the goddess Hope would never have come about if not for you."
Ares looked around him, shaking his head. I had nothing to do with that! I tried to warn Xena! She wouldn't listen."
"QUIET!!!" After a deep breath, Zeus continued, his voice now low and filled with contempt. "How many mortals have survived the Furies' touch unchanged, Ares? You knew she'd lose the control she's fought for so hard these past years. You knew she'd make the wrong choices. And you knew that each wrong choice would push her that much farther."
Zeus contemplated his son. Ares' betrayal had shocked him. Though the mortal Gabrielle had given her life to take Hope into the fire, Zeus knew they hadn't seen the last of the evil goddess. Hind's blood was the only thing that could kill a god, and Xena's dagger thrust had been turned aside by the bard. He couldn't trust Ares not to use his powers to help Hope re-enter the world. He waved a hand over the kneeling figure and spoke in a flat, tired voice.
"I must take your powers, Ares. If you can find the Hind's blood dagger and help Xena finally kill Hope, we-" he indicated the others with a nod. "we will consider restoring them. If you work against us, we will find the dagger and you will die."
Ares' protests rang through the Halls of Mount Olympus as he vanished in a flash of light and found himself once more in the temple of the Goddess.
Ares spun just in time to catch the sword arcing toward him with the back of his left arm. He screamed in agony as the blade sliced deep into the muscle. His right hand shot out and grabbed his assailant by the throat, lifting him off the ground and shaking him like a rat.
"Joxer!" Ares' voice was thick with anger and disgust. It was bad enough that he'd lost his powers, but to be injured by this.... idiot... was just too much. Someone had to pay, and Joxer would do just fine. He tightened his grip around the warrior's throat and smiled at the gurgling sounds. He looked away from the purpling face and scanned the temple. Joxer fell to the floor in a heap as Ares realized they were alone.
"Where is she?"
Joxer gasped for breath and half raised an arm, trying to shield himself from Ares' kick.
"WHERE IS SHE??"
"fire... she fell..."
"Not her, you fool! Where's Xena? Where's the dagger?"
Joxer shook his head, looked toward the fire. "Xena's
gone. Seraphin... Dahak's followers... took the dagger."
Ares growled and began to pace in circles around the room. He angrily shook the blood from his left hand and examined the cut on his upper arm.
"Oh, this is priceless... Zeus takes my powers then sends me after Dahak. How am I supposed to get the dagger back alone?"
Joxer rolled to a sitting position and looked up at the war god. "He took your powers?" He chuckled, oblivious to the anger in Ares' eyes.
"Well, maybe if you hadn't- ulp!"
Ares pulled Joxer to his feet and held him so that their
faces were inches apart.
"What I did or didn't do is no concern of yours! If I don't get that dagger and find Xena before Hope finds another body, I can kiss my powers goodbye. If you think life's been hard so far, just wait till Hope's child is born!"
Nodding quickly, Joxer tried to loosen the grip on his neck, finally pulling free and stepping away from Ares.
"Ok, ok.... I get the idea. So you're on our side- Xena's side- again?" Realizing his mistake, he backed farther away and stammered.
"I-I mean, uh, yeah, sounds bad. Can I help?"
Ares sighed and swept angrily past the warrior. "Come on, idiot. Bad as you are, you're all I've got until we can find Xena."
Joxer followed the god to the door of the temple, then
paused and looked back to the far end of the room. His
features sagged and his voice broke as he whispered into
the dark silence
Hanging his head, he turned and followed Ares into the night.
"She is mortal, after all, Hercules. Can she recover in time?"
Hercules sighed and looked into the portal. Xena lay where she had fallen, faint twitches of her fingers in the dirt and panting breaths signaling the nightmare that held her. He shook his head and looked up at his father.
"I don't know, Zeus. She's strong, but losing her son, losing Gabrielle..." He raised his hands, palms up. "I'm not sure even she can deal with this alone."
Zeus sat in his chair and stroked his chin slowly. "Mmm, but you did okay after your wife..."
Hercules closed his eyes. "Say it Zeus. I did okay after my wife and children were murdered by Hera. Is that what you were going to say?"
A sardonic laugh punctuated his next words and Zeus winced at the tone of his son's voice.
"Oh, I did just fine. Not that you were around to see. But then, I had Iolaus, and-" He swallowed hard. "-and Mother. People who love me."
He turned back to the portal to see Xena now sitting up, staring blankly around her.
He looked back at Zeus.
"...because you're a coward."
Xena woke with Gabrielle's last cry ringing in her ears. She sat up and looked around her, trying to identify the sound. She raised a hand to her face and felt the tears on her cheeks, then held her hand up and looked at the wet spot in the dried blood and dirt. She frowned, then her face crumpled and she curled into a ball, pulling her knees up into her chest and burying her face in her hands.
Her body was still shaking with sobs when she stumbled to her feet and began to run through the forest, not knowing or caring where her feet took her.
On Mount Olympus, Aphrodite appeared beside Hercules and watched the warrior trying to outrun the memories. She sniffed and dabbed her eyes with her sleeve.
"TOTAL bummer, Zeus! Those two were sooo cute together."
Joxer stopped and turned to look back down the path. He pulled his helmet off and unstrapped his sword. Ares had stopped again and Joxer knew he'd walked as far as he was going to for a while. Ares wasn't used to being mortal, and he'd lost a lot of blood before finally letting Joxer bind his wound. After walking all day with no food or water, the war god had lost his arrogance and had become petulant. Joxer had finally left him behind to escape his incessant complaining.
Behind him, Ares leaned against a tree and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He laid his head back against the bark and peered up into the trees. Without his powers, he was little use to Dahak, but he was taking no chances. He had to find Xena and convince her to help him. He knew she'd be after Hope, but without the Hind's-blood dagger, she didn't have a chance. Sooner or later, she'd come after it.
Dahak's followers had gone back to the Sister Peaks to await Hope's resurrection. Gabrielle had given Dahak the blood sacrifice he'd wanted, now they had only to wait for the Goddess' third and final birth. The child she would bring into the world would be released by Xena's rage.
Dahak had planned well, and Ares had to admit a grudging admiration. He'd needed the extremes of human behavior; the darkness and the light; irrevocably bound together.
Gabrielle's blood-innocence and Xena's dark intensity had drawn him to them when they'd fought the Horde. A thousand years Dahak had waited to find these two women. He'd lain the groundwork carefully, manipulating them just enough to enable them to make the choices he wanted them to make. He'd created an atmosphere of distrust and anger between them that had reached it's peak when Xena had dragged Gabrielle from the Amazon village.
The Olympian gods had intervened at the last moment, pulling the two women from the water and creating Illusia to give them a chance to realize what they were doing. Had Gabrielle died at Xena's hands, and Xena died at Gabrielle's, Dahak's plan would have been complete. Hope had merely been a tool to bring this about, but after Illusia, Dahak had lost his hold on the warrior and the bard. He'd had no choice but to use Hope to draw them back, try again to foster that anger. He'd even helped Callisto through the sky-gate, knowing the reaction she'd cause in Xena.
Ares sighed and started down the path. Dahak's plan had worked beautifully. Gabrielle had sacrificed herself for love. Xena, driven by grief, would sacrifice herself for revenge.
Three days south of the Sister Peaks, Xena stopped at a small cluster of buildings. She'd spent most of the past days running, each pounding step an imagined blow, each swing of her arms an anticipated dagger thrust. Her tears had slowly died, replaced by numb acceptance. Now her warrior's body was demanding food and rest. Sleep had been elusive and the promise of ale, food, and a bed made her reach down and shake the small pouch at her waist. She listened to the clinking coins and reminded herself that she'd soon have no need for dinars.
She entered the small tavern and made her way to an empty table beside the narrow stairway. Making a mental note of the other patrons, she ordered food and ale from the young woman who approached her, then made arrangements for a room for the night.
The woman returned with a heaping plate and a large mug of ale. She took a good look at the warrior and went back to the bar, returning this time with a mug half-filled with distilled spirits. She set the mug on the table and met the question in the blue eyes with a gentle smile.
"You look like you could use this."
Xena felt tears in her eyes and looked quickly down at
the food. She nodded her head silently and reached for the mug, downing it in one gulp, relishing the burn as it went down. The barmaid went back to the bar, and Xena pulled the plate to her and began to eat. When she'd finished, she pushed the plate across the table and leaned back, signaling the barmaid for another mug of ale. This time she smiled as the young woman set the mug before her. The liquor and the food had started a sleepy warmth in the warrior. One more mug of ale and she might be able to sleep a bit.
"Just let me know if you need anything else."
Long fingernails trailed lightly up Xena's arm, sending a
barely controlled chill through the warrior. Her face was impassive as she leaned back and took a sip from the mug. Turning her head slightly, she watched the sway of the woman's hips as she walked back to stand behind the bar. Their eyes met, and Xena nodded, then stood and walked unsteadily up the stairs. With a whispered word to the man behind the bar, the young barmaid followed.
Xena had removed her armor and was stretched out on the bed when the knock sounded. The door opened at her soft word, and the barmaid entered. She stopped just inside the door, suddenly not quite so bold at the sight of the warrior in the bed, and the dark light in her eyes.
"Let's get business over with. I'll pay whatever you ask, with two conditions; you stay all night, and you do what I ask, only what I ask, with no questions or arguments."
The young woman eyed the warrior. She could think of nothing that the dark beauty would want that she would not do gladly. She smiled and walked slowly toward the bed, shrugging out of her shirt and pulling at the sash that held her skirt in place. She stood naked at the side of the bed, waiting. Xena's eyes moved over the woman's body then closed for a moment. When they opened again, they glittered with unshed tears and her voice was harsh.
"Put those back on and get in the bed."
She rolled to her side as the woman complied, then
reached out and wrapped her arm around the woman's waist. "Slide back against me."
The barmaid found herself wrapped from behind in strong arms and legs. She nestled her head into the warrior's shoulder, felt the warm breath on her hair. She lay unmoving in the warm cage, waiting. She felt the trembling muscles against her begin to relax. The whisper surprised her.
"Tell me a story..."
"Why Xena?" Hercules shook the cup then dumped the cubes on the step between himself and Hades. He pondered the result for a moment, then put two of the cubes back into the cup and rattled it absently. "I can understand Gabrielle as a symbol of the good in humanity, but Xena as a symbol of evil? Was she the worst Dahak could find?"
Hades leaned back against the wall and glanced at the portal on the other side of the room. Xena was already on her way. She'd slept fitfully for a few hours, then eased her way out of the room and back into the forest. He turned and muttered a curse under his breath as Hercules threw the cubes again. Reaching for the cup, Hades gathered the cubes and put them back into the cup, shaking it briefly and tossing the cubes so that they bounced against the step above. He grinned, then handed the cup back to his nephew.
"I win again, Hercules." He stretched, getting to his feet and walking a slow circle around the room. He watched Xena for a moment then turned back to Hercules. "I don't think Dahak feels she's more evil than most mortals, but he wanted to turn them against each other. If hate could destroy the love they had for each other, then evil truly could rule. Love is mankind's greatest hope. Zeus didn't create Illusia because Aphrodite thinks they're a cute couple. Dahak had won. In Illusia, freed from Dahak's influence, they were able to forgive each other."
"Why didn't Zeus just go up against Dahak?"
Hades leaned against a statue and looked into the portal.
It went dark for a moment then an image of Ares appeared. Hades grinned at the obvious discomfort of the war god, then turned back to Hercules, his grin fading "Dahak is far more dangerous than you realize, Hercules. Zeus brought us all here because this is the one place where we're safe. It won't be strength that defeats him. It's not up to us."
Hercules studied his uncle's face. "You're frightened."
Hades nodded. "Yes, and you should be."
Xena knew she was being watched. She drew her sword and moved back into the trees, waiting. As the two men approached, she cursed softly under her breath and waited as they passed her by.
"Go scout toward that ridge. She may have gone up over it instead of this way . If you really saw her."
"Go scout yourself. I'm not going to help you get Xena killed. If she wants to be found, we'll find her."
Ares gave an impatient growl. "Watch it, you little weasel. I'm still twice the warrior you'll ever be, even without my powers."
Joxer stopped, turning to meet the eyes of the God of War. His expression was solemn, his tone quiet. "You need me right now, Ares. We both want the same thing, the end of Dahak. You can do what you want to me after Hope's dead, and I know I can't stop you. I'm not the best warrior in the world. I know that. I'm no fool. Let's just get it done."
A voice behind them stopped the two men in their tracks.
"Daddy wasn't happy, Ares?" Xena's voice was heavy with sarcasm, the point of her sword pulling at the bandage on Ares' arm.
The two men turned as one to see the warrior behind them. Her face was drawn, her eyes red and glinting with a dangerous light as she waved the sword in Ares' face. Joxer took a half-step toward her, but she stopped him with a glance.
"Bad company you're keeping, Joxer."
Joxer ducked his head, looking sideways at his companion.
"We're going after the Dagger, Xena. We're going to kill
Xena kept her eyes on Ares. "Yeah, I thought as much."
She sheathed her sword and walked past the two, turning
to fix them with a threatening glare. "I'll take care of Hope.
You two... stay out of my way."
Ares fell into step behind her, with Joxer following behind him.
"Xena, I can help you."
Xena laughed and turned. She looked at the war god; the
dusty leather, the drooping shoulders, the sagging posture. "Ares, you've been more than enough help. You managed to betray both sides. So now you're mortal." She reached out and patted the bandage, grinning. "I like that. I like that a lot. Enjoy it, Ares. It's going to be a short life. I'll deal with Hope." She nodded. "Then I'm coming for you."
She patted his cheek, then turned once more and sprinted rapidly away.
Ares cursed and kicked at the dirt, then began to limp slowly after her, with Joxer falling in step beside him.
Xena jogged down the path in an easy, ground-swallowing lope. She wanted to stay ahead of Ares and Joxer, but not too far. They'd come in handy as diversions later, but she didn't want to have to look at either of them.
Her mind raced ahead and she began to formulate her plan for getting the Hind's-blood dagger. Dahak's followers weren't going to give it up without a fight. She had no idea where Hope might be, though she suspected she'd make an appearance as soon as Xena got her hands on the dagger.
A low, deep rumble through the trees drew her off the path. She followed the sound and soon could smell the odor of sweat, leather, horses, and unwashed bodies. In the valley below her, a large army had gathered. She lay hidden at the edge of the trees for a while, then stood and walked toward the largest tent. As she approached, a sentry called out, and she was faced with a group of soldiers. She made no resistance, and was soon ushered inside.
She'd expected Ares' latest find, a minor warlord she'd faced and beaten quite easily when she'd had her army. She didn't expect the face that turned toward her.
The dead warlord laughed and extended a flagon of wine.
"Xena. I've been expecting you." He waved a hand,
indicating a large fur surrounded by soft pillows. "Please, make yourself comfortable. We need to talk."
Xena's eyes narrowed as she pushed the wine aside and stepped back, drawing her sword.
"So we talk. You first."
Masentius laughed and sat on the fur, sipping the wine
still in the glass. "Wondering why I'm not in Tartarus? A lot of people aren't in Tartarus. Seems the Gods are running scared. Nobody's seen any of them for days, since your little friend took that dive for you, in fact. A few of my... friends... and I found it a simple matter to escape. Ares had ordered up this nice little army, but he's not around, either."
Masentius stood and faced Xena. "I hear you gave the Hind's-blood dagger to Dahak's followers. I hear you sold out the Gods, sold out humanity, for a place in Dahak's army."
Xena met his stare, her face and voice expressionless.
"You heard wrong."
Masentius cocked his head and grinned. "Pity. For a while, I
thought there might be hope for you." His eyes roamed down the warrior's body. "You should join me. Think about it, Xena. If we get the dagger, we can control the Gods. Ares won't dare try to take back his army. We could rule the world."
He reached out as though to touch Xena's face, but she backed away and raised her sword. His face hardened, his voice threatening. "I want that dagger. I'm taking Ares' army to the Sister Peaks. Ares sent for all of his soldiers, a thousand times as many men as you see here. I'll see them die to the last man if that's what it takes."
Xena raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Ares isn't going to like you taking his army."
Masentius shrugged. "Ares? He's hiding on Mount Olympus with the rest of the gods."
Xena chuckled and sheathed her sword, turning toward the door. "No, Masentius, he's on his way. His feet are a little sore, so he's moving slow, but he's on the way." She grinned and shook her head, ducking out the flap. "I almost hate to miss this."
Masentius stepped out behind her and watched her walk away. Damn, she was an exciting woman!
"Think about it, Xena!"
Xena waved a hand dismissively in the air and walked on. Surprised, she felt tears welling up in her eyes. She raised her head and clenched her jaw, determined that none of the men of the camp would see her cry.
It hadn't seemed so long a walk on the way into the camp, and a sob escaped her as she reached the safety of the trees. She leaned against a large oak as the strength left her body and she fought to control the images in her mind.
The power of the memories surprised her, and the sheer
emptiness that came over her left her gasping for breath
as she sank to her knees
*You made me think there was a better life for me... You
gave me hope.*
You're not alone.
I believed you...
"Where's your brother?"
Hercules turned at the sound of his father's voice. "Zeus!
Where were you?"
Zeus sat beside Hercules, waved a hand at the portal. "You should be watching Ares. If he doesn't get the dagger back, we could lose everything."
Hercules looked once more at the image of Xena, fighting her own battle alone in the trees. "I'm more concerned with Xena. She needs our help, Zeus. Let me go down there, let me help her!"
"NO!!!" Zeus jumped to his feet and walked to a window. He looked out onto a mirage, a panoramic view of the mortal realm. Below him lay the Sister Peaks, the fires of Dahak's followers ringing the mountains. Outward from all sides he saw gathering armies, some still days away, some in the shadow of the Peaks. Though all of them had come to answer Ares' call, each was now commanded by a dead warlord who'd "escaped" from Tartarus. Hades wasn't happy, but Dahak would now have battles to fight on a hundred fronts while they fought him and each other for the dagger.
He tried to see into the cave, looking for the dagger. He saw the priests of Dahak, kneeling in a circle around a large fire, but a sudden shadow over his vision made him pull back. He felt a cold force cover his mind, tugging at him and trying to hold him. He resisted, struggling to free himself, not realizing that he'd fallen, not hearing his own screams.
Xena was brought back to reality by a loud roar that washed down the sides of the Sister Peaks and echoed through the valley around her, shaking the ground and bending the trees as it passed. She felt her skin prickling as the fine hairs on her body stood on end and she had to fight the urge to run. From the camp came the sounds of panicked horses and frightened men.
The roar came again and this time she recognized it as a scream. Chills ran through her as she realized that Dahak must have attacked the Olympian gods. She shook herself and set off through the trees. The sooner she could get the dagger and kill Hope, the sooner Dahak would be finished.
"What's that noi-" Joxer fell to the ground as the sound roared through his head. Shaking his head after the second wave of sound, he finally got his eyes in focus and was surprised to see Ares on his knees.
Stumbling to his feet, he made his way to the helpless god and offered his hand. Ares glared up at him and slapped his hand away.
"Get away from me!"
Joxer backed away. "Fine, crawl all the way to the Sister
With that, he turned and walked away, leaving Ares kneeling in the dust. Ares growled and called after him, but he tossed his head and walked on, disappearing around a bend in the wide path.
Muttering angrily, the god of war got to his feet and followed after him, stopping in his tracks as he turned the bend and found himself face to face with a very dead Joxer. He had turned back and was standing in the middle of the path, supported by the sword that protruded through his chest. Behind the sword was the grinning face of Theodorus. Behind him, a hundred mounted formerly dead warriors.
"I always wanted to do that!" Theodorus eyed the god of war. He knew who he was, but the blood on his leathers and the bandage on his arm told him all he needed to know.
"Ares...." He let his sword drop, and Joxer slid to the ground. "Looks like you're having some trouble. Let my men... help... you."
He waved his sword and a group of horsemen broke free and trotted to his side. He spoke to them quietly, then grinned once more at Ares. Sarcasm belied his words.
"Come with us, Lord Ares... We'll take good care of you."
He laughed as the mounted warriors closed in around the
powerless god. It was a brief fight, for all it's ferocity, for the warriors could not be killed. Soon Ares was kneeling in the dust before Theodorus, bound hand and foot. The dead warlord laughed at the sight. Dahak's followers would pay well for an Olympian god to sacrifice, and if he played his cards right, he could make a deal with the boss himself.
Anything was better than going back to Tartarus.
Hercules ran across the room in a vain attempt to catch the falling god. Falling to his knees, he reached out and was knocked backwards by a force that hit him like a wall of stone. Zeus writhed on the floor, eyes wide and staring at his unseen assailant, his corporeal form fading in and out with the struggle. He knew their very lives depended on keeping Dahak out of Mount Olympus, and was prepared to fight to the death.
This time he was in luck. His screams alerted the other gods, and he was soon joined by the rest of his family. Hercules could only watch as they joined Zeus in his fight, one by one, until finally Dahak conceded the fight and released him.
Aphrodite kneeled beside her father, helping him to sit up. She slid an arm around his shoulders and looked up at the others around them.
"Like, we need to talk, guys."
Xena back-tracked through the trees to the main path leading to the cave of the Sister Peaks. She turned toward the mountain and set off at a quick trot. Rounding a bend, she stopped short when she saw the the body in the path. She groaned when she recognised the armor. A quick check told her it was too late. Hades was in hiding on Mount Olympus, but Celeste still made her rounds.
"Dammit, Joxer, you should have gone home..." She studied the ground around him, then pulled him to the side of the path. She'd bury him later, if she lived.
The tracks in the area told her the story. She didn't know who had captured Ares, but his footprints clearly showed him being led away by a large group of mounted warriors. Since there were no other bodies here, despite the signs of a mighty struggle, she had to assume that the warriors were newly escaped from Tartarus. Even without his powers, Ares would have never been taken without loss of life.
Another escaped warlord, from the look of it, and this one brought his own little army. Only a hundred, but a hundred warriors who couldn't be killed was a powerful force. The best an enemy could hope for was to sever a limb, preferably a sword hand, or to decapitate them. Any other wounds would have no effect. If they joined Dahak...
A low, deep rumble in the sky set her feet back on the path. There was a fearful quality to the noise that didn't bode well for the Olympian gods. If Dahak won now, Gabrielle's sacrifice would be meaningless. Xena would not allow evil to be Gabrielle's legacy. She'd lead all of Tartarus to the Sister Peaks and die gladly to keep that from happening. It was too late for her to make things right with the bard, but this, this she could do.
Zeus waved a hand and they were all seated around a large table. Hercules sat at his right, Hades to his left. He looked around the table and wondered if he'd ever see them gathered this way again. He was saddened by Ares' absence, but the boy had brought it on himself. He looked into Hades' eyes, nodded once, then began to speak.
"Thank you for helping me, all of you." He took a deep breath, seaching for the right words.
"That was Dahak. What we just felt was only part of his power. We HAVE to keep him out of Mount Olympus until Xena finds the dagger, whatever the cost to us. If she fails, it won't matter; we'll all die, anyway. What just happened was my fault. I tried to see what his priests were doing and he found me there. I'm not sure the portals are safe, either, so we'll have to stop watching Xena and Ares all the time. If any of you have portals open in your rooms, close them. If he attacks one of us alone, the rest of us may not get there in time." He looked down at his hands, not surprised to see them shaking. Dahak's power had stunned him, and he'd felt first-hand the pure evil behind that power.
Xena moved into the trees when she came into the dust from the horses of the army ahead of her. They were moving steadily, but slowly enough for her to get ahead of them.
Seeing Theodorus riding at the head of the small army surprised her. She didn't see Ares, but she knew he was near the back of the group. She vaulted from the trees, drawing her sword and standing ready in the path as he rode toward her.
Theodorus raised a hand and drew his mount to a halt. The stallion sidestepped and tossed his head as the warlord dismounted and approached Xena. Raising a hand to the wide gash in his throat that had taken his life, he drew his sword and smiled.
"Xena! So good to see you. I owe you something."
Xena stood firm, crouching and turning as Theodorus
walked slowly around her.
"It's a nice look, Theodorus, but you know Callisto did that while she was in my body."
He smiled, waving his sword and facing Xena. "But you killed her, Xena. So I'll have my revenge... on you."
Xena saw his sword come up, heard the yells from the horsemen, and gave her warrior cry. She did a forward somersault over Theodorus' head, landing behind him and advancing just as he turned. They closed on each other, blades flashing. Xena parried a thrust, spun and slashed down with her sword midway between Theodorus' wrist and elbow. The blade sliced through the muscle and snapped the bone, leaving his sword hand hanging from his arm. The sword fell to the dirt as he screamed in rage and lunged to retrieve it with his other hand. A swift downward kick snapped the bone in that arm as well, and he fell to the dirt, trying to raise himself on his elbows.
Xena turned to the mounted warriors. She waved her sword in the air.
"Anybody else? No? Good." She sheathed her sword and walked to Theodorus' horse, mounting smoothly and gathering the reins. She trotted past the warlord, still sitting in the dirt staring down at his arms, and rode to face the other men.
"Put Ares on a horse. We don't need him slowing us down."
A moment's commotion back in the ranks told her she had
been obeyed, and a soft sigh of relief escaped her. She didn't have a lot of time or energy for fighting. She'd need that later.
Drawing her sword once more, she raised it high over her head and swept it forward to the cheers of the men behind her.
"Let's go get that dagger!"
Xena led her small army straight toward the massive army led by Masentius. His strategy had been to get to the Sister Peaks ahead of the other warlords, and to take the army best placed strategically. Ares' warlord had moved to lay siege to the cave, filling the valley and surrounding the mountain. He'd been prepared to hold his position until they'd picked off Dahak's army one by one. It was a good move, but it had cost him his life. Masentius now controlled access to the cave, and Xena knew a direct assault was her only chance. If she could break through his lines without giving him time to realize that she led an army of dead warriors, she had a chance to get inside the cave before all the warriors could be neutralized. Once inside, she would have to deal with Dahak's followers.
She reined the stallion to a halt and turned to face the horsemen behind her. She knew they wanted to join Dahak, so she'd let them think that's what they were trying to do. She only needed these men to get her into the cave. Raising her voice, she addressed them all.
"We have to break through Masentius' army to get to the cave. Once there, we'll get the dagger, then bargain with Dahak. We can give them Ares to show our good faith. Dahak needs warriors, and we'll show him we're the best!"
The men cheered, raising their swords and waving them over their heads. Xena smiled, but she felt no eagerness for this battle. More men would die, more blood would be shed at her command. How had she let this become her life? Xena of Amphipolis, daughter of a tavern-keeper, leading an army of walking dead warriors with the God of War as a prisoner?
She shook her head as a stream of images ran through her mind. Each decision made, choices that had brought her here, each step along her path, each person lost along the way.
She turned away from the men to hide the tears that escaped when she thought of Gabrielle. The bard was lost to her forever. Xena knew her own life was over, her sole remaining task to separate soul from body. She'd spend eternity in Tartarus where she belonged. Hope would be her last victim, and the world would be free of both of them.
She set off, waving one of her lieutenants forward, and ordering him to bring Ares to ride behind her. She knew Dahak would have little interest in the powerless god, but she wanted to keep an eye on him, and he might be useful once they got inside the cave.
Xena spurred the stallion in a full charge out of the trees and into the besieging army. Masentius' warriors were ready, having been warned by their scouts that Xena had taken an army. They underestimated their opponents, however, and most died quickly with their swords buried in the torsos of grinning men who then turned to face the next to die.
Inside the cave, Dahak's priests were gathered around a large fire. A stone altar within the fire held the dagger protected from the flames that guarded it. The warriors loyal to Dahak were guarding the entrance to the cave, but most of the fighting had been done between rival armies in the countryside around the mountain.
As the first of Xena's men broke through the lines, a large tongue of flame erupted from the fire. Swirling up into the darkness, it swelled until it's sides brushed the faces of the chanting priests, then exploded outward in a blinding flash.
The priests collapsed to the floor. When their vision returned, they saw the Goddess standing beside the altar. The sound of ringing steel and cries of pain and surprise began to fill the cave and Hope wore a satisfied smile as she looked benevolently down on the prostrate priests.
"Xena has come to fulfill her destiny." Hope looked now toward the rising noise. Laying a hand on the growing child within her womb, she spoke softly.
"Does she know she has a choice?"
"Uhhh, Zeus? Guys? You might want to come watch this."
Aphrodite enlarged the portal as her family gathered around her. She'd just wanted to do a fast check on Ares, and found him being shoved through a cave at the point of Xena's sword. Zeus whistled under his breath.
"That's the cave of the Sister Peaks."
They all watched, fascinated, as Hope walked through the flames and down the steps leading to the altar. Xena led Ares to face her. Smoldering hate flashed from the warrior's eyes as she reminded herself that the figure before her was NOT Gabrielle.
Hope stopped and met Xena's eye with her own. She saw the hate, the rage that fueled the warrior's fight. Looking deeper, she saw the pain, and beyond that, the weariness. Xena was ready to die. She shifted her gaze to Ares, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. He didn't look so arrogant with his hands tied and the black eye and the blood that was spattered over his clothes. She decided she liked him better at his arrogant best. With a nod of her head his bindings fell. She dismissed him with a shrug.
"Go, Ares. Dahak doesn't need a powerless god. You are the father of the first of the Destroyers, so you may live."
Ares took an angry step toward Hope. He knew the only way to get his powers backs was for Hope to die. He could see the dagger on the stone altar behind her. If he could just get to it....
Xena used the opportunity of the moment. A flat-footed, forward somersault over the heads of Hope and Ares put her at the edge of the flames, the dagger only a few feet away. Another jump and roll, and she was at the far side of the fire, the dagger now clutched in her fist. She turned immediately and ran back toward Hope.
Hope raised a hand and Xena's body jerked to a halt. Again their eyes locked as Xena's will and Hope's power clashed. Ares charged into Hope, only to be thrown through the air to land behind Xena. Xena took advantage of the momentary lapse in Hope's concentration and advanced to almost within striking distance of the goddess. She felt Hope's power again and put every bit of willpower she had into taking one... more... step...
Panting, muscles screaming, she finally stood toe to toe with Hope.
Xena drew the dagger back, steeling herself for a killing blow. Hope offered no resistance, almost inviting her death. Looking into the face so like Gabrielle's, Xena saw a flicker of something... regret? Hope should be defending herself, defending her unborn child. Xena looked into her eyes and for a brief instant, saw the soul of the woman she loved. She hesitated, her mind racing. Hope wanted to be killed.
Hope's eyes widened briefly and Xena's mind was flooded with images. The events of the past year spiraled through her. She saw the truth... and something else.
*Only love can break the cycle of Hate. Love... and
Gabrielle's voice was quiet in Xena's mind. Break the cycle. She'd done just what Dahak wanted, had let herself be ruled by hate and the desire for revenge.
Hope saw the dawning understanding in Xena's eyes, knew Dahak's plan had failed. She'd let Xena see, for just an instant, what her father had truly done. That part of her mother that was a part of her had fought through and given the warrior a chance. In deference to her father, she made one last attempt as Xena's arm slowly fell.
" My father was grateful for my mother's sacrifice."
Xena held the dagger loosely at her side as she met and held Hope's eyes with her own.
I have the gift of prophecy...
Unflinching, Xena answered.
"She did what she thought she had to do."
Hope smiled, a strange grimace that moved only her mouth.
Her eyes were twin points of light.
"Solon called your name with his dying breath."
Only love can break the cycle...
Xena was silent. Hope's words were a knife in her heart. Hope twisted the knife.
"He was no warrior."
I love you, Xena.
Eyes locked, Xena stood unmoving and silent. Hope yelled in Xena's face.
"I killed your child!!!"
Gabrielle yelled in Xena's heart.
Xena, she is my child!
Xena raised the hand that held the dagger. Another voice spoke in her head. The one she'd heard when Hope showed her Dahak's plan. Hope's voice, speaking about Xena. "As she goes, so goes the world."
Xena held the dagger out between her and Hope and slowly relaxed her fingers. Her voice was shaky and low, but sincere.
"I forgive you."
Xena's soft words hit Hope with solid force. The goddess threw back her head and gasped for breath.
Behind Xena, Ares jumped to his feet and lurched forward, wrapping Xena's fingers with his own and plunging the dagger deep into Hope's abdomen, impaling the goddess and her unborn child.
Hope collapsed to the floor as Xena and Ares wrestled for the dagger. Rolling on the floor, Ares tried to pry Xena's fingers from the handle. She fought back fiercely, desperation fueling her efforts. If what Hope had showed her was true...
Twisting her body, Xena managed to hook a leg around Ares' throat. Clutching the handle of the dagger with her right hand and the blade with her left, she pushed with all the strength in her leg and felt him slowly go backwards. The blade sliced into her palm as she gave a cry of rage and straightened her body, breaking his grip and sending him flying onto his back.
Xena rolled to her feet and jumped at him, landing with her knees in his chest and the dagger at his throat. The ground beneath them shook and boulders began to fall from the ceiling, but she ignored the danger.
"You blood-sucking, murdering, son of a Bacchae! Do you think I'd let you have this dagger while I'm still breathing?
You and I have some unfinished business-"
Her words were cut short by a loud roar from the firepit. The flames licked out and across the floor, covering Hope's body. The ground shook again, harder this time, and as the flames dragged the dead goddess back to the pit, the ceiling of the cave crumbled and began to fall. Dahak's priests screamed and ran for the entrance. Xena grabbed Ares by the hair and hauled him to his feet, keeping the dagger at his throat.
"We're going to the top of this mountain. If I have to kill you and drag you there, that's ok with me!"
Ares growled low in his throat. "You're making a big mistake, Xena."
Xena pulled him toward the entrance as more rubble fell around them. "My only mistake was ever listening to you! If you hadn't come to me when I was young and stupid, NONE of this would have happened!!"
Outside, they made their way through the remains of her army and to the path that led up the mountain. Xena was giving Ares no chance to escape, and he was unwilling to fight her.
"What now, Xena? You going to throw me off the mountain, like you did Gabrielle?"
"SHUT UP!!!" Xena jerked his head back, spat her words into his ear. The point of the dagger lay tight against his throat. "You don't EVER speak her name again, you understand me?!?"
Ares raised a hand, realizing he'd gone too far. He decided to keep his mouth shut until they got to the top. Maybe he'd get a chance then. "Ok..."
"Good. Now, get moving. We're gonna go talk to Daddy."
On Mount Olympus, the celebration had begun when Xena's voice rang through the portal.
"ZEUS!!! I'll kill him! I SWEAR I will!"
Standing atop the mountain, screaming to the sky, Xena punctuated the words with a jerk on the Hind's-blood dagger. Ares felt the sting of his skin beginning to part around the blade. His voice was shrill with terror. He knew Xena well enough to know he was a hair's-breadth from death.
"ZEUS!!! Do what she says!!!"
Lightning arced through the sky above the mountain. The thunder crashed over them and rumbled outward, echoing again and again from the surrounding peaks. Xena spun, pulling Ares with her. She screamed her rage up at the clouds that had gathered.
"I'm not afraid of you, Zeus! If I have to start with Ares and work my way up to you, SO BE IT!! Face me now, or face me later!!!"
Xena jumped back as another bolt of lightning flashed, leaving in it's wake the King of the Gods. Zeus tried to look godly, but failed in the face of Xena's anger. He tried to keep his voice level.
"Give me the dagger, Xena."
Xena held tight to the god of war, the dagger held just at the point of breaking the skin at his throat. Her body trembled as she finally gave voice to the thing she'd dared not hope. Her very being depended on the answer. Her jaw clenched and she spat her words across the mountaintop.
"Give her back, Zeus!"
Ares' eyes raised in surprise to see Zeus shaking his head. "Xena, you know I can 't do that. She's dead."
" NO!!!" Xena released Ares and was at Zeus's throat before he could stop her. Now it was he who felt the dagger's blade. Xena grabbed the front of his robe and twisted it in her fingers, pulling him toward her, against the point of the blade. She shoved her face against his; he could feel the heat of her breath, smell the rage that pulsed around her.
"Understand this, old man. Without her, I have no reason to care what happens to me... or you. She's NOT dead. She never hit that lava. It took me a while to figure out, but you knew Dahak wanted her as a sacrifice. You couldn't let her die, but you knew that if I thought she had, I wouldn't stop until I'd killed Hope or died trying. I know she's not dead, and if I have to kill every god on Olympus, I WILL find her!!!
NOW GIVE HER BACK!!!!"
Zeus held up his hands in surrender. "Give me the dagger and I'll give her to you."
Xena gave the robe a little jerk and grinned. Her teeth were clenched, her voice taut and barely audible.
"Bring her here... NOW!"
Zeus saw the agony flash in Xena's eyes, felt the jolt of her body as Gabrielle appeared behind her and threw herself against the warrior's back.
Tears washed down Xena's cheeks, but she didn't move.
Her only reaction was an instant of immobility as she let her body feel the bard against her. She choked back a sob and spoke again to Zeus. Her voice wavered and broke, but she managed to get her point across, aided by the dagger.
"Take your... son. Go home. Leave us alone."
Zeus sputtered. "But, but, the dagger..."
"It's mine now. You've got bigger problems than me, Zeus.
Dahak was only one of many. You'll have other gods to fight. Fight them without us."
A third bolt of lightning hit the mountaintop, this time illuminating two women wrapped together, crying and laughing as they held each other.
"Xena, you awake?"
"Mm-hmm." Xena's hand moved lazily over the bard's stomach, her fingers tracing the muscles.
Gabrielle snuggled back against the warrior. "Do you think Dahak's really gone?"
Xena was quiet for a moment. "I think so. This past year has been like a dream... or a nightmare. I did so many things... I knew what I was doing, I just didn't know why I was doing it. I don't feel that anymore. I feel... the anger is gone, Gabrielle."
The bard smiled. It had been a year she'd rather forget, but the peace in Xena's voice just may have been worth it. There was one more thing she had to ask.
"Do you think, deep down, Hope really was good? Do you
think she knew what she was doing when she let you see how Dahak had made us do those things to each other?"
Xena took a deep breath and leaned to kiss the back of the bard's neck. She released the breath in a soft cloud of warmth that tingled through the bard and made her squirm.
"I think... that she knew exactly what she was doing. I think she just may have had some of her mother in her after all."
Gabrielle pulled Xena's hand from her stomach and raised it to her lips.
Xena sighed and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's stomach, pulling the bard tighter against her. They had so much to talk about, but not now. She made a little shushing noise as she nuzzled the soft hair, then laid her head down on the folded blanket they used for a pillow. Gods, it felt good to hold her again!
"Tell me a story."
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