"A Crowning Achievement"
Fortunately, when the floor dropped out from beneath his feet, Autolycus was still holding onto the doorknob. He also just barely managed to grab Gabrielle's hand with his other hand before she was impaled on the deadly spikes. Unfortunately, since his shoulder had already been injured by the swinging log trap, the strain of supporting the Bard's weight resulted in excruciating pain and nearly pulled his arm from its socket.
As the King of Thieves struggled to gain his footing on the narrow door frame and pull Gabrielle up to safety, he noticed that there were flat-topped pillars among the forest of spikes. Not that the pillars were wide enough to stand on, or were positioned in such a way that one could easily hop from one to another, especially since they were about a foot lower than the spiked tips, necessitating that one jump up and over the spikes to reach the pillars. Still, it might very well be their only hope of escaping this deadly trap.
"Don't drop me!" Gabrielle cried, trying to swing her legs up and onto the bottom of the door frame.
"Just hold on tight, I think my arm is going numb," he grunted, placing one foot on the frame and pulling the Bard up using only his good arm.
"Thanks," Gabby smiled, securing a precarious perch on the frame herself.
"Don't thank me yet," he replied. "And don't trust this frame to continue to support your weight. Stay here and hold onto the door itself if you can."
"Stay here? Where are you..." The thief suddenly leaped outward toward the far end of the spiked room, his left arm dangling uselessly. "...going? Never mind."
Autolycus landed on the nearest pillar with the palm of his right hand striking the flat top. He then sprang up and over the spikes, lightly landing on his right foot and instantly jumping up and over to land on his right hand again. He continued to flip up and over the spikes, landing only on the sporadically placed pillars, until he was finally able to launch himself at the inviting security of the corridor itself.
However, in his haste to reach the safety of the passageway, he overlooked a pillar much closer to the exit, and, as a result, struck hard against the wall and had to pull himself up using his right hand. After doing so, he lay panting on the floor, trying to catch his breath, when he heard an ominous cracking sound. He sat up and looked back, and, sure enough, the door frame had given way and Gabrielle was now clinging with one hand to the top of the door itself, while the other kept a deathlike grip on her beloved staff.
"Hang on, Gabrielle!" he called, getting to his feet.
"That's not funny, Autolycus!" she shouted back.
"Sorry. Bad choice of words," he admitted, flicking his wrist and causing his grappling hook to appear in his hand. He swung it around several times and then let it fly toward the Bard. "Yes!" he exclaimed triumphantly when it wound itself around the doorknob. He leaned back, pulling the rope taut and looped it around a sconce hanging from the wall. "Okay, now carefully swing your feet up onto the line and then, using your staff to help balance yourself, walk over to me," he instructed.
"You have got to be kidding me," Gabrielle said.
"Do you have any better ideas?" he shot back.
Gabrielle scowled and shook her head. "Just keep your eyes on me," he told her as she carefully let the thin line take the brunt of her weight. "Don't look down. Feel your way with your feet. I know you can do this, Gabrielle. You've got to," he added softly.
The frightened blonde nodded and, holding the staff in front of her as she'd seen tightrope walkers do in traveling shows, started across the rope. "You're doing fine, Gabrielle. Just think what a great story this will make. Just take your time and keep your eyes on me--Not that you'd want them anywhere else," he added with a wink. Then, he heard a groan and looked over and saw with horror that the bolts holding the sconce to the wall were coming out. "Say, about that `take your time' thing, um, you might want to hurry, after all," he said.
"What??!" the Bard exclaimed, nearly losing her footing.
"It's not like I had a lot of choices as to what to anchor the line to," he pointed out. "Just hurry up and this will still work!"
"As if I wasn't under enough pressure already," she groused to herself, going as quickly as she dared.
One of the bolts popped out and struck the far wall. "A little faster, Gabrielle."
"Faster??! I'm going as fast as I can!" she snarled.
Autolycus braced his back against the wall and attempted to hold the sconce in place with his feet, but he could feel it slipping free. "I don't think that's going to be fast enough!" he grunted.
Gabrielle frowned and hurried her pace a bit.
Another bolt popped out, this time striking the thief in the forehead. "Ow! I don't suppose you could do one of those Xena flips, could you?" he asked. Her only reply was an annoyed growl. "Hey! I was just asking."
With about five feet to go, she suddenly felt the line slacken and fought to maintain her balance. "What happened?" she demanded.
"We're losing the sconce!" Auto gasped, his leg muscles straining to hold the torch holder to the wall, despite the fact that three of the four bolts securing it were gone. "Hurry!"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and ran forward. Just as she crossed over the floor of the corridor, the sconce tore free, smashing into Auto's chest and knocking him to the ground. The Bard landed lightly on the floor and opened her eyes. "Are you all right?" she asked, kneeling next to him.
"I'm great. Just bloody great," he snarled, retrieving his grappling hook with a flick of his wrist. He stood up and grimaced when he tried to raise his left hand.
"Let me take a look," Gabrielle said, pulling his silk shirt down and exposing his purple shoulder. Her fingers gently probed the joint. "It's separated," she nodded.
"I already knew that," he scowled. "Stand back and I'll fix it." She stepped back and he suddenly threw his shoulder into the wall. "Augh!"
"Did it work?" the blonde asked.
"I don't think so," he frowned, rubbing it.
Gabrielle suddenly swung her staff around and connected the end with the top of Auto's arm. "Aiiieeee!!!" he yelped. "Holy mother of Zeus! That smarts! What's the big idea?"
"Raise your left arm," she replied. He did so, noticing that the pain had considerably lessened. "See? I have learned some things from Xena."
"Nice work," he said, moving his arm around in a circle. "Thanks."
"I figured I owed you, for saving my life and all," she smiled.
"Yeah," he replied, noticing how green her eyes were. "Well, we'd better get on with this. Xena and James can't stall that warlord forever."
"I wonder how they're doing?" Gabrielle asked as she followed the thief down the corridor.
"Better than we are, I hope," he said.
Rounding a corner, the pair found themselves in a dead end. Facing them was a door. A thick, metal door with a handle, but no lock.
"I don't like the looks of this," Auto said quietly. He approached the door and cautiously turned the handle. The door slowly opened, revealing a small room with two statues that looked exactly alike standing beside two identical doors.
"We really don't have any other choice," Gabrielle reminded him, shoving him into the room.
Behind them, the door slammed closed.
Then, they heard the sound of ancient machinery coming to life and saw with horror that the ceiling was slowly lowering.
Suddenly, a voice called out, "This is a test of reason. One of the doors leads to the prize you seek, the other to your doom. You may choose only one door and you may ask one of the statues one question. And, I will tell you this: One statue will always tell the truth and the other will always lie."
"Who are you?" Gabrielle asked.
"I am the Guardian. I was imprisoned here by the power of the object you seek, as were the two spirits who inhabit the statues, and the others," the voice replied sadly. "Hurry, your time is short."
"This is crazy!" Auto exclaimed. "I say we open both doors simultaneously and then see where they both lead."
"I don't think that's such a good idea, Autolycus," the Bard replied. "If I'm right, once either door is opened, the ceiling will come down much faster, and the statues are placed so as to make it difficult to simply switch doors. No, we're going to have solve this puzzle fairly, I'm afraid."
"Well, then, hurry up and solve it," the King of Thieves said nervously, glancing up at the ceiling.
Gabrielle nodded and walked over to the statues. Both were crudely carved men, identical in every detail. "If I were to ask your fellow statue which door he would tell me leads to the prize, which one would it be?" she asked the one on the right.
The statue replied, "The door on your right."
Gabrielle immediately opened the door on her left and gestured for Auto to hurry up as the ceiling began to drop even faster.
Once in the safety of the next room, Autolycus asked her, "How did you know that was the right door?"
Gabrielle replied, "If the statue I had asked had been the liar, he would have lied and told me the wrong door. In which case, that would have been the one that lead to our doom. And, if I had asked the truthful one, he would have told me which door the liar would have picked, and that still would have been the wrong one. So, I picked the one opposite the one it told me to." She smiled and shrugged. "Simple, really."
"Very clever," he nodded, stroking his mustache thoughtfully as he gazed at the blonde with new respect.
"Well, now, what have we here?" the Bard asked, looking around the room.
The only thing in it was a statue of a seated man holding a scroll in one hand and a sword in the other. A plaque at the statue's feet read:
TO BE AN EFFECTIVE RULER
WHICH IS NEEDED MORE?
Autolycus shrugged. "This one is too easy. Obviously the sword. A ruler must have strength of arms to protect his subjects," he said, reaching for the sword.
"Wait!" Gabrielle cried. "If a ruler is wise enough, he doesn't need to defeat his enemies with soldiers and arms, he can negotiate peace. Therefore, wisdom, represented by the scroll, is the most essential."
"All the wisdom in the world won't do a damn bit of good if you don't have an army willing to fight and die for you. I still say the sword is the most essential to a ruler."
"Any bully with an army can be a leader. But the question is which is needed more to be an `effective' ruler," she pointed out. "So, I say it's wisdom."
"Hmmm, you're assuming effective was deliberately chosen to describe the ruler," he said, thoughtfully stroking his chin.
"Everything in this maze has been very deliberate so far. Why should the wording of this plaque be any different?" she returned.
"Good point. Okay, I'll go with wisdom being the more essential of the two to being an effective ruler," he nodded, moving his hand to the scroll and pulling it downward.
Again, they heard the sound of ancient machinery coming to life and the statue slowly revolved on its base, revealing a room behind it. The pair cautiously entered the room and saw a rather plain, yet elegant, golden crown-like circlet sitting on a pillow of purple velvet atop a small pedestal. The only other thing in the room was a door on the far wall.
"Is this it?" Auto asked hopefully.
"I think so," Gabby replied, approaching the crown and looking at it more closely.
"What is it? And, more importantly, what does Inimicles want with it?" the thief questioned, noting that it wasn't particularly valuable, nor was the craftsmanship all that good. There were no jewels, as in the crowns of the kings of Corinth, Athens, and the other Grecian kingdoms, nor did it radiate any priceless qualities, as the treasures of Egypt did. Auto was clearly annoyed that he'd risked his life for this.
"I'm not sure. Wait, there's a name etched inside it," Gabrielle said, leaning over and squinting to make out the ancient markings. "Solomon."
"Who's that?" Auto asked.
"He was a king renown for his wisdom throughout the ancient world. He had treasures beyond imagining, hundreds of wives, and is said to have imprisoned the desert spirits in specially sealed jars," she explained.
"Sounds like my kind of guy," Autolycus remarked, twirling his mustache with a flourish. "But, I repeat, why would a thug like Inimicles be interested in this?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle shrugged, removing the crown and heading for the door. "But he does want it. And, unless we can use it to lure him away from Edom, he'll raze the village and kill every man, woman, and child to get it. Come on."
Auto sprinted ahead of her and opened the door and was surprised, and relieved, to find a set of stairs leading upwards.
As soon as both of them were on the stairs, the door behind them closed and a panel above them slid open, revealing blue sky.
"We made it, Gabrielle!" the thief exclaimed, turning to smile back at her as he stepped out into the town square on the opposite side of the statue from which they'd first entered the maze.
As the Bard joined him, several of the villagers suddenly emerged from behind the statue and, before the pair knew what had happened, struck them across the back of the head.
The village Elder stepped from hiding and removed the crown from Gabrielle's senseless fingers. "I'm sorry, my child. But this is the only way to save my village," he said in his usual monotone.
Macedonia, ca. 1941 AD
Janice awoke from a pleasant dream where she wore Amazon clothing, carried a staff, and traveled the country side with a warrior woman dressed in black leather. Blinking in the pale light of dawn, she looked around and almost panicked when she noticed that the metal man James was not at the doorway of the barn where he had been last night as she went to sleep. Getting up, she rationalized that James must be checking out the countryside, getting his bearings.
Janice got dressed quickly while waiting for James to come back and found her thoughts wondering about the strange soul trapped inside the metal body.
Hearing a noise near the doorway, she whirled around and reached for her gun as she spotted someone wearing a long trenchcoat and a floppy hat entering the barn. As her hand closed on nothing, she remembered too late that her gun had been taken by the German SS officer, Angriefer.
"Stay right there! Whoever you are!" she yelled out.
Janice then let out a long string of curses when the figure reached up and, taking off his hat, revealed the golden face and silver hair of James. "You scared the daylights out of me! Where did you find that silly coat and hat?"
"They were the only things that was left in the farmhouse. Sorry I scared you," James said in an apologetic voice.
"What do you want with it anyway?" Janice asked as she stepped closer and saw that it was very moth eaten.
"Needed it to disguise my unusual form so I could go back into town and get you breakfast," James said as he showed her a loaf of bread and a crock of what smelled like porridge with honey. "Traded some dinars that I had in my pockets with an old farmer that was out before dawn."
"Dinars? You mean from when you first lost your metal body?" Janice watched as James nodded his head. "Those dinars would now be considered historic relics. They're worth a fortune now!" Janice watched as a slow easy smile appeared on James' face.
"Right now they are worth breakfast. You hungry?"
Janice shook her head at the lost of the ancient mint perfect coins but then her mouth started to water over the smell of breakfast and she grabbed the food with an eager nod.
Dori shot another disgusted look at Jack as he drove the motorcycle. "It's bad enough that you drive like an old woman but you had to get lost to boot?"
Jack did not look at Dori but just shrugged his shoulders. "Can I help it if I can't read Greek? Besides I didn't hear you telling me which way to go. We were lucky to find that guy who was willing to sell us some gasoline for American dollars."
Dori did not answer Jack but just crossed her arms over her chest and continued to stare at the passing landscape in the glow of the motorcycle's headlight. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something darting in front of the motorcycle. "Watch out!" she yelled. Dori felt as Jack jerked the motorcycle hard to the left and then she had a brief sight of a startled jackrabbit sitting in the road and then what looked like a stone lion passing them on the right. A few seconds later they hit the cold water of the Strymon River.
Dori pulled herself up onto the bank of the river, dragging Jack after her, and flopped down in the cool mud, panting from exhaustion. As she lay there, catching her breath and making sure Jack was all right, she heard the sound of several large vehicles approaching. Then, the bridge over her head began to vibrate violently as three trucks rumbled slowly across it. She cautiously crawled up the bank and peered over the edge of the embankment and watched in wide-eyed amazement as three very familiar trucks rolled noisily toward the small village of Amphipolis.
After making sure that Mel was actually in the lead truck of the convoy, Dori scrambled back down to where Jack was spitting up what seemed like several gallons of water. She looked into the dark water of the river, but saw no sign of the motorcycle.
"Come on, Jack!" she said, grabbing the startled man's hand and pulling him to his feet. "We're in luck. The Nazis that have Mel are headed for Amphipolis, too."
"And you call that luck?" he questioned.
"Funny. Come on, or we'll lose them," she urged, climbing back up the embankment.
"Right behind you," he replied, following after her and doing his best to wring out his soaked clothing.
The pair followed the convoy to a fancy hotel, the parking lot of which was dominated by official German staff cars, and watched from the shadows as Angriefer, Mel, and the strange little doctor, along with a half-dozen soldiers, entered the large building.
"What now?" Jack asked, beginning to shiver in the cool night air.
"We wait and see where they go in the morning," Dori shrugged, pulling her green shirt tightly around her. "Wait here and keep an eye on them," she said, suddenly getting up and disappearing into the shadows.
About half an hour later Jack looked up when he saw a heavily clothed person on a bicycle peddling toward him. He noticed that the basket on the front of the bike was piled high with blankets and thick clothes.
"Here," the figure said, halting and tossing him some of the clothes.
"Dr. Lykken?" Jack gasped when she dismounted and pulled back the fur-lined hood on her jacket. "Where did you get all this stuff?"
"I said to call me Dori," she reminded him as he gratefully struggled into the warm outfit. "And, let's just say that I `borrowed' these things, and leave it at that, all right?"
"I'm not complaining," he smiled. "It's just too bad you didn't `borrow' any food. I'm star-" He paused when she removed some fresh bread, meat, cheese, and a couple of apples from her inner pocket. "You're fantastic!"
"I know," she replied, pulling a bottle of ouzo from her other inner pocket.
Jack laughed and the pair happily ate, only realizing just how hungry they were when they started to fill their bellies.
"Tell me how you met Dr. Covington and Miss Pappas," Dori suggested as they sat watching the hotel, snuggled in the woolen blankets with full stomachs and light heads, thanks to the ouzo.
So, Jack related the story of his first meeting with Mel and Janice, and how they had foiled Ares' attempt to escape the tomb Xena had imprisoned him in long ago, and then how he'd discovered that he'd accidentally taken the pack with the Xena Scrolls, instead of his own pack, when he left them and had returned it just when his new friends had heard about a recently begun site up north that was producing some unique finds and joined them to investigate. But when news of the coming invasion by Germany reached them, the women had decided to send Jack out of the country, entrusting him with the Xena Scrolls with orders to get them back to the United States of America and away from the Nazis and their allies.
"That part didn't go so well," he added with a sheepish frown.
"So I noticed," Dori replied with a laugh.
"Why don't you get some sleep and I'll keep an eye on our friends in the hotel," he said, sitting up. "I'll wake you in a couple of hours."
Dori briefly considered protesting, but then realized that she was pretty tired and so simply nodded and laid her head in his lap. "I doubt they'll go anywhere before morning," she said, yawning.
"I don't want to take any chances," Jack replied, gazing down at her fondly. She smiled and then closed her eyes.
Colonel Angriefer walked into the sitting room of the hotel and watched as Mel pushed her glasses up on her forehead and tiredly rubbed her eyes. "Have you finished translating the section that I am interested in yet, fraulein?" he asked, noticing that Schlaff, who was sitting in a chair beside Mel, jerked awake at his question.
"I think I've figured out the location, but I'm still not real sure what the item it refers to is. Something about knowledge and power," Mel said in an exhausted voice.
Angriefer smiled and said, "What do I care what it is called, so long as it can provide knowledge and power to the glorious Third Reich? You may have some breakfast and a brief nap and then we will go and claim this treasure, fraulein." Angriefer clicked his heels together and, after shooting a warning glance at Schlaff to keep him awake, he turned and went to see if the hotel's kitchen staff were awake yet.
Dori slowly came to, opened her eyes and then blinked suddenly at the unexpected sunlight. She looked up and saw that Jack had fallen asleep, sitting up, with his head thrown back and his mouth wide open. She sat up and looked over at the hotel, but, thankfully, it was apparently quite early and all of the vehicles were exactly where they'd been the night before. She carefully stood up and then went over and grabbed a bucket of water which was sitting next to a well near the abandoned house they'd spent the night next to.
After washing her face and hands, she walked over to Jack and emptied the entire bucket on him, making sure a lot of the water went straight down his throat.
He screamed and jumped to his feet, coughing and sputtering. "What's the big idea?" he demanded, putting two and two together when he saw her standing there with the empty bucket.
"You were supposed to wake me up, not fall asleep yourself," she replied with a slight frown.
"Oh, God...They're still there, aren't they?" he asked fearfully, whipping his head around toward the hotel.
"They're there. Well, their cars are still there at least. I assume they're still there as well," she informed him. "But that's not the point, Jack."
"I know. It's just that I had a full stomach and a bit to drink..." he said miserably. "I'm sorry."
"Well, no harm done, this time. Just see that the next time you agree to do something, you do it," she said, smiling a bit.
Further talk was interrupted as Angriefer, Mel, and four soldiers emerged from the hotel and got into one of the trucks. As the Germans and their prisoner drove off, Dori retrieved the bicycle and pedaled up to Jack. "Hop on," she said, indicating the small seat.
He did so without question and she followed the car as it headed out of town, towards the relatively open country to the east.
"So, let me get this straight. You were in love with an Amazon named Troya and you and she, um, got to know one another while you were in this metal body?" Janice asked James as they walked to the hidden temple.
"Yup. It's amazing the exacting detail that Hephaestos puts into his work. Of course, it helped that Hephaestos' wife, Aphrodite, had some say in this metal body's design," he told her with a grin. "We're there."
"We're where?" Janice asked distractedly, her mind awhirl with mental images.
"At the hidden temple of Artemis."
Janice looked around and saw that they had traveled into a pretty, unspoiled wilderness area. James had carried her for part of the way, running at full speed until Janice told him in no uncertain terms that she wanted to walk on her own for a while, so she had no idea how many miles they had traveled to get here.
"I don't see any temple," she finally said.
"That's why it's called a hidden temple," James told her with a smile. Reaching a large old oak tree, he grasped the bark and pulled, revealing a narrow opening going down in the base of the tree. "This temple was made by the Amazons so they would have somewhere to go to regroup if they were ever driven out of their lands."
"You mean, we're near the legendary Amazon lands?" Janice asked excitedly.
"Yeah. Properly speaking, we have been on the Amazon lands for quite a while now. Gabrielle and Xena decided to hide the crown here because they knew that Artemis would not allow anyone to enter her lands to search for it."
"Crown? Whose Crown?" Janice pulling to a halt turned to look at him.
"Haven't I mentioned the crown yet?" James asked as he gently pulled Janice down into the entrance of Artemis' temple.
Macedonia, ca. 41 BC
Xena waited and watched the woods at the front entrance to the village for a while, but when she saw and heard nothing, she decided that it was safe to leave the gate and go to the back where Joxer was. Running through the village she came to the village square and saw two forms slumped on the ground in the shadow of the large statue of the seated man with the scroll and staff.
"Did the fighting manage to get into the village?" she asked herself. She quickly dismissed the idea when she noticed that the villagers continued to go about their daily tasks as if nothing had happened. As she neared the statue, she caught a glimpse of red/gold hair peeking out of the shadows into the sunlight.
"Gabrielle? Gods, no! Don't let anything have happened to her or Autolycus!" Reaching the two prone people, Xena quickly checked their throats for a pulse. Relaxing only when she found that they both had strong pulses, she checked them over for injuries. Grimacing when she found the purple bruises on Autolycus' shoulder, she determined that they had both been knocked unconscious by blows to the back of their heads. As she checked Gabrielle over, she heard Autolycus moan. She watched as he opened his eyes and then closed them quickly again.
"Oh yeah, this has been a great day. Sure, Xena, I would love to help you recover a mysterious item for a bunch of villagers," Auto groaned. "You forgot to tell me that my payment for this service was to going to be that I would get beaten up by those villagers, though."
"What are you talking about?" Xena asked, looking sharply at Auto.
"He means that we got Solomon's crown out of the maze. But as soon as we stepped out of the passage, the village elders hit us over the head and took it," Gabrielle said as she opened her eyes slowly.
"Bacchae breath!" Xena swore. "They must believe that if they give the crown to Inimicles, he'll leave their village in peace."
"Will he?" Gabrielle asked as she leaned forward and massaged the back of her head with her hands.
"Pieces would be my guess. But I'm not going to give them a chance to find out! Inimicles' forces are in shambles because of James' help. I'll stop them before they can give it to Inimicles and put an end to this now!" Xena said rising to her feet.
Just then a scream rang out in Joxer's voice.
"Help me! Something is pulling me toward the statue!"
Autolycus and Gabrielle stumbled to their feet, grimacing all the way with pain, and raced to the corner of the statue where Xena was already standing. The sight that met their eyes was that of Joxer being dragged along the tiles of the village center toward the statue. Joxer's hands were scrambling for some kind of grip on the tiles but were finding nothing to hold on to. Gabrielle could not believe her eyes as the men and women of the village looked on and did nothing to help Joxer.
"Xena! It's me, James. Help me!" Joxer yelled over his shoulder at Xena as he was being pulled faster and faster toward the statue.
Xena, with one of her war cries, ran forward and, springing into the air, did a triple forward flip and landed astride Joxer. Grabbing hold of his shoulders, she pushed him down to the ground and held him there. But the Warrior Princess could feel as something strove to pull Joxer out from underneath her and actually managed to lift Joxer's shoulders off of the ground and shift him a few inches closer to the statue.
"Oh, no, you don't!" Xena shouted and pushed down harder.
Suddenly, Xena felt an icy wind blow through her and Joxer abruptly went limp. "James? James are you in there?" she asked as she turned Joxer's body over. The only response she got was a gentle snore from Joxer.
Gabrielle and Autolycus stumbled over to where Xena was kneeling next to Joxer's body.
"What happened?" Autolycus asked, looking down at Joxer.
"James was in Joxer's body for some reason and the glyph must have got him," Xena said standing and glaring at the statue.
Auto lowered his head and then said in a sad voice, "I'm going to miss James."
"We're not leaving James trapped in some Hades' cursed hunk of rock for eternity!" Xena snarled. "Gabrielle, did you see this glyph when you and Auto were in there?"
"Yes, Xena. It looked like a crude drawing of a stick man falling down a spiral and it was all enclosed in a circle within a circle and there was some strange writing that I couldn't make out," Gabrielle said, frowning with concentration.
"If I open the door to the maze and hold it open, do you think that you might be able to figure out how to release James from this trap?"
"I can try! James deserves that we at least make the attempt," Gabrielle said, nodding her head.
"Autolycus, I want you to try and stop the elders from giving the crown to Inimicles. Steal it, distract them, or attack the elders, but don't let that madman get his hands on that crown!" Xena said turning to Auto.
"Trust me, Xena it will be a pleasure. Especially after they conked me on the head," Autolycus said with a nod and then a grimace because of his headache.
Janice could see by the light coming through the opening in the tree's base that there were stone steps spiraling down inside the old tree. James brought his hands together sharply, causing a muted clang and sparks over a torch mounted inside the tree, and immediately Janice could see as torches further down the spiral flare into life.
"How did you find this temple? I mean, I would think that all of the landmarks from your time would have been gone by now," Janice asked as they started to climb down the stairs.
"Oh, I judged the location by the mountains and the distance from the river, which, fortunately, are still here. It also helps that I can feel a tingle when I am around the Gods or any of their handiworks," he answered her.
Janice saw as they made the last turn in the staircase that they had entered a huge cavern. The walls of the cavern had been painted with scenes of Amazon hunting parties and festivals and, at the far end of the cavern, there was a large altar with a statue of Artemis behind it.
"Okay, this is as far as I can go. You'll have to walk over to the altar and pray to Artemis to give you the crown on your own," James said, turning to look at the stunned Janice.
"What do you mean, I have to go on my own? And who's crown is it? Pray to Artemis? How do I do that? And why would she listen to me anyway? What if she isn't around anymore?" a fully frustrated Janice yelled.
"One: You have to go on your own because Artemis was not real big on men in her temples and I can't go past that," James told her, pointing to the sides of the cavern where two statues of the 'Huntress' stood. "Two: The crown belonged to the Israelite king, Solomon. Three: You pray to Artemis by going over to the altar and placing an offering on it and telling her who you are, the descendant of her queen, Gabrielle," he explained as he handed her an apple out of one of the pockets of the coat he was wearing. "I picked up this apple from the village when I got your food for just this purpose. Artemis will listen to you because not only are you a woman but also the descendant of one of her queens. And, oh, the last question? Artemis is still around. The Gods and Goddesses cannot die. They just get a little weak when they're not worshiped. Artemis is still around, though, because I can still feel her power in this temple."
Janice took the apple out of his hand and stared at it like she had never seen one before. Looking up at James with a dazed look she said, "I think I need to sit down for a moment." And so saying she plopped down into a crossed-legged position.
"I know. It's a little overwhelming, isn't it? Take your time," he told Janice, patting her on her shoulder.
Angriefer sat in the passenger side of the German truck as it crept alongside of a determinedly walking Mel. He wanted to ask if she was sure of her directions, but the intense look of concentration on the beauty's face stopped him. He could also see that Mel was still counting to herself, just like she started when she had him go to the river and then aligned herself with a prominent mountain in the distance and started walking, and didn't want to throw off her concentration.
Suddenly stopping, Mel's eyes opened wide and she announced, "We're here."
Angriefer looked around, but saw only a forest glade with some impressive old trees. "I don't see any temples here."
"I told you that the scroll said the temple was underground, and that the entrance was hidden by a tree," Mel snapped at Angriefer and then adjusted her glasses.
"Which tree? We're in the middle of a forest!"
"Well, I lead you to the right area. Y'all will just have to search until you find the right one, won't you?" Mel said as she tiredly plopped down onto the grass.
Janice looked nervously back to where James waited on the other side of the cavern. Getting a motion from James that clearly said `get on with it,' she turned back and placed the apple in the center of the altar. Closing her eyes for reasons that even she could not explain, Janice began to address the empty space around her. "Great Goddess Artemis, you don't know me but I am a descendant of your Queen Gabrielle. She, I mean your Queen Gabrielle, left something here for you to guard and I need it to get somebody that I care for back from some very bad people." Janice paused for a moment, feeling a little foolish and wondering what else she could say. Opening her eyes, she was stunned to see a young woman wearing brown leather and carrying a bow watching her from across the altar.
"You're wrong, you know. You're not unknown to me. All brave, strong, intelligent women are known to me," Artemis said as she reached out and took the apple from the altar. She looked at the apple for a moment and then said, "The offerings were a little more grand in the old days, but I understand that you were rushed for time. Besides, it's the thought that counts." Looking over Janice's shoulder, Artemis called out, "James? Back again? While it's true that I usually don't like men in my temples, you're an exception. There is nothing usual about you. Please, come join us."
Janice could hear without looking as James started across the stone floor to join them.
Angriefer was getting annoyed with all the time it was taking as he watched the four German soldiers he had brought with him checking trees. "You had best not be playing the games with me, fraulein," he threatened Mel where she sat on the ground.
The linguist started to reply to him when Schlaff yelled out, "I found it, sir!"
Looking over to where Schlaff was standing holding a section of bark away from a large tree, Angriefer could see that there was a burning torch inside the hollow of the tree.
"Good work, sergeant!"
Janice and James watched as Artemis, holding out her hands, caused the crown to appear in them. "This crown allows it's user to tap into the knowledge of the universe. You wouldn't believe how jealous Athene was when Gabrielle gave it into my keeping instead of hers." The Goddess smiled for a moment before her face became solemn. "This is a very dangerous item. Not in and of itself, but because knowledge without morals can be very destructive! Are you sure that you wish to try and trade this item for your friend's life?" she asked Janice.
"I would trade anything for Mel's safe return! I'm sure that after we have Mel back safely, James and I can get it back from the Nazis," Janice said with feeling.
"Very well, I leave the crown's fate in mortal hands once again," Artemis said as she placed the crown into Janice's waiting hands. "May the Fates smile on you!" the Huntress gave a sympathetic grin when she saw James wince a little at her blessing.
Then, with a flash of light, she was gone.
"I've met two Gods," Janice kept repeating over and over again as she walked back to the staircase with James. "How many more before I've met as many as you have?" she asked, looking up at the metal man.
"Quite a few, I'm afraid," he chuckled at her and then stopped suddenly.
Janice, wondering why James had stopped so abruptly, looked up and saw Colonel Angriefer and Mel waiting at the base of the stairs.
The village elder calmly waited. To do anything else would be to imply that he did not have trust in his God. He watched as the warlord Inimicles rode up on a horse and dismounted. He saw that another man with a sharp nose profile rode up and dismounted as well.
"Do you have the item?" Inimicles asked in a cold voice.
"I do. If I give it to you, do you promise to take it and leave my village in peace?" the elder asked in a calm measure voice.
"You have my word that I will leave the village in perfect peace," Inimicles said with a nod to the elder.
Autolycus, after running through the streets, leapt to the village's outer wall and, climbing quickly, managed to reach the top in just enough time to watch with a curse as the elder handed the crown over to Inimicles.
The warlord took the crown with an almost solemn air and then, moving at a blinding speed, pulled his sword out and rammed it into the elder's body. "I said that I would leave your village in perfect peace, and nothing is more peaceful than a grave."
The elder glanced down in shock at his body, and then said with a surprised air, "My Lord did not provide help?" and then fell to the ground and died.
"You know, Hawk. I have always found that the Gods help those that help themselves," Inimicles said with a laugh. "Go to my men and tell them to raze the town and then come to the supply caves they will find me there."
Hawk nodded and, remounting his horse, rode off.
Autolycus watched as Inimicles stared at the crown for a moment and then placed it on his head. A bright light surrounded the head of the warlord for a few seconds and when it cleared Autolycus could see that Inimicles' eyes and the crown were both glowing.
"I understand everything now!!" Inimicles roared.
Janice glared at Angriefer. "I have what you want. Let Mel go, and promise that we will go free, and you can have it."
Angriefer, with his gun firmly in Mel's side, replied, "What makes you think that I cannot take it anyway?" He smiled evilly at Janice.
"You're forgetting about my friend here," Janice said as she rested her hand on James' arm.
Angriefer, peering in the dim light of the torches, looked at the man beside Janice. He was tall and wearing a long overcoat and a large floppy hat but, other than that, the colonel could make nothing else out. "Why should I be afraid of him?"
James gently took Janice's hand off his arm and, with a single pull, ripped the coat off his metal frame and savagely jerked the hat off of his head. "Remember me?"
"Mein Gott! It is the metal monster from the castle!" Angriefer gasped.
"Look who's calling who a monster. Does this 'Third Reich' I keep hearing about always hide behind women?" he asked the startled German.
Angriefer tightened his grip on Mel's arm and dug the gun a little harder into her side. Then, he relaxed a little. "I am not an unreasonable man, nor is the Third Reich. You want the lovely lady. I want the item. We will trade."
Janice started to rush over to Mel's side, but was stopped when James placed his hand on her shoulder. "Janice, I've been around for a long time. Trust me, I've seen these situations many times, and they never work out like you think they will."
"We have to get Mel back! Please let me trade him," Janice asked with a catch in her voice.
"All right, but I'll make the trade." Taking the crown from her hands, James made his way over to the highly nervous Angriefer.
"Stop right there!" he yelled when the metal man got about half way to him. "Place the crown on the ground and I will release the fraulein."
James nodded and, after placing the crown on the ground, stepped back to where Janice was waiting.
Angriefer walked over with Mel and, reaching the crown, he abruptly shoved her toward the anxious pair. Then, scooping up the crown, he turned and made a run for the staircase.
Catching Mel before she hit the ground, James turned and helped her to her feet and to Janice's side. Turning to charge up the staircase where Angriefer had fled, he watched as a can on a stick came bouncing down the stairs. Janice screamed at him to get away from it, that it was dangerous. Grabbing up the two ladies into his arms, James ran at top speed away from the strange item toward the altar. Leaping behind the stone altar, they heard a loud bang and then the sound of the cavern collapsing.
Angriefer watched as the ground fell into the hole, burying the two women and the metal man. Turning, he looked at Schlaff. "It's too bad about the fraulein. She was very attractive." He turned the crown over and over in his hands. "This is the item that is so powerful?" he asked out loud. Shrugging his shoulders, he removed his hat and handed it to Schlaff. Looking at the crown once more, he lifted and settled it on his head.
Schlaff watched as a powerful glow of light surrounded Angriefer's head. When the light faded, the sergeant was stunned to see both the crown and the colonel's eyes glowing.
Angriefer turned and, looking at an alarmed Schlaff, said, "I understand everything now!!"
Dori and Jack had watched from a safe distance as the truck slowly crept along the dirt road, with Mel walking beside it, reading from her notes. The young woman had been constantly scanning the area, looking from the nearby mountains to the river and then finally at a small grove of trees.
When she had stopped, the Germans had piled out of the truck and began examining the trees.
"What are they looking for?" Jack had asked.
"That," Dori had answered, pointing to where a soldier had uncovered a hidden stairway inside one of the trees. Angriefer and Mel had disappeared into the tree, but a few minutes later, the German had run out and they heard the sound of a muffled explosion as a cloud of smoke and dust was expelled from the hole in the tree.
"What's that thing on the colonel's head?" Jack had inquired, noting the glowing circlet.
"Trouble would be my guess," Dori had scowled. "Come on, we've got to dig Mel out of there before she suffocates!"
She got up and charged toward the small grove as Angriefer and the soldiers climbed into the truck.
"There's a cemetery on that hill," they heard the SS officer declare. "Take me there at once, Schlaff!"
"Jawohl, colonel," they heard the sergeant answer as the truck slammed into gear.
"What does he want with a cemetery?" Jack questioned as the pair ran toward the smoking remains of the tree.
"If he wants what I think he wants, we're going to be in a real jam!" she exclaimed, reaching the exposed entrance to the temple. Unfortunately, after descending a few feet, the stairway was completely buried by rocks and debris.
"It'll take days to dig them out!" Jack sighed, looking down and shaking his head.
"Maybe I should go back to town and get some help?" Dori suggested.
"Um, I think the help's arrived," Jack replied, swallowing hard and pointing to a dozen robed figures making their way toward them as if they'd materialized out of nowhere. And, even stranger, they were all carrying shovels and picks.
Jack and Dori waited nervously as one, who appeared to be the leader, approached them. "I am Karissa," the figure said, pulling back the hood and revealing a beautiful woman with curly blonde hair. "My sisters and I will help you rescue your friends."
"Sisters?" inquired Dori, glancing at the other robed figures.
"Your parents don't fool around when they fool around, do they?" Jack observed.
"They're not my blood sisters," Karissa explained as the others likewise lowered their hoods and revealed that they were all attractive women. "We are sisters of the spirit, bound by the Goddess Artemis, whom we worship."
"You're Amazons?!" Dori cried.
"That is our ancient name," nodded Karissa, as the others began to dig around the shattered tree.
Autolycus cursed his luck that he'd been too late to stop Inimicles from getting the crown of Solomon and from killing the village Elder. Then, seeing Inimicles mounting his horse, he decided the best thing to do was fill Xena in on what had transpired and then go after the warlord. He watched the man who was a dead-ringer for his late friend James ride off to the northeast and then hurried to tell the Warrior Princess what he'd witnessed.
When he arrived back at the town square, however, he found Xena struggling to hold open the sliding panel which led down into the beginning of the labyrinth and no sign of Gabrielle.
Xena glared at his empty hands. "What happened?" she grunted.
"Do you want some help with that?" he asked, stepping forward until he could see Gabrielle standing at the bottom of the stairs, carefully examining the warding glyph. He reached for the panel.
"Don't touch it!" she exclaimed. "I've got it wedged against the tracks and I don't want to take any chances on it closing. Just tell me why you don't have the crown."
He quickly related the elder's murder and the order to destroy the village. "So, you don't have much time," he finished.
"We can't leave until James is freed. If Inimicles' men destroy the glyph while he's trapped in it, who knows what will happen to him," she replied, a worried look on her face. "But from what you said, I would guess Inimicles is heading for the caves outside of Pella. His army would have had to have passed them on the way here, and they're the only caves I know of in this area."
"I was thinking the same thing," Auto nodded. "I'll go after him and try to steal the crown back, or at least learn what his plans are."
"Good. We'll join you as soon as we can," Xena said, glancing down at the Bard.
"Are you sure you don't me to stick around? You might need--" he began.
"We'll be fine," Xena snapped. "Besides, if Inimicles isn't heading toward the caves we think he is, we need to know where he is headed. Now, get going before you lose him."
"Okay, okay. Oh, and I'll tell any villagers I meet on my way out of here to head for the hills, for all the good it will do," he snarled, walking away. "I've never met a group of people so determined to be martyrs in my life!"
As the King of Thieves made his way back toward the city wall, neither he nor Xena noticed that Joxer had awoke during their talk, and the Warrior Princess didn't see him get up and trail after the thief.
"Hey! The warlord's army is going to burn this place to the ground! You've got to get out of here as quickly as possible!" Autolycus shouted into the face of a man, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. "I mean right now!"
"The Lord will provide for my salvation, if that is His plan," the man replied calmly.
Auto disgustedly let him go and ran over to a woman and her two children. "Lady, this place is doomed! Take your children and get out of here while you can!" he cried, meaningfully looking down at the little boy and girl beside her. "If not for your own sake, then for the sake of your children!"
The woman started to turn away, but then the little girl began to cry and she nodded and scooped the child into her arms. "Thank you!" she said, grabbing the boy by the hand and heading for the gates.
"Tell the others! Convince them it's their only chance!" he called after her.
Suddenly, a hail of fiery arrows descended on the village, lighting the thatched roofs on fire, and Auto ran for the gates himself.
"Come back here, you nag!" Auto shouted angrily. He'd arrived just in time to see "his" horse break free and run off, back in the general direction of Tangae. Of course, he reasoned, given his lousy horsemanship, that was probably not altogether a bad thing. But since he was still tired from the journey through the maze--Even though his arm was feeling much better after whatever Gabrielle did to it--he had been almost looking forward to riding instead of walking.
Now, having no other choice, he darted into the trees, avoiding the soldiers who were converging on the doomed village, and loped off after Inimicles and the mysterious crown.
Joxer, with the luck only the foolish can lay claim to, also managed to slip by the soldiers--Truth be told, they were too busy to notice the strangely garbed man, and, even when they saw him, since he wasn't wearing the robes of the villagers, they simply ignored him--and pursued the thief, intending to help him.
Autolycus nodded when he saw the warlord approaching the valley outside of Pella where the caves were located. Auto knew those caves extremely well. He'd used them to hide in, from time to time, and even to temporarily store some of his ill-gotten gains, until he could fence them for cold hard dinars. Currently, the only loot he had hidden in them was several pieces of exceptionally fine--and easily traceable--jewelry, courtesy of the Queen of Therma, and the Ankh of Osiris, which he'd stolen from the tomb of Cleopatra's late brother.
Then, just as Auto was about to follow Inimicles through the narrow mouth which led to the dead end valley, several guards emerged from hiding and saluted their leader as he rode through.
"That's going to complicate things," the thief said to himself, scowling as he thoughtfully stroked his mustache.
Suddenly, a figure noisily clattered to the ground behind him and he nearly jumped out of his skin. Turning, he saw Joxer sprawled on the ground a few feet away.
"Whoops," grinned the would-be warrior, waving weakly.
"Joxer! What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"I thought I could help, so I followed you," he replied, climbing to his feet and adjusting his armor and helmet.
"If you really want to help go back and tell Xena that Inimicles is where we thought he'd be," Auto snarled, looking for some sign that the guards had heard Joxer's arrival. Fortunately, they appeared not have noticed.
"You're just trying to get rid of me. I heard you and Xena and I know she and Gabrielle are going to meet you here," he responded, staring into the thief's eyes.
Autolycus scowled and stared back. Then, with a sly smile, he said, "On second thought, I can use your help. C'mon, Joxer."
"Really? I mean, of course you can. What's the plan?" he asked, following Auto as he walked straight toward the entrance to the valley.
"You'll see," the thief smiled, as the pair walked very openly across the meadow in front of the valley's mouth.
Suddenly, several men showed themselves as they neared the valley.
"Halt! State your business or die!" cried one of the men.
"I am Patheticus, a scout hired by our great lord to watch his back as he traveled here," Auto declared. "I caught this man following him." He shoved Joxer roughly to the ground.
Joxer looked back at Auto in confusion and saw the thief discreetly wink. `I sure hope you know what you're doing,' he said to himself.
"Here, now, I recognize this one," another soldier said, eyeing Joxer carefully. "He's the one who escaped with that blonde."
"Our leader will be pleased to see you again, fool!" spat a third man.
"I'll take him into Inimicles," Auto said, grabbing Joxer by the collar and hauling him to his feet.
"I'll go with you," said one of the guards.
"That really isn't necessary," Autolycus said.
"Oh, I insist," the man replied. "He's a slippery one, he is, and I don't want him getting away again. Cost me friend his life last time he did. I want to see he gets what he deserves."
"Of course," nodded Auto. "Lead the way, my good man."
"Oh, no, after you, Weasel. I want to keep an eye on our friend," the man replied, drawing his sword and poking Joxer forward.
Autolycus frowned and lead the way into the valley.
Gabrielle studied the glyph on the wall before her. It had a symbol of a stick man caught in a spiral surrounded by two circles. Underneath the symbol were words carved in stone in a language that Gabrielle had never seen before. `How do I figure out what to change?' Gabrielle thought desperately to herself. Closing her eyes she leaned her head against the wall and thought about giving in to her frustration and fears and cry.
Suddenly, Gabrielle heard a voice inside her head speak.
"Who are you?" the voice whispered.
"My name is Gabrielle. Who are you?"
"My name is Ezra. I was the one who built this maze to protect the crown of Solomon. It was I that built this spirit trap so that no evil force could use spirits to map out the maze. I did not realize at the time that it would also trap all of the people who died in the village. The good, the evil, they are all trapped in here with me."
"Can you tell me how to break the trap and release all of the souls so that they are free to go to the other side?" Gabrielle asked without opening her eyes or breaking contact with the wall.
"I sense that the crown is no longer in the maze. Has it been removed?"
Gabrielle could feel the fear in Ezra's mental voice as he asked the question. "Yes. A friend and I removed the crown in the hopes that we could draw a warlord away from this village and keep the people here safe but then the elders of the village knocked us out and gave the crown to the warlord in the hopes that he would spare them."
Gabrielle could hear Ezra's mental sigh. "How could the village elders do something so stupid? Evil never bargains. It just takes." Again, the Bard could hear Ezra give a mental sigh.
"What about this spirit trap? Can you tell me how to open it?" Gabrielle asked, with a touch of impatience. She could hear Xena grunting with the effort of holding the secret door open.
"Hmm? Oh, the spirit trap? Yes, I guess that it no longer serves its purpose, does it?"
"No, with the crown gone, it is no longer needed. Tell me how to turn it off and let all those souls free," Gabrielle whispered to the wall.
Xena, far above, could hear Gabrielle whispering and wondered who she could be talking to. "Gabrielle, hurry up! Whatever closes this door is getting stronger and I have a feeling that if it closes again it will be for the last time!"
Gabrielle was about to urge Ezra to tell her how to turn off the spirit trap again when images began to flood into her mind. Following the mental pictures in her mind, Gabrielle began to carefully chip away at the first circle surrounding the stick figure in the glyph with Xena's breast dagger.
Xena, above, felt as the earth trembled and watched as the secret door slid another precious inch closer to closing. "Gabrielle, hurry!"
Gabrielle cut away at the second, inner most circle of the carving and felt the earth tremble again. This time, after the earth stopped shaking, she could hear, as though it was far off in the distance, the sounds of people moaning and crying. Now the mental pictures were showing her the strange words that were carved in the rock below the picture. Following the image in her mind she located a single carved letter. She watched as the mental picture in her mind slowly changed the letter to a new one. Concentrating so hard she started to sweat, Gabrielle carefully started to alter the letter. With a last careful chip of stone, she had the mental image and the real image looking exactly the same. Leaning her head against the stone wall, she started to ask what had to be changed next.
Without warning, the Bard was thrown across the small corridor to hit the other wall. Shaking her head dazedly, Gabrielle watched as spirits started to walk out of the wall. The first ones out were obviously members of Inimicles' army. Gabrielle tried to arrange her short skirt as she noticed the evil leers the shades were giving her. The dead men started to move toward her when a black pit opened in front of them. The ones in the lead fell into the pit with a scream while those behind pulled back.
Suddenly, Gabrielle could hear the sounds of a pack of dogs. Seeing the spirits of Inimicles' men looking nervously behind them, Gabrielle concentrated on that area and was surprised when, flowing out of the wall, came not a pack of dogs but only one. One with three heads. Most of the spirits turned and tried to run from Cerberus, the watch dog of Hades, and fell into the pit. Two tried to fight the dog and were quickly caught in two of his mouths.
Shaking them like rag dolls, Cerberus eventually threw them into the pit. Walking in tight circles three times in front of the pit, Cerberus flopped down in front of it and, with one head watching the wall with the glyph, one head looking straight forward, and the final head watching Gabrielle, waited.
Gabrielle, with a great deal of effort, took her eyes off of Cerberus and returned to watching the wall. Next, a long line of people, young and old, came out of the wall. Gabrielle recognized the spirit of the young boy who fell out of the tree and broke his neck and who's funeral she had attended. Farther along the passage a shaft of pure white light appeared and the spirits made their way to it and one by one disappeared into it.
The last two spirits out of the wall were a very old man and, to Gabrielle's great relief, the spirit of her friend James. The old man paused near Gabrielle and, looking down at her, said, "Thank you for helping me to release the spirits, Gabrielle." The old man smiled and patted her on the head, then, turning, he walked into the light and was gone.
"Who was that?" Gabrielle asked no one in particular.
"That was Ezra," James answered her.
Gabrielle turned and looked at her friend James, surprised to see tears in his eyes.
"Thank you for not giving up on me, Gabrielle! I will never forget it. I would hug you if I could," he told her with his emotions thick in his voice.
Gabrielle started to answer when she felt the earth start to shake again. "We have to get out of here now!" she said, jumping to her feet and running up the stairs and out past a sweating and straining Xena. As soon as Gabrielle cleared the doorway Xena pulled her sword free and allowed the door to slam shut for the last time.
Xena watched a shaking Gabrielle until the Bard regained her breath. "Well, did you free James?"
Gabrielle smiled and, looking beside Xena where James was standing, she said, "Yes, he's right beside you now and he wants me to tell you that he can never thank you or me enough for getting him out of there."
"What was it like in there?" Xena asked curiously as she examined her swords for nicks.
Gabrielle listened for a moment and then said, "James says it was all dark and quiet in there. He could sense people near him, but couldn't talk to them or hear them or see them. Sounds worse than Tartarus to me," Gabrielle added with a shudder.
"Yeah, having to be quiet for eternity would be sure torture for you!" Xena said as she wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's waist and gave her a brief hug.
"Funny!" Gabrielle said as she playfully slapped Xena in the stomach.
As the trio made their way into the cave-riddled valley, Auto remarked, "I don't think you heard me right back there, friend. The name's Path-"
"Shh!" hissed the soldier suddenly. "I heard you. I just hope Ares didn't hear you."
"Ares? What's he got to do with this?" Auto asked.
"Lord Inimicles hates Ares. He's not only denounced him, but he takes great pains to destroy every village loyal to Ares that he comes across. So, in order to hide our true selves from his wrath, most of the men have adopted the name of animals," he explained.
"Why Weasel?" the thief demanded suspiciously.
"Well, no offense, friend, but you do have a very shifty look about your eyes. It just seemed natural," the soldier added.
Joxer snickered and Auto turned and glared at him. "And what animal name have you chosen?" the King of Thieves asked the soldier behind his friend.
"I'm Bear," replied the large man proudly.
Autolycus nodded and they passed by a pair of guards and entered a large cave--Unfortunately, it was the one where Auto had stashed his treasures.
Within the cave stood a man who looked remarkably like James. He was wearing a glowing crown and busily carving symbols into the bars of a wooden cage. Fortunately, the hidden niche where Auto's valuables were stored had apparently not been discovered, causing the King of Thieves to breathe a sigh of relief.
"Lord Inimicles," Bear said hesitantly, not eager to disturb the warlord, "we have captured that fool who earlier escaped with the help of your tracker."
"Tracker?" the warlord grunted, turning to look at the captive. "Ah, so you're back. Good. Keep an eye on him, Bear. Better make that both eyes." He went back to carving.
"Yes, Lord Inimicles," Bear replied. "Shall I chain him to an X again?"
"Hmmm? An X? Good idea, Bear," Inimicles answered, clearly distracted by something as his dagger's point continued to carve strange figures in the wood.
"Lord Inimicles appears to have his mind elsewhere today," Bear commented as he pushed Joxer toward a large wooden X leaning against the wall of the cave.
"Yeah, a field full of henbane would be my guess," mumbled Auto. "He's probably just preoccupied with his victory. What's with the cage and the runes?"
Bear shrugged. "He's been working on it ever since he arrived, but none of us know what it is," he said, chaining the would-be warrior's wrists and ankles to the X.
All three men looked over as the warlord began to chant aloud in a language unfamiliar to the thief and the others. Suddenly, a blinding flash filled the cave and when they looked back at the cage, they were shocked to see it now contained a figure.
A very familiar figure clad in black leather.
"I am Ares, God of War!" bellowed the infuriated God. "What is the meaning of this, mortal?"
Inimicles smiled wickedly, his own leer rivaling that of the Wargod. "Oh, not to worry, Ares. Think of this as a test. In the meantime, consider yourself a guest, no, a prisoner, of Lord Inimicles," he chuckled.
Ares' black eyes grew wide with astonishment and then, when he found he could neither teleport from nor break the seemingly fragile bars of the cage, divine rage. "You can't keep me locked up in here! Do you have any idea what will happen to the world without a sitting God of War?" he roared at the smirking man.
"My dear Ares, I know exactly what will happen," Inimicles replied, tapping the glowing circlet on his head.
Ares snarled in frustration and then spotted Joxer and Autolycus as he slumped down in the confining cage. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. "I know I'm not your favorite God, but I can't believe you'd prefer the chaos my imprisonment will bring!"
Inimicles looked over to where Joxer was chained to the large X. "You know this fool?" he asked.
"Him? Yeah, I know him. But I was talking to..." the god of War paused as he saw Autolycus making discreet slashing motions across his throat. "...uh, that other guy. The big one."
"Me??!" yelped Bear fearfully.
"Yes, you. One of my most loyal followers, here, in the company of my enemy," Ares went on. "If I were free..."
Inimicles walked over to Bear, who was shaking like a kitten in a thunderstorm, and said pleasantly, "So, Bear, you've been spying on me for the despised God of War, have you?"
"Never, Lord Inimicles! I would never betray you!" the man whimpered.
"I know," smiled the warlord, plunging his dagger into Bear's gut and then ever so slowly ripping it upwards, through his chest and straight up his throat. "Dead men are incapable of betrayal." He laughed softly and released the lifeless body of his soldier.
"Very nice," Ares commented, nodding his head approvingly.
"Once I've located some Hind's Blood, you'll experience much worse, I promise you," the warlord assured him. He turned towards Autolycus, who was standing frozen with fear, his eyes impossibly large and his heart beating in his throat. "You there...What's your name again?"
"Weasel, Lord Inimicles," he managed to croak out.
"Fitting. Take this garbage out and dispose of it, and then come back here and keep an eye on our prisoners while I prepare for the inevitable arrival of Xena and her friends," he instructed. "Oh, and should either of them somehow escape, your own death will be much more painful than that of poor Bear. Do I make myself clear?"
"As diamond, Lord Inimicles," Auto gulped.
"Good." he smiled and walked away, but suddenly paused, and put a hand thoughtfully to his chin. "Oh, and Autolycus?"
"Yes, Lord Inimicles?" the thief instinctively replied.
"Just checking," the warlord grinned wolfishly, drawing his sword and placing it at the startled thief's throat.
As Gabrielle confirmed that James had escaped from the glyph trap, Inimicles' army suddenly reached the center square of town and she was soon too busy fighting for her life to explain anything else.
Knocking out the opponent she was fighting, Gabrielle saw out of the corner of her eye James quickly enter the body and make it rise and turn and fight its comrades. This event was not lost on the members of Inimicles' forces that witnessed it.
"What the Tartarus is going on?!" a man who had bulging eyes and breathed through his mouth yelled as he dropped his guard in surprise at seeing his fellow warrior turn on his own army. The moment of confusion was all that Xena needed and she quickly punched the man in the mouth, knocking him out.
Gabrielle, who was thinking that the man looked like some kind of fish, almost dropped her own guard as the thought that Xena had fisted yet another fish caused her to giggle. She quickly sobered however as another solider tried to slash her with his sword. Blocking the blow with her trusty staff, she grimaced at the sound of the sword hitting her staff. `That nick is going to take a while to sand out of my staff,' she thought to herself.
As Gabrielle battled her determined opponent around the town square, she watched as the fish faced man got quickly to his feet. `That's strange. When Xena knocks someone out they usually stay out longer than that,' she thought to herself as she blocked another overhead blow from the sword wielding solider.
The fish faced man with a yell raised his own staff and ran to where Gabrielle was struggling with her opponent.
`Why does everyone today gang up to fight me, but Xena they attack one at a time?' she spared a moment to think.
As 'Fish Face,' as Gabrielle came to think of him, reached them, he turned and swept Gabrielle's opponent off his feet. Gabrielle, taking quick advantage of the moment, promptly hit the prone man on the ground on the head knocking him out. Looking curiously at 'Fish Face,' Gabrielle asked, "James?"
She watched as the man raised one hand to his head as though he was tipping a hat at her. "At your service."
"Thanks for the help," Gabrielle said with a smile.
"WHOOPS! Gotta go!" James said. 'Fish Face' suddenly went limp and crashed to the ground. Gabrielle whirled around to where 'Fish Face' had been looking and saw that a solider was standing over a woman holding a child on the ground. The soldier raised his sword high, intent on cleaving the woman and child in two.
With a sudden jerk, a solider laying nearby leaped to his feet and blocked the downward stroke of the sword. "The village is cursed!" the solider who blocked the blow moaned into the other soldier's face. "Ares is coming to kill all of us who follow Inimicles!"
The solider who only moments ago was trying to kill a defenseless woman, backed away from his fellow soldier in a panic. With a shrill scream that Ares was coming, he threw down his sword and ran.
Gabrielle became too busy fighting to watch too much, but she could hear as James leapt from unconscious body to unconscious body spreading fear that Ares was coming. Before too long she noticed that the villagers that had stayed behind to defend their homes were outnumbering the soldiers attacking.
Finishing off her latest opponent, Gabrielle paused to watch as Xena took out seven soldiers with a throw of her trusty chakram. Starting across the square to meet up with Xena, Gabrielle saw a soldier who was yelling that not only was Ares coming but that he had the Furies with him suddenly fall to the ground.
She watched as the spirit of James moved from the man and floated over to where she was walking. "This is almost fun," the spirit said to her.
"Only because you know that you can't be hurt," she reprimanded him gently.
Reaching Xena, Gabrielle watched as the Warrior Princess scanned the crowd, looking for soldiers who were too afraid of Inimicles to stop fighting. Gabrielle saw a sudden look of confusion pass over Xena's face. Hearing a gasp come from the spirit of James she looked at him and saw that he was staring in the direction of the mountains with a look of shock on his face.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked sharply with a strange, growing sense of anger.
As Dori and Jack helped Karissa and the other women dig, the Egyptologist remarked, "I didn't realize there were still Amazons around here."
"We have always been here. But we no longer go by the name of `Amazon,'" the woman replied.
"Oh? What are you called?" Jack asked, leaning against the handle of his shovel.
"Feminists," Karissa answered.
Jack nearly fell over. "You're pulling my leg, right?" he chuckled.
"Not at all," Karissa said, shaking her head. "For centuries, my sisters have done whatever they could to further the rights of women by any means available to them. Peaceful means, when possible, but we also weren't afraid to use violence when necessary. Mostly, though, our methods have been subtle. We were priestesses in Rome, shamans in Siberia, and joined craft guilds in medieval Europe. But far and away, our biggest advances have come through literature."
"Literature?" questioned Dori, intrigued.
Karissa nodded. "Mary Wollstonecraft's `A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' was an early attempt, but Mary was a bit too revolutionary for her times. Later authors have been more successful, although we still regard Mary's book as our unofficial Bible, if you will," she smiled.
Angriefer and his men arrived at the cemetery overlooking the forest and Sergeant Schlaff looked around uncomfortably. "Why a cemetery, mein colonel?" he inquired.
"Just a little test, Schlaff," Angriefer replied, removing the Ankh of Osiris from a briefcase. "And, also an opportunity to rid ourselves of the late professor Covington's annoying associates once and for all." He pointed down into the forested valley and laughed cruelly.
Schlaff quickly grabbed a pair of binoculars from the cab of the truck and trained them on the spot where Angriefer was pointing. "Unmoglich!" he exclaimed. "You couldn't have seen them down there!"
"Not with my eyes, no. But the crown allows me to draw on other senses, senses most people aren't aware they possess, Schlaff," he said calmly. Then, he closed his eyes and held the ankh in front of him as he turned to face the cemetery. The crown on his head began to pulse with flashes of light and Angriefer began to recite words in a language long dead.
Suddenly, he opened his eyes and Schlaff backed away in terror when he saw they were glowing as brightly as the crown.
Then, the Germans heard a sound.
It was a sound unlike any they'd ever heard before. And it frightened them even more than their leader's strange behavior and appearance did.
"Gott im himmel!" screamed a soldier, pointing to the cemetery.
Schlaff turned and saw a hand emerging from the ground. A hand barely covered with skin, attached to a skeletal arm.
"Another one!" shouted a soldier, pointing to another part of the graveyard.
The sergeant gasped as he saw that dozens of bodies were crawling out of the earth. Some were dressed in the suits of peasants, others in older styled clothes, and still others in ancient armor. Most of the bodies were little more than skeletons, but a few still had shards of flesh clinging to their yellowed bones.
A body with some flesh to it bent to help one of its more skeletal fellows out of the ground and accidentally pulled its arm off. But the one-armed horror simply pulled itself from the earth and then took the arm from its companion and stuck it back in place.
The Germans watched in growing horror as the undead corpses lined up before Angriefer and then, as one, held their arms out in a silent salute.
"Go, my soldiers, and destroy my enemies!" the colonel cried, pointing down to the forest. "Kill them all!"
Without a sound, the legion of the dead lowered their arms and turned and headed down into the valley.
Jack paused in his efforts and his eyes suddenly grew wide as he spotted dozens of figures shambling towards them through the trees. "Uh, ladies, I think we've got company," he gulped, tapping Dori on the shoulder.
Dori looked up and screamed when she saw the fleshless, silent army approaching.
Karissa and the Feminists stopped digging and raised their tools defensively.
Suddenly, a golden hand burst through the dirt at Dori's feet and James emerged, dragging Melinda and Janice behind him. "Looks like I'm just in time," the golden man said, smiling at the startled Egyptologist. "I hope that you don't take this the wrong way, but we really have to stop meeting like this!" he said to the Egyptologist.
Turning to check on Janice and the wide eyed Mel, James shook the dirt out of his silver wire hair and added, "This is the second time I've been buried under rocks and dirt in as many days. I'm starting to understand how Callisto felt!"
Mel pushed her glasses up on her nose and just replied, "Oh, my!"
Taking Mel's hand gently in his metal one, he said, "I don't think that we've been properly introduced. My name is James. I'm a spirit from Xena's time that was somehow summoned back into a metal body that was made for me by Hephaestos. The last time I saw this body was when it was knocked into a lava stream by the mad Goddess Velasca."
Mel's eyes behind her glasses got even bigger and again she replied, "Oh, my!"
Janice placed her hand on James' arm to get his attention and pointed at the shambling skeleton warriors that were now only several yards away. "I hate to interrupt, but we're about to be in a fight, you know!"
"Yeah, yeah. That's no reason for me not to be polite. Traveling with Xena and Gabrielle, I was always just about to be in a fight and, frankly, it is apparent that traveling with their descendants is not much different," he smiled.
Karissa, without taking her eyes off of the advancing undead warriors, asked him, "They are the descendants of Xena and Gabrielle?"
"You said that your name was James. Were you known as the Bard James?"
He turned to examine the woman. "Yes, although compared to Gabrielle, I wasn't much of a bard, but I tried. Who are you?"
Karissa turned her attention away from the warriors to smile at him. "We are the descendants of the original Amazons. We prize our history and legends and none more than those from the Amazon Queen Gabrielle. We have copied and recopied painstakingly all of her stories. One of our most popular tales is the one where you helped our Queens Gabrielle and Ephiny fight the Goddess Velasca."
"I have known and called many Amazons friends and one I called the love of my life. It will be an honor to fight with you today," James told the woman with a smile. Seeing Karissa look over his shoulder and fear enter her eyes, he immediately whipped his arm out and caught a skeleton warrior that was trying to sneak up on them across his chest, shattering him instantly into a fine powder.
Turning to face the oncoming warriors, the fight was on.
An unarmed skeleton marched up to Jack and threw a clumsy punch. Jack ducked and threw a right cross that caught the skeleton directly on the jaw. The skeleton's skull spun around and around and Jack, watching it spin, started to get dizzy. Suddenly, the skeleton's skull stopped and the warrior threw a punch of his own, catching Jack in the stomach, doubling him over. The skeleton raised his fist high, intent on bringing it down on Jack's head.
Out of nowhere, Dori appeared and, taking a mighty swing with a shovel, knocked the undead warrior's head off of his shoulders. The skeleton immediately stopped his attack and, reaching up with his hands, he felt where his skull used to be. Turning, the now headless skeleton started feeling around on the ground for his head. Dori, seeing her chance, swung her shovel once again and smacked the skeleton on it's behind, causing the skeleton shattered into a million pieces.
Three skeletons ganged up and attacked James with rusty swords. The swords, as soon as they made contact with his metal skin, exploded into useless fragments. Opening his arms wide and then closing them, the bard swept the skeletons together and smashed them into bone dust. "This is almost fun!" he shouted.
"Only because you know that you can't be hurt!" Janice yelled from where she was battling her own undead warrior. Lashing out with her foot, she caught the walking dead in the knee, snapping it instantly. But the skeleton continued to hop on one foot and tried to claw at Janice with its bony fingers.
Racing to Janice's side, James reached out with one hand and crushed the skeleton's skull. The body continued to dance on one foot macabrely for a moment before it fell to the ground in pieces.
"You know, your ancestor said the same thing once before to me," he told Janice. Looking up, he saw that two skeleton warriors were approaching Mel from different sides. Mel would look at first one and then the other one. Her face looked like a deer caught in a campfire light. She couldn't make up her mind on what to do: Which way to run or try and fight. Seeing both skeletons swing their arms back with swords, Janice yelled, "Mel, duck!"
Melinda ducked and the skeleton's swords passed harmlessly over her and connected with each other's head. The skeletons immediately dropped their swords and started searching for their heads on the ground. Both skeletons made contact with one skull at the same time and Mel, Janice, and James watched, stunned, as two headless skeletons started to rip into each other
fighting over the skull. Mel, looking on the ground, found a shovel and, with a very unlady-like curse, smashed both skulls.
The headless skeletons continued to fight for a moment and then fell into piles of bones.
Looking over to where the modern day Amazons were fighting, James noticed that they needed no help and were quickly making the skeleton warriors into a piles of bone dust.
Quickly scanning the battle field, he noticed that everywhere the undead were fairing very badly. While they had a sense of horror and dread working for them, the skeletons were just not a very effective fighting force.; they were slow, clumsy, and not very bright.
Hearing a roar from someone, James looked and watched as Jack, who had
found a sword on the ground, rushed over to a skeleton warrior and shoved it directly into his chest. The skeleton looked down to where the sword was sticking out of his chest and started to silently laugh.
Jack yelled at it. "Shut up!" Then, grabbing hold of the sword's hilt, he used it to whirl the skeleton into a tree, causing it to explode into flying bone fragments.
Dori, dusting off her hands, said, "I think that's about it!"
Looking up at the hill and pointing, James said, "I don't think so."
"That should hold you," Inimicles snickered as he walked out of the cave, the crown still atop his head and glowing slightly.
"Wow," breathed Joxer. "That's an awful lot of chains."
In his cage, Ares merely grunted and shook his head.
"You think this can hold me for long?" Autolycus sneered. But the warlord ignored him. "I'll be out of this before you know it!"
"Sure you will," Ares said mockingly.
The King of Thieves had been bound with strong ropes, securing both hands behind his back and then to his similarly trussed ankles. The ropes had been tied using intricate knots, the likes of which Auto had never before seen. Then, several heavy chains had been wound around him and fastened in place with dozens of brand new Pergamum locks. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, he had then been suspended upside down from the ceiling of the cave, directly over a spike-filled pit.
"Well, it might take a bit longer than that," Auto confessed, finding that he could barely move his hands.
"If the crown told him how to bind you, trust me, you won't be getting free on your own," Ares said wearily.
"What about you?" Auto shot back. "You're a God, for the love Zeus! And I'm supposed to believe that a few sticks can contain you? Get your Godly rear end moving and get us out of here!"
"I can't," the God replied miserably.
"What is that crown, anyway?" Joxer asked, still chained to the wooden X.
"It's the crown of Solomon, an ancient king. It gives the wearer access to all kinds of knowledge and, therefore, power. But," Ares added with a menacing glare, "if either of you ever tell Athene I said that, the damned souls in Tartarus will cringe at the fate which will befall you two. Clear?" Joxer nodded and Auto tried to, but found that his chains prevented him from moving his neck. "But Solomon wasted the crown's powers, solving the problems of his subjects and kingdom, on peaceful purposes. Inimicles has decidedly different plans."
"So, let me get this straight, he used the knowledge gained from the crown to somehow trap you in that cage?" Auto inquired.
Ares nodded. "And to catch the infamous King of Thieves, so don't look so smug."
"If my hands were free..." Auto growled.
"What? What would you do?" Ares taunted. "I'm a God, you idiot!"
"Hey! Don't call him an idiot!" Joxer snarled. "If anyone's an idiot here, it's me! Chained to a wooden X! Aaarrrrgggghhhhhh!!!!!! I can't stand it!" He began to violently pull at his chains, causing the X to gently rock back and forth a bit.
"At least you're rightside up!" Auto growled, increasing his own efforts to get free, resulting in his beginning to swivel around in circles. "I hate being upside down!"
"Stop it! Both of you! If you keep that up, Autolycus, you'll only succeed in snapping the chain and plunging to your death," Ares warned.
"Shut up! I know what I'm doing!" the thief shouted as he began to swing wildly back and forth while still twisting around in circles.
"And you," Ares said, turning to where Joxer was still straining with his chains, "if you keep that struggling up, I promise you'll regret it."
"You can't even get out of a flimsy wooden cage!" Joxer laughed, continuing to try to free himself. "Keep quiet, or I may just leave you in there after I've snapped these paltry chains!"
"The only thing around here that's going to snap is your mind!" Ares roared, but without the venom, or volume, that he usually had. "And your spine!" he added, glancing over to where Auto had become a sort of upside down miniature tornado.
"SHUT UP!!!" the thief and the would-be warrior both cried.
Suddenly, the chain holding Autolycus aloft snapped. But, fortunately, his swinging propelled him beyond the edge of the pit and he landed safely on the floor of the cave. Unfortunately, he was still tied up as securely as ever. Auto screamed in frustration and began to thrash around on the ground in a vain effort to loosen his bindings.
"Well, that did a lot of good," Ares observed snidely.
"I thought we told you to shut up??!" Joxer bellowed, jerking at his chains and causing the X to wobble dangerously.
"Careful, you moron!" Ares cautioned.
"THAT'S IT!" Joxer shrieked. "You're going down, Godboy!"
Then, Joxer's X toppled forward and crashed to the ground.
"Eep," the would-be warrior squeaked from beneath the X.
"I warned him," Ares shrugged. He then turned back to where Auto was still attempting to free himself and saw with alarm that the King of Thieves had thrown all subtlety aside and was now trying to escape by simply snapping the chains and ropes by attempting to extend himself to his full length. "Autolycus! No! Keep that up and you'll break your back!"
"What do you care? Or are you worried that once I'm free I'll stomp your worthless hide into the ground?" the thief grunted.
"Don't you understand what's happening?" the God countered. "By binding me in here, Inimicles has not only reduced my influence to this cage, but is somehow siphoning off my divine powers. I'm becoming mortal!!!"
"Good!" came Joxer's muffled voice from beneath the X. "That means you can die."
A loud pop suddenly filled the air. It was followed by a groan from Autolycus. Then, a string of curses which would have made Xena blush issued from his mouth.
"What was that noise?" Joxer asked.
"That noise," Ares sighed, sinking down to the floor of his cage, "was Autolycus' back going out."
On the floor, Auto continued to swear as he writhed in pain, still trying to work himself free.
"This is all your fault, Godboy!" Joxer cried, shaking the X with his renewed efforts to escape.
"My fault? How is this my fault, you worm? I was the one who warned both of you numbskulls about what would happen, remember?" Ares inquired.
"If Inimicles' parents hadn't forced his older brother into trying to sacrifice him for your glory, none of this ever would have happened!" Joxer shouted, surprising the God of War with both his anger and coherence.
"That was years ago! And, it wasn't like I told that lowlife's father to do it; it was a sort of freelance deal, to get on my good side," Ares explained. "I can't be held responsible for the actions of all those who profess to worship me, can I?"
But neither man answered him as they both continued to struggle vainly with their shackles.
"Can I?" Ares repeated in a hushed whisper only he could have heard.
Above the hill a swirling vortex of clouds appeared and, out of the vortex, something slowly started to fly out.
Janice, standing next to Mel and James, muttered in a disgusted voice, "Oh, give me a break!"
Mel said in a small voice, "That can't be what I think it is! Can it?"
Jack, who had moved to stand beside the three friends, added, "It's impossible! That can't be a..."
"Yup, it's a dragon," James finally said with a metallic sigh.
Up on the hill, Angriefer and Schlaff looked up as the dragon continued to exit the vortex. "Isn't it magnificent, Schlaff?" Angriefer asked his stunned aid. "One of the most deadly creatures ever to have existed and I summoned it and I can control it!"
Schlaff looked around and noticed that he and Angriefer were now completely alone. The few German soldiers that had managed to stay past the skeletons rising out of the ground had fled at the sight of the giant dragon appearing out of nothing.
"Dragons aren't real! They're just myths!" Karissa said as she moved to stand at James' shoulder.
"Oh, they existed all right! I've never personally met one before, but I was told by Iolaus how he and Hercules fought a baby dragon once," James replied, glancing down at her.
"Is that one a baby?" Jack asked in a stunned voice.
James looked back at the hill where the dragon was hovering above, looking down as if it was studying something on the hill. "I don't think so." The dragon looked up from the hill and, turning its gaze toward the friends in the valley, let out a roar that caused the bone fragments on the ground to vibrate with the intensity of the sound. "As a matter of fact, I would say that it's a full grown dragon, and that it's not happy!"
The dragon, with an almost lazy flap of its giant wings, started down toward the valley.
"Okay! The rest of you take cover. I'll handle this," James said as he started to move off, only to be stopped by Karissa's hand on his arm.
"Are you out of your mind!?" she asked him in a shocked voice.
James paused as if he was seriously considering her question. "Well, what do you think you can do about a dragon?" he returned.
This caused Karissa to pause as she thought about it. "Well, what are you going to do?" she challenged him back.
"If nothing else, the dragon will probably choke to death on my metal body when it eats me," he replied with a grin.
Janice suddenly grabbed his other arm. "You remember when you told me about how Hephaestos forged your metal body? You said that he told you another God could destroy your body but to everything else you were practically indestructible?"
"Yeah? So?" he replied, glancing in her direction.
"Do you think he was thinking about dragons when he said that?" she asked in a worried voice.
Looking up at the dragon filling the sky, James said, "I guess we're going to find out." Pushing them toward the treeline, he once again told them to take cover and started to run to meet the dragon as it landed in the open field.
The dragon skidded to a halt, tearing up great clods of dirt as it landed, and, before it had come to a complete stop, James had raced across the field and leapt up to meet it head first. There was a loud metallic bang as his head hit the dragon in the chest. The force of the blow caused the dragon to flip over to land on its back and James landed face first on the ground.
Feeling a hand on his shoulder, helping him to turn over, he saw as Janice looked worriedly in the direction of the dragon. "I thought I told you to take cover?"
"Yeah, I always did have trouble following orders," she replied with a grin.
James grabbed his head and said, "Son of a bacchae! That hurts!" Hearing the dragon give an angry snort, he pushed Janice toward the trees yet again. "Take cover, and this time I mean it!" He regained his feet just as the dragon managed to flip itself over. James could see that where he had hit the dragon with his head there was now a large dented scale but, other than that, the dragon looked fine.
Racing forward, he kicked at the dragon's front leg and was gratified to hear a loud crunch. Leaping backward, he was able to get out of the way as the dragon, off balance and now with a broken leg, fell forward onto its face. He was able to get a good close look at the top of the dragon's head right before a blast of dragon fire took his legs out from under him by the sheer force of the blast.
Landing once again on his face, James found himself eye to eye with the dragon. The dragon was actually looking down his nose at him cross eyed. They were that close to each other. He could see the corners of the dragon's mouth start to curl upward and could hear as the dragon chuckled at the odd predicament they both found themselves in. James was tempted to join the dragon in it's humor until he noticed that the dragon's sides suddenly expanded as it took a deep breath. Rolling to his side quickly, the metal bard managed to get out of the way of the second dragon fire blast. Leaping to his feet, James jumped on the dragon's head and was surprised to see a large soft spot where it had lost a scale.
Raising a hand high above its head, he was about to plunge it into its skull and kill it when he stopped.
"What are you waiting for? Kill it!" Jack's voice came from the treeline where he was hiding.
"I really don't want to kill it. It's a beautiful creature. It didn't ask to be brought here or for Angriefer to control it!" James yelled back.
The dragon, turning its head to where it had heard Jack's voice coming from, saw Mel standing at the edge of the woods looking at it.
Suddenly, James heard a loud growl come out of the dragon from the region of its stomach and he felt as the dragon struggled to its feet and started moving toward Mel.
Realizing that the dragon intended on making a snack out of the fear-paralyzed young woman, he hesitated no longer and brought his hands down with all the force he could muster. He felt the dragon shudder and then fall as its skull, smashed under the force of the blow, was sent into its brain.
Mel came walking out of the woods with tears in her eyes. Taking her glasses off, James was struck by how much she resembled her ancestor Xena. "It was such a beautiful creature. It's a shame that you had to kill it."
"I know. I regret it as well, but it was going to eat you; I had to do something," the bard replied sadly.
Jack, walking out of the woods, said, "I thought dragons only ate virgins?"
Janice, who walked out of the trees at the same time, replied to Jack, "So, that's why you were hiding so well?"
James noticed that Mel was blushing at Jack's comment and he wasn't surprised to see Jack start to blush at Janice's comments.
"Well, you're wrong anyway. Dragons will eat anything. You're thinking of unicorns; they're only attracted to virgins," James said as he climbed down from the dragon's head and then turned as he heard someone clapping slowly.
Watching, he saw as Angriefer and Schlaff walked around from the other side of the dragon. "Vonderbar, Herr metal man! I didn't think that you would beat my dragon for a moment, but in a way I am glad that you did! It makes my next act that much more sensible."
Xena felt a sense of calm settle over her and looked down at Gabrielle to see her gripping her staff tightly. "Something has happened to Ares. I can feel it and I can see that you do, too."
"I don't know what you mean," Gabrielle said as she glared at the fallen soldiers on the ground. Hearing a groan coming from one of the downed men who was struggling to his feet, both women looked in his direction.
Xena was stunned to hear a long string of curses come from Gabrielle and was just able to grab and hold on to her as she tried to launch herself at the man on the ground.
"Let me go! I'm going to smash his skull with my staff!" Gabrielle growled.
"Gabrielle! What's the matter with you?" Xena asked her as she hung on to the squirming, struggling young woman.
"That's the man who nicked my staff with his sword! I will rip him apart with my bare hands!" Gabrielle continued to struggle with Xena to get to the man.
The solider, rising unsteadily to his feet, took one look at the red-faced enraged woman and turned to find his sword on the ground. As he turned, he got a good look at the rest of the villagers who had stayed behind to fight. The once peaceful, almost sheep-like villagers had started to form a circle around him and the rest of Inimicles' men. They had various farming tools in their hands and bloodthirsty looks on the their faces. No longer fired by Ares' bloodlust himself, the man decided that enough was enough and, without picking up his sword, he turned and ran out of the village. Looking back over his shoulder as he ran, he saw that those of Inimicles' army who were still conscious were also running for their lives. Those that were still unconscious were being kicked and beat by the once peaceful villagers.
Xena continued to hold on to Gabrielle to keep her from chasing after the fleeing soldiers. "Gabrielle! Recite that poem about the Elysian Fields that calms you so."
"I've decided that I hate that poem!" Gabrielle roared.
"Gabrielle, where is James?" Xena asked, desperate to take Gabrielle's mind off of thoughts of fighting.
"He left! Said something about going on ahead to see what's going on with Ares!" Gabrielle said as she continued to struggle with Xena.
Xena just shook her head and made her way to the stables where Argo was being looked after. "Come on. We need to go and help James with Ares," she muttered to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle suddenly stopped struggling with Xena and said, "Right!"
Xena was startled by Gabrielle's sudden change of heart and let her go. Gabrielle reached over and, grabbing Argo's reins, started to lead the horse out of the stables. "I can't wait to kick his smarmy, smug butt," she smiled.
Xena, catching up with Gabrielle, took the reins out of her hands and thought to herself that it was going to be a long trip to the caves.
After telling Gabrielle to tell Xena where he was going, James raced ahead to the caves to find out what was going on with Ares. Being a spirit, he was able to home in on Ares location with ease.
Drifting through the walls of the cave, he came to the cavern where Inimicles was holding Ares. The God of War looked up from his cage as James entered. "Well, if it isn't the Shade that couldn't hold onto his metal body." Ares tried to sneer but it came out sounding tired and weak.
"And if it isn't the God that can't hold onto his Godhood," James sneered back.
Autolycus, from his position on the ground, tried to look at Ares. "James is here? Tell him we need help."
"And just what do you think that the 'friendly ghost' can do to help, that I Ares God of War cannot?" Ares glared at Autolycus.
Autolycus struggled with his chains for a moment before a look of pain crossed his face once again. "At the moment? Just about everything."
As the quickly weakening God of War and the King of Thieves continued to bicker back and forth, James drifted over and examined the bars of Ares' cage. While he could feel the mystical energies that were flowing through the bars, they were attuned to the energies of a God and did not effect the shade.
"Maybe if I can find someone who is asleep or unconscious, I can use them to break these bars," James said, interrupting the growing argument between Ares and Autolycus and Joxer.
Hearing a noise behind him, he turned quickly and found himself looking at his mirror image. Except his mirror image was wearing black armor and had the crown of Solomon on his head.
"Ah, you must be the James I have heard so much about. A spirit that is floating free of Hades' realm. This explains so much," Inimicles said, his eyes glowing slightly from the influence of King Solomon's crown.
Bringing his hands from behind his back, he revealed a small intricately carved cube in one hand. "I made this little toy in case one of Ares' family tried to interfere with my plans, but with the right incantation, it will work just as well for nosy spirits."
Inimicles started muttering something in a strange language and James felt a pull start to come from the cube.
Seeing the smug, contemptuous look on Angriefer's face, James started moving toward him, fully intending to stop him once and for all. But Angriefer, with a laugh, just raised the Egyptian ankh and, with the Crown of Solomon glowing on his head, started to speak in a strange language.
Janice, watching the unfolding drama, fully expected to see James rip Angriefer apart. She was thus completely shocked when the metal man suddenly stopped in his tracks and, throwing his head back, started to scream.
Hearing another scream, Janice looked over to where Schlaff was standing at Angriefer's side, his body rigid, his head thrown back in the same posture as James.
Mel removed her glasses and tried to clean them with her shirt tail. She could swear that just for a moment she saw a ghost image of James and Schlaff leave their bodies and pass each other on their way to the opposite bodies.
Schlaff, standing next to Angriefer was the first to recover. Shaking his head, he had just enough time to get out, "Gods, I hate that feeling!" before Angriefer backhanded him with the ankh, knocking him out.
Mel and Janice glanced at each other and then looked at the still form of the metal man.
Suddenly, the gleaming figure let out a loud moan and dropped to his knees. As he struggled to rise to his feet, he looked at his hands and then at Angriefer. "Mein Gott! What have you done to me!"
The voice sounded like James but his choice of words screamed out Schlaff.
"I have made you the perfect super man! Hitler's dream of a master race was a joke. No mortal man is more perfect than any other, but you are now beyond mortal! That body just fought and won against a dragon, Schlaff! Think of how it will do against a tank! Together we will conquer the world! Me the brains and you the dumb, brute strength! And with the knowledge of Solomon running through me, I will learn the secrets of immortality and rule forever!" Angriefer shrieked.
"What of me? What of the Fatherland? What of Hitler's dream of Nazi power?" Schlaff asked as he rose and walked over to where Angriefer was standing.
"They are all minor considerations compared to the glory that will be me!" Angriefer laughed into the now metal face of Schlaff.
As Schlaff and Angriefer continued to argue, Dori made a wide circle trying to sneak up on them.
"You are nothing but brute strength. You have the intelligence level of an ant. Only someone with my brains was meant to rule!" Angriefer continued to laugh at Schlaff.
"I may not have the wisdom of Solomon, but I do know one thing you seem to have forgotten!" Schlaff said with a smile on his metal face.
"And what could that possibly be?" Angriefer laughed.
"It is not a good idea to insult someone who is made of unstoppable metal!" Schlaff said as he threw a punch at Angriefer's head.
The SS colonel, totally believing in his control over Schlaff, never saw the punch coming.
As Schlaff's fist whistled through the air, Dori had finally worked herself into a position behind Angriefer. Gathering herself to leap onto Angriefer's back, she was stunned when something hit her chest with a wet thump. Looking down into her arms, which had instinctively caught the object, she screamed when she realized that it was Angriefer's head. It had been completely knocked off by Schlaff's now God powered metal fist.
Janice would forever remember the scene that was burned into her mind.
Everything seemed frozen in time; Schlaff standing there stunned, looking at Angriefer's body that remained standing for a moment without it's head; Dori holding Angriefer's head with a look of horror on her face; and then, as if in slow motion, Angriefer's body slowly falling backward towards Dori; Schlaff looking down at his hands, as if he could not believe what had happened; Dori quickly dropping Angriefer's head, but having the presence of mind to strip the crown off of it first, and stepping out of the way of the falling body. As the body fell past, Dori grabbed the Ankh from it's nerveless hands.
As Schlaff pulled himself together, he looked up to see Dori with the crown on her head and the glowing Ankh in her hands pointing at him. Quickly Dori repeated the words that Angriefer had used. Schlaff, with his soul feeling like it was being ripped out of the metal body, stumbled back to where his flesh body still lay on the ground. He had just enough time to throw back his head and scream.
The metal body continued to stand for a moment with it's head thrown back and then, with a grunt of pain, it relaxed and looked around.
"James?" Dori asked, unsure.
"Yeah, it's me again," James' voice issued weakly out of the large metal form.
Dori could not make up her mind whether to laugh or cry with relief. Suddenly, she heard the sound of a bolt being drawn on a machine gun and looked to where Schlaff lay on the ground. The sergeant had sat up and was holding a German machine gun on her, she had just a moment to realize before Schlaff opened fire on her.
He was only able to get a few shots off, however, before James' fist crushed his skull.
The first shot hit the ankh, causing it to explode in a flash of light, but the second shot grazed Dori's arm.
Dori winced as she looked up, her hand clutched tightly around her arm where the bullet had grazed her, and said softly, "It's over?"
James wiped the blood from his hands and nodded. "It's over."
"What do we do with this?" the Egyptologist asked, removing the crown.
"I wonder if we can return it to Artemis?" James mused.
"Let's not be too hasty," Janice cautioned. "After all, she did give it to me." The lovely archaeologist paused and pulled a cigar from her pocket and casually took the crown from Dori. "Besides, a thing like this might come in quite handy for an explorer like me." She placed the cigar firmly between her teeth and then struck a match against James' metal flesh and lit it, inhaling deeply. "You know what I mean?" she smiled, exhaling smoke rings.
"Oh, I think I've got a pretty good idea what you mean," James chuckled, reminded once again of her resemblance to Gabrielle, in more than just a physical sense. "But an object of such incredible power will also more than likely prove to be a magnet for people who want to misuse it."
"As if Janice needs any more excuses for attracting trouble," Melinda muttered.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Janice demanded, turning to face the historian.
"Janice, dear, I've only known you a couple of months and my life has been in danger more times than I care to recall," she replied haughtily, her accent dripping with sarcasm.
"Did you ever stop to think that you're the one who's been attracting trouble?" the blonde retorted.
"Well, I never!" Mel huffed indignantly.
"Maybe that's part of your problem," Janice teased, flashing a disarming smile.
Melinda laughed softly. "You know, darling, you just might be right about that," she nodded.
"Great. So, now that the danger's over, I'll take the Xena Scrolls and head for the states, as planned," Jack said, stepping forward and removing the familiar pack from Angriefer's headless corpse. "Ick."
"I just might tag along with you, if you don't mind, that is," Dori said as one of the Amazons tended to her arm. "I've been meaning to visit America for years, but never got around to it."
"Sure, you can come, Dori. I'd be honored to have a swell tomato like you along for the ride," Jack replied, slipping into the swagger which the women had come to realize indicated he was nervous or embarrassed.
"Before we go, though, I want to talk to James about Autolycus, to learn a bit about what my ancestor was really like. Okay?" she asked, looking first from Jack to James.
"No sweat," Jack replied. "We've got time now that the Nazis have been taken care of."
"And I'd be honored to spend some time with a `swell tomato' like you before you go running off to America, whatever that is," James answered with a deep laugh.
"Thank you," the Egyptologist said, and then, noticing that the woman had finished dressing her wound, she added, "And thank you." The Amazon nodded, smiled, and walked back to where her sisters were gathered near the ruins of the temple's entrance. "Shall we?" she said, holding out her arm for the metal man.
"By all means," he nodded, gently taking the proffered arm.
"So, what was he like?" Dori asked, unable to hide her eagerness. "Was he really the King of Thieves?"
"Definitely," James nodded. "There wasn't a thing he couldn't steal once he set his mind to it...except..."
"Except what?" Dori inquired.
"Well, as dashing as he was, and as much time as he spent in the company of beautiful women, he was never able to find that one perfect heart to steal," the metal man said sadly. "I know he would've denied it if any of us had asked him, but I always got the feeling that despite his act to the contrary, Autolycus was a very lonely man. Oh, sure, he had friends, and he was one of the best men I ever knew, but there was never that one special person in his life. He never married and I don't think he had any children, apart from your ancestor Autolemy, of course."
"Did he die before he could settle down?" Isidora pressed.
James shook his head. "No. Even if he'd lived another 50 years, I think he would never have settled down. It just wasn't his nature. I do think he was happy, though, for the most part," he added. "Who knows? Maybe his being lonely was all in my mind because I would have been, had I never met Troya and experienced true love. It could be that Autolycus was the happiest person who ever lived--With all that money and all those women, he sure should have been!"
Dori nodded, but she sensed that James had been more on target when he described her ancestor as lonely for some reason. "Thank you, James," she said softly, reaching up and kissing him on the cheek.
"Oh, one more thing," James said, suddenly grabbing her shoulder.
"Yes?" she asked, curious.
"He was also a lot like you, very loyal, very cunning, and very brave," he smiled. "You are definitely cut from the same cloth."
Dori grinned and impishly raised her eyebrows. "Oh, I already knew that." She held out her arm and James laughed and took it and they walked back to where Karissa was talking to Janice and the others.
When James and Dori approached, they were immediately met by Karissa. "You have our thanks," she said, taking each of their hands and holding them lightly.
"Oh, no, Karissa, you and your sisters are the ones who have our thanks for helping us dig Melinda and Janice out of that temple," Dori responded.
"But if it weren't for you, who knows what that mad man would have done? You have done a great service for not only us, but for the world," she assured them. "Especially you, James. What will you do now? Return to the Elysian Fields and live out eternity in joy...or have you other plans?"
James smiled mischievously. "Funny you should ask...I was thinking of looking up someone that Janice told me about."
Dori looked over to see Janice shrug her shoulders showing that she did not know what he meant either.
"You know, Angriefer's old boss. Adolf Hitler? I figured that I would go and see him and explain to him that war is an ugly business and try to get him see the error of his ways," James said matter-of-factly.
Jack stared at him with his mouth hanging open for a moment and then sputtered, "You can't just walk into Nazi Germany and talk to the leader of the whole Nazi movement!"
James studied his metal hands for a moment and then, cracking his knuckles with a sound like pistol shots, gave Jack an innocent look. "Who is going to stop me?"
Dori watched all the color drain from Jack's face as he thought about James wading through tanks and fighting men to get to Hitler and then, being careful not to hurt her hand, she slapped James lightly on the chest. "Stop teasing! You're not really going to take on the whole German army by yourself. Are you?" she added worriedly.
"No. I may be almost indestructible but not even I can stop a large war all by myself," he grinned at her.
Jack, rubbing his chin with his hand, said, "You could enlist with the British army or even the Americans. I can see it now: Major Gold leading the final attack on the Nazi stronghold. Or maybe, the Man of Bronze leads the final attack on Hitler's bunker? Oh, I know, The Man of Steel breaks Hitler's stranglehold on Europe?"
Janice rolled her eyes at Jack, who continued to mutter to himself as the rest of the group moved off a ways. "Don't you miss your Amazon woman? The one that you were telling me about who's waiting for you in the Elysian Fields?" Janice asked, laying her hand on James' arm.
Dori saw the smile on James' face fade to be replaced by a sad look.
"Yeah, I really do," he answered Janice.
"Well, then go back to her. We puny normal humans can deal with Hitler and his Nazi bullies," she said with a smile.
James turned to look at Dori. "You'll have to send me back. You were the one who called my spirit back to this metal body."
Dori felt a slight surge of panic hit her. "But I don't know how to release you; I only know the words to summon a spirit."
"No problem. Just use the crown to find the right incantation," he said, pointing to the crown that Janice was still carrying.
Dori took the crown from Janice and, putting it on her head, her eyes started to glow. Suddenly, she took the crown off and turned to James sadly. "I have to have the Ankh of Osiris to release your spirit and it was destroyed by Schlaff's first bullet. The crown tells me that it is impossible to send you back without it and it can't be remade by mortals; it was made by the God Anubis himself." The Egyptologist saw a single tear fall from James' metal eye before he pulled himself together.
"Use the crown to find out if there is anything else on Earth that can send me back," he asked her quickly.
Dori placed the crown on her head again. "There are several items that could do it," she announced brightly. "One is a scepter in the ruins of Atlantis. Another is a spirit stick in an Indian burial cavern in Arizona in the United States. And there's a well of souls in Ireland. I think any of them could release your spirit back to the Elysian Fields."
"Well, you and Jack said you were going to go to this United States. I guess that if it's all right with you, I could travel with you and find this Arizona and get the spirit stick," James haltingly suggested.
"Of course you're welcome to travel with us!" Dori said with a smile. "You can tell me more stories about my ancestor Autolycus." Dori paused for a moment and then said, "But we'll need the crown to find the cavern and for the correct spell to send you back when we find it." Dori looked over at Janice.
"The crown was given to me," the blonde said with a pout.
"Now, Janice, you wouldn't want to come between James and his true love would you?" Mel asked, placing her hand on her partner's shoulder.
Janice pouted for a moment more and then said, "Of course not! But you will send the crown back to me when you're done. Won't you?"
"Of course," Dori answered her and then turned to look for Jack, who was still where the group had left him, talking to himself.
"The Metal Hammer of Justice. The Steel Blade of Righteousness. The Iron Juggernaut. The ...." He broke off as Dori touched him on the arm.
"Come on, Jack. We're leaving now. James is going to travel with us to the United States."
James was caught by surprise when 'tough as nails' Janice grabbed him in a fierce hug but, recovering quickly, he hugged her back and whispered quietly, "I'm going to miss you, Janice. Oh, and by the way, the ankh may have been destroyed, but the gems that were on it are still laying on the grass over there. It may not make up for losing the crown for a while but they should be able to finance your next dig."
Releasing Janice, he turned to Mel and, taking her hand, kissed it gently. "I didn't get a chance to know you very well but I'm going to miss you, too."
Mel didn't say anything, only smiled and blushed slightly.
Finally, he turned to Karissa, the leader of the modern day Amazons. Even if they no longer called themselves Amazons, that was the only way he could think of them. "Queen Gabrielle would be proud to know that the Amazon spirit still lives strongly. I'm just sorry to leave you with this mess," he said, pointing at the bodies of Schlaff, Angriefer and the dragon in the background."
"Do not concern yourself, James. We will bury the bodies and get rid of any evidence of their being here and repair the temple of Artemis. In a very short time it will be as it was." Karissa then surprised James by giving him a warrior's handshake and then using it to pull him into a hug as well. "Goodbye!" she whispered and then turned and made a gesture for the other Amazons to start repairing the damage done to the plains.
James turned to find Dori and Jack waiting. "Right! The first thing we will need to do is go back to town and find some transport!" Jack said and started walking off, only to be pulled short by Dori.
"Jack, the town is in that direction!" she said, pointing in the opposite direction from the one that Jack had started walking in.
"I knew that! Just testing you is all!" Jack said as he turned and started walking in the direction that Dori had pointed in.
Dori rolled her eyes at James and then, in a mock whisper, said, "I have a feeling that this is going to be a long trip!"
Inimicles grunted satisfactorily and tossed the intricately carved cube aside; it landed near where Joxer was struggling to break his chains and filling the air with curses that would make Phoenician sailors blush. The warlord then walked over to where Autolycus was groaning in obvious discomfort and casually kicked the King of Thieves in the gut.
"I'm impressed that you managed to avoid being skewered," he hissed, nodding towards the spiked pit over which the thief had been suspended, "but you'll never escape those Gordian Knots. No mere mortal can."
Auto simply scowled and kept silent.
Inimicles headed toward the cave's entrance, pausing only to reach in and slap Ares as he slumped in a corner of his cage, saying, "Ah, I hear from the sounds of battle in the valley below that Xena has finally arrived. After I deal with her, gentlemen, I'll be back and attend to you three personally."
"Don't bet on it," Ares growled tiredly. "Xena's going to make you eat that crown!"
The warlord just laughed and strutted out of the cave.
"What happened to James?" Auto inquired, resuming his struggles to free himself.
"I'm not sure," the God of War shrugged. "He just disappeared inside that weird cube."
"Great. As if this wasn't going to be difficult enough," Autolycus grimaced.
"Shut up and get loose so that you can free me!" Joxer screamed.
"I'm doing the best I can, you moron! At least I wasn't stupid enough to crush myself beneath a wooden X!" the thief shot back.
"Will you two stop yelling? My head hurts," Ares whined.
"SHUT UP!!!" the two men shouted.
Inimicles stopped short just outside the cave, shocked, and angered, by the scene before him. His men, the fiercest fighting force in all of Greece, were running like rabbits from a band of Edomite villagers who were pursuing them like angry wolves, howling for their blood. And, leading the Edomites, were none other than the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Queen themselves.
Divine lightning crackled around his hand as he tightened it into a fist and he smiled evilly.
"There he is, Gabrielle," Xena said, gesturing toward the eerily familiar figure standing above them. "And, if I'm right, Autolycus, Joxer, and probably Ares are in that cave he just came out of. While I keep Inimicles busy, you--"
"Ares is in that cave, huh?" Gabrielle interrupted, gripping her staff tightly, her green eyes, normally soft and bright, growing cold and hard as anger flashed in them. "Lemme at'im! Lemme at'im!"
Before Xena could stop her, the Bard dashed up the side of the valley, even as Inimicles ran down into the valley via a different path.
"So, we meet at last," he sneered, looking her over. "You're Xena, the fabled Warrior Princess."
"And you're Inimicles, a particularly cruel and stupid warlord," she shot back. "Can we just cut to the chase here?"
"By all means," Inimicles grinned. He suddenly fired off a bolt of lightning.
Xena, ready for such an opening move, easily dodged it by flipping up into the air and landing behind him, drawing her sword as she landed.
"Oh, Xena, I expected more from you," the warlord sighed, turning to face her. "I'm nearly a God, your pitiful sword can't hurt me. And, with this crown, I know every move you'll make before you even think about making it."
"Figures a bumbler like you would need that kind of edge," she taunted, slashing at him with her blade. The edge of the sword clearly sliced his chest open, but, before the wound could shed so much as a drop of blood, it closed again. Even his armor looked unscathed. "Face it, you're nothing more than an incompetent butcher."
Inimicles frowned. Then, he very deliberately reached up and removed the Crown of Solomon and set it on the ground. "Bumbler am I? Incompetent butcher, eh? Well, we'll see about that, won't we?"
Xena just smiled.
Meanwhile, Autolycus had actually managed to free his hands enough to begin working on the locks when Gabrielle suddenly burst into the cave.
"There you are!" she shouted, advancing on the startled God of War. "Time for some payback, Ares! And, you know what they say about paybacks, don't you?"
"They're a bitch?" he gulped nervously.
"You'd better believe it!" she cried, thrusting her staff between the bars of the cage and beginning to batter the helpless God.
"Hey! Save some for me!" Joxer yelled from beneath the X.
"Gabri-<ow!>-elle, can't we <ack!> talk about <argh!> this?" Ares pleaded, doing his best to avoid the staff's blows.
"Talk all you want, it won't bother me a bit," she replied, catching him a solid blow on the point of his chin.
Down in the valley, even without the crown, Inimicles was holding his own against Xena. In fact, he was actually beginning to wear down her defenses.
"Give up, Xena," he suggested, after nearly frying her with a bolt of electricity. "You don't care for the Olympians any more than I do. Join me in destroying them and rule the world by my side."
"You've sucked more than Ares' powers out of him, haven't you?" she asked, rolling to avoid another lethal blast. "Or are you naturally idiotic enough to think I'd even consider that offer?"
"You mock me at your peril, Xena!" he warned, leaping next to her and kicking her in the face. "And you reject me at the risk of your doom."
"No, Inimicles, if I accepted your lame-brained offer, I'd be doomed," she corrected, rubbing her chin as she caught her breath. "You can't possibly defeat all the Olympians."
"Oh, but I can, Xena," he assured her, moving to her side and punching her in the gut as she got to her feet. "Even easier than I can defeat you."
Xena flew backwards from the force of the blow and crashed into the wall of the valley, striking her head on the rocky surface. She slumped to her rear end, frantically trying to clear the cobwebs from her brain, as the warlord-cum-God approached.
With a semi-triumphant "Aha!" the King of Thieves picked the last of the Pergamum locks and slid free of the chains. Unfortunately, this left him still hog-tied by the Gordian knotted ropes. Given time, he had no doubt that he could free himself, however, judging from the sounds coming from the valley, he, and Xena, didn't have that time. Reluctantly, he called to Gabrielle for help.
"Can't you see I'm busy?!" the Bard replied.
"Of course you are, but I promise, this will only take a minute," he pleaded. "Just grab Joxer's sword and cut these ropes. Please? Then, you can go right back to killing Ares, all right?"
Gabrielle's lovely face wrinkled in disgust. "Fine. But after you're free, I'm gonna finish that leering psycho off once and for all," she stated, turning from where Ares lay a battered, bleeding mess in his cage to where Joxer's sword sat leaning against the cave's wall. "How ya doin'?" she asked the would-be warrior.
"Never better. Just don't forget to save a little of Godboy for me," Joxer replied.
"No problem," the Bard nodded, grabbing the sword and walking over to where Autolycus lay next to the spike-filled pit.
"Be careful," the thief said as she raised the large weapon over her head.
"Of course," she answered, swinging the sword down and cleaving the knots, barely missing cutting off the King of Thieves' hands in the process.
"HEY!" Auto yelped, jumping up and shaking the ropes off.
"Quit yer whinin', I didn't even scratch you," she shrugged. She was about to toss the sword away, when she stopped and looked over at Ares. A cruel smile forming on her sweet mouth, she instead stalked over and would have run him through, had he not managed to dodge the rather dull, but nevertheless deadly, blade.
"Whoa! A staff is one thing, but a sword is quite another matter!" Ares whimpered, scrambling around his small cage to avoid the Bard's attacks.
"How right you are!" Gabrielle nodded.
Meanwhile, Autolycus had picked the locks binding Joxer to the X and even managed to raise the heavy structure enough to allow him to crawl out from under it.
"Come on, we've got to help Xena," he said, grabbing the would-be warrior's hand.
But Joxer shook off the thief and angrily turned toward Ares. "Xena can take care of herself," he growled. "I've got unfinished business with Mr. Wargod, here."
"Fine. You two stay here and kill him, I'm going to help Xena!" Auto said, starting for the exit.
"Autolycus! Wait! You can't leave me to die!" Ares entreated.
"Watch me," he returned, heading out of the cave. "Then think about the time you turned Iolaus and I into drooling idiots and then ask yourself if it was worth the laugh you got." As he walked by the cube in which James had been imprisoned, he snatched it up and tucked it into his tunic. Then, he was gone.
Ares cringed as Joxer joined Gabrielle, but the would-be warrior reached out for his sword.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle demanded, refusing to let go of it.
"That's my sword, Gabrielle. Give it to me," he demanded.
"Oh, I'll give it to you, all right. If you don't let go of it, I'll give it to you right in that skinny chest of yours!" she threatened.
"It's my sword, Gabrielle!" Joxer replied, using both hands to try and take it away. "Get your staff!"
"I want to cut out his heart and I can't do that with a staff, you cretin!" she hollered into his face. "So, let go of this sword before I get really angry and cut out yours, too!"
As the pair struggled with the weapon, neither noticed that the blade was scraping against the bars of the cage, obliterating the runes which had been carved on them.
Xena suddenly kicked out with both feet, catching Inimicles in the stomach and sending him flying backwards. Unfortunately, the maneuver had merely surprised him, not hurt him, and he landed on his feet and immediately fired off another lightning blast.
The Warrior Princess dove out of the way just in time, but she knew that she couldn't keep this up forever. She had to figure out some way to at least slow him down. She scrambled to her feet and then ran up the side of the valley, heading for a group of caves near the one Gabrielle had entered. As she had hoped, Inimicles followed.
"You can't run, Xena, and you can't hide, not from me, not from a God!" he called after her.
Then, with his familiar yodel echoing around the walls of the valley, Autolycus swung down and struck the warlord in the chest with both feet, sending him flying backwards, away from Xena.
"Better late than never, eh, Xena?" he smiled, stroking his mustache with a flourish.
"Not in this case," she growled.
Gabrielle and Joxer suddenly stopped fighting over the sword when the bars of Ares' cage were ripped apart by the furious God of War. Without thinking, Joxer lashed out and punched him hard in the chin, actually snapping his head around with the force of the blow. "Stay out of this!" he warned.
As the stolen power surged back into him, Ares' body recovered and his wounds disappeared before the pair's amazed eyes.
"You two really hurt me," he snarled, his old venom back. "I didn't enjoy it."
"Uh-oh," gulped Gabrielle, running for the exit.
"What?" Joxer inquired, turning toward Ares just in time to see a divine bolt of lightning shoot from his fingertips.
Gabrielle dove from the cave just as Joxer, screaming and on fire, hurtled over her head and landed in the valley below.
Right on top of a once-again mortal Inimicles.
Behind her, the cave exploded as Ares disappeared in a fiery column of smoke and electricity.
Gabrielle made her way down the hillside to where Xena and Autolycus were standing, looking on as a still smoldering Joxer climbed off of the downed Inimicles. Joxer patted out a few flames that were still licking at his clothing and then said, "Ares never touched me!" and fainted.
After the Bard made sure that Joxer was okay, she turned to Xena and said, "Well, this has been an interesting day."
Xena, hearing Inimicles groan, prepared herself to fight him some more, but was frankly relieved when he just rolled over and passed out.
"Well, I guess that this just about wraps up this little adventure," Autolycus said, looking around. "The bad guy is out of action. The Crown of Solomon is safe. The villagers will be returning to normal--And maybe this little crisis will teach them that it is all right to rely on yourself once in a while, and not leave everything up to your God. And Inimicles' army is scattered and I wouldn't be surprised if most of them give up being warriors all together."
Gabrielle, who was sitting on the ground with the unconscious Joxer's head in her lap, added derisively, "Ares is loose again, and mad at me and Joxer. I haven't seen James' spirit in a while. And we have to decide what to do with Inimicles and figure out what to do with the crown. Yeah, everything is just peachy!"
Autolycus gave a little start and then answered Gabrielle. "Well, I know where James is," he said, reaching into his vest and pulling out the small intricately carved cube. "While Inimicles was wearing the crown, he could see him and he somehow imprisoned him in this box."
Gabrielle leapt to her feet and, while doing so, let Joxer's head inadvertently thump into the ground. Joxer, who had been awake for quite a while and was just enjoying Gabrielle's attention, groaned and sat up, rubbing his head.
"Let me see the box. I'm the one who's good with puzzles," Gabrielle said reaching for the cube. "Remember?"
Autolycus frowned and then handed over the cube to her. Gabrielle found that the cube was made in a way that somehow let it be twisted by rotating parts of it. She started twisting it and then suddenly stopped and carefully returned it to its starting position.
"What's wrong?" Autolycus asked as he moved to her side to study the cube. "I thought you were good with puzzles?"
"I heard James start to scream as I moved the sides of the box!" Gabrielle told him. "I guess there's only one way to open the box correctly, and anything else causes pain to James. How are we going to get him out of there?"
Xena quickly walked back to where Inimicles had left the Crown of Solomon and brought it to where Auto and Gabrielle were examining the box. "Try using this. If Inimicles used it to create the box, it should be able to tell you how to open it," she suggested.
Gabrielle, after taking the crown and putting it on her head, studied the box for a moment, with her eyes glowing slightly, and then, with an action that was too fast for Autolycus to follow, she rotated the sides of the box. Holding the box flat on her palm, everyone watched as a round carved depression on the top of the box extended out in the form of a rod. To everyone but Gabrielle, that was the extent of the action, but to Gabrielle, she watched as James' spirit flowed out of the rod, unfolding until he stood beside her.
"Well, that wasn't fun!" he groused as he managed to take form.
Xena, watching Gabrielle's face, saw as she removed the crown and turned to look at an empty space beside her. "Is James out of the box?" she asked her.
"Yes. He is standing right here beside me," Gabrielle answered her with a smile.
"Good. Then let me have this box," Xena said, taking the box from Gabrielle's hand. Throwing it up high into the air, she said, "This thing is too dangerous to leave lying around." The Warrior Princess drew her sword and prepared to smash the box as it came down, but, to her surprise, it remained suspended high in the air. Sensing a God around, Xena turned in time to see Hades appear in a flash of light.
"I think that I may have a better use for the soul trap than that one, Xena," Hades said in way of greeting. The dour God looked in James' direction. "Hello again, James. You wouldn't believe the problems your condition is putting on my record keeping. But I've discussed your problem with the Fates again and they have offered me a possible solution: Inimicles over there is fated to live a long life--The Fates won't tell me exactly how long, but they assure me it is to be a long one. Now, if Xena takes him in to answer for his crimes, that life will be spent behind bars in prison. And, when he dies he will still go to Tartarus for his crimes."
Inimicles, who had regained consciousness soon after Hades had appeared, was listening intently. "You can't hold me in prison or Tartarus! I may no longer have the Crown of Solomon, but I still remember how to create the runes that can hold a God and drain his power," Inimicles said as he started to get to his feet, only to be knocked down again by a gesture from Hades.
"That is why I said that I had a better use for the soul trap," Hades said, pointing the cube at Inimicles.
Inimicles suddenly arched his back and then, with a cry, lay still.
Gabrielle, glancing at the cube in Hades' hand, watched as it moved on its own until the rod had retracted into the cube and it had rotated to a new design. The Bard looked in shock at Hades. "You killed him?"
"No, the body lives on. There is just no soul inside it anymore. That is the solution that the Fates have offered to me: James' soul will enter Inimicles' body and James will live again as a mortal, until the time when Inimicles was fated to die and then James will die in his place. This way gives James a life back and it takes a man with dangerous knowledge out of the picture."
Xena pointed at the cube in Hades' hand. "And what about him?"
"He will remain trapped in the box that he created for all time. I will place this box in the lowest depths of Tartarus where no can find it."
"Well, you better take this crown, too," Gabrielle said as she tried to hand it over to Hades.
But, Hades, to her surprise, merely shook his head. "That is a creation of another God. It would be wrong for me to take it."
Autolycus frowned in annoyance. "We can't give it back to the villagers. They'd just give it to the next warlord that passed by to leave them alone."
Hades frowned as well and then said, "Agreed. It needs to be hidden some place far from the hands of man."
Gabrielle, with a sudden smile, looked at Hades and said, "In that case, and with your permission, I think that I have the perfect hiding place for it. Where no man or even God would dare to trespass."
Hades looked at her curiously. "Where would that be?" Before she could answer him, however, he raised his hand quickly. "Never mind! I don't think I want to know anyway. I will leave the matter in your and Xena's capable hands." The God of the Underworld then turned to look at the spirit of the bard James. "Well, James? Your new body awaits."
"What of Troya?" he asked Hades nervously.
"She won't remember that you are gone. And, when you die, you will go right back to her, except this time the magic of the Fields will work on you as well."
Everyone taking their cue from Hades and Gabrielle looked over at Inimicles' still body and saw it jerk to motion.
"James?" Autolycus asked nervously as the body stood up.
"Yeah, it's me. Back again," he told Autolycus with a smile.
The King of Thieves reached over and shook James' hand. "Glad to have you back among the living...and breathing!" Autolycus grinned, slapping him on the back.
"Thanks," the bard replied. Then, he wrinkled his nose disgustedly. "Ugh. First thing I need to do is find a stream and give this body a good washing." He looked down at his bloodstained outfit. "And get some new clothes. You know...I almost miss my metal body. It required far less maintenance," he laughed.
"Hades..." Gabrielle began. Then, looking around, she realized that he had disappeared without saying goodbye. "I'll never get used to the Gods."
"I won't either, but, as Gods go, Hades isn't a bad sort," Xena said thoughtfully. "He's just not used to dealing with the living."
"Here come the Edomites," Joxer said, pointing to a group of confused looking men and women advancing from the depths of the valley's interior. "But I don't see any sign of Inimicles' soldiers."
Xena grunted. "I'm betting any survivors are trying to climb out of the valley, rather than risk running into those villagers again," she chuckled. "Come on, let's get these folks back to the remains of their village and then head for the XenaVerse complex so that James can get a real bath and some new clothes."
"I can't wait to see the looks on the Xenites' faces when they see who we've brought home," Gabrielle said with a glowing smile.
As the others made their way out of the valley, Autolycus paused and looked up at the still smoking ruins of the cave where he had hidden some of his treasures, including the Ankh of Osiris. There was very little indication that the cave had ever existed. In fact, so great had been Ares' anger upon his release, that his departure had unleashed forces strong enough to utterly destroy the site of his imprisonment.
There was no way to retrieve the ankh and return it to Egypt, as he had vowed to do.
"I'm sorry, Cleo," he whispered to the sky. "I honestly meant to return it to Ptolemy's tomb. But at least it's buried here, beneath tons of rock and dirt, and no one will ever use it for the evil you feared it might be. So, maybe this was all for the best, huh?" He smiled weakly and then turned and followed his friends from the valley.
After saying their good-byes to Karissa and the modern Amazons, and retrieving the gems from the destroyed Ankh of Osiris, Janice and Mel likewise made their way back toward town. As the two women walked along, happy to be alone with each other for the first time in days, Janice pulled a cigar from her pocket and placed it in her mouth.
Melinda politely cleared her throat. "Have I ever mentioned how much I detest that filthy habit of yours?" she asked haltingly.
"Can't recall you have," Janice said, shaking her head and lighting the cigar. She inhaled deeply and then exhaled slowly, letting the smoke drift lazily from her mouth.
Mel sighed and frowned. "So, now what do we do?" she asked, demurely waving the smoke away with one hand while covering her mouth with the other.
"What do you mean?" Janice inquired as she kept on walking. "We go back and finish work on that dig where James was buried--He told me that it was once the secret underground city of renegade Amazons, which would explain the discrepancy in the quality of the finds with the depth at which they were discovered," she explained excitedly. Mel nodded thoughtfully. "Then, once we get the Crown of Solomon back, we use it to locate the things archaeological dreams are made of: The Ark of the Covenant, the Holy grail, Excalibur, Atlantis, the Amulet of Quetzalcoatl, El Dorado, you name it! We'll be the most famous pair since Lewis and Clark, Mel!"
The linguist coughed. "Not if you don't quit smoking those smelly cigars," she laughed.
Janice removed the stogie and looked lovingly at it. Then, she saw the determination in Mel's blue eyes and dropped it on the ground and ground it under her heel. "Fine. Are you happy now?" she pouted.
"I will be once you brush your teeth and get that awful smell out of your clothes and hair," the brunette replied with a giggle.
"Well, the sooner we stop talking and start walking, the sooner we'll be able to relax in one of those fancy hotel rooms," Janice said, picking up her pace...after one final look back at the remains of her last cigar.
The pair hadn't gone too far when Janice noticed something on the left side of the road. As she and Melinda approached, they both realized that what appeared from the road to be nothing more than bulges in the hillside were in actuality a pair of large stones. Or, rather, one large stone and the pile of debris they assumed was all that remained of the other. Beyond the shattered stone lay a small cave and, within it, a stone sarcophagus with its lid lying on the ground in several large pieces.
Janice fearfully peered into the coffin and nodded when she saw the few remaining bones of all that remained of its occupant. She felt an odd affinity with the corpse that she couldn't explain. Almost as if the soul of the long dead Greek, whoever he or she had been, had reached out across the gulf of time and lightly brushed her own. If the body had been buried with any valuables, they had long since been removed by looters.
Meanwhile, Melinda was examining the inscriptions on the sides of the sarcophagus and the pieces of the lid. "That's odd," she mused, removing a blush applicator from her bag and using it to carefully clear away the centuries of build-up. "It says something about an eagle, or a bard...it seems to be some strange combination of the two words."
Something in Janice's mind clicked at the mention of an eagle and she began searching the rest of the small tomb in earnest, but to no avail. "Damn grave robbers!" she snarled, smashing a fist into the wall. Then, she smiled. "But of course her tomb was plundered, or we would never have found the Xena Scrolls where we did."
Melinda's mouth scrunched up and she cocked her head to one side and peered at her friend over the rim of her glasses. "Whatever on Earth are you talking about, Janice? Her who?" she inquired.
"Gabrielle, naturally," the blonde smiled. "And, unless I'm very much mistaken, Xena's tomb is still intact behind that other stone. Shall we go and find out?"
"Just you try and stop me!" Mel laughed, jumping to her feet and heading outside.
Janice laughed, too, and ran to join her partner in what she felt sure was only the beginning of their adventures together.
DISCLAIMER: No sadistic warlords, evil Nazis, religious zealots, brutal soldiers, or mythical creatures were harmed in the writing of this Fanfic. However, the descendant of a certain Golden Bard learned that there is also strength in following what (or who) one loves; the descendant of the Warrior Princess realized that sometimes the most unbelievable things are the truest; the descendant of the Queen of Egypt and the King of Thieves found that it's not so much who your ancestors are that counts, but rather, who you are; and the descendant of the Mighty One discovered that there are things which even dozens of generations simply can't erase from the gene pool.