HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
James awoke from a blinding light of pain into the dull throbbing darkness of pain. `Why is it so dark?' he thought to himself before he realized that he still had his eyes closed. Slowly opening his eyes, he saw Xena's face above him. She was looking off to the left and he could see that she was not happy. Her jaw was clenched so hard; he could see the muscles in her jaw line jumping from the strain.
Gathering up his scattered wits from the fall, he heard sobbing coming from his left and turned his head sharply to the side to see who was crying. The sudden pain caused his vision to fog. He then heard Xena say, "Easy now. You've taken a nasty knock to the head." Then he felt her gently stroke the hair away from his forehead.
Opening his eyes again, this time carefully, James saw Gabrielle sitting a few feet away. She was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the road with Autolycus' head cradled in her lap and even from this distance he could see that Auto was not breathing. "What the Tartarus has happened?" he cried as he sat bolt upright and then spent several moments breathing deeply and moaning from the sudden pain.
He felt Xena place her hands on the back of his neck and then feels pain the likes which makes that which has come before seem like a caress from a lover. The pain faded as quickly as it came, dying down to just a dull ache in the back of his head. James found himself wondering briefly if there were no pressure points that Xena did not know.
Staggering to his feet, he approached where Gabrielle was sitting and looking down on the body of the once proud thief. "What happened?"
"Hope killed him with a fireball," Gabrielle sobbed.
James stooped down and examined Auto's body more closely. Joxer's clothing, which the thief was still wearing, was slightly singed, but no where near as bad as it should have been if a fireball killed him. There were a few cuts and scrapes on Auto's face but for someone who was dead, he looked in remarkably good shape.
Glancing over at Xena, he saw that she had not moved since helping him with his headache. The Warrior Princess was staring off into space with a lost forlorn look on her face and a hint of tears in her eyes.
"It's all my fault!" James cried. "If I hadn't distracted him by throwing that book, he could have avoided Hope's fireball!"
"It's not your fault!" Xena yelled at him. "It's the fault of that demon spawn Hope!"
Gabrielle suddenly began to sob even harder. Within the span of a few breaths, however, Xena was by her side holding her gently. "It's not your fault either, Gabrielle. Please, stop crying."
"What do we do now?" Gabrielle wailed.
With a start, James realized that he still had his backpack on and that Auto's clothes were inside. "We clean Auto's body up and dress him in his own clothes and take him back to Olympus, back to his friends for a funeral fit for a King! The King of Thieves."
He looked down at Xena, who was still by Gabrielle's side consoling her.
She looked up and nodded at him and gently lead Gabrielle away to the side. "You clean Auto up and dress him. Gabrielle and I will gather up some tree limbs and make a litter to take his body back," she informed him.
Opening the backpack and taking out Auto's clothes, James' eye was caught by the book beside Auto's body. He snatched it up and started to fling it away, but stopped and then with an angry motion shoved it back into his backpack. "Fat lot of good this book did to help!" he snarled.
Autolycus opened his eyes and found himself in a gloomy cavern lit by flickering torches. Several black exits beckoned and the sounds of men and women moaning, wailing, and screaming could be heard coming from somewhere beyond the main cavern he was in. "Sounds like one of Sparta's brothels on a slow night," he said to himself.
Then, as he climbed to his feet, he noticed that he was no longer wearing Joxer's outfit, but was once again clothed in his own black and green apparel.
"I'm beginning to get a very bad feeling about this."
He was just about to take his chances with one of the caves, from which he detected no adverse sounds issuing, when a man entered the cavern by walking through its wall.
The stranger was dressed completely in black and his handsome face was smiling broadly as he approached the surprised man and held out his hand.
"Autolycus, I'm glad to see you made it without any problems," he said, shaking the confused thief's hand.
"Hades?" the King of Thieves questioned. The newcomer nodded. "That's impossible! I dodged Hope's last fireball, even though I was lying on the ground! What did I die of? Mud stains??!"
"Well, technically, you're not dead," the God of the underworld said slowly. "I simply took advantage of the situation and sort of borrowed your spirit in all the confusion."
Auto's face screwed up into an unamused scowl. "Why?"
"I needed to communicate with you without Dahak suspecting anything," Hades explained.
"And a scroll wouldn't have sufficed? You could even have had your nephew Hermes deliver it with a bouquet of flowers to avoid suspicion."
"I also need a favor," Hades said quietly.
"Ah, ha! I knew there was more to it," Autolycus nodded. "What's the favor?"
"The Key of Thanatos has been stolen. I need you to get it back."
"And just what is this Key of Thanatos?"
"It's a powerful talisman which grants its possessor the ability to release souls from the underworld, from any underworld," Hades added.
"Release them to where?" Auto inquired.
"Back to the world of the living. But only temporarily. Of course, while there, the people are for all intents and purposes invulnerable."
The King of Thieves was slightly alarmed to see fear in the eyes of the dour God. "What did you mean that it could release souls from any underworld?" Auto asked. "How many underworlds are there?"
"As many as there are pantheons of Gods and Goddesses whom mortals believe in," Hades shrugged.
"Don't tell me, the key has been stolen by one of your rivals, right?"
The God of the Grecian underworld nodded. "Hela, Goddess of the Germanic underworld called Niflheim, stole it and intends to use it to unleash a fearsome army against the Gauls."
"Two questions: Why didn't Hela just use her own version of the key?"
"Well, the Key of Thanatos is the talisman's Grecian name. In her possession it is the Key of Dod. And, before you ask, the key was entrusted to me by the Council of Gods for the duration of the wars between the Germans and Gauls to prevent this sort of thing from happening," Hades confessed miserably. "And your other question?"
"If I'm not technically dead, once I've retrieved this key for you I will be returned to my body, right?" Autolycus asked.
"Assuming that nothing has happened to it in the meantime," Hades nodded. "But, don't worry, time passes much more slowly in the underworlds than on the surface. What seems like days down here is barely a minute up there. You should have plenty of time, so to speak."
"And if I don't?" Auto pressed.
"I'm sure you'll love the Elysian Fields. Good luck," Hades said, waving his arm in front of the startled thief, who disappeared in a flash of blue light.
Autolycus blinked rapidly to clear the spots from his eyes and saw that the gloomy cavern, and the equally gloomy God, were gone and that he now stood before an immense bridge made of crystal and arched with gold which spanned a river as dark as Ares' soul.
Standing before him, guarding the bridge, which appeared to be suspended by a single dark hair, was a woman who made the pre-makeover Hope look like Miss Known World.
"I am Modgud," the thing croaked, "guardian of the Giollar bridge. Step forward and pay the toll of blood if you would enter Niflheim."
"HADES!!!!" shouted the King of Thieves. "Blood was NOT part of our deal! Especially mine."
The fearsome apparition who had called herself "Modgud" drew a large knife from her belt and displayed its rusted, stained blade to the nervous King of Thieves. The woman, if such she should be called, was little more than a skeleton with ragged shards of flesh barely clinging to her yellow bones and her eyes were nothing but holes of blackness illuminated by glowing points of red malevolence. She wore the tattered remnants of a dress made from animal skins, but there was even less left of the clothing than remained of her skin.
Autolycus searched for some other way across the awesome river, besides the bridge that Modgud guarded, but he could find none.
"I'm afraid you'll have to give her some of your blood."
Autolycus jumped and looked for the author of the strange voice, but, apart from the skeletal guardian, he was alone. Except for a small black snake at his feet.
"Yes," hissed the snake, "it was me. Now, go on and present your arm to her. She'll only take a few drops."
"A few drops?! I like my blood just where it is, I've grown rather attached to it, you might say. Besides, I'm not flesh and blood, just a spirit," Auto complained. "I can't bleed."
"Then what are you worried about?" replied the snake, a smile seeming to curl its scaled lips.
"Who are you?" the thief demanded.
"First things first, and the number one item on your agenda is getting past this poster-girl for decay," the snake instructed. "Go on."
Autolycus glared at the reptile and then stepped forward and rolled up the sleeve of his left arm.
"OW!!!" he exclaimed when Modgud sliced him from elbow to wrist and then caught the ensuing blood in a tarnished goblet.
The guardian then drank the contents of the chalice and said, "You may pass," through teeth stained with the thief's blood.
Auto hurried across the bridge and then removed his belt and quickly wound it around his biceps, forming a crude tourniquet. Seeing that the black snake had also crossed the bridge and was on the ground at his feet, he snarled, "I thought you said she was only going to take a couple of drops?"
"My mistake," the snake answered, doing its best to shrug without the benefit of shoulders.
"Say, why didn't you have to pay the toll of blood and who in Zeus' name are you, anyway?" the King of Thieves repeated, standing over the tiny snake threateningly.
"I didn't have to pay the toll because I'm a Goddess," the snake replied, growing and transforming into a beautiful woman with flowing red hair and wearing a revealing outfit made of black lace. "I'm Harmonia and I'm here to help you."
Autolycus peered thoughtfully at the Goddess. "Why? Who sent you?" the skeptical man inquired.
"I was asked to come by Aphrodite and Ares, my parents, and by Hades and Zeus, my Great Uncles," she replied. "And, please, don't ask about the whole snake thing; it's a long story and we don't really have the time if you want to get the key and get back to your body before it's cremated or buried or devoured or something equally unpleasant."
"Oh, I've got plenty of time down here before that happens." Autolycus saw a pained expression flicker across the lovely Goddess' features for an instant. "What do you know about this Hela or Niflheim for that matter?" he asked as the pair made their way along the path beyond the bridge.
"Well, the river we just crossed is called the Gioll, and it forms the boundary of Niflheim," Harmonia said.
"Just like the Styx in your Great Uncle's domain," Auto mused.
Harmonia nodded. "Up ahead there is the Ironwood, a forest of dead, iron-leafed trees, and beyond that is the Helgate, the entrance to Hela's abode. You will find her in Elvidner, her Hall of Misery."
As the pair walked through the eerie, lifeless forest, snow began to fall gently from the gray sky. Within minutes, however, they were trudging through a solid foot of the stuff.
"I need to tell you something, Autolycus," Harmonia said, reaching forward and catching the thief's shirt, pulling him up short. "I gave Lissla a gift while she was sleeping off the powder you threw in her face, the Orb of Harmony, which helped her to drive Hope from your former quarters."
"Thanks. I felt awful leaving her there, but..." Auto's voice trailed off, his words snatched away by the wind.
"I know. I also left her a note, written in your hand, which explained what the orb was...and also how you felt." The King of Thieves jerked his head around and stared into the dark eyes of the Goddess. "Don't worry, I got it right," Harmonia laughed. "We're here."
Auto turned and saw that their path led directly into a cleft in a great mountain, which loomed ominously over them. "Of course. I had been expecting a gate with doors and a lock," the thief said and shrugged.
"Never fear, your thiefly skills will be needed once we reach Elvidner."
Suddenly, a huge bloodstained, wolfish dog leaped out at the pair from a half-hidden cave beside the entrance to the Helgate and stood before them barking furiously, bloody foam dripping from its slavering jaws, blocking their progress.
Autolycus jumped back. "Whoa! Why didn't you warn me about Cerberus' less attractive cousin?" he demanded, eyeing the Goddess accusingly.
"Just hold out your hand," Harmonia instructed.
"So what? Dogzilla here can bite it off? I need my hands, both of them, and I'm even more attached to them then I am to my blood!" he cried, keeping one eye on the gigantic, enraged beast. "You hold out your hand."
"It has to be you. Garm will let me pass because of my divine nature, but you won't be able to, unless you hold out your hand," she informed the wary thief. "Trust me."
"Oh, yeah, sure. This coming from the same person who assured me that reject from one of Hades' nightmares was only going to take a few drops of my blood," he sneered. "Pull the other one, sweetheart."
"Listen to me! You don't have time for this nonsense."
"I've got plenty of time. It's only been a couple of hours down here, so, according to your Great Uncle, not even a second has passed in the upperworld."
Once more, a pained look danced across the features of the Goddess. "He lied."
"What? Who lied?" Autolycus inquired, fearing he already knew the answer.
"Hades lied. Time is the same down here as it is up there. So, if you don't hurry up and steal the Key of Dod from Hela, there won't be any body for you to go back to," Harmonia explained. "Now, hold out your hand and let's get on with this."
Autolycus started to hold his right hand out, but quickly jerked it behind his back and instead held out his left hand. "I definitely need the right one," he told Harmonia, with a mischievous twinkle in his brown eyes. As his hand rose, Garm ceased barking and bent to sniff it. Auto winced as the foul canine's nose approached, and then was amazed to discover that he was holding a large pastry. Garm happily licked the cake from Auto's grip, covering the King of Thieves with drool from head to foot, and then bounded back into the cave.
"A Hel-cake, the only thing which can appease Garm," Harmonia explained. "It never fails to appear in the hands of those who have ever given to the needy. I won't delay us any more by saying 'I told you so.'"
After traversing past several icy rivers, including the Leipter, by which the Norsemen swore their most solemn oaths, and the Slid, in whose waters naked swords continuously rolled, they at last reached the end of the Helgate. Exiting the mountain pass, they saw a dark and terrible building looming before them. It was built of black rocks and stood atop a small rise, like a monster waiting to pounce on the unwary.
Two giants guarded the entrance with bronze swords stained with rust and blood.
"Good luck, Autolycus," Harmonia said, shrinking again into the form of a small, black snake. "Once inside Elvidner my Godly abilities will be nullified by Hela's dark power, but I promise to do whatever I can to help you, even in this form."
"My dear Harmonia, do I need to remind you that you are talking to the King of Thieves?" Auto grinned, stroking his frost-covered mustache with a flourish. "You just stand, er, sit, that is, lay back and watch my genius at work. And, try not to get stepped on, or eaten," he added, seeing the crooked, but sharp, teeth of the pair of giants.
Autolycus strode forward, followed at a discreet distance by the snake, and casually bowed to the two guards. "Good day, fellows. Is the mistress of the castle in?"
"Mistress always in," grunted one.
"Except when she's out," added the other.
"And is she in at the present?" Auto asked, smiling broadly.
"Yes, at present," the first answered.
"And past," snorted the other.
"But who knows about future," said the first.
"Except for accursed All-Father," growled the second.
"May I go in?" Autolycus asked, growing more confused with each passing exchange.
"Certainly," said the second, turning and opening the huge double doors.
"Question whether or not you can leave," grinned the first, shoving the man inside and closing the great doors behind him just as the black snake slithered after the thief.
After walking down a short hallway, lined with paintings depicting scenes of battle and torture and featuring several beings that Autolycus instinctively knew to be Gods and Goddesses, the pair reached the open archway that led into a great hall. The room was a cluttered, disgusting mess, with tables and chairs scattered about in no particular order, the former filled with the rotting remains of feasts long ended and the latter with the rotting remains of the diners themselves. Several half-decayed men and women wandered throughout the hall, picking up the dishes from one table and transferring them to another table at random, it appeared to the bemused King of Thieves.
At the far end of the chamber, seated on a throne that would give Ares nightmares, was a slender, but well-proportioned, woman dressed in an outfit that was white on one side and black on the other. Then, Autolycus noticed that her face, like her attire, was also black on one side. But, unlike Cleopatra and others of her race, this was a formless, deep blackness, which seemed to swallow the light, revealing nothing. It was as if half of her face existed in another place. But the half that Auto could see was terrible to behold in its beauty and filled the King of Thieves with an irresistible longing.
"Approach me," she called out imperiously.
"Greetings, awful majesty," Auto said, bowing as he obeyed.
"You are not of the North," Hela said suspiciously. "What are you doing in my realm?"
"I was visiting your wonderful country when I was killed in an avalanche. Next thing I know, I'm wandering around this frozen hell."
"A pity you did not die in battle, else you would have been taken to Wotan's hall of heroes, Valhalla, by the Valkyries," Hela said. "We could have used you there."
"And, have you no uses for me here, my queen?" Auto asked, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
"All my needs are seen to by my staff." She gestured to the shambling horrors wandering throughout the hall.
"It looks to me like you could use a different staff. To that end, I humbly offer my own."
"An intriguing gesture, but I am content with their service."
"Surely, you have other needs I might satisfy."
"My appetites are infinite."
"Well, not to brag, but my staff is equipped to meet your cravings, and I don't have any plans for the next billion years. Let's see how infinite your appetites are, shall we?" He managed to keep the smirk on his face, despite the soft gagging sound coming from the snake at his feet.
"Very well," Hela replied, the visible half of her comely face smiling.
"What do they call you?"
"I am Humungous the Vigorous."
"Let's hope so," Hela nodded, leading him from the dining hall, up a flight of stone stairs, and into an enormous bedroom, dominated by a huge bed with black linen. Off to one side of the bed, sitting on a red velvet pillow, beneath a glass case with a large, ostentatious lock, was a crystal skull that glowed with divine power. Auto discreetly glanced down at the snake and saw her nod before slithering off beneath the bed.
Hela quickly undressed and then slipped beneath the covers as Autolycus shed his clothes. "You are of slighter build than the men of my country," she noted as he climbed into the bed.
"Not in every respect, I trust," he smiled, sliding next to her.
Her dark eye widened and the half of her mouth he could see turned up in an excited smile. "Apparently not," she nodded, pressing her body against his. "It would seem I underestimated your devotion."
"You have yet to get the fullness of my attention," he said, running his fingers through her white-streaked dark hair.
Then, she leaned forward and kissed him.
Autolycus tried to pull away as his mouth brushed against that void where her face should have been and he felt its bitter stinging coldness, but she held him firmly, wrapping her legs around his torso to further ensure that he not escape.
Suddenly, he heard a crash and opened his eyes to see Harmonia in her human form holding the handle of a heavy vase, the rest of which was in pieces in the bed. Hela collapsed, her legs falling away and releasing the grateful King of Thieves.
"I thought you were unable to retain your Godly form here?" Auto inquired, quickly exiting the bed and getting dressed.
"Well, let's just say that when you distracted Hela, her concentration dimmed enough to allow me to transform. Now, grab the key and let's get out of here before she wakes up," the Goddess suggested. "We have to get back to the Gioll River in order for Hades to retrieve us from this realm."
Autolycus walked over to the glass case and examined the ornate lock.
"Unusual design," he noted, removing a lock pick from his belt.
"Can you open it?" Harmonia asked, peering over his shoulder.
"Does this answer your question?" he chuckled, displaying the skull in his hand.
"Wow! You're fast," she smiled.
"Only when I have to be," he assured her, placing the key in the pouch on his belt. Then, he heard Hela beginning to stir and added, "Like now."
He reached out to grab Harmonia's hand, but found that she was once more a snake. He snatched her off the ground and placed her around his neck. "Hold on, Goddess." Then, with a flick of his wrist a grappling hook appeared in his hand. He swung it around and flung it at one of the heavy wooden beams that crossed the ceiling and then, with his trademark yodel echoing in the vastness of the room, he ran and leaped out of one of the windows.
He landed with his feet against the outer wall of the castle and quickly rappelled down to the snow-covered ground. With another flick of his wrist, the grappling hook freed itself and recoiled back into his hand. Hela's furious face appeared at the window a second later and she screamed, "There's no escape from Niflheim! Not for you! Return the key to me and your eternity will be one of peace and contentment. If you don't, your fate will be one of pain and misery. Do you hear me?"
"You're just jealous because you can't write your name in all this snow!" Auto shouted back, racing toward the Helgate.
He skidded to a halt as two enormous, but familiar, figures stepped in front of him.
"We told you leaving not be easy," said the first, drawing his sword.
"Now we show you," added the second.
"Fellas, I'd love to stay and play with you, but-Hey! Look! It's Senticles!" Auto exclaimed, pointing behind the pair of giants.
"I don't see anyone," said the first, turning to look.
"Who is Senticles?" asked the second, also turning.
By the time they had turned back to where the thief had stood, he was already within the Helgate.
"Hela not gonna like this," said the first, sheathing his sword.
"Hela not like much of anything," shrugged the second, trudging back to the double doors.
Suddenly, the doors burst open and Hela emerged, seated on a white horse with three visible legs and a yawning blackness where the fourth should have been. She scowled at the pair of guards and then kicked her heels into the animal's ribs and it dashed through the snow after the thief.
Meanwhile, Auto was using his grappling hook to make excellent time through the pass and when he reached the Ironwood, giving a wide berth to the cave where Garm crouched just to be safe, he made even swifter progress as he swung through the dead trees like a monkey.
But just out of sight behind him, he could hear the out-of-rhythm hoof beats of the white horse and Hela's screams of fury as she spurred the beast on ever faster.
Finally, the dead woods ended and Autolycus was forced to put his hook away and rely on his legs. As he raced across the frozen ground, toward the waiting Giollar Bridge, Hela burst from the Ironwood and cried, "You've run out of land, little thief! No one can cross the Giollar Bridge from this side!" She whipped her mount and guided it directly at the fleeing man.
Autolycus suddenly lost his footing on the icy terrain and tumbled to the ground, just shy of the bridge. Hela was beside him in an instant, reaching down for the skull that protruded slightly from its resting-place. "The Key of Dod is mine once more!"
Then, with a flash of blinding white light, Hades appeared standing on the bridge next to the downed thief. "Not today, Hela," the grim God said, shaking his head and pulling the skull almost from her very fingers. "The key is returning to my realm, where it will stay until the Council of Gods decrees otherwise."
Hela frowned but then shrugged and said, "If you won't mention its theft to them, neither will I."
"Deal. Say, when are you going to take Persephone and I up on our offer to come over for dinner? It's been ages," he remarked, tucking the skull into his armor.
"I know. Things are kind of crazy right now, what with my father trying to bring about the destruction of the Aesir and all," she sighed.
"I'd heard that Loki was up to his old tricks again. Won't he ever learn?" Hades chuckled, shaking his head.
"The Norns have promised him that one day the Aesir will perish at his hand, so he's become obsessed with making it come to pass," she shrugged.
"Well, you know that you're welcome any time you can get away."
"Thanks. I'll see you when this war business is over and we'll talk more about it," she replied, climbing back onto her horse and trotting back into the Ironwood.
Autolycus glared up at Hades. "I really hate you Gods sometimes," he sighed, climbing to his feet. "No offense," he added to the snake still coiled around his neck.
"None taken," she hissed.
"Step onto the bridge, Autolycus, and we'll see if we can't get you back into your body before it's too late," Hades instructed.
"That reminds me," said Auto, his scowl increasing, "you lied about the time difference."
"Of course. Had I told you the truth, you would never have agreed, and then I would have been in big trouble," Hades stated.
"You would have been in big trouble??! I am in big trouble! I'm dead, for Zeus' sake!" Auto shouted.
"Just step onto the bridge, Autolycus," Harmonia hissed in his ear, "so that we can get out of here. Snakes, even Godly ones, aren't crazy about the cold."
The King of Thieves stepped onto the crystal bridge and he and the snake and Hades all disappeared in a blinding white flash.
Autolycus blinked and found that he was in what he presumed was Hades' castle. Harmonia and the Lord of the Underworld were also there. Hades removed the crystal skull from his shirt and placed it in a glass case very similar to the one in which Hela had stored it. He then turned to the pair with a smile.
"It was wonderful to see you again, my niece," he said, holding his hands out and taking those of the redhead and then leaning in to gently kiss her cheek. "Zeus and I are grateful that you agreed to leave the Elysian Fields, and your husband Cadmus, to help our light-fingered friend regain the Key of Thanatos." He glanced over at the case, just to be sure it was still there.
"It was my pleasure, uncle. Now, I have another fond memory to recall." She released Hades' hands and then turned and hugged Autolycus, whispering into his ear, "My only regret is that we didn't have time to really get to know each other, as that is one memory I feel sure would have provided centuries of enjoyment."
"You have underestimated me again, my dear Harmonia," the King of Thieves replied. "It would have provided eons." He laughed and added, "Thank you."
"No, Autolycus, thank you," the Goddess corrected. "Fare thee well, my friend."
Hades waved his arm and the Goddess disappeared in a flash of light.
"As for you..." the thief began, a scowl forming on his face.
"I did what I had to do," the dour God shrugged. "We might very well need the key ourselves to call forth an army to fight the legions of Hope and Dahak."
Autolycus nodded in understanding. "Well, now that you have the key safely in your possession, can I get back to my body? Assuming it hasn't been torn apart by wild dogs, burned in a majestic pyre, or buried beneath tons of rocks and dirt, of course."
Hades sighed and waved his arm and the King of Thieves disappeared in a blinding flash of white light.
The first thing he was aware of was a scraping sound and the slow, steady beat of several horses' hoofs as they walked along, and an odd munching. He cautiously opened one eye and saw nothing. Realizing that he was beneath some sort of cloth, he discreetly pulled it away from his face and found that he was lying on a litter made from the branches of several trees and tied behind Silver. The black and white goat, Little Dahak, was walking beside it and casually devouring the leaves from the branches.
He sat up as quietly as he could and turned around.
Xena, riding the beautiful mare Argo, was leading the sad parade, followed by James and Gabrielle, both on Silver, with the blonde Bard, dressed in one of her older outfits, guiding the horse and James riding behind her on the saddle. Auto also saw that the Bard's pack was slung across Silver's flank.
Making as little noise as possible, and keeping his movements steady and in perfect rhythm with the motions of the horse, he stood up and then, like a tightrope walker at a circus, walked up one of the poles bearing the litter until he could reach Gabrielle's pack.
As he reached in and removed her sports bra, James happened to glance back and nearly cried out when he saw him.
But Autolycus quickly put a finger to his lips, gesturing for the bard to be quiet and dearly hoping that the man remembered what he had told him about his mission for the Pythia, so he wouldn't blow his cover. James nodded and winked, a huge grin plastering itself across his bruised face.
The King of Thieves smiled back and then back-flipped from the litter's shaft and onto the road, landing as lightly as a cat. He then quickly untied Little Dahak and raised a hand to James as the would-be funeral procession continued back towards Olympus.
Autolycus sighed, regretting having to trick his friends again, but he hoped that Xena and Gabrielle would understand when they learned his reasons for doing so. He was also counting on the fact of them being so happy that he was still alive to soften the blow of another seeming betrayal.
"Well, my little friend," he said to the goat as he secured the BGSB to his belt, "we've still got quite a journey ahead of us. Let's get going."
As Xena rode along, her stern features broke into a slight smile, but she didn't pause or turn around.
Riding along behind Gabrielle, you could have knocked James over with a feather when he saw Autolycus walk up the pole and take Gabrielle's BGSB out of her pack. He wanted to laugh with joy that the wily thief was still alive but his motions made it plain that he did not want Xena or Gabrielle to know of his miraculous rebirth yet, so he held the news to himself.
Glancing over at Xena, he was startled to see the slightest smile appear on her face and James knew that she knew that Autolycus was still alive, but she said nothing.
This only left poor Gabrielle in the dark. He could feel the poor Bard in front of him on the horse shudder every now and then and knew she was still partially blaming herself for Auto's death.
Keeping the fact that Auto was alive from her was starting to tear James apart.
The trio traveled for several candle marks more until they were at the base of Mount Olympus. Suddenly, Xena turned Argo so she was facing James and Gabrielle and, shooting the man a look that made him wish that he was somewhere else, said, "Just when were you planning on telling Gabrielle that Auto is still alive?"
Gabrielle let out a startled little squeak and jumped off of the horse and raced back to the litter. Finding it empty, she turned and cast James a look of such anger, that he found himself playing with the idea of cutting the litter lose and making a run for it on the horse.
A glance at Xena reinforced the knowledge that he would not make it very far.
Xena, giving one of her best 'no nonsense looks,' said, "I think it's about time you tell us what is going on. Don't you?" She said it in a voice that suggested anything but yes would not be a good answer.
So, while Xena continued to sit on Argo and Gabrielle glared at him from the ground, James proceeded to tell them what he knew. From Auto's theft of his friends things at the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace, to Dahak's taking possession of his body to kill Auto, to Auto's explanation of why he was going to see the oracle. He told them about seeing Strife still alive, and running into Barney (He had to explain to Xena and Gabrielle who Barney was), to the book from Athene's library.
Gabrielle turned from glaring at him to glare at Xena. "You knew when Auto left us and snuck away, didn't you?"
James breathed a sigh of relief and tried to keep from smiling as he saw Xena start to squirm slightly as Gabrielle glared at her.
The Warrior Princess finally nodded at Gabrielle. "I figured that if Auto felt that whatever he was doing was so important as to sneak off, I should let him."
Gabrielle angrily put her hands on her hips and alternated from glaring at Xena to glaring at James. "Well, what do we do now?" she finally asked both of them.
Xena looked over at James, who just shrugged his shoulders.
"I think that the best thing to do is to return to the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace and wait for Auto to return," Xena said, nodding her head.
Gabrielle, looking up at Mount Olympus, said, "I'm hungry, now that I'm not grieving over Auto's death. Can we get something to eat or drink from that falafel dealer over there, before we start up Mount Olympus?"
James looked over to the side of the road where she was pointing and said, "Not that falafel dealer, Gabrielle! Trust me on this. You wouldn't like what he puts in his food or drink. We can be at the P-N-P in time for dinner and order something from Pegasus pizza." Gabrielle nodded at him and he lowered his hand to help her back on the horse. His feelings are a little hurt when she ignored him and walked over to Xena and, with her help, mounted Argo.
James reached back and cut the litter from the back of the horse and nudged the tired animal to catch up with them as they start the climb up Mount Olympus.
It had been several hours since Autolycus and the black and white goat called "Little Dahak" had left Xena, Gabrielle, and James behind, and the wily King of Thieves had been sure to keep off the main roads and to carefully hide his tracks to prevent the Warrior Princess from hindering him in his completion of the Pythia's mission. He knew that his absence had no doubt been discovered soon after his departure, and was a bit puzzled as to why he hadn't seen any signs of pursuit.
"I must be better at this whole fugitive thing than I thought," he remarked to the goat. He then pointed up to the foreboding crags of Mount Parnassus. "We're almost there."
A flash of blue and gray smoke exploded next to him, startling the goat, and Ares appeared, his customary scowl in place.
"You've been out in the sun too long, Autolycus, if you think Xena couldn't have had you back to Olympus by now if she'd really wanted to," he sneered.
"How did someone like you ever father someone like Harmonia?" the thief asked sharply.
"The same way that someone as nauseatingly good as Gabrielle could give birth to someone as evil as Hope," he shrugged. "Just the luck of the draw. Besides, I wasn't around much while Harmonia was growing up."
"Lucky for her."
"I didn't come all this way to exchange verbal barbs, Autolycus!" Ares roared. "I'm here to warn you that Hope is pursuing her plans of vengeance from the other world, and that if you want to stop her and Dahak you don't have much time."
"Other world? What are you talking about? What other world?" the confused thief asked.
"Oh, that's right, you missed the end of the battle between Xena, Gabrielle and Hope." The God of War quickly filled him in on what had happened and then added, "I knew it was a mistake for Zeus to send that brat through the vortex, but he's never listened to me."
"Say, was it my imagination, or did Hope look more than a little like a younger Gabrielle?" Auto asked.
"I couldn't tell you," Ares shrugged. "With that outfit, I wasn't really paying attention to her face."
Autolycus nodded and realized why his own recollection was so fuzzy.
"So, now that she's in this parallel world, what can she do?" he pressed.
"She's going to kill your other world self, which will result in your own death," Ares explained.
"And what is this other 'me' like?" the King of Thieves asked nervously.
"Well, if the pattern holds true, I would guess he's their world's equivalent to our Senticles," Ares said, smirking when he noticed the grimace on Auto's face. "You know, selflessly giving to the poor and oppressed, and to the children, especially to the children. With nothing in the way of any material goods himself, naturally."
"Okay, that's enough. I think I'm going to be sick!" Autolycus frowned and began to cough. "I suppose this do-gooder is also as stupid as I am brilliant, which means that Hope won't have too much trouble tracking him down and finishing what she started."
"Very likely," nodded Ares, still smirking.
"Well, I suppose I'd best get up there, while I'm still alive," the thief sighed. "Say, if this reversal business holds true for the Gods as well, what are you like in this other world?"
Ares' smirk quickly changed to a dark and dangerous frown. "DON'T EVEN GO THERE!" he warned, disappearing in a flash of blue and gray smoke.
Autolycus grabbed the goat's rope and wearily made his way up the side of the mountain, praying to Apollo to hold off on the sunset until he reached the cave.
Halfway up the treacherous peak, of course, the sun disappeared beyond the far horizon, leaving the thief to make the remainder of his journey in the gathering darkness.
After numerous stumblings and scrapings, he at last entered the cave of the Pythia and saw the familiar figure seated on her bronze stool. Even with her face turned from him and covered with a sheer veil, he could see that she had the features of an old woman this time.
He stepped forward, dragging the frightened goat into the gloomy cave's smoky interior, and held out the Bard's top. "I have completed the tasks you commanded, O Oracle of the Bright God, and have returned for the knowledge you promised."
The Pythia slowly turned and looked in his direction, revealing the face, if not the form, of a child, and spoke:
"In order to find the annals of the self, tell all by not telling."
This being said, the Pythia's form changed into that of a young woman. She knew that Autolycus had completed the task that the God had asked of him. It was in her power to present him with more bifurcations, intersections, detours, and junctions, but she would not allow the God, when he comes upon her once again to presage the fate of this young thief, to lead him into more tasks. She will seek, in the God, answers not questions.
She looked away from the thief and allowed the God to enter her. As he entered her, she began to feel herself speak:
"You serve masters. You serve many masters, yet you seek to hear the secret melody of souls. You can only serve one master. One master. Return to the root and you'll grasp the meaning. You have trailed after lights for so long, but, in this pursuit, one comes so close to lights that one loses their source. Life is the bird. Life is the fish. When a bird flies in the sky, there is no limit to the air. When a fish swims in the ocean, there is no limit to the water. If a bird leaves the air, it will die. If a fish leaves the ocean, it will die. All things are the bird. All things are the fish. Rest like a small child. Rest unmoving like a mountain. When a wave on the ocean disappears, the water is still there. The ocean remains..."
The Pythia felt her own breath entering her body. She gathered enough of it in order to speak, looked at Autolycus and said one word: "Go!"
The King of Thieves let the rope holding Little Dahak drop from his numb fingers and watched as the goat wandered into the depths of the cave. He likewise released his grasp on Gabrielle's top and watched it fall to the cavern floor. He looked up at the Pythia, opened his mouth, but then thought better of it, closed it, shook his head slowly and walked out into the black night.
Autolycus carelessly made his way down the slopes of the mountain, but nevertheless managed to reach the bottom relatively unscathed. He placed his pack on the ground and then, using it as a pillow, lay down on his back and stared up into the moonless sky. His mind struggled to make sense of the God's words, but the meaning eluded him and he fell asleep counting the stars.
The next morning he awoke with a backache and the words of Apollo no clearer than they had been the night before. As he dejectedly ate a breakfast of semi-stale bread, half-moldy cheese, and wine grown bitter with age, he ran the maddening words through his mind every way he could think of, pulling them apart, analyzing each one, but it was no use. He was stumped.
In desperation, he began to recite them aloud:
"You serve masters. You serve many masters, yet you seek to hear the secret melody of souls. You can only serve one master. One master. Return to the root and you'll grasp the meaning..."
"Yee-ah, right...NOT!" said Aphrodite, materializing next to him in a flash of light and flowers. "Bummer, dude. My bro can be such a smart-ass sometimes. He used to drive our whole family crazy with his nutty riddles."
"Then, you have no idea what it means, either?" Autolycus questioned.
"Sorry, bright eyes, color me clueless. The only one who could ever make sense of Sunny's stuff was our sis, Athene," the Goddess of love explained.
"The Goddess of Wisdom?" Auto mused, a smile slowly spreading over his face.
"CHAA! More like the Goddess of Boredom! Between her and Apollo's crazy talk, and Ares' temper tantrums, not to mention Horseface and Zeus' constant fighting, let's just say that family gatherings are no picnic," the Goddess assured him, a slight frown clouding her lovely features.
"Do you mind if I ask you a question?" Auto said timidly.
"How did ol' death and destruction and I ever hook up?" she guessed. The thief nodded. "What can I say, the man looks good in black leather, and he definitely knows how to handle a sword. Besides, Harmonia turned out to be a great kid, so it was worth it."
"No arguments there." He suddenly leaned over and kissed the Goddess on her cheek.
"Hey! What's the deal with that? I said I couldn't help you with Sunny's message!" Aphrodite exclaimed.
"Oh, but you did, Aphrodite, you did," Auto assured her. "But the kiss was just for being Harmonia's mother."
"Whatever," the Goddess replied, rolling her eyes, but smiling and, perhaps, even blushing a bit. "I'm outta here. Good luck, bright eyes." With that, she disappeared in a flash of light, leaving even more multi-colored flowers floating in the air.
Autolycus, his heart and his mind not feeling quite as burdened, tossed what was left of his rations away and then stood up and stretched. "I may not understand what you're trying to tell me," he said to the sun, "but, well, thanks all the same." He then picked up his pack and set off for Mount Olympus, trying not to think about the fact that Hope was trying to kill his other world self, and wondering what kind of reception he could expect from the friends he'd left behind what seemed like years ago to the tired King of Thieves.
As Xena, Gabrielle and James reached the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace, they were met at the door by Lissla who enthusiastically grabbed Gabrielle in a happy hug. She looked at Xena, who raised one eyebrow in a sort of dare, and Lissla settled for giving Xena a warrior's handshake. Spying James bringing up the rear she rushed over and gave him a hug that takes his breath away.
Letting go of him, she rushed to the corridor and looked down the hall, first one way and then the other. Walking back into the P-N-P with a confused look on her face she asked, "Where's Auto?"
Xena answered, "He had business with the Oracle of Apollo. We think he's probably on his way back here now."
Lissla smiled a smile that only could be described as wicked and said, "Then, we'll have to give him a reception when he gets back that he won't soon forget!"
Xena and Gabrielle walked over to the bar to get a drink, and so the Bard could place an order to Pegasus pizza, and James decided to sneak off back to his room and hide Athene's book.
Entering his room, James suddenly had the feeling of a million ants on his back doing a square dance and started to turn when he was punched in the face and sent shooting across the room to crash into a wall. Shaking his head to try and clear his vision he finally made out Strife standing at the door. "Man, I love a fight, even if it has to be a fair one!" he giggled.
"How is this going to be a fair fight? You're a God and I'm a mortal!" James reminded him as he struggled to his feet.
"Oh yeah! I forgot! That means that I can just do this." With that he raised his hand and points at the bard, who has a only a moment to wonder what it is he can do before a lightning bolt shoots out and hits him in the chest.
Coming to, the first thing James saw was Gabrielle's beautiful green eyes looking worriedly down on him. His first thought was, `I can understand why Joxer follows her everywhere,' and his next thought was, `Boy, does my chest hurt.' Looking down, he saw that his chest was blistered from the lightning bolt Strife hit him with. He jumped to his feet and nearly passed out again.
Gabrielle quickly rushed to his side and helped support him. "What happened?" he weakly asked.
"We were hoping you could tell us," he heard from the doorway. Looking up he saw Xena standing in the doorway with her sword drawn, looking around suspiciously. "We were wondering where you got off to and were just starting to come look for you when we heard something that sounded like a yelp from a dog getting kicked, and we came running to see you on the ground with Strife standing over your body. It looked like he had a book in his hand."
"The book!" James yelled and, retrieving the backpack from the ground, quickly determined that it was true. Strife had stolen Athene's book.
"Well, let's hope that Auto got some answers from the oracle on how to stop Dahak," he said, trying to be optimistic. "If not someone is going to have to steal the book back from Strife and I wouldn't want to be that person! Strife packs a mean wallop for a minor God." James gingerly felt the burn on his chest.
Gabrielle, still helping him to stand, smiled and said, "Let's get you back to the party and get you a drink and something to eat. You look like you could use it. Xena can see to that burn there."
James nodded his head and, with Gabrielle's help and Xena with her sword still drawn bringing up the rear, they return to the P-N-P.
The King of Thieves looked up and saw the towers of the XenaVerse complex rising majestically from the slopes of Mount Olympus and was surprised to feel his throat constrict as a tear rolled down his cheek. He quickly brushed away the moisture and then took a swig from his water bottle, which he had recently filled at a nearby stream.
Autolycus straightened his shirt and then continued on, stopping to greet Buffy and Julie at Pegasus Pizza, and to grab a quick bite.
"Auto!" cried Julie when he entered. "You're back!" She embraced the King of Thieves and then pulled back and looked him in the eye. "I hope to stay, at least for a while. Right?"
"That's the plan," he assured her with a grin.
"Autolycus!" shouted Buffy, emerging from her office and shoving Julie aside so that she could hug him. "Glad to see you've returned."
"What about the others? Will they be glad, too? Everyone got their stuff back from Salmoneus, right?" Auto asked.
"Yep. But, for a while, there were a few who still wanted a piece of your hide for that little stunt," she informed him. "As it stands, after Xena's return and Lissla's explanation of how you helped defeat Hope, well, I think the only person who's still angry with you is Joxer."
"Send him his favorite and charge it to my account, will ya?" Autolycus requested. "It won't square things, but it's a start. And, while you're at it, throw in a veggie special for me, heavy on the artichoke hearts!"
Julie nodded and headed back toward the kitchen, but Buffy leaned close and said softly, "About your account, Auto..."
"I know I still owe you for those pizzas the night I...left, but I'm a bit short right now. If you'll give me-" he began.
"No, Auto, you misunderstood me," Buffy cut in. "Your account was paid in full."
"By who?" inquired the confused man.
"A friend. That's all I can tell you," she grinned and then turned and walked back to help Julie with his order.
Hope scowled and tried again, still not able to accept it, but it was no use: Her powers had apparently been short-circuited by the trip through the vortex. She angrily pushed her way through the crowded city streets, searching for the Toymaker's shop. Finally, she saw a sign hanging over the door of a small building adorned with various, and way too cute for her liking, animals. It read: Autolycus Toys.
She smiled wickedly, tucked the dagger beneath the cloak she'd stolen from a sleeping beggar, and entered the store.
A bell over the door tinkled and a man turned to look at her, a wide smile on his face. She could see the Autolycus she knew in his features, despite the grayness of the hair and the plumpness. The King of Thieves' trademark facial hair had been replaced with a full beard of prematurely whitening hair and, instead of Auto's customary black and green attire, he was clad in a suit of red and white.
"Can I help you, young lady?" he asked.
"Are you really Autolycus, the King of...Toys?" she inquired, her hand closing on the hilt of the dagger.
"I'm certainly Autolycus," the man laughed, his belly shaking like a bowlful of jelly. "But I've never been the king of anything. I make toys, I don't rule over them." He turned and grabbed a large stuffed bear from the shelf behind him.
Hope yanked the dagger from its hiding place and plunged it forward, toward the man's back.
Autolycus turned just in time for the dagger to instead impale the stuffed animal. "Like this one here." He looked down and Hope quickly released the dagger and put her hands behind her back. "That's odd, I don't recall it coming with a sword..."
The King of Thieves, having finished his pizza, thanked Buffy and Julie for everything and then, finally, entered the XenaVersian complex and headed directly for Athene's quarters, knowing that time was definitely not on his side. As he made his way through the cherished halls, he was greeted by several old friends and he was relieved that all seemed to have been forgiven. Each time he came upon a familiar face, he paused long enough to shake their hands, or exchange an embrace, and assure them that he was here to say for a while and was looking forward to relaxing with them all in the P-N-P later.
When Autolycus entered the courtyard that led to Athene's library, he immediately noticed that James' room, and several others, had recently undergone some major repairs. Idly wondering what could have happened, he made his way toward the library's entrance, but stopped short when he heard Xena's voice coming from James' room. He couldn't quite make out what she was saying, but she sounded concerned. Then, he heard her say that they were returning to the P-N-P and he strode up to the doors of the library.
The owl, seated on its usual perch beside the entrance, opened its eyes sleepily. "Who?"
"I'm Autolycus, the King of Thieves, and I need to speak with your mistress," the man replied, stroking his mustache with a flourish.
"Sorry, mate, she's not 'ere right now," the bird informed him. "Why not join your friends and check back tomorrow?"
"Do you have any idea where she is? It's important that I talk to her as soon as possible!" Auto said desperately.
"Goddess stuff, mate, very hush-hush," the owl said, raising a clawed foot to its stubby beak. "Sorry."
Autolycus ground his teeth in frustration and stalked off toward the P-N-P.
After he had gone, the door to the library opened and Athene stepped out. "Who was that?" she asked the owl.
"Just some kid, mistress," the owl answered. "I told him you were busy."
"What did he want?" she pressed, cocking her head.
"Just an autograph, mistress, he was new to the XenaVerse," the owl shrugged.
"I see. Be sure to let me know the minute Autolycus arrives. I can't understand why he hasn't shown up yet" she muttered, going back in and closing the door.
The owl nodded, but the minute the doors had closed, it began to glow with a black light and then hopped from the perch and became Strife. The maniacal God pulled the unconscious form of the real owl from behind some bushes and tried to balance it on its perch. When it fell to the ground instead, he shrugged his shoulders and then disappeared in a flash of light, leaving the bird where it had fallen.
Meanwhile, Autolycus entered his former quarters and was instantly mobbed by Xenites, all shaking his hand, patting him on the back, and hugging him. "Welcome home, Auto!" Lissla cried, throwing herself into his arms and kissing his cheek.
Suddenly, Tina likewise embraced and kissed him. "I've missed you!" she grinned. "This place just hasn't been the same without you!"
Then, before he could stop them, they had stripped him down to his skivvies and tossed him in the hot tub. The King of Thieves sputtered and shook his head as he emerged from the warm water, inadvertently spraying Xena and Gabrielle, who were already in the tub.
"Oops, Sorry about that, ladies. And other things, too."
"Don't worry about it, any of it, but we do need to talk," the Warrior Princess said quietly. "Later," she added, her arm circling the Bard affectionately.
"Thank Zeus you're all right!" James exclaimed from across the tub. The man was still bruised from his fall, but Autolycus noticed some more recent abrasions, too. "You nearly gave me a heart-attack back there, you know!"
"Thanks for not blowing my cover," Auto replied.
"Say, Autolycus, just what happened to my top?" Gabrielle asked as Tina and Lissla climbed into the tub on either side of Auto.
"I'm not sure, Gabby," he replied, accepting a cold drink from Lissla. "I'll get you another one to make up for it. I promise."
"You'd better," she said with mock anger in her voice, but laughter in her eyes.
"There you are!"
Everyone looked up as Joxer stormed into the room, holding the burn-damaged outfit Autolycus had 'borrowed.' "It's ruined! Completely ruined! And what happened to my helmet and---WHOOOPS!!!" He suddenly slipped on a stray piece of soap and flew headfirst into the hot tub, practically landing in Gabrielle's lap. When he sheepishly raised his head, there was a huge grin on his face. "Oops, sorry about that."
Gabrielle reached down and grabbed his nose. "You will be," she promised, giving it a sharp twist that caused the would-be warrior to cry out.
Autolycus leaned back and let his gaze travel around the room and over each of the familiar faces and smiled.
James had been called many things in his life. Loner, anti-social, just to name a few, but the truth was that he always felt like someone on the outside looking in. He wanted to belong to the group but no matter how much he tried, it always felt like he didn't belong; like an intruder that was barely tolerated. Even with these thoughts in the back of his mind, the bard still found himself enjoying Autolycus' welcome home party at the Pun-N-Pub Party Palace.
The drinks flowed with abandon, so much so that when Gabrielle asked him to retell his story to everyone about Dahak, Barney and Strife, James did so without any feelings of nervousness about storytelling in front of so many people. It was then that he learned of another of Gabrielle's 'many skills'. Not only was she one of the best bards in the known world, she was also a great listener. She asked questions that caused him to remember details that he had forgotten and encouraged the nervous man with her facial expressions at parts of his story; wincing when he told of Dahak's possession of his body and laughing when he told of changing of Joxer's song to drive Dahak away. Joxer was a little upset that he had used and changed his song but when James pointed out that he only used his song because he couldn't get it out of his mind, the would-be warrior decided to take it as a compliment.
James was having so much fun (and getting drunk), that he started doing the voices of Dahak, Barney and Strife and gesturing with his hands to act out parts of the story.
As he finished, Joxer yawned and said, "Boy, am I beat!" Glancing around at some of the Amazons, he grinned and said, "I mean I'm really tired. I think I'll go back to my room and get some sleep." He rose from the hot tub and, after grabbing a towel, left.
James continued to talk to Xena and Autolycus about Dahak and what his next step might be. The Warrior Princess tried to appear unfazed but James sensed that she was upset with him because he couldn't remember anything from Athene's book that could be of help.
Finally noticing that everyone was looking sleepy, James decided to take his leave of the party and left to return to his room.
Arriving at his room, however, he noticed that someone had hired a repair crew to fix the damage that had been done to the dwelling and refurnished it. "I need to find out who and really thank them," he thought to himself.
Entering the room he could hear snoring coming from the bedroom. Looking in he saw Joxer sleeping in a new bed that had been placed there. James was confused for a moment until he remembered that while Dahak had possession of his body, he had given the keys to the room to Joxer and told him he could stay there as long as he wanted. Mentally shrugging his shoulders, being too weary to actually do it in the physical sense, he went to the living room and almost had a heart attack when he bumped into a towering skeleton in the corner. He quickly realized that Joxer had replaced his skeleton throne that had been destroyed by Dahak.
James thought about sleeping on it for almost a heartbeat before deciding that he could do without the nightmares that doing so would cause. With a shudder he realized that there was no where in the living room he could sleep without that chair looming over him.
`Besides,' he thought to himself, `there is no way I could sleep with Joxer's snoring reverberating through the rooms.'
He thought briefly about returning to the P-N-P to find somewhere to sleep but then decided that they would not want to be bothered by him.
Glancing at the balcony he sighed and resigned himself to another night sleeping outside.
Sometime in the early morning James awoke to the sounds of a muffled scream. Jumping to his feet, he looked down at Athene's Library and saw Barney and Strife dragging a struggling form wrapped in chains away. He watched as a secret passage in Athene's garden opened and Barney and Strife dragged the form into it. For several heartbeats the bard stood rooted to the spot, wondering what to do, and then decided that if he went for help Barney and Strife would get away and no one would have a clue where. He leaped over the balcony railing and landed in the garden and, running as fast as he could, managed to slide into the passage as it closed, plunging everything into darkness.
James' eyes quickly adjusting to the gloom of the tunnel, he could see that there was a glow coming from around a corner of the passage. Quietly creeping forward, he risked a peek around the corner and saw that the glow was coming from Barney. He and Strife had stopped and were trying to subdue the still struggling form wrapped in chains and a bag.
"Why couldn't we just zap Athene and that stupid book out of the library in the first place?" Strife asked in a whiny voice.
"I've told you before: Athene's power keeps us from 'zapping' her anywhere, as you crudely put it, and I have no power over the book at all," Barney grumbled. "Only you can handle the book, it's warded against me, Hope, or father Dahak. It is good that I failed to get it away from that moron James. I did not know it at the time but if I had touched the book it would have opened a portal to an empty world and I would have been sucked into it."
"Well then, are we going to destroy the book and aunt Athene now?" Strife hopefully asked.
"No, fool!" Barney's voice rang out angrily. "We have no Hind's blood to kill Athene and the book is indestructible. Just be thankful that you were able to obtain some chains from Hephaestos' workroom or we would not be able to hold her!"
`This is not good!' James thought to himself. In his desire to not let Strife and Barney escape, he had foolishly ran after them and now he was trapped in a tunnel under Athene's garden. He had no idea where the tunnel went and no idea on how to open the secret passage at this end. `Trapped in a dark closed in space with two Gods, who have shown great pleasure in beating the daylights out of me and I am way out of my league here!' he thought to himself with a sinking feeling. `I have more in common with Joxer than I first thought.'
The bard was startled out of his rapidly spiraling downward thoughts by the sound of Strife yelling out in sudden pain. Peeking around the corner he watched in amazement as Strife sank to the ground holding his stomach. James could see what appeared to be blood flowing over his hands in the glow from Barney. "It's happening again! Help me!" Strife yelled to Barney. Watching from his hiding place, he could see the look of enjoyment and sick pleasure cross the purple dinosaur's face as he watched the younger God moan in misery for a moment.
Finally, Barney moved toward Strife with a low growl of annoyance and, placing one of his oversized hands on Strife's head, he muttered something too low for James to hear. A pale glow surrounded Strife for a moment and when it faded Strife let out a high pitched giggle. "What a rush!" he said as he regained his feet, all signs of his wounds gone.
Athene, who had been quiet for a while, chose that moment to make a break for it. Her head still covered by a dirty bag she started to run off down the passageway. Barney without looking up swept her off her feet with a negligent twitch of his long tail. "Now go down the passage a ways and you will find a cavern where there are two books that look exactly like the one you took off of that fool James. Place your book among the others on the pedestal," Barney instructed. "After you do that, go back to Athene's library and torch it. Burn it to the ground!"
Athene started to moan at hearing Barney's words. "No, not my library!" she cried.
"What are you going to be doing?" Strife asked Barney.
"I have a special chamber built to hold Athene in. It is constructed in such a way that the other puny Gods and Goddesses will not be able to detect her presence there. The really funny thing is, it is directly under where her library is, or should I say where the ruins of her library will soon be." Barney let out a chilling laugh. Strife giggled for a moment and then started off down the passageway with the book in his hands.
James had just about decided to throw his life away on a suicide bid to free Athene from Barney, when the dinosaur, raising his hands in the air, caused a secret door to open in the side of the tunnel. Grabbing one end of the chain binding Athene, he dragged the prone Goddess through the door.
Throwing all caution to the winds, James was just able to sprint down the passageway and dive through the door as it closed. That was the good news. The bad news was that he immediately slammed into the rear end of Barney as he came through the doorway, bouncing off of him to land on the floor. The bard quickly leaped to his feet and was just about to shout the name of every children's TV host he could think of, when Barney's tail with a mighty jerk slammed up between his legs. The force was so strong that it lifted him up off of his feet and smashed his head against the low ceiling of the tunnel. His last conscious thought was that he had failed his favorite Goddess, Athene.
The King of Thieves opened his eyes when he heard the sounds of confusion in the XenaVerse complex. It was still dark outside, with the light of the waxing moon supplying very little light. He carefully disentangled himself from the arms and legs of the Amazons next to him, glanced over to where Lissla and Tina were still sleeping peacefully, and padded silently out into the hall, nearly colliding with Xena as she made her way down the corridor at a fast sprint.
"What's up?" he asked the Warrior Princess, falling in step with her.
"Someone has broken into the complex," she said, her blue eyes flashing with anger. "They've burned Athene's library and the Goddess herself is missing."
Autolycus nearly stumbled as the news hit him like a physical attack.
"You okay?" the dark haired beauty asked, reaching out to steady him as the pair rushed down the stairs and out into the courtyard.
"I'll be all right," the thief assured her with more confidence than he felt. She looked at him skeptically, her azure eyes burning into his soul like white-hot pokers. "Well, maybe not..." He quickly explained why he needed to see Athene and the need for urgency.
"I knew Hope wouldn't give up," Xena snarled as the pair joined some of the XenaVersians as they vainly tried to salvage some of the scrolls and the building itself. "I won't say I wasn't grateful at the time that she got sucked into that other world, but I knew it was a temporary solution at best. Of course, I did have other things on my mind, so I didn't stop to consider the consequences of her being there like I should have." She looked over at Autolycus and he saw the merest hint of a smile.
"Hey!" shouted a man, cradling a small form in his arms. "It's Athene's owl, and he's still alive!" By the time he had set the badly burned bird down on the ground, Xena and Autolycus were at its side.
"Somebody get a healer from Asclepius' temple!" someone suggested.
"Or Asclepius himself, if you can find him," the Warrior Princess added, carefully examining the bird. "And hurry!"
After her first failed attempt to kill the other world's Autolycus, Hope had run from the store, leaving the confused toymaker holding the bear with the dagger in its chest. He had simply shaken his head and replaced the bear on the shelf and then gone about his business.
Now, with the light of the waning moon shining down on her, Hope crept into the kindly man's home through the front door, which he foolishly left unlocked-As near as she could tell, after the disappearance of the Sovereign, the former ruler and this world's counterpart to Hercules, Xena, Gabrielle, and the others who had served him had been rounded up and locked away, bringing to the land a peace it had not known for decades. The other disturbing thing she had discovered from the people she had tortured for information was that they had no idea who Dahak was-and then made her way up the stairs. The evil demi-Goddess pulled the sword she had stolen from her belt and quietly opened the door to the man's bedroom.
She smiled when she saw him, lying with his arms around a woman she didn't know--Some blonde whose once slender figure had grown as much as the toymaker's--and raised the sword over her head. She stepped forward to deliver the killing blow and suddenly lost her balance when her foot landed on something she had missed seeing in the darkness.
Hope stumbled backwards, fighting desperately to regain her equilibrium, only to step on the same object. It apparently had wheels, for she was propelled backwards from the room and to the edge of the stairs. She looked down and was so shocked to see that an all-too-familiar-looking wooden lamb was the culprit that she forgot where she was and stepped backward onto nothing and tumbled down the stairs.
She landed in a bruised and battered heap at the bottom.
A second later, the lamb rolled off the top step and clattered down the stairs, striking her on the head.
"Who's there?" called Autolycus. She could hear his bed creak as he got up and, pausing only to snatch up the toy which had caused her ruin, she ran from the house and into the night. The toymaker walked into the hall and looked down at the open door. "That's odd. I could have sworn I closed it before going to bed..."
The owl coughed up some smoke and slowly opened its large, yellow eyes. "Who?" it gasped.
"Don't you remember me? I'm Autolycus, the King of Thieves, we spoke earlier this evening, when you told me that Athene was away," Auto reminded the wounded bird.
"Wasn't me, mate...My mistress was 'ere this evening..." the owl said. "I got jumped by some loony in black leather...his face all white and pasty lookin'...very nasty customer, mate."
"Strife," nodded Xena. "He attacked James earlier. I thought he'd gone."
"I've a message for you, mate," the owl said softly, indicating Auto with a blackened claw. "My mistress wanted me to tell you...that...damn! Something about Dahak being the source of Hope's power...and that he doesn't exist in the other world. Or some such nonsense. I don't even understand her sometimes, mate. Where is she?" The bird attempted to sit up, but Xena gently prevented it.
"She's gone. Just rest now. I'll get her back," the Warrior Princess promised.
A healer from the temple of Asclepius suddenly pushed through the crowd and knelt beside the owl. After a brief examination, she carefully picked the bird up and said, "I think he'll be all right. I've got to take him back to the temple now. Check with me in the morning."
"Where's Asclepius?" Xena asked, leading the woman through the crowd.
"All the Gods and Goddesses have been summoned by Zeus," she whispered. "Something big is going on."
Xena stopped and watched the priestess walk down the hall toward the temple of the Healer. "I've got a bad feeling about this, Autolycus," she remarked to the thief. "Can you get us into that meeting?"
"Xena, I'm hurt. Remember who you're asking," the King of Thieves said with a mock pained expression.
"I do. Can you get us in or not?" she pressed, her expression grim.
"I've broken into lots of places, Xena, as you well know, but I've never even heard of a mortal breaking into the Palace of Zeus before," Auto replied thoughtfully. "But if it can be done, I'm the one who can do it."
"Let's hope it can be done, then," the Warrior Princess grunted.
Autolycus and Xena made their way back toward the room which the Warrior Princess and the Bard shared whenever they were in the area, quietly contemplating the disturbing turn of events. As they walked through the empty hallway, the King of Thieves asked quietly, "You don't suppose Athene is just at this meeting of the Gods, do you?"
Xena shook her head. "Not likely. If she could've been here, she would've been," the dark haired woman stated.
"Just looking for a bright side," Auto shrugged.
"So long as Hope is alive, you won't find one," she replied. Autolycus said nothing further, but knew that he had never heard the hate in her voice so intensely before.
They reached the former warlord's room and, after finally managing to wake Gabrielle up from a particularly sound sleep, Xena explained what she was going to do, and what she wanted the Bard to do.
"I'd rather go with you to the summit of Olympus," Gabrielle frowned, her green eyes fixing on her friend's blue ones.
"I need you to try and find Athene, Gabrielle. We still need her to decipher Apollo's message to Autolycus, and I can't be in two places at the same time," Xena said with a half-smile. "According to James, Barney can't stand the mention of other children's show hosts, so you should be able to handle him if he shows up. And we know that Dahak can't stand humor-"
"Which is why you want me to bring Joxer along?" the Bard asked.
Xena nodded. "The mere sight of him ought to be enough to send Dahak packing," she said.
"I still wish I was going with you," Gabrielle sighed.
Xena looked at her and the Bard could see from her eyes that she did, too, even if she didn't say it. "We need to get going. Good luck and we'll be back as quickly as we can." She leaned forward and briefly hugged the blonde.
"Take good care of her, Autolycus," Gabby said. "And yourself."
"You have my word that I'll keep her safe, Gabrielle," Auto said. "Well, as safe as I can, anyway. You know Xena, once she sets her mind to something, no matter how crazy, there's nothing anyone, not me, not even you, can do about it."
"Oh, believe me, I know exactly what you're saying here," the Bard nodded.
Xena loudly cleared her throat. "If you two are quite finished, we need to get going, Autolycus," she said, her mouth fighting not to smile.
"Just one more. Doesn't it drive you crazy the way she-Urk!" Auto gasped as Xena grabbed him by the back of his shirt and dragged him down the hall.
Gabrielle chuckled and then made her way to the room Joxer was staying in. She quietly knocked on the door, but the only response she got was the sound of snoring. She opened the door and, with one hand placed directly over her eyes, said, "Joxer? Joxer, wake up, I need to talk to you."
She parted her fingers ever so slightly and squidged her right eye open just enough to see, albeit blurrily. An indistinct form was sprawled on the bed, and, unless Joxer's skin had turned to a light shade of blue since the last time she saw him, he was wearing pajamas.
The Bard slowly lowered her hand and opened her eyes all the way.
There he was, lying on his stomach, an arm dangling off either side of the bed, his knees barely curled beneath him, which served to raise his skinny posterior a bit. He had the dopiest look on his face--Even dopier than normal, Gabrielle was amazed to see-and every couple of seconds he would let out a very loud snore.
She reached out and gently shook him. "Joxer?"
She shook him a bit more roughly. "Joxer."
More snoring and a bit of drooling.
Her patience gone--And it was pretty thin where the would-be warrior was concerned in the first place--she picked up his scabbard and whacked him on the rump. Hard. Hard enough, in fact, that it caused Joxer to shoot forward, banging his head into the wall at the head of the bed. As he sat up, rubbing his bruised skull, Gabrielle tossed the sword away and stood with a concerned look on her face.
"Joxer, are you all right?" she asked innocently.
"Huh? Oh, hi, Gabrielle. Yeah, I'm fine, I guess. Just a bad dream, I think." He suddenly realized that he was wearing pajamas and quickly jerked the covers up and around his neck. "What are you doing here?"
"I, um, need your help," she said slowly.
The would-be warrior's dark eyes lit up. "Really? I mean, of course you do! What's the job?"
Gabrielle sighed and then filled him in on their mission, leaving out the real reason for including him, so as not to hurt his feelings.
"D-D-Dahak and B-B-Barney?" he stammered. "Shouldn't we let Xena handle this, or at least wait until she can come with us?"
"There's no time, and Xena has faith we can do this. Do you want to disappoint her?" the Bard asked pointedly.
"No," replied Joxer slowly. "But I'm not crazy about dying, either."
"We'll be fine," Gabrielle assured him. "Come on, let's go down to the remains of the library and see if we can't find some clue that will tell us where they took Athene."
Joxer didn't look too happy, but nodded and followed the Bard downstairs and out into the bustling courtyard, where the Xenites were busy cleaning up their failed attempt to save the beautiful building and its priceless contents from destruction.
Meanwhile, Xena and Autolycus were making excellent time in their climb up Mount Olympus, thanks to the thief's grappling hook and the Warrior Princess' amazing mountaineering skills.
"Why are you so keen to get to this meeting?" Auto asked as Xena did another of her incredible flips and landed on a ledge far above him.
"So long as Hope remains in that other world, she's powerless. If Zeus is planning what I think he is, we may lose our best chance to eliminate her once and for all," she said, launching herself into the air just as the King of Thieves reached the ledge she had been on.
Autolycus looked up and sighed, wondering why Hope hadn't killed his other world self yet, and praying to Zeus that she didn't succeed before the Warrior Princess could put her own plan into action, but worrying that he would drop dead at any moment.
Hope was furious. Twice now she had attempted to kill the Autolycus of this maddening alternate world, and she had failed both times. `This time,' she vowed to herself as she watched him exit his house and head off to his toyshop, `nothing will save him!' She drew her arm back and then jerked it forward, snapping the end of the whip she held on the horse's rear and causing it to charge forward, directly toward the toymaker.
Up on the seat of the cart behind the racing animal, Hope began to laugh and she pulled the wooden lamb from the folds of her cloak. "You won't save him this time!" she told the toy. "Not this time!" She tossed the lamb over her shoulder and into the straw payload.
Suddenly, she noticed an intense wind building up and the air above her began to crackle with electricity.
From above the pair of climbers a fierce wind whipped down, swirling as it descended toward the plain below. It was clearly an unnatural event, as was evidenced by the way it turned and twisted, its dark interior alive with white forks of lightning, even though there wasn't a cloud in the early morning sky.
"Oh, no! Not yet, you fools! Not yet!" Xena howled, shaking her fist at the mountain's summit.
"We're too late, Xena," Autolycus said sadly, placing his hand on her shoulder.
"Maybe not!" she cried, tensing her powerful thighs and launching herself off the side of the mountain, toward the vortex far below.
"XENA!!!" screamed Autolycus, quickly scrambling down the mountain, swinging his grappling hook around his head as he did so.
With no consideration for his own safety, the King of Thieves raced down the mountain until he reached a nearly level ledge which had a laurel tree growing from it. He grabbed the tree with one hand and hurled the grappling hook at the falling Warrior Princess with the other.
The hook's line wrapped itself around one of Xena's ankles and Auto breathed a sigh of relief as he braced himself and prepared for the jerk when the line ran out. But, to his horror, he saw Xena reach back, pull her sword from its scabbard, and cut the line before it could even slow her down.
She then held her arms out and guided her descent so that she fell right down the top of the whirlwind.
A few seconds later the vortex disappeared, leaving Hope standing in the grassy plain and no sign of the Warrior Princess.
Hope looked around her and, when she realized where she was and what had happened, she began to laugh. She slowly raised her arms to the sky and instantly a darkness appeared over her, filling her with demonic power. She stood basking in the flames of that energy for a few moments and then suddenly looked upward, somehow sensing the presence of the King of Thieves far above her on the slopes of Mount Olympus.
She fixed her gaze on the mountain.
Xena gasped for breath as the spinning vortex disappeared from around her and she found herself seated on a cart being drawn by a runaway horse. And, unless she was very much mistaken, the man directly in the animal's path was Autolycus, despite the extra girth and the full beard of prematurely white hair. Even as the reality of where she was sunk in, the Warrior Princess vaulted off the cart and onto the horse itself and, grabbing hold of the frightened creature's mane, pulled back as hard as she could. The horse whinnied in pain and skidded to a halt just inches from the man she knew as the King of Thieves.
Autolycus looked up, startled by the nearness of the horse, and his eyes grew wide when he saw who was seated on it.
"Xena?!" he exclaimed.
The dark haired beauty nodded. "Are you all right?" she asked, patting the horse and trying to soothe it.
But Autolycus wasn't listening and when Xena looked up from the horse, puzzled by his silence, she saw a dozen or so people coming toward her, and they didn't look happy to see her.
"I don't know how you escaped from the prison, you monster, but we'll see to it that you're not given the chance to do it again!" shouted one man whom she barely recognized as Joxer. He looked the same, but his attitude, his demeanor, his whole being reverberated with a sense of self-confidence she had never seen in her friend.
"Joxer, I'm not who you think I am," she began. But when he drew his sword and advanced, she snarled and kicked her heels into the horse, causing it to jump forward and scatter the villagers.
Well, most of the villagers.
Joxer managed to jump aside but then grabbed hold of the cart and hauled himself onto it as it raced down the street, toward the open countryside.
Gabrielle and Joxer looked at the remains of the library and shook their heads. The once magnificent building was now nothing more than a burned out shell. The racks that had been filled with vellum scrolls now contained nothing but soggy ashes; those few that were still standing, that is. Blackened bits of tables and chairs littered the ground of the Goddess' garden and the few flowers and bushes that had survived the fire itself appeared to be dying from the soot and ashes.
"What a mess," said Joxer, cautiously reaching out and touching one of the beams which was still standing. It promptly fell over, knocking into another, which in turn fell into another, and so on, and so on, until the entire framework of the library lay in ruins. "Oops."
"Joxer, do me a favor and just stand over by that wall and don't touch anything else, okay?" Gabrielle asked, obviously exasperated.
The would-be warrior nodded sullenly and slunk off to the wall.
As the Bard searched the area, desperately looking for some clue as to the whereabouts of the missing Goddess, Joxer leaned dejectedly against the wall of the garden. Suddenly, the wall opened behind him and he tumbled backwards. When the wall snapped closed again, he was in total darkness.
"What do you make of this, Joxer?" Gabrielle asked, holding up a single link of soot-covered chain she had found in the midst of the wreckage. Even though the link was dirty from the fire, it showed no signs of damage from the heat, no hint of disfigurement at all. She knew it must be some of that mysterious metal that Hephaestos alone could forge and it was suddenly clear how they had managed to kidnap the Goddess. She looked around for some sign of her friend. "Joxer?"
But she was alone in the garden.
Autolycus felt the ground beneath his feet begin to vibrate and scrambled up and off the ledge seconds before it tore loose from the mountain and went crashing down its side, causing a small avalanche in the process. Deciding that his best chance lay in putting as much distance between Hope and himself as possible, he continued to climb toward the top of the mountain.
"You can't escape, Autolycus," Hope shouted from the valley, but her words reached the ears of the thief as clearly as if she had been standing next to him. "Not from me, or my ally!"
Below him, a slender figure in black leather flashed into existence, just in time to be buried by the rocks tumbling down the mountain.
"I don't fucking believe this," groaned Callisto as the first of the boulders struck.
The King of Thieves paused just long enough to watch the beautiful blonde disappear beneath a ton of rocks and dirt. "Ouch. That's definitely gonna leave a mark," he whistled.
In the valley, Hope roared out her frustration, shaking the mountain with her fury.
"It's so hard to find decent help nowadays, isn't it, Hope?" called back Auto as he scurried upwards, nimbly avoiding the debris dislodged by the demi-Goddess' rage.
Xena ducked, narrowly avoiding Joxer's blade as the man stood on the seat of the cart, somehow maintaining his balance as the cart careened wildly down the open road. "This time we won't waste the land's resources by locking you up!" he cried, thrusting at her back. "This time you die!"
The Warrior Princess dodged the strike and then flipped backwards, over Joxer's head, and landed in the hay-filled cart. She pulled her own sword out just in time to block a vicious swipe at her throat. "I'm not that Xena!" she shouted, blocking another expert lash, this one directed at her mid-section. "Look at me!"
"I've seen you often enough to know who you are!" he replied, as the pair clashed blades yet again. "Laughing as my friends and comrades were executed by your monstrous lover!"
The two duelists closed with each other and Joxer suddenly punched Xena in the jaw.
Surprised by the force behind the blow, the Warrior Princess barely managed to deflect a killing stroke so that it instead grazed the shoulder of her sword arm, leaving a shallow but painful cut. Then, the horse and cart suddenly hit a patch of particularly bumpy road, and she fell backwards and lost the sword in the hay as it fell from her numb fingers.
"May you rot in the foulest depths of Tartarus for all time!" Joxer cursed, stepping forward to finish Xena off. But the warrior suddenly lost his footing and was pitched headlong from the cart.
Xena looked back to make sure he was still alive and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw him struggle to his feet.
Then, curious as to what had caused him to lose his balance, she dug in the hay until her fingers closed around a wooden object. She pulled it out and a smile tinged with sorrow crossed her face when she recognized the familiar figure of a lamb very much like the one she had given Gabrielle so long ago.
She retrieved her sword and then crawled into the seat of the cart and located the reins of the horse and pulled on them until the frightened animal had slowed to a manageable pace. Seeing a castle looming in the distance, she decided to try her luck there.
"Joxer? Where are you?" Gabrielle repeated, walking over to where she had last seen him.
She carefully explored the section of wall and soon discovered the stone, discolored from years of being pushed, which triggered the secret door. She reached down and picked up a large rock and placed it in the path of the door, preventing it from closing behind her, and entered the dark passage beyond it.
Almost immediately, she bumped into Joxer, who was groping around in the darkness.
"Gabrielle? Is that you?" he asked, his nasally voice echoing in the gloom.
"Shh! Yes, it's me," she hissed. "Nice work, finding the tunnel they used to get Athene out of the complex without anyone noticing."
"It was just, um, I mean, thanks," he replied with false bravado. "How did you find it?"
"I noticed that one of the stones in the wall showed more signs of wear than those around it and figured it must be the trigger," she explained as the pair made their way slowly forward. "And you?"
"Um, the same, of course. I was just scouting it out, to make sure it was safe, before I came back for you," he added.
Gabrielle nodded. "Sure you were. What's that?"
"What's what?" Joxer asked.
"Shh! I think I hear someone coming. Be quiet and duck down here with me," she instructed, leading him over to a pile of crumbled masonry.
They waited in silence for a few minutes, but no one entered their section of the tunnel.
"Joxer, is that your hand?"
"I'm not sure."
"Move the fingers of both hands."
"Ow! I guess that was my hand."
Waking up with splitting headache, James first thought was, `This is getting to be entirely too much of a habit.' The bard's next thought was, `Why is my jaw hurting so much and what the Tartarus is in my mouth?' His eyes slamming open, he looked down his nose and saw that he had some kind of gag in his mouth preventing him from talking. Looking first left and then right, he saw that he was tied to a cross hanging from the wall of a large round chamber carved out of rock. `Great!' he thought sarcastically to himself. `Who knew that Barney was a Roman?' Examining his surroundings more closely, he saw that directly in front of him, about 12 feet away, there was a pit in the floor with flames shooting out of it.
Something about how the flames were pulsing instantly scared him. After watching for a few heartbeats, he realized what was so worrying about them. The flames were pulsing like a giant heart beating. `That's not good!' he thought to himself. Looking over the flames of the pit, he could see that Athene was chained to a cross on the opposite wall.
`That's worse!' he thought with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Trying to examine Athene through the pulsating flames, he saw that while she was still chained with Hephaestos' chains, they had at least removed the dirty bag from her head.
James wondered briefly why it was that he had a gag in his mouth but she was left ungagged, and his heart started to break at the sight of the proud Goddess's suffering.
Tears run down her face and James can hear her sobbing over the roar of the flames. "My beautiful library. They are going to destroy my beautiful library."
Out of the corner of his eye, James saw Barney enter the room and stroll over to where Athene is chained. There was very little left of the soft looking, lovable children's host in him now. His teeth were gleaming sharp fangs. His skin a sick looking patchwork of varying shades of purple. That large silly looking tail that used to look like an overstuffed seat cushion, now looked like it should be hanging off of the butt of Godzilla. Barney is finally revealed in all his evil glory. "Shut up! You whiny excuse for a Goddess!" he snarled as he slapped her face with one of his oversized hands.
In his rage James struggled to break free from his position on the cross but all he could do was get a growl of anger past the gag. He heard what sounded like a sigh of pleasure and with shock realized that it did not come from Barney but from the flames in the pit.
Barney turned and looked deeply into the flames. "Father Dahak! Soon your family will be together again. Me, Hope, Gabrielle, Strife and a new member as well!" Barney said as he strolled around the fire pit and headed toward the helpless bard.
As Barney moved toward him, however, a transformation took place. With each step he began to look more and more like the lovable children's host he pretended to be. Stopping in front of James, he opened his mouth. "Golly gee! You are going to become my bestest best friend! Aren't you?"
James' mind started to feel like it was being submerged in a vat of maple syrup. From what seemed like a million miles away he could hear Athene's voice crying out, "What are you doing to that poor mortal?"
He could just barely see as Barney turned and looked back at Athene over his shoulder. "I am crushing his little mind and soul. Soon he will be one of my mindless followers."
Straining with all his will James could just make out Athene's response, "Leave him alone! You repulsive creature! By Zeus, I wish I knew how to destroy you!"
Barney let out a low evil laugh. "You should have read some of the books and scrolls that you collected in your own library." Turning back to the bard, Barney started to sing in a syrupy voice, "I love you. You love me. We're a happy family!" Mustering the very last dregs of his will, James did the only thing he could think of doing.
He slammed his head back against the hard wood of the cross he was hanging on, once again plunging himself back into unconsciousness.
Autolycus scrambled up and onto a ledge near the top of Mount Olympus and paused, staring at the grandeur of the Home of the Gods. Despite the chill he was keenly aware of, before him lay a verdant valley, nestled in the very peaks of the fabled mountain. Centaurs and nymphs frolicked in grassy fields in the shadows of the snow-capped summit itself and he saw a magnificent castle rising up from the center of the valley. The white stones of which it was constructed glistened in the rays of the sun and the King of Thieves felt a twinge of fear as he started forward.
Xena warily approached the gates of the great castle, but the structure appeared to be deserted. The black rocks were scarred by fires and there was ample evidence of many fierce battles being fought here.
"Sad, isn't it?" A somewhat familiar figure shimmered into existence next to her. "Such a marvelous stronghold left to rot."
"Cupid?" the Warrior Princess guessed. Although the figure had the face and form of the God of Love, superficially, his bleached hair had been replaced by a spiky Mohawk and his outfit was made of tight, black leather. At his side he wore a sword which reminded Xena of the one Ares wore and his eyes burned with an intensity she had never seen in the soft eyes of the God she knew.
"I heard you escaped. I knew you would. Even without the Sovereign, you and I can run things, make it the way it used to be," he purred, gazing lovingly at the abandoned fortress. "And we'll start with this." He closed his eyes and the castle suddenly transformed into an imposing structure, with black flags flying from its spiked turrets. "This will be our base of operations, Xena. From here we will send out armies and crush those peace-loving fools before they know what hit them!"
Xena stared at the keep and then swung her gaze around to the God next to her.
"I know what you're thinking," he began.
"I hope not," she muttered.
"Rest assured that there are still many who are loyal to you, and who have avoided the security patrols sent out by that idiot, King Iolaus. Even now, they are obeying some inner longing which will guide them here," he grinned, stroking her hair. "I like the long hair. Much more wild than that cropped look you had going for a while. More intimidating."
"Thanks," mumbled the Warrior Princess. She glanced around and was alarmed to see dark figures moving over the hills and fields, all headed towards the castle.
Gabrielle and Joxer stopped as they entered a wide section of the passage.
"Do you hear that?" the Bard asked.
"It sounds like singing," Joxer nodded, a smile spreading across his face. "Kind of catchy. I like it." He began to hum along.
Gabrielle glared at him. "I don't like the sound of it. And, I've never heard anyone with a voice so, so cloying before!" She cringed as the words of the song became clear. "That's Barney's theme! I recognize it from when James described it to us. But I can't tell where it's coming from."
Then, she heard the sound of a door opening and barely managed to grab Joxer and duck into a cleft in the cavern wall before Strife emerged from a hidden doorway.
"He can't order me around! `Go and get the book, Strife.' `Go and burn the library, Strife.' `Go and clean up my scales, Strife.' `Go and get Athene's owl, Strife.' I had it better with Ares," the young God complained as he walked down the passage, heading for the exit.
"Joxer, you've got to go after Strife and stop him from getting the owl!" Gabrielle said urgently.
"M-M-Me?" stammered the would-be warrior. "He's a God, Gabrielle."
"Just keep him busy and don't let him come back here with that owl!" she insisted, pushing him down the passage.
"What are you gonna do?" he asked nervously.
"I'm going to find out where that secret passage leads," she said, pointing to the door. She suddenly noticed that it was rapidly closing and dove in. "I know you can do it, Joxer!" she whispered as the door sealed itself shut behind her.
"I wish I did," he gulped. He then took a deep breath and followed the path taken by the maniacal God.
Autolycus approached the gleaming wall of the castle and looked up for something for his grappling hook to catch on. Then, he remembered that his hook had been lost when Xena cut herself free and looked for some other way inside. He wandered around the whole of the enormous structure's interior, searching in vain for some secret entrance or even a back door of some kind.
"Why not use the front door?" asked a figure as it sparkled into existence next to him. A stately looking man with a peppered beard and regal robes looked at him with eyes that crackled with power.
"Zeus!" yelped the startled thief, backing away.
"I am who you came to see, aren't I?" the King of the Gods asked.
Auto nodded slowly. "I need your help," he began. "Well, not me, exactly, but a friend of mine, and of your son Hercules."
"Xena," said Zeus knowingly. "She's trapped in that other world."
"Can't you bring her back?" the King of Thieves asked.
"It took the power of all of us to get Hope back here, and we barely managed that, with Athene, Hera, and Strife missing," Zeus replied, shaking his head sadly.
"There must be something you can do," Autolycus said desperately. "You're the King of the Gods!"
"Even we Gods have our limitations, Autolycus," Zeus explained. "I suppose I could try to open a portal, but if she's not near it, it won't do her any good. And, who knows what might come through it. No, I'm afraid that Xena is on her own. She'll have to get my counterpart to help her get back, or she'll remain there forever."
"You're kidding, right? This is some sort of gag, isn't it?" the thief said, laughing nervously. "This is the best you can do?"
"Careful, Autolycus, remember who you're talking to," Zeus warned, his eyes growing dark.
"Apparently, you're powerless, so I don't really have much to be afraid of, do I?" the King of Thieves responded.
"THAT'S IT!!!" roared Zeus, hurling a thunderbolt at the impudent thief.
Waking up for the second time in the underground chamber James thought that the pain he was feeling could not get any worse. Opening his eyes and seeing Barney standing there waiting to continue with his song, however, he knew it was going to get much, much worse.
"I see that you are awake again." Barney paused for a moment and then closing his eyes he seemed to concentrate for a few seconds, "And I feel that Hope has returned!" Turning to look over his shoulder at the fire pit, he exclaimed, "Father Dahak! You're family is nearly complete again!" Turning back to face James again. "Now where were we? Oh yes, I remember now:
I love you
You love me
We're a happy family
With a great big hug
And a kiss from me to you
Won't you say you love me too?
Trying to scream through his gag, James slammed his head back against the cross and found that Barney had used the bag he had had over Athene's head to pad the back of the cross so he could not knock himself out again. From a distance, he could hear Athene yelling out encouragement to him to fight Barney's insidious spell.
I love you
You love me
We're best friends like friends should be
With a great big hug
And a kiss from me to you
Won't you say you love me, too?
As if it was happening to someone else, James could feel Barney remove the gag from his mouth and, with a fading sense of his own being, the bard felt in horror as his mouth started to move and he heard his own voice start to sing:
I love you
You love me
We're a happy family...
Off from the other side of the room, the sounds of Athene crying "No!" could be heard.
Joxer paused and watched as Strife approached the tunnel's entrance, where Gabrielle had propped open the secret door with a large stone. But the Godling continued to mutter to himself and passed through the door without even acknowledging the presence of the stone. The Mighty One breathed a sigh of relief and hurried to the doorway just in time to see the maniacal God marveling at his "handiwork": the remains of Athene's beautiful library.
The white-faced God practically hugged himself with glee as his feet did a happy little dance. Then, he heard the sounds of some approaching Xenites and hurried into one of the archways which led out of the garden and into the complex itself. Joxer realized with a sinking feeling in his queasy gut that Strife had chosen the one which led to the temple of Asclepius, where the Healer's attendants were doing what they could for Athene's owl.
Joxer was about to follow Strife, although, truth be told, he still had no idea how to stop the God from bringing the owl back to Barney, when he heard a familiar voice shouting from somewhere far above him.
Then, out of the clear blue sky, a lightning bolt struck the center of the garden.
When the smoke cleared, the would-be warrior was surprised to see Autolycus standing there. The King of Thieves had a terrified look on his face and his clothes were still smoking.
Auto looked around and then said in hushed tones, "Some advice, my friend: Never tease a God. They have no sense of humor, or any idea how difficult it is to get certain stains from your clothing." He walked towards Joxer with a slightly bow-legged stance and then asked, "What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you and Gabrielle were going to locate Athene."
"We, er, I found a secret door and then we heard Strife saying he was going after Athene's owl and so I came after him to stop him," Joxer explained, puffing out his chest.
"Sure you did. And I just got back from giving everything I own to the local orphanage. Where's Gabrielle?" Auto asked skeptically.
"She, um, went into the passage we saw Strife come out of," he answered.
"Alone?" Joxer nodded. "Ya know, she can be just as stubborn as Xena. I suppose you'd better do what you can to stop Strife while I go help Gabrielle."
"Don't you think we should both try to stop Strife? Gabrielle did seem pretty determined that he not get his hands on Athene's owl," the would-be warrior added, watching the dark eyes of the King of Thieves.
Auto frowned. He didn't like leaving Gabrielle on her own, but he had serious doubts about Joxer's chances of doing anything other than getting himself killed if he actually confronted Strife. "Maybe you're right."
"I am?!" Joxer sounded more surprised than the thief had. "I mean, of course I'm right. After all, I'm Joxer the Mighty."
"So help me Zeus, if you start singing, I will personally see to it that Strife pounds you to within an inch of your life," Autolycus said with quiet menace. "Are we clear on that point?" Joxer nodded and swallowed hard. "Good. Now, let's go stop that reject from Tartarus before I change my mind."
"And go help Gabby instead?" Joxer inquired, following the King of Thieves into the same archway down which Strife had disappeared.
"No. Before I beat you to within an inch of your life."
Xena watched with growing alarm as dozens of dark figures stole over the hills, heading for the transformed castle. Beside her, Cupid, God of War in this strange world, giggled with insane glee. "You see, Xena! I told you there were still plenty of people loyal to our glorious cause!" he crowed, standing up in the cart and drawing his ornate sword. He waved it over his head, the scarred blade catching the rays of the sun and reflecting them at the approaching figures.
The men and women paused, drew their own weapons, and then returned the signal before continuing.
"Soon, Xena, we will have this rabble fit enough to storm the King's palace. Once the head is cut off, the body will ceases to function and you and I will rule this world," Cupid whispered, his hand lightly caressing the Warrior Princess' cheek.
"What about Zeus and Aphrodite? What are we going to do about them?" she asked. "They're not just going to stand around and let us take over."
"I have plans for them, for all of the Gods who oppose me, er, us. Don't worry," he added with a savage grin, "once we have the Earth under our thumb, the Gods will follow suit. They won't have any choice."
"But the Hind's Blood Medallion was lost when the Sovereign disappeared," Xena pointed out, trying to keep her voice as weaselly as Iolaus had described it to her.
"I've got something better than hind's blood. Just leave the Gods to me, Xena, and concentrate on our army," he said, gazing proudly at the men and women assembling around them. Then, he acted as if he had heard something that the woman standing beside him hadn't. He looked around with something akin to fear on his face and said hastily, "I've got other business to attend to, Xena. I leave these humans to your care."
He vanished in a fiery crackle of smoke and lightning.
As the Warrior Princess stood before the assembled crowd, the heady feelings of her own Warlord days rose within her and she momentarily wondered just how difficult it would be to actually take over this world.
Then, the throng began to chant: XENA! XENA! XENA! XENA! XENA! XENA!
A smile slowly spread across her face as they raised their swords in salute and she returned the gesture.
Joxer and Autolycus rounded a corner just in time to see Strife transform from his usual self into a mirror image of James before entering the temple of Asclepius. "Say," said Auto thoughtfully as the pair followed the Godling, "where is James, anyway? I was surprised he didn't show up to help with the fire."
"Beats me," Joxer shrugged.
"Don't tempt me," the thief warned. "Now, you try to distract him while I grab the owl and make a break for it."
"Why don't you distract him while I grab the owl and make a break for it?" Joxer asked.
"Listen, I'll tell you what. I'll grab the owl and make a break for it while you distract Strife. Okay?" Autolycus inquired innocently.
Joxer smiled and nodded. "That's better," he said.
Auto rolled his eyes. `Sometimes it's just too easy,' he thought.
Joxer walked up to Strife and clapped him on the back. "James! What are you doing here? More trouble with that rash?" he said loudly, causing several of the temple's attendants to turn and stare.
Strife's eyes widened in horror. "What rash? What are you talking about? I don't have any rash!" he yelped, glaring at the would-be warrior.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, James. It happens to lots of people, especially if they don't use the proper protection," Joxer continued in his loudest, most obnoxious voice.
"Will you shut up!!! I don't have any rash! None!" Strife hissed in a strangled whisper. "Now, go away and leave me alone!"
"Hey!" cried one of the attendants, pointing to Autolycus as he attempted to leave the temple, the still form of the injured owl cradled in his arms. "Stop that man! He has Athene's owl!"
"What??!" yipped Strife, turning and recognizing the King of Thieves. "You!" The image of James melted away and Strife held up his hand and a maniacal grin spread across his mouth as a ball of fire materialized in it. "You should've stayed dead!"
"Look who's talking!" returned Auto, diving aside as the fireball struck the ground in front of him.
Strife laughed and began to manifest another fireball. But he suddenly dropped to his knees, the fire extinguishing in his grasp, and held his hand to his stomach. "No! Not now! Not yet!" he cried, raising the hand and staring with a combination of fear and hatred at the blood on it.
Autolycus and Joxer watched as several of the attendants rushed forward, but the men and women were obviously unprepared for the sight of a mortally wounded God and they could do little but attempt to staunch the flow of blood from the piercing wound.
"Stand aside," said a calm, quiet voice that nevertheless radiated with both authority and compassion. A man entered from the interior of the temple and knelt beside the wounded Godling. He was clothed in shining white robes and his face was kind and gentle. "I will attend to my cousin," he said, placing his hands over the terrible wound. A soft light poured from them and into the body of the maniacal God.
"How do you feel?" asked Asclepius after a moment.
"Much better. Thanks, cuz!" Strife giggled, blasting the Healer with a powerful bolt of lightning. Asclepius went hurling across the temple and crashed into the far wall. "See?"
Before Auto and Joxer realized what had happened, Strife had leapt up and snatched the owl from the startled thief's grasp and then disappeared in a crackling column of smoke.
End of Part Two