-FOREWORD-

First off, please let me apologize.

Not for the contents of the story that you’re about to read. I’ll let that stand on it’s own. If you like what you read, that’s great! If you don’t like what you read, well that’s great too. I just hope that I’m not wasting your time. But, in order for me to explain what I’m apologizing for, you need to understand a little about me.

I’m a big fan of Star Wars. No – I’m not one of those people who have memorized the entire Wookiee language or anything. I just enjoy the entire Star Wars universe, from the movies to the books. Now that being said, I also haven’t written a story since I was in the second grade. I hope I’ve gotten better since then. I’m also not a big fan of the Xena series. That distinction goes to my wife.

So, what does Star Wars have to do with anything, and why would someone who hasn’t written a story since he was a child write about something he knows next to nothing about?

Glad you asked.

It was a labor of love for my aforementioned bride. An unexpected Christmas present meant to bring tears to her eyes (and it worked!).

The Star Wars piece is a little more toward the apology. Now, to me, the movies define the Star Wars genre. Everything in the movies is sacred. I expect the books that I read to follow the Star Wars ideal, and if there is something that doesn’t – it drives me absolutely crazy. Don’t translate verbatim what R2-D2 is saying. I don’t want to know. It’s one of the things that endears me to the character.

Thus, the apology. I don’t know the "Xenaverse" very well. And because of that fact, I may tread on something you hold sacred from the series. Sure – I did some research before starting, and I’ve seen enough to hold my own, but I’m by no means a Xena: Warrior Princess expert.

But because I know the agony of having something I hold sacred being trampled, I offer to you a blanket apology. Just be gentle with me – it’s my first time.

Please enjoy my story, Of Glyphs and Gods.

--David S. Christian

 

Dedication:

To my loving wife. Thank you for all you’ve done for, and taught me.

You will always be The One.

Please e:Mail feedback of this story to: ladyelara@xenafan.com

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

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

This story may be best classified as a Hurt/Comfort Story involving the characters Xena: Warrior Princess and Gabrielle. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of issue may wish to read something other than this story.

 

Of Glyphs and Gods

An original story of "Xena: Warrior Princess"

by David S. Christian

 

The sound of the leaves crunching and crackling under their feet was the only thing that rivaled the sound of their laughter. Today was a good day, at least as days go for those who see tortuous pain and insolence so often. But not today. The Warrior Princess and the Bard had been laughing and generally enjoying each other’s company since the smell of the early morning dew had filled the air and greeted them as they woke.

"....and then Toris would climb out onto the highest branch, and I would dare him to jump...." Xena couldn’t help but laugh at the memory of her brother. Her arms would flail with each description, and if Gabrielle hadn’t already been doubled over from the laughter, Xena might have laid her out with a stray arm across the head.

Once Xena finished her story, and the laughing had finally died down, neither one of them wanted to say a word. They just wanted this moment to go on for a while undisturbed. The sound of the leaves underfoot added a romance to the moment that was best savored if it was the only thing that accompanied their thoughts.

For the past several hours, Gabrielle had noticed her hunger getting the better of her. Her stomach had been quietly percolating most of the morning. For breakfast, they couldn’t find more to eat than a couple of berries they weren’t sure were even edible. Finally, Gabrielle’s stomach could take no more.

"Gggggghhhhhrrrrrrrzeeeeeeennnnnnnnnnaaaaahhhhhhh"

Xena stopped in her tracks. She stopped Gabrielle short with a tug at her arm, and looked around the forest they were walking through with the utmost serious look on her face.

"Gabrielle – Stop!" Xena said, her voice abrupt and urgent.

The romantically peaceful air around them seemed to suddenly go cold and still.

"Xena...what?!"

"Did you hear that?" Xena said. Her eyes squinting, and her head darting around.

"What?" Gabrielle strained to listen to the sound that had alarmed Xena. When Xena acted like this, it always meant trouble, and Gabrielle started to get a little scared. However, the only sound she could hear was the sound of her own heartbeat as blood rushed by her eardrums with each beat. And it was getting louder. And faster.

"Gabrielle, I could swear that I just heard....."

"Heard what, Xena?!"

Xena said nothing, but turned around to face away from Gabrielle. She couldn’t do this much longer.

"Xena!!" Gabrielle started to sound a little desperate. "What did you hear?!"

"I could swear that I just heard.....it was....." Xena finally turned back around to face Gabrielle, but this time she was smiling. She saw at least five different emotions cross Gabrielle’s face before letting her off the hook.

"I swear I heard your stomach.....it said my name!"

Xena’s eyes became the size of saucers, and her voice went suddenly gruff as she mocked the sound that she heard coming from her soul mate’s midriff.

"It went: Xxxxxxeeeeeeeennnnnnnaaaaaaaa" Xena’s jaw had moved side-to-side as she made the buzzing growl.

Just then, Gabrielle grabbed her stomach and started stomping her foot on the ground. No sound came from her, but Xena could see that Gabrielle wasn’t in any pain.

No....as a matter of fact, Gabrielle’s reaction had the same effect on Xena. She too, grabbed her stomach and almost fell into Gabrielle.

The laughter had returned.

It was indeed a good day.

* * * *

Xena and Gabrielle had finally breached the edge of the forest. They arrived at their destination more or less about the time they had intended. More or less.

"Finally!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Now maybe I can get something to eat."

"We’re not here to eat." Xena chided Gabrielle.

"Xena," Gabrielle sounded as if she were pleading. "I’m extremely hun-"

"We have a job to do." Xena interrupted. She raised her eyebrows and looked at Gabrielle, but she didn’t turn her head away from the village that stood before them. She only looked at her from the corners of her eyes.

Gabrielle knew Xena couldn’t be bargained with when she spoke to her like that.

"Yeah, I remember. The rumor of the missing Glyph of Midas." Gabrielle said.

"I’m skeptical, too. But if these rumors turn out to be true, people will be in danger. Innocent people. And, forgive me, but I’m not going to let hunger get in the way."

"I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’m sorry." Gabrielle meant it. The last thing that she ever had wanted was for good people to get hurt over things or events they had nothing to do with, or were responsible for. Especially when it was so clearly rooted in the greed of other people. She felt ashamed for what she perceived as her selfishness.

Xena could obviously tell that she had hurt Gabrielle’s feelings. She didn’t mean to, but said nothing more about it. She simply started walking, and said, "Come on. Maybe we should find something to eat. We’re both starting to lose our focus."

They found a simple shack that was marked in a language neither of them were familiar with. But there was a hitch outside for livestock, and an exquisite smell emanating from the open door. Assuming it was a restaurant, Xena tied Argo to the hitch, and led the way inside.

Her assumption proved to be correct. There were twelve tables – Xena always counted just in case – laid out in an apparently random pattern. The proprietor of the restaurant was behind a counter along the wall to their left. He was an extremely small and skinny man, and his grooming habits left little to be desired. Hanging on the wall behind the counter were a variety of weapons, only some of which Xena had seen before. The rest looked more like small, yet brutal torture devices than weapons. They all looked somewhat dulled and dust covered, meaning that they had probably been there awhile, and were purely ornamental. But Xena wasn’t willing to stake her or Gabrielle’s life on that assumption.

Together, Xena and Gabrielle walked up to the counter, and spoke to the proprietor.

"That’s an interesting language on the sign outside. I’ve never seen that one before. What language is that?" Xena asked.

The proprietor looked Xena up and down, sizing her up. He then moved his attention to Gabrielle, and did the same. His eyes came back to Xena, and with a look of absolute contempt, he let out a small growl, then finally spoke.

"No kvestions..." his heavily accented voice was more gruff than someone of that size had any business speaking with. He waved his hand to encompass both of them in his single gesture. "Just orda food with you"

Xena’s eyebrows raised a fraction.

"Not much for conversation, are you?" she replied. Her half-joke was met with a quick, but painless jab in the ribs from Gabrielle’s elbow.

The man simply put more ice in his expression, and said, "Zats a kvestion. I zpoke to orda with you, or be leaving."

"Ha Ha..." Gabrielle interrupted the conversation with a nervous laugh, rubbing her now hurting elbow. "We’re just a little hungry, that’s all. She can get a little sarcastic when she’s hungry. Sorry." Gabrielle favored him with a warm smile.

After a few tense moments, Gabrielle was rewarded by the proprietor, by going back to his original look of contempt. At least she was making progress with the little man. She decided that the only way she was going to make progress toward quieting her stomach was to be pleasant and complimentary toward him.

"When we came in here, something smelled wonderful. Can you tell us what that was?"

"Careful Gabrielle," Xena warned with a smile, "that’s a question."

The man returned to his icy demeanor. He leveled a finger at Xena. "I no deal wiz you. You go be sitting. I deal only wiz your friend. I give her food, take dinars from her, and you be leaving after eat. I no deal wiz your mouth."

Gabrielle looked at Xena, not sure what her reaction would be after that last statement. Xena’s smile faded, but she left the counter without incident. Gabrielle let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.

After Xena chose her table, Gabrielle had noticed that she sat in the only seat that faced the counter. Obviously, she didn’t trust the man too far.

The proprietor’s glare returned to Gabrielle. "Ztew. Hey – yellow hair girl."

Gabrielle hadn’t returned from looking at Xena. She didn’t fully hear what the proprietor had said.

"Huh?" she said as he head spun back around.

"Ztew." The man repeated. He appeared to be growing impatient. "Da zmell. It vaz ztew. D’you vish it to orda?"

"Yeah. Stew will be great. We’ll take two. Do you have any bread with that?"

The man said nothing more about the food. He just named his price and walked away. After putting the required amount on the counter, Gabrielle turned to join Xena at the table she chose.

"What was all that about?" Gabrielle pointed and shook her finger at Xena. "You’re up to something, aren’t you?"

"No. Not really. I’ve just heard that the people of Imiar are somewhat paranoid. I needed to see if that was true, so I know how to deal with the who we’re going to see."

The man arrived at the table with the bowls of stew. He dropped them on the table, and the stew came sloshing over the sides of the bowls wetting the splintery wood. He let out another small growl and walked away, not quite turning all the way away from his patrons. Gabrielle and Xena both noticed him watching them out of the corner of his eye as he walked away.

"Well, I guess we know if it’s true or not. Hey!" Gabrielle exclaimed.

"What?"

"I asked for bread – He must have forgotten. I’ll go see."

Gabrielle started to rise, but Xena stopped her with a grab of her wrist.

"Leave it be." Xena advised Gabrielle.

"But we paid for it."

"It doesn’t matter." Xena seemed to still be bothered.

"You aren’t still mad about what he said to you, are you?"

"No – I just can’t believe that someone with breath that would gag a minotaur would say something like that."

Gabrielle let out a small chuckle, and turned her attention to her stew. The smell didn’t lie – it was delicious.

In the middle of her second bowl of stew, Gabrielle was starting to feel better, and her curiosity about thier mission started weighing on her.

"Xena?" Gabrielle broke the silence.

Xena had already finished eating, and was glad for the conversation. "Hmm?"

"Tell me more about the Gly-"

Even though she was looking right at Xena, Gabrielle hadn’t seen it coming. A zip of air raised from underneath the table as Xena’s arm raised from her side. Her hand had slapped over Gabrielle’s mouth before she could finish the word.

Gabrielle was so startled, that the spoon she was using flung out of her hand, and with a loud clank, landed in the bowl of stew handle first. The proprietor stopped at the loud sound, and stared at Xena and Gabrielle.

"Later." Xena said quietly, but firmly.

Gabrielle winced at her mistake. "Mmma mmme"

Xena slowly raised her hand off of Gabrielle’s mouth. "It’s all right. You don’t have to apologize. Just remember what I said about these people."

"Right." Gabrielle looked at her food. "Well, I was done eating anyway."

"You go now." The gruff voice came from behind the counter. "Time for to be closing."

Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other with suspicion, but left the shack. The door locked behind them.

Outside, it was nearly time for the evening meal in Imiar.

"Funny time to be closing." Gabrielle was the first to say it. "Right before people are going to eat."

"Yeah, well, just remember what I said about these people." Xena reminded her.

* * * *

In the heart of Imiar, Gabrielle noticed few people on the streets. It was getting late, and she hoped that Xena knew where they were headed. She sure didn’t.

Xena motioned for Gabrielle to turn down a small alleyway between shacks that were as indiscriminant as the restaurant. As they turned down the alley, Gabrielle stopped short. The smell of decaying...well, something....came from the small alley. She looked down the lane for any signs of trouble before walking in. All she could see among the darkness were small tributaries leading off of each side of the alley. But the ground...parts of it seemed to be moving.

Xena and Gabrielle moved forward at something close to the pace they had set earlier, but Gabrielle’s fears had forced her to slow down a little. She didn’t want to lessen the pace because of the smell, but she needed to be alert. She was in a strange town, walking in an alley that wasn’t fit for the rats that littered the walkway. She now realized that these were the illusion that was the moving ground she saw earlier. Rats.

But wait.

"These fears are irrational." Gabrielle thought to herself. She was with perhaps the greatest warrior that the world had ever seen. No harm could come to her as long as Xena was around.....right?

Just then, a small movement came from out of the shadows of one of the tributaries on the side of the alley that Gabrielle was walking on.

In a single motion, Gabrielle felt herself being pulled toward Xena by an arm around her shoulders, and a sword whipping by her ear to point at the movement in the shadow.

No. No harm would befall Gabrielle as long as Xena was around.

"Show yourself!" Xena commanded.

The object in the shadow emerged forward. But not to a point that Gabrielle and Xena could see it just yet.

"I...I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you." The object said in a weakened tone. It was the voice of a man.

As he continued to move forward, the small amount of light that came from the raising moon splashed on him. Gabrielle’s heart sank at the sight of the man that stood before her.

He couldn’t be more than Gabrielle’s age, perhaps slightly older. His empty hands were raised at shoulder level, to show that he was not a threat. His patchwork clothes were torn in various places, showing mostly bruised and torn flesh. His light brown curly hair was greasy and disarrayed, and long enough to partially cover his dirty, unshaven face. The shoes on his feet were nothing more than lightly padded canvas, but there wasn’t much of the fabric to speak of. Much of his feet stuck out from them, as they were full of holes, and obviously too small for his feet. The only thing that seemed out of place were the brilliance at which his blue eyes seemed to glisten.

And they suspected that they’d found the source of the smell.

"That’s all right." Gabrielle said between gasps. She tried to smile at the man, but found it difficult while trying not to take in too much air. It didn’t matter, though. This was obviously a desperate man in need of help, and Gabrielle’s smile came through. She wanted to, needed to comfort this poor soul.

Xena lowered her sword and released Gabrielle.

"I just wanted to see if...well...if.." He was having trouble asking for the help of the strangers that had found their way down the alley. He coughed.

"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked. "What can we do to help you?"

"You...." the man paused and looked deep into Gabrielle’s eyes for a few seconds before continuing. "I don’t require much. Anything that you could spare would..." The man coughed again. "Anything would do." he finished.

"You’re in pretty bad shape." Xena said to him. "What’s your name?"

"I know you." His deep gaze never broke from Gabrielle.

His eyes drifted off into the starry night sky. Xena and Gabrielle glanced at each other, both silently asking the same question of one another.

"I’m sorry." Gabrielle said. "I’m not sure who you are. Perhaps if you told me your name?"

After a long silence, still staring into the sky, the man finally muttered aloud, "Gabrielle."

"No..." the bard joked. "that’s my name."

Xena looked at her and drew a breath.

"Yeah. Sorry." Gabrielle apologized.

He brought his eyes down from the sky to once again look into Gabrielle’s eyes.

"You’re Gabrielle....from Poteidaia, aren’t you?"

Gabrielle looked quizzically at Xena. Her eyes returned to the vagabond.

"Yes, I am. How did you..."

"I knew it! The moment I saw you. It had to be you!" The man seemed genuinely happy to see Gabrielle. "I guess you wouldn’t recognize me, would you?"

"No." Gabrielle was smiling now, but unsure of what else to say.

"Meadow, it’s me!" The man said pointing to himself. "Aeron!"

Gabrielle shook the cobwebs from her mind. "Aeron?"

She looked into his eyes for confirmation, but she didn’t have to look far. The brilliant color shone brightly in the moonlight, almost casting a light all thier own. Those eyes were impossible to forget, and that was all the confirmation that she needed. They were all that was left of what she remembered of him. Everything else had been either covered up or cut out by what he had become, but it was definitely her childhood friend.

"Aeron!" She exclaimed excitedly. She wanted to rush forward and throw her arms around him, but thought the better of it, considering the state that he was in. She took his hands in hers instead, and turned to Xena.

"Xena! This is an old friend of mine." She was as happy to see him as he was to see her.

"Xena?" Aeron asked between coughs. "As in ‘The Warrior Princess’? I’ve heard of you."

"Yeah, I get that a lot." Xena said with some exasperation.

"Aeron," Gabrielle asked. The concerned tone in her voice had returned. Even more so this time. "What’s happened to you?"

"Let’s just say that I’ve run into some hard times, and leave it at that." Aeron was still smiling as he spoke to Gabrielle, but she could see obvious pain in his eyes. She felt the same pain lurking behind her eyes.

"Look," Xena said. "We’ve got somewhere that we need to be. But we’ll come back and help you before morning. Will you still be here?"

Aeron spoke softly, almost crestfallen, to Xena.

"I’ve got nowhere to go. I’ll be here."

"We’ll be back, Aeron." Gabrielle promised as she released his hands. She and Xena turned and started walking deeper into the alley.

As they rounded the corner at the other side of the alley, Xena turned to ask Gabrielle a question.

"Gabri-" She stopped short as she saw the tears quietly rolling down Gabrielle’s face.

Gabrielle was looking forward, away from Xena. She wasn’t crying audibly, and her face was stoic. The tears running down her face were the only sign that she was hurt.

Xena turned Gabrielle to face her, and wrapped her arms lovingly around her. She buried her face into Xena’s shoulder. Having seen what her childhood friend had become, Gabrielle wept uncontrollably into the quiet of the night.

* * * *

It was hidden in amongst the thorn-covered ivy growing out of the side of a cliff that acted as Imiar’s eastern border. The cliff itself was completely covered by the ivy, except for small patches of clearing that appeared at random spots along the cliff side. These clearings were pock marked with shallow caves that housed various flying creatures that seemed to be active this time of night.

The house was completely covered by the growing camouflage, except for a small, almost imperceptible rectangular patch about three-quarters the way up. Apparently it was serving as a window. Perhaps the only light source for the dwelling.

Xena walked up to the thorn-covered door, and reached to clear a space in the vines to knock. As she touched the door, it inched open.

"Come in, Xena. I’ve been expecting you." Came a voice from deep inside the house. Abruptly, the voice switched into a scream. "Wait! Who do you have with you?"

"Mistress Brea." Xena called back soothingly. "This is my friend and traveling companion, Gabrielle. You have nothing to fear from her. Her heart is pure."

Gabrielle and Xena allowed the door to open a fraction more, but stood where they were, and waited for direction from Mistress Brea.

"What’s happening? How did she know we were coming, or even who we were?" Gabrielle whispered to Xena.

Xena shook her head as if to say "I don’t know".

They continued waiting.

Gabrielle passed the time wondering what could possibly have happened to Aeron. She felt the sadness well up in her once again.

"Your heart is pure." Mistress Brea finally said softly from just the other side of the door. "But you are sad. Come in."

Even in the silence of their waiting, they never heard her moving towards the door.

Stepping inside, Xena and Gabrielle had to stop and wait to let their eyes adjust to the darkness of the house.

"Did anyone follow you?" Mistress Brea asked, unseen.

"No. I’m skilled at detecting anyone who may be following." Xena called back.

"Yes, I know. You have many skills." Mistress Brea said back quietly.

The remark helped ease a little of Gabrielle’s sadness and worry. She allowed herself a quick and small smile.

Their eyes had now adjusted to the level of light in the house, but they still could not see Mistress Brea.

"Little one: Come. Xena: Allow us a small period of privacy."

Xena looked at Gabrielle, and found her staring back. Xena nodded fractionally, and Gabrielle started walking to where she last heard the voice.

Xena had just enough time to look around the room in which she was standing. She didn’t search the room, only looked. If what little she knew about Mistress Brea’s intuitive abilities were true, searching with any degree of stealth would be nearly impossible. Mistress Brea would immediately become aware of any such behavior.

"You may enter, Xena." Mistress Brea finally called from the direction she saw Gabrielle leave.

The room that Mistress Brea led Xena into was only slightly brighter than the room they had just left. Instead of the moonlight being filtered in through a small rectangular hole in the wall, there was a single candle flickering it’s light off of the walls. The room had a single tapestry hanging off of one of the walls. It contained a scene of a group of banshees flying off with the horn of a unicorn in their grasp. The unicorn was laying by a stream, bleeding into the water from where it’s horn used to be. Next to the unicorn lay the skins of humans, disguises shed by the banshees as they flew off.

Although Mistress Brea was leading Xena, and never turned to look at her, she somehow knew where Xena’s gaze and thoughts were.

"It’s a reminder." Mistress Brea stated evenly, still not having turned around. She motioned toward it. "No matter how pure of heart you are, there are still dangers in the world. Not everything is what it seems, and one must always be cautious."

Off in the corner of the room, Gabrielle sat with her knees drawn up to her chest, and her arms wrapped around her legs. She was staring trancelike into the candle’s flame.

"Gabrielle!" Xena exclaimed. Concerned, she hastily walked toward her.

"Worry not, Warrior. The little one is unharmed, and under no power other than her own. I have simply instructed her on reflecting upon the sadness and using it to her benefit. Go ahead – speak to her."

"I’m fine, Xena. Really." Gabrielle’s hand touched Xena’s forearm and began rubbing it in a effort to ease her worries. She flashed Xena a smile.

It was truly Gabrielle. Not knowing the full extent of Mistress Brea’s abilities, Xena was concerned that she may have gone about mystical or artificial means of helping Gabrielle with her sadness. She now saw that wasn’t the case.

"Mistress Brea," Xena said as she stood up from kneeling beside Gabrielle. "I have come to ask you about the–"

"The Glyph of Midas. Yes, I know." The Mistress interrupted.

Now that Xena was facing Mistress Brea for the first time in the dim light, she could now get a good look at the woman. Or at least at what stood before her.

Mistress Brea was draped loosely in midnight black cloth. It cascaded off of her shoulders, all the way down her body, until it hit the floor. It completely concealed any shape whatsoever the woman may have. Or weapons.

The robe-like outfit was equipped with a hood, which she wore over her head. Her face was also concealed by a single veil which came out from underneath the hood, and was tucked into the top of the robe. The veil was obviously made of a cloth that allowed her to see other people, but hid her identity from the curious eyes of others. The only part of Mistress Brea that was visible were her hands, but even they rivaled the color of her robe. She was obviously of the same dark complexion as her once-beloved Marcus.

It was as if she were a part of the shadows among which she lived.

"Sit, Xena." Mistress Brea instructed. Xena complied, sitting on a patch of the floor next to Gabrielle. Mistress Brea herself remained standing.

"Mistress Brea…." Xena started.

"Please, call me Brea. The title is not necessary." Brea instructed.

Xena smiled at her.

"Brea," she continued, "we appreciate you seeing us. There have been rumors about the Glyph of Midas being real, and it being found. If it’s true, it has the potential to be a great danger. We would like to find out how accurate the rumors are," Xena raised her eyebrows, and paused. "...so we can stop whoever has found it from using it."

"It was not meant to be a weapon" Brea said solemnly. She tucked her hands in the sleeves of the opposing arms and grabbed her wrists. The robe fell over her hands, concealing them as she spoke.

"The Glyph is real." Brea nodded beneath her hood. "It’s been said that is was given to a king by the Gods. A gift for saving one of their sons. All he needed to do was hold it in his hand, think about something he cherished - no matter how far away – the Glyph would turn it to gold. A perfect shrine to anything that he loved."

She paused. "The Gods made sure it couldn’t be used as a weapon. It was never to be used on people. Then there would be consequences."

Gabrielle broke in. "His kingdom was continually getting raided for possession of the Glyph. Out of fear, he eventually tried to use it as a weapon on someone who was about to kill him for it. The Glyph fed back on itself, and turned the king into gold."

She looked at Xena worriedly. "Somehow, turning him into gold stripped the Glyph of it’s inability to be used against people. It was a continuing punishment; A reminder to his kingdom of his shame if he ever used it as a weapon out of greed."

"Yes, little one. You are well read." Brea said. "Having seen the continuing raids, he knew the end was near. Before he passed, he made his courtesan take a vow to hide the Glyph upon his death, and never speak of the location to anyone. True to her vow, the Glyph was hidden when the king died, never to be found again."

Once again, Brea paused mid sentence. "Until now."

"Then it’s true. It has been stolen." Xena grew worried. "Brea, can you tell us who took the Glyph?"

"I cannot." Brea said. "I can feel that it’s power is among us, but I have no knowledge of who wields it. I am truly sorry."

Xena reached to touch the shadow’s shoulder. Brea moved back out of Xena’s reach. "Once again, we appreciate your help." Xena said, letting her arm fall to rest by her side. "Is there anything else that you can tell us about the Glyph that might help us before we go."

Brea’s hood moved side-to-side. "No."

"Then we’ll be on our way. Thank you for seeing us." Xena said, smiling.

Xena and Gabrielle stood from the floor and walked from the room. As they were opening the door they entered the house from, Brea whispered in their ears. Once again, they did not see or hear Brea moving with them, and they again could not see her among the shadows.

"Xena...Gabrielle." She whispered.

Xena and Gabrielle both stopped where they stood and looked around.

"Beware." Brea warned. "You are not alone on your journey."

* * * *

"She said that sadness was a powerful emotion, but whatever was making me sad also had the power to affect change. But the power wasn’t in the emotion. It was in me." Gabrielle pointed to herself as they walked back toward Imiar, discussing the words Brea shared in their breif time alone in the room together. "She said that I had to turn the sadness around and use it to right what ever was bothering me. Then she told me to stare into the candle and meditate on what she had shared with me. She said that when I had come to a true peace with what was bothering me, the flame would grow brighter. It never did." She sighed. "I really thought I had felt better about Aeron, but if what she said about the flame was true, I guess never did find a true peace. That’s when you came in."

"Tell me about him." Xena asked. She knew that talking about things also had the power to ease the troubled soul.

"He was a wonderful friend. We used to sit by the creek and tell each other stories. Sometimes we just made them up on the spot. It didn’t matter how ridiculous they were, we didn’t judge each other. We completely accepted each other for our imaginations." It was Gabrielle’s turn to talk about her childhood. She remembered those times with Aeron as if it were just yesterday.

"He called you ‘Meadow’ when we first met him. What did that mean?" Xena asked about the obscure reference.

Gabrielle smiled brightly, and looked at her feet, a little embarrassed, as they walked.

"Did you notice his eyes?" She turned her head and asked Xena.

"Yes. How could I not have?" Xena replied, now a little embarrassed herself.

"Well, when we were young, he said that my eyes made him think of the greenest meadow that he could imagine. He even started some of his stories out with the words, ‘In a meadow as green as your eyes...’. He was always making me feel good about myself. Even when I felt sad or lonely. I loved him for that."

Xena saw that Gabrielle was looking back on the memory fondly, but the pain she felt earlier was obviously gone for the moment. Gabrielle may not have purged the sadness she felt toward Aeron altogether, but the words Brea said to her back at the vine covered house must have helped.

"Anyway," Gabrielle continued, "The name stuck. He used to call me Meadow, and I used to call him Ocean. For his eyes."

Xena smiled for Gabrielle. She knew the love that Gabrielle was feeling for Aeron and the childhood they shared. She felt it for Toris.

It was getting close to morning, and they needed to hurry if they were going to keep their promise to Aeron. This time it was Xena’s stomach that rumbled.

Aaaaarrrrrrpppp!

Xena stopped short, and grabbed Gabrielle’s arm as she did the first time.

"Xena! Come on." Gabrielle said, a little dumbstruck that Xena would try this again. "It was funny the first time..."

"Shhhh!" Xena demanded.

Gabrielle looked around, still not believing Xena was serious, but she decided to play along anyway.

"So that’s what Brea meant!" Xena said loudly; Much louder than she needed to. She was looking into the trees that surrounded them as she spoke.

Xena drew her sword.

"Come on out ‘ya coward!" She commanded the trees. "You know I know you’re here."

Gabrielle suddenly stepped behind Xena, finally understanding her behavior.

She wasn’t joking this time.

The trees lit up as if the sun had just crested from over the hills. A singular brilliance had formed in front of Xena and Gabrielle, and it quickly rose upward. In a radiant flash, he had appeared before them as he had done so many times before.

The God of War.

"I’m glad no one else can do that." he said, shaking his head. "It would make eavesdropping on you humans a lot harder."

"Whadda ya want, Ares?" Xena said to him. Acid dripped from her voice as she addressed her nemesis.

"Same as usual." Ares shrugged. "To give you one last chance."

"I’ve told you before: I’m not interested."

Ares leaned over, and peered at Gabrielle around Xena’s shoulder.

"How ya doin’ Gabrielle? Miss me?" Ares joked with Gabrielle.

"I’m not interested either, Ares." Gabrielle scorned.

Ares simply rolled his eyes. "Well, thank Zeus for small favors."

Xena sheathed her sword, realizing that it wasn’t a fight Ares was looking for.

"No," Ares continued, "This time I’ve decided to give you one last chance to join us. And I do mean last chance."

"I’m more interested in the ‘us’ part." Xena stepped forward, and drew the four fingers on her right hand in a ‘come here’ motion. "Out with it, Ares!"

Ares licked his lips, looked off to the side, and shook his head. "I never could get anything past you, Xena."

Suddenly, a second bright shimmering light appeared, then dimmed. Standing before them this time was someone they’d never seen before.

He was younger in appearance than Ares. Dark brown hair and just as sinister looking, only with a half-serious demeanor about him. His dark brown skin showed no regular signs of age; No facial hair, no scars, nothing. He was indeed young. However, Xena could tell that he was just as dangerous and determined as Ares.

"Ladies, let me introduce you," Ares said with a grand gesture, "to Loki."

"Xena, I’ve heard of him." Gabrielle said warningly, and pointing her finger at the newcomer. "He’s a Nordic god. He’s referred to as a trickster, pulling evil pranks on others for his amusement."

"A man after my own heart." Ares said grasping his chest. "If I had one, that is."

"Beleive everything you’ve heard about me, little girl." Loki said to Gabrielle. "It’s all true. I deny nothing."

"Slumming it this time, aren’t you Ares?" Xena directed her words directly at Loki as she crossed her arms.

"Oh, come now, Princess. That truly hurt!" Loki shook his head, and looked down at his feet as if he were really scarred by Xena’s words.

By the time he looked back up at Xena, his head was no longer that of the smooth-skinned boy who appeared in front of them. In it’s place was a head of long brown hair, blue eyes, and the prominent bones of a female. A female warrior.

Somehow, he had transformed himself to look exactly like Xena.

And he spoke in Xena’s voice.

"I’m not that bad am I?" Loki/Xena said.

Gabrielle jumped back at the nightmarish horror that had appeared in front of her. Xena merely stayed standing where she was, looking slightly amused.

"A shape-shifter, huh? " Xena looked alternately at Ares then back at Loki/Xena. "Somehow I’m not impressed."

Loki shape-shifted back into his original appearance. Ares tapped him on the shoulder, pointed at Xena, and said, "See? Told you."

"All right, Ares. Now I know about the ‘us’. Tell me about this ‘last chance’ you’re here to give me."

Loki looked at Gabrielle. "Sorry, honey. The adults are going to talk now."

He lifted his hand, and Gabrielle disappeared in a flash of light.

Xena drew her sword again and pointed it point-blank range at Loki’s throat.

"Bring her back!" Xena screamed. Her eyes went angrily to Ares. "Ares! You know what I’m capable of."

Ares looked at Loki, allowed his eyes to flit toward Xena, then back to Loki. He wrinkled his nose and nodded his head as if giving permission to Loki to comply.

Loki didn’t look happy about this turn of events, but suddenly wore an evil smile as a thought occurred to him. As he raised his hand, Gabrielle re-appeared next to Xena. At the same time, she also appeared in the place of Loki – at the tip of Xena’s sword.

The two Gabrielles looked at each other, then at Xena.

"Xena, it’s me!" They both called together.

Xena looked at each of them, not knowing what to do. She now knew that Loki could shape-shift into anyone he wanted, but he was a God. He could also transport Gabrielle to where he was standing without Xena even noticing. All she could do was lower her sword – she didn’t know what else to do. She moved into a position that placed her between them, at an equal distance from each.

She looked at each of them alternately, then at Ares.

Ares simply crossed his arms and shrugged. It was his turn to be amused.

Xena looked back at both Gabrielles, then looked straight in front of her. She simply closed her eyes, suddenly struck by inspiration.

"Oh, this is fun." Ares said sardonically. "That’s all you’re going to do?"

Without opening her eyes, Xena answered Ares with one word.

"Hope."

Barely a single moment passed before she sprang. Xena’s eyes darted open, and with a half-evil looking smile, she jumped into the air.

"Ay yi yi yi yi yi yi!" She cried. She swung her legs out in front of her, and began kicking the Gabrielle who was at one time at the tip of her sword with first her right leg, then her left, then her right again. She continued to kick her, alternating her kicks in the move she had used on so many of her enemies.

Gabrielle hit a tree that was a good distance behind her. She slid down the tree, landing hard on the rooted ground beneath her feet.

Xena once again raised her sword, and held the long blade to Gabrielle’s throat.

"Oh! I’ve always wanted to see that!" Ares shouted with sheer pleasure.

Gabrielle lay stunned at the base of the tree, then morphed back into Loki.

Xena got down on her knees at Loki’s level, and put her face directly in front of his. Their noses almost touched.

"Learn from that." She told the trickster. "I can feel Gabrielle’s emotions when it comes to her daughter. You can’t duplicate that." Somehow, she managed to sound even angrier. "And if you ever try that again, you’ll need more than a tree to stop me."

After flipping her sword into place on her back, she walked toward the real Gabrielle.

"I’m sorry I had to do that." She said softly.

"It’s all right. I understand. You had to find out." Gabrielle waved off Xena’s apology.

Loki stood up and walked over to stand next to Ares.

"See?" Ares said to Loki, "Again, I told you."

"Now," Xena looked at the pair. "Tell me what you want from me."

* * * *

"Aeron? Are you still here?" Gabrielle called into the early morning.

" I was beginning to wonder if you were really coming back." Aeron called from a different alley tributary than he was in previously. He stepped out from his hiding place, and coughed twice. Aeron was even dirtier and more hideous looking than he had appeared in the darkness last night.

Gabrielle remembered Brea’s kind words in the candlelight, and his appearance no longer mattered. She would use what he looked like to her....no; to his advantage.

"You should know that I would never break a promise." Gabrielle said.

"Yeah," laughed slightly as he answered her, "I do remember that about you."

"Come on," Xena laid out the invitation, "let’s get you fed and cleaned up. Gabrielle and I have a few things to think about and discuss, anyway."

They couldn’t find a boarding house. Imiar was too small a village to get many visitors. Instead, they purchased a small bar of soap, a razor, and a change of clothes from the village market and walked down to the river.

There was a sign marking the river off for drinking water upstream, and bathing/utility water downstream. There was plenty of foliage around to provide privacy for anyone who wished to bathe, a fact that Aeron was grateful for. Gabrielle and Xena walked back upstream to the drinking water portion of the river, and sat on a boulder half their size to discuss plans for searching for the holder of the Glyph.

"Well?" Gabrielle looked toward Xena for inspiration. "Where do we go from here?"

"I don’t know…" Xena gritted her teeth, her voice getting louder and louder as she spoke, "…and I hate it. I don’t know where to begin to look, I have no idea where the glyph was hidden in the first place, and whoever took it is probably days away from that location by now. And they’re getting farther away!" She was shouting by this time, but Gabrielle understood. Xena was unaccustomed to feeling powerless to her situation.

"I’m sorry." Xena finally said softly as she tried to calm down. "I’m sure we’ll think of something."

They sat in silence for a while, contemplating their situation. Xena had removed her chakram, and was now spinning it around her index finger.

"Brea mentioned something about a courtesan." Xena finally broke the silence. "According to her, she was the one to have hidden the Glyph. If we can find any of her living relatives, maybe they will know where the Glyph was hidden. We can use that as a starting point to look for the thief."

"But, what about the courtesan’s vow of silence? She vowed not to tell anyone about the location. Not even relatives." Gabrielle asked. "Even if she did, the story so old, that whoever she told would have to have told their children, and maybe even their grandchildren."

"We have to start somewhere." Xena told Gabrielle. The chakram spun faster. "The situation’s gotten out of hand, and lives are at stake. Whoever stole the glyph has the power to turn anything – or anyone – into gold with a single thought. I’m sure that if the courtesan told anyone where the Glyph was hidden, we can convince them to tell us where that location is."

A thought suddenly occurred to Gabrielle. "Unless they’re the ones to have dug up the Glyph, and the ones planning on using it."

Xena stopped spinning the chakram. It fell down her arm, and came to a stop at her elbow. "All the more reason we need to find them."

Once again, they sat in silence waiting for Aeron to finish his bath. They could hear him off in the distance splashing as he bathed.

"Xena?" Gabrielle needed to ask the question. She needed to know.

She paused briefly before completing her question. "Do you think they were serious? Do you really think they can do it?"

Xena didn’t need to ask what Gabrielle was talking about. It was in the back of her mind as well.

"Ares doesn’t joke around about this kind of thing. He was serious, and so was Loki. Now as for whether they can pull it off…." Xena shook her head.

"But what if they do?" Gabrielle asked. "They make a pretty formidable pair. Even to other gods."

The sound of splashing ended. Aeron was apparently finished.

"But just the two of them?" Xena continued shaking her head, but not entirely sure of herself. "Against all the gods of the Olympian and Nordic realm? If they really want to kill all the gods, and merge the realms into one giant kingdom, I think they’re going to need more than just themselves to do it."

"Maybe that’s why they needed you." Gabrielle answered. "You’ve always fit into Ares’ plans. Maybe there’s more to these ‘chances’ he keeps giving you. He may really need you if he’s going to be a true conqueror of gods."

"Yeah, perhaps," Xena said as she re-hooked the chakram to her hip, "but now he’s got Loki. Why would he need me? I’m mortal. How could I possibly help him defeat two entire realms full of gods?"

"I don’t know." Gabrielle was now shaking her head. "I guess I’m just trying make sense of this."

"Well, don’t stop." Xena said as she smiled toward Gabrielle. "It’s going to take both of us if we’re going to be able do anything about this. Especially with this ‘Glyph of Midas’ thing going on."

Gabrielle smiled. She always loved to hear that Xena needed her.

A rustling came from the brush, and the bushes parted as Aeron stepped into the clearing.

Aeron looked nothing like he did before his bath. He was no longer the decrepit vagabond that was afraid to ask for the assistance of stray passers-by.

His hair was no longer a light brown – he was now a blonde. The illusion of darkness was apparently caused by the inability to wash over a long period of time. It was wet, but it now held the curls much better. The facial hair was gone, and in it’s place was a strong jaw line covered by smooth skin. His lips were full and bright, and the now uncovered cheekbones were the perfect frame for those eyes.

The clothes they bought for him accentuated his build. The shirt came across his broad shoulders, and hugged his chest tightly. The new pants had similarly fit his frame, and were tucked into a pair of leather skin boots. They had even purchased a small sword for him. He had it hanging from his belt off of his right hand, ready to be drawn by his left hand at any given moment. Apparently, his new look made him feel more confident. For the first time, he held himself squarely as he walked toward them.

"Aeron?!" Gabrielle asked, shocked.

"Yeah?" Aeron asked coyly.

"You….You look so...." She gasped, searching for the words.

"Different?"

"Uh.......No! ‘Incredible’ is what I was going to say!"

"I have to admit," Xena chimed in, "you clean up pretty good, kid."

"Thanks, Xena," Aeron replied, and pointed at Gabrielle. "Thank you both. I can’t tell you what your generosity means to me. If there’s anything I can do to repay..."

"Nothing." Xena said as she held up a hand to stop Aeron from finishing his sentence. "You don’t owe us a thing."

"Again, thank you." Aeron said, smiling.

"Well," Xena said as she slid off of the boulder, "I’m going to go find us some breakfast. Since we don’t have anything to fish with, I’m going to cross the river, and do a little hunting."

"Wait," Gabrielle said as she too, slid off the huge rock. "I’ll go with you".

"No." Xena stopped Gabrielle. "I’ll need you to find a camping spot, and start a fire so we can cook. Once I’m done, I’ll see the smoke and find you."

"Okay. Be careful, Xena." Gabrielle called as Xena headed to the bathing/utility portion of the river to cross.

Gabrielle turned back to find Aeron staring right at her.

"What?" she said, laughing insecurely.

"I just can’t believe that you’re here. And you grew up so..." Aeron motioned his hand up and down her body, unable to finish his sentence.

"Yeah...well..." Gabrielle stuttered, even more insecure now. "Xena’s taken good care of me. I owe a lot of who I am to her."

"Well, I bet she owes a lot of who she is to you, too." Aeron said smiling.

"I guess I’ve helped a little, but Xena’s always had it within her to do so much good." Gabrielle replied.

"I’m not so sure about that." Aeron said back.

"What do you mean?" Gabrielle said, a little offended for Xena.

"Nothing." Aeron assured Gabrielle by brightening his smile, "I just mean that she’s had such a.." he paused, "such a brutal past, and you tend to bring out the best in people, that’s all. Do you expect me to believe that you had nothing to do with the change? Tell me, when you met, was she the person she is now?"

"No." Gabrielle was feeling a little better at what Aeron was getting at, but still felt the need to defend Xena. "You may not know this, because you had left by that time, but it was Xena who saved Poteidaia from Draco’s raiding party. That’s when we met."

"No, I didn’t know that." Aeron conceded. "But still, Xena has grown because of you since then, I know it. You’ve always had such a bright spirit, and it brought out the good in everyone around you. I don’t think Xena would be who she is today without you."

Gabrielle smiled at him, and blushed.

He took a step toward Gabrielle, and placed his hands on her shoulders. He looked deep into her eyes. "I really am glad you’re here."

Gabrielle smiled at him as she looked into his deep blue eyes. "Come on, you." she said as she slapped her hands on his chest. "We have a campground ground to find."

* * * *

Existing neither in the Olympian or Nordic realms, nor the plain of existence in which the humans lived, Ares and Loki discussed their plans. They couldn’t take the risk that one of the gods – no matter who they were - may overhear their fate; That they were going to die with everyone else. After all, they deserved to die if they opposed the new order that was going to see the two realms joined. Together, the two gods would govern the kingdoms from which they came, but not exclusively. They would each have equal power in both realms. The strength that came from the diversity of such an arrangement ensured that the new single kingdom would rule forever.

But that diversity only guaranteed them power within the realm of the gods. They would not be able to rule both the Heavens and Earth at the same time. Of course, after the final battle to overthrow Zeus and Odin, they might be able to spare the life of a god who was sympathetic to their plight. They could appoint him or her to the menial task of ruling the mortal world, ensuring loyalty of the humans to the new regime. But they had no idea of knowing which gods would live, and even if they did, they couldn’t take the chance on trusting another god. Ever. They needed a mortal.

"Xena." Ares said to Loki.

"You realize, of course, what that would mean." Loki said with disgust.

"No, tell me." Ares seemed only mildly interested in the Nordic’s opinion.

"Your little pet Xena could be the first to die." Loki answered. This time he had a smile on his face. He seemed to rather like the idea. "She’s no match for Olympian gods, much less we Nordics. Once they got wind of her alliance with you and I, surely one of the Gods would immediately strike her down. She’s the weak link in the plan."

"She can take care of herself. You still have the bruises to prove it." Ares laughed, motioning toward the place on Loki’s chest where Xena unleashed her wrath after Loki tried to come between her and Gabrielle. Ares chose to ignore the remark that compared Olympian and Nordic powers.

"Yeah, and about that -- I should have killed her where she stood." Loki was growing angry at the memory. "And if she refuses us again, I still might."

"She wont." Ares assured him.

"What could possibly make you think that? She’s refused you countless times. The forest was just one more sign of her defiance of you!" Loki was now shouting in the stillness of the pseudo-realm.

"I know Xena." Ares said. "Offer her the proper incentive, and she’ll join."

"What more incentive could possibly be offered? WE’RE LITTERALLY OFFERING HER THE WORLD!" Loki was outraged, and screamed as loud as he could as he paced back and forth like a caged animal. "SHE’S SUCH A FOOL!"

Ares became angry at Loki’s carelessness. His shouting could cause someone to discover this bubble between realms. Ares lowered his brow, and looked intently at Loki from just beneath his eyebrows. His voice stayed cold and calculated, and left no room for ambiguity. "You will keep your temper under control. I will not allow you to jeopardize our plans."

"HA!" Loki laughed defiantly, "Allow me? Who do you think you are?"

Ares’ brand of reasoning with Loki was swift and powerful. He quickly thrust his hand up from his side, and took aim at the trickster’s chest. In a flash of light that almost blinded both of them, he fired a ball of flame from his palm that expanded as it approached it’s intended victim.

Loki had no time to react.

Just before it reached Loki’s chest, the ball of flame that was now the size of his entire body burst apart and surrounded him in a fiery spherical cage.

Loki was trapped.

Ares walked up to Loki, and replied harshly, "The name’s Ares. God of war."

"Fine, God of War." Loki mocked Ares, "But you remember – we’re together in this. Equally. And if you have a plan concerning Xena or anything else, I expect you to keep me informed." He reached through the flames that made up the bars of his ethereal jail, and buried his index and middle finger into Ares’ breastplate. "Otherwise, I can’t guarantee anything about my temper."

"Is that a threat, Loki?" Ares continued his icy stare.

"No." Loki stared back at Ares unblinking. His eyebrows raised. "It’s a promise."

* * * *

The sunlight filtered through the trees in bright beams as it cut through the remnants of the morning fog. The remaining cinders of the campfire were glowing a bright red within the charred blackness of the burnt wood. The river that was the life force of the nearby village could be heard trickling in the distance, twisting it’s way through the woodlands. There could very well be no more peaceful place in the world.

But still Xena was restless. She had no idea where to begin looking for the missing Glyph of Midas, and without a plan, her frustration grew. All of this inaction could be costing innocent people their lives, and that was the hardest part. There was nothing she could do to help these potential victims. She was starting to feel the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. Misplaced though it was, it didn’t matter. Something could be done, and here she sat in the woods awaiting.....what? Inspiration? Divine intervention? To suddenly watch helplessly as everything she loved turned into lifeless statues of gold?

And now, to top it all off, Ares has teamed up with some Nordic runt who has ambitions of conquering and combining two realms of Gods. Not to mention that they want her to play an unknown part in their plan.

‘I’ll bear Caesar’s child before I ever team with Ares.’ She thought to herself.

Gabrielle and Aeron had spent most of the morning catching up with each other. They laughed as they spoke, and even shared a look or two across the campfire during breakfast. They were growing closer, it seemed.

Xena was happy for Gabrielle, but was still a little reserved. It seemed that Aeron was hiding something. He still wasn’t willing to talk about what brought him to his current life. Anytime the subject was breached, he was either evasive or addressed it by saying the same words he did when they had met: "I’ve fallen on hard times." Perhaps now that Gabrielle was breaking his shell, she would be able to find out what was beneath the surface. Hopefully it wasn’t something that would hurt her in the process.

"We need more information." Xena had walked forward and broken into the conversation that that Gabrielle and Aeron were having. She noticed that they were now holding each other’s hands in their own. "Aeron," Xena continued. She was circling her hands around in front of her in an effort to convey to him exactly what she was thinking, "is there anything like an archive of records in Imiar where we can obtain more information on the Glyph, or the king, or the courtesan?"

"Um, sorry. I don’t know." Aeron looked a little ashamed. "I wasn’t really welcomed into most of the village establishments, so I can’t be sure."

Xena let out a little laugh in an attempt to comfort Aeron. "That’s ok."

Really though, it wasn’t. Her ire, however, wasn’t directed at Aeron for being unable to help in their search – that was perfectly understandable. It was directed at the general population of Imiar for their cold hearted attitude toward this homeless and starving individual.

"I’ll tell you what," Xena said smiling. She decided to give the couple a little more time together to be alone. "You two go ahead. I’m going to stay here for a little while."

Gabrielle looked at Xena cautiously. "You’re not going to do anything impulsive are you?"

Xena half-smiled. Only the right corner of her lips raised, and she blinked slowly. "No, nothing like that. I’m just going to clean up. I need a little more time to collect my thoughts anyway, and I want to make sure this fire is put out. I’ll catch up with you two in a little while."

"All right." Gabrielle said. She was obviously still a little wary, but was now playfully scorning Xena. She picked up her staff and shook it toward her friend. "I don’t want to have to come rescue you, young lady."

"I promise." She was smiling fully now, motioning toward the village, "Now, go. If we find what we’re looking for, we could have a long day ahead of us."

"Okay. Don’t be long though, Xena." Gabrielle said. She sounded a little worried, but turned her attention back to Aeron as they walked away.

Xena watched them disappear through the trees, and hadn’t even turned around before her skin began to crawl.

"Man, I thought they’d never leave."

"What is it this time, Ares?" Xena said. The wind whisped her hair across her cheeks as she turned completely around to see him, alone. "Where’s your little lackey?"

"He’s off working our plan out. Which is why I’m here, by the way." he said as he walked toward her. He stopped at her feet, and brushed her hair away from her eyes with the back of his fingertips.

"I told you that I’m not interested. I have better things to do than to watch you get slaughtered by a bunch of gods who are..." She stopped and cocked her head to one side, and smiled menacingly. Her eyebrows raised as she looked thoughtfully off in the distance. "Hmmm....on second thought...."

"Now, Xena. Is that any way to talk to a business partner? Here I am extending a hand out to you, offering you things you couldn’t possibly obtain in your entire lifetime." Ares countered.

"Ares, I’ve learned that when you ‘extend a hand’ to offer something," she said crossing her arms, "usually there’s a dagger hidden behind your back in the other hand. Besides, you have nothing that I’m interested in. You’ve already offered me my own kingdom, and I turned you down. You need to come to grips with the fact that I’m never joining you."

"Ah, but you haven’t heard my final offer." Ares said sounding quite sure of himself.

"Ares, you’re wasting my time." Xena said as she started kicking dirt on the smoldering embers, making sure they were extinguished.

"You’re kingdom is going to need a king." Ares said, walking around the rocks that contained the campfire, and stopping on the other side to face her.

Xena stopped, and looked at Ares incredulously.

"Oh, you would still rule of course, but I think the simple minds of the ‘ordinary’ people need more than just a queen to rally around." Ares said as he motioned around the woods to no one in particular.

"This is your final offer?" Xena said laughing. She mirrored his act of motioning to no one as she continued. "To marry me off to someone to rule your world? Ares, you’ve got a lot to learn about bargaining!"

"I didn’t say anything about marrying you off. I said you needed a king." Ares then lifted his hand, and a figure suddenly appeared in front of Xena. In response, a wave of pain and anger gripped her, paralyzing her where she stood.

It was Solan. Her beloved son.

He looked exactly like he did the last time she saw him. His cascading blonde hair fell just beneath his shoulders, and his bright and trusting blue eyes searched her with the same astonishment that she herself felt.

"You’ve gone too far this time, Ares." It was the only thing Xena could say as she managed to slowly shake her head from side to side.

"Mother?" Solan asked, obviously confused.

"Solan...." Xena answered. The voice that she’d longed to hear broke her paralysis, and dropping to her knees, she put her hands on his shoulders. She somehow felt more empty than she had thought she ever would again. She always thought that seeing Solan again would fill the void that was created when Hope had murdered him. But somehow, it had only brought back the pain that was lurking deep inside of her.

Before she got another word out, it came to her. So obvious, yet somehow, Ares managed to get it by her.

She looked at Ares, eyes full of rage, but still not dropping her hands from Solan’s shoulders. "This is one of your tricks, Ares. This is Loki."

Ares lifted his arms and held his palms outward. "Wait a minute. He’s as much a part of you as Gabrielle is. Why don’t you do whatever you did back in the forest to see that Loki was masquerading as Gabrielle, and you’ll see that this isn’t Loki this time."

Her head turned back towards Solan, but her eyes were still on Ares. Feeling unsure of herself, she didn’t know whether to trust him or not.

By the time her eyes turned to look at him, she knew. It was definitely Solan. As she looked into his eyes, she could see the love that he had for her. She could feel it. It warmed her like the sun returning after a long and desolate winter. She could see that tears were welling up in her son’s eyes, and it pierced through to her very core. Before she could stop herself, she began crying along with him. She grabbed him, pressing him to her the way that she wished she could have done so many times in the past. He wrapped his arms around her, and buried his face into her shoulder and neck as he wept. She felt his warm tears run down her neck, inside of her leather and armor, and fall down the length of her back. She could feel her hair stick to her cheek as it moistened from her own tears. It was a magical moment. She finally had her son back.

"Oh, Solon." She released him and lovingly cradled her son’s face between the palms of her hands. "I’ve missed you so much. You can’t know the pain I’ve felt since you...." Xena paused. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word. "..since you went away. I love you so much."

"I know." Solan said, reassuring his mother. "It cant explain it, but when I died..."

As soon as he uttered the word that she couldn’t bring herself to say, she audibly cried out, as more tears streamed down her face.

"…I began to hear your thoughts." Solan continued. "I’ve known all along how you’ve felt."

Xena’s heart suddenly soared. Just as seeing Solan again unexpectedly brought up feelings of loneliness and pain, she was similarly unprepared for the relief of his last statement. He’d known her feelings. Of course he had. The dead could hear the thoughts of the living. She knew that. But more than that, he was a part of her, and that connection made her feel that much closer to him.

"Mother, what am I doing..."

Suddenly, Xena’s arms dropped down, and she almost lost her balance.

Solan was gone. Just as suddenly as he came.

Xena thrust herself upward into a standing position, and screamed at Ares through her tears. "Leave Solan out of this! You’ve got no right..."

"Now Xena," Ares interrupted. "I’ve never been accused of staying within my rights. Now are you interested in my proposal?"

"Let me make myself perfectly clear." Xena was now intently staring at Ares with hot daggers coming from her gaze. "I don’t want Solan living in a world where you are one of the sole gods. He’s better off dead. Your proposal is even less attractive to me now."

Ares looked just as intently back at Xena. "Then let me make myself just as clear. Your son lives for now, but he doesn’t have to. And when I take his life away again, there’s a choice that I have to make." Ares held out his hands to mimic a free-weight scale. He let one hand drop, and raised the opposing hand.

"Cooperate Xena, and he’ll die an old man. And when he does, he’ll get sent back to the Elysian Fields where he came from." He then reversed the positioning of his hands. "If you don’t cooperate, well...he dies now, and he gets sent...." He let his words trail off.

Upon hearing this, Xena’s rage grew until she could no longer control her emotions.

She snapped. Flinging her chakram from her hip, Xena hurled it at Ares.

He didn’t even flinch. Before the disc could reach him, Ares reached out with his mind and raised one of the rocks from the campfire circle. It intercepted the chakram in mid-flight, causing it to fall into the dirt that Xena had started to kick over the embers.

Having seen her original attack fail, she then drew her sword and began running at Ares with all of the speed that her angry mind and body could muster.

He waited until she was just within striking distance. As Xena started her slicing arc through the air at his head and neck, Ares disappeared in the glowing light that always announced his arrival and departure.

He was gone.

"No..." She sobbed. "Damn it! No!" She could no longer contain her emotions. Xena fell to her knees and wept aloud, sword falling by her side. She felt cold and empty once again, and she hurt worse than she had after Solan had died at the hands of Gabrielle’s child. "NOOOOOO!" She screamed into the trees that surrounded her.

She knew that Solan would eventually die again. The thought of that ached deeply in her heart. But this time, his fate was in her hands, and it was her decision that could send him to Tartarus. And the pain associated with that possibility was enough to send her into a deep and painful despair.

"I’m so sorry, Solan. I didn’t mean for you to get caught up in this." She would gladly trade positions with her son. After all, she wasn’t entirely sure that Tartarus wasn’t her fate, anyway. But not Solan. His heart was good. His heart was innocent and pure.

She continued to cry into the woodland. She could barely speak between sobs. "Oh, Solan. I’m so, so sorry. I would do anything to keep you out of that evil place."

Just then, a voice came out of the silence within the trees surrounding her.

"I’ll take that as an acceptance to my proposal. Welcome back, Xena."

* * * *

On the outside, it had pretty much blended into the myriad of nondescript buildings that surrounded it, with the exception of the sign above the door that simply stated ‘Temple of Archives’. It was a ridiculous enough of a claim to prompt Gabrielle to look to Aeron and say, "Hmmm...some temple." They shared a laugh together and went inside.

The inside of the building however, was much larger and elaborate than advertised from the road upon which it was built. The door had emptied into a hallway, which quickly led to a steep downward staircase, without any rails on the walls to grab onto. Gabrielle had held her hands out to her sides as she descended the staircase, close enough to the walls on either side of her to add a small amount of comfort in case she lost her footing. This was obviously a common practice, as in a few places, there were swipe marks on the walls from people who had relied on them to brace themselves from falling, and dirt on the stair immediately underneath each one.

At the bottom of the stairs was a huge underground room crisscrossed with open faced shelving cabinets. Each cabinet contained seven to nine shelves, and each shelf had multiple scrolls marked with individual numbers to distinct themselves from one another. The ceiling to the room, which was actually the topsoil when standing outside the building, was dug out in long shafts in various places to let in sunlight. The top of each ceiling shaft was covered with a lattice made from bamboo that had been tied together toward the end of each stalk. Off to the edge of each opening was a tightly rolled hide tarp which could be pulled over the lattice covers in case of inclimate weather. In such an event, the lattices could be raised on one side, and a board fitted underneath to form a ramp, and the tarp laid over the newly created structure. This allowed the rain to drain off the tarp using gravity, as opposed to collecting on it and eventually seeping through to fall through the shafts and into the Temple. It obviously worked, since the floor that was laid out in wooden boards showed absolutely no signs of weathering.

Between some of the shelving cabinets stood huge wooden pillars which rose from the floor, and stopped only to shore up the ceiling between the light shafts. The pillars were obviously the wide trunks of trees cut from the woodland by the creek side, and capped off at both ends with square wooden blocks with the corners rounded. The look truly gave the room the feeling of being inside an actual temple, but Gabrielle wondered how, if they were as high as the entire room, the village people managed to get the huge pillars inside the room and standing upright.

Gabrielle and Aeron stepped into the room and looked around, wondering where to start their search. With multiple scrolls, on multiple shelves, in multiple cabinets, it would literally take days to find the answers they sought. They would have to open each scroll, one by one, just to determine if it had anything to do with the information they were looking for.

"Well," Gabrielle sighed, "let’s see what we can find."

They began walking through the cabinets, turning occasionally in an attempt to reach the middle of the huge room. It had taken much longer than either of them had expected, but after navigating the wooden maze, they finally reached it to find a circular clearing amidst the cabinets. Standing in the middle of the clearing was another cabinet, this one made of marble and of a different design than the rest. The cabinet contained several books, varying in width. The books had no markings on them, but their wear had indicated that they were used quite a bit.

Gabrielle grabbed the thickest of the books, and opened it up. On the first page, in bold script, was the word "Fantasy". Beneath the title were categorical headings, and several columns of numbers that ran below each heading, and down each page.

Obviously a reference to the numbers written on each of the scrolls within the Temple. By following first the title in each book, then the categorical headings, they could locate the exact scroll they were looking for, by searching for the scroll numbers indicated in the books.

"I think we found what we need to find what we...need...uh..." Gabrielle laughed as she realized the redundancy of her statement. Aeron laughed beside her, and shook his head. Their laugh ended in another extended stare into each other’s eyes.

"I think we should get started before Xena gets back." Gabrielle abruptly told him, breaking her gaze into Aeron’s entrancing eyes.

Instead of heeding Gabrielle’s words, Aeron only shifted his body to force himself back into her line of vision, and grabbed her hands. "What’s your hurry?" He asked.

Leaning forward, Aeron closed his eyes and softly pressed his lips to hers. Gabrielle stiffened at first, then allowing her body and lips to relax, she reveled in the kiss for awhile. Her mind went blank as she lost herself in the moment.

"I hope that was all right." Aeron said as they parted.

"Y...Yeah." Gabrielle stuttered as she brushed her bottom lip with her thumb. "I’m actually glad you did," Gabrielle felt herself blush slightly as she smiled at him, "but we really do need to find any information we can on the Glyph. Come on."

Their hands parted, and they turned together to face the marble cabinet that held the reference books.

After looking in several of the books, Gabrielle saw Aeron’s face brighten as he opened one of the skinniest of the books. "I think I found something."

She put down the book that she was looking through, and strode over to where he was now standing. Looking around his shoulder, Gabrielle saw that the bold script on the inside cover of the book was titled "Legends". He thumbed through a couple of the pages, attempting to find anything of further value.

Midway down the fourth page, they found it. The heading there held the words they hoped to see: "The legend of the Glyph of Midas." Below the heading was a single number in reference to a scroll – 5:2:294. The key on the front page indicated how to read the numbers. The first number was an indication of the section within the Temple, the second number was the specific cabinet in that section, and the third number was the scroll number.

Most of the other headings in the book contained multiple scroll reference numbers, but this subject unfortunately offered only the single scroll. It would have to suffice.

"Let’s go." Aeron said as he shut the book and replaced it back upon the shelf. They walked together until they found section five. The cabinets were all marked with individual numbers that they hadn’t noticed on their original inspection as they first entered the Temple. They found cabinet two, and searched through the seemingly endless scrolls, until they finally found number 294.

"Well, here it is. Xena ought to be happy about this." Gabrielle said to Aeron as she twisted and turned the unwrapped scroll in wonderment of what was inside.

"I am." Xena’s voice came from behind them.

Gabrielle and Aeron both jumped simultaneously, and Gabrielle almost dropped the scroll she was examining. They both turned around to face Xena.

It was almost undetectable, but Gabrielle knew Xena well enough to tell that something was wrong. The whites of her eyes were barely marbled in red, the skin beneath them slightly inflamed. And she just didn’t look right. She didn’t carry herself the way Gabrielle was accustomed to seeing. She doubted that Aeron had noticed.

She quickly drew a breath to ask Xena what was wrong, but caught the fractional movement of Xena’s head that told her not to ask just now.

"It took a little doing, and it’s the only one, but hopefully we’ll get some information out of this." Gabrielle said to mask her concern.

"Let’s go sit down and take a look." Xena replied, with a contrived smile.

Gabrielle saw the counterfeit emotion behind the grin, and was now even more concerned for her best friend.

They walked together to a table between cabinets, and with heavy anticipation, Gabrielle opened the scroll and began reading.

"There’s not much here." Gabrielle started out.

"It starts by talking about the king saving the life of the son of a god." Gabrielle paraphrased the scroll to Xena and Aeron, "It goes on to mention how it was to be used, and it lists some of the items he turned to gold. Once the king died," she stopped.

"What?" Xena asked almost impatiently.

"Sorry – He turned the Glyph over to someone he called his ‘Sheia Abre’anela’. It translates to ‘Forbidden Goddess’, and she was supposed to hide it so it could never be found or used again, until the gods wanted it back. Then they would be able to go to that hiding place and reclaim it." Gabrielle looked at Xena,. "That’s it."

Xena looked at Gabrielle, a little dejected. "Forbidden Goddess, huh? That’s all there was?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle said, "Well, at least it’s something."

Xena sighed and looked down at the table, even more frustrated now.

"No names, locations, or detailed maps of the hiding place?" Aeron asked, obviously jokingly.

Gabrielle smiled, "You know, he must have loved her very much to call her a goddess." She looked off in the distance starry-eyed, "A forbidden love. It’s all so romantic, don’t you think?"

"What makes it forbidden?" Aeron asked.

"Mistress Brea told us that the person who hid the Glyph was the king’s courtesan. A king can’t publicly love a courtesan without abdicating his throne." Gabrielle answered.

Suddenly, Xena’s gaze darted up from the table. "Gabrielle! Let me see that scroll."

Gabrielle handed it over wondering what Xena was suddenly thinking.

"It is!" Xena said excitedly.

"What is it, Xena?" Gabrielle started getting excited, feeding off of Xena’s emotions.

"This ‘Sheia Abre’anela’ is written twice." Another sudden realization came to her. She looked at Gabrielle. "That’s why you paused."

"Yeah, so?" Gabrielle still didn’t understand.

"The first time it’s written, it’s in the native language which you couldn’t read. The second time, it’s written so you could read it." Xena said, still excited.

"I still don’t get it, Xena."

"Here," Xena handed the scroll to Gabrielle. "Take a look at the way it’s written the first time. Look familiar?"

Gabrielle looked, and saw nothing but a foreign language she’d never seen before.

Suddenly, it hit her: A foreign language she’d never seen before.

"By the Gods!" She almost screamed, but caught herself at the last moment, and managed to whisper it quietly.

"Yeah – It sure looks like the same language to me." Xena said, with a steadfast look on her face.

"He’s not going to be happy about this." Gabrielle said.

Aeron just blinked, confused as he sat between the two, not at all understanding what they were referring to.

"I know, but he doesn’t have to be happy about it. He’s really our only lead." Xena said getting up. "Come on, we’ve got some ‘kvestions’ to ask!"

* * * *

"Look," Gabrielle listened to Xena, "I don’t know how he’s going to react. He tends not to like anyone, so the less people in there, the better. Gabrielle, you had some luck with him last time, so you go in alone and see what you can get out of him. We need to find out as much as we can; Especially where this language comes from."

"Okay. Anything else?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yeah." Xena smiled at her, "Don’t eat anything. We’re getting low on dinars."

Gabrielle smiled back at Xena, narrowing her eyes into a friendly glare. Without a word, she went inside.

The restaurant was just as empty as it was last time she was here. ‘Good,’ She thought, ‘He might be more willing to answer questions with no one here to listen in on what’s being said.’ She walked up to the counter to find the proprietor glaring back at her expectantly.

"Hi! Remember me?" Gabrielle asked brightly. "I came in here yest–"

"I remembar." The man again spoke in the heavily accented and gruff voice. "You enter here wiz dark hair girl wiz mouth. You orda ztew. You vish it to orda again?"

"Actually, no." Gabrielle was hesitant to continue, but knew the information she was here to obtain was of vital importance. "I actually came here to as you a few questions."

"No! No kvestions!" The proprietor said. "You nize girl, not like you friend, but I no annzer kvestions."

"Please," Gabrielle pleaded. She shook her head as she leaned toward him in a non-threatening manner. "I don’t want to ask you anything about you, or anyone you know. I just want to find out about your language. Is that all right?"

"NO!" The man was getting furious with the continuing line of questions. "You are being to orda foods or you get outta zis plaze."

"But…"

Gabrielle didn’t get any farther. Faster than she thought the man was capable of, he spun around and grabbed one of the spiked maces off of the wall behind him, and hammered it down onto the counter. A couple of the boards the counter was made of snapped from the blow, but it was wide of harming Gabrielle by a wide margin.

It scared her nonetheless. As the mace hit the counter, she let out a startled scream loud enough to be heard across all of Imiar.

The front door to the establishment came crashing open, slamming hard into the wall behind. The sunlight shone around Xena’s strong silhouette, her individual features indiscriminant in the shadow of the back lighting. She had her sword drawn and was standing motionless, obviously studying the potential battlefield before her. Behind her, still outside, stood Aeron.

It was now the proprietor’s turn to fall victim to a startled jump. His head swung toward the door, and immediately dropped the handle of the mace. Without a word, he again spun around, and grabbed a sword off of the wall. He wasn’t ready for the weight of the weapon, and almost dropped it where he stood, as it fell from it’s display. It fell to knee level before he managed to lift it back up to his chest and aim it toward the silhouette in the door. Still, Gabrielle could see that the man was no match for Xena, and it was apparent that he wasn’t oblivious to the disparity. The man trembled in fear as he stood in defense of his actions, and he had a hard time keeping the sword from falling onto the counter.

"NO! STOP!" Gabrielle vaulted from her position, and ran to stand between the proprietor and the doorway where Xena stood. "Xena, I’m all right. He just got a little mad at being questioned."

"Yeah, well he hasn’t seen mad, yet." Xena said in a dark tone as she stepped into the restaurant, her features becoming apparent in the relative darkness. "Are you sure you’re all right?"

"I’m fine, but please Xena…put down your sword." Gabrielle turned to face Xena, putting the tip of the man’s sword at her back. "I don’t think he’ll hurt anyone, but you need to trust him first."

Xena waited a little before answering.

"Fine." Xena lowered her sword and looked over Gabrielle’s shoulder at the little man. "But my trust only goes so far."

Gabrielle turned to face the proprietor, "Now you." She smiled at him in an effort to gain his trust. "Please. We’re not here to hurt you. We’re here to make sure no one gets hurt, but we need your help to do it."

The man never took his eyes off of Xena, but spoke to Gabrielle. "Vat you be meaning zat no one gets hurt?"

Xena began to answer before Gabrielle had a chance. "We’ll answer your questions if you…"

"Xena!" Gabrielle held up a hand as she stopped her friend from finishing. She didn’t turn to look at Xena, but the warrior obviously understood. Tact was the only thing that was going to get them anywhere, and Gabrielle was much better at it than Xena.

"Your family and friends here in the village may be in danger, and you may be as well." Gabrielle continued, "But we can’t say anything more until you promise that you’ll help us by answering our questions."

"Vat if I zay ‘no’?" The man asked as he broke his gaze away from Xena, and eased his burden by lowering the sword onto the counter in front of him. "Do your friend here leave peezefully? Or do I to be punished?"

"It’ll make it a lot harder to help, but we will leave." Gabrielle replied.

"Why am I to be trusting on you?"

"Well, we’ve already taken a big chance coming to you in the first place." Gabrielle admitted. "The fact is, anyone could be the one causing the danger," she hesitated, "even you. That’s why we need your help. We’re trusting that you aren’t the person we’re after, but we need your trust as well. The three of us can’t easily do this alone."

"T’dee? I see only youze and friend. Who else?" the man demanded. He then craned his neck to look around the two women, and outside to where Aeron was still standing.

"Aedon!" The man called out, obviously recognizing him. "Come in! Come in!"

Aeron walked into the restaurant, walked past Xena, and stopped at the counter to stand next to Gabrielle. She looked questioningly at him. "You didn’t tell us you knew–"

"You are to be looking different, Aedon! Better! Aver’ael like diz new look for you." The proprietor said to Aeron, cutting Gabrielle off.

"Aver’ael, huh?" Xena jumped at the chance to gain a little ground in the information gathering game that Gabrielle had started. "So that’s your name?"

"Aedon," Aver’ael ignored Xena’s question altogether. "Vat happen to you? Why are you to be looking diz way?"

"Aver’ael," Aeron replied, "It’s good to see you again, my friend. It was these two." He motioned to Xena and Gabrielle. "They were kind enough to take me off of the street and get me cleaned up. They should be considered friends, Aver’ael. They are here to help. You can trust them."

Aver’ael eyed the two women for a few moments. Then, without a word, he picked the sword up off of the counter and placed it back on the wall, relegating it to mere ornament status once again. He followed suit with the mace.

"Okay." He said, finally turning back around to face Gabrielle. "If you do diz for Aedon, I am to be trusting you to help everyone. But forst, who are you?"

Gabrielle smiled at him, glad that he had finally relaxed his demeanor. She lowered her shoulders, easing the tension and relaxing a little herself. "My name is Gabrielle, and this is Xena. We’re just travelers, but if there’s danger, we will help."

Xena broke in to the conversation. "Aver’ael, we –"

"Shhhh!" Aver’ael stopped Xena from continuing. "You no talk now."

He spun around from where he was standing, and without another word, he walked through a door behind him.

"Well, it seems he still won’t talk to me. He doesn’t forgive very easily does he?" Xena said. The question was directed at Aeron.

"Apparently not." Aeron answered with a smile.

"Aeron, you didn’t tell us you knew him." Gabrielle said. "We could have used that to make this a lot easier."

"Remember – the two of you never told me where we were going." Aeron replied to the unasked question. "Once we got here, I wasn’t sure that Aver’ael was even going to recognize me, so Xena’s plan sounded like the best way to go." He smiled warmly at Gabrielle and softly touched her bare shoulder. "Besides, I knew you could do it."

Xena rolled her eyes. "All right. That’s enough." She interrupted them by brushing Aeron’s hand away from Gabrielle. "We haven’t had breakfast yet, and it’s not good to get nauseous on an empty stomach. And you two are makin’ me sick!"

Gabrielle laughed openly.

Just then, the door Aver’ael left from opened again, and he re-appeared. This time, he was carrying a tray with four bowls of steaming hot stew and two loaves of bread. It was as if he had read Xena’s mind on having not eaten breakfast yet. He set the tray down on the counter, covering the hole he had earlier made with the mace.

"Now we talk. No dinars to be paying from you." Aver’ael said proudly.

Xena, Gabrielle, and Aeron all smiled at the same time, and took a bowl of stew. It had seemed that Aver’ael had told Xena not to speak earlier because he still had residual animosity towards her. It was obvious that that was no longer the case. It was his way of keeping them off guard before offering his hospitality, and it also served as an effective way to re-establish his confidence and dignity, after the inability to even lift a sword without trembling.

"You to be saying earlier you vant to know about my langvige." Aver’ael looked off in the distance, as if taking himself somewhere only he knew about. "It is beautiful. All about my land is to being beautiful. I miss it." He brought himself back to the restaurant. "But you ask now. You ask about vat it is you are wanting to be knowing."

"Are you familiar with the story about the Glyph of Midas?" Xena asked him.

"Yez." He replied.

"Well, the story is true, and the Glyph has been stolen from it’s hiding place. The thief has the power to turn anything he wants into gold. Even people. That’s why there is so much danger."

Aver’ael froze in place, moving only to slowly lower his spoon back into his bowl. He had an utterly shocked look on his face, and spoke as if in a trance.

"Toya gannala pr’sten Sheia Abre’anela gonnyo hatana ra’agsha ska." He muttered in his native tongue, then translated for them. "And she, the Forbidden Goddess, hid the Gleef vere no one vas to be finding it, except the high gods themselves." Aver’ael shook his head quickly as if snapping himself out of his self-induced trance. "I remembar ztory as if my ‘atta’ to be telling it to me yezterday."

"Aver’ael, did you know that the story comes from your native land?" Xena asked, "The Sheia Abre’anela and the king were of your people. We need to know where you come from, and it will give us a starting point to look for the Glyph."

"No." Aver’ael said. "I am no to be telling you."

"But Aver’ael," Gabrielle said, "We still need your help."

"Not vat I mean. It is of no use." Aver’ael grew sullen. "My land is being gone. Destroyed by army. If you are to be looking, you find nozzing, no one." He then looked up to Xena stone faced. "You are to be looking for Sheia Abre’anela."

"She’s alive?!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "We thought the story was ancient, and no one would be left alive."

"Ztory is old. And yes – I did know it vaz to being told about real peoples, but did not know it was true ztory." He turned his attention to Gabrielle. "Sheia Abre’anela is alive. Zhe is very old, but last I was knowing, zhe lives. You must find her to be getting information."

"Aver’ael, do you know where we can find her?" Aeron asked.

Aver’ael shook his head as he looked at his friend. "Zhe vishes to not being found. Zhe hides. Nor I, nor no one knows vare zhe is. But you must to be finding her. Zhe – and only zhe – can help in finding gleef. Wizzout help of Sheia Abre’anela, taker of gleef will not be found."

They all sat in silence for a short time.

"Go now." Aver’ael said. "Time is getting late, and lunch comes. We vill zoon not to being alone."

"Thank you for your help, Aver’ael." Gabrielle said as the three of them stood.

He smiled at her, and nodded. "Go. You must find Sheia Abre’anela before it is being too late."

* * * *

The three of them were so excited about the prospect of Aver’ael speaking the language they needed information on, that searching for information on the Sheia Abre’anela had completely skipped their minds. Gabrielle sent Aeron back to the Temple alone to search for more information on her. She could see that Xena was again getting visibly upset, and she would not let that emotion out with Aeron standing around. And she needed to get whatever was bothering her off her chest.

Soon after Aeron’s departure, Xena told her about the appearance of Ares – and Solan – back at the campsite.

"Xena, maybe it wasn’t Solan. You said yourself that Loki wasn’t there; It could have been him." Gabrielle shook her head as she tried to ease the concerns that had been weighing Xena down. It was obvious that she truly believed the appearance of Solan was genuine, and not the work of the Nordic imposter who held within his power to appear as anyone he chose to.

"No – my feelings don’t lie. It was Solan." Xena replied, "And they’re going to banish him to Tartarus if I don’t help them. Maybe even worse. Who knows what kind of demon realm the Nordics have?"

"But how can you be absolutely sure it wasn’t him?" Gabrielle kept trying to ease her concerns about her child.

"Gabrielle," Xena sounded more than a little mad. "how did you know for sure when Fayla told you about her past?" Xena held her hand up and pinched her index finger and thumb together for emphasis. "That fraction of a moment between heartbeats when you connected the pieces and discovered that she was actually Hope. She didn’t come out and tell you she was your daughter, you just knew. More from a feeling than from anything she said. You remember that feeling, don’t you?" She jabbed a finger at Gabrielle. "That’s the feeling that I had when Solan appeared in front of me."

Gabrielle froze as a chill ran down her spine. Her eyes darted alternately between Xena’s eyes in sudden realization, and she felt a lump forming in her throat. Xena’s despair had suddenly become contagious.

"By the Gods, Xena. I’m so sorry. Of course you’re right." Gabrielle felt empty for her friend. She saw Xena looking at the ground as if she had something more to say, but didn’t exactly know how to say it. "What is it, Xena?"

Xena drew a deep breath, and slowly let it out before speaking.

"I have to join them." She finally said.

"What?! Xena, if you –"

"Gabrielle, stop." Her voice was barely a whisper, but held enough power and emotion to freeze Gabrielle’s words. "Don’t speak. I can’t let you talk me out of this. I’m aware of the danger that I’m putting myself into, but there’s no choice."

"What are you going to do? I mean, you’re not actually going to help them just to keep Solan out of Tartarus, are you?" Gabrielle asked.

"I don’t know what I’m going to do." Xena now spoke with her eyes completely shut. "All I know is that I have to do something."

"You don’t still feel responsible for Solan, do you?" Gabrielle asked with a sudden understanding.

Xena suddenly squeezed her shut eyes tight, and a few tears escaped forming at the base of her eyelashes. "What does it matter, how I feel? I’m still his mother. That makes me responsible."

"No it doesn’t!" Gabrielle sounded desperate. "Xena, they’re using Solan against you. You’re not responsible for what happens to him. They’re doing it, not you!"

"Solan is in danger, and I’ve got to help him. This is the only way that I can do it." Xena said wiping the tears off of her eyes, and gathering herself. She looked along the road they were talking on, and whistled loudly. In response, Argo appeared from around a building off in the distance, and trotted toward them.

"Xena, you can’t do –"

"I asked you not to talk me out of this!" Xena yelled as she locked eyes with Gabrielle. "Look, I need you to be strong for both of us. We’re going to need it."

As Argo reached them, Xena grabbed her reins and mounted the horse. Gabrielle could do nothing but watch. She knew that this meant everything in the world to Xena right now, and it was something that she just had to do. Whatever she was going to do.

"I need you to find the Sheia Abre’anela and get that glyph." Xena told Gabrielle. "I’ll do what I can from wherever I am, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help. Aeron can help you, and be sure to use whatever you can from Aver’ael. I’ll contact you when I get the chance."

Without another word, Xena tugged on Argo’s left rein, and turned her completely around.

"Hyah!" Xena called to set Argo off in a galloping run.

Gabrielle couldn’t let it go at that, but she didn’t know what else to say.

"Xena!"

Argo had gotten three strides away from her previous position before Xena pulled again on the reins to stop her. She pulled again to turn Argo to face Gabrielle. She looked at Gabrielle intently and impatiently.

"What?!" Xena was again yelling.

Gabrielle’s eyes quickly searched the ground as if what she needed to say lied there beneath her feet.

"Xena, I –" Gabrielle stuttered as gave into the desperation she had been feeling, and began to cry aloud. She spoke between sobs.

"I love you, Xena."

Xena’s expression softened as she led Argo back to where Gabrielle stood. Not dismounting, Xena bent over at the waist, and reached out to touch Gabrieille’s now wet cheek with her palm.

"I love you too, Gabrielle." She said softly. "Goodbye."

 

**END OF PART ONE**


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