DISCLAIMER: While this fan fic does use characters from X:WP, it also includes real people from the XenaVerse Mailing List. The premise is that all of the members of the XML live in a complex of buildings on the slopes of Mount Olympus. But Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, and the rest of the characters from the universe of H:TLJ and X:WP interact with them on a regular basis. Also, this will eventually include SPOILERS for several 2nd & 3rd season X:WP episodes, as well as a couple of 4th season H:TLJ episodes. The events depicted take place after those of Sacrifice I & II, but give only hints as to how the issues of those episodes are resolved, since I'm only a creative genius, not a prophet or psychic.
Also, I did not write this entire epic by myself, James Davis is equally to blame. Several others--Notably, Catie Jones as the Pythia--contributed to it, including Lissla, Buffy, and Ellie. But, for the sake of continuity, I have edited all of the 50+ installments into 3 parts. Some minor rewriting has also been done to preserve the narrative voice throughout.
Oh, and it's rated the same as the television show: PG14 for suggestive language and mild violence.
The King of Thieves cautiously opened one eye and peered around his quarters. Finally, after a night of reveling and drunken debauchery--his favorite kind, truth be told--his "guests" were all either passed out or simply sleeping. Including his numerous roommates. It had started simply enough, he recalled with some exasperation, when Lissla, a recent acquaintance whom he was unsure whether to seduce, take under his wing as a protege, or both, had asked to share his quarters.
In a rare moment of generosity--Okay, so there was the lust factor involved, too!--he had acquiesced to her request. Then, even before he himself had moved into his new quarters, the woman had invited Tina, a sometime foil and sometime partner in crime, to join them. In fact, Lissla had proceeded at an alarming rate to invite a whole host of people to share "their" suites. And, while he had dubbed his new home with the charming and chic appellation "Casa Autolycus," she had almost immediately changed it to the more vulgar "Pun-N-Pub Party Palace," after several brief variations on the same theme, in light of Tina's penchant for making the most awful puns, on any subject, morning, noon, and night, and both of their fondness for alcohol and merrymaking.
"Just like a woman to come in and change everything around to suit her, with no thought to what I might want," he sighed to himself as he carefully extricated himself from the arms of several women he had been introduced to last night, but whose names now escaped him. They're either Amazons, Hestians, or extras, he decided. Probably extras, judging from their attire; they were wearing too little to be Hestians and too much to be Amazons.
Still, he had to admit that he was terribly fond of both Lissla and Tina, and, in a revelation that surprised even the jaded, cynical thief himself, not just because they were both attractive members of the opposite sex. He paused as the thought struck him like one of Zeus' lightning bolts that he genuinely liked them. "You're getting soft, you old rogue," he chided himself as he set to work.
He silently and carefully went round to each of the sleeping guests and stealthily removed whatever valuables were on their immediate person: rings, brooches, earrings, necklaces, etc. He then began to rummage through the scattered piles of their clothing for any dinars, gold, or silver, that they might have.
When he came to the sleeping figures of Lissla and Tina, sprawled on their respective beds, he hesitated, sorting through his feelings and his instincts, waging an inner battle between his emotions and his nature, his passions and his essence.
After what seemed an eternity to the confused and embattled thief, but was in reality a few seconds at most, he leaned over and carefully undid the clasp of the beautiful necklace around Lissla's pale throat and gently slid the jeweled ring from Tina's delicate finger.
Then, he hurriedly went through their things and added those items he deemed of value into his bulging bag.
The rosy fingers of Eos were just spreading over the horizon as he finished his despicable labors. Hurrying now, lest his friends, nay, victims should awake, he hastened for the door. A few exhausted revelers began to stir, mumbling and smacking their dried lips to get the feel of wool from their teeth, but none were quite ready to banish Hypnos, and so they slept on. Autolycus halted at the door and turned to look at the oblivious crowd one last time.
The King of Thieves had the persistent, nagging idea that enclosed within the burlap sack slung over his shoulder was so much more than simple possessions. He could not help but shake the notion that within that humble bag also rested the trust of his fellow XenaVersians. And, especially, the affections of Lissla and Tina. "Could even I, Autolycus, the vaunted King of Thieves, steal something so irredeemably priceless as that?" he questioned silently.
But then he shifted the bag slightly and felt its weight on his back and his mind instinctively estimated the money he would get for it and all other considerations disappeared. He was a thief, after all, and if there was one thing he knew about thieves, it was the fact that they worked best alone. Partners invariably resulted in entanglements, and snares, of any kind, were to be avoided above all else.
"Suckers," he whispered with a mirthless grin, leaving and closing the door behind him.
James opened his eyes and the first sight that greeted him was the looming shape of the skull of his skeleton chair. `Jeesh, what a way to wake up,' he thought, `alone and staring up at a skull. I have to give Mount Olympus one thing, ask for some furniture and it appears within moments. Almost as good a delivery as that stuff Wile E. Coyote is always ordering from Acme.' Getting up from the chair, his thoughts were only on one thing: I wonder how long it will be before Athene leaves the library so I can go and read some more. It would be a lot easier if I could just 'borrow' some of the scrolls for a little while. I would return them, of course. I know, I'll go ask Autolycus to give me a hand 'borrowing' some scrolls. Quietly slipping out of his door, he was padding along the hallway towards Autolycus' room when he saw the thief slip out his door.
Ducking behind a pillar in the hallway he watched as Autolycus looked back into his room--With maybe just a touch of regret?--before he shouldered a large bag and walked down the corridor toward the window at the end of the hall. With a snap of his wrist he made his grappling hook appear and within a matter of moments he was out the window and gone.
`There are going to be a lot of hurt and angry women when they wake up,' James thought to himself. `And I don't want to be around when they do.' So he turned tail and headed back to his room. `I hope for Autolycus' sake that there were no Amazons or friends of Artemis in that party group last night!'
Deciding that if he's going to 'borrow' some scrolls, he's going to have to do it by himself, he headed over to the balcony and looked down into the courtyard and saw Athene looking back up at him!
`Oh Tartarus! Does she know that I was in her library yesterday?' he wondered. Then, he smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand. `She's the Goddess of Wisdom! Of course she knows everything. That's her job description. Okay, how do I play this out?' he asked himself.
Plan A - Deny everything.
Plan B - Throw myself on her mercy and promise not to do it again.
Plan C - Apologize for entering her library without permission and ask her if I can use her library at some later date.
Plan D - RUN!!
He decided on Plan C.
"Good morning, your highness, uh great Goddess of Wisdom, um nice morning?" She didn't look happy. "Sorry about using the library without permission. Maybe I could use it some other time? With your permission, of course!" he stammered.
He listened as she explained that she wasn't angry about that. She's annoyed because he fed her owl roasted dove. The owl, it turned out, was on a very restricted diet.
"I will never feed your owl anything again without permission. So how about my using the library?" he asked. He was never one for much common sense. "I can use the library any time? Just make sure not to feed the owl? Deal!"
`Whew! That was close. Not a good idea to get a Goddess pissed at you! Now for some breakfast. I wonder how one goes about ordering a pizza from Pegasus Pizza?' he questioned.
"Rise and shine everybody...Rise and shine..." a voice called out.
Buffy, the owner and operator of Pegasus Pizza, stretched and yawned, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. "Mmmm, what a night," she said, crawling out of bed. "Business was great. Mmmm, I think I'll put some water on for tea and see if JAM is up yet. Gee, I shouldn't have yelled at her last night to hurry up and deliver those pizzas over to Artemis' temple. I'll have to tell her it was worth it, though...the barter I made for a new story from B L was accepted and 'in the works,' thank the gods."
She finished her morning routine and then paused to look out a window.
"What a beautiful morning. There goes Autolycus. He sure looks like he's in a hurry. Hey, Auto, want to come on up for some tea and nutbread?"
"Maybe later," he shouted and waved back continuing on, readjusting the large bag he was carrying over his shoulder.
"Well, I'd better get to work and inventory my stock. Business is booming with that Pun-N-Pub," she grinned. "I think I have to get a new supplier for roasted doves, sure has been a popular item lately. I'll have to check out the local 'Yellow Scrolls'."
She made her way from her private quarters into the main kitchen area of the pizzeria and saw Julie, her assistant. "Well, look who's up. Good morning, JAM, glad to see you. Here, have some tea and nutbread, fresh out of the oven. By the way, sorry about last night, but wait 'till you hear the news..."
Waking from a nap, James heard loud voices coming from the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace. It sounded like some of Autolycus' guests were still waiting around to see if he was coming back. He listened for a moment and picked up some new cuss words. `Leave it up to Amazons to come up with creative language,' he thought.
Listening for a while more, he heard one very loud and upset woman explain what she was going to do to Autolycus when she caught up to him.
Turning his head slightly, he pondered her plan. "I'm not sure it's possible to do that...unless...Gulp!" His face turned white as a sheet. "Mental note to myself: Never anger an Amazon. For Autolycus' sake I hope he has a great hiding place."
He suddenly heard a loud roaring noise and a brilliant flash of light appeared outside on the balcony. Rushing to the door to the balcony, he saw that the new barbecue he got last night was now a molten mess. Looking up at the sky, he saw Dahak coming around for another pass with a loud booming laugh. `I wonder if I can find a really great hiding place?' he asked himself. `Maybe I can hide outside of the Pegasus Pizza place...'
The King of Thieves had left the complex and the environs of Mount Olympus far behind him when he paused beneath a sheltering oak for a midday meal. He set the heavy pack--filled with the possessions of his friends, perhaps that should be _former_ friends, including those belonging to his former roommates, Lissla and Tina--beside the tree and then sat with his back against it and hastily ate a bit of bread, a slab of cheese, and a good pull from his wine flask. As he munched on the bread, he absently reached into the bag behind him and removed a ring and a necklace, both made of polished gold and both set with large stones: a sapphire in the necklace and an emerald in the ring.
The jewelry had belonged to his former roommates, he had taken it from them as they slept after a night of celebration in their new home. His brown eyes twinkled as he gazed into the stones, but, for the first time in his memory, he was thinking, not what the pieces would fetch at the markets of the Peloponnesus, his immediate destination, but rather of the people they had belonged to. The friends he had betrayed.
"Betrayal is such an ugly word," a voice whispered in his ear. "You're a thief, you did what came naturally. To have done otherwise would have been a betrayal of your nature."
Autolycus turned and found himself staring into a face composed of what appeared to be darkness itself. It was no more solid than a shadow, but still somehow darker than the blackest soul languishing in Tartarus.
"Dahak!" the thief exclaimed, backing away in terror, but attempting to drag the bag with him all the same.
The shadow called Dahak fluttered and was suddenly behind him, once more whispering into his ear. "You can't escape me, Autolycus," it hissed, "any more than you can escape yourself."
Startled, the King of Thieves scrambled forward, clutching the sack tightly to his chest, and then turned to face the demon. "What do you want?" he asked, casually slipping the ring on his finger and wrapping the necklace's chain around his wrist.
"Some of your friends," and Dahak chuckled as he said the word and his entire form shimmered with malevolence, "tried to make a deal with me. In return for Hope being allowed to join the pitiful humans in their pathetic revels, all I had to do was bring you back to them." The twin points of red flame, which the frightened man took to be the monster's eyes glowed brilliantly, evilly crimson. "With friends like that..." Once more, the demon chuckled.
"So, the all powerful Dahak has been reduced to a mere bounty hunter, eh?" Auto said with obvious contempt. "A go-fer for some humans."
"You're wasting your time, pitiful human," Dahak sighed. "I can read your mind as easily as you can pick a Theban lock. Besides, I don't get angry and I don't do anything for anyone, unless there is something of considerable value in it for me. In that, you must agree, we are very similar."
"So, if you're not here to bring me back, what do you want?" the thief inquired, trying to deny the truth of the demon's last taunt, but finding the words all too accurate.
"My dear Autolycus, it should be obvious. I want that bag," the demon stated, its eyes blazing.
"Why? And, better yet, why not just kill me and take it?" he blurted out. In horror, he quickly clamped his hands over his mouth.
"Would you prefer I kill you? I can, and quite easily, too," Dahak assured him. Auto vigorously shook his head, but, for good measure, kept his hands tightly over his mouth. "I thought not. I want the sack for two reasons. The first is to have in my possession a personal object from each of these pitiful humans, the better to bend them to my will. And the second, my duplicitous friend, is to gain possession of your soul."
"Forget it, Dahak," snarled Autolycus from between his fingers. "I may have robbed my friends, and even stolen their trust, but their souls are not for sale. And neither is mine."
"Pitiful thief, I already own you and your so-called friends, I simply choose not to take possession of any of you just yet," the demon replied, its growling voice sending chills up and down Auto's spine. "I could still take you back to them, just for a laugh." Dahak's evil laughter suddenly filled Auto's ears, and his mind, and he moved his hands from his mouth and pressed them hard against his ears in a vain effort to drown out the sound. He fell to the ground and clenched his eyes shut, but the horrible laughter still pounded in his head.
"Autolycus! Autolycus!" The thief felt hands shaking him and he opened his eyes expecting to see Dahak's awful face. Instead he saw the familiar features of Salmoneus, the traveling salesman. "Are you all right? You were crying out and you had this terrible look on your face," the man explained, helping the thief up.
"I'm...fine...I think," the King of Thieves answered, rubbing his head. "I must have been dreaming..." his voice trailed off as he realized that the emerald ring was on his finger and the sapphire necklace was wound around his wrist. "At least, I hope it was a dream."
"Say, those are some nice pieces," Salmoneus said, noticing the jewelry. "Of course, I've seen better craftsmanship. But, since you're a friend, I'll give you 50 dinars for the pair."
"50...Why, they're each worth at least that much, and you know it," Auto returned. "And there's nothing wrong with their artistry. Are you forgetting that I saved your life?"
"You also made me shave off my beard and wear a dress," Sal shot back, fingering his regrown facial hair fondly. "And, I ended up being the one who saved both our lives, so we're even."
"Fine," huffed Autolycus, folding his arms stubbornly across his chest.
"Fine," echoed Salmoneus, avoiding the thief by staring in the opposite direction.
After a minute, Auto said quietly, "Make it 75 and you've got yourself a deal."
"Done," said Sal eagerly. He turned and removed a leather purse from his voluminous robes and spilled several shining coins into the palm of his hand.
Autolycus hurriedly pulled the ring from his finger and quickly unwound the necklace chain from his wrist. He was in the process of handing them over to the salesman when Sal casually remarked, "These should buy me more than a few drinks at the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace."
Auto's hand froze. "The what?"
"The Pun-N-Pub Party Palace," Salmoneus repeated, puzzled. "It's in that new complex at the foot of Mount Olympus where all the XenaVersians have shops and apartments. I hear it can get pretty wild, what with the Amazons and the Hestians dropping by, if you know what I mean." He nudged the thief in the ribs and winked.
Auto suddenly thought of Tina and her monstrous puns and said, "Listen, Sal, I've changed my mind. The jewelry isn't for sale, after all." He closed his hand around the necklace and Lissla's laughing face danced before him. "But, I want you to do me a favor."
"What?" Salmoneus asked suspiciously, replacing the coins in his purse. "And, how much is it gonna cost me?"
Autolycus laughed and produced a gold coin from his pocket. He handed it to the surprised salesman and said, "Not a thing, my friend. Not a thing."
A bit later, Salmoneus continued on to the north, with the thief's sack, and it's precious belongings, slung over his weary back, and charged with seeing to it that all of the items were returned to their rightful owners, especially the ring and necklace.
The King of Thieves, however, decided to continue on to Mount Parnassus and pay a visit to Apollo's Oracle at Delphi to see if the Pythia could make any sense of his strange and disturbingly real dream.
James returned to his rooms, after hiding for a while outside of Pegasus Pizza, deciding that Dahak would not expect to find him there. He could have gone to the party at Pun-N-Pub, but he didn't want to draw Dahak's attention there. "And besides, I wasn't really asked to the party and I hate to crash," he mumbled softly.
Getting back to his rooms, he decided to call it a night and, after a careful look around to make sure Dahak was not around, he headed to the bed he ordered from Olympus' Furniture supply. "I should have known better when they asked what style and started to name off God's and Goddess's names than to say Aphrodite," he groaned, looking over at the round bed with red satin sheets. "And I don't even want to know what the leather cuffs at the four points are about." Leaping into bed he closed his eyes.
Opening his eyes he saw a dark landscape with flames shooting up from holes in the ground. `Not a good sign,' he thought to himself.
Looking around, he noticed that he was alone.
"Alone, alone, alone," the words echoed loudly back and forth. "Always the one that ends up alone, aren't you? I could end that for you, pitiful human."
`Gee, the voice isn't familiar but the wording sure is,' he thought, looking around fearfully. "Dahak, is that you?" he yelled out. Hearing a deep laugh from behind him, he whirled around and saw a dark shadow figure with glowing eyes.
"Poor pitiful human, always left alone. Do my bidding and you will be in plenty of company. All you have to do is tell the women at the P-N-P where they can find Autolycus. I will handle the rest."
He cleared a suddenly dry throat and answered, "First, I don't know where Autolycus is, and, second, why do you want them to know where he is?"
"That is my concern! Pitiful human. I will tell you where to find Autolycus and you will tell them!" The shadow figure reached out and grabbed his arm. He felt a burn, as if he were branded.
"I don't think so," he said as he broke free of his grasp and made a run for it.
Waking up, he opened his eyes and saw a skull looking down at him. He nearly wet himself before he realized that it was the skeleton chair back at his room. "Whew, it was just a dream," he sighed with relief. "That's the second time in a row I've woken up laying across the arms of this chair and scaring myself. Wait a minute! I went to bed last night when I went to sleep. How did I end up here? And how did I pick up this burn on my arm?"
Buffy stretched. "Time to get back to work. Lets see, better get more flour out from the shed. I wonder if James is still hiding back there. He sure is afraid of that god Dahak...come to think of it...so am I," she said quietly, taking a quick look around. "But we all gotta make a living."
She grabbed a wineskin and some bread and headed back out to the shed. "James, James you still here?" she called. "I have some wine and bread for you. Oh, well, I guess he left. Sure hope he's OK."
Her thoughts were interrupted by the tinkling of the bell over the door in the main shop. "Uh, oh, a customer. Better get back in there...What can I do for you, sir...Hey, Salmoneus, how the Tartarus are you? What have you been up to?"
"Oh, just traveling around selling things, you know the stuff I always do."
"Uh huh," she replied. "So what are you selling these days? What do you have in that sack?"
"Well, actually, I'm on my way up to the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace. Autolycus asked..."
"Wait, wait. What did you say?"
She grabbed his arm. "Where is he? Everyone is looking for him."
Slapping her arm away he answered, "He's on his way to see the Oracle at Delphi. I found him sleeping and he was having a nightmare...Anyway, he asked me to deliver this sack to Lissla and Tina at the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace."
"Oh, really." She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully.
"Listen, I really would like to chat, but I just stopped in for a slice of pizza and I want to get up to the P-N-P before dark," he said.
"Yeah, okay, Sal, here ya go, nice and hot right out of the oven."
Salmoneus ate his pizza and dropped a dinar onto the counter. "I'll stop by on my way back out of town," he said.
"You do that, Sal, and be careful on your way up there," she added, looking around again. "Dahak is on the loose again."
Sal stammers, "Dahak, mmm, well, then I guess I better get outta here." Swinging the sack over his shoulder, he closed the door behind him.
"I sure hope he gets up there OK," she grinned. "Lissla and Tina are really going to be surprised. Guess I'll go check the pigeons to see if any orders are in," she chuckled.
The silence of the morning made James uneasy. He drug his sorry behind out of the skeleton throne he was lying on--The throne he'd had delivered to his room to appeal to his macabre sense of humor now depressed him and to be truthful, was starting to give him the creeps. He cocked his head to the side and listened for a moment. `This is the quietest I've ever heard it here,' he said to himself. `I wonder what happened at the P-N-P last night? Did the party go on so long last night that they're still sleeping in this morning?'
He passed by a steel mirror hanging on the wall and looked at himself. His "Ares" style beard looked scraggly and his hair was sticking up all over the place. There were also black circles under his eyes. All in all, not a pretty picture. He felt exhausted and yet he'd slept all night long.
Feeling an itching sensation on his arm he looked at the mystery burn on it. Four long wavy burns were etched into his arm. They almost looked like claw marks in one way and in another they looked like a stylized picture of fire. "This can't be good," he said out loud. Pondering what to do for a moment, he decided that there was only one person who might be able to make sense of this. Having so deciding, he changed his clothes and combed his hair and slipped out of the door of his room and started his journey toward the Oracle of Apollo on the slopes of Parnassus.
The sun was just beginning to disappear beyond the far horizon, where, the poets held, Helios (one of Apollo's numerous appellations) would meet a ship of solid gold which would bear him in safety back to his Eastern palace. While Autolycus tended to doubt that any God would waste his time traveling the same course day after day and night after night, the story of the golden ship had intrigued him and upon hearing the tale he had immediately made a mental note to check out any possibilities of its existence. So far, he hadn't been able to either verify or disprove the vessel's reality. The King of Thieves had traveled south for several days after his nightmarish encounter with Dahak, but, at last, the slopes of Mount Parnassus were close enough to reach out and touch.
And nestled on the side of the mountain was the cavern that held the Pythia, Apollo's chief priestess at the oracle known as Delphi.
He paused to catch his breath before beginning the climb to the oracle, intending to reach it by nightfall. He had to, for this was the 7th day of the month, the only day when the Pythia would reveal the prophecies of the God. If he didn't reach the oracle by sundown, he could not present his question for another month.
And, with Dahak's power apparently on the rise, he wasn't sure if he and the rest of the world had a month to spare.
"Looks like a tough climb, stud muffin," drawled an unfamiliar voice beside him. "I wonder why mountains have to be so tall?"
He turned and his eyes nearly popped out of his skull when a woman of extraordinary beauty sparkled into view next to him. Her long, blonde hair hung in delicate curls around her shoulders and her blue eyes literally twinkled when she saw his expression. Her exquisite, shapely body was clothed in a dress of such diaphanous material that it left very little to the imagination. And even less to Autolycus' imagination.
"Aphrodite?" questioned the startled, but nevertheless pleased, thief.
"Well, I'm certainly not old horse-face Hera," she replied with a dazzling smile.
"What...How...Why..." stammered Autolycus, unable to take his eyes off the vision before him.
"Look," she said, raising his chin with a slender finger so that his eyes at least appeared to be focused on her face, "you don't have much time, so I'll make this quick. Be careful. My bro seems to think the world revolves around him and he won't take kindly to any one trying to steal his glory. But, on the bright side, he's not a big fan of darkness and they don't come darker than Mr. `Come on, baby, light my fire' Dahak."
"If you Gods know about Dahak, why don't you do something about him?" Auto asked, his eyes drifting downward once more.
"Hey, we may run things, but you mortals are the ones with a vested interest in this; we're just the landlords, dig?" she replied with a little pout, and, perhaps, a bit of fear, cleverly disguised as haughty apathy. She once more raised his chin to look her in the eyes. "Besides, I did do something. I came here and warned you to be on your best behavior with my bro. See ya later, bright eyes." And with that, she sparkled out of existence.
"I hope so," Auto breathed. Then, noting that the sun was nearly set, he flicked his wrist and produced his grappling hook. He swung it around a few times and then let it fly. It caught on the limb of a tree on the slope above him and he quickly pulled himself up and repeated the process until he came to the mouth of the cavern that housed the oracle.
He cautiously approached the entrance, from which strange clouds of green vapor issued, and peered within.
Autolycus saw a figure in the foggy gloom of the cave's interior, a woman wearing a long white himation and a sheer veil. She was seated on a three-legged stool made of bronze that was positioned so that each of its legs straddled a small fissure in the floor of the chamber, through which the emerald smoke that floated lazily throughout the grotto issued. As she turned to face him, he saw that beneath the thin material was a face of incredible beauty.
Before he could say a word, she spoke:
Seekers of meaning in quest of the absolute
accept all danger, risk their lives in any game.
Anything and all that could point them in the direction
of the way to meaning.
You've traveled the unpredictable course of rivers
to lose your way and to find it.
I tell you: desire is the leaven of evil.
Beware. Your own tongue is full of holes; a sieve.
Approach me only if you dare to converse with the god
for this oracle is the uncertain domain of words
and, in the call of the abyss,
waters cover and uncover everything.
Whom do you seek in this uncertain domain of words?
What do you seek?
What power do you serve?
The voice of the Pythia was like the music of an orchestra in that it seemed to be several voices all speaking the same words, but ever so slightly out of synchronization. Autolycus could quite plainly make out the lilting pitch of a child, the giggling soprano of a teen, the more mature tones of a young woman, and so on, right up to the hideous cackling of an old crone.
The King of Thieves attempted to come nearer, to get a better look at the woman, but she held up her hand in a gesture of warning. Even so, he could have sworn that her beauty had been replaced by the wrinkled visage of a septuagenarian.
Autolycus cleared his throat nervously and replied, "I seek Apollo, God of the sun, music, poetry, medicine, and prophecy. I seek an answer to a dream. I serve the power of goodness...most of the time," he added in a mumbling whisper, passing his fingers across his lips.
The Pythia turned her back to him and lifted up her veil. She inhaled deeply of the fumes wafting up from the cleft in the rock beneath her and then lowered her veil once more and turned to face him.
I feel the god upon me
My, his hands are cold
It bothers me when he does this
and, my, are his wanderings bold
I feel his breath in my ears
and his fingers touch my throat
but before we'll utter a word to you
you had better bring us a goat
'cause we like feta
ain't none betta
but there's one more task
we ask of you
before we loosen our throat
and choke our prophecies
There's a little bard who you may know
She's often called Gabby
She wears a top
that's often cropped
and her abs are in no way flabby
We like this top for it seems to possess a power
bring it to us and we will sing
and cover your head in laurel flowers
But if you cannot acquire it
do not return
as the flames of Dahak
on your backside will burn
Now, now. I feel the god move within me. Go. Go. He's getting restless.
His signal is fading out. I'll give you some words of advice for the task to be worthy of the gift of Apollo. This advice would best be phrased in the words of Maurry Head from the soundtrack of the 80's musical "Chess":
One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can't be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me
Siam's gonna be the witness
To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness
This grips me more than would a
Muddy old river or reclining Buddha
And thank God I'm only watching the game, controlling it
I don't see you guys rating
The kind of mate I'm contemplating
I'd let you watch, I would invite you
But the queens we use would not excite you
So you better go back to your bars, your temples, your massage parlors
One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free
You'll find a god in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history
I can feel an angel sliding up to me
Autolycus stared in stunned disbelief as his brain digested the words of the Pythia. "I think there's been some mistake," he began, doing his best to get a good look at the face beneath the veil. "I knew there would be a cost involved, but I was told it would be dinars, not a goat and a piece of clothing from one of my friends. Stealing from my friends is what started this whole mess." The King of Thieves looked around the cave. "Is there someone else I could talk to? Someone who makes sense, maybe?"
He started forward, intending to inspect the deeper recesses of the tunnel, but a violent wind roared up from the crevice and hurled him bodily from the cavern and sent him tumbling head over heels all the way down to the foot of Mount Parnassus.
Autolycus sat up slowly and rubbed the back of his head. Fortunately, due to his amazing reflexes, he had been battered and bruised by the fall, but not seriously injured. Still, it had been painful.
"Aww, want me to kiss it and make it better?" Aphrodite smiled, shimmering into view next to him. "Where does it hurt the most?"
Autolycus started to point to a nasty bump on his temple, but then his hand instead pointed down to his lap.
"In your dreams, bright eyes!" the Goddess laughed, leaning forward and kissing his forehead.
"Thanks," he smiled, realizing that his head no longer hurt.
"I warned you about my bro, he doesn't like pushy people," she shrugged.
"Oh, yeah, and who just got pushed down a mountain by who?" he shot back.
"Chill, dude. I never said he wasn't pushy. So, now what are you gonna do?" she asked, sitting down next to him.
"Buy a goat and ask Gabrielle for the use of her top, and then..." his voice trailed off as the Goddess began to shake her head. "What?"
"No can do, stud muffin. You're not allowed to buy or ask," Aphrodite explained. "You've gotta steal'em."
Autolycus bit his lower lip and ran his fingers across his mustache thoughtfully. "I thought so," he replied. "Why can't things with you Gods ever be straightforward?"
The blonde Goddess laughed. "You're not exactly a shining example of that quality, are you, light fingers?" The thief frowned and shook his head. "There's your answer. I'm outta here. Good luck, dude."
The beautiful Goddess smiled and then her form disappeared in a puff of golden sparkles, leaving Autolycus alone in the dark.
James was tired. For days he had traveled to reach Parnassus to ask for help. Every night when he closed his eyes, he heard the voice of Dahak trying to get him to do evil and laughing at him. In the mornings the burn marks on his forearm had increased. Where there were once only four marks there were now six. It looked like his arm was being tattooed with the images of flames.
Traveling down the road he heard the sounds of clinking and clanking coming from around a bend. `Is it Dahak?' he questioned, his heart beating wildly with fear. Then, suddenly, it comes around the corner, revealed in all its fear-inspiring visage.
It is Joxer!!!
"Hello, Joxer. How's it going?" he asked, somewhat relieved.
"I'm looking for Xena and Gabrielle. Do you know where they are? By the way, that's a great tattoo ya got there," he said as he pumped James' arm enthusiastically in a handshake.
Suddenly James felt his left arm that has the tattoos burn with a fierce fire and he heard his voice speaking without his wanting it to. "Why, yes, Joxer, I do know where they are. They were going to a party at the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace on Mount Olympus. If you hurry you might catch them there."
"Well, I don't know. Do you think they want me there? I don't have a place to stay there, either," he said in an unsure voice.
"Of course they want you there. And, as for not having a place to stay, take mine. In fact, feel free to redecorate it in your taste while I'm gone." James tried to stifle himself with his right hand but his left hand was holding it down.
With a jolt of sheer terror, he watched as his left hand released his right and quickly reached into his pocket and handed Joxer the keys to his place on Mount Olympus. Joxer took the keys and, after a good many thank you's, he turned to leave and promptly tripped over his feet. Getting back up to his feet he took off running and was gone.
"My Gods, what have I done?" James cried to himself. "Well, there's no doubt now, my left arm has gone bad." Visions of the movie "Evil Dead II" flashed through his mind but he didn't have anything to cut his arm off with. Like Gabrielle, he didn't believe in killing so he, too, carried a staff for protection. `Great for fighting,' he thought, `but not much good when you have to cut your arm off to save your soul.'
With no other ideas, he turned and started to walk toward Mount Parnassus once again. Off in the distance he could hear the booming laugh of Dahak rumble like thunder.
After an uncomfortable night spent under the stars, Autolycus began the long journey back to the XenaVersian complex near Mount Olympus. There he hoped to either find news of the Warrior Princess and her Bard, or, if he was lucky, the pair of women themselves. He wasn't looking forward to returning to the scene of his latest crime. He was unsure what to expect from his recent victims, even after making sure that their belongings were returned to them. Would they forgive him, or would they attempt to punish him, forcing him to escape, and thereby violating their trust a second time? He was grateful that Xena and Gabrielle had been absent that night and he hoped that they would have put in a good word for him with the others. Especially the former warlord, who understood him better than any other; maybe even better than he understood himself.
"Oh, I understand, all right," Xena said to the angry crowd of XenaVersians. "You trusted him, you invited him to share your home, and he robbed you blind."
There were shouts of agreement from the others.
"Well," said Gabrielle matter-of-factly, "he is a thief. What did you expect?"
"I expected him to deal honorably with his friends," called one of the crowd, who smelled faintly of cheese.
"Hello? I repeat: He's a thief," the strawberry blonde stated.
"How would you feel if he stole from you?" yelled another XenaVersian, still trying to brush away the hay from his clothing.
"I would understand that it's in his nature to steal and not forget that he's still my friend," the Bard replied.
There were murmurs of disagreement, but no one dared to openly challenge the young woman. At least, not while Xena was around.
"Autolycus is a good man at heart," Xena assured the crowd. When some of them began to grumble, the Warrior Princess slowly raised one eyebrow and fixed the dissenters with an icy gaze. They immediately shut up. "I'm sure he had reasons for doing as he did."
"Of course he had a reason," called out one woman. "He's a greedy, back-bacon-stabbing swine!"
"I think Xena meant another reason, Tina," Gabrielle offered.
Just when it looked like not even the highly regarded former warlord would be able to dissuade the mob from setting off after the thief, a familiar figure staggered into the courtyard and, dropping a heavy sack at his feet, collapsed onto one of the benches. He pulled a colorful kerchief from his robes and daubed at the sweat on his brow.
"Xena!" he called out, spotting the tall woman's head poking above the assembled throng.
The Warrior Princess turned and nodded when she saw her old friend, favoring him with one of her dazzling smiles. "Salmoneus," she said, pushing past the crowd and walking over to the weary traveler. "What are you selling today?" She kicked at the large sack with the toe of her boot.
"Nothing, as it happens," he grinned. "Hello, Gabrielle."
"You not selling something?" the Bard laughed. "Is Hades aware that it's snowing in Tartarus?"
"Funny. Trust me, I'm laughing on the inside," Salmoneus replied, rolling his eyes at the way Gabrielle was still snickering over her own joke. "It just so happens that I'm here to return some things to people. You see, I met Autolycus on-"
The salesman was suddenly interrupted by a host of angry voices all demanding to know where he had met the thief, when, and did he know where he was headed.
"Quiet," Xena said softly. The crowd hushed. "You were saying..."
Salmoneus looked around him suspiciously. "I met Autolycus on the way here and he asked me to return these things," he reached down and spilled the contents of the bag onto the ground at the feet of the surprised throng, "to their rightful owners."
As everyone retrieved their things from the pile, grateful to have them back but, judging from the assorted grumbling, obviously still angry with the thief for having stolen them in the first place, the salesman removed a ring set with a large emerald and a necklace with a beautiful sapphire from an inner pocket of his robes. "He was especially eager that these two pieces in particular be returned."
Tina hesitantly stepped forward and, avoiding the recriminating glance of the Warrior Princess, took the ring.
"What about the necklace?" inquired Salmoneus. "Who does it belong to?"
Still evading the accusing eyes of the former warlord, Tina replied, "It belongs to Lissla, one of my roommates."
"Say," said Gabrielle, scanning the dispersing crowd as they wandered back to their quarters, or, more likely, to the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace, "where is Lissla? I haven't seen her since we arrived."
"She went after Autolycus," Xena answered, pleased when Tina's head snapped up in surprise and their eyes met, confirming the warrior's suspicions. Tina nodded unnecessarily. "It would serve Autolycus right if she caught up to him."
"But-" began Gabrielle.
"Oh, I'm not worried about him," Xena said with a smirk. "His tongue is nearly as fast as his hands. I'm sure he'll be able to talk his way out of a fight."
"Can't we talk about this like two adults?" yelped Autolycus, dodging the flashing blade of his ex-roommate's sword.
"You lied! You betrayed our friends!" Lissla shouted, aiming a nasty swipe at his head. "What is there to talk about?"
The nimble King of Thieves ducked and then reached up and grabbed the wrist of the arm swinging the sword. "If you'll just listen to me for a minute, I can expl-ooommppphhhh!" He suddenly gasped as Lissla drove her knee sharply up into his stomach.
"I'm bringing you back, Auto!" she cried, striking him roughly in the jaw with a gloved fist. "Where you'll be punished for your crimes." Lissla cocked her arm for another blow, but Autolycus, still shaking off her last punch, reached up and grabbed her wrist.
Lissla furiously struggled to free her arms. "Now, will you just settle down and lis--onnnhhh!" He reeled when she rammed her forehead into his. "Ow. That really hurt." She suddenly stomped down on his foot, grinding the heel of her boot into his instep. "Yeowchimama! That smarts!" When her knee shot up toward his groin, however, he quickly recovered his wits and managed to clamp his knees tightly together, so that the blow struck his thigh instead.
"Lissla, will you please just listen to me?" he asked as her knees took turns bouncing off his thighs. In response, she managed to catch him off-guard and strike the pommel of her sword against his temple before he could prevent it. "Ouch. Fine. That does it. If you won't listen to reason, you leave me no alternative. Believe me, I am sorry about this." He released her wrists, but, before she could bring either her sword or her fist into play, he had reached into one of the pouches on his belt and pulled out of a handful of sparkling dust, which he quickly blew into the startled woman's face.
Her eyes rolled back up into her skull and she fell into the waiting arms of the thief, unconscious, but otherwise unharmed.
Autolycus sadly shook his head and then dragged the woman off to the side of road and laid her behind some bushes to sleep it off. He then continued on his way to Mount Olympus.
"Nice," hissed a voice beside him. "She deserved it."
The King of Thieves knew without looking that Ares was there. "No, she didn't. Not really," Auto replied, stepping up his pace.
"If you hadn't drugged her, she would have locked you up, and maybe guaranteed that Dahak succeed," the God of war pointed out. "Oh, yeah, she definitely deserved it."
"Do you want something? It's not like we normally hang out together," Autolycus sighed, stopping and turning to face the God.
"I just want to offer some advice regarding Xena," Ares replied, his dark eyes lighting up when he mentioned the Warrior Princess. "She doesn't like it when people steal from her."
"I'm not planning on stealing anything from Xena, unless she has a goat," the thief pointed out.
"You're planning to steal that irritating blonde's top," Ares shrugged. "Same as stealing from Xena. Trust me, she's extremely protective of that brat. But what she sees in her, I'll never know."
"I don't suppose you will," Autolycus said.
Ares glared at the thief and then disappeared in haze of blue sparkles and gray smoke.
After reaching the foothills of Mount Olympus early the next morning, Autolycus carefully made his way to the XenaVersian complex. As he passed by the stables, he was pleased to see Argo within, indicating that the Warrior Princess was indeed staying here. He was even more pleased to see that a slightly demonic-looking black and white goat was also housed within. He only hoped that Gabrielle hadn't chosen this time to visit the Amazons or her family back in Poteidaea.
He quietly crept around the outside of the complex and was about to hurl his grappling hook up onto the balcony of Lissla's room, since he assumed that it would be empty, when he heard a familiar voice singing an all-too familiar song:
Joxer the Mighty
Roams through the countryside.
He never needs a place to hide.
With Gabby as his sidekick,
Fighting with her little stick,
Righting wrongs and singing songs,
Being mighty all day long,
He's Joxer the Mighty!
He's Joxer the Mighty,
He's really tidy,
Everybody likes him
'Cause he has a funny grin,
Joxer, he's Joxer the Mighty!
A plan forming, he instead hurled the hook up onto the balcony where the singing was coming from and quickly climbed up. He peered into the room and nearly cried out when he saw a leering skull staring back at him. Regaining his composure, he perceived that it was merely a throne with a skull as its headpiece. He quietly entered when he heard the shower running and Joxer's scratching voice continuing to sing that song of his at the top of his lungs.
Ignoring the singing as best he could, Autolycus made his way into the bedroom and found Joxer's distinctive costume laid out on the bed. Smiling, he quickly stripped out of his own dashing green and black outfit and donned the would-be warrior's attire. He then carefully laid his clothes on the bed in the exact same place and quietly stole back to the balcony as Joxer continued to sing.
He waited on the balcony until he heard the shower, and the singing, finally stop, and listened as the Mighty One dressed, apparently without realizing that his usual garb had been replaced. A few minutes later, Autolycus heard him leave.
Almost immediately the thief heard shouts of "There he is!" "Get him!" and "We'll teach you to steal from us!" As Joxer ran from the angry mob, just as the King of Thieves had counted on him doing, Autolycus threw his grappling hook over onto the next balcony and swung over. After ascertaining that Gabrielle was not using that room, he proceeded onto the next, and the next, until he spotted the Bard's Amazon staff leaning in the corner of one room.
Listening intently, he could just make out the girl's voice, softly singing to herself, and the faint splash of water.
Autolycus quietly opened the door from the balcony and slipped inside. Looking around, he spotted the Bard's bag of scrolls, her sleeping gear, and other assorted belongings, but, after a quick inspection, no BGSB.
Turning toward the bathroom, he spied her sports bra draped over a chair, with her skirt laid across the seat and her boots on the floor. He stealthily crept closer, pausing when the singing momentarily stopped, but continuing when it resumed a few seconds later, until he was able to lean into the bathroom. He reached out, but, just before his hand closed on the top, he happened to glance over and saw Gabrielle climbing from the tub.
The King of Thieves promptly lost his balance and tumbled to the floor.
Gabrielle whirled around and screamed, "JOXER!!!"
Shielding his face, but still managing to get one last look at the naked Bard, Autolycus snatched the Bilious Green Sports Bra and scrambled out of the room and stumbled out the door leading to the balcony.
By the time Gabrielle had grabbed a towel, wrapped it around her, and opened the door to the balcony, there was no sign of the intruder.
Autolycus raced across the grounds for the stables as fast as he could, discarding the ridiculous hat and shield as he went. He entered the stables without being seen and grabbed a rope from a peg on one of the support beams and quickly fashioned a loop that he placed around the black and white goat's neck. When he turned to lead the goat away, however, he saw the familiar figure of the Warrior Princess blocking the doorway. Her arms were folded across her chest and she was frowning and shaking her head.
"I can't let you take that goat, or Gabrielle's top," she said. "Or even Joxer's clothes."
"I can't explain right now, Xena, but I've gotta have the goat and the top," Autolycus replied. "And, since I don't have any other clothes, Joxer's outfit as well."
"Not gonna happen, Autolycus," Xena stated, her blue eyes flashing with an intensity the King of Thieves was all too familiar with. "So, just-"
A flash of blue sparkles and gray smoke between them suddenly took the shape of Ares.
"Told you," he sneered at the thief.
"This is between Autolycus and I, Ares," Xena snarled, drawing her sword.
"Not any more!" the God of war shouted, drawing his own weapon and slashing at the Warrior Princess.
As the two warriors proceeded to battle, Autolycus took his cue and slung the goat across the saddle of one of the horses in the stable--He wasn't sure if it was Mr. Ed, Trigger, or Silver--and made his escape.
James trudged wearily down the road without much hope. The seventh day of the month had come and gone and he had not reached the Oracle of Apollo. Now he would have to wait till next month to ask for help. The flame tattoos on his left arm had now reached his shoulder and were starting up the left side of his neck heading toward his face. The tattoos were burning constantly now and he was in a constant argument in his mind with the evil voice of Dahak.
"Why me? Why are you picking on me?"
"Pitiful human! I grace you with my power!"
"But still, why me?" he cried in his mind.
"Because you spell my name wrong in your posts!!! The name is D-A-H-A-K, not D-A-H-O-K!!"
"That's why you're picking on me, because I flunked spelling in school? I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'll never spell your name wrong again! Just leave me alone, please!"
"NO, you must do something for me first! You must kill Autolycus. He seeks answers on how to defeat me! He must be stopped!"
"I'm not a killer! I can't do it!"
"You will be by the time I get through with you, pitiful human, and you will kill him!"
With a sick sense of terror he found himself turning and being dragged back toward Mount Olympus, no longer in control of the entire left side of his body.
Joxer slid around a corner, arms pinwheeling frantically. Half the village, no make that, the entire village, was hot on his heels and screaming for blood. Not that he hadn't left a town or two under similar circumstances, but usually there was a reason for the villagers to go for their torches and pitchforks, 'No matter how unjustified that reason might be,' he amended quickly.
Fleeing in panic hadn't left him much time to ponder just how he'd ended up with a bloodthirsty mob on his heels, or for that matter what had happened to his clothes. Not that he had a problem with the ones he had...though they were a little big in places...especially the vest which just seemed to hang all wrong and...Before he could complete the thought a long, lightly tanned, and incredibly strong hand reached out, grabbing him by the collar.
With a startled, "Woooaaah!" he was dragged rather unceremoniously into the doorway of a small shop.
A tall blonde with a wicked smile knocked his feet out from under him, literally, and he landed on his rump. "Ooof!" was about the extent of his vocabulary at the moment, which turned out to be for the best when his Amazon companion put a quick finger to her lips in a shushing gesture. He understood her concern as soon as the sounds of the mob grew to an alarming volume. Cringing under the window, he gave what he hoped was a "I swear, whatever it is, I didn't do it!" look to his rescuer before she settled onto a small stool in the doorway.
Reaching over to her side she produced a large sheet of parchment, several pens, and an ink well and went to work on a drawing with long, assured strokes.
Seemingly disinterested she barely glanced up when one of the townsfolk paused in their pursuit to ask, "Have you seen that no good skunk, Autolycus? He was running this way!"
She glanced up, smiled and shook her head, "Nope, sorry, but I've been working on a drawing for the past hour or so...I'd probably miss Zeus parading by in the buff when I'm working, though."
The angry mob continued on its way and Joxer exhaled loudly. "Wow, I can't thank you enough, those people were going to tear me apart! I don't even know what I did to get them so mad. I mean sure I was singing a little loudly in the shower this morning but that's no reason to try to kill..."
"Um, have you looked at yourself lately?"
He paused to do so and realization slowly sank in. "They're not after me at all, they're after Autolycus...and....and he stole my armor!" Joxer stood, a study in indignation. "That armor is specially made for me, hand pounded even! I'm..I'm gonna' kill him!"
"I think you're going to have to get in line." she returned with a steady smirk. "Though I've gotta' say it's a nice look for you, the purple and green accent your dark hair and eyes very well."
Anger momentarily forgotten with a flush of pleasure he mumbled, "You think?"
"Mmm, I'm an artist, I have an eye for these things. By the way, my name's Ellie." She stuck out the same hand that had yanked him to safety earlier and Joxer took it with just a hint of trepidation. They exchanged a hearty handshake, and Joxer was relieved to retrieve his extremity without any serious damage.
"I'm Joxer...Joxer the Mighty...you may have heard of me." The latter part of the statement came out with a great deal less conviction than it usually did. After all he had yet to meet someone who had heard of him...not through lack of trying, of course.
"As a matter of fact I have, you travel with Xena and Gabrielle, right?"
If she'd told him he'd just won a date with Aphrodite herself he couldn't have been more delighted. "Yes! Yes, that's right!"
"Well, you may just need their help to get out of this one with your skin intact." Ellie quipped, setting her supplies aside for a moment.
"I don't suppose you've got any extra clothes lying around, do you?"
"None that would fit you, I'm afraid..." She paused and her eyes suddenly lit up with a wicked thought. "I guess you'll just have to stay here for a while, at least until the mob calms down, or finds the real Autolycus."
Joxer looked a bit dubious. "I dunno, shouldn't I be out trying to explain that I'm not..."
"Have you ever tried to explain something to a mob? Can't be done, nope, the only answer is for you to stay here...with me..."
"A-are you sure? I mean I wouldn't want to inconvenience you..."
"No inconvenience at all, I can assure you. As a matter of fact I could really use some help, I'm in desperate need of a model."
"What would I have to do?"
"Just stand still for a few minutes, think you can do that?"
"Um, sure...and I could tell you about some of my adventures...I could sing you my song too, it's really pretty good."
Ellie grinned and swung the door shut. "Oh, I think we can come up with something to keep ourselves amused..."
Lissla awakened from that deep sleep into which she had fallen, courtesy of Auto's sleep dust, and stretched. "Hmmm...feels good, makes me want to disrobe for a nice refreshing bath in the crick," she sighed. She quickly discarded her clothing and jumped into the bracing, cold water.
All refreshed and awake, she got dressed again and noticed an object that was left at her side while she slept, and the note next to it:
Forgive me for having to do this, I needed to do something to protect all of us. I'll explain later when I see you. All the things I took were returned, and I am deeply sorry I hurt you. I realize that I have feelings for you that go beyond slap and tickle, but we'll talk about that later. You have to get back to the Pun-N-Pub (nee Casa Autolycus...I swear woman, you divested me of my apartment faster than I divested you of your...er, never mind) and deal with Hopeless before she kicks everyone out and starts a reign of terror. I'm leaving a gift for you, it's magical and has the power to force Hope out of the building. It can't kill her or hurt her, but its presence is intolerable to her, so you'll be able to use it to rescue the Pun-N-Pub. I know you'll be able to do this and I leave it in your hands. I await our reunion, there's so much I need to tell you.
`Why that...well, it is a charming note,' she thought to herself, `and he did return the jewelry, and he's right...I did sorta turn his apartment into a playhouse (although I don't know how genuine his complaints are on THAT score...lots of luscious women...I'm sure he wasn't TOO upset) and there is the matter of Hope to consider.'
Picking up Auto's gift, Lissla immediately noticed that it was orb-like, and began to glow warmly as she held it, and emanating from it was a sense of purity and goodness, a feeling of calm serenity. She also detected a slight beat. `It's my heartbeat in tune with the orb,' she realized. She couldn't figure out what it was made of, but it appeared unbreakable, and as soon as she thought that, the thought returned to her that indeed it was unbreakable. Unbreakable, utterly good, and somewhat telepathic. A weapon of sorts, and one that she could easily see would be incompatible with Hope's presence.
Lissla put the orb in her traveling pack and started to walk down the road. She wasn't far from the populated areas, for she had caught up to Autolycus fairly quickly. In a matter of hours she was back at the complex and entered the Pun-N-Pub, her home.
Standing in the middle of what used to be her living room was Hope herself, looking particularly gruesome in the tattered remains of her red and black robe. "Didn't you see the notice, scum? This entire complex belongs to me now. I've evicted all of you pitiful humans and I now intend to burn this place to the ground!" she sneered, turning her burnt face toward the warrior.
"Hope, this will never be your playhouse!" Lissla shouted. "Neither you nor Dahak may enter here unless it is with the spirit of goodness and friendship in your hearts. You will not put us out, for this is our home, and we won't be bullied. We won't be chased away by anyone who would seek to frighten us, threaten us, or bully us with their evil. Begone now, and find another abode, for all who live within these walls have returned and the hot tubs shall be full once again!!"
Lissla looked around and saw all the regular denizens of the P-N-P standing around her in a semi-circle, watching, waiting...wondering how she planned to dispossess Hope and take back their home.
"How do YOU, puny human, plan to make me leave? I could incinerate you with one blast of my father's fire!" Hope swells up and begins to strut about the room. "This is my house now, Dahak said I could have it and kick all of you out. So you're out! Mess with me, and I'll MagiMix the lot of you!!" she warned them, her cruel laughter echoing around the room.
Watching Hope, hearing her bravado--`And her desire to fit in...if only she'd admit it, we could all be friends, but, alas, she isn't ready to join us in peace and harmony,' Lissla thought--she felt a sadness, and a resolve. She removed the orb from her traveler's bag, shielding it from the demi-Goddess' view.
Hope stopped talking and looked around.
"What is that...what's going on here?! I feel something...isn't right!!" Hope became more agitated and stared at each of the Xenites in turn, trying to listen for something, some clue as to what it was that was making her so uncomfortable.
"I told you, Hope...we will not be bullied. We will not leave our beloved home. But you wouldn't listen, you thought us powerless to resist you. But we aren't, and now we have returned. Leave before I am forced to harm you, for evil though you may be, I would rather not hurt you if I can avoid it."
"YOU hurt ME?" laughed Hope. "How could a puny human hurt a demi-Goddess? This is some trick and my father is going to take special pleasure toasting you for trying to make me--ARRRGGHHHH!!! STOP THAT!! PUT IT AWAY!!!!!!" she screamed.
The ORB now fully exposed in Lissla's hand started to pulse. She held it aloft and its light and goodness made all of them, except Hope, of course, smile and feel better.
"Hope, you have to leave now. You can't stay in the presence of the orb, it will hurt you. It is the essence of good and you have chosen to be evil. But good is within you, and if you choose good, you can again join us. Not as one who would evict, rule, or harm us, but as one who would befriend us."
The orb held high--Lissla wondering how Autolycus got the orb. `It has to be a gift from one of the Gods, no human could forge something strong enough to keep Hope and Dahak at bay,' she decided--Hope stared at it for a moment, then without another word, fled the room, the sensation of being in the same place intolerable to her...for now.
A great cheer went up, everyone hugged and smiled and kissed and great joy and happiness abounded. Lissla, however, heard everyone talking, but felt apart. `I have questions without answers. Where did the orb come from? Where was Autolycus? Would the orb prove sufficiently strong to keep Hope and Dahak at bay indefinitely, at least from this area? Could the orb be used to turn Hope good?' she wondered, absently drawing some birch beer from one of the casks standing atop the others, and rummaging around for some bread and cheese, or leftover Pizza. It had been a long day, and she was hungry and thirsty.
"Lissla, we heated some water in the hot tub and thought you might want to jump in first, since you saved the place" a woman she didn't know said, smiling demurely. But she knew she didn't save the Pun-N-Pub. `The orb did, and Autolycus did,' Lissla thought, sipping at her beer. `I was just the messenger.'
"Sure, I'd love to get in," she answered aloud, "but only if a bunch of others share with me. I didn't rescue this place alone, and all of you were incredibly brave, staying as long as you could, and coming back to stand by my side against Hope's evil. Let's put that aside now, and have fun!!"
Lissla got into the hot tub and looked around for Tina and Mike, thinking this would be a great time for a Pun and Pizza Party, and peered about for Charlotte or her alter ego, and even looked for Autolycus. But, none seemed to be in the room. Confident they would get back any moment, she saved places for them in the hot tub, and laid back, contented, and resting, listening to the voices of everyone making merry, and smiled.
James waited by the side of the road behind some bushes. He was waiting to kill Autolycus though he did not want to. Dahak had taken full control of his body, and all that was left of him was a tiny portion in his mind, hiding.
He heard a noise coming from up the road that sounded like a goat on horseback and he felt as Dahak made his body lean forward to peer out through the bushes. It was Autolycus walking beside a horse. In his hands he was carrying what looked like Gabrielle's BGSB and James could see that there was a goat tied to the saddle of the horse.
With the tiny portion of his mind that was still his, James examined the clothing that Auto was wearing. It looked like Joxer's clothing. He felt a giggle start deep in his chest and work its way to his throat.
Immediately he felt Dahak's control of his body weaken somewhat. "What are you laughing at, pitiful human!"
In response James formed these thoughts and sent them out against Dahak:
Auto the sneaky
He is very cheeky
Everyone's after him
That costume on him is a sin
They've lost some property
During a drunken revelry
Now I have to kill him due to some devilry
He is Auto
Auto the sneaky
Suddenly, James felt Dahak start to pull away from him and he regained some control over his body. "What's the matter, Dahak, can't you take a joke? Wait a minute! You can't take a joke can you?" All the pieces fell into place and he could see it all clearly for the first time. "That's the reason why you had Autolycus steal from the people at the Pun-N-Pub Party Place, wasn't it? They were having a good time, telling puns. Have Autolycus steal something and ruin their good time. You picked on Autolycus because he's a bit of a smart aleck and enjoys a good pun as well. That explains why you're picking on me as well. Being a bit of a loner, I don't get to indulge my sense of humor much but I like puns as well."
"Pathetic mortal, I am DAHAK. There is no use for humor and after I take over the world there will only be pain and suffering. I will start by killing Autolycus. This will anger Xena and she will hunt you down and then kill you and the killing will go on and on. And it will all start today!"
"Gee, Brain, and what will we do tomorrow night? The same thing we do every night, Pinky: Try to take over the world!" James started to giggle again and he felt Dahak pull even further from his mind.
"Stop it!! Humor is for the weak!"
"Oh, I don't know. I like a good joke, but I don't think that I'd want it to go on for a whole week! A joke a day keeps the big bad Dahak away?"
"This is not over, pitiful mortal! You are all sheep and I will slaughter you yet!"
"Yeah, yeah, you are so ba-a-a-a-a-a-d. But you're not going to get my goat so why don't you sheep up or sheep out?"
With a final bellow of rage in his mind, Dahak leaves James' body. He glanced down at his left arm and sure enough the flame tattoos were gone.
"Ta ta to tattoos," he laughed.
Autolycus parted the bushes and looked at him lying on the ground, laughing. "Are you okay?" the thief asked.
"Yeah, I am now. What's with the goat and how did you get a hold of Gabrielle's BGSB? And why are you wearing Joxer's clothes?" James inquired.
"That's a long story. I'll tell you as we go, okay?" Autolycus said as he glanced over his shoulder back the way he had come.
Arriving back at Mount Olympus, James stumbled and wove his way back to his room. Noticing that the marble hallways seemed to have a coating of soot all over them, he wondered what had been going on while he was gone.
He almost made it to his room before he was stopped by an attractive Amazon woman.
"James! Where have you been lately?" she asked.
He tried to focus on her and remember her name, but he was having a hard time. "I was traveling for a short time with Autolycus but he told me that he got Xena royally pissed at him so I thought it would be healthier for me if I returned home, rather than travel any farther with him," he replied.
The young woman watched as he leaned against the wall and wobbled on his feet. "What's wrong with you?"
"I was on the way home when I saw this guy beside the road selling all-natural fruit drinks. I was thirsty and I bought one and now I'm having trouble standing up straight!"
"Did this guy have dark hair and also sell falafels?" she asked him.
"Yeah, do you know him?"
"James, don't you know that he considers henbane to be an all-natural ingredient? He puts it in all of his food and drink products."
"Is that why there are three of you?" he asked her peering at the other images of her. "One of them is polka dots." Turning his head slightly to the side. "The other one is......nude! I never knew you had a birthmark on your chest!"
The woman gave a yelp and crossed her arms across her chest. "I think you need to go and sleep off the henbane," she advised him.
"Yeah, good idea. I suppose there hasn't been anything going on while I was gone." He walked away, plowing unseeing through a barrier of red tape strung across the hall with construction warnings on them, while the young woman watched him with her mouth hanging open.
James reached the door of his room and as soon as he touched the door it collapsed in a pile of ashes at his feet. He stared at it for a moment before shrugging his shoulders and continuing into his room. He noticed that his skeleton throne has been reduced to a pile of burnt kindling but because of the henbane pleasant high he could care less. It was when he entered his bathroom and noticed the wet towels left lying on the floor that he started to get upset. "Where is Joxer anyway? I want my keys back and I want to know what the Tartarus has been going on! And who told Dahak he could use my room for a barbecue?" he shouted angrily.
He went into his bedroom and saw that his beautiful round Aphrodite style bed was a smoldering wreck. With a final whimper of despair he went to the balcony and lay down and went to sleep.
Waking up, James opened his eyes and wondered why his mouth tasted like something died in it. His memories are confused images of goats, naked Amazons with interesting birth marks and a fragment of a dream of a giant falafel chasing him, singing, "Henbane, henbane, the wonderful drink. The more you drink the more you float."
"Ugh," he intelligently said, scaring a flock of pigeons that had been roosting on him. He climbed to his feet and looked out from the balcony of his place at Mount Olympus.
Remembering his conversation with Autolycus and his subsequent decision to return, he started to feel guilty.
"I should have stayed and helped him but I'm no fighter," he said out loud, further startling the nearby birds. "What we needed was information and I couldn't help him there. But maybe I can here." He looked down at Athene's library and wondered if it could be that simple. Checking, James found that the rope he had used to climb down to Athene's library was still where he left it hanging.
So, he eased himself over the railing and started to climb down, only to have the slightly fried rope snap. He fell to the garden path surrounding Athene's library. Laying still and wondering if this day could get any worse, he heard Athene's owl hooting as if it were laughing at him.
Getting to his feet, he glared at the owl and headed to the doors of the library. This time the doors did not open for him. The owl sitting on a branch of a tree hooted at him.
"I'm James. Athene said I could use the library. Is it okay with you?" he yelled at the owl feeling foolish.
The owl turned its head and stared at him for a moment and then a deep voice issued out of its beak. "It's okay with me, mate, if it's okay with Athene."
James stood there with his mouth hanging open and the doors of the library opened wide. He turned to look at the doorway and felt the owl land on his shoulder.
"So, mate, whatcha looking for this day? More love secrets of the Gods?" Still not being able to speak, he could only shake his head. "Pity. There's some new scrolls about Johnny and Aphrodite that are really hot!"
He paused at the doorway for a moment. "Maybe some other day. Right now I'm looking for some scrolls about the God Dahak. I'm looking for any weakness he might have." At the mention of the name Dahak, the candles inside of the library dimmed then brightened and the sound of distant thunder could be heard.
"Hmmm", the owl on his shoulder said. "Dahak, Dahak, Dahak, Dahak." With each uttering of the name the candles flashed and thunder boomed.
"Will you stop that! It looks like some demented disco in here!"
The owl chuckled for a moment and then said, "Barney!" The candles flared very brightly and the strains of a children's show theme music were heard faintly. James whirled around to hush the owl. Unfortunately, the owl being on his shoulder, the only thing that does is cause him to look foolish and the owl to dig his talons into his shoulder.
The owl blinked his large eyes. "Sorry, mate! Couldn't help myself!" He flew off of James' shoulder and landed at one of the shelves toward the back. "Over here, mate!"
Walking over to where the owl was, James found a large book. The only book he had seen in the library, the rest being scrolls. On the cover of the book was the title: Secrets of Evil Gods and Goddesses. He opened the book and paged through it. "Anubis, nah. Baal, nah, that's not it. Barney." The lights flared and the music was heard again. "Here it is: Dahak!" The candles flickered and distant thunder was heard again. "So that's why Autolycus is so important and why the goat and Gabrielle's BGSB is needed," he muttered to himself. "I need to get this information to Autolycus as soon as I can."
James thanked the owl for his help and ran out of the library with the book under his arm. As he left the library, he failed to notice the large dinosaur shadow on the ground near the entrance.
Running with the book under his arm James reached the area under his balcony and only then remembered that the rope was broken. This meant he would have to sneak back to his room through the part of the complex where the Gods and Goddesses hang out! With a nervous gulp he remembered his first day there, when he accidentally walked into Hera's bathing room and saw her taking a bath. Fortunately, she had soap in her hair and down across her face. When he'd opened the door she had bellowed out, "Who dares to interrupt me while I am bathing. I am HERA, Queen of the gods!!!"
James had replied in a bold voice, "Well, do you know who I am?!"
"No," she had answered.
James had said, "Thank the Gods for that!" and turned tail and ran as fast as he could.
Sneaking down the halls, James noticed that were no signs of soot or flames here as there were in the mortals' section. Whatever had happened up there had not reached this level. Reaching his room without running into or seeing any of the Gods, he breathed a sigh of relief. He had planned on leaving to find Autolycus without delay but looking down at himself he noticed how bad he looked for the first time. His clothing was dusty and sooty from sleeping on the balcony last night. There was what looked suspiciously like pigeon poop on his clothing and what looked like a construction warning plastered across his chest with red tape.
James was hungry and tired. "Well a quick shower and a change of clothes couldn't hurt. After all when I left Autolycus, he was doing fine. It's not likely that Dahak or Hope is beating the snot out of him right this second, is it?" he laughed at his paranoid thoughts and went and took a shower.
After finishing his shower and air drying, he grumbled, "Blasted Joxer, getting all the towels wet anyway." He opened a secret closet and noticed that all the super-soakers were missing. "Wonder where they went?" He opened the wall that they should have been hanging on and retrieved his other clothes; an exact copy of Ares' wardrobe. He'd had a wild thought that he might have been able to get Discord interested in him if he dressed like Ares. "I hear that Discord is in a fowl mood right now, though, so much for that plan at the moment," he sighs, smirking.
After getting dressed he suddenly experienced a feeling of dread and tiredness come over him. A sudden vision of a man sitting at a keyboard and getting depressed and leaving hit him and he felt lost.
"Did I glimpse a parallel world? Am I just some fluff thought of by someone else? Nah!" he said, shaking his head violently. `Boy, that henbane will really play with your mind,' he thought to himself.
Going out to the balcony he caught one of the carrier pigeons and quickly wrote out an order for a pizza. Just when he was about to release the bird, he noticed Strife coming out of Athene's library, giggling as he released a pigeon into the air. "I thought he was dead. Wish he would make up his mind. Either stay alive or stay dead! It's confusing to everyone this switching back and forth," he muttered to himself.
James released the pigeon and then sat back and waited for his order to be delivered.
He suddenly heard the sounds of some very large wings flapping and, stepping out onto the balcony, he watched as the flying horse Pegasus started to come in for a landing. "Ahh, my pizza is here," James said to himself, but the flying horse did not stop at his place.
Instead it landed at the doors to Athene's library. Standing in the shadows of his balcony, he watched in amazement as his exact double came out of the library and took the pizza from the delivery woman. From his distant watching spot he could not hear what was said but the delivery woman did not look happy as she climbed back on board of Pegasus.
James saw her pull another pizza out of a saddlebag on the horse and stare at a slip of paper on the box. Even at that distance he could see a look of confusion cross her face but then she shrugged her shoulders and motioned the horse to take off. He watched as the horse circled for a moment and then started to land on his balcony.
The very attractive delivery woman climbed off of the lightly hovering flying horse and stepped onto his balcony. Stepping out of the shadows, he said, "Is that my pizza?"
The delivery woman whirled around and looked at him in confusion. "What? But you were down there. How can you be here?" she stammered.
"I know. It's been a really weird few days but one consolation is, it can't get any weirder or worse. How much is the pizza?" he asked her.
She continued to look at him suspiciously but she told him how much the pizza was.
He paid her for the pizza, and gave her a large tip. She looked at the dinars in her hand and then looked at him, then looked at Athene's library. "Well, I hope that you are the real James. The other guy was rude and didn't tip." She smiled at him. "I would love to stay and talk for awhile but I've got other orders to get out. So bye." She leaped on to the back of Pegasus and in a few moments she was gone from sight.
Opening the pizza James took out a slice and started to eat. Glancing out the window he saw his lookalike come out of the library and with a flash of light revealed himself as Strife. "Strife! What are you doing down there!" he yelled.
He saw a flash of light and the next thing he knew Strife was standing beside him in his living room. James looked at him closely. It was Strife. "I thought you were dead!"
"I was, but I'm better now!" he said with a maniacal glint in his eye.
Suddenly, James got very nervous. The look in Strife's eye reminded him of someone but he couldn't place whom.
"Did Ares bring you back?" he asked nervously.
"Ares! That toad? He stood and watched as that hag Callisto gutted me like a pig and didn't do anything!" Strife's voice was rising in volume and in pitch. "He will be swept away when the new order comes!"
"Who did bring you back?" James asked, trying to back away nonchalantly.
"Wouldn't you like to know? He is my friend. Ares was never my friend, and he is going to regret that soon," Strife giggled.
With that giggle James suddenly realized who Strife was reminding him of. `He has that same Callisto insane look in his eyes and that giggle was one Callisto would have been proud of,' he thought ruefully.
"Have you checked any good books out of the library recently?" Strife asked as he looked around the place.
Suddenly, they both heard the sounds of someone coming down the hall toward James' room. "Either I or my friend will talk to you later," Strife said. He no longer had that goofy sycophant look he always had before. Now, he reminded James of Jason from Friday the 13th; in other words, he scared the daylights out of him.
"Later, dude!" As he slowly faded away James heard him singing a song that made his blood freeze. "I love you. You love me. We're a happy family!"
James turned as he heard someone enter his room through the ruined front door. He saw that it was the very attractive young amazon woman he vaguely remembered talking to yesterday. "James, are you going to see Autolycus any time soon?" she asked.
"We caught Joxer a while ago. He had Auto's clothes on and, after we beat on him for a while, we realized he wasn't Auto. We're letting him soak in the hot tub for a while to make up for beating him. I've had Auto's clothes cleaned and if you're going to be seeing him any time soon, I thought you could give them back to him and tell him for us that all is forgiven. Well, it is now that Salmoneus brought all of our stuff back anyway," she explained.
"Sure, no problem," he said, offering her a slice of pizza.
"No, thanks. We have a large pizza coming to the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace. I need to go anyway. I have to make one more stop at the Olympus tailors to get Joxer some new clothes. By the way, did you know that Auto has a set of lock picks hidden in his clothes?"
"No, but I'm not surprised. Where were they hidden?" he asked her and then watched as an Amazon warrior blushed deep red.
"I'm not saying, but it explains that cocky walk of his."
"Okay." James took the clothes from her and thought about seeing where the lockpicks were stored and then decided that that was a little more than he wanted to know about Autolycus.
As the Amazon left, he could have sworn that he heard a song being sung in the distance.
"I love you. You love me. We're a happy family."
Grabbing the last of his pizza and getting the book from its hiding place in the secret closet, he rushed out the door and started back on the road to where Autolycus should have been.
The sun had past its zenith and was clearly on its way toward the far horizon when Autolycus paused for an afternoon meal. The horse, Silver, it turns out, and the black and white goat, whom James had christened `Little Dahak' before returning to the XenaVerse complex--After he learned that Auto may have made the Warrior Princess a teensy-weensy bit angry--munched happily on the grass by the side of the crude road as the King of Thieves enjoyed a bit of bread, cheese, and wine.
Autolycus recalled the conversation he and James had had, just prior to the Xenite's departure:
The King of Thieves had already filled his traveling companion in on his exploits and James had likewise explained about his recent possession by Dahak.
"So, Dahak claims that he made me steal from everyone, so that he could get his smoking mitts on their stuff?" the King of Thieves mused. James nodded. "Hey, it works for me. If old fire and gory wants to take the rap for my thefts, that's fine by me. Now, I just have to convince the XenaVersians that that's what happened."
"Especially Lissla," James added as the two men walked along.
Autolycus frowned and stroked his mustache thoughtfully. "Regardless of whether Dahak influenced my thefts or not, I'm the one who knocked her out with sleeping powder and left her by the side of the road," he sighed. "She's gonna kill me the next time we meet."
"Oh, she wouldn't do that. She'll just make you wish she had killed you," James chuckled.
Auto's frown deepened but he grudgingly nodded in agreement.
"And, not to add salt to the wound, but Xena's going to be pretty angry for the way Ares interfered and allowed you to escape," James said quietly, glancing over his shoulder.
"Oh, gee, thanks for reminding me about that," Autolycus drawled. "And here I was thinking my problems were all behind me. I never asked for Ares' help, you know."
"Good luck explaining that to Xena," James snickered.
"Keep it up and I may really start to regret Dahak not having you kill me," the King of Thieves groaned.
Shortly after this exchange, James decided it would be best if he returned to his quarters in the complex.
Yawning and climbing to his feet, Autolycus looked over to where Little Dahak and Silver were still grazing and was surprised to see a thin, cloaked figure standing near the animals.
"Hello. Who are y-ewwww!!!" Autolycus nearly lost his meager lunch when the figure turned to reveal a face that looked like someone had melted a brown candle all over it. But, the wrinkles and discoloration weren't caused by wax, rather, they were the result of the flesh being subjected to intense heat. The face had literally been melted and burned away.
"Hello, Autolycus," the horribly burned young woman said with a lipless smile. "Father sends his regards."
"You must be Hope!" he exclaimed. The figure nodded and raised her scarred and blackened arms and several large rocks suddenly began to beat the thief mercilessly.
"Oh, this [ow] is just [yipe] terrific!" Auto cried, fending off the furious rocks as best he could. "Beaten to [ack] death by angry [oof] scenery!"
Remembering what James had told him about how he had used humor to drive Dahak away, Autolycus added, "Mauled by [eep] miniature mountains! [yowch] Pummeled by [erp] overgrown pebbles! I've been stoned [woop] before, but [whoa] never like [unh] this!"
When the thief looked over at Hope, however, he was startled to see her laughing.
"Sorry to disappoint you, Autolycus, but my father is the one who can't stand humor," she giggled. "Personally, I love a good laugh. But, this is taking far too long. I did enjoy myself, but it's time to end this, and your pitiful life."
The stones promptly dropped to the ground and Autolycus sank to his knees to catch his breath.
Hope, meanwhile, was holding her charred arms in front of her and staring at them with eyes that glowed like flames from the depths of Tartarus. Suddenly, her hands burst into brilliant orange-green flame and she looked up at the weary, battered man and smiled evilly.
"HOPE!!!" screamed a familiar female voice that so startled the demi-Goddess she lost her concentration and the ball of magic fire exploded in her face. Unfortunately, she was unharmed by the blast, but the thief was just grateful that he wasn't the one who'd been barbecued.
"Mother, I didn't expect you," the still-smoking woman coughed, turning to face the Bard.
"This has to end, Hope," Gabrielle said patiently, approaching the smoldering woman. "Fight the evil side of yourself. You're my daughter, too, not just Dahak's. I know there's some good in you."
"Is that why you abandoned me? Why you poisoned me? Because you saw some good in me?" Hope sneered--Well, as best she could without lips.
"You can't hurt me with those accusations, Hope. I've put the past behind me," the Bard said, walking toward her daughter, hands held before her in a supplicating gesture.
"How wonderful for you, Mommy! But, it's in that past you've so conveniently put behind you that all of my pain exists," the younger woman spat. "I can't just forget it. I live with it every day. Every time I look in a mirror I can't help but see the scars of your betrayal and the rotting remains of your broken promises! They're what I am! What you made me, Mother!"
"No. I won't take on your sins as well," the blonde said, shaking her head sternly. "My own are heavy enough."
"But you don't just bear the weight of your sins, do you, Mother?" Hope questioned. "You're also burdened by Xena's sins, aren't you? You take on her sins, deal with them, and carry them in your heart, because she won't. She's much too busy saving the world to notice the pain she's causing you, isn't that right, Mother?"
Gabrielle's brow wrinkled in thought and consternation. "Once, perhaps, that might have been true, or it might only have seemed true. But now things are different. We've worked through our differences and learned to accept each other, despite our faults," the Bard smiled. "Just as I am now ready to accept you, despite your faults."
"And Xena? How does she feel about all of this?" Hope inquired slyly.
"Why not ask her yourself, you soulless bitch?" Xena cried, galloping up on Argo and hurling her chakram at Hope with all her might.
Hope casually reached up and caught the flying disk. "So much for diplomacy, Mother," she chuckled. Then, the chakram began to glow whitely and in moments it had actually started to melt. As it did so, the sky above Hope rumbled and grew black, even though there wasn't a cloud in sight. Then, a fork of lightning struck the chakram, destroying it and bathing Hope in unholy fire.
As Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus watched in horror, the scarred and rotting flesh burned away to reveal unblemished pale skin. Her mockery of a face was transformed into one of exquisite beauty, and unmistakable evil, while her rags became a skin-tight outfit of blood-red leather. And, finally, her formerly straw-like hair was replaced with strands of gold that hung in soft curls past her shoulders and curled around her slightly pointed ears like handles.
"Ladies, believe me, I'd love to stay and get acquainted with your leather-clad friend--" Autolycus began, staring with undisguised lust at Hope, who nevertheless reminded him of someone, but he wasn't sure whom.
"HEY! That's still my daughter!" Gabrielle pointed out, looking down at her outfit and then over at her daughter's and frowning.
"Sorry, Gabrielle. But, as I was saying, much as I'd like to stay, I've got an appointment with the Pythia," Autolycus shrugged, making for Silver.
"Not so fast, Autolycus," Xena said, grabbing him by the back of his shirt and stopping him short. "This is all your fault somehow, and you're going to stick around and help however you can. Hope is obviously growing stronger, which can only mean that Dahak is very close to entering our world."
"Possibly, quite possibly," Auto nodded. "Which is why you have to let me go, Xena. You have to trust me."
"Trust you??!" Gabrielle cried. "After you robbed your friends, stole Joxer's clothes, and swiped my top?! I don't think so!"
Xena smiled discreetly. "Whatever happened to `I would remember that he's a thief by nature and that he's still my friend'?" she asked with a slight chuckle.
Gabrielle bit her lip and glared at the Warrior Princess. "Oh, shut up."
"Even if I was inclined to believe you and let you go, Autolycus," Xena continued, trying very hard not to laugh at her companion, "it's you Hope is after. She won't let you go so easily."
Auto, who had never taken his eyes off of Hope, nodded. "First Velasca, then Discord, and now Hope," he sighed. "Why is it that every half-naked woman I meet is a sociopath with godlike powers out to kill me?"
"You must be living right," Hope replied, dropping the charred remains of the chakram onto the ground and looking over at the trio with fire literally burning in her eyes. "But I'll soon put a stop to that."
The sky rumbled ominously and rain began to fall from several dark clouds that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
James made his way to the Olympian stables, knowing that to catch up with Autolycus he was going to need a horse. As he entered the stables, he felt a presence behind him. Afraid that it might either be Strife or Barney, he whipped around and saw Ares standing there.
Ares just stood there looking at him, or to be more precise, at the bard's outfit, and James, becoming uncomfortable with the silence, blurted out, "Lord Ares, did you know that Strife was alive?"
Before he could even blink Ares had him by the throat and was holding him several feet off of the ground. "Strife? Alive?" he roared into the bard's face. "How?"
"I don't know how!" he managed to squeak. "All I know was that he was in my room trying to find a book that I got from Athene's library on the weaknesses of evil gods. I asked him if you had brought him back from the dead. He told me no, that a new friend of his had brought him back and you and all the other gods would be sorry when the new order came."
Ares released his grip on him and James fell to the floor of the stable. "Did he tell you who this new friend was?" Ares asked in a calmer voice.
"No, he didn't mention any names but I got the idea that it was Barney."
"Who or what is a Barney?" Ares asked, folding his arms across his chest.
"Barney is a 6 foot tall purple dinosaur. He is the host of a children's show and I understand that his father is Dahak."
"What would one of Dahak's spawn be doing as the host of a children's show?"
"Well, you know what they say? Teach a child young enough and when they get older they will do as you say. Maybe Barney is planning on using the children when they get older as a fanatical army."
Ares suddenly got a thoughtful look on his face. "Teach children when they are young and when they get older they will follow without question? Hmmm, not a bad idea," he mused, stroking his goatee.
Remembering that he was talking to the God of War, James suddenly got a mental picture of 'Uncle Ares' day school for children' and suppressed a shudder.
"There is a book in Athene's library on Dahak's weaknesses? What else is in her library? I, not being on good terms with my sister, have never been in her library," Ares explained.
Remembering the scrolls on Ares' love life that he had found, James replied, "Nothing much, mostly just dry academic scrolls."
"Well, if you have some information that can stop Dahak and his brood, you need to get it to Autolycus as fast as you can." Ares, with a wave of his hand, made a horse appear. "Take this horse and find Autolycus and give him that book."
James leaped on the horse and was gone before Ares could change his mind.
Riding down the road, he saw what he thought was the weirdest tree he had ever seen by the side of the road. He almost passed it before the thought reached his mind that trees are not purple and do not have tails.
Barney put out his arm and swept James off of the horse and he fell to the hard ground. Looking up, he saw that the single white smile on Barney's face receded up into his lip to reveal rows and rows of sharp shark like teeth and the thought entered his mind, "Is Barney a vegetarian or a meat eater?" Looking up at him, James decided that nothing that big could be a veggie eater and he scrambled to his feet and started to run.
He only managed to get several feet before a blow to the back of his head sent him flying. Rolling onto his back he watched as Barney stomped closer. "Give me the book and prepare for oblivion," he snarled in a voice that sounded nothing like the jolly voice he used with kids. "I am Barney! The one true God and all will be swept away before me!"
"Whatever happened to the good old days. Mr. Rogers or Big Bird. Now there was children's programming!" James said, waiting to be destroyed.
Barney stopped and looked like he had been punched in the gut. "Don't say those names!" he snarled.
"What? You mean names like: Captain Kangaroo, Big Bird, Mr. Rogers, Bozo the clown?" With each name Barney stumbled back a few steps and with a final snarl disappeared in a purple flash.
"What the Tartarus just happened here?" James asked out loud. Digging in his backpack, he found the book and turned to Barney's page. Reading down he found the section on his weaknesses. "Barney cannot stand to be compared with other children's icons or role models," he read. "Am I the luckiest man alive or what?" James exclaimed. "First, I accidentally find out that Dahak cannot stand humor and now I luck out and find out that Barney cannot stand to be compared with other children's hosts."
Shaking his head he recovered the horse and continued on his way to find Autolycus.
The horse, being a creation of Ares, was running faster than any real horse could ever hope to match and before the sun could even get half way across the sky James saw in the distance some people standing in the road. He pulled back on the reins as he got close enough to make out that two of the people were Xena and Gabrielle, but the horse did not slow down. Instead it increased its speed. James looked over the horse's head and saw that it was going to run down a young woman wearing red leather standing in the road.
Thinking quickly, he dug the book out of his backpack.
Rain poured from the sky, drenching the four figures who stood facing one another on the road to Parnassus. Overhead the sky grew black and thundered ominously as the clouds rippled with electricity.
"Autolycus, you draw her fire," Xena instructed, her blue eyes focused on the dark clouds overhead. "Gabrielle and I will circle around and hit her while she's concentrating on you." The Warrior Princes drew her sword and looked her companion in the eyes, searching for an objection.
But Gabrielle merely nodded as she bit back a tear.
"Xena, she's a demi-Goddess!" Autolycus pointed out. "If she hits me just once, it'll be adios to the King of Thieves. I can't let the world lose my genius, let alone deprive you ladies of my other skills!"
"Then, you'd better make sure she misses you," Xena said, pushing him away from her and the Bard.
"I love the new look, Hope!" Auto cried as he stumbled forward. "It suits you so much better than that `mud baths gone bad' thing you had for a while. Very sexy."
"I'm glad you like it, Autolycus," Hope snickered as she manifested a ball of fire in her hand. "But if you think my appearance is hot, wait 'till you get a load of this!"
She hurled the fireball but Auto sprang into the air, flipped three times, and landed on his feet on the other side of Hope just as the fire exploded where he had stood seconds earlier.
The demi-Goddess whirled to face him and let loose with another fireball.
But the King of Thieves again jumped out of the way at the last moment and shouted out, "So far, I gotta tell ya, sweets, you're leaving me a bit cold." When Hope whirled around to face him, Auto was pleased to see the Warrior Princess and the Bard moving in behind her.
"You'll be a lot colder when I've finished with you!" Hope promised, hurling yet another fireball.
"Now, Gabrielle!" Xena cried, leaping up and slamming both feet into the demi-Goddess' back, right between her shoulder blades.
As she staggered forward from the force of the blow, Gabrielle swung her Amazon staff around and nailed her in the back of the head, causing Hope to flip completely over and land on her back in the damp grass. Before either woman could move in to take advantage of her vulnerable position, however, the demi-Goddess arched her back and than launched herself up into the air, flipping several times before landing on her feet.
She smiled wickedly. "Nice one, mother. Nasty little stick you've got there." A ball of flame flew from her fingers and set the staff ablaze.
Gabrielle threw the staff to the ground and watched sadly as it burned away to leave nothing but ashes, which the rain quickly melted away.
As Hope grinned at her mother's sorrow, Autolycus threw his shoulder into the small of her back, knocking her off-balance and sending her stumbling right into the waiting fist of the Warrior Princess. Xena landed a beautiful right hard on her jaw, knocking the stunned demi-Goddess to her posterior. Sword raised, Xena advanced on the downed woman.
"This has gone quite far enough!" Hope screamed, launching a barrage of fireballs at the three humans as she sprang to her feet. "First those fools at the XenaVerse Complex, and now you three! I have had enough!"
Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus somehow managed to avoid being incinerated thanks to their quick reflexes, and when Hope paused in her attack they heard the sky rumble and saw the clouds illuminated by electricity. But they quickly realized that it wasn't the sky which had caught Hope's attention, rather, it was a magnificent black steed which was thundering down the road, heading right for her.
And clinging frantically to the horse's back was James.
Then, several things all happened in rapid succession:
James threw something that hit Autolycus in the stomach, sending the King of Thieves sprawling in the mud;
Hope hurled a fireball at the downed thief;
James jumped from the horse, rolling when he hit the ground, but striking his head on a large rock in the process;
Hope hurled a fireball at the horse, destroying it in a brilliant flash of crimson; and
A lightning bolt struck the ground near Hope, causing the air to shimmer and then form a sort of tunnel which threatened to suck all of them into its whirling interior.
"NOOOO!!!!!" shrieked Hope, clawing at the ground in a desperate attempt to avoid being sucked into the vortex.
Meanwhile, Argo and Silver had raced up to Xena and Gabrielle, their weight preventing the floating maelstrom from pulling the animals inside, and the grateful Warrior Princess and the Bard grabbed hold of their tawny manes and held on as they guided the horses over to where James and Autolycus lay.
While Xena reached down and held tightly to James shirt, Gabrielle, one hand firmly holding Silver's reins, knelt down and hugged the still form of the King of Thieves to her.
"MOTHER!!!" howled Hope, losing her tenuous grip on the wet earth. "What about me? Will you abandon me yet again?!"
Before the Bard could respond, the demi-Goddess lost her hold on the ground and was sucked, screaming in fury, into the vortex.
The winds and rain suddenly stopped and the sun appeared from behind the clouds, shining down on the quartet of humans.
"James is all right!" Xena said with a beaming smile, cradling the bard's head in her lap and wrapping a bandage, made from his own torn shirt, around his head. "He's just got a nasty bump and a small cut. How's Autolycus?"
Gabrielle placed her ear against the King of Thieves' chest and then looked up at Xena and all of the color drained from her lovely face. "He's dead."