Gabrielle placed the feed under the nose of her horse. She rubbed its head gently.
"There ya go. That should keep you satisfied."
Gabrielle heard the barn door open. She turned around. It was Xena. Gabrielle smiled slightly.
Xena walked over to her. A troubled expression was on her face. Gabrielle's face filled with concern.
"Xena...? What's wrong?"
Xena sighed. She gazed at the ground. Gabrielle shook her head.
"Dumb question. Eve and Cyrene, huh??"
Xena nodded slightly, not looking up. Gabrielle rubbed her friend's arm.
"Cyrene and Eve are in a safe place, Xena. Autolycus will protect them. He was clever enough to find a way to get her away from the gods' prying eyes."
Xena smiled slightly.
"Good old Autolycus. I owe him one. He's become like family."
Gabrielle nodded fondly.
"Yeah. Him and Hercules."
Xena's smile grew wider at the mention of the demigod. A set of tears came to her eyes. She shook her head slightly.
"I owe him eternally for what he did for Eve. The sacrifice he made..."
Gabrielle chuckled slightly.
"He wouldn't hear of it."
Xena's ice-blue eyes narrowed slightly. She wiped them and snorted.
"Na-uh. I put that to rest. He's stuck with me, like it or not. For the rest of eternity. I'd give up my soul to help Hercules."
Gabrielle smiled warmly.
"So would I, Xena."
Xena and Gabrielle turned around. It was Francisca. She stood at the entrance to the barn.
"Maria is upstairs. She wants to talk to you."
Xena and Gabrielle nodded. They followed Francisca back to the main building. Francisca stopped at the foot of a staircase. She turned to Xena and Gabrielle.
"Up the stairs to your left, three doors down.
Francisca returned the smile. She left. The two women ascended the stairs. The moment they reached the top, Xena and Gabrielle heard loud giggling. Xena turned to Gabrielle, raising an eyebrow.
"Sounds like Meg." she said in a low voice.
The blonde nodded in agreement. They looked around the corner to their left-
And four doors down, leaning against the wall, were Meg and Joxer. They were exchanging a scorching kiss, pressing tightly against each other. Xena raised both eyebrows, forming a lopsided grin. Gabrielle blushed furiously.
"Gods..." she chuckled nervously.
"Don't mind them."
Xena and Gabrielle looked to their right. Maria emerged from the shadows. She had her arms crossed, smirking disapprovingly.
"Ya know," began Maria, "those two just can't keep their hands off of each other. They really can't."
Xena raised her eyebrow in amusement.
"Is that so??"
Maria rolled her eyes.
Maria stepped in front of the two women, and cleared her throat loudly. Meg and Joxer immediately stopped kissing. They turned abruptly towards the three women. Joxer blushed. He smiled shyly.
"Whoops!! Sorry about that guys."
Meg turned towards Joxer. A wicked smile appeared on her face.
Joxer smirked warmly, shaking his head. He placed a hand on Meg's shoulder.
"Okay, um-I'm gonna do a few odds and ends downstairs. Plus I really gotta bring in that firewood."
Meg raised an eyebrow. She clutched Joxer by the shirt. Her eyes narrowed, full of lust. She leaned towards him.
"Save a piece of wood for me." she purred seductively.
Xena chuckled heartily, shaking her head. Gabrielle placed her face in her hand. Maria rolled her eyes again.
"Meeeeeeeeg!!" exclaimed Joxer, blushing furiously.
Meg smirked, totally unrepentant. She smacked Joxer in the rear. He yelped in surprise.
"Get going you. I'll see ya later."
Joxer grew even redder, if that was at all possible. He ran down the hallway, past the other women, and down the stairs. The three women walked up to Meg. Maria couldn't help but smile at her friend. She shook her head.
"You're completely shameless. Ya know that, Meg?"
Meg grinned devilishly.
Maria turned toward Xena and Gabrielle.
"Let's go to my room. We'll talk there."
"By the gods..." gasped Meg.
She lowered her head, her face full of horror. Maria's face was set in stone. But a rising fury was building in the hazel eyes. Xena sighed.
"That's what we saw at Parnos. Not a person was left alive."
Meg shook her head in total disbelief.
"Why children?!" she exclaimed. "Why always children?!"
Gabrielle's eyes roamed the ceiling.
"I wish I knew, Meg." she answered quietly.
Maria stood up. She walked over to the window, gazing out of it.
"I swear..." she said quietly, a heated edge in her voice. "I swear Xena. All I need is a few moments alone with them. I'd have them begging for death."
She lowered her head. A tear ran down her cheek. Xena stood up. She walked over to Maria's side.
"I intend on getting them this time." Xena said, her voice full of determination. "Dead or alive, it makes no difference to me."
Maria sighed. She turned to Xena.
"I'm sure my contacts will turn up something. If they're in the area, we'll know about it. "
Maria folded her arms, looking off to the side. She smirked in thought.
"Hmmmmm...you know, there might be one or two other people I can talk to."
She looked back at Xena.
"Give me a couple of hours. I'm going to see what more I can do for you."
Xena raised an eyebrow. Concern appeared on her face.
"Are you sure these people you're talking about can be trusted?"
Xena regarded her for a moment. The she nodded.
Maria turned towards Meg.
"See you in a little while."
"Be careful Maria. Come back soon."
Maria smiled slightly. She left the room. Xena sat back down beside Gabrielle. Meg slowly shook her head in disgust.
"Amazing...it's just amazing the kind of scum that exists out there. Why does living your life have to be such a pain?!"
Silence. Xena studied Meg for a moment.
"Joxer told me about you and Tsao-Li." she said, finally.
Meg's face darkened. She lowered her head, fiddling with her dress.
"Yeah. At least, that bastard is rotting in a jail cell now."
"He wouldn't be if he had met me." Xena said icily.
Meg looked up at Xena. She saw feral rage surge briefly in the ice-blue eyes. It was replaced by sadness and pity.
"I'm sorry for what he did to you, Meg." she said quietly.
Xena reached out, and grasped Meg's hand, holding it firmly. Meg squeezed back. She rolled her eyes.
"It's not an easy thing to live with."
"You have a lot of courage, Meg." said Gabrielle.
"Courage. Huh. I don't know about that."
Xena smiled slightly.
"I do. It takes a lot of courage to get beyond something like that. And look at what you've done here. You've started a business. And you're helping women who would otherwise be out on the street. They're very lucky to have you as a friend."
"Joxer's very lucky too." said Gabrielle with a grin.
Meg blushed, smiling shyly.
"The other way around, Gabrielle. I'm very lucky to have him." she said softly.
"What does Joxer do for you?" asked Xena.
Meg's smile grew warmer. She sighed.
"Everything. He's helped me so much, Xena. With this place. With myself. No matter how tough things get for me, Joxer always finds a way to bring me around somehow. He listens to me. He cares for me. He cares for me in ways no other men have before. He makes me feel whole. He makes me feel important."
"You must love him very much." remarked Gabrielle, elated for her friend.
Meg blushed, biting her lower lip. She looked down at the ground.
"More than anything on this earth." she said softly. "He's my soulmate, Gabrielle."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, exchanging warm smiles. Xena turned towards Meg.
"I'm so glad to see you happy, Meg." she said with affection. "You, of all people, deserve it."
Meg looked up, her face full of joy.
"You're right. For the first time in my life Xena, I'm happy. Truly happy."
The sun threaded its way through the foliage, creating harsh shadows on the forest floor. The four men trudged along at a rapid pace, past bushes and huge boulders.
"Just a little while longer, and we should be beyond the main roads." remarked Galian. "We won't have to chance running into people then."
"Yeah, really. The sooner we get deeper in, the better. That's the only part of this trip I don't like."
He glanced at the Sovereign. His face was set in granite, a look of cold malevolence carved into the bearded face.
Parses leaned towards Galian.
"Besides our present company." he whispered in disgust.
"You're no prize either."
Parses spun towards the Sovereign, stunned. The Sovereign glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. He tapped on his right ear.
"Demigod ears. Remember??"
Parses swallowed hard. Galian chuckled.
"You were saying, Parses??"
Parses glared at Galian for a moment. They kept walking. Martus glanced to his right. His eyes widened in surprise and disgust.
"What?" asked Parses.
Martus grimaced in disgust.
"There are three men coming this way."
The others followed his gaze. Three men walked into a small clearing, several yards from the others. One of them waved at Martus and the others.
The Sovereign growled heatedly at the mention of his twin's name. Galian stepped to his side.
"Just play it cool. Your life depends on it."
The Sovereign shot Galian a heated stare. Galian was unmoved. They looked back towards the three men, who closed distance. They finally stopped in front of them. They were simple villagers. No weapons to speak of. They had a friendly air about them. One of them smiled warmly at the Sovereign.
"Hercules!! It's so good to see you!!"
The Sovereign forced a smile.
"Likewise." he said tonelessly.
The man leaned towards the Sovereign a bit, studying his leather attire and the beard.
"Huh! That's a different look for you."
A hint of annoyance crept into his smile. His eyes narrowed.
"I happen to like the change."
The man's smile lessened a bit. A trace of anxiety appeared briefly on his face. His companion spoke up.
"Um-Hercules, we need a favor from you."
The Sovereign raised an eyebrow.
"What is it??"
"W-Well, we are heading to the village of Hastus, in the kingdom of Mirtan. You see, a festival is being conducted there. They are trying to raise some money for orphans of a terrible attack on Ismalan. The attack occurred over three weeks ago, from what I understand."
Martus, Pareses, and Galian tensed up slightly. The third villager gazed at Parses for a moment. There was something...familiar about him. Parses immediately met his gaze. The villager looked away in fear and embarrassment.
"So Hercules, " the second villager continued. "We'd like you to accompany us to Hastus. The situation is dire, and we need your help."
The Sovereign crossed his arms, and looked down at the ground. He pursed his lips, as if in thought. Then he looked up, and raised his eyebrows.
"No." he said, matter-of-factly.
The three men were stunned. The second villager stepped forward, certain that he misunderstood what was said.
"You heard me. I can't. I have someplace else I have to be."
The villager was shocked at the indifference in the demigod's voice.
"B-But you never say no to such things!! Hercules, these children need you!!"
A dark scowl crossed the Sovereign's face. He approached the villager, who took a step back. His eyes filled with fear. The Sovereign towered over him. He gritted his teeth in barely-controlled fury. His ice-blue eyes penetrated the villager's like daggers.
The three villagers stared at each other. The third villager glanced at Parses again. And suddenly, he recognized who Parses was. That recognition registered on his face but for an instant. Yet it was enough for Parses to take notice. The third villager grabbed the second villager's forearm.
"Let's go, Jemar. We still have a long trip ahead of us."
His friend turned towards him,
"Look, I'm sure Hercules has a good reason for not coming to help us. Isn't that right, Hercules?"
The Sovereign smiled slightly. It wasn't a friendly smile.
"I thought so. So, c'mon you two. Let's go."
"Let's go! We've got a long way to go yet."
The second man looked back at the Sovereign. But this time, his gaze was one of scorn and disappointment. The three men walked off. Parses's eyes narrowed. He reached for his knife. Martus noticed this.
"What are you doing??"
"That guy named Gaspar? He recognized me."
Galain raised an eyebrow.
Parses quickly drew his knife, and threw it. It tore through the air like a lightning bolt-
And slammed into the third man's back. His eyes bulged out of his head. Blood erupted from his mouth. He fell face-first to the ground, dead. His two companions spun towards the four men, horrified.
Galian and Martus drew their weapons next. The two villagers ran off screaming in opposite directions-
And two knives ripped into the backs of their necks. Their lifeless bodies dropped to the ground. Galian grimaced in anger.
"C'mon, c'mon!! We gotta see if they were alone!!" exclaimed Parses.
They ran off. Martus turned to the Sovereign.
"You help us look. And don't try to run off or try anything else. You'll know what'll happen if you do."
The Sovereign growled. Then he ran off into the bushes, after the other men.
The four men searched through a good portion of the forest near where the villagers were murdered. But not a soul was in sight. Finally, they all met back in the clearing where the three corpses lay. Martus turned to the Sovereign, enraged.
He took out the Hades Stone. A savage eruption of pain cascaded through the Sovereign's body like a tsunami. He cried out in agony and fell to the earth. Martus willed greater pain into the demigods's body. For a good while, the Sovereign twisted and turned, screaming in absolute agony. Martus was relentless in his torture. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he willed the Hades Stone to stop. The Sovereign dropped to the ground, gasping. Blood trickled from his mouth.
"I toldyou to be discreet!!You've got the brains of a JACKASS!!"
"No wonder Ares killed him." snorted Parses in disgust. "Hercules has more brains than this idiot."
The Sovereign stared into the earth and grass.. The fury that was inside him threatened to explode out in a full-scale tempest. But he incredibly willed himself to calm down. Martus grimaced in disgust at the demigod.
The Sovereign slowly, and unsteadily, rose to his feet. He turned towards the three warlords, his face an impassive mask. Martus could see the anger and fear in the Sovereign's eyes.
"You remember who's your master." Martus said with a contemptuous sneer. "You do exactly what we tell you to do. Now get your sorry ass walking. Move it!!"
The Sovereign stiffly turned away from them, and began to walk. His fists were clenched so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. The Sovereign had been fantasizing ripping their organs from their bodies. And as time passed, his fantasies had become more and more lurid. This latest episode was fuel to the fire.
The four men soon disappeared into the forest. As soon as they were gone from sight, a middle-aged woman's face popped from some bushes. Terror was roiling through her features.
"The butchers of Ismalan!!" she gasped.
She got up, and rushed off into the depths of the forest.
Joxer paced the room nervously.
He had gone over it and over it in his head. What to say. How to say it. It was easier before in practice.
Now, he was a nervous wreck. This was the real thing.
He walked over to the window, staring out into the clear, crisp night sky. The moon shone brilliantly on the trees and ground below, creating harsh shadows. He picked up a glass of water. Joxer noticed his right hand was shaking. He growled in disgust.
"Stop it!" he hissed to himself. "This is Meg, you idiot!! The woman you love!! Get it together, dammit!!"
He took a quick swallow, and set the glass down on the table. He sighed raggedly.
Then Joxer heard it. Footsteps. Someone turned the door knob. Joxer spun around-
And Meg walked into the room. She closed the door, and smiled warmly.
She ran up to him and hugged him. Meg kissed him on the lips. She noticed that Joxer was tense. Meg pulled back, raising an eyebrow.
"You okay?" she asked with a uncertain smile.
"Oh yeaaaaah." Joxer lied. "I-I'm fine."
Meg's eyes narrowed slightly She had her doubts.
She took his hand, gazing at Joxer intently.
"You said you had something important to talk to me about."
Joxer smiled nervously.
"Yeah, I do. Let's have a seat."
Meg walked over to the bed, sitting down on it. Joxer took a chair, and placed it in front of her. He sat down. Meg raised an eyebrow.
Joxer swallowed hard. He looked down at the floor for a moment. Then he looked up at Meg again.
"W-Well, I-I wanted to talk to you. About us."
Meg stared at Joxer quizzically.
"Yeah. You and me."
Joxer looked out the window for a moment, and took a deep breath. He turned towards Meg. Her puzzled expression grew more pronounced. Joxer took her hand. He smiled.
"We've been through a lot together."
Meg slowly broke into a smile.
"Yeah. We have."
Joxer looked down at the floor again.
"And I wouldn't trade it for all the gold on earth."
A quizzical smile formed on Meg's face.
"Neither would I...Joxer, what on Earth is on your mind?? You're acting strange!"
Joxer chuckled nervously.
"Ehhhhh...yeah, I-I guess I am."
Meg leaned towards him, gazing at him intently. She smirked playfully, and placed her hand on his forehead.
"Hmmmm! You don't seem to have a fever!"
Joxer chuckled again, this time in a more relaxed fashion.
"Nooooo...no I don't."
He looked at Meg again, and smiled warmly.
"Actually, yes I do. But it's the best kind of fever. The kind you have when you're in love with someone."
Meg's eyebrow rose to her hairline. A smile formed on her face again.
Joxer finally sighed, rolling his eyes.
Oh, what the hell's wrong with me??" he mumbled to himself.
Joxer grasped Meg's hands. He gazed deeply into her large, ice-blue eyes.
"Meg, like I said, we've been through a lot together. I meant it when I said I wouldn't change my time with you for all the money on Earth. You're my soulmate, Meg..."
Joxer then got off the chair, and down on one knee. Meg's eyes widened in shock. Joxer took out the ring. It sparkled with gold. He threaded it onto Meg's trembling finger. She stared at him, tears rapidly filling her eyes. Joxer gazed at Meg, his face full of love.
"I want you to be my wife."
Meg quickly raised a hand to her mouth. A strangled sob escaped her lips. Tears rushed down her face. Then she slid off the bed, and wrapped her arms around Joxer in a fierce hug. She raised her lips to his ear.
"Yes!" she whispered forcefully.
Joxer's heart burst with joy. Meg drew back, and placed her forehead on his. A huge smile was on her face. Joxer had never seen her blue eyes radiate so much elation before. Meg rubbed her forehead on Joxer's with aggressive affection. She brushed her lips against Joxer's.
"Yes, I'll marry you." she whispered throatily.
The couple then exchanged a deep, searing kiss. Meg pushed Joxer back onto the floor. They would celebrate for the rest of the night.
"YYAAAAAAHOOOOO!!!!!" cried Maria in absolute joy.
She swept up Joxer in her massive arms and spun him around several times. The she lowered him to the ground and gave him a big, wet kiss on the cheek. Tears filled her eyes.
"By the gods, Joxer!!" she exclaimed.
She turned to Meg, and they exchanged a fierce hug. Maria rocked Meg in her arms.
"My little baby is gonna get married!!" she said, her voice shaking.
Shouts of joy and congratulations came from the other women around them. Francisca stood there, crying. She wiped the tears from her eyes. A friend held her, rubbing her shoulder. Xena and Gabrielle stepped forward, both displaying huge smiles. Meg released Maria, turning to Xena. They exchanged a strong hug. Xena kissed her on the cheek. She pulled back, gazing at her friend with pure joy.
"Meg, that's wonderful!! I'm so happy for you and Joxer."
Meg's smile was brighter than the sun.
"Gods...Xena, this is the happiest day of my life!!"
Gabrielle walked up to Meg, and gave her a strong hug. She kissed her on the cheek.
Meg giggled heartily. She was bursting with joy.
Xena walked over to Joxer. The two friends embraced. Xena grinned warmly at her friend.
"Joxer, I didn't know ya had it in ya." she teased.
Joxer laughed heartily.
"I guess I did!!"
Gabrielle walked over to Joxer, grabbing his forearm.
"C'mere, you. I'm gonna tell Meg what I saw yesterday."
Joxer rolled his eyes and chuckled.
Gabrielle tugged her friend over to Meg.
"Ya know, I got a little story to tell you about Joxer, Meg."
Meg raised an eyebrow.
"Do you know that yesterday morning I saw him walking into this tent?? Little did I know it was the jeweler's. I was just going over to say hi, and I overheard him thanking the merchant for the ring! He walks out, bumps into me, and eventually spills the beans!!"
Meg folded her arms, and walked over to Joxer. A wicked smile was on her face.
"Ohhhhh!! Is that so??"
Joxer blushed. He smiled shyly.
"Well, Meg-truth of fact is that I've been saving up like crazy to get this ring. I saw it about close to three weeks ago. You know Metras, the jeweler! He's a nice guy, and he treats his customers fairly. I put a down payment on the ring, and I went to pick it up yesterday-"
Meg quickly moved up to Joxer, embracing him. Joxer gasped. She cupped his buttocks and tugged him forward. A lustful, feral smile curled her lips.
"You little sneak." she growled seductively.
Meg then gave Joxer a deep, heated kiss. Screams of joy, laughter, wolf whistles and cat-calls roiled through the group of women. Meg plunged her tongue deep into Joxer's mouth. Joxer's knees grew weak, but Meg held him up. Finally, she broke the kiss. Joxer swayed on his feet, staring into space. A goofy smile curled his lips.
Meg leaned towards him, smiling seductively.
"Wait till our honeymoon, stud."
The other women laughed. Maria walked over to the pair and hugged them tight. She kissed each one on the cheek.
"I'm so looking forward to this wedding!!"
At that moment, another woman walked into the kitchen, and over to Maria. She tapped her on the arm. Maria turned to face her.
"What's up Stella?"
"There's a man here to see you." the woman said in a lowered voice. "His name's Darnastos. It's about the warlords."
Maria's smile disappeared. She nodded firmly.
"I'm on it."
Maria turned to Xena and Gabrielle.
"We might have our info. C'mon."
"Good luck." said Meg.
Xena, Gabrielle and Maria followed the woman out of the kitchen. They walked across the dining area to a table in the rear. An old man sat there. His eyes darted left and right. Fear was deeply ingrained in them. Stella walked up to him first.
"Here she is, sir."
Maria turned to her.
"Thanks Stella. You can go."
She left. Maria sat down next to the old man, and grasped his hand.
"Hey!! What's wrong Darnastos??"
He looked up at the Warrior Princess, who stood behind Maria.
He leaned towards the three women.
"My sister saw them!!"
Xena moved closer.
"The butchers of Ismalan!! S-She's waiting in your barn out back. She's too afraid to come in here."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. She turned back to the old man. Her eyes narrowed.
"Let's talk with her."
Xena stared at the woman, overwhelmed with shock.
"Hercules?! Hercules was with them?!"
"Y-Yes Xena!! But he was their prisoner!! I-I don't know what they were using to control him, but it looked like some green stone. They thrust it at him, a-and he was on the ground, crying out in agony!!"
Rage began to churn in the warrior's blue eyes. She gritted her teeth.
"If anything happens to Hercules..." she growled to herself.
She turned her attention to the woman again.
"Where did you see them??"
"In the Darshian forest, going towards the direction of Mount Kristos."
Xena raised an eyebrow.
"What's there, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena began to pace back and forth, her brows furrowed in deep concentration. There was a long moment of silence. Then, as the others watched, a slow, horrific realization came to Xena's face. Her eyes widened in horror.
Gabrielle quickly moved up to her.
Xena turned to Gabrielle, her eyes full of anxiety.
Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up to her hairline.
"The food of the gods?!"
Xena cursed herself, scowling.
"How could I have been so stupid?! Of course!!"
She placed her hands on Gabrielle shoulders, gazing deep into her emerald eyes.
"Gabrielle, it's said that the last bit of ambrosia on earth is located in Mount Kristos. The only way to access the cave it's in is if you're a god or demigod."
Gabrielle gasped slightly.
"So that explains Hercules...!!"
"Gabrielle, we haven't a moment to waste."
"I'll come with you!" said Maria.
Xena immediately shook her head.
"No, you stay here with Meg and Joxer. If those three become gods, you're going to have to help keep them and the others safe. Martus, Parses and Galian will kill every living thing in sight."
"Would you be able to stop them if they became gods??" asked the old woman.
"There are ways to kill a god." answered Gabrielle. "But we don't have those weapons readily available."
"C'mon." said Xena hurriedly. "We gotta get going."
Xena and Gabrielle ran over to their horses, climbing on them. Maria rushed over to the barn doors and opened them. Xena and Gabrielle then rode out of the barn, and soon both horses were at a fast gallop. They rushed off into the forest.