HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
"No Longer Blinded By Our Prize"
As the secret door shut, sealing her off from a very nervous Joxer, Gabrielle prayed silently to any Gods or Goddesses listening that her friend would be able to handle Strife by himself and keep Athene's owl away from Barney. Examining her location Gabrielle could see that she was in a corridor that seemed to only go a short distance. All she could tell about the room that the corridor led to, was that, from the flickering lights she could see and the noise she could hear, it must have a large roaring fire in it. With a mounting sense of dread and fear in her stomach, she inched her way along the corridor, her hands opening and closing convulsively with the need to have a stout staff in them for protection.
She silently berated herself for not taking the time to replace her destroyed staff before setting out. Almost reaching the doorway of the room she suddenly realized that she no longer heard the cloying, nearly hypnotic voice of Barney singing anymore. Stopping just at the doorway, she strained her senses to the utmost. She could still hear a voice quietly singing that Hades' blasted song but it was not the syrupy voice of Barney, rather, it was a voice hoarse with exhaustion.
The Bard could hear the rhythmic roaring of the fire, which sent chills that she did not fully understand down her spine and faintly she could hear what sounded like a woman's sobbing, with an occasional clink of chains. With one last wish that she had brought a staff with her, she peeked around the corner and spied James standing directly in front of her facing the doorway. Surprise at seeing him temporarily overriding her sense of caution she ran into the room. She almost got close enough to grab his arms when she realized that his lips were moving and he was singing Barney's song over and over.
Hearing a cry to her left she glanced over and saw Athene chained to the wall. "Behind you!!" Athene cried.
Whirling around, she saw Barney had been standing beside the doorway out of Gabrielle's sight. "It is so good to finally meet you, Gabrielle! Father has told me so much about you," Barney said as he moved closer toward her.
"Captain Kiwi", Gabrielle yelled out. Barney stopped suddenly and cocked his head to the side with confusion. Gabrielle paused for a moment and then yelled, "I mean Captain Kangaroo!" Barney let out a snarl and made a motion with one of his oversized hands.
Gabrielle turned slightly to keep one eye on Barney and one eye on whatever he was gesturing at. She saw James take a few steps to the side, revealing the fire pit that had been behind him, and Gabrielle realized instantly that that was no ordinary fire, but was, in fact, Dahak.
The Bard felt her blood turn to ice in her veins at the sight and all she could get out was, "No! No! Not again. Not him!"
"Father has missed you. He has been waiting to see you again," Barney's voice called out.
Two long tongues of flames flared out of the pit and grabbing hold of Gabrielle's legs started to drag her into the pit. In her mind she recalled the weaknesses of both Barney and Dahak, but her fear had such a hold on her she couldn't get her mouth to cooperate and say the words.
Athene yelled out from the wall where she was chained, "James, break Barney's hold and help Gabrielle!"
But James continued to sing Barney's song, "I love you. You love me. We're a happy family."
Gabrielle finally found her voice and yelled out to James, "Barney isn't your family. Your family is me, Xena, and all the Xenites."
James stopped singing and, shaking his head as if he was coming out of a deep sleep, made a dive and, grabbing Gabrielle by the arms, started to pull her away from the edge of the pit. "It's nowhere near Thanksgiving and roasted Bard isn't on your diet anyway, Dahak!" he yelled at the flames. "It's not time to say bye, bye Bardy yet!" The tongues of fire released their hold on Gabrielle's legs and she looked up at James and rolled her eyes at his bad puns as he pulled her away from the edge of the pit. "Hey! Don't knock it. It's working isn't it?" James said with a smile. The smile faded as he felt Barney's hands fall on his back and out of the corner of his eye he saw Strife appear with Athene's owl in his hands.
"This is definitely not Mr. Roger's neighborhood," he muttered worriedly.
Barney with a mighty heave threw James across the room into the rocky wall. Since James still had a hold of Gabrielle's arms she was pulled with him to crash atop the prone James on her back. Gabrielle looked up and over her shoulder to the stunned James. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Shaking his head to clear it, he answered, "For the moment? Yeah." Hearing Barney give a mighty roar of anger, James looked over to where Barney stood with Strife giggling at his side. "But the moment is over with I think."
Barney moved to directly face the two friends and Strife moved to stand slightly behind him, to the left blocking the view of the fire pit.
"Your souls belong to Dahak!" Barney snarled. Gabrielle rose to stand defiantly in front of Barney pausing only as long as it took to help James to his feet. Gabrielle glanced up at the taller James and saw the same angry look in his eyes.
They both said at the same time, "I don't think so!" and charged the purple monstrosity, leaping at the last moment so their feet would hit the dinosaur in the chest. Barney probably would have shrugged off either one of their impacts but both hitting him at the same time generated enough force to knock him back. Barney stumbled backwards, his left arm flying out and hitting Strife in the face with enough force to knock him back into the wall where Athene was chained, head first. The owl in his hands shot straight up into the air.
Barney teetered on the brink of the fire pit, his stubby little arms whirling around trying to get his balance.
"Hug this, you repulsive reject from Romper Room!" James yelled at him as with one finger he pushed Barney into the pit.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle made a leaping dive and managed to catch the owl before it could hit the floor. The Bard cradled the owl in her hands and looking over at James said, "How do we get those chains off of Athene?"
James walked over to where the Athene was chained and examined the Goddess. Athene's appearance depressed James no end. Her white gown was now stained a dirty brown from her being dragged through the secret passage. Her beautiful hair was a mess and she had a large bruise on the side of her face where Barney had slapped her.
Concentrating on getting her free was James's first priority. He examined the chains.
"There are three small locks holding them on her. Now they couldn't be magic because the chains are meant to stop any type of power like that," James thought out loud as he stroked his beard. "Barney didn't have any pockets so that must mean the key to the locks is on...." James looked down at the unconscious Strife, stopped his thoughts and started to search the cruel minor God. "Aha!" He yelled and held up a silver key. Quickly turning to Athene, he unlocked the locks and let the chains fall to the ground.
Athene raised her arms to the sky and in a flash of pure white light she was restored to her former beauty. Her gown once again a brilliant white and now there was no longer a trace of a bruise on her perfect face.
Suddenly there was a loud roaring noise coming from behind them. Whirling around, Gabrielle, James, and Athene saw a large pillar of flames coming from Dahak's pit and stepping out from the pillar was one outraged Barney, without a sign of being singed.
Hearing a moan from behind them on the floor, they glanced down and saw that Strife was starting to come around. "Time to leave?" Gabrielle asked no one in particular.
"Time to leave!" Athene answered her. Making a motion with one hand, the Goddess caused herself, Gabrielle, James and her owl to disappear from the cavern in a flash of light.
Autolycus and Joxer looked at each other. "That is definitely not a good thing," the King of Thieves drawled. "Any ideas?"
Joxer opened his mouth to say something, but Auto cut him off.
"Why in the name of Zeus am I asking you for ideas? I'd get a better response from that planter," the thief snarled, walking over to a potted plant and asking, "Say, bud, you got any ideas?"
"We could use the Orb of Harmony," Joxer said quietly.
Auto turned, an insult practically leaping from his mouth, when he recalled what Harmonia had told him about giving a talisman to Lissla to help her drive off Dahak and Hope. He frowned as he studied the would-be warrior, wondering if there was more to him than met the eye.
"There has to be," he mumbled to himself. "Good thinking, Joxer. Come on, let's get it and then see if we can't help Gabrielle."
The pair of men rushed from the temple and headed towards the Pun-N-Pub party Palace, hoping that someone would be sober enough to tell them where the orb was kept.
The castle courtyard was filled with men and women, all practicing the various skills needed by the common soldier in preparation for the assault on King Iolaus' palace. Xena, clothed in formal battle gear, strode among the members of her army--She had to admit that she liked the way that sounded again, after so many years without hearing it--occasionally instructing a soldier in the finer points of combat, or, on a rare instance, demonstrating some of her own techniques. The former warlord felt comfortable here, she knew what to do in this situation, as opposed to her travels with Gabrielle, when her warrior's methods were not always the solution to every problem.
The image of the Bard suddenly flooded her mind and she held it close for a moment, enjoying the familiar feeling of warmth as she gazed once more into that lovely face, experiencing again the kind and loving soul behind the emerald eyes. Then the Bard in her mind's eye frowned and Xena knew she would not approve of what she was doing here.
But knowing of no other way to attract the attention of this strange world's benevolent Gods, she reluctantly pushed the image back into her subconscious and resumed her rounds.
Callisto pushed the last of the boulders on top of her away with an ear-piercing scream and emerged from the rubble. The blonde Goddess stretched, extending her lithe frame to its limit, and then looked around her angrily. Her brown eyes fixed on the figure in red leather far below and she disappeared from the mountainside in a fiery flash.
She reappeared next to Hope and snarled, "I don't care if you give me the oblivion I crave or not, if one more pile of rocks lands on me, I'll gut you myself!"
"Calm down, Callisto," Hope purred, reaching out to stroke her cheek and wipe away some dirt. "If it weren't for me, you'd still be languishing in Tartarus, helpless and surrounded by the shades of your victims. Only I can give you the oblivion you seek. And, this time I expect you to be more patient. No more running off to Xena and my mother just because you're overeager to cease existing. Once my father's kingdom is realized on this planet, you shall have your wish."
"I'd better, or Dahak will have to find himself another daughter to help with his plans for world domination!" the Goddess replied.
Callisto suddenly found herself gasping for breath as invisible hands closed around her heart, squeezing the immortal organ painfully.
"Don't threaten me, Callisto, or when you've served your purpose I will toss you back into Tartarus to rot for the rest of time with your fellow Gods," Hope hissed, grabbing a handful of the blonde's hair and pulling her face close.
Then, the pressure on the evil Goddess' heart subsided and Hope added, "Things are getting a bit complicated back at the XenaVerse complex. Take me to my father's underground temple."
The brown eyes of the Goddess burned with hatred, but she grudgingly did as she was commanded.
Autolycus and Joxer walked into the P-N-P and were greeted by the familiar sight of several dozen Xenites sprawled on the floor, in the hot tub, and in the beds, in various states of insobriety and undress. Auto quickly spotted Lissla, carefully making her way around her fellow Xenites as she headed for the hot tub with a tray full of drinks.
"Lissla," the thief began, "I need to talk to you."
"Hey, Auto! Just a sec, 'kay? I am the Arch Hostess here, after all," she replied with a wicked grin. "Gotta make sure everyone is served."
"This is rather urgent," Auto said sternly.
"Sheesh!" she said to the Xenites in the hot tub as she handed out their drinks. "You'd think he owned the place!"
They all laughed.
"Ha, ha, ha. Very funny. Now, if you can tear yourself away from your adoring public, I really do need to talk to you," Auto insisted.
"What happened to you, Auto? You used to be such a fun guy," Lissla pouted.
"Well, gee, Liss, it might have something to do with the fact that the FATE OF THE FREAKIN' WORLD IS IN MY HANDS!" he suddenly shouted. "I've been tormented by Dahak, nearly killed by Hope, abducted by Hades, and blasted by Zeus himself. This has not been one of my better months."
"All right, all right. I get the point. Sheesh. Now, what did you want?" Lissla asked, approaching and kissing the thief on the cheek. Seeing Joxer's pathetic, begging expression, she leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
"I need the Orb of Harmony. We think Dahak might be in the area and I know that Hope is," Auto explained, his expression, and demeanor, softening as he returned the kiss.
"It can't really hurt them, you know," Lissla said, walking over to a cabinet and pulling out a round sphere that shone like gold and was about as big as a grapefruit. "It only radiates a field of bliss which they can't stand to be around, if I understand its powers correctly."
"I know," he nodded, accepting the ball from her. "I'm just trying to buy us some time until I can get that book James had and deal with them once and for all."
"We'd better get going," Joxer urged, plainly worried about the fate of Gabrielle. "You know, before it's too late."
"Right. Thanks," Auto said to Lissla, briefly embracing her. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I'd say be careful, but the Gods know you never listen to me anyway," Lissla laughed. "Good luck."
Auto nodded and then he and Joxer made their way toward the stairs that led to the garden and the secret door.
Xena had taken some time off from watching the drilling and was trying to relax in her chambers when she suddenly sensed a familiar, but at the same time, oddly different, presence. She put down the map she was studying and said softly, "Hello, Cupid."
The God of War flashed into existence next to her and smiled. "I love the way you do that!" he grinned.
"I'm glad I amuse you. What do you want?" she asked, bored already.
"Just checking on the progress you've made with our recruits," he said nonchalantly, glancing down at the map on the desk.
"Don't worry, they'll be ready soon enough. What about the Gods? Have you figured out what you're going to do about them?" she inquired.
"Xena, I had that figured out long before you escaped from prison," he chuckled, pulling a black orb from the air. He held it reverently and the sphere began to pulse with a dark, ominous light.
"What's that?" the Warrior Princess asked, reaching out to touch it.
Cupid slapped her hand away playfully. "Ah, ah, ah. Mustn't touch," he scolded. "This is a little gift from my daughter. And with it, the Gods who oppose me, er, us will fall like wheat before a scythe."
"Great," Xena said, fear growing within her as she realized for the first time just how real the possibility of Cupid taking over was. "But that still doesn't tell me what it is."
"This is the key to the overthrow of Zeus, the weapon which will bring about the subjugation of all opposition, the scepter with which I, er, we will rule this world," he said, his eyes fixed on the glowing sphere in his hand. "This is the Orb of Chaos!"
"This is trouble," Xena whispered to herself.
As Joxer and Autolycus entered the darkness of the secret passage, the would-be warrior whispered, "Um, Autolycus, should the orb be glowing like that?"
The King of Thieves looked down and saw that the orb's brilliance could be seen even through the leather of the sack on his belt. "Dahak and Hope must be close," he replied, removing the orb and using it to light their way. "I would feel better knowing if it will do any good against the likes of Strife and Callisto, though."
"You and me both. Callisto??!" yelped Joxer, nearly stumbling and falling. "Don't tell me she's back, too!"
"Yep. And working with Hope again," Auto nodded.
"I asked you not to tell me that," groaned the would-be warrior, his face turning a bit green.
The two men entered a wide section of the passage and Joxer said softly, "This is where the secret door Gabrielle went through is."
"Fine. Now, stand back and watch a genius at work," Auto said, approaching the wall and letting his fingertips glide gently along its surface.
"I don't understand how this thing is going to help us against the other Gods," Xena said, her blue eyes transfixed by the darkly glowing sphere in Cupid's hand.
"It's really quite simple: The orb radiates a field of discord that will drive away those who relish peace, like the other Gods," he explained, caressing the ball lovingly.
"Drive away is a far cry from destroy or dominate," Xena pointed out.
"True. But once I have access to Zeus' palace, I can supercharge this sucker and force the Gods who oppose me, er, us down into Tartarus forever!" he cackled. "And that's where you and this army come in..."
"You need me to create a diversion by attacking King Iolaus, drawing the attention of Zeus and Aphrodite and the other peace-niks long enough to get that thing to Mount Olympus," Xena finished for him.
Cupid's eyes widened and he grinned. "Oh, you are clever," he purred, grabbing her chin with his other hand. "But don't get too clever, or you may wind up in Tartarus yourself." His grip tightened painfully.
"Hey, it's me and you all the way, Cupid! I wouldn't dream of betraying you!" she croaked. "I want revenge on those goody-goodies for locking me up and for whatever they did to my poor Sovereign."
He released her chin and she cautiously rubbed it. "Yes, it's a pity the Sovereign isn't here," Cupid sighed, with questionable sincerity. "He would've loved the coming carnage."
A sudden knocking at the door of the Warrior Princess' chambers forestalled any further discussion.
A soldier entered and saluted. "My Lord Cupid, my Queen, we have a visitor," he said, clearly nervous about something.
Xena and Cupid exchanged curious glances and then followed the man out into the courtyard, where a strangely familiar figure was surrounded by their army.
"Pwaise Hewa," the blonde woman called out. "Give up yoh wahlike ways and embwace the peace which the Goddess offehs."
"Callisto??!" exclaimed the Warrior Princess, her hand instinctively flying to the hilt of her sword.
"Oh, no," growled Cupid.
Autolycus frowned. "Are you sure this is the right spot?" he asked, turning to look back at Joxer.
The would-be warrior nodded. "Right where you're standing is where Strife came out and Gabrielle went in," he stated.
"Well, it must be some demonic hocus-pocus, then, because I can't find any sign of a door!" he huffed, leaning back against the wall. He noticed that the passage continued on and held up the orb, casting its light down the tunnel. But all it illuminated was part of a long passageway. "What's down there?"
"I dunno," Joxer shrugged. "We never made it that far."
"What say we check it out--Unnnhhhhhhh!!!!" The wall behind the King of Thieves suddenly swung upward, pitching him face-first onto the ground and causing him to lose his grip on the orb.
It rolled over and stopped at Joxer's feet.
From the revealed door, Barney, Strife, Hope, and Callisto emerged.
"Why, Autolycus, what a pleasant surprise," snarled Barney, reaching out and hoisting him up by an ankle so that the King of Thieves was staring directly down the monster's throat. "You've saved us the trouble of having to find you."
"I do my best to be accommodating," Auto quipped. "Geez, would it kill you to use a little mouth wash once in a while?"
Barney roared and threw Autolycus across the chamber. The thief crashed into the tunnel's wall, causing some dust and small bits of rock to fall from the roof, and dropped to the ground, gasping for breath. He looked up at Joxer and hissed, "Well, what are you waiting for? Use the orb for the love of Zeus, before they kill me!"
Joxer reached down and picked up the glowing sphere and held it in front of him defensively. "Now what?" he squeaked, seeing the angry looks on the faces of Hope and the others.
"Callisto, dear, take care of this bumbler," Hope ordered.
"My pleasure. Now, you pathetic moron, toss that little toy away before I roast your scrawny butt!" Callisto ordered, her hand crackling with electricity.
"No. I order you to be gone," he said, holding the orb out toward her.
"And I order you to be dead!" she returned, hurling a lightning bolt at him.
Joxer steeled himself for intense, if momentary, pain, but the lightning hit the orb and then ricocheted off it and struck the ceiling over Callisto's head.
"Un-fucking-believable," she snarled as the roof fell in on her.
Autolycus climbed to his feet and stood behind the astonished would-be warrior. "Nice job," he grinned.
"Okay, who's next? What about you, Strife? You want some of this?" Joxer asked, pretending to lunge at the Godling.
Strife backed away.
"What about you, Hope? Or your stupid brother? You want some, Barney?" Joxer demanded, holding the orb out at arm's length toward the fearsome dinosaur.
Suddenly, Barney's tail lashed out and knocked the glowing sphere from Joxer's hands.
Autolycus and Joxer both watched as it bounced into the secret passage and then were horrified to see the door close behind it, sealing it in.
"Oops," gulped Joxer.
Xena stared at the figure in white robes standing in the midst of her army and fought to remind herself that she wasn't Callisto, at least, not the Callisto she knew. Not her enemy. Not in this strange world.
"What's she doing here?" snapped Cupid.
"What's the big deal. Why don't you just kill her?" Xena asked, realizing that if this Callisto was still alive then the one in her world might be, too.
"I can't," Cupid shrugged. "No one can. She just won't die. She used to just come back to life. Now, she doesn't even die."
"Is she a Goddess?" the Warrior Princess asked, studying the familiar face. Well, except for the dopey expression it was familiar.
"No. And she's not a true immortal, either. She just can't be killed," he sighed. "It doesn't make any sense. And, to make matters worse, her one goal in life seems to be making the world full of peace and harmony!"
Xena shuddered and yearned more than ever to return to her own world, where things might not be perfect, but at least they made some sort of sense. Most of the time.
Callisto, spotting Xena and Cupid, walked through the crowded courtyard and glared at them like a mother scolding naughty children. "Xena, I and the Goddess ah vewy disappointed that you have chosen to wesume yoh life of wah and evil ways," she chided, waggling a slender finger at the pair of them. "Mahk my wohds, Hewa will punish you foh this."
"Well, if she's gonna punish me for something, let her punish me for THIS!" Xena cried, drawing her sword and plunging it into the priestess' chest.
Callisto looked down and frowned. "Now look what you've done. You've absolutely wuined my best wobe!" she huffed, puffing out her lower lip.
"Told you," sighed Cupid.
Xena removed the sword and stared at the blade, which was astonishingly clean of any blood.
"Now that that's out of the way, is theh someplace we can go and talk pwivately?" the priestess asked politely, straightening her robes in an attempt to conceal the large slit.
"Follow me," Cupid growled, heading back into the fortress.
Callisto started forward, but then stopped and gestured for Xena to go first. "Afteh you, deah," she smiled.
The Warrior Princess sheathed her sword and stalked after Cupid, followed by the maddening priestess.
"Well, that's just great!" Autolycus exclaimed, glaring at Joxer. "Now what are we supposed to do?"
"Might I suggest dying?" grinned Barney, exposing his rows of sharp, white teeth.
"You keep out of this, you Sesame Street wannabe!" the King of Thieves snapped.
Surprisingly, Barney growled in obvious discomfort and backed away.
Auto and Joxer stared at him in confusion. Then, the thief snapped his fingers. "Of course! Don't you remember what James told us: Barney can't stand the mention of other children's shows," Auto reminded the would-be warrior.
"I thought it was the mention of other children's shows' hosts?" the other questioned.
"I don't care if it's the mention of their brand of underwear, so long as it works!" Autolycus stated. "The Electric Company."
Barney roared angrily and his lashing tail whipped back and forth, causing Strife and Hope to jump back. "Why did I bother to resurrect you, Strife?" he bellowed. "Kill them! Now! A lot!!"
"Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood," shouted Joxer.
Barney started to rear back, but suddenly stopped and stared at Joxer, his evil yellow eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"He's a basketball player, you idiot!" Auto said, slapping him on the back of his head. "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."
Barney's growls grew more desperate as Strife approached the pair of humans.
Suddenly, the entire cavern shook as a terrible cry of rage and pain erupted from beyond the sealed secret passage and echoed throughout the tunnels. Barney and Hope looked at each other and an odd expression clouded both their faces.
"Father!" they shouted together.
"He's trapped in there with that, that awful thing!" Hope added.
"Can't he just-" Strife began.
"He's already entered the portal to this world. He can't go back, or completely enter this realm, not until the blood sacrifice is performed," Barney snarled. "He's too weak."
Then, he turned to look at Autolycus and Joxer and smiled a terrible smile.
"I definitely don't like the looks of that," Auto whispered to Joxer.
Then, the pile of rocks beneath which Callisto had been trapped exploded and the blonde Goddess emerged with a primal scream and fixed eyes that literally burned with hate on the two men.
"Or that," added Joxer, swallowing hard and trying to smile at Callisto.
The Goddess raised her hand and a ball of fire appeared in it.
"Callisto!" hissed Hope angrily. "It would seem that for the time being we need those two alive. But don't worry, there'll be plenty of people for you to kill after Dahak is freed from the portal between our two worlds. Which is where these two come in."
The blonde Goddess frowned, but closed her hand around the flames, snuffing them out.
"You really are determined not to let me have any fun at all, aren't you?" Callisto sighed.
"We've got to at least drive Barney away!" Auto said urgently, nudging Joxer in the ribs. "Romper Room. Schoolhouse Rock. Kookla, Fran and Ollie."
Barney howled in agony. "In the name of all that's unholy, somebody shut them up!!!" he commanded, his stubby arms raised to his oversized head, with his clawed hands pressed tightly against his tiny ears.
"Mr. Dress-Up. The Friendly Giant. Easy Reader. O.G. Readmore," shouted Joxer as Strife and Callisto charged toward he and the King of Thieves.
"It's Howdy Doody time!" Autolycus and Joxer both shouted together.
With a final roar of frustration and fury, Barney disappeared in a cloud of noxious purple smoke.
Then, Strife and Callisto were upon them and a moment later they were both unconscious.
Cupid stood with his arms folded across his chest, scowling at the priestess. Xena, on the other hand, was seated at the table in the castle's main hall, across from Callisto. But she was scowling, too.
For her part, Callisto was smiling, in an empty-headed sort of way.
"Coming here was a waste of time, priestess," observed Cupid. "You will not change my mind about the coming assault and now you will spend the rest of your life in the dungeon of this fortress."
"Hewa wouldn't like that, and, weally, it's best if you don't angeh heh; she has a vewy nasty tempeh," Callisto whispered.
"I know," grumbled Cupid. "Believe me, I know."
"Oh, wight. Of couhse you do, deah. Sowwy," she added. "Why don't you just fohget all this widiculous wah business and embwace the peace and joy which the Goddess offehs?"
"Because I'm the God of war, you dimwitted woman!" Cupid roared. "I've a good mind to see just how indestructible you are!" He withdrew his sword and held it up menacingly.
"Cupid, why don't you let me talk to her, alone, woman to woman?" Xena suggested. "If I can't get her to see our side of things, you can chop her up into as many pieces as you want. No sense angering your mother if we don't have to."
The God of war rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Fine," he nodded, sheathing his sword. "I've got other business to attend to anyway." He disappeared in a fiery column of smoke and lightning.
"I thought he'd neveh leave," sighed Callisto.
Xena raised one eyebrow as she reappraised the woman across from her. "You knew the whole time I wasn't this world's Xena," she stated.
"Of couhse I did. Deah Xena is one of my bittewest disappointments. No matteh how many times I visit heh in that dweadful pwison, and twy to give heh some comfowt, she wejects me, and, wohse, she wejects the Goddess," Callisto explained, shaking her head sadly.
"So, what are you doing here?" the Warrior Princess asked.
"That's watheh a long stowy," the priestess said slowly.
"I've got time," Xena smiled.
"I thought you might. Well, I'm hewe to..."
After a brief moment of freezing cold and a wave of dizziness, Gabrielle and James found themselves standing with Athene at the burned out remains of her library. "I will see Strife dragged through the worst section of Tartarus for this!" Athene said through gritted teeth. "I will......" Athene suddenly stopped her ranting and got a faraway look in her eyes.
Turning to look at the summit of Olympus, she stood still for a moment and then turned to the mortals standing beside her and said, "We are being summoned to the grand meeting hall on Olympus."
Gabrielle looked at James and then looked back at Athene. "What? Me and James as well?"
Athene, still with a faraway look in her eyes, replied, "Especially you two!" With another wave of her hand, Athene, James and Gabrielle, who was still holding Athene's owl in her hands, disappeared from sight.
Gabrielle, recovering from yet another quick transporting by the Goddess, shook her head to clear her vision. Looking around she saw that they were in the center of a large round room. Surrounding them were circular benches and seated on the benches were all the Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus, with a few exceptions. She noticed that she cannot see Ares or Hera anywhere and idly wondered where they could be.
Her thoughts were interrupted when a man in a long white gown stepped forward. "Let me take the owl and finish its healing," he said.
"His healing," Athene gently corrected Asclepius.
The God of Healing nodded at her and, holding the owl in his hands, he concentrated for a moment. The owl glowed for a brief moment and then opens his eyes.
"Bloody Tartarus!" the owl croaked, "I feel like I've been used in a game of Australian Rules football!"
Asclepius smiled slightly, confused by the strange reference, and then said, "You will feel better in a short amount of time. You have been through a lot lately."
The owl blinked his large eyes a few times and then flew over to land on Athene's shoulder.
Asclepius then turned toward the two mortals. "I see that you have been through quite a lot yourselves as well!" Placing his hands on both Gabrielle's and James' heads, he closed his eyes for a moment.
Gabrielle, closing her eyes, could feel the exhaustion that she had been fighting disappear as if it had never existed and when she opened her eyes she saw that all of the cuts, scrapes and bruises that had marred James' face were gone. Asclepius gave them one more smile before stepping back and allowing Artemis to step forward.
"Gabrielle, my chosen one! I have a gift for you." Artemis held out her hands and a fighting staff appeared in them. "It is made from a tree from my sacred grove. Nothing on this earth can destroy it. I know that you will use it with honor."
Gabrielle took the staff from Artemis and tried to speak, but she was so overawed by the Goddess that she could only nod her head at her in thanks.
"We have....a gift to give....as well," three voices sang out from behind Athene, James and Gabrielle.
Turning, Gabrielle saw a young child, a middle-aged woman and an old crone standing behind them. The young girl was pulling a yarn from a large ball. The middle-aged woman was measuring it with her fingers and the old crone was standing with a pair of shears in her hands. "The Fates!" the Bard gasped and quickly stepped back away from them.
"Our gift....is not for you, Gabrielle....but for the mortal known as James." Each of the women sang out in turn without looking up from their work. James looked nervous but stepped toward the Fates. The young girl pulled a string of light green yarn from the ball. The middle age woman measured it with her fingers and then the old crone cut the yarn with a deft click of the shears. Holding out the yarn to James the Fates spoke again, "You will....know how and when to use it....when the time comes."
James reached for the yarn but, before he can touch it, the yarn leaped out of the crone's hands and wrapped around James' right wrist tightly.
Gabrielle, who is watching all of this slightly suspiciously, saw a look of shock pass over James' face. Rushing to his side, she asked him, "What's wrong? What have they done to you?" She saw James' shoulders slump forward and a look of sadness passed over his face. Grabbing his shoulders, she shook him slightly. "What's wrong?!"
James straightened his shoulders and told Gabrielle, "Nothing. I'm fine!" But Gabrielle saw that the spark of humor that always showed in his eyes was now gone, replaced by a look of acceptance and sadness. Gabrielle looked over to where the Fates were, to demand that they tell her what they had done to her friend but they were now gone.
Hearing someone behind her clear their throat, she turned and saw Hephaestos standing there with a chakram in his hands. "This is for Xena, of course, to replace the one she lost. Give it to her when or if she gets back."
"What do you mean, 'when or if she gets back'? Where is Xena?!" Gabrielle asked with a note of fear entering her voice.
Suddenly, the sound of someone's hand hitting a table rang out. "Enough! Time grows short. These mortals have things that they need to accomplish what they soon must for all of our sakes. It is time for them to leave," Zeus's voice called out and, with a now familiar sensation, Gabrielle and James disappeared in a flash of light.
Autolycus opened his eyes and found that he and Joxer were suspended on two wooden crosses across from each other in what appeared to be an underground temple. A large hole in the raised altar at one end of the chamber had a pillar of flame extending from it that seemed to dance and sway with a life of its own. With a sickening feeling of dread, the King of Thieves realized that it was Dahak.
Also present in the chamber were Hope, Callisto, and Strife, but Auto was grateful for the fact that Barney was apparently still wherever their invocation of quality children's television programming had sent him. In addition to the three immortals were several half-naked dancing girls and half-a-dozen people in red and black robes.
Then, he saw that the Orb of Harmony lay at the foot of the altar and understood that the flames weren't dancing or swaying, they were writhing in apparent agony. But none of the immortals could get near it, despite the obvious discomfort it was causing Dahak.
"You'll have to use one of them," Callisto grinned, indicating the robed followers. "If you can. I sense you're weakening, Hope. What's the matter? With Daddy stuck in that rift between worlds, is he sucking all the power out of you?" The blonde Goddess was laughing cruelly.
"Barney will be back, won't he?" Strife asked suddenly, glancing down nervously at his stomach.
"Yes. To both of you. But, drained or not, I still have enough power to control one of my more mindless minions," Hope assured the pair. She fixed her green eyes on a woman with dark brown hair that was streaked with gold. "Come here, Jade."
The woman obeyed and walked over to where the trio stood near the passage which led back to the main tunnel, giggling as she passed by the dancing girls.
"Jade, I want you to go and pick up the Orb of Harmony and take it to the far end of the chamber, as far away from my father Dahak as you can," Hope instructed, pointing at the glowing, golden sphere.
"Okay," Jade replied brightly.
When she walked over to retrieve the orb, Callisto and Strife both looked questioningly at the evil demi-Goddess.
"I've gotta make the most with what's at hand," Hope shrugged.
Jade carefully picked up the orb, causing it to get even closer to the flames than it had been, which brought an audible roar from Dahak and nearly caused her to drop the golden ball on the altar. She quickly recovered her wits--Well, what little she had --and then proceeded to the far end of the chamber.
Hope stepped forward, knelt at the altar and whispered, "Soon, father, you shall be free and this world will crumble like ashes in your mighty flames!" She then turned to Callisto and Strife. "Prepare to slit our guests' throats when I give you the signal."
The two immortals nodded and Callisto approached Autolycus while Strife walked over to the barely conscious Joxer. Both Gods had wicked looking knives in their hands and murder in their eyes.
Suddenly, they heard an explosion coming from the passage which lead to the main tunnel.
Recovering from the flash of being transported by Zeus, Gabrielle looked around and saw that they are again back at Athene's garden. "I'm really getting tired of being thrown from one place or another by the Gods without so much as a 'by your leave!'" the Bard complained to James. "What do you think Hephaestos meant by saying to give Xena this new chakram if or when she gets back?"
Not hearing an answer, she turned to see him looking around the garden as if it might be for the last time. Gabrielle ran over the few steps that separated them and grabbed James by the arms. "What did the Fates do to you?" she demanded.
"Nothing. I'm fine," James said in a hollow voice. "We need to get back to Dahak's secret chamber. Joxer and Autolycus need our help." James looked down at his right wrist where the green yarn was wrapped.
"How do you know that?" Gabrielle asked him.
"I just do. Let's go." And without another word James strode over to the passageway and enters it, leaving Gabrielle to follow him.
Upon reaching the part of the passageway that has the secret door in it. Gabrielle asked, "How do we open the door?"
"Leave that to me." James raised his right hand and one end of the green yarn lashed out and the door exploded in a flash of light. Gabrielle noticed that the other end of the green yarn never left James' wrist.
Running down the short corridor, both Gabrielle and James skidded to a halt as they entered the chamber. The sight that faced them was not a pretty one. Joxer and Autolycus were chained to the crosses that had recently held James and Athene. In front of Autolycus, Callisto was cooing at him while holding a knife to his throat. In front of Joxer stood Strife who likewise held a knife to the would-be warrior's throat. Across the room from them stood Hope.
It was obvious to Gabrielle that they had interrupted a ritual to raise Dahak. As James and Gabrielle skidded to a stop, Callisto and Strife turned to face them, their plans to cut Auto's and Joxer's throats temporarily forgotten.
James, pausing only for a moment, raised his right hand again. The green yarn shot out across the room and snapped the chains that were holding Joxer and Autolycus, who, now free, quickly scuttled past the stunned immortals and over to the entrance where James and Gabrielle were standing.
Callisto let out a frustrated scream of rage and yelled out to James, "I'm going to kill you for interrupting my fun!"
Gabrielle saw a sad smile come to James' face. "No, I'm sorry, but it's not going to be you that kills me. You know, even though you're a psychotic killer, I'm almost sorry to do this."
"Do what?!" hissed Callisto.
"This!" James said as he raised his right hand to point at the ceiling above Callisto. The yarn once again lashed out and, hitting the roof, caused a cave-in of rocks to fall on Callisto.
"Oh, come on! Not again! Doesn’t the word ‘originality’ mean anything to you people?!" Callisto had enough time to say before the rocks buried her.
James looked over to where Autolycus was staring at him with wonder. "There's a cavern at the end of the passage way. Athene's book is there. Take Joxer and Gabrielle and get it now!" James yelled at him.
Auto grabbed Gabrielle's and Joxer's arms and pulled them into the passage.
Strife, in an effort to stop them, dove past James and tried to grab Autolycus' arm. James, without even looking back, gestured with his right hand and the yarn flew completely off of his wrist and hit the doorway, turning into a giant spider web and catching Strife right in the middle of it.
Gabrielle, trying to resist the pull of Autolycus, looked back and saw James fall to his knees as Hope strolled over. "I'm going to kill you. You know that don't you?" the evil demi-Goddess told James.
"Sorry, it's not going to be you, either," James informed her.
Strife, still struggling in the web, yelled out, "Hey, I recognize this stuff! It's the Fates' thread of life."
Autolycus managed to pull the struggling Gabrielle to the passage that lead out and they both paused and looked back at the ensnared Strife. They watched as Strife took the knife he was still holding and cut the yarn. Gabrielle slumped against Autolycus as they both heard James' gurgling scream as his life thread was severed.
"Fool! We could have used his blood to open the portal for Dahak, but now he is dead!" Gabrielle could hear Hope yelling at Strife as Autolycus pulled her around the corner and down the passage to where Athene's book awaits.
Xena nodded and smiled as Callisto finished explaining what she had in mind to get the Warrior Princess back home.
"I should be able to do what needs to be done," she stated. "But what about you? I know that Cupid won't just let you leave here."
"Don't you wowwy about me, deah. I'll do my paht," Callisto assured her. "No matteh wheh I am."
The Warrior Princess stared into the face of the woman across from her, a face she had hated, pitied, and even loved at times, a face she had known so well for so long, and frowned.
"Don't wowwy about that, eitheh, deah," Callisto said, patting her hand reassuringly. "You do whateveh you have to when you get back. I'll beah you no gwudges. To tell the twuth, I've been longing for an end to it all of late, and maybe, just maybe, you'll be the key to fweeing me fwom this cuhse."
"But there's still so much good you can do here," Xena protested, her fingers tightening around those of the priestess. "I've no right to destroy one of this crazy world's best people. In fact, it's going to be very hard for me to kill anyone in the future without wondering who I've also murdered in this world."
"Pewhaps being fohced to weexamine the consequences of youh actions is a good thing, Xena," Callisto offered, squeezing the warlord's hand affectionately. "The fact that you now know you'h not just ending all the possibilities of that pehson's life, but of theih countehpaht in this wohld, too, will hopefully make you think twice befohe killing someone. Theh ah always altehnatives to killing, deah. Maybe now you'll be moh inclined to use them."
"I wouldn't bet on it," Xena said with a roguish smile. "He's back." She quickly withdrew her hand and then slapped Callisto across the face. "I give up! Rot in the dungeon for all I care, then!"
Cupid flashed into existence and grinned maliciously. "I warned you about how stubborn she was," he chided the Warrior Princess.
"There's stubborn and there's just pig-headed-to-the-point-of-suicidal," Xena scoffed.
"Guard!" Cupid called, the smirk still on his face.
"Yes, my lord Cupid?" asked the man who responded after he'd entered the hall.
"Escort the priestess here down to the dungeon and see to it she's given food and wine, and kept as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances," he instructed.
"A nice gestuwe, Cupid, but Hewa is still going to be upset. Howeveh, I will put in a good wohd foh you," she added as she got up and followed the guard out of the hall.
Cupid scowled and watched her go. "Did you two have a nice chat?" he asked, the grin returning to his features.
"Peachy," Xena grunted, standing up and walking over to him. "But she did get me thinking about something." She traced the outline of his chin with a slender finger.
"Oh? And what's that?" he inquired.
"I've been locked up in that damn prison for ages, without any human companionship, if you know what I mean," she smiled, and then suddenly bit the tip of his chin playfully. "What do you say we go up to my chambers and relieve some of this tension I've managed to build up?"
A flash of smoke later and Xena found herself and Cupid in her room.
"Ooh, I like a man who takes action like that," she purred, pressing into his body. She suddenly jumped up and kicked him in the face. "I also like it rough!"
Cupid staggered backwards, having been caught totally off-guard, but recovered quickly and grabbed her by the arm and pulled her close. "I know," he said, doubling her over with a punch to her tummy. "So do I."
"Good. I hoped you might!" She reached down and snagged his ankle and then twisted it and lifted it at the same time, flipping the God head over heels and face-first into the wall.
Xena rushed up and caught him as he fell backwards, but he threw his head back and struck her in the face. He then spun around and planted a big kiss dead on her lips.
She responded by driving her knee up between his legs.
Cupid slumped to the ground, holding himself and whimpering.
Then, Xena felt a sudden change in the air and reached down and grabbed the black Orb of Chaos from the inside of Cupid's vest.
"What are you doing?" he gasped, trying to stand.
"I'm going home!" she shouted as she saw a single fork of lightning cut through the afternoon sky and strike the ground beneath her window. She leaped out of the portal and then ran into the yawning, swirling vortex that opened where the lightning had struck.
As she passed through the flashing tunnel of light and smoke, she dropped the Orb of Chaos.
In the underground temple, as Strife freed himself from the remainder of James' life thread and Callisto struggled to extract herself from the latest pile of rocks, Hope didn't notice when Jade, still holding the Orb of Harmony, walked up to the altar to get a better look at James' body.
Dahak growled in pain when the sphere got close and Hope whirled around and, seeing Jade, demanded, "What in the name of evil are you doing up there?"
"I've never seen a real dead body before," Jade replied with a demented look in her gold-flecked brown eyes. "Cool!"
"Get down from there and go back to the far end of the chamber, you fool!" Hope ordered. "Can't you see how much pain the nearness of that thing in your hands is causing Dahak?"
"You never let me have any fun," Jade pouted. "I never get to kill anyone, I'm not invited to your barbecues anymore, and now you won't even let me look at a dead body. What's the point of being evil if I can't even look at a dead body once in a while?"
"Quit babbling and move your useless butt!" Hope exclaimed.
Before Jade could take a single step, however, a fierce, unnatural wind whipped through the chamber, knocking her off her feet, and causing her to lose her grip on the orb. It rolled to the edge of the pit and the flame that was Dahak seemed to shrink in an effort to escape it, all the while howling with a deep-throated roar of pain and anger.
"Grab it, you idiot!" Hope screamed. "Before it--NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!"
She watched helplessly as the golden sphere rolled off the edge and fell into the pit.
The flames retreated before it, shrieking in terror, back through the portal and into their own dimension.
Hope looked over just as a tunnel opened up in the air and cried out to Strife and Callisto when she saw the familiar, hated figure of the Warrior Princess emerging from the vortex.
"Time to end this once and for all," Xena snarled, drawing her sword.
From the moment that the Fates gave to James' his lifethread, he knew what was going to happen. With a vision that almost seemed like an old memory, it was all revealed to him. That Strife would be trapped by his life thread at the doorway and then use his knife to sever the thread resulting in James' death. But James did not mind. The vision that Fates gave him also made it plain that if he did not sacrifice his life then not only would Joxer's and Autolycus' lives have been forfeited, but also that of Gabrielle and, perhaps, that of the entire world. So James made peace with the thought of his own death and was prepared for what happened when Strife severed his life thread.
But he was not prepared for what happened afterward.
As Strife's knife severed his life thread, James felt a brief but intense sensation of pain and then darkness.
Opening his eyes he looked down and saw...himself lying on the floor. Feeling a presence beside him he glanced over and saw a lovely young woman standing there holding a candle. "From Gabrielle's descriptions in one of her stories, you would be Celeste, right?" James asked her.
"Yes, that is my name," Celeste answered him with a smile.
"So, that would mean that I'm dead, right?"
"Yes," Celeste answered with a nod.
"I mean dead as in...dead as a doornail, dead as in no deposit, no return. That kind of dead?" James asked her as he idly watched Jade walk across the makeshift underground temple to pick up the orb.
"Yes, that kind of dead," Celeste said with another nod.
"So, what do I do now?"
"I am here to lead you to the shores of the river Styx, where Charon will take you across so that you may meet with Hades."
James looked across to meet Celeste's eyes and thought to himself, `How strange that the Goddess of Death should have such friendly looking eyes.' "When do we leave, then?" he asked her aloud.
"We are already here."
Jerking his eyes away from looking into Celeste's eyes, James looked around and found himself beside an underground river. Off in the distance he could see a boat heading in his direction. "Boy that was a quick journey..." James stopped in his speech when he realized that Celeste was no longer beside him. "I guess Death doesn't hang around much!" he said out loud to himself.
"Nah. She's got better things to do than hang round here with the stiffs." James whirled around and saw that the boat that had been off in the distance was now next to him at the shore and a repulsive looking little man was now staring at him from the boat. "Well? We ain't got all eternity. You getting in or what?"
James shook himself a little and replied, "Um yeah, I guess I am." He started to get in the boat but was stopped by Charon's outstretched hand.
"Hold it there. You got a coin for me?"
James quickly checked his pockets and said, "I had some dinars a minute ago but they’re not there now!"
"Of course not! Money can't follow you here. Someone on the other side has to put coins on your eyes to pay me for the journey. That's the only way money can make it over to this side," Charon said as he shook his head. "What is it with people now a days? Nobody remembers the correct procedures any more."
"Well, I was killed pretty suddenly and my friends have other things to worry about right now," James said defensively.
Suddenly, a loud voice boomed out, "Charon, bring him across now!"
James had his arm grabbed by Charon and was dragged into the boat. "Who was that?"
"Oh that was the big mucky muck himself. You know, Lord Hades." For the rest of the trip Charon muttered to himself about how it was all right for Hades to break the rules, he didn't have to worry about getting paid.
Upon reaching Hades’ castle James was ushered into a large room where a very serious looking man was watching an image suspended in mid air. Pointing at the image Hades said, "I thought that you might like to see what happened after you left."
James watched for a few moments as the image replayed his death and what followed after. He then asked Hades, "What happens to my body now that I'm gone?"
"Why is it that all you mortals ask the same question as soon as get here?" Hades grumbled.
"Well, I didn't think that I would care much now, but the way that Jade person keeps looking at my body makes me nervous," James said pointing at the suspended image.
Hades grinned for a moment and then said, "Don't worry about Jade. She has bigger problems arriving in just a few moments." Waving his hand he made the image vanish. "Now it's time for you to go to the Elysian Fields. You have earned the right." Hades was surprised when James instead of appearing happy seemed to be depressed instead.
"So, I guess that I'm really dead and gone. That I'll never walk up there in the world of the living and see my friends again," James said quietly.
Hades looked at the man before him for a moment and then said, "Only the Fates know what the future holds. Maybe there will be a time when you will be allowed to return to the living, but for right now, you go to the Fields."
James saw a door that he had not even noticed before, open. Through the doorway he could see beautiful green fields under a clear blue sky. The sight was so beautiful he did not even realize that he was moving toward it until he heard the door shut behind him and he turned around and saw that the door was gone and everywhere he looked was the Fields.
Hades sat for a moment, still looking at the closed door. "Hopefully now you will find the peace and friendship you were always looking for."
"What do you mean, you lost Xena?" Gabrielle demanded as she, Autolycus, and Joxer made their way down the tunnel, toward the chamber which James had told them held Athene's book before his death. "How in Tartarus did you manage to lose an entire person?!"
"Well, she kind of jumped into the gate-thingie the Gods created to bring Hope back to this world," the King of Thieves explained.
"And you just let her do that?" the Bard cried.
"I tried to stop her, Gabrielle," Auto assured her. "But she was determined to kill Hope before she could enter this world again."
"Then, she's gone," Gabrielle said quietly, stopping and leaning against the wall for support. Her fingers traced an outline in the stone, which Autolycus recognized as a crude drawing of Xena's face. "She's really gone."
"I'm...I'm sorry, Gabrielle...I..." but the words died in the thief's throat. How do you tell someone you're sorry for destroying their life?
Gabrielle turned to face the wall, leaning against her arm and kissing the image she'd traced.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle?" Joxer asked timidly, placing a hand on her quivering shoulder.
The Bard whipped around, startling both men with the ferocity in her eyes. "I'm fine. Let's get that book and take care of Hope, before she causes the deaths of any more good people," she said, her jaw rigid with determination and her voice flat and emotionless.
But, as Autolycus, Gabrielle, and Joxer resumed their journey down the tunnel, the Bard suddenly stopped and turned to look back towards the underground temple. A strange smile lit her face and her fingers tightened around the gleaming chakram Hephaestos had given her to replace the one Hope had destroyed.
"She's here," she said softly. Then, she screamed it, "SHE'S HERE!!!" And the joy in her voice was ten times that of the bitterness of a moment ago. "I've got to go back and help her. You two go on and get that book and bring it to us," and her eyes glowed as she said the word, "as quickly as you can. Good luck!" She grinned at them and then raced back down the tunnel before either of the surprised men could say a word or make any move to stop her.
Auto and Joxer looked at each other and then they both shrugged and continued down the hall.
After a bit, it opened up into a small room that contained a strangely shaped table covered with various runes. Sitting on the table were three identical books.
"James never said anything about there being three books!" Autolycus exclaimed. "What am I supposed to do? Take all three? Just take one?"
He suddenly got a strange look on his face and the most profound feeling of deja vu he had ever experienced.
"What's wrong?" Joxer asked nervously.
"Nothing. I just have the weirdest feeling that I've been in this situation before," Auto said slowly, staring at the table and thinking that it should have been outside, on a hill in a cemetery. "But that's ridiculous."
Xena glared at the three immortals as the robed followers and the dancing girls fled from the temple. Jade regretted not being able to take James' body with her, but she didn't like the look in the Warrior Princess' eyes, so she left it behind as she raced with her fellow cultists for the exit.
"Don't just stand there, you fools! Get her!" Hope commanded Strife and Callisto. She tried to bend Xena's mind to her will, but, as she feared, with the expulsion of Dahak from this realm, her powers were fading quickly. And, when the portal between the two worlds closed, she knew that she would be helpless.
Strife ran up but Xena casually backhanded him across the temple and then turned to Callisto. "How many times do I have to kill you before you stay dead?" she demanded as the two women's swords clashed.
"Guess you'll just have to keep trying in order to find out!" the Goddess replied, slashing at Xena's head.
"There's more than just you and I involved in this fight, Callisto," Xena said, thrusting at the blonde's chest.
"Well, duh! Strife and Hope are here, too!" She knocked the sword away and then sliced downward, grazing Xena's arm and giggling when she saw the stream of blood.
Meanwhile, Strife had climbed to his feet and he now charged the Warrior Princess' back.
"That's not what I meant," Xena said, shaking her head. She then blocked Callisto's follow-through jab and kicked back with her left foot, again knocking Strife across the room. "There's more than just our two lives at stake."
"Oh, Xena, killing you is the last thing I want to do," Callisto said in a singsong voice as she spun around and then kicked the former warlord in the face. "Why should I send you to the Elysian Fields when I can torture you here? I realized after the last time you `killed' me, and I wound up in Tartarus again, powerless and surrounded by the souls of the people you've forced me to kill, that the only way I can make sure you get the suffering you deserve is to keep you alive." She raised her sword just in time to prevent Xena's sword from piercing her stomach.
"If I can't have oblivion," Callisto continued, catching the Warrior Princess with a left to her jaw, "then I want to make sure that everyone you love dies before I spend the rest of time rotting in Tartarus!"
Xena suddenly stopped fighting and looked at her blade, but, as she knew in her heart, she hadn't so much as touched the Goddess with it.
Callisto also stopped and looked down at her stomach. Blood was pouring from the reopened wound from the Hind's Blood Dagger.
"Hope?" the blonde questioned. "What's happening to me?"
"The portal between worlds is closing! And, when it does, all my powers will be gone!" Hope screamed, falling to her knees. "You've got to use the last of your strength to get us out of here! Before it's too late!"
"It's already too late, Hope," Gabrielle said, entering the temple. She looked over at Xena and threw her the new chakram. "Welcome home."
Xena caught it and hurled it at Strife, who was slowly climbing to his feet. "Nice to be back. Thanks." The chakram struck a stone pillar beside the Godling and sheared it in two. The top of the pillar broke free from the roof and toppled over onto Strife. The chakram then bounced off the wall and off another wall before returning to Xena's hand.
She turned to Callisto, her blue eyes as cold as ice, and said softly, "Now, where were we?"
Gabrielle approached Hope, her new staff raised for battle, but the evil demi-Goddess was apparently too weak to stand, let alone fight.
"You've won, mother," she gasped. "Father has been expelled and now I'm at your mercy. Will you finish what you started so long ago with that vial of poison?"
"I don't want to. I'd like to think there's some good in you, some part of you that comes from me, that you're not wholly Dahak's child, but I can't trust you to tell me the truth and all I see when I look into your eyes is hatred and evil," the Bard stated, surprising herself with her coldness toward this child she had once vowed to protect with her life.
"Oh, mother, of course there's some of you in me," Hope smiled, but it was a cruel smile, filled with malice. "I inherited your devotion, your single-mindedness, and your blind faith to a person you know to be evil. The only difference between us is that you thought you could change Xena, while I accepted Dahak for what he is. If you were hoping for a death-bed conversion to goodness and light, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you."
"That seems to be what you're best at," sighed Gabrielle. "And you're wrong about Xena and me. I never thought I could change her, only help her to change herself. Just as I thought I could help you."
"Oh, well, you win some, you lose some," Hope giggled, but it was obvious that her strength was rapidly fading. "Better luck with your next child."
Meanwhile, the sight of the blood had completely taken the fight out of Callisto, allowing Xena to stagger her with a dizzying combination of lefts and rights and kicks and elbows until the Goddess was barely able to stand. She stood swaying helplessly before Xena, the mad glint still in her brown eyes.
"You can't kill me, Xena," she laughed. "And you've already beaten me. What now? More rocks? Another convenient lava river?"
"I had something a little more permanent in mind this time," Xena replied, jumping up and kicking her under the chin and knocking her backwards and to the edge of the pit on the altar. She was pleased to see the fear in the blonde's eyes as she approached.
"Xena, wait! After all we've been through, after all we've shared, you can't let it end this way!" Callisto cried, struggling to crawl away from the portal.
"Watch me," Xena snarled, hauling her to her feet by her hair.
"Where's the love, Xena? Where's the love?" the Goddess pleaded.
"I've got your love right here!" the Warrior Princess exclaimed, driving her fist into Callisto's nose and sending her flying into the pit. She smiled as she heard the screams, which sounded more angry than frightened, fading away.
Strife groaned as he finally managed to push the pillar off of him and then his face turned more white than usual when he saw Xena standing over him. She reached down and, grabbing his shirt, dragged him over to the pit. "Can't we talk about this?" he begged, looking down into the depths of the pit and seeing only fire and rock.
"No," Xena replied, pushing him over the edge.
Autolycus circled the strange table, examining each of the books carefully. But each one was thick, black, and had the words Secrets of Evil Gods and Goddesses embossed in gold letters on its cover. Finally, he cautiously reached out and lifted the cover of one of the three, trying to see what was written within.
But as soon as the book was opened, all of the pages tore themselves loose and began to wrap themselves around Auto's head and body, crushing and suffocating him at the same time. Joxer yelped and quickly drew his bent sword and was about to start hacking away at the murderous paper when he saw the King of Thieves' eyes glaring at him angrily from between the pages stuck to his face.
As Joxer backed away, he saw a knife blade shoot from the pages around Autolycus' hand and begin to slice away at the paper. The thief carefully ran the slim point of the blade between his throat and the paper and cut himself free. Then, he cut away the pages wrapped around his ribs and breathed a sigh of relief as he made short work of the remaining pages.
"Whoa. Wrong book," he said, kicking at the inert shreds of paper at his feet.
He looked at the other two books and frowned. Then, tentatively, he reached out and touched one.
A surge of electricity poured through his body, lighting him up and shaking his entire frame with a powerful jolt. Then, with a puff of smoke, the book disintegrated. When the smoke cleared, Autolycus stood covered from head to toe in ash, his finely coifed hair standing straight out from his head, and his eyes as big as saucers.
"Definitely the wrong book," he coughed. "Which means you must be the lucky winner."
He reached out to pick it up and then paused, thinking he should have to say something, recite some incantation or spell, before actually doing so.
"Now what?" Joxer inquired.
"Nothing," Auto shrugged. He then picked up the book and looked around, but nothing happened. "Let's get this back to Gabrielle."
"And Xena," the would-be warrior added.
"Right," Autolycus said, but he clearly had some doubts.
Xena looked over and saw Gabrielle kneeling next to Hope and scowled.
"What now, mother? How will you kill me? Or will you let your eager friend do the deed for you?" Hope mocked.
"I'll be more than happy to end this thing's life," Xena snarled, drawing her sword.
"This thing is my daughter, Xena! For good or ill, she is the flesh of my flesh!" Gabrielle cried, startling both her daughter and the Warrior Princess. "I'm responsible for bringing her into this world, and I'll be the one who makes sure she leaves it."
Xena's scowl darkened. "All right," she said after a moment. She held out her sword. "Here."
But Gabrielle shook her head. She instead pulled a vial of dark liquid from one of her boots. "I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this, but I thought it might," she said softly as she uncorked the bottle.
"At least let me say good-bye to father," Hope suggested. "Help me over to the pit."
Gabrielle nodded and then reached down and helped Hope to her feet. When Xena moved to assist, Gabrielle angrily shook her head. "I said that I would do this by myself."
When the pair finally made it over to the pit, Hope looked down into it and sighed. "I feel it closing, mother, sealing this world off from that of my father, perhaps forever. He's in pain, mother, and weak, possibly dying," she said quietly.
"Would you like to join him?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, but I thought you should!" she shouted, twisting her body and throwing the Bard over her hip and into the pit.
But Gabrielle managed to grab onto the edge with one hand.
"Give father my regards," Hope giggled, raising her foot above the fingers of the Bard.
"Why not deliver them personally?" Xena growled, leaping up and landing with both feet on Hope's back.
The evil demi-Goddess pitched forward and over the edge of the pit, but she was able to grab one of Gabrielle's boots as she fell, jerking the Bard's hand free of the edge.
Before both women could plunge into the depths of the fast-closing portal, Xena threw herself forward onto her stomach and reached over and snagged Gabrielle's hand. "Not this time!" she grunted, straining to hold on and to keep from going over the edge herself.
"Xena, let go! You can't hold both of us! Let me go!" the Bard cried.
"I can't, Gabrielle! I won't lose you to this monster again! Just hold on!" Xena gasped, feeling her grip slipping and her body being dragged over the edge of the pit. "Don't you dare let go of me!"
"Xena! You're back!" Autolycus cried, tossing the book aside and throwing himself at the Warrior Princess, grabbing her feet as she slid over the edge of the pit. He struggled to pull all three women up and out of the opening, but he was barely able to keep from sliding in himself.
"Joxer! It's up to you!" Autolycus grunted, his body slowly being dragged forward.
"M-M-Me?" gulped the would-be warrior. "What can I do?"
"Take the rope from my grappling hook and tie it to something solid," the thief panted, sweat pouring down his face. "Hurry!"
Joxer rushed over and quickly located the rope, which was wound around a curious spring-loaded mechanism hidden in the folds of the King of Thieves' shirt, and pulled it until he had enough to reach one of the temple's pillars. He wrapped the line around the pillar and tied it off.
"Done. Now what?" he asked.
"Now, get over here and help me pull them up!" Auto gasped, feeling himself slipping forward.
Joxer turned and then watched helplessly as the thief's body disappeared over the edge, pulling the rope taut. He rushed over to the pit and looked down and saw Autolycus suspended by his rope, holding onto Xena's ankles, while she was holding onto Gabrielle's hand, with Hope clinging to the Bard's boot.
"JOXER!!!" yelled his three friends.
Joxer looked around him for something he could use to help him pull Autolycus, Xena, and Gabrielle from the pit, but the temple was, for the most part, empty.
"What do I do?" he cried, looking over the edge of the opening.
"Joxer, what did you tie the rope to?" Xena gasped, struggling to maintain her grip on Gabrielle's hand.
"How far away from the pit is it?" she asked urgently.
"About ten feet. Why?" he questioned.
"How far up the pillar did you tie the rope?" she demanded, ignoring his question.
"About four feet," he replied, confused.
"Watch your head!" Xena yelled, pulling the chakram from her belt and flinging it over her back and out of the pit.
Joxer stared in amazement as the chakram bounced around the chamber, shearing through the top of the pillar on one pass and then slicing through it close to the base on another, before finally ricocheting off the ceiling, back down into the pit, and into Xena's hand.
The pillar crashed to the ground, jerking the King of Thieves, and the others, up a little ways, but not far enough for Joxer to reach him.
"Now what?" called the would-be warrior.
"Now, you roll the pillar away from the pit, wrapping the rope around it and drawing us up like a bucket from a well," Xena gasped, clipping the chakram to her belt.
Joxer nodded and then ran over to the pillar and struggled to move it, but when it had toppled to the ground, it had sunk a bit into the soft earth. "I can't do it!" Joxer cried, his meager muscles straining. "It's stuck!"
"Joxer, listen to me," Xena said slowly and patiently. "You've got to do it. You're the only one who can. Dig deep inside yourself, Joxer, and find the strength of the Mighty One who rushed in to save us from Callisto, who risked his life to warn us of the Bacchae, and who was brave enough to stand up to his own brother. Can you do that, Joxer?"
"I'll try, Xena," he grunted, digging his heels in and pushing against the heavy pillar.
"You'd better do more than try! If we die, I'll be waiting for you on the other side, and you won't be happy to see me," she promised.
Joxer gulped and redoubled his efforts, but to no avail.
"It's no use. I can't budge it!" he exclaimed, collapsing next to it.
"Try rocking the pillar back and forth until it works free of the groove it's in," Autolycus suggested.
Joxer stood up and began to rock the pillar, instead of simply push it, and was grateful when he saw it begin to move. "It's working!" he shouted.
Then, the pillar rocked free, but in the wrong direction, rolling instead toward the altar and coming to rest against the steps, despite Joxer's best attempts to stop it. So, even though it wound some of the rope around it, the fact that it was ten feet closer negated any upward progress and the result was that the four people were jerked violently, but remained in essentially the same position.
"What happened?" shouted Xena.
But Joxer ignored her as he struggled to roll the pillar away from the altar, careful to avoid the rut he had just freed it from. Finally, the rope began to wind around the pillar and the thief and the others slowly began to rise up the side of the pit.
"Gabrielle," Xena gasped, "I'm losing my grip. My hand is sweating too much from the heat in here."
The Bard looked down into the eyes of her daughter and said quietly, "Hope, our only chance is for you to let go of my boot and rejoin your father. Won't you prove to me that there is some trace of goodness in you? That I wasn't wrong to protect you as a child or to mourn your death after I poisoned you. Won't you show me you can love?"
Hope opened her mouth to respond, but then suddenly lost her grip and fell screaming into the fiery depths, leaving Gabrielle to wonder if she had let go on purpose or not.
Xena and Autolycus both breathed a sigh of relief as the weight on their arms suddenly decreased.
Then, something began to suck at them from below, pulling against them harder than the added weight had ever done.
Joxer yelped in surprise as the pillar pushed against him, forcing his heels to dig into the ground for purchase.
"What's happening?" he shouted.
"The portal must be closing!" Xena exclaimed, her fingers clawing into those of the Bard. "You've got to hurry, Joxer!"
Joxer grunted and then lowered his shoulder and pushed with all his might, forcing the pillar back. Slowly, excruciatingly, he managed to roll the pillar far enough away from the pit to allow Autolycus to swing his feet up and over the edge. He immediately rushed over to help the King of Thieves out of the pit and then both men dragged Xena out and then reached down and pulled Gabrielle free.
As they lay panting on the altar, trying to catch their breath, they heard a low rumbling coming from the pit.
"Move!" Xena ordered, helping Gabrielle while Joxer aided Autolycus.
They dove behind the pillar which had earlier crushed Strife just as the pit erupted with a blast of fire that struck the ceiling, shattering the roof and burying the portal, and James' body, beneath tons of rocks and dirt.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other as a wave of emotions swept across their faces. Then, unable to hold back any longer, they fell into each other’s arms, holding each other tightly and whispering sounds of reassurance.
"I really thought I was going to lose you this time," the Warrior Princess said, wiping the moisture from her eyes.
"I'll never leave you, Xena," the Bard promised, hugging her close.
"You swear?" Xena asked, pulling back and looking into her companion's eyes.
"I swear by all the Gods that nothing will ever separate us," Gabrielle vowed solemnly. "Not even death."
"I plan to hold you to that," the former warlord chuckled. "No welshing."
"No welshing," the Bard agreed. "No backing out, no second thoughts, no changes of heart. Ever."
Xena grinned, flashing that perfect, dazzling smile of hers, and then pulled the Bard close again, hugging her even more tightly. "Not ever."
Joxer moved to join them but Autolycus held him back and shook his head. "No group hugs just yet," he said with a smirk. "It's a private party at the moment."
Joxer looked down at Autolycus.
"Don't even think about it," the King of Thieves warned. The would-be warrior turned away with a sad look on his face. "But, thanks, Joxer, you saved my life. You saved all our lives." He held out his hand.
Joxer ignored the hand and embraced the startled thief instead.
"Get off of me," growled Autolycus good-naturedly, as he pushed the Mighty One away. "I said no hugs!"
"C'mere, Joxer, and I'll give you a hug," Gabrielle said with a grin, breaking away from Xena. "You were great!"
As she wrapped her arms around him, he looked up questioningly at the Warrior Princess.
"You did good, Joxer," she smiled, punching him lightly on the arm.
But Joxer quickly looped one arm around her and drew her into the embrace, too.
She perfunctorily hugged him as slightly as she could before pulling away and then looked over and happened to see the King of Thieves softly chuckling. "You did good, too. Thanks," Xena said with a soft smile.
"Okay, Joxer! That's enough already!" the Bard laughed, tearing herself from his grip. "I said a hug, not an embalming."
Joxer reluctantly released his hold on her and walked over to something lying on the ground.
"What do we do with this?" Joxer asked, retrieving the black book from where Autolycus had tossed it upon entering the temple.
"We'll return it to Athene," Gabrielle said, taking the book from Joxer's hand. "I guess we didn't need it after all."
"I'm just glad it's all over," sighed Autolycus.
"I'm not so sure it is," Xena said softly, pointing to a disturbance in the air in front of them.
They watched as Barney slowly materialized, pulling himself out of nothingness with great difficulty and no small amount of pain, until he stood before them, looking not like the lovable children's television host, but more like a miniature tyrannosaurus rex. His body was dark purple with some green markings on his back. His head was large and his mouth was full of sharp teeth. He glared at them with evil yellow eyes and lashed his tail angrily.
"Should we banish him again?" Joxer asked, trying to recall the names of the shows and hosts he and Autolycus had used before.
"That's only a temporary solution," Xena frowned. "We need to make sure he never bothers us again somehow."
"Leave it to me," Gabrielle said, approaching the fearsome monster with the black book behind her back.
Barney looked around him at the ruins of the temple. "What happened here?" he roared.
"You just missed one heck of a going-away party," the Bard replied, watching him carefully.
"Where are Hope and the portal?" he bellowed, glancing at the buried pit. "And Strife and Callisto?"
"All gone. Buh-bye. And now it's time for you to leave, too," she said.
"On the contrary, it's time for all of you to leave! Father and Hope may be gone, but my power comes more from the millions of children who worship me than it ever did from Dahak!" he thundered, advancing towards the Bard.
"In that case, would you mind giving me your autograph, before you kill me?" she asked, holding out the black book and opening it for him. "It's not really for me, but for my sister, Lilla. She's a big fan." She withdrew a quill from her pack and placed it in the open book.
"Really? Okay, how do you spell that?" Barney asked, accepting the book and quill from Gabrielle.
"S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E," Gabrielle said slowly, watching as the air around the lizard began to whirl and crackle.
"I thought you said her name was Lilla?" Barney snarled. Then, he noticed the opening vortex and took a good look at the book in his claws. "NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!" he screamed as he was sucked into the maelstrom. "My agent will hear about this and you'll be sorry!!!!"
Then, the vortex disappeared, taking Barney, and the book, with it.
"What happened?" Autolycus asked.
"James told me that he overheard Barney telling Strife that if he were to touch the book, it would open a portal to an empty world and he would be sucked into it," Gabrielle explained. "So, I guess he's in an empty world."
"Sounds like television," grunted Xena. "Let's get out of here. I'll need to soak in that hot tub for a week to soothe my aching muscles."
"And I could sure use one of Buffy's massages," Gabrielle added, glancing mischievously at the Warrior Princess.
"Not to mention one of Lissla's drinks," Autolycus added. "I even miss Tina's puns."
"And those Amazons still owe me a pizza for the beating they gave me when they thought I was you," Joxer said, peering at the King of Thieves.
"Tomorrow we'll come down with a group of Xenites and retrieve James' body so that we can give him the hero's burial he deserves," Gabrielle said, looking sadly over at the pile of rocks and dirt. "But tonight, I need to relax and celebrate life."
"Well, then, what are we sitting around here for?" Auto asked, climbing to his feet. He reached down and helped Xena up.
"Beats me," Joxer said.
"Don't tempt us," laughed Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus.
The King of Thieves had stepped out onto the balcony for some fresh air, to clear his head of the events of the past couple months, as well as Lissla's drinks, which she seemed to be making especially strong this evening, not to mention Tina's puns, which seemed to be especially bad tonight. He looked down at the ruins of the library and was suddenly aware of someone standing beside him.
He turned and saw Athene next to him, the owl perched on her shoulder and her gray eyes haunted by tears.
"You haven't forgotten Apollo's prophecy, have you?" she asked quietly.
"No, but with Dahak and Hope eliminated, I'm afraid it was all for nothing," he sighed.
"Dahak and Hope may be gone, as are Strife, Callisto, and even Barney, but none of them are dead," she said. "Evil will always exist, just as good will. They balance each other, like the scales held by my niece Themis. Without both, the scales would fall, plunging the world into chaos and anarchy. It is the existence of both which preserves the world we know. Tell me what my brother said."
Autolycus repeated the words of the Pythia:
"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..."
"Typical," Athene smiled. "He has told you basically what I have just told you, Autolycus. Except that he personalized it for you. You are the bird, you are the fish, my friend. You have no limits, other than those you choose to place on yourself. And, when your heart was troubled and you journeyed to Mount Parnassus and asked for my brother's help, you were trying to leave the air or water, as it were; trying to be something other than what you are. You're a thief, Autolycus. And, despite the difficult circumstances which led to that, a good man. Accept both of your natures, be both the bird and the fish, and you'll find that nothing can limit you. Deny either, and you condemn yourself to a life unfulfilled, potential unrealized, and dreams forsaken."
She reached out and wiped away the sole tear from the thief's cheek and held it up to her lips. "Fight the evil within you, Autolycus, as all humans must if they wish to preserve the balance within themselves, for that is the best way, the only sure way to eventually rid the world itself of evil," Athene smiled.
Then, with a puff of white smoke and the faint smell of a new scroll lingering in the air, she was gone, and Autolycus was alone.
A moment later, Lissla poked her head out from the drapes. "Here you are," she smiled. "Tired of all the excitement in here already?"
"Just tired," the thief sighed.
Lissla stepped onto the balcony and looked up at the star-filled sky. "Mmm, it's beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," Autolycus replied, but he wasn't looking at the stars.
DISCLAIMER: No psychotic Goddesses, maniacal Gods, purple dinosaurs, evil demi-Goddesses, or fiery demons were harmed during the writing of this fan fic, although a certain King of Thieves did have his pride take a beating and he, along with a would-be warrior and an underappreciated bard [and maybe even an ethically-challenged daughter of Dahak], eventually learned that it's not so much what you accomplish, but rather what you have the courage to try that matters the most.
Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed it!